A Bit About Organisational Effectiveness

In Rightshifting, we define organisational effectiveness as “the relative ability of a whole organisation to achieve it’s goals”. “Relative” meaning relative to some baseline, over time, or relative to other organisations, such as competitors. And “goals” intending to evoke the ideas of Eliyahu M Goldratt in his book “The Goal”.

I’m pretty sure that many folks see little or no connection between the effectiveness of the organisations within which they work, and their day-to-day experiences, hopes, and fears.

Human Potential

As I’m happy to regularly repeat, I’m driven – to write, to speak, to help – by the egregious waste of human potential I see in knowledge-work organisations almost everywhere. It just bugs me to see so many smart people lacking the opportunities and climates in which to express themselves. It seems that the folks in question are generally much less bothered by this than am I.

“If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

~ Frederick Hertzberg

Maybe it would be better, for me and for my peace of mind, to let it all go, emotionally, and just help those (few) folks that actually want some help.


But until I’m evolved enough to have that happen, I’m kind of stuck. Stuck with a focus on organisational effectiveness as the means to improve the lot of knowledge-work folks everywhere. It’s my hypothesis, you see, that a hallmark of a more effective organisation is it’s one in which more people get to use more of their skills and talents, more often. And, incidentally, get to have more of their needs – for job satisfaction, a sense of achievement, feeling good about themselves and their contribution to the common purpose – met more often, too.


Put another way, the more effective the organisation, the nicer it is as a place to work. For me, that’s all part and parcel of “effectiveness”.


So, for all those folks struggling to see any connection between Rightshifting and their daily lives, I wonder if this post has succeeded at all in helping make that connection a little more visible, more tangible, more relevant?

– Bob



The Nature of the Challenge

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

~ Albert Einstein

We’ve had something like fifty years to solve the problem of reliable, effective software development. And not only have we not solved the problem, it looks like we’ve many more years ahead of us before we get to that elusive “solution”.

I’m not even sure there’s any kind of consensus on the nature of the problem, or even that we have a problem.

I’ve been studying and researching and exploring and thinking about the state of software development – à la Einstein – for the best part of thirty years. This post is about my take on the nature of the problem, as I see it. Maybe you see things differently. Either way, I invite you to share here with me and others how you see things.

Whatever the real challenge is, we seem to have a surfeit of possible solutions. Solutions which rarely get applied in the real world. In the myriad of organisations making software. Or attempting to.

So, as I see it, a key question is “why does so little of our research and new knowledge get adopted and applied?”.

We can point the finger in various directions, but I’m not looking to apportion blame.

It might be fair to ask “Who needs it? Who needs reliable, effective software development?”. It’s been my experience that precious few organisations, despite their protestations and pretensions, appear to need things to radically change for the better.

The Core Issue

There’s the rub. Mostly, people don’t seem to need things to get better. Executives, shareholders, managers, workers, customers – everyone whinges from time to time, but makes little concerted effort to actually do anything.

I’d call this a lack of motivation.

Awareness, Responsibility, Commitment

From my coaching days, I remember the A.R.C. mnemonic. This reminds us that commitment (to actually do something) is a product of people choosing to take responsibility to do something, and that this choice depends on awareness. Awareness that change is possible. Awareness that things can be better. Awareness that things are better, in some few places. And awareness that someone will have to do something before things will get better.

So, for me, I believe there is a problem. Maybe fifty years ago it was a different problem. Maybe back then, it was much more about lack of knowledge, lack of reliable technology, lack of tools, lack of importance (of software, to the world).

But now, we have the knowledge but aren’t applying it. We have reliable tech and tools, and these aren’t making much difference. And software is hugely more important to our products, businesses and societies that ever it was.

Yet a problem remains. and I believe the prime symptom of the problem is that people are unaware of the possibilities, unaware of how much better things could be, unaware of the advances in fields like psychology, sociology, group dynamics and neuroscience. And yes, unaware even of the real benefits of things like Agile and Lean – and how to realise them.

Awakening Awareness

But awareness is not the heart of the problem. If it was just a lack of awareness, then people could make themselves aware. After all, the knowledge is out there. If not on the intarwebs, then in books, periodical and the heads and hands of the (few) people who have done this stuff.

What makes for more awareness? Curiosity? What factors influence whether someone will sit up and wonder about their problems – and seek solutions to them?

I’d say motivation. Motivation to become curious. And then to pursue that curiosity.

Dan Pink suggests (intrinsic) motivation depends on three factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. In this context, though, I subscribe to Marshall Rosenberg’s insight: motivation (to action) stems from people having (unmet) needs.

So here’s my bottom line: Reliable, effective software development won’t become widespread, won’t become the norm, until people need that to happen. And in most organisations today, I just don’t see that need manifest. Or even discussed. You?

- Bob

You’d Have To Be Crazy

You’d have to be crazy… to suggest to managers that management is a dysfunctional anachronism for knowledge work, and recommend other means to coordinate and direct the work.

You’d have to be insane… to disband the functional silos in your organisation and move to another organising principle, such as value streams.

You’d have to be mad to stop using projects as the container for development work, and adopt e.g. some kind of flow-based approach.

You’d have to be a lunatic… to embed organisational change in the processes of daily operations and business-as-usual.

You’d have to be cracked… to want to see a wildly successful business, with all the extra work, risk and upheaval that would entail.

You’d have to be a sandwich short of a picnic… to stop directing people and instead give them the support they need to direct and organise themselves.

You’d have to be psycho… to hire a psychotherapist to help improve the health of your organisation.

You’d have to be cuckoo… to trust your people to find their own, effective ways of making software and products.

You’d have to be barmy… to believe the science about people, collaboration and motivation, and implement policies based on that.

You’d have to be deranged… to want to know what’s really going on, to think about stuff and to use your brain.

You’d have to be unhinged… to run against the grain of the opinions and expectations of your peers and do things differently to the accepted norms.

In short, you’d have to be wacko to step out of line. And there’s the rub. So many pressures opposing positive change. So much danger for the reformer. So much safer to conform, keep quiet, and not rock the boat.

“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

~ Niccolo Machiavelli

So, until the deranged win out, we continue to live and work in a world, and in organisations, already entirely bonkers.

- Bob

The Specialism Meme

Do you feel you have much more to offer than the bounds of your current job afford you?

At the recent Agile Testing Days conference in Potsdam, one of the most common themes I heard from individuals was just this. That they could be doing so much more for themselves, their teams and their organisations than their given role, remit and management expectations allowed. And that they could be having much more fun in work, too, if only they didn’t feel so pigeon-holed and constrained by their nominal specialism.


We’re rarely aware of our prevailing memes and memeplexes which, nevertheless, profoundly influence the way we live and work. My recent post on Theories of Motivation and the Theory X and Theory Y memes is but one case in point.

Another of the many memes which pass uncommented and unexamined in most organisations is the idea of specialisation. In the Analytic memeplex, narrow specialism is deemed a helpful and beneficial strategy for making individuals more efficient and productive. This stems back to at least the days of Adam Smith and his 1776 book “The Wealth of Nations” wherein he described the principles of specialisation and division of labour.

Subdivide a job – such as making pins – into its constituent operations, and have different workers become expert in each of these different, repetitive operations. This allows for rapid training of non-skilled labour, and “an enormous increase in the productive powers of labour”.

T-Shaped People

In e.g. Lean Manufacturing, companies try to develop workers with multiple skills, multiple specialisms. This aids flow of work through the factory, by allowing workers to redeploy to different jobs and stations when bottlenecks and other impediments to flow arise. The production line can more easily adapt to the ebb and flow of demand.

In knowledge work too, we see organisations looking for T-shaped people – people with deep skills in maybe one or two areas, but with useful skills in perhaps a dozen other areas, too. And not only do they look for these T-shaped people, but organise the work such that people can become more T-shaped over time, and get to regularly use their whole range of skills “on the job”.


Yet, the egregious waste of human potential continues in most Analytic organisations, where people are locked into a narrow specialism, and expected to work inside that box, neither deviating nor wandering outside of it. This hardly endears the employer to the workers it so confines. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of dysfunctions that stem from the Specialism Meme in knowledge work:

  • Impediments to flow
  • Specialists as bottlenecks
  • Boredom
  • Waste of human potential

Why this tie to the Specialism meme? Because it’s bound to the other memes of the Analytic memeplex. Try to overthrow or replace this meme, and the other memes in the Analytic memeplex act to oppose the attempt.

It seems to me fruitless to address the dysfunctions inherent in the idea of specialisation, without addressing the other, interlocking and reinforcing memes in the Analytic memeplex too. And then we’re into the territory of Organisational Transition and the wholesale, organisation-wide replacement of one memeplex (i.e. Analytic) with another (i.e. Synergistic).

How would you explain the continuing hegemony of the Specialism meme in knowledge work organisations everywhere? And what would you suggest by way of means for replacing it?

– Bob

Why Rightshift?

Thomas Lindqvist recently posed a question you might find interesting:


Or, in more common parlance, what motivates an organisation to put time and effort into improving its overall effectiveness? You might think this kind of improvement a common objective – but in my experience it’s very uncommon.

In response, I suggested that the motivation – when present – comes from the Core Group attempting to get their needs met. Manifest in what I refer to as “organising intent”. Absent the Core Group seeing improvement as a viable and effective strategy for getting met their particular needs of the moment, it’s unlikely that improvement – whether in-band or out-of-band, whether Kaizen or Kaikaku – will receive much attention or support.

Note that in this post I’m talking primarily about the motivation to tackle one of the three great transitions in the Marshall Model.

Incremental Improvements

I can go with Kotter’s explanation of motivation for incremental, out-of-bound improvement: Urgency.

“Visible crises can be enormously helpful in catching people’s attention and pushing up urgency levels. Conducting business as usual is very difficult if the building seems to be on fire.”

~ John Kotter

Yet, this begs various questions:

  • To whom does a sense of urgency matter?
  • Why do they feel this sense of urgency? (Upon what information is their feeling based?)
  • What are their needs, needs that might be better met if a sense of urgency prevails?
  • How will the sense of urgency get expressed?
  • What will that expression lead to?


I don’t believe organisations contemplate transitions (wholesale replacement of their collective mindset) when they find a crisis upon them. Urgency seems irrelevant. Transitions will seem like they just take too long to be an effective survival response to an impending catastrophe.

Rather than urgency, the question of whether to tackle a transition is more likely to arise when e.g. the Core Group come to believe that existing avenues – like kaizen, continuous improvement or just plain old business-as-usual – have run out of steam. That these avenues no longer afford the promise of further improvements. Or that the ROI on such avenues has become marginal.

Of course, for a transition to even become a option requires that e.g. the Core Group feels some dissatisfaction with current levels of performance, of effectiveness. That the organisation’s performance fails to meet their needs in some significant way. Absent this condition, it’s likely things will just bump along as always.


So, how do you gauge the organising intent of your organisation’s Core Group? Is it bent on improvement? Or does its focus lie elsewhere?

– Bob

Changing Others?

Here’s a fairly common scenario:

You’re a manager responsible for 100+ people, all involved in some kind of knowledge work. You’ve been asked, told – or maybe feel the need yourself – to do something about the productivity of your group. How would you proceed?

Aside: I’ve been in this situation myself some number of times, and seen or helped managers with such scenarios, too.


How a manager decides to proceed is most often a function of what they believe about the nature of work, and the nature of people.

I’ve seen managers issue diktats: “You will improve”.

Opt to get consultants in: “These guys will tell you how to improve”.

Or “coach” people: “I’ll show you the way to improve” (not my definition of coaching, btw).

I’ve rarely seen a manager say: “Let’s sort this out together”.

But if you accept the answers to these Six FAQs, then this latter option seems like the only viable, long term basis upon which to proceed.

And if that is so, then the key questions become:

  • “Can we agree that something needs to be done?”
  • “If we can so agree, who’s going to be involved, and in what ways and degree will they be involved?”
  • “For those who are closely involved, how shall we make a start?”

The last of the above questions is something like the Theory of Constraints three questions:

  • “What to change?”
  • “What to change to?”
  • “How to effect the change?”

Or, maybe, just these two questions:

  • “What is the purpose of this work, from the paying customers’ (end-users’) point of view?”
  • “What measures will the workers choose and use to understand and improve their work?”

Do you concur, or would you choose a different way to proceed?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Art and Science Of Changing People Who Don’t Want To Change ~ Reut Schwartz-Hebron

Are You Sitting Comfortably?


One aspect of effective knowledge work – such as software development, for example – that I rarely get to discuss is the meme related to “what is knowledge work like?

In “First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, the Gallup organisation suggests there is a set of just twelve questions we might use to gauge employee engagement (and, by association, the organisation’s effectiveness and thus its prevailing mindset).

The second of these twelve questions is:

“Have I the materials and equipment I need to do my job right?”

In ad-hoc organisations, and some early-stage analytic-minded organisations too, folks tend to regard knowledge-work as synonymous with office work. In this meme, work is by definition rote and repetitive, and has little need for invention or innovative thinking, little need for collaboration.

In the majority of analytic-minded organisations, the meme is different. Here, folks regard knowledge work as something akin to the “software factory”, where a set of rules, or processes, when followed, results in predictable outcomes and required levels of quality and functionality. Work is regulated and constrained and factory-like.

In synergistic organisations, the meme is different again. Here, the idea of knowledge work as some kind of Design Studio holds sway. Folks see the work as needing collaboration, inventiveness, discussions, and so on.

And finally, in some late-synergistic and chaordic organisations, the Design Studio meme gives way to the idea of work as a set of value streams. Although the physical environment may look much the same as with the Design Studio meme, at least to the untutored eye.



So where do the chairs come in?

I’ve seen it enough times to be able to intuit the kind of prevailing meme, and thus some indication of the prevailing collective mindset, through a simple observation of the physical workspace in which folks are working on a daily basis. Yes. I’m talking about the furniture.

Developers and other knowledge workers spend a lot of their time thinking, discussing and, yes, typing (amongst other things). Do these folks have the materials and equipment they need to do their job right? Is the workplace expressly optimised to enable folks to think well, discuss well, and type well?

The office-work meme lends itself to typing well. Not much else. And not for the long periods typical of developers. Where’s the care for folks’ health and well-being in many such workspaces?

The software factory fails to support any of these things, as far as I can see. Although maybe the managers believe it’s supporting their needs (hint: it’s not – at least not effectively).

The design studio kind of workspace serves to enabling thinking and discussing (at a marginal detriment to typing). Of course, its bohemian overtones are often offensive to the more widespread Analytic mindset.

And the value stream viewpoint, maybe supports all three. Note: I’ll not get into the relatively fine distinction between the value-stream perspective and the design studio perspective, here.

More generally, the organisation’s prevailing attitude towards effectiveness is reflected in the selection of furniture, the layout of the workspace, and other aspects of the materials and equipment available to support the workforce in their work.

Chairs – seating, in the broader sense – being the most instantly identifiable of these shibboleths.

Cheap office-style chairs indicate the office-work mentality, where either through ignorance or lack of concern, the workers’ productivity and welfare are of little import.

More expensive chairs – Aerons or some such – speak to some nascent awareness of the nature of knowledge-work, and concern for folks’ well-being.

An eclectic mix of “seating” – top-end desk chairs, bean bags, couches, standing- and walking-desks, and so on – can betray the Design Studio meme. (Although keep an eye out for tokenism, such as whacky kinds of seating – like balls and cushions – which may look funky but are ill-suited to actually sitting on for more than a few seconds.)

And the value stream meme can suggest seating carefully selected, and located – by the workers – and closely tied to the nature of the work at hand, at any given moment.

How’s your seating? What does it tell you about the prevailing attitudes to work, where you work?

– Bob


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