Archive

WhatIf

What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

Alternate realities are a staple of many science fiction series. Exploring what our world might be like if this or that had or hadn’t happened can help shed light on the significance of a particular event.

The Agile approach to software development, although neither conceived nor born at Snowbird in 2001, coalesced and started to gain traction from around then.

What if the Snowbird gathering had never happened? What if the seeds which led to Snowbird had not been planted, or had fallen on barren ground?

Here’s a few hypotheses, or scenarios, to consider:

The Business Hypothesis

Maybe, in the absence of developers trying to wrangle some effectiveness into the work they were obliged to do, business folks might have got a grip. Unlikely, I grant you. But absent some existing movement to suborn or seize upon, maybe the pain of software and product development might have persuaded the “business side” to find better ways of creating and delivering products.

The Together Hypothesis

Maybe everyone involved in software and product development might have got together and pursued the finding of a joint solution. Also unlikely, I guess.

The More Of The Same Hypothesis

Another possibility is that nothing much would have changed. Developers would have continued, more or less frustrated, in prevailing waterfall or ad-hoc projects and ways of working. Outcomes would have continued to be poor for all concerned. Some may say that this is really what did happen, only the names have been changed.

The Extrapolation Of Prevailing Trends Hypothesis

Maybe trends prevailing circa Y2K would have continued to evolve. Organisations seeking to improve might have embrace and evolved things like project management, CMMI, and so on. I can’t see this as effecting significant change or improvement, but maybe things might have improved slowly, in the order of a percentage point or two annually.

The Radical Hypothesis

Finally – in the list of alternate realities I’m presenting here – we might have seen a (more) radical alternative to Agile arise. Without convenient, ready-made, and packaged “Agile solutions” to adopt, maybe folks who cared might have studied their problems for themselves. Maybe this study might have found the root conditions. Maybe it might have surfaced more radical, more fundamental solutions. Solutions explicitly directed at communities of collaborative knowledge work, at the core role of collective mindsets, people and relationships, and at a system (business) wide approach to both adoption of new approaches and the ongoing use of those approaches.

What do you imagine might have happened if Agile had never been?

– Bob

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #7 – No Work

What If #7 – No Work

fitchburg-moonlight

One of my “giants” is the amazing Richard Buckminster Fuller. As it happens, the “Synergisticmindset, the third of the four mindsets in the Marshall Model, is named for him and his work in Synergetics.

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist…

The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

~ R. Buckminster Fuller

Others, including e.g. Bertrand Russell, and Henry David Thoreau, have also remarked on the essential folly of working for a living. Indeed, some progressive municipalities are beginning to discuss, consider, even experiment with providing their citizens a stipend, sufficient to allow them to live and pursue their individual callings.

What if the whole notion of work, and the civic duty to work so beloved of the conservative right, is just a fiction conceived and maintained to hold us in thrall?

“The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”

~ Bertrand Russell

Play

Alternatives, might we but consider them, abound.

I myself am fond of the idea of play:

“Do nothing that is not play.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Marshall Rosenberg defines play as all those things we truly choose to do – actions we take for their own sake, and not because we are afraid of the consequences or hoping for some kind of reward.

What if we encouraged folks to “play”, rather than “work”? To do those things in which they find intrinsic joy and delight, rather than those things they “have” to do (to please the boss, to get paid, because they feel obligated, etc.).

What effect would that have on motivation? On joy? On engagement? On innovation? On delight, for everyone concerned?

Maybe you believe that folks, free from the violence of coercion, would just slack off? What might that say about your Theory-X vs Theory-Y orientation? About your assumptions regarding people and human nature?

How do you feel about the notion of replacing work with play? How far is it from e.g. Drucker’s widely-accepted perspective?:

“Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.”

~ Peter Drucker

– Bob

Further Reading

Henry Hikes To Fitchburg ~ D.B. Johnson
The Importance of Play (A Valentine for Marshall Rosenberg, part 2) ~ John Kinyon

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

What If #6 – Agile Nirvana

clouds

Let’s assume, for one wonderful moment, that Agile has delivered on all its promises. 100%. For everyone that’s tried it. Everywhere. In all its infinite variety of hues and flavours.

