Farming as a Metaphor for Workplace Culture

Michael Wade has an interesting post considering how non-agricultural workplaces can resemble farms.

Workplace cultures are in large part a reflection of the underlying metaphor driving the organization, whether by design or chance. When much younger, I used and advocated the “business is war” metaphor. I have been much more successful (and much less stressed) organizing around a farming metaphor. For truth, there can be times of battle on the farm that, as in the war metaphor, require the immediate and drastic mobilization of resources: the barn is on fire, the locus are coming, a tornado approaches. Life on the farm is more than endless summer days spent blissfully feeding magic ponies and dancing under rainbows. One must be prepared to “take up arms” and employ non-farm related tools and tactics in order to deal with any short term crisis that may occur.


Photo by Lucy Chian on Unsplash

Plans, Strategies, and Uncertainty

“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” is an insight attributed to about two dozen sources. Actually, any one of us could have said this for it’s certain we’ve all had an intuitive feel for the truth revealed by these words. This is undoubtedly why we work so hard to tease out the details about what the future may hold by making plans, laying out strategies, and running scenarios based on our version of the best data available today. Each of these tools are employed in an effort to reduce uncertainty about the future. But which tool to use? Therein lies the rub. The answer, rather unhelpfully, is “It depends.”

  • How complex is the problem space?
  • How well is the problem space understood?
  • What is the availability of resources (time, money, people, materials, etc.)?
  • What is the skill level and experience depth of those tasked with developing a plan or a strategy?

Stated simply, creating a plan and sticking to it is ideal for simple, well understood, small scale problem spaces where one or more resources are limited. They work if the individual or team tasked with finding a way through the problem space is inexperienced or lacking skills required by the problem space. As complexity and uncertainty increase, the way forward benefits with a more flexible approach. This is where it’s helpful to have a strategy, something that is more than a single course of action. Rather, a strategy is a collection of possible paths, each with its own set of plans ready to be implemented if the need arises. Working a strategy requires a higher order of skills. It requires systems thinking that has been tested and vetted for competence rather than just a shallow claim of being a “systems thinker.”


Image by Maddy Mazur from Pixabay

The Limits of Planning Poker

As an exercise, planning poker can be quite useful in instances where no prior method or process existed for estimating levels of effort. Problems arise when organizations don’t modify the process to suite the project, the composition of the team, or the organization.

The most common team composition for these these types of sizing efforts have involved technical areas – developers and UX designers – with less influence from strategists, instructional designers, quality assurance, and content developers. With a high degree for functional overlap, consensus on an estimated level of effort is easier to achieve.

As the estimating team begins to include more functional groups, the overlap decreases. This tends to increase the frequency of  back-and-forth between functional groups pressing for a different size (usually larger) based on their domain of expertise. This is good for group awareness of overall project scope, however, it can extend the time needed for consensus as individuals may feel the need to press for a larger size so as not to paint themselves into a commitment corner.

Additionally, when a more diverse set of functional groups are included in the estimation exercise, it become important to captured the size votes from the individual functional domains while driving the overall exercise based on the group consensus. Doing so means the organization can collect a more granular set of data useful for future sizing estimates by more accurately matching and comparing, for example, the technical vs support material vs. media development efforts between projects. This may also minimize the desire by some participants to press harder for any estimates padded to allow for risks from doubt and uncertainty, knowing that it will be captured somewhere.

Finally, when communicating estimates to clients or after the project has moved into active development, product owners and project managers can better unpack why a particular estimate was determined to be a particular size. While the overall project (or a component of the project) may have been given a score of 95 on a scale of 100, for example, a manager can look back on the vote and see that the development effort dominated the vote whereas content editors may have voted a size estimate of 40. This might also influence how manager negotiate timelines for (internal and external) resource requirements.


Photo by Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash

Accountability as a Corporate Value

My experience, and observation with clients, is that accountability doesn’t work particularly well as a corporate value. The principle reason is that it is an attribute of accusation. If I were to sit you down and open our conversation with “I need to talk to you about something your accountable for.”, would your internal response be positive or negative? Similarly, if you were to observe a person of higher status on the corporate ladder clearly engaged in a behavior that was contrary to the interests of the business, but not illegal, how likely are you to confront them directly and hold them accountable for the transgression? In many cases, that’s likely to be a career limiting move.

There is a reason no one gives awards for accountability. Human nature is such that most people don’t want to be held accountable. It carries the inference of shouldering the blame for something when it goes wrong. Credit is what we get when things go right. People do, however, want others to be held accountable. It’s a badge worn by scapegoats and fall guys. Consequently, accountability as a corporate value tends to elicit blame behavior and, in several extreme cases I’ve observed, outright vindictiveness. The feet of others are held to the accountability fire with impunity in the name of upholding the enshrined corporate value.

Another limitation to accountability as a corporate value is that it implies a finality to prior events and a reckoning of behaviors that somehow need to balance. What’s done is done. Time now to visit the bottom line, determine winners and losers, good and bad. Human performance within any business isn’t so easily measured. And this is certainly no way to inspire improvement.

So overall, then, a corporate value of accountability is a negative value, like the Sword of Damocles, something to make sure never hangs over your own head.

Yet, in virtually every case, I can recognize the positive intention behind accountability as a corporate value. What I think most organizations are going after is more in line with the ability to recognize when something could have been done better. To that end, a value of ‘response ability” would serve better; the complete package of being able to recognize a failure, learn from the experience, and respond in a way that builds toward success. On the occasions I’ve observed individuals behaving in this manner repeatedly and consistently, the idea of “accountability” is near meaningless. The inevitable successes have as their foundation all the previous failures. That’s how the math of superior human performance is calculated.


Image by Chris Pastrick from Pixabay

Creativity Under Pressure

[In the fall of 2013, I completed a course on Coursera titled “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” presented by Drs. Jack V. Matson, Kathryn W. Jablokow, and Darrell Velegol at Pennsylvania State University. It was an excellent class. At the end, they invited the class (How many tens of thousands of us?) to submit short essays about our experience. The plan was to select the best of these essays and roll them into a free Kindle book. The following spring, they sent out this update:

We are sorry to inform you that we have decided not to proceed with the publication of a CIC eBook. The submissions were read and commented on by four reviewers.  The consensus was that the manuscripts for the most part would take efforts far beyond our capabilities and means to edit and upgrade to meet the standards for publishing.  We are very sorry that the plan did not work out.

What follows is slightly edited version of the essay I submitted for consideration.]

Creativity Under Pressure – When necessity drives innovation.

Background

When you hear someone speak of an individual they know as being creative, what images come to mind? Often, they spring from stereotypes and assumptions about such an individual being an artist of some sort. Someone unconstrained by time or attachment to career, family, or a mortgage. My personal favorite is the image of a haggard individual wearing a beret, a thin cigarette balanced on their lower lip, and busy being inspired by things us mortals cannot see. A foreign accent adds the final touch to firmly set the speaker’s creative individual in the “That’s not me.” category. Our preconceived notions and assumptions assure us we are not creative.

The truth is all of us are creative. The artist’s Muses are not the only source of inspiration. Chance can inspire creative ideas by the convergence of seemingly unrelated circumstances and events. An activity as passive as sleep can lead to creative ideas. Moving away from beauty toward the other end of the inspiration spectrum, the source may not necessarily be pleasant. Frustration and irritation may inspire us to find a creative solution as we spend an inordinate amount of time searching for a way to scratch a just-out-of-reach itch. Crisis, too, can be a source of inspiration, often of the very intense variety. Chance surrounds all of us. We all sleep. And alas, we are all subject to frustrating or crisis situations from time to time in our lives. We are immersed in opportunities for creative inspiration.

Perhaps the least obvious or explored opportunities for applying creativity and experimenting with innovative ideas happen when we are under pressure to perform. At first glance, the tendency is to think that such situations require extensive knowledge, abundant prior practice, and scenario rehearsals in order to navigate them successfully. It’s fair to say that the chances for successfully responding to a crisis situation are greatly enhanced by deep knowledge and experience related to the situation.

The Apollo 13 mission to the Moon is a familiar example of crisis driven creativity by a team of experts. Survival of the astronauts following the explosion of an oxygen canister depended on NASA engineers finding a way to literally fit a square object into a round hole. The toxic build-up of CO2 could only be prevented by finding a way to fit a cube shaped CO2 filter into a cylinder shaped socket using nothing but the materials the astronauts had with them. Of course we know from history the team of engineers succeeded in this exercise of creative improvisation.

Individual experts have also succeeded in devising creative solutions in crisis situations, and in doing so introduced critical changes in protocols and procedures that have saved lives. For example, smokejumber Wagner Dodge’s actions in the Mann Gulch forest fire on August 5, 1949, introduced the practice of setting escape fires as a way to protect firefighters caught in “blow-ups.”

What I’ve always found interesting about these and similar examples is that, although the creative and innovative solutions were found while “on the job” and using established expertise, the solutions were counter to what the individuals and teams were expected to do. The NASA engineers were paid to design and build an extremely high tech solution for sending three men to the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth. Their job descriptions likely didn’t call for the ability to “build a fully functional CO2 scrubber from a pile of junk.” Wagner Dodge was expected put out fires, not start them.

The Course

What else is important in preparing us to respond creatively in high pressure situations? It’s a question that’s dogged me for years. The “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” (CIC) course offered by Pennsylvania State University and taught by Professors Jack Matson, Kathryn Jablokow, and Darrell Velegol offered an opportunity to explore this question.

The first insight from the course was the importance of the “adjacent possible” to creative and innovative problem solving, even in crisis situations. The phrase was originally suggested by the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman to describe evolutionary complexity. The idea is that innovative or creative ideas occur incrementally. While they may appear as substantial leaps forward, they are in fact derived from a collection of adjacent ideas that coalesced to make a single idea possible. As an individual explores deeper and farther into an idea space, they extend the boundaries around which adjacent ideas collect, increasing the potential for new idea combinations. In other words, increasing the likelihood of creative or innovative ideas.

In the case of Apollo 13, the deep experience and knowledge of the engineers allowed them to consider a wide spectrum of possibilities for combining an extremely limited number of objects in a way that could remove CO2 from a spacecraft. In the case of Wagner Dodge, his extensive experience with fighting forest fires allowed him to spontaneously combine a variety of “adjacent possibilities” in a way that lead to the idea of lighting an escape fire.

That’s the theory, anyway. There’s a difference, though, between theory and practice. Albert Einstein explains, “In theory they are the same. In practice, they are not.” The CIC course offered an abundance of techniques and methods that facilitated the transfer of learning and strengthened the connection between theory and practice. In particular, there were two important reframes that opened the door to deliberately improving how I approach creativity and innovation in stressful situations:
“Successful” failures are those that are strategic. That is, not random guesses about what will work, but deliberate experiments designed to succeed. Yet if they fail, the design of the experiments also reveal weaknesses that are preventing the eventual success. Unconsciously, I had already become reasonably good a doing this. But there was significant room for improvement. Using many of the methods and techniques offered during the CIC course, I deliberately unpacked my unconscious competence in this area, consciously explored how I could practice becoming even more competent with this skill, and am now exploring ways to integrate the new capabilities back into unconscious competence.

“Failure” is a necessary, even desired process for finding success. This ran counter to my get-it-right perfectionist approach to success. Likely the result of having to work in too many crisis situations where failure was not an option, it was nonetheless a poor strategy for finding success in day-to-day business. In concert with point number one, these failures should be strategic.
Each of these insights are encapsulated in the “Intelligent Fast Failure” (IFF) principle presented in the CIC course and further described in Prof. Matson’s book, “Innovate or Die!”:

The “Intelligent” part refers to gaining as much knowledge as possible from each failure. The “Fast” part means speeding up the trials to quickly map the unknown thereby minimizing frustration and resources spent.

The “fast” part also increases the pool of “adjacent possibilities” and raises the potential for successful innovations to emerge from the process.

The Test

Has all this experimentation and thought practice made a difference in my ability to respond more creatively in stressful situations? A full-on test in crisis mode hasn’t happened as yet. And frankly, I’d count my self fortunate if I never had to face such a test again. But there are indications the changes are having a positive effect.

These days, work typically offers the most abundant opportunities for stressful situations. Most recently, I was tasked with coordinating a significant change in how an organization went about the process of completing projects. The prevailing process had deep roots in the company’s culture and was incapable of scaling to meet growth goals for the organization. With so much personal investment into the old way of doing things, implementing a more agile and scalable process was going to require as much mediation and negotiation as it was process definition and skill development.

Using the techniques and methods that support the IFF principle, I have been successfully implementing a wide range of new ideas and process improvements into the organization in a way that makes them appear less as a threat and more as a value to each of the stakeholders.


Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Accidental Social Capital and Status

 

I was made aware recently that I have accidentally acquired some interesting social status: I’m not on Facebook. Apparently, it isn’t just that I’m not on Facebook, its that I’ve never had a Facebook account. I’ve also never had accounts with:

  •  MySpace
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • TikTok
  • Pinterest
  • Snapchat
  • Reddit
  • Parler
  • The list goes on and on.

I am fairly active on LinkedIn and for a brief time had a Gab account after it first launched. The latter looked like another cesspool in the making so I deleted the account and moved on.

Acquiring this status wasn’t entirely accidental, even if it wasn’t by design. It was clear early on that the only way to win the race to the bottom of the social-on-line game was to not play at all. I’d seen this movie before. I had some experience with this environment in the pre-world-wide-web days of USENET newsgroups so it was pretty easy to see where this was heading. Thought I’d seen some epic flame wars on USENET but USENET newsgroups are to 21st century social media as camp fires are to nuclear explosions, as head colds are to social diseases.

I’m not so naive to think just because I don’t participate in the vast majority of social media that others haven’t contributed data about me without my knowledge or consent nor that I’m immune to the effects of social media. It’s that nuclear explosion thing. I can’t help but be aware of the blast and getting caught in the blast zone, even being targeted for the epicenter are known risks. While zillions of people are blithely working to feed The Beast’s insatiable need for data in exchange for nano hits of dopamine, my efforts are focused on how to avoid the growing tar pit that oozes from The Beast. I study how others have inadvertently been lured into the hot mess and, even more valuable, those few who have successfully wrestled themselves free.

Neither do I think social media is devoid of value or purpose. This is where LinkedIn (so far) seems to rise above the base rabble. There is a modicum of professionalism and elevated expectation of how one behaves on LinkedIn. (Although, I see signs of this eroding at an accelerated pace.)

As I see it, there is no way I can reliably cash in on this newly acquired social capital and status. It’s value is dubious. A small-talk starter at parties. A novelty. A non-thing that’s interesting like not having purple hair, tattoos, and a pierced face is interesting. To really leverage it, I’d have to jump into the social media quagmire, thereby emptying the account or, more likely, go into serious debt. In the end, carefully curated piles of garbage are still garbage.

So there it sits. A helluva thing, maybe valuable only as a note on my headstone.

Here rests Gregory Engel.
@nothing, @nowhere
He lived in the real world.

Teams, Tribes, and Community – 0.1.0

Several months ago, I made bold decision: Take command of the helm for a brilliant tribe of diverse creative thinkers dedicated to helping each other succeed. This is the first of an on-going series of posts – maybe once or twice a month – describing this evolving effort.

For an extrovert, this might not have been a bold decision. But in my case, you should know I designed the card that card-carrying introverts carry. So this decision involved a more thorough application of my already robust decision-making process. On a professional level, this may be the most significant challenge I’ve taken on to date. Will my years of experience with forming and guiding teams help this tribe further their success? Will I be able to find the gravitational force that holds us together and the spark that keeps us inspired? These are open questions. They are also questions that occupy much of my thinking.

We are not dedicated to achieving a single goal or moving in a unified direction. We each have our areas of expertise and independent business goals. We are much more a tribe than a team. As such, I believe we will be guided more by tribal dynamics and models than team rules and policies. The path is not clear, but this much I know…

  • There is no leader of this tribe. Not in the sense of a single person who’s responsible for setting the direction and making all the decisions that impact the organization. There is no “Chief” or “Czar” of anything. I’ll fill the role of Launch Commander and Flight Commander in order to get us organized and moving forward. However, I have been clear from the start about my intention to structure our tribe on principles of self-organization.
  • The emphasis is on simple and accessible technology and easy ways to organize meetings based on Agile principles and practices – lean coffee, for example, has served us well for our initial meetings. What has emerged since then are more involved and interactive meeting formats, such as client role-plays and accountability exercises. Keeping things simple and remaining mindful of barriers to participation is vital. Too many tools with too many logins risks the creation of a Tower of Babel. For now, the weekly video call is the center-point around which we all meet. This in itself is enough of a challenge given the global participation. Other than this, email is the acknowledged primary channel for asynchronous communication.
  • We are not accepting new members. Whether or for how long this remains the case is undecided. We have discussed various ways of introducing new members, but have decided to decide on this issue later. The circumstances that brought each of us together created a unique bond of trust and familiarity with each other’s business interests that makes the introduction of new members a risk to maintaining these relationships. At the moment, we are tipped slightly toward being on the large size and everyone acknowledges if we grow much bigger the meetings may become unmanageable and the interactions less valuable. Since trust is foundational, none of the details related to who we are and what we discuss will be revealed in this space. My writing will be limited to the general case of what I discover from having participated in and helped guide our tribe. It is my hope this may help others with forming and guiding their own teams and tribes.

Whatever the outcome, it’s been more fun thus far than I’ve had in a loooooong time.


Image by Youssef Jheir from Pixabay

Fall Reflections – 2021

Over four years ago, I was in a position to retire early. After some thought, the idea didn’t suit me. I was, in the arc of my life, in an entirely novel position. I could be much more selective about where I chose to exchange my time for money. With nothing to lose and a lot to gain, I sought work with a company that would put Agile principles and my coaching skills to a rigorous test. Did I have what it takes to guide a global legacy corporation into an Agile learning organization? I ran this experiment within the software divisions of two different medical device manufacturers. The first was a 6 month engagement that ended when a better option opened up at a much larger manufacturer with more pay and less commute. I was there for three years until a layoff in the spring.

So it is I’ve come to wrapping up an extremely active spring and summer after having tripped a wire that launched me into a career shift about six months earlier than planned – a span of time I’m affectionately calling an unplanned sabbatical. I’m still not ready to retire, but I’m in an even stronger position then I was four years ago – the silent advantage of a Stoic minimalist lifestyle. Shedding the corporate baggage has opened up a universe of space and time for unfettered thought and exploration. Sabbaticals should be integrated into the work lives of every employee who demonstrates integrity and a strong work ethic.

In the coming months, I’ll be writing more about what this new direction involves. A change in direction doesn’t begin to capture the shift. There’s a multi-leveling up in play, too. This fall and winter – seasons ideally suited for deep reflection and planning – will see a continued pace of activity and preparation. Belying the quite stillness of winter, I will be extremely busy moving fieldstones into position and crafting a renewed foundation for success.

The purpose and mission I declared at the very beginning of 2020 is still in place. When I crafted that mission I was at the very beginning of a grand experiment, full of optimism and yet fully aware of the daunting task ahead. The company I was working for presented me with choice: I could accept a new management role or pursue a stated goal of mine to create an official Agile Coach position within the software group. The organization had just created an official scrum master role in the org chart, but the PMO was strongly resisting the idea of an official product owner role. I was an epic turf battle.

The management path offered greater security but had significant downsides. Not only would I have the decidedly unpleasant task of managing people in a highly regulated and bureaucratic organization, I would also be expected to fill in the scrum master gaps on various teams. This sounded like a good way to end my career as an Agile Coach.

The coach path offered the highly appealing challenge of implementing Agile and SAFe in a 60 year old medical device manufacturer. The known risks included a certain tsunami of resistance. I’d be out on a limb, working to navigate in uncharted and dangerous waters. But I had excellent support. The arrival of a new CEO broke up many of the old ways of organizing software development and opened a window of opportunity. After a rigorous decision process, I chose the Agile Coach path. My 2020 mission reflects the enthusiasm I had for having made this choice.

Then things went sideways. The new CEO brought a much bigger broom than anyone imagined and my key executive support left the organization. Two new senior execs were hired that had a rather stunted understanding of Agile, SAFe, and working with software professionals. Progress stalled as head nods and “Yeah, we’ll get to that.” can-kicking substituted for action. A lot of really good people started to leave the organization, including what was left of my support and allies. A deeply disturbing experience while serving as the Unofficial Official Agile Coach and the effects of the pandemic lock-down sunk the Agile Coach boat. The bubble I placed myself on became more so. I’m surprised I wasn’t laid-off sooner.

The period since separating from my previous employer in early 2021 has been a period of immensely positive growth. The gain in perspective on the prior three years has enlightened me to just how toxic the work environment was. Taking that job was an experiment and in the end the primary failure was not discovering sooner that the experiment was destine to fail. My optimism was misplaced. I trusted untrustworthy people. The greater sadness is that the organization has a wonderful mission and excellent products, each held back from what they could be by a select few and their caustic alliances within the organization. My health and well-being are much the better for having left on their dime.

 I finished my 2020 declaration with “Here’s to moving into 2020 with mind and eyes wide open.” And so I did. Where to next will be on my terms. Free from people who talk inclusion but practice exclusion, talk diversity but practice conformity, talk about change but fight for stagnation, and talk about collaboration while protecting their tiny fiefdoms with vindictive ruthlessness. My tuned purpose and mission for 2022 will reflect this. And a good start will be to conduct business operations in ways that are aligned with the Mission Protocol.


Photo Credit: Original, Copyright © 2021, Gregory Paul Engel

Book Review: Tribes – We Need You to Lead Us

Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

 

Reading Seth Godin is a lot like going for an enjoyable mountain hike and finding a handful of small gold nuggets along the way. No heavy effort to dig for miles in order to find the deeper, richer vein of wealth. Just enough interesting shiny bits of useful wisdom scattered along the trail to invite the reader to explore further.

“Tribes” isn’t so much about the composition and character of tribes, per se, but more a call to serve as a leader for tribes yet to be formed. “Human beings can’t help it,” he writes. “[W]e need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people.” But left to their own devices, tribes dissolve or evolve into something directionless, perhaps unruly. What they need to persist is some form of leadership to set the rules and customs.

Speaking to aspiring or future leaders, Godin presents what he views as the biggest blocker to people stepping up and fulfilling leadership roles.

The only shortcut in this book, the only technique or how-to or inside info is this: the levers are here. The proof is here. The power is here. The only thing holding you back is your own fear….Dr. Laurence Peter is famous for proposing that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” In other words, when you do a great job, you get promoted. And that process repeats itself until finally you end up in a job you can’t handle….I’d like to paraphrase the Peter Principle. I think what actually happens is that “in every organization everyone rises to the level at which they become paralyzed with fear.”

And the source of that fear is rooted in misaligned beliefs about criticism and failure.

As with almost everything I read, my eye is searching for ways the information I’m acquiring can be applied to improving team performance. The notion of tribes appeals to me from a social community perspective. I firmly believe there are deep psychological patterns in the human mind that unconsciously gravitate toward the idea of belonging to a tribal structure. And yet, there are limitations to that structure in the 21st Century business world. As Godin notes, “[I]n addition to the messages that go from the marketer or the leader to the tribe, there are the messages that go sideways, from member to member, and back to the leader as well.” What about communication between tribes? How might we avoid the formation of silos and corporate turf battles? These are questions for which I’ll need to continue searching as they are not addressed in “Tribes.”

Written more than ten years ago, there are elements of the book that have not aged well. For example, writing at a time which many today are considering the Golden Age of the Internet, Godin observes “In the nonsquishy tribal world of this decade, Twitter and blogs and online videos and countless other techniques contribute to an entirely new dimension of what it means to be part of a tribe.” And later, while writing about how easy it is for tribes to connect, communicate, and spread messages: “The tribe thrives; it delivers value and it spreads. Internet folks call this viral activity, or a virtuous cycle.” More commonly today the technology noted by Godin – particularly Facebook and Twitter – have resulted in the formation of more mobs than tribes and the cycles are 2021 are more vicious than they are virtuous.

However, I don’t think Godin was casting his gaze into the future through entirely rose colored glasses. He notes that crowds (and their blunt force object version: mobs) and tribes are “[t]wo different things: A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication. Most organizations spend their time marketing to the crowd. Smart organizations assemble the tribe. Crowds are interesting, and they can create all sorts of worthwhile artifacts and market effects. But tribes are longer lasting and more effective.”

Several of the gold nuggets I picked up pointed to the importance of systemic thinking and analysis:

Leaders don’t care very much for organizational structure or the official blessing of whatever factory they work for. They use passion and ideas to lead people, as opposed to using threats and bureaucracy to manage them. Leaders must become aware of how the organization works, because this awareness allows them to change it.

Working in an environment that’s static is no fun. Even worse, working for an organization that is busy fighting off change is horrible.

When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.

The status quo is persistent and resistant.

The last quote is a clear reflection of Shalloway’s Corollary. The status quo is the system pushing back.

I’ll round out this review with a few quotes that apply to a life in general.

Leaders have followers. Managers have employees.

If you need the alternative to be better than the status quo from the very start, you’ll never begin.

Life’s too short to fight the forces of change. Life’s too short to hate what you do all day. Life’s way too short to make mediocre stuff.

Defending mediocrity is exhausting.

Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.

People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.

Systems Thinking, Project Management, and Agile – Part 6: “Abandon All Hope,…”

[For this series, it will help to have read “System Dynamics and Causal Loop Diagrams 101.”]

“…ye who enter here.” So reads the inscription to the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, “Divine Comedy.” Who among us hasn’t felt on occasion that stepping across the threshold to our place of employment is like passing through the gates of Dante’s Inferno? But as the poets have told us, the way to peace is to find the path through our troubles. In this article, we’ll look into just how deeply project system dynamics can adversely affect progress and even whether or not the project is successful.

But I do want to arm the reader with a couple of rays of hope. The concluding article in this series will focus on how this system model1 can be used to good effect, how it can be used to identify problems before they grow out of control. Therein lies the path to peace. Before we get there, we need to understand several more influential feedback loops.

As the Delay to Completion becomes critical, management begins to panic. Not wanting to push the deadline out they work to influence the other three options focused on modifying the behavior of the delivery team. The end result is a team that is caught in the Work Faster, Work More, and Add People loops along with all the other associated downstream loops. The effect is compounded by the emergence of other feedback loops if teams are placed in this position for an extended period of time.

Over time, the shortcuts, hacks, and quick fixes put in place to keep the pace of progress as high as possible settle in as technical debt. They work – for now – so they don’t surface as errors for quality assurance to discover. Down the road, however, solutions hastily put in place as stop-gaps fail when later solutions require existing solutions to be more robust then they are. For example, a software method that doesn’t take advantage of multi-threading may break when a later solution needs that method to scale beyond it’s single thread capacity. The shortcut is now a defect.

Figure 1

If the technical debt remains in place for an extended period of time, it may be covered by several release layers. When it does flip to defect status due to some later stress, it can be much more time consuming and expensive to uncover. The original developer of the code may not be available or even if she is, it could take her quite a bit of time to become reacquainted with the code. This can be thought of as a form of dark debt and is reflected in the Errors Build Errors Loop (Figure 1, J).

As the teams struggle to keep up the pace of progress and reduce the Delay to Completion, work streams start to become out of sequence. One team has an easier time at crafting their solution while another, to which they are dependent on the output, hits a significant snag and is delayed several weeks. In order to stay busy, the first team starts work on something else while the second team finishes their work. When the second team delivers, the first team is not prepared to immediately shift back to their original work stream and so their deliverable is delayed even further. Meanwhile, a third team, that was dependent on the first team’s deliverable has now been delayed by the cumulative delay of the first two teams. Teams and individuals begin to take shortcuts as delivery of interim work products become out of sync with each other. The diminished focus and desynchronization of work streams leads to an increase in the Error Fraction, which in turn leads to a further Delay to Completion. This is the Haste Makes Out-of-Sequence Work Loop (Figure 1, K).

Figure 2

As the effects of the Haste Makes Out-of-Sequence Work Loop build,  team begin switching back-and-forth between work streams depending on who is making the most noise for the completion of any particular deliverable. This is the Thrash and Churn Loop (Figure 2, L). Switching from stream to stream or, in worst cases, task to task, places a tremendous burden on development teams and can do more to slow progress than almost anything else I’ve encountered in team management. Not covered in this model is the type of churn that occurs when parts of the project undergo redesign after work has begun on the existing design. Long term projects are particularly susceptible to adverse impacts from redesign as the changes are often farther reaching. The drivers behind a redesign can range from trivial (a new CTO has a personal dislike for a platform vendor) to critical (a security flaw uncovered in a core technical component.)

If all the loops described to this point in the article series are allowed to run uncorrected the system is likely to crash as the project becomes one massive firefighting effort. A key indicator for when this is happening is employee morale.

Figure 3

The increased Fatigue, the growing burden of Work/Rework to Do, the unsatisfying Task Switching between work assignments all combine to causes a decrease in team Morale. This is the Hopelessness Loop (Figure 3, M). Teams are left with a powerless feeling of being caught on a never ending treadmill. And so, stepping across the threshold to the office is like passing through the gates of Dante’s Inferno.

The ripple effect from a decrease in Morale leads to a decrease in the Workforce as employees leave the organization in search of less stressful, more satisfying work. This is the Turnover Loop (Figure 3, N). The remaining demoralized employees are even less productive and unhappy employees make more mistakes, thus increasing the Error Fraction in the system. The downstream result is that the Delay to Completion increases yet again.

If corrective action isn’t taken the law of diminishing returns becomes evident and the system collapses. The cost overruns become prohibitive and the project is cancelled. Worst case, the organization runs out of resources (money, time, or both) and goes out of business. Those are bad things. In the concluding article to this series, we look at how this model can be used to read the current state of a project’s system dynamics and explore some ways we can intervene such that the system doesn’t run out of control.

References

1The core of the model I use to assess team and organization health is based on the work of James Lyneis and David Ford: System Dynamics Applied to Project Management, System Dynamics Review Volume 23 Number 2/3 Summer/Fall 2007


Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay