The Zombie Cure

February 25, 2019

So, pretend for a minute that you’ve been asked to consult for a company. You do a little research on them: they’re a name brand, their products have names your parents might recognize, and there are a bunch of hot startups providing the same service for free. Basically, they have a distinguished history and a lot of resources, but they are already on the wrong side of the disruption wave. In short, they’re getting their butts kicked in the market.

These companies are sort of the corporate equivalent of zombies. They still stumble about making product, and occasionally eating the brains of another company (and a consultant or two), but they really haven’t realized that they are dead yet. From an outsider’s perspective though, it’s pretty clear from the moaning noises coming from within, that the undead are indeed walking the earth.

Oh…and did I mention that they want you to help them transition to agile?

Yeah.

So what do you do? I’ve watched enough zombie movies that I know what the high survival strategy is: pound some nails in a baseball bat to defend yourself with and…run away (rule #1: Cardio). However, I’m told that’s not a very dignified look for a management consultant. That’s a pity. I think the Mad Max Consultant look just might work for me. So what are we to do for these zombie companies?

Well, first, the wrong answer to the agile transition question is “Yes.” You see, agile isn’t really their problem. In fact, I’m fairly certain there is no compelling evidence that agile cures zombies (or helps with zombies in any useful fashion). If the market has left you in the dust, because you have been outmaneuvered by faster, more nimble companies, then making your teams fast and nimble after the fact is too little, too late. Besides, everyone knows making zombies faster is a really stupid idea. You’ve already lost the product battle. No amount of prioritization, estimation, or retrospectives will restore life to a dead product.

The fact is, that with the increasing pace of change and disruption, if you wait to change until after the wave has passed, there is no catching up. You really only have two options:

  1. Pivot: Go back to whatever pale shadow of a customer base that remains after your zombie apocalypse and see if there is a peripheral, closely related market that contains a significant opportunity to capitalize on. I remember doing this when the printing software business was nearly wiped out by the introduction of the web. Everyone saw that train coming. We did a pivot and tried to move into packaging software. It was a good idea: the web couldn’t replace the need for packaging and it was a big business. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite do it fast enough, and a bigger company ate us. That company? Kodak. Welcome to Zombieville. (Mmmm…brains!)
  2. Prioritize innovation over everything: Give up notions of productivity and efficiency, those ideas are for healthy companies with viable products. You’re basically a startup again, and you need to find another market – FAST! It won’t be pretty and it won’t be easy. People need to be rummaging through garbage bins looking for the next product. Anything goes. It’s risky taking a bet like this, but keep in mind what the alternative is – an unquenchable thirst for brains. You decide.

Now I confess that I’ve had a lot of fun writing much of this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. However, I believe that the question is a serious one: How do we answer a struggling company that from all appearances is doomed? As consultants we are faced with this question from time to time. I know that some would run away from a company like that. There are those in our business that just want to work with winners. I can’t disagree that working with successful companies is rewarding. However, if I’m honest, I also don’t think it’s very impressive.

I must have a thing for the underdog. My motto should probably be, “If your company doesn’t suck, I’m not interested.” Or, according to Google translate, “Si lac filio societas non est: Ego non quaero.” You see, if your company is awesome, you really don’t need me. There are a host of mediocre consultants who I’m sure are eager to help. However, if your company sucks, then there is the real possibility that together we can make a significant difference, and save the world (OK, I got a little excited there, just your company). That’s what I find exciting. That means I’m probably either a really good consultant or an ambulance chaser.

Phew, time to watch some zombie movies and brush up on my technique. I’d like to thank: the Academy, George Romero, the entire cast of The Walking Dead, and those strange people lingering at the Hotcake House after 3:00 AM.

Does Your Company Suck?

Then we should definitely talk. I provide innovative agile coaching, training, and facilitation to help organizations transform to deliver breakthrough products and performance. I do this by achieving a deep understanding of the business and by enabling the emergence of self-organizing teams and unleashing individual passion.

To learn more about the services that I offer or to arrange for an initial consultation, please see thomasperryllc.com


The Ultimate Project

December 24, 2014

christmas-gift-present-3466-830x550

Delivering toys to 7.125 billion people in one night.

Dang.

Now that’s a project. It kind of puts my own project management hassles in a different perspective. I guess I’m going to have to stop whining about my project headaches. I mean, 7.125 billion? How many servers is that? Well, if we’re talking about the same Santa, I guess the answer is 1. Now that’s multitasking!

As I watch my family and I gear up for another Christmas, I’ve realized we are a pretty agile bunch. There are multiple projects in flight at any given time: hanging christmas lights, picking a tree, wrapping presents, cooking, to name just a few. Things are handed off from person to person with very little regard for role or authority. There is a definition of done – and a very real deadline! There’s plenty of pressure (especially at the mall). Everyone is committed. It’s crazy. Frankly its a beautiful project to be a part of.

I don’t have any startling observations here. I’m just kind of happy to be bumbling along in my own projects with my favorite team (my family).

For those of you working on your own holiday projects, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas folks!


Hungarian Notation for Teams

October 12, 2014

SONY DSC

Back in the day when I was writing windows programs there was this thing called hungarian notation. It was a form of shorthand that allowed you to add the type of a variable to the name of the variable. It led to variable names like “lpszUserName” that stood for “long pointer to a zero terminated string named UserName.” It made for some pretty awkward variable names, but the idea was that you could always tell the type of the variable, even if you couldn’t see the declaration. It was kind of handy, at least until somebody changed the variable type and forgot to change the name. In hindsight, it really was always doomed to fail for almost any kind of legacy code. Name the variable wrong and you introduce subtle bugs that will haunt you for years.

So there we are looking at a list of teams the other day. They had a lot of interesting things in common. They all have some specialization in a given domain. Often they had different geographic location. We were wondering if perhaps they should have some sort of naming convention applied to their names. That’s when I perked up and said, “Hungarian notation for teams!” If the team is located in Bellevue, then we will use ‘bv’. If the team is in the mobile domain, we’ll use ‘mb’. So for a team named “Viper” located in Bellevue doing mobile development we would have “bvmbViper!” Maybe you have a team that is located in San Francisco ‘sf’ that works on web apps ‘wa’ called “Cheetah” we would have “sfwaCheetah.” Now you can simply look at the name of your team and know instantly where they work, and what they work on.

Genius! Maybe we should do this for people too? I’m an Agile manager ‘am’ who writes a blog ‘bl’. You can call me “amblTomPerry”


The Grumpy Scrum Master

September 17, 2014

grumpy dwarf

“Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.” – Wendell Berry

I looked in the mirror the other day and guess what I saw? The grumpy scrum master. He comes by sometimes and pays me a visit. Old grumpy looked at me and I looked at him and together we agreed that perhaps, just this one time, he just might be right.

We sat down and had a talk. It turns out he’s tired and cranky and seen this all before. I told him I can relate. We agreed that we’ve both done enough stupid to last a couple of lifetimes. No arguments there. He knows what he doesn’t like – me too! After a little debate, we both agreed we don’t give a damn what you think.

So we decided it was time to write a manifesto. That is

We grumps have come to value:

Speaking our mind over listening to whiners

Working hard over talking about it

 Getting shit done over following a plan

Disagreeing with you over getting along

That is, while the items are the right are a total waste of time, the stuff on the left is much more gratifying.

 


I’m Helping!

August 22, 2013

Super_Grover_flying_high

I used to race with a really experienced crew on a J120 (a flippin’ nice sailboat). We were all very hardcore about our racing. Many on the crew had been racing sailboats since their childhood. These guys were good – really good. We pushed each other hard and we expected a lot of ourselves and each other when we were out on the race course. So there was plenty of pressure.

I came to sailing relatively late in life compared to some, so I was very self-conscious. I didn’t want to make mistakes. In sailboat racing, there are a million little mistakes you can make that will slow the boat down. However, since it’s a team sport, you can cover for each other too. Not only are you trying to perform well yourself, ideally you are trying to help your teammates perform well too (at least on the successful teams). In sailboat racing you are always trying to anticipate what needs to happen next: clear the deck of loose sheets, make sure the spinnaker is prepped for the next rounding, re-run fouled lines, and Lord knows what other details. I always feel a bit like a bobble head doll when I’m racing – always trying to look in every direction at once.

I remember there was one guy on the boat who was really talented. He’d been sailing since he was in diapers. Things just seemed to come naturally for him. He was always where the help was needed most. He was easygoing and relaxed, learning was easy around him. But even he made mistakes from time to time – just like the rest of us. He’d pull the wrong string, blow the wrong halyard, grab the wrong winch. Whenever he screwed up he would yell,

“I’m helping!”

He would do it in an uncanny imitation of the Sesame Street muppet Grover. Super Grover to the rescue! We’d round a mark on the course and he would miss grabbing a sheet (in all the chaos and madness that we call making a left hand turn in sailing…).

“I’m helping!”

Usually everyone on the boat would bust up at this point. It broke up the tension we all felt when we failed a maneuver. It got us past the “Oh shit!” moment and allowed us to shrug it off and keep focused on our goal. I’ve been on other boats where someone made a mistake that cost the team on the race course without the help of ‘Grover’. Generally, on those boats we experienced something that felt like blame and recrimination. Perhaps we were less experienced, less able to forgive each other our mistakes, less able to cover for each other. Less able to allow for normal human nature to express itself. The problem was, we would struggle to recover our equilibrium for far too long after the event occurred.

A couple years later I was on another boat in a long distance race. It was early evening and the sun was setting over the Olympics on Puget Sound. As is often the case at that time of the evening, the wind died and we were left trying to race in the barest breath of wind. The water was flat and the sunlight was turning a deep shade of orange as it hit the mountains and reflected off the flat water around us. In fickle conditions like this, even the smallest mistake can cost you the race. As we all tacked into the shore to get relief from the current, I watched a nearby boat fail to release a sheet and blow the tack. They came to a stop and as we drifted past I heard,

“I’m helping!”

In the unmistakeable voice of Super Grover.

I remember feeling two things at the time:

  1. Damn, that’s funny
  2. We’re going to get our asses handed to us

Frankly I wish I saw more of Super Grover in the Agile software development community. All too often I see teams that are under tremendous pressure to deliver (is there any other kind?). When someone makes a mistake, it can all too easily turn into a situation where blame and recrimination slow the team down. There is no one there to help them shrug the mistake off. Someone with experience and the respect of the team. Someone who can look at his/her own mistakes and laugh,

“I’m helping!”

Sometimes I think that a team needs someone who can see that even though their efforts were well intended, even skilled – they were mistaken.  It is easier when someone you respect and admire can completely blow it and laugh about it. Suddenly the job doesn’t seem quite so serious. The task doesn’t seem quite so critical and we allow ourselves to get back to doing what we really enjoy.

Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Maybe this kind of thing doesn’t really apply to software teams. Maybe there is a better explanation for this kind of behavior. If so, that’s OK,

“I’m helping!”


Bambi vs. Godzilla

October 27, 2011

There was a short video made back in the 80’s that made a huge impression on me called, “Bambi meets Godzilla” Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s epic. There’s Bambi in the meadow looking all dewy eyed and innocent and munching on daisies. Then you are treated to that iconic Godzilla roar and Bambi looks up, alarmed. You see one giant lizard foot descend out of nowhere and Godzilla stomps on Bambi.

The end.

The first time I saw that film as a teenager I think I laughed so hard I cried. I’ve always had a soft spot for the big rubber beast. There is something about the classic Towering Terror of Tokyo that has always turned me on. He sort of reminds me of “Uncle Bob” Martin.

Fast forward to today where I find myself roaming the complacent halls of corporate America. I must confess there are times when I look at a room full of cubicles and crave a little of that Godzilla action. Yeah, you heard me right, I want to rage right in there full of radioactive terror and unleash a little destruction! I want to turn up the Blue Oyster Cult to eleven and breath a little radioactive fire and and smash a few cubicles with my mighty rubber tail! Gazing down over the typical cubicle warren, I think I know how Godzilla felt looking down on an innocent fishing village just before smashing it all to bloody oblivion.

You see I have a confession to make: Godzilla and I have a lot in common. I call it my “Godzilla complex” Here’s why:

Godzilla hates tiny little walls. So do I! You know how villagers are. Living quietly within the confines of their narrow little cubicle walls. They’d all be going about their daily drudgery, testing, writing code, filling out TPS reports, and generally just bowing down to the man. But as anybody who has watched Godzilla movies will tell you, Godzilla will lay waste to anything with walls. You see, he’s actually a huge fan of transparency, and nothing defeats transparency like cubicle walls. Fortunately, nothing defeats cubicle walls like a hundred foot long lizard tail and the aforementioned nuclear breath. That breath just melts ‘em right down to the designer berber carpet.

Godzilla hates meetings. Me too! Picture yourself at a typical ghastly corporate meeting. Some dork has called you in to a meeting with no agenda and genius couldn’t find a consensus if you clubbed him over the head with it. You know the kind of meeting I’m talking about. There you are thinking, “Oh great, Just 5 more of these meetings before I can go home and get some work done.” That’s when you need Godzilla. You know Godzilla doesn’t like your meeting when his dorsal fins start to glow red. He’d let out one of those monster, mind bending shrieks of his and then he would bite the head off the bozo who called the meeting. He wouldn’t stop there either. He’d probably use his radioactive breath to melt the face of the marketing guy sitting next to him. Then he’d smash the conference table into splinters with his mighty rubber tail and storm out of the room. Meeting adjourned. Oh God that felt good…

Godzilla hates architecture. What a coincidence! Me too! Nothing spells doom for a decent, well run project like architecture. Now I’ve seen enough Godzilla movies to know that if there is one thing that the Rambunctious Rubber Raider does well is destroy architecture! He takes out most of downtown Tokyo! That speaks to a serious…no, pathological hatred of architecture. That’s because Godzilla knows that architecture is the enemy of simplicity. There! I said it. I feel much better now. It took a giant rubber lizard to teach me that lesson. And a fifth of vodka.

Godzilla hates impediments. Nothing brings out the Raging Radioactive Rubber beast in me like impediments. Nothing. The thunder lizard and I share that in common. Nothing stops Godzilla either. Not robots. Not aliens, not a two headed dragon thing. Or a moth creature…or a retarded looking turtle…Nothing!

So what are you? Bambi or Godzilla?


Going To The Dark Side

October 22, 2011

I discovered the other day that I have apparently gone over to the dark side of Agile. It’s unfortunate, but understandable given the circumstances. You see I’m a manager now. The minute that happened there were some telltale signs that I really should have noticed earlier. I caught myself telling people that I mentor things like, “I am your father…” I’ve noticed that line gets me a few puzzled expressions in the office. It seems to work better with the kids. Then one day the color of my light saber changed from green to red. I’ve seen the movies and everybody knows what that means. Still, I didn’t suspect a thing at the time. Even when I took to wearing a floor length black cloak around the office like some sort of pudgy corporate goth, I just told people I was wearing it because I was chilly. I didn’t fully comprehend the full power of the dark side until I started to deflect impediments.

Deflecting impediments is like a drug. There is this feeling of satisfaction you get when you manage to deflect dealing with an impediment holding up a team’s progress that is like nothing else I’ve ever felt. Well, actually it’s a lot like strangling a puppy. Yup, we’re definitely on the dark side now people. However, deflecting impediments is not as easy as you might think. Just like being really lazy, it is more work than it first appears. In the interests of furthering the evil methods of the Agile dark side, I will share some of my diabolical impediment deflecting techniques with you.

Minimize the problem. The key here is to dramatically downplay the significance of the problem. The team has come to you for help. It’s your job to convince them that it’s not really a problem. It’s really not that bad. That issue won’t slow you down that much. You can work around it. It has always been that way. If you can master this technique you will become the Jar Jar Binks of management effectiveness.

Delegate to the Team. If you can’t get them to acknowledge that it really isn’t that big a deal, don’t worry. The fallback position is to look at them with an appraising eye and say, “Don’t just bring me problems, I respect people who bring me solutions. So what do you propose?” Let them stumble about and come up with some lame idea. Then smile and say, “Perfect, you know how to solve this yourself!” They have thrown the problem toward you and it has whipped about full circle and ended up right back in their laps! I call this the boomerang impediment. This is worth doing just to see the expression of indignant outrage on their faces. Feel free to combine it with some sort of dramatic gesture (a closed fist works well for me). The coup de grace? Tell them you’re going to hold them accountable. Trust me, at this point the evil laugh just comes naturally.

Reject the problem. Take a tip from Obi-Wan. Just wave your hands and say,

“These are not the impediments you are looking for…”

There are couple of strategies that you can use here. You can plead that it’s outside your control. Sorry, not my department. It’s those bastards in accounting. The point is, there’s nothing you can do. You’d love to help, but you can’t. Every time you manage to do this, somewhere in the world a Scrum Master loses its wings. Or if you are feeling really evil, just tell them to take it to the scrum of scrums – nothing ever gets done there.

Together, using the dark side, we can halt the forward progress of any team. Does my voice sound deeper? Repeat after me: “Come over to the dark side and together we can bring the corporate world to its knees!” Now, does anybody know where I can get a black helmet? How about some platform shoes?