Is it enough? Is better quality software, delivered faster, at lower cost, and with happier developers, testers, users, sponsors and management all, enough?

If true, would we be in heaven? In nirvana? In Jannah? In Shamayim?

Would we then stop trying to improve, and be happy with our eternally blissful Agile state? Would we just, then, stop fussing and discussing about better ways of doing things, and get down to forever more just cranking out the code?

What say you?

– Bob

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #7 – No Work
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

 

What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless

What if our faith in continuous improvement is misplaced? What if one of the central tenets of Lean and Agile ways of working is just a delusion? Cargo culting? What if knowledge work is sufficiently unlike manufacturing that the whole idea of continuously and incrementally improving the way the work works has no payback? No point? What if, indeed, it’s useless – or even actually harmful?

Definition

For the avoidance of confusion, let me define what I mean here by “continuous improvement”. In general, I mean any change to the way we work, collectively, that makes us in any way more effective. That is, any change to a certain kind of task, or practice, which reduces the time and effort we take to get a certain kind of thing done.

For example, I saw one team swap out Planning Poker in favour of Silent Grouping, saving maybe 30 minutes * 10 team members = 5 hours for every fortnightly sprint planning session. On the face of it, this seems a small, but useful, improvement to the way the work works. But was it, really?

Some Of The Issues

Stepwiseness

If the working domain is merely complicated, as is largely true for production lines in a factory, then a standard process might make sense. Assembling e.g. a car has many steps, but those steps are largely definable. Improving any single step is fairly straightforward. Shorten the bolt to reduce the number of turns required to reach the necessary torque setting. Redesign the part(s), replacing the bolt and nut, or threaded hole, with a snap or push-fit fastener, thus speeding the operation (step) and maybe saving on parts costs too. Work in a complex domain, such as much of knowledge work, whether collaborative or not, does not much resemble this scenario.

Experimentability

In manufacturing, a standard process is relatively straightforward to sustain. Jobs (steps) are pretty much self-contained, and simple for new workers to pick up. Experiments (with e.g. improvements) are fairly simple to conduct. Cause and effect are fairly obvious. Change a thing. See (objectively) if that change makes a positive different. Again, knowledge work, particularly collaborative knowledge work, is not much like this. Change a thing. And guess whether the thing you changed made any kind of difference. Or did the difference (if detectable) come from a myriad of other uncontrolled – and uncontrollable – factors?

Distraction

All the time we buy into the assumption that continuous improvement is something we want, we’ll naturally spend time on trying to make it happen. Time which might perhaps be better spent on other aspects of making ourselves, or team and our organisations more effective. How many teams, organisations have any idea what continuous improvement is doing for them and their relative effectiveness? And even for those few that do, how often is continuous improvement a delusional frame, obscuring other reasons for the improvements they track?

Marginality

Even when a change does bring some positive uplift to effectiveness (or even efficiency), that uplift is most often marginal. Maybe we could better use our time, effort and focus on seeking out changes that bring a significant uplift to effectiveness. These may be rarer and more difficult to find, but maybe the payback is, overall, more worth having.

Irrelevance

Often, I’ve seen folks make a change which does bring some notional benefit, but not a benefit that translates to the better meeting of anyone’s needs. This is called out in e.g. Theory Of Constraints as “improving a non-bottleneck” and is a total waste of time, and money. The need to be seen to be improving something every day is a need in itself, of course. <wry smile>

Sustainability

For me, this is the biggest issue. If “process” is indeed one of those concepts from manual work a.k.a. manufacturing that has no place or value in knowledge work then even if we find an improvement that looks worthwhile, by what means do we “lock it in” for the future? The core premise of continuous improvement is that we build effectiveness, improvement upon small improvement, over time. By this path we become ever more effective. As a team, as a group, as an organisation, as an industry, as a society. I now question this assumption. I’ve never seen it work in practice. Not over the long haul. Humans, individually and collectively, are just too fickle, inattentive, capricious and random, Yes, we can continuously improve a machine. Continuously swapping out less effective parts for upgrades, like with an F1 car. But a complex adaptive social system is NOT a machine. Nothing like. And not much like a process, either.

