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 Living Organization

November 19, 2018

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I should begin this with a brief explanation: I read a book recently called “Design in Nature” by Adrian Bejan. It’s a physics book – he’s a thermodynamics guy. I don’t know much about physics, but one of the things that intrigued me about this book, was that it started with a definition of what life is from a pure physics perspective. That beginning, starting from first principles, was enough to get me thinking. I started to wonder, what would it be like to start with a definition of organizational life? Would that uncover some interesting insights into how organizations work? So I took Adrian’s definition of life and I hacked it a bit to work for organizations. Something like this:

For an organization to live, its structure must evolve so that it provides easier access to the work/ideas that flow through it.
-Derived from Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law, Design in Nature [1]

Let’s take that statement and break it down step by step. First, all organizations are living systems. Living elements, namely people, make up organizations and they have some sort of discernible life-cycle of birth, life, and death [2]. For example, most organizations have some sort of entrepreneurial origins or birth. Some never get any further than that. They never find a foothold in the business ecosystem and as a result, they never reach a viable, sustainable state. A lucky few find their way to reach a profitable niche. These businesses are able to form a stable enterprise that capitalizes on this success. These businesses often optimize for their domain, transforming from groping for opportunity to maximizing the profit they can make from that opportunity. In essence, they evolve to maximize the benefit they receive from the success they have found. However, markets, like any living ecosystem, are subject to change and disruption. As these changes take place, the profit that once made the company thrive may disappear. At this point, to survive, the organization needs to evolve again. It needs to find a new niche in its ecosystem where it can thrive. Otherwise, the only alternative is death.

So, every organization is a living system that is changing or evolving to survive within an ecosystem [3]. It follows that the organizations that are fastest to evolve are most likely the organizations that survive in any ecosystem that is subject to ongoing change and disruption. All living systems require the capacity to change, potentially very rapidly, in the face of new threats. If we change too slowly, we can’t keep up with disruptions in our environment and subsequently die. So the advantage goes to the swift when it comes to change.

This brings us to the third and final attribute of living systems: flow [4]. The thing that all living systems have in common is flow. It is the flow of water, or blood, or even information. In its most abstract sense, flow is the fundamental characteristic of any living system. Systems with better flow change faster than systems with poorer flow. So the ability to change or evolve is directly dependent on the efficiency of the organization’s flow.

So if organizations are living systems, and living systems have flow, and the system that evolves to the best flow wins, how we structure our organizations to optimize flow is the most important question we can ask.

Notes:

[1]”For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.” Adrian Bejan, Design in Nature
[2]Koshland, Jr., Daniel E. (22 March 2002). “The Seven Pillars of Life”. Science. 295 (5563): 2215–16. doi:10.1126/science.1068489. PMID 11910092. Archived from the original on 28 February 2009. Retrieved 25 May 2009.
[3]Futuyma, Douglas J.; Kirkpatrick, Mark (2017). “Mutation and variation”. Evolution (Fourth ed.). Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc. pp. 79–102. ISBN 160-5-35605-0.
[4]Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-016253-5.


Lost

October 23, 2016

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Last week I was out on a hunt deep in the Canadian Rockies. It was remote – really remote. There was no cell service, no wi-fi, no cable TV, no Facebook. On this hunt, I was using the services of a guide. He was a guy in his early twenties – much younger than me. Despite his age, he was very accomplished and seemed to know the area pretty well. We had the usual agreement that you typically make with hunting guides – I pay you in advance for a great hunt, and the assumption is you bag the game you are after, or at least greatly increase the likelyhood of that happening by working with a guide. Implicit in that agreement is that there are no guarantees. Hunting is an unpredictable business (at least the good hunts are) and there is no way to know if you will get your quarry or not. These things aren’t cheap though, so there is a lot of money on the line.

So there is some very real pressure to perform in a situation like this. Expectations are quite high. We were three days into the hunt with no luck yet. That’s not a long time by any means, but the game wasn’t dropping in our lap either. We weren’t seeing much, and the doubts were starting to creep in.

So we set off early in the morning on day four, driving off into the darkness. We pulled over on a nondescript logging road and I followed my guide into the bush. We followed a trail for a while that meandered through meadows and around beaver ponds. We wove in and out of dense thickets of alder and spruce, pausing every once and a while to listen to the wildlife awakening around us. At some point my guide pointed off the trail and said that we should go check out a lake deep in the brush off to one side. I shrugged and followed. After all, he’s the guide. That’s what I was paying him to do. So into the thickets we went.

As we scrambled through the brush, climbing over logs and stumbling through willow thickets, I tried to focus on just keeping up. This young guide was having no difficulty at all moving through these obstacles with relative grace. Meanwhile, this particular middle aged guy seemed to be falling down as often as he was standing back up. I finally caught up with my guide, albeit wheezing mightily.

As we paused and looked around I realized that I had been so intently focused on keeping up with the guide that I had completely lost track of where I was. He had lead me on a merry little journey and I was now totally turned around and completely dependent on him. No problem, that’s why I hired a guide in the first place. He looked around, scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot, and we proceeded onward. Another round of scrambling, more spills and recoveries and 20 minutes later we stop again.

Still no lake.

Huh. This lake was proving to be elusive. With an abashed grin my guide looked at me and said, “We might be a little bit turned around.”

I nodded and told him I certainly couldn’t tell where we were. The sky was a perfectly even overcast grey that eliminated any clue regarding the direction the sun might be in. The nearby mountains, impressive as they were, were actually blocked from view by the thick press of small trees that surrounded us on all sides. So there were actually no major landmarks available to work from. Every direction offered the same information: more trees. My guide headed off again, and I followed.

Now I was starting to wonder, just what does, “We might be a little turned around” really mean? Is my guide lost? He doesn’t look lost. He seems like he knows what he’s doing. What about me? What if he is lost? Can I be of any help? After all, I’m a middle aged hunter who has spent more than a little time in the woods. I’ve been lost before. I know a practical thing or two about survival. I’ve watched the discovery channel. I’m no Bear Grylls, but I should be able to help out, right? So now I’m starting to pay attention to my surroundings. Now I’m starting to ask myself questions like: would I go this direction or is there a better route? Why are we taking this approach? What strategy should we be using to get oriented again.

We reach a clearing and my guide pauses once more. He looks at me with that grin again and says rather apologetically, “I got us completely turned around. I don’t know where the trail is. Or the lake.”

Whoops.

Well there it was. My guide had gotten us lost. My reply, “Yes, I’m afraid I’m lost too. I have no idea which direction the trail is in.” My guide checked in with me – asking if I had been lost in the woods before. I had been, so I wasn’t too freaked out. My mind was racing, I was definitely fully engaged now, but I was not too concerned. If anything I was worried that our little side hike was about to become a big adventure if we couldn’t find our way back to that that trail again.

I found myself in what I think of as “information gathering mode” at this point. What landmarks do I have? Well, we were standing in this little clearing. That’s a landmark, I could establish ordinal directions from the clearing (front, behind, left, right) and I could see a little rise nearby. That’s really all we could see. All other landmarks or clues regarding direction were completely absent. So the first thing that we did was go over and climb the small rise to see if we could see anything from the top.

Nope.

More trees. So we back tracked in the direction that we had entered the meadow from. We encountered another small open spot in the trees. Now we had a little bit of a map in our heads with the meadow as our basis point. We continued to expand outward from the meadow, and soon, much to our mutual relief, we stumbled upon our original trail that we had begun from. Phew!

As we strolled back to the car I couldn’t help but reflect on the similarity of this experience with some of my recent consulting engagements. In many, hopefully obvious, ways a professional guide is very much like a paid coach or consultant. You have contracted with him to achieve a certain objective: transform your development organization, reach a performance goal, hit a financial target, or shoot a moose. It’s usually something pretty specific. It’s something that you might be able to do on your own, but hopefully by hiring the guide you reduce the risk of failure and bring some assurance of success. That’s what you hire them for. They don’t come with a crystal ball, so they can’t guarantee you success (transformations can fail for many good reasons, moose are fickle creatures that may or may not appear), but nevertheless, you hired them on the explicit premise that indeed they can deliver – make no mistake about that. In fact there is usually significant amounts of money on the line – enough money that you feel some urgency to see success, and the guide feels some urgency to deliver. So the contract we take is very similar.

[Lesson: make sure you know exactly what you are being paid to hunt (protip: “being agile” ain’t it)]

The curious thing for me was the experience from the client point of view. I realized that I gave up any of my own competence and ownership for the outcome to the guide the minute he started to do his job. I was a modestly experienced hunter and outdoorsman, and yet as soon as I hired a guide, I stopped paying attention to the landmarks around me and just started following in the footsteps of the guide in front of me. I’ve experienced this phenomena from the reverse perspective as a consultant in the boardroom too. I’ve had clients look at me and say (almost verbatim), “Tom, you’re the expert. You’ve done this many times before. How should we do X?” These are very capable and quite experienced managers who are putting aside their own expertise and asking for mine. Well, perhaps not putting aside their own experience, but let me put it like this: these are smart, experienced people who are treating me as if I have more experience than they do. Perhaps I do. Maybe I don’t. My guide on that hunt was literally half my age. Yet I was expecting him to lead me on a hunt and achieve a better outcome than someone with twice his age and experience. Admittedly, I didn’t have his experience in the local area, but nevertheless, I was deferring years of expertise to a guide who may or may not have had years of experience in this particular area. In fact, for all I know, I could have been his first client.

[Lesson: your guide may not know more than you do – don’t give up your expertise and competence and follow in their footsteps blindly. As the client, it’s important to keep your wits about you so that you can help assure a successful outcome.]

I’ve found that one of the harder things to do when getting lost is admitting that you are really lost. I remember clearly that feeling of denial as I was following my guide. “Really? We’re lost? Seriously? Are you kidding me? I left my compass in the car? AAaargh!” It’s hard for the client to admit they are lost to begin with, because it’s a threat to their perceived competence – you feel stupid and nobody likes that.

And what about the guide? When you are the guide, admitting that you are lost is crazy hard. Getting lost is probably the one thing the customer is paying you NOT to do. So there is a lot of pressure on a guide to never admit they are lost. But here’s the thing, as a guide you ARE being paid to find something. When the going gets tough you take chances. You look in obscure corners. You go places you haven’t gone before. You experiment. You take risks. You might get a little lost.

So I expect that of my guide. If we are not getting results, I want them to push the envelope a bit. I think many of us do. And with that comes some risk of getting lost. Similarly, organizational transformation can be very disorienting too. As a consultant, it’s terribly easy to get lost in the bewildering forest of people, politics, and technology that you typically find in any given organization of even modest complexity. Let’s face it: there are days when I’m lucky if I can find the restroom.

So I really appreciated the guides honesty with me when he realized that he was lost. That only increased my trust in his ability. As a result, I didn’t get frustrated or upset. I just wanted to get back on track as quickly as possible.

[Lesson: if your guide admits he is lost, it’s a positive reflection of character. Help them get back on track so that you can both be successful again quickly]

The other thing that I noticed was that my guide was pacing himself according to my own abilities. This kid was a veritable mountain goat. He was easily capable of climbing a ridge covered in dense thickets and downed logs without even breaking a sweat. Following him, I felt like I was following an obstacle course designed for American Ninja. He’d be there at the top of the ridge, waiting patiently every time. He was capable of doing much more, but he paced himself according to my own capabilities.

Given his youth and individual capability, he might actually have been able to deliver on the hunt much faster on his own. But when he’s bringing along some middle-aged desk jockey, things are just going to have to go at a slower pace. That’s what a good guide does – he moves at the client’s pace. Maybe he urges them on a bit, but there is a limit. The client may even have unreasonable expectations. For instance, I might like to finish the hunt in a single day, but I’m probably not capable of the physical demands necessary to do that.

In a similar fashion, as a consultant there have been some clients I’ve had who’ve expressed a desire to speed up their transformation. That’s fine unless I’m looking at an organization that is the equivalent of a 80 year old: with slow, brittle processes, a staff resistant to change, riddled with dysfunction. If you try and get them to change too quickly, you risk an organizational heart attack. So you pace things accordingly, because you want them a little winded, not wiped out and gasping for air.

[Lesson: a good guide paces themselves according to the clients capabilities. That implies that the abilities of the client – not the guide, play a large role, perhaps the most important one, in the speed of achieving the objective. A good guide recognizes those limitations and sets expectations accordingly.]

All things considered, it all ended up working out very well. Experiences like this always leave me with a great deal of respect for guides, whether they work in the woods or the silicon jungle. They work extraordinarily hard to try and deliver success for their clients. This guide was putting in nearly 16 hour days with work that was both physically and intellectually demanding. That’s got to be comparable to the amount of time your average millennial in silicon valley puts in behind a desk. OK, I take that back. Maybe it’s not comparable – this guy was working a LOT harder than that. And he had to keep a geek like me entertained. I was really impressed at the kind of dedication he had to the work he was doing. You really have to love it to work that hard. The hunt was a success, and afterward I left feeling like I had a really great guide who had taught me a valuable lesson about being a much better guide for my clients.