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We Can’t Talk About It

We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here.

We can’t talk about what isn’t working.

We can’t talk about the countless opportunties we ignore.

We can’t talk about what hurts.

We can’t talk about dignity.

We can’t talk about how to make magic happen.

We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors.

We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about.

We can’t talk about our feelings, emotions, needs.

This all makes me feel sad, frustrated, despondent, at a loss. It’s not meeting my need for meaningful connection nor for mutual exploration. Can we talk about that?

– Bob

Further Reading

We Can’t Talk About It ~ Seth Godin blog post
Discussing The Undiscussable ~ William S Noonan

What’s Wrong with the Project Approach?

Some time back the late Grant Rule wrote this paper on the problems with “projects” as an approach to organising software development. As the original has now ceased to be, I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here for posterity:

What’s wrong with the project approach to software development?

January 11th, 2011
Author: pg_rule

Pretty much since “software” was first invented (60 years ago?), numerous folk have been promoting an ‘engineering-led’ approach to ‘software projects’. Yet this advice goes largely unheeded, with the result that the relative success of IT projects is poor, and has improved very little during all my years in IT (38 and counting). Given that such admonishments seemed to have had such little effect in all that time, I also find myself asking, “Do I think it likely that further exhortations to those involved in ‘software projects’ to change their project practices is likely to achieve improved value delivery to stakeholders?”

And I have to conclude that the answer is “No”.

Following Albert Einstein’s adage that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, it seems to me that we need an entirely new approach. A new approach which goes to the root causes of what actually goes wrong in the end-to-end process. Why are the honest endeavours of software developers often so disconnected from the delivery of customer and stakeholder value?

Observation of what actually happens in organisations suggests there are two root conditions to the problem:

  1. Those responsible for business strategy are disengaged from, and know relatively little about, software- intensive systems and technology. So they structure their organisations so that software & technology people are segregated into silos. In those silos, the inmates talk amongst themselves in whatever arcane language they choose. But importantly, they don’t communicate (or interfere) with the ‘real business’.
  2. Everyone conspires to pretend that software-related activities should be managed as ‘projects’. That is, as chunks of work that start and end (on more or less clear and agreed dates), that have more or less well- defined goals, that contain a list of activities (tasks) that are assigned by a ‘project manager’ to a project team to which ‘resources’ are assigned for a limited period.

The results of studies too numerous to mention shows that most software projects are ‘challenged’ or ‘fail’. One study suggested that the majority of experienced project managers (and I am sure, folk playing other roles) expect at least 1 in 3 of the projects they lead to fail! As systems become more complex, and larger, they employ more teams combining projects into programmes… which further reduces the likelihood of successful achievement of the overall goals.

My conclusion is that we need a complete change of mindset. We need to move away from the inherently batch & queue concept of the ‘project life-cycle’ (as promoted by organisations including BCS, APM, PMI, OGC, SEI, NCC, ISO, IEEE, IET, etc. etc.) to a different approach.

I suggest that the required new mindset will accommodate the ideas of flow production and lean systems thinking that first began to be developed systematically (in e.g. automotive engineering) around 100 years ago. (Of course, one can trace elements of flow production & lean at least back to Carthage c.300-200 BC, but let’s ignore the history for now.)

I posit that Tom Gilb’s Evo method, and other agile methods such as XP, Scrum, Flowchain, and software Kanban, etc., begin to achieve ‘better’ results compared to ‘traditional’ big-design-up-front, wholly batch & queue methods, precisely because they encourage workers to focus on smaller batches of stakeholder value. In other words, value in terms the software developer can get to grips with.

Agile methods are one or more steps nearer to the ideal of ‘single piece continuous flow’. BUT… they are inherently limited because they continue to create & disband teams, to establish & abandon value streams, to create & throw away know-how, at – it seems – every opportunity. And crucially, they allow the C- suite and ‘business-side’ managers to ignore their responsibilities for the system of work and for the desired outcome.

Flow production (toward which Evo, Flowchain and Kanban currently make the nearest approaches IMO) would:

A) Make the entire end-to-end, whole-life, ‘concept to consumption & retirement’ process of defining, deciding, acquiring, designing, developing, operating, supporting, maintaining & replacing software- intensive systems a visible, inherent part of normal business operations… forcing issues onto the management horizon so they can be addressed as business issues – and not just something technologists worry about.

B) Because it would be apparent that software & IT issues were causing interruption to (or even cessation of) the flow of value, C-suite executives would have to recognise the pressing need to engage with software & IT related issues just as much as they do with other kinds of business issue. Conversely, the engagement of the ‘systems and software engineers’ with ‘the business’ would also be stimulated, the role of each and the communication between them finally becoming acknowledged as a main artery of the organisation’s lifeblood.

Flow production can only work effectively with the active engagement of all involved. For this reason it is a far more sustainable business model than other, perhaps more familiar, approaches. It embeds the ability to flex and respond to market forces deeply into the organisational culture. The focus on ‘the unforgiving minute’ forces constraints and problems out into the open where everyone can see them. It won’t allow problems to be swept under the carpet, or passed from one department to another like the proverbial buck. Hidden problems will always result in debts in one or more of the five kinds of capital. And such hidden debts, whether financial, technical, intellectual, social or environmental, all too often bite you when you least expect it. They will injure or kill the project – and destroy stakeholder value. Even if the project avoids repaying its hidden debts, this usually means that the debt has been passed-off onto one or another unsuspecting stakeholder group (sometimes, the end-customer or taxpayer). Which must be judged as unethical behaviour.

Unfortunately, not only have most people in the software industry been taught to sit in their silos and focus largely on coding, they and their masters have developed a cultural love affair with the project concept. To the extent that everyone assumes that all work has to be compartmentalised into projects, the very epitome of batch & queue thinking. Tell me what you think. Has the software project had its day, or is there another way of revolutionising workpatterns in the software industry?

– P Grant Rule

Fellows of the Human Spirit

I love this recent article by Margaret Wheatley. As it was buried in a larger document (see p32-34), I thought I’d extract it and share it here.

Meg uses the term “Warriors” (explained in the piece), in a way that for me seems very much like my understanding and usage of the term “Fellowship”. Hence the title chosen by me here.

WARRIORS FOR THE HUMAN SPIRIT
Margaret Wheatley

An invitation

For many years now, I have been inspired, motivated and comforted by a prophecy from Tibetan Buddhism of impending darkness and the summoning of the warriors. Although this word ‘warrior’ has connotations of force and aggression, it means something very different in Tibetan culture. The Tibetan word for warrior, pawo, means one who is brave, one who vows never to use aggression. I practice for this kind of warriorship in a lineage based on the prophecy of the Shambhala warriors. My vow is to refrain, as best I can, from adding to the aggression and fear of this time.

The story (and prophecy) of Shambhala and its warriors concerns an ancient kingdom of wise and conscious people, ruled by enlightened kings. Its people were unusual in that they had no anxiety. Free from fear, they were able to create an enlightened society.

The prophecy states that when all life on Earth is in danger, and the future of sentient life hangs by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala emerges. You cannot tell who these warriors are by their appearance; they look like normal people. Their weapons are compassion and insight. Well-trained in their use, they go into the corridors of power and dismantle the beliefs and behaviours that are destroying life. When I first heard this, I was moved by the description of the warriors. Perhaps you see yourself in this description, or are curious to see what it might mean. This is my invitation to you, and all of us caught in systems of degenerate power. We are free to choose a new role for ourselves, to transform our grief, outrage, frustration and exhaustion into the skills of insight and compassion, to serve this dark time as warriors for the human spirit.

Images for this time

I’m sitting on the banks of the Virgin river in Zion National Park in Utah, my favourite place on the planet. The river has been flowing through this magnificent canyon for two million years, creating one of earth’s most sacred places. It’s a dry winter, the river is low, ambling along. I’ve been here at other times when it’s fierce and destructive. Next time it will be different again. I’ve learned a lot from rivers. They take many forms, yet never lose their way, to the ocean.

The Hopi Elders describe our time as a river flowing very fast, great and swift. They warn us not to hold on to the shore because those who do “will be torn apart and suffer greatly.” They encourage us to push off into the middle of the river and to keep our heads above water. These river images however, even the turbulent ones, no longer describe this time for me. and what I’m seeing and how I’m feeling. It is Yeats’ dark vision that speaks to me, written in 1919 in the troubled years of the first World War:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned …”

A confession of innocence

Many of us, certainly I’d describe myself in these terms, were anxiously engaged in “the ceremony of innocence.” We didn’t think we were innocents, but we were. We thought we could change the world. We even believed that, with sufficient will and passion, we could “create a world,” one that embodied our aspirations for justice, equality, opportunity, peace, a world where, in Paulo Freire’s terms, “it would be easier to love.” This vision, this hope, this possibility motivated me for most of my life. It still occasionally seduces me but I’m learning to resist the temptation. I no longer believe that we can save the world.

Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion which cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real sources of satisfaction, meaning and joy. I feel clear in saying that greed, self-interest and coercive power are destroying the very life force of this planet. I don’t know whether such destruction is intentional or not, but I observe it happening everywhere. I was hit in the face with this while in South Africa in November 2011. South Africa is the country of my heart, always teaching me about the depths of human experience – I’ve been working there since 1995, this was my fourteenth visit. In the years of Mandela, hope was palpable. Everyone seemed to be starting projects to tackle huge social problems, eager to work with others to create the New South Africa. They understood the complexity of all the issues, they knew it was ‘a long walk to freedom’ and they had great faith in their future.

But now, for many reasons, hope is hard to find and the good people who have created successful projects and built effective NGOs are exhausted & demoralized. They keep doing their work, but it’s now a constant struggle. They struggle for funds, they struggle with inept, corrupt bureaucracy, they struggle with the loss of community and the rise of self-interest, they struggle with the indifference of the newly affluent. The dream of a new nation of possibility, equality, and justice has fallen victim to the self-serving behaviours of those with power. Please do not think this is only true in South Africa. It’s happening everywhere, as you may have noticed.

Indestructible motivation

By stating that we cannot change the world, I do not intend to bury our motivation in despair. Quite the contrary. My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn this world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently. This was beautifully described by Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution, the poet playwright who then became president of the new Czech Republic: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

How do we find this deep confidence that, independent of results, our work is the right work for us to be doing? How do we give up needing hope to be our primary motivator? How do we replace hope of creating change with confidence that we’re doing the right work? Hope is such a dangerous source of motivation. It’s an ambush, because what lays in wait is hope’s ever-present companion, fear – the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment, the bitterness and exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts are rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed. As someone commented, “Expectation is premeditated disappointment.”

My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As “the blood-dimmed tide” of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it. I watch their inner struggles and bouts with despair, but mostly what I notice is their perseverance and confidence. They see how bad it is, they know it is getting worse, they realize their work won’t create the changes they have worked hard for all these years. Yet they continue to do their work because they know it is theirs to do. Sometimes they say, “I can’t not do this.” Other times they ask, “What else would I be doing if not this?”

These brave people are true warriors. Seeing as clearly as they can, hearts as open as they can bear, they keep doing their work. They know how systems of power work and they try to discern wise actions. Though in frequent battles with politicians, leaders and bureaucrats, they strive to keep their hearts open, to not succumb to anger and aggression. Work is filled with constant challenges, and they know there will be many more.

Perhaps you see yourself already working in this way, persevering because you feel you have no other choice. Or perhaps you still feel you can save the world by work- ing harder, faster or by connecting with others to take on big change projects. My only request is that as you do your work, you become curious about finding a more enduring source of motivation than needing your work to bear fruit, to be successful in creating positive and enduring change. Beyond hope and fear, there is clarity available, the clarity of knowing that this work is ours to do no matter what. We may succeed, we may fail – but no matter what, we will continue to persevere on behalf of other human beings.

As we do this, we learn how to be warriors for the human spirit, and we find the few others who have also claimed this role.

– Bob

Further Reading

Margaret Wheatley Archive

Business Technology Blog with the Telegraph

I’m now writing a blog (gratis, in case you’re wondering) for the Business Technology supplement distributed with the Telegraph (UK national newspaper). I expect my posts will appear fortnightly.

Unlike this Think Different blog, my Business Technology blog aims aiming to serve entirely non-technical (non-software savvy) managers and executives, in an attempt to bridge the gap between the worlds (and world-views) of business and technology.

The first post sets the scene for e.g. future Rightshifting pieces, by drawing folks’ attention to the major advances we have seen – and made happen – in the software development field over the past decade or so, since the Agile Manifesto. Key themes in the post include:

“It’s All About The People”

“Software Development is Just Part of a Bigger System”

“The Key Problems Are Often Outside of Software Development”

“Focus on Flow”

List of posts

For ease of reference, I’ll keep a running list of posts here:

  1. Lessons From the Software Senseis
    (19 October 2012)
    What software development practitioners have learned over the past decade.
  2. The World is Round
    (2 November 2012)
    How our view of the world of work dictates the effectiveness of our organisations.
  3. The Change Paradox
    (15 November 2012)
    The paradox of trying to change people’s behaviour. “Push” doesn’t work.
  4. The Value in Emotion
    (29 November 2012)
    How does the idea of emotion having value make you feel?
  5. Incidental Autonomy
    (18 December 2012)
    How organisations seem to take on a mind of their own.

– Bob

I was writing about this a little while back – organisations wishing to move past the Analytic mindset have to overcome not only societal norms, but also the unsuitable education of their new hires.

quantum shifting

Bizarrely, if you went into most school classrooms in the industrialised world, you would still hear teachers say or imply, “Sit down, stop talking, do your own work.”  I say bizarrely, because this notion that we will excel in our lives only if we do what we’re told, mind our own business and draw solely on our own thoughts, ideas and knowledge just seems unnatural.  It has come from the old days when schools were set up as places to train youngsters for a life of isolating wage slavery.  Our education systems were designed, in other words, as mirrors of adult workplaces and apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, the key lesson was “fit in or f**k off”; if you want to get ahead, play the teacher’s game, learn what THEY want you to so you can pass their tests (usually information about stuff, rather than insight about self, life…

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I appreciate the very ethical stance of not blaming the Head of Communications for the failings of this system. Love the final line.

thinkpurpose

From this brilliant article in the Guardian, asking the people who set prices why certain things are so expensive. Below is an extract from the section on why train tickets are so expensive and difficult to understand for customers. GW is the reporter who is speaking with COMMS, the head of communications for CrossCountry trains.

Yes, head of communications. 


GW: I tried to book a CrossCountry train journey from St Austell to Macclesfield. The only available ticket was £147.50, eight weeks ahead. Train companies boast about low advance fares – the trade-off for pricey walk-on fares. What’s going on?

COMMS: Not all journeys have an advance fare. We set the fare between St Austell and Birmingham, so we can offer an allocation of advance fares for that part of the journey. But Birmingham to Macclesfield is set by another operator.

GW: But both segments of the journey are aboard CrossCountry…

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A post very congruent with the core tenets of Rightshifting and the Marshall Model.

Bulldozer00's Blog

A few weeks ago, my friend Charlie Alfred challenged me to take a break from railing against the dysfunctional behaviors that “emerge” from the vertical command and control nature of hierarchies. He suggested that I go “horizontal“. Well, I haven’t answered his challenge, but Charlie came through with this wonderful guest post on that very subject. I hope you enjoy reading Charlie’s insights on the horizontal communication gaps that appear between specialized silos as a result of corpo growth. Please stop by his blog when you get a chance.

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In “Profound Shift in Focus“, BD00 discusses the evolution of value-focused startups into cost-focused borgs.  There’s ample evidence for this, but one wonders what lies at the root?

One clue is Russell Ackoff’s writings on analysis and synthesis.  Analysis starts with a system and takes it apart, in the pursuit of understanding…

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