Alternative Frames

Can we imagine an alternative to continuous improvement, as we generally understand it? How might we possibly become more effective without improving this step or that practice in the way our work works?

Just by way of an example, how about we focus instead on improving the quality of relationships in the workplace, both within teams and across teams? How about we focus on introspection and mindfulness in the hope of becoming “better” (more capable, more effective) people? How about we work on being more skilled at dialogue? How about we apply ourselves to (better) understanding some (more) of the principles underpinning the way the work works? How about we work on improving the healthy functioning of the complex adaptive systems we call “work”? How about we continuously examine our collective assumptions and their fitness to our shared goals?

These are all ways to improve, ways which lie outside the traditional scope of what we call “continuous (process) improvement”.

What if our unexamined assumptions around the value of continuous improvement are in fact a major blocker? For those of us who seek more effective knowledge-work organisations, maybe continuous improvement isn’t the most effective way to get there. I leave you with the following timeless wisdom:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

~ Socrates

– Bob

Further Reading

Why Continuous Improvement May Need To Be Discontinued ~ Ron Ashkenas
What’s the Problem with Continuous Improvement? ~ LeanCor article
How Continuous Improvement Went Horribly Wrong, for Some ~ Alan Nicol

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #7 – No Work
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

 

What If #4 – No Answers

What if we refrained from inviting answers, at least until we had sought our own? What if we refrained from providing answers, at least until someone had unequivocally asked?

“I don’t understand this” is a pretty common admission. Although not perhaps as commonly admitted as it is thought or experienced. And what do we do when our friends, peers, colleagues, loved ones make this admission to us? We jump to fill the void. To provide some answers. To help them in their understanding. Helping people to understand is a natural human reaction. But how helpful is it, really?

How often do we tell ourselves that we’re helping someone to understand, when we’re actually just helping them adopt our interpretation?

And what if we helped them to understand something and they came to their own understanding of it? An understanding at odds with our own? How would we feel then?

Personally, the joy I find in helping people understand something is as nothing compared to the joy I take in folks finding their own understanding. Even, and perhaps especially, when it differs from mine.

There are occasions when someone asks me directly. “Just tell me the damn answer!”. On these occasions I mourn for the loss of opportunity. For the lost chance to explore together. For the missed joy we might both have taken from finding answers together. And yet most times I’ll accede to the demand. Albeit with a heavy heart.

What if we refrained from inviting answers, at least until we had sought our own? What if we refrained from providing answers, at least until someone had unequivocally asked us? What if we just tried to listen, to hold the space, to empathise, and to do what we could to relate to people as fellow human beings, walking together for a while, as we each pursue our journeys?

NB. I’m not looking for answers here – at least, until you’ve found some of your own.

– Bob

Further Reading

What Is Clean Language? ~ Marian Way

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #7 – No Work
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

 

What If #3 – No Telling

What if we all refrained from telling people what to do, how to do it, how they should behave, and so on? Outrageous! Would the world collapse in chaos and disharmony? Or would people just get on with things and sort things out between them?

Definition: Here I’m using “tell” in the sense of : instruct, order, judge, announce, analyse, advise or proselytise.

Here’s some fundamental shifts that not telling might imply:

No More Consulting

The entire consulting industry is predicated on telling people and organisations things. I’ve long felt this creates situations dead set against what the folks involved would generally like to have happen.

No More Training Or Teaching

At least, we would see an end to the tedious and unproductive style of training based on lecturing (telling) from the front of the room. This might provide an opening for more effective means of helping people learn.

“You know that I don’t believe that anyone has ever taught anything to anyone. I question that efficacy of teaching. The only thing that I know is that anyone who wants to learn will learn. And maybe a teacher is a facilitator, a person who puts things down and shows people how exciting and wonderful it is and asks them to eat.”

~ Carl R. Rogers

No More Experts

Experts love to tell people things. Like what they should be doing, what they’re doing wrong, and how to fix it.

“Labelling and diagnosis is a catastrophic way to communicate. Telling other people what’s wrong with them greatly reduces, almost to zero, the probability that we’re going to get what we’re after.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

We might not see an end to experts, but we might see a shift in their style of interaction. Perhaps something more Socratic?

No More Managers

The commonest role of any manager, in practice, is to tell. Absent telling, would managers have anything to do that we could recognisably label as “managing”?

No More Process

“Process”, by and large, has come to mean coercing, obliging or otherwise telling folks what to do and how to do it.

More Therapy

The therapist’s stance is by default one of refraining from telling people things. Of encouraging people to find their own answers. Of simply being there, rather than being there to tell.

How do you feel about the whole issue of telling? And has this post brought to mind any other shifts you might be willing to share?

– Bob

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #7 – No Work
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

 

 

What If #2 – No Process

What if “process” is one of those concepts from manual work a.k.a. manufacturing that has no place or value in knowledge work? What if “process” is a relatively very poor means (strategy) for getting everyone’s needs met in knowledge work organisations?

What Do We Mean By Process?

“Process” can mean so many different things, to different people. I’ll use the CMMI-style definition as a basis:

“Process: A set of activities, methods, practices, and transformations that people use to develop and maintain [software] systems and associated products.”

In the context of this post, I’m mainly talking about some kind of more or less defined process, somewhat analogous to CMMI Maturity Level 3 (ML3). Generally, I’m talking here about “activities, methods, practices, and transformations” which are defined by some people, and more or less mandated for all people in a team, group or organisation to follow.

Variation

Manufacturing seems to find value in “process” because of the need to reduce variation. When the goal is to produce millions of identical items, any variation is undesirable.

In collaborative knowledge-work, is variation our enemy, or our friend?

It depends.

What is the flawed assumption that is at the root of the conflict here?

Is all knowledge-work alike? Is it homogeneous?

What if there are aspects of e.g. software development that could benefit from a smidgeon of “process”, and some aspects where “process” is a major drag?

Standard Work and Compliance

Even though Ohno made the distinction between “standard work” and compliance to a standardised process, this distinction seems lost on most organisations that place their faith in “process”. People are expected to do the work, not as they find most effective, but as the process specifies. And often, too, little thought is given to how to continually adapt the (standardised) process to keep it effectively aligned to changing conditions.

Typically, then, standardised processes drift away from alignment and effectiveness, toward irrelevance, annoyance, and increasing ineffectiveness.

Process Myopia

If all we have is the idea of process then can we ever see improvement as anything other than “process improvement”?

Aside: This is the origin of the term “Rightshifting” – my attempt to disassociate ends i.e. improvement from means e.g. process.

And if process has no value, then process improvement, however many £thousands or £millions we spend on it, has no value either.

If we attribute performance, productivity to process, and we want more performance and productivity, then naturally we’ll look to improve the process. What if other factors are actually at the root of performance and productivity in knowledge work?

We’d look pretty silly ploughing effort and resources into process improvement then, wouldn’t we?

Psychology

In essence, process thinking is a throwback to Taylor’s Scientific Management, and the idea that workers should simply work and e.g. managers should have absolute dominion over how the work is done. Again, this may have been a sound idea when many manual workers were illiterate and poor local language speakers. And when managers and supervisors knew the work much better than their workers. In today’s knowledge-work organisations, exactly the opposite conditions pertain.

Today’s knowledge workers, then, can only feel frustrated and alienated when unable to work in ways they find effective. Inevitably, this leads to disengagement, low morale, stress, lower cognitive function, learned helplessness, and other undesirable psychological states.

– Bob

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #7 – No Work
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: