Overlapping Behavior

March 19, 2019

Examples of redundant structures that overlap and support each other can be found everywhere in nature. Examples include: human vertebra, protein interactions in cell function, and network communications. In engineering, structural redundancy refers to the ability of a structure to retain its function without catastrophic consequences. To state it only slightly differently, it’s the redundancy of function that enables the structure to survive assault or crisis. Redundancy is therefore a desirable engineering attribute for a resilient system.

Redundancy is something that I use when weightlifting. When I lift a heavy weight, I rely on the following:

  1. The structural rigidity of my skeleton
  2. The dynamic rigidity of my muscles
  3. The hydrostatic rigidity of my abdomen as I use controlled breathing during the lift
  4. Wearing my belt

All three of these elements serve to stabilize me and provide a solid base for lifting heavy. Each contributes to the others and provides additional strength or stability. Some are essential, like skeletal rigidity. If I lose that, I’m totally screwed. However, to a greater or lesser degree, the other elements, like muscular and hydrostatic rigidity can fail, and I will suffer varying degrees of lesser consequences without necessarily breaking anything. In fact, it happens all the time. I fail to breathe correctly, and I still get the lift. I fail to tense up in the right places and I may still get the lift. Or not. It’s usually not catastrophic because there are multiple overlapping systems involved.

Do we get the same benefits of structural redundancy when it comes to behavior, and more specifically, our habits? When it comes to scheduling and planning, it’s not uncommon to have both a calendar and a “to do” list. You might even supplement those with your email backlog. All three of these habits or tools help serve to insure that you get stuff done in a timely manner. We also have quite a bit of redundancy in our communication. For instance, there is voice, email, voicemail, collaboration tools like Slack, Skype, and others. There are social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (although I’m at a loss to come up with what useful purpose these serve – social cohesion?). So there are many overlapping behaviors or habits we have that enable us to get work done reliably during the day.

Here’s the cool part: the benefit of redundancy is that we can still succeed even if one of those mechanisms fails. Is your email server down? Try facebook. Or Twitter. Or heaven forbid, go “old school” and give them a phone call. Stuff will still get done. This kind of redundancy is at the heart of all systems that we think of as very reliable. When we have a set of redundant, highly reliable habits, we have a name for that too: discipline.

So if you want to build a team that delivers stuff reliably. The kind of team that gets things done in a crisis. A team that can be relied upon to deliver. Consider using redundant systems of habit. Use sprint planning AND release planning. Use daily stand-ups AND weekly checkpoints. Use retrospectives AND product reviews. Take advantage of multiple redundant habits and you will become respected for your discipline.


March 13, 2019

Recently, there has been a series of tweets with the hashtag #NotMyAgile. They are usually a statement or example of some dysfunction in how people are implementing agile. Many are the kind of thing that you read and nod your head thinking, “Yup, that’s not how I’d do it. They got it wrong.” But there’s part of me that feels like this isn’t very helpful.

Look, I know there are a lot of ways to screw up the agile methods. There are truly endless possibilities there. However, pointing them out doesn’t do us much good. It’s really the same as saying, “That’s not agile.”


The question isn’t really, “Is this behavior agile?” But rather is there a way to help. Or is this offending behavior really the biggest problem they face? If I’m in a company with two teams and one team is micro-managed, that’s a big problem. If I’m in a company of 50 teams and one is micro managed, it’s one of many issues, and may or may not rise to the top. Context really matters. And in most contexts there is always at least a little dysfunction. Rubbing people’s noses in it doesn’t help.

There are some egregious cases, and perhaps that’s what some folks are objecting to. Agile gone so wrong, so badly misinterpreted or misused that all agree that’s #NotMyAgile. I’ll be honest, it’s easy to run around finger pointing at the misuse of just about any practice or method. It’s trivial really. What I crave – what I really want to see, are the successful cases. So I’m going to propose a new hashtag: #ThatsMyAgile.

My agile is going to look different from your agile. My agile will vary from place to place, team to team, person to person. My agile isn’t ever perfect. It has bad days. It can even suck. #ThatsMyAgile.

Agile Risk and the Business Landscape

March 7, 2019

Simon Wardley does a marvelous job of highlighting some of the essential requirements for understanding and defining strategy. There are five key elements that he describes in his book:

  • Purpose – why are we trying to do something
  • Landscape – the map of the business domain
  • Climate – the weather
  • Doctrine – the rules of the game
  • Leadership – decisions we make

The underlying premise is that you can’t have meaningful strategy without a map. All of these elements support that contextual understanding of strategy and the decision making necessary to interpret and navigate the business landscape. Otherwise, without a map you are flying blind. Wardley’s book does a wonderful job of explaining this much better than I can.

So as I’ve been trying to digest and understand strategy and the need for a map, it occurred to me that this might also apply to risk. Can we understand risk without an understanding of the landscape? Is Wardley Mapping not only useful for strategy but risk assessment as well? I suspect some might argue that strategy and risk are inextricably linked. That could be the case. Perhaps all strategy is really a very high level of risk management? Or perhaps it is just one element of strategic thinking. Because I would assume that accounting for risk is part of all good strategic thinking. Food for thought.

Knowing the Cards

March 6, 2019

After nearly 350 blog posts you’d think that I’d have some idea about whether something I write will be popular or whether it will be consigned to the ignominy of the internet dustbin. In my case, a single post tends to be about ~600 words, so if I’ve got my math right, I’ve managed a whopping 210,000 words so far. I should be an expert on what words work by now.

The thing is, I’m not. To this day, I have no idea what posts will be popular and which will be total duds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “This is total genius!” Only to have the amassed minds of the internet return a collective, “Meh…” Other times, I’ve posted something that I thought was total dreck, hardly worthy of the effort. Only I find that it is very popular and highly recommended by others. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know whether something I’ve written will be well received until after the fact. I guess I’m a slow learner.

Now I think I understand the dilemma of the product developer a bit better. Because I’ve been one and I know that “This is going to be a brilliant product!” feeling. Only to find that no one really gives a damn. And I’ve even worked on products that I personally thought were total crap (at least the code was) and nevertheless the crazy money just kept right on pouring in. It can lead to a certain sense of cynicism. The market is stupid. People don’t know what quality is. No one appreciates GENIUS! OK, maybe that last bit was a little too much Pinky and the Brain, but I think you get my point. There are entire books written on this dilemma.

I’m increasingly convinced that there is no writing or product crystal ball that will tell us what people will or won’t like in advance. So what is a poor blogger to do? Well, I suppose I could take a long hard look at the analytics. That’s feedback of a sort. I can identify the posts that get the most hits and try to emulate those. The problem is, I’ve looked at the analytics and I really can’t tell why people keep coming back, other than perhaps due to some rather idiosyncratic links from more popular websites.

Of course there is an obstinate part of me that really just doesn’t give a damn. What I write is in some sense more for me than it is for you. You know, it’s not you, it’s me. Those words are just bubbling up within, bursting to come out. Whether or not you read them or not is of secondary importance. I’d like to think they are useful, but I really have no idea. When I’m writing on orders from within, I’m able to keep up a prolific level of writing. When I’m letting the beast have full reign, I don’t even feel like it is work. Tom really isn’t there, he’s just channeling the beast. I feel drained afterward. Somewhat used up. That’s a good feeling.

The other thing I can do is look at the people who respond to my writing. They’re riding their own beast of a sort. And apparently my beast sings to their beast. To those folks, at least the ones not trying to cross sell some weird product, I feel very grateful. To put words out into the internet and have someone respond to them is a very powerful thing.

Thank you.

The future of Agile

March 5, 2019

I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of the agile community for many years now. And in that time I’ve seen a lot of things change. In the beginning things were pretty small. You started with the team and if you managed to get to high-performing you were doing pretty well. Later as agile became more and more successful and methodologies like Scrum, XP and Kanban became more prevalent we started to run into issues as teams of teams work together. It was at that point that you saw the scaling frameworks come onto the scene. After the scaling frameworks were introduced you started to feel pain in other parts of the organization. Now if you got one division working they would struggle to work with other divisions or other functions in the organization like HR or finance. So in this latest incarnation business agility has become all the rage. Business agility promises to extend agile further through the organization. So now we start to incorporate different areas like HR and finance and marketing and sales under our agile umbrella and ideally the whole organization is working in an agile fashion.

At this point you might be well justified to ask the question, “Are we done yet?” In fact, I’m not sure that we are. There are a couple of things I think we can expect out of the next few years. First, I expect agile will become more of a cross organization feature. By cross organization I mean across companies similar to the way you see Japanese companies implement their families of companies and products. This is going to basically apply agility to the entire supply chain which will be a revolution for major industries. Beyond that I think you’ll also see agile being applied in domaine where it hasn’t typically been used before. I’m thinking of places like churches, nonprofits, any kind of non-IT organization that’s larger than a single team. Thirdly, I think you’ll start to see agile commoditized. By commoditized I mean that agile will become the kind of thing that is implemented as a matter of course in some sort of fashion that becomes nearly second nature. This means that the need for custom consulting and for coaching will go down dramatically. As agile and its practices become more and more internalized into the existing operations and becomes the status quo in companies across the world there will be less and less need for outside coaching and consulting. At this point, agile Will have become a commodity of sorts. I tried to put it all in a Wardley map:

Finally, there’s one last place that I think things will go which is to say that people of been waiting a long time to see what the next version of agile would be. Call it agile 2.0 or agile 3.0. Whatever the term, it will be the post agile thing that comes next. People have been speculating about the possibility of what the next great thing is going to be for the last 10 years I think we still have quite a ways to go another 5 to 10 years before we see whatever this next thing is going to be. At that point agile will be the status quo and it will be ripe for some new ideas to come in and make it completely obsolete. Now what exactly that is I have no idea. In fact I probably won’t recognize it until after the fact. Given that there is still plenty of room for growth and opportunity within our business, I’m be excited to see when we all go next.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

March 4, 2019

I find you can learn a lot just by walking around and looking at the spaces that teams occupy. Sometimes, a workspace is full of personality. I used to work with a friend who would put an enormous wall hanging of a dragon over his desk. I don’t know where he got that thing, but it screamed “I’m into fantasy RPGs!” It didn’t matter where he was, that dragon hanging went with him everywhere. He was awesome, probably one of the best developers I’ve ever worked with, and that dragon was just part of the package. I could literally orient myself in the building based on where the dragon was.

I can’t criticize though, in my office at the time there was a full size head of a warthog mounted on the wall. Beneath it was a tiny little sign that read, “Mini-me.” That mount truly was the ugliest thing you had ever seen, but it made people laugh. Looking back on it, obviously we worked in a culture where we weren’t shy about expressing ourselves. I’m sure my friend still has that dragon wall hanging. I’ve still got the warthog head, but no office anymore (my wife makes me keep it in the garage).

However, if you look in some offices, there are no dragons and warthogs. In fact, there are rows of cubicles with the same monitor and keyboard in each one. There might be the occasional concession to personality with a small framed picture of the family, but that’s it aside from some pens and a notepad or two. I’ve worked in these more corporate environs as well. I have to confess that the relative sterility of the environment leaves me a bit cold. However, I did find that I could move around and “hotel” wherever I pleased. So that was good. I guess, strictly speaking, that there are benefits to each type of space. Personally, I prefer an environment where people express themselves. I guess I can’t navigate without some sort of exotic wildlife pinned up on the wall.

Don’t even get me started with those corporate motivational posters. I can feel a tiny portion of my will to live draining out of me every time I see one. It doesn’t help if the company has paid big dollars for designer furniture either. It still doesn’t feel warm to me. Frankly it’s kind of embarrassing how much money is spent on office furniture for some companies. I guess other people find it attractive.

I would look for an environment that provides the following key elements:

  • Keep it alive – bring your personality
  • Do it for real – no fake stuff like motivational posters
  • Setting – pay attention to the layout
  • First start obvious, stay obvious – don’t hide things
  • focus on flow – enough said

These are from Willem Larsen and Diana Larsen’s Quickstart Guide to the Five Rules of Accelerated Learning. If we are trying to create a learning environment, which I would argue is exactly what product development is all about, then we should be thinking about these five rules.

The Trial of Empathy

March 3, 2019

I’ve been working with some managers lately who struggle with a variety of challenges. Like many folks, when faced with a challenge they tend to dig in their heels rather than seek change. Trying to advocate change to folks in this situation is hard. Nobody wants to hear about creative alternatives. They have big problems to solve and are feeling tremendous pressure. The existing processes are often making their lives even worse. People aren’t collaborating, work is constantly in progress and never done. It really sucks. You’d think that if you walked in the door and offered a viable way to relieve the pain, you’d be treated like a hero.

But that’s just not the case.

It’s much more likely that you will be summarily kicked out of the office. Why is that? There you are with the answer to their problems, why won’t anybody listen? First, they want help. The best way to accomplish that is to dive right in and pick up a shovel. Of course that’s really unpleasant. But they need to understand that you grasp the current state of affairs deeply, and the only way I know of to do that is to ride the dragon with them. It’s terrifying, but you need to earn their trust first. Once you have that, you can begin to show them the alternatives in small ways. You model the behavior that you want to bring. And then you can both evaluate the results – as equals. You both look at what you have done and ask the question, “Is this good enough?” If the answer is yes, then you can bet that they are in.

But there is a catch – You have to join them in the soup. And that is not very much fun. You have to share the burden and experience the same sort of pain that they do. Perhaps this is why I often find myself shying away from these situations. I really don’t want to feel the pain (if I’m honest anyhow). I’m not really interested in feeling that kind of pressure. It sucks and everyone knows it. But sometimes it’s necessary. I see coaches sometimes who are playing the sidelines but not getting into the game. They are content to play a prescriptive role – why? Because getting in the game hurts.

Sometimes that’s why empathy is hard.

Make it Yours

March 2, 2019

A few years ago you could walk into just about any high tech company on the west coast and find teams, divisions, and release trains. Perhaps you would stumble over the occasional program or project if they weren’t agile. In all of these cases the terminology was and still is pretty consistent. Consistent is good, right?

Along comes Spotify and they introduce squads, guilds and tribes and everyone goes wild. What a bunch of rebels! It was hard not to walk into a company and have someone mention that they wanted to use the Spotify model. Some of this was admiration for the innovation exhibited by Spotify. And I suspect that some of what attracted people may have been the terminology.

I can help you out with that. I’ve got a thesaurus handy, so here are a few terms to spice up your otherwise boring organization descriptions:


…and there is a lot more where that came from. I think it’s time that we started to use names that work for us in our environments. Scrum and SAFe have their stock labels for things. That’s a nice starting point, but there’s no reason that you can’t change them. Go ahead, call your team a Moiety (you know…a moiety: In organic chemistry, a moiety is a part of a molecule which is typically given a name as it can be found within other kinds of molecules as well). Yeah, I had to look that one up. Why would I do something silly like that? Because my moiety is unique. Our teams work on tools for chemists? Because we’re all former chem majors?

Look, to be honest, you really don’t need much of a reason to call your teams something different. Go ahead, grab a thesaurus and have a little fun. Don’t be afraid to express yourself. Make it yours.

Risk Mapping

March 1, 2019

Recently I’ve been reading Simon Wardley’s book on strategy mapping. I’m finding it to be some of the best writing on strategy that I’ve ever come across, so I really recommend it if you have the inclination to learn more about strategy. Simon is a very vocal critic of the typical tools that we consultants use to ‘do strategy’ with. In particular, he is especially critical of the use of 2×2 diagrams and SWOT analysis. His central observation is that strategy as we do it today, does not take into account the landscape, climate and doctrines that should be applied. Instead, many, if not most of us, are guilty of talking about strategy while completely ignorant of the landscape, climate, etc. In fact, most strategy is usually a series of gut feelings backed up by the opinions of the highest paid people in the room and nothing more.

That’s quite a damning indictment of modern business strategy as it stands today. Unfortunately, I think it is a rather accurate critique based on my own experience. This reading on strategy has gotten me thinking about risk and how it relates to strategy. When we attempt to use a SWOT matrix to talk about strategy, one of the things we are attempting to do is address risk, at least indirectly. When we are talking about strategy, risk can be something that we run toward to take advantage of or run away from or try to guard against. In that sense, risk is a key consideration in the discussion of strategy.

I find that relationship of risk to strategy fascinating because risk is a precursor to many of the impediments that organizations face. If you haven’t seen it before, I have a model for how risks evolve in an organization over time. It works like this:

Risks => Impediments => Lessons Learned

According to this model, risks are a possible impediment that we may or may not encounter. Once we have encountered an impediment (assuming we have done nothing to mitigate or manage the risk), we may learn from the experience after the fact. So, this is a model for the evolution of risk for agile teams. The cool thing about this model is that we can use risks to detect upcoming impediments (think of finding risks as possible impediment detectors). 

Given that this model might hold true, how does strategy impact risks, and ultimately, organizational impediments? I think that strategy may be our first opportunity to understand the big risk picture. I suspect that in many organizations, this view is not widely shared, which is a shame. Also, if understanding the business landscape and climate is critical to understanding strategy, then isn’t the landscape and climate critical to understanding business risk as well? Perhaps we need to be using Wardley maps when we discuss risks too. It’s interesting food for thought.