When Impediment Management Won’t Work

September 6, 2014

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I stumbled across Pawel Brodzinski’s blog on Software Project management. In “Why Kaizen Boards (Typically) Don’t Work” he talks about the importance of having the right culture that will support using and taking full advantage of the tools (Agile, Lean or otherwise) that people try to introduce to organizations. He notes that when the culture doesn’t permit experimentation without permission, introducing any kind of continuous improvement effort is almost always doomed to fail. He makes a good point. I’ve seen this pattern myself and it applies just as much to managing impediments as it does for any other kind of improvement.

Some signs you may have a problem introducing a change:

  • Taking action requires getting permission (this is straight from Pawel)
  • Stating the desired change is too risky
  • Action can’t be taken because projects are too important
  • Only certain people can take action

I’m sure this could be a much longer list. The take home message for anyone who is interested in initiating this kind of change: Make sure that you have the buy-in from your organization. Talk about these sorts of examples and discuss how you might deal with them. Use the feedback from that dialog to inform what changes you try to make.

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Culture Club

August 6, 2014

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Recently I’ve been challenged by the question, “Can you change culture?” I think this is pretty common for folks who work in large organizations. The question of culture and how it blocks or allows us to get things done is a thorny one. There seem to be two opposing schools of thought in the agile community on the subject of culture:

  1. You can’t change culture, you can only adapt to it (customize your process to fit)
  2. You can change culture (through influence, good looks, and the right practices)

Of course, perhaps the first question is, “What is this culture thing anyway?” Most definitions of culture are terribly vague and in my opinion not especially useful (although, couched in the delightfully hand-wavy  terms of corporate sociology, they usually sound very smart). Just for giggles, here are some definitions:

  • Culture is the accepted norms of behavior for a group
  • Culture is the collection of social contracts that a group depends on
  • Culture is how we treat each other
  • Culture = people

I forget where I saw that last definition (Tobias Mayer?), but it’s probably my favorite of the bunch. You see often culture is used in conversation to hide or excuse problems with people. It’s kind of like referring to employees as “resources” (Ooh! Now I can be that irritating agile guy who corrects people’s terminology! A word to the wise: Don’t be that guy). So where was I? Oh yeah, culture. So here’s the deal, I don’t like the term culture because it’s just too damn vague. Often times I get a lot more clarity if I use more specific terms to describe the problem. For example:

  • Our culture won’t permit us to do that = Manager X won’t permit us to do that
  • Our culture only supports hierarchical decision making = Bob likes to make all the decisions

Once I take the time to replace culture with more specific terms (Who, What, Where, When, Why), I usually find that the problem feels more manageable to me. More human and less onerous. On the one hand, “Our culture” is vague and hard to put strategy around. On the other, influencing Manager X is a simple exercise in winning friends and influencing people. That’s something I know how to do. People I can work with. Culture…not so much.

So if you accept this definition of culture (culture = people), then your ability to change the culture directly depends on your ability to influence people. That’s Dale Carnegie stuff. It’s not easy, but it can be done – one person at a time. When you are in a small company, that’s not too daunting a challenge – win a handful of people over and you are done. However, in a large company, it’s quite a different matter. In a large company you have to win over hundreds or even (heaven forbid) thousands. That’s a very different challenge – and it’s an order of manure…uh…magnitude more difficult. It can be done, but it’s a long term challenge that may take years – and while some strategies you will use with larger groups are the same as for small groups, often they can be very different. If you are accustomed to trying to change the culture in small companies, you almost have to learn a completely new language in order to try and change the culture at large companies.

But seriously, can you REALLY change culture in big companies? One way to answer this question is to look for examples of successful culture change within large corporations. There are one or two that I can think of:

  1. Richard Semler, SEMCO (As described in the book, “Maverick”)
  2. James Collins, “Good to Great” (A series of stories of dramatic corporate change)

If you accept these stories as true, then the answer must be that culture change can indeed happen. But perhaps you are an inveterate cynic (like me) and don’t believe everything you read in books. Maybe culture change is just something that people with extraordinary power can achieve (like CEOs). Then what hope do those of us who exist much lower down in the corporate hierarchy have? Two thoughts:

  1. Sometimes we have to accept that our sphere of influence is limited. Those limitations are things that are very real like geography. You may only be able to influence folks that you work with in your particular office (which makes a lot of sense). Influencing the rest of the organization is going to be much harder. This has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with constraints. Start small, gather your wins, and grow.
  2. You can just wait. Bide your time. Sometimes you have to wait for the right opportunity. How long should you wait? I don’t know. There is an element of patience when dealing with culture change. You need a lot of patience. Focus, prioritize, and be ready. There’s nothing wrong with that approach.

OK Tom, what if I still don’t buy it. My company is HUGE and there is just no way that I can influence these clowns…er…people. No matter what happens, once an organization gets above a certain number (perhaps the Dunbar number) then it becomes extremely difficult to change. So difficult in fact, that it’s just not worth fighting. If that really is the case (and in many cases it just may be), there really are two approaches:

It may be that there are kinds of change that will never be accepted within some organizations. However, usually, that is a relatively small set of invariants. There usually still remains a broad spectrum of change that can be introduced successfully. Just stay away from the hot buttons. Does it really matter that you introduce every single one of the 12 XP practices? Or would it be enough just to introduce a few (there is still some benefit gained). Can you bring change in small amounts rather than a huge batch? There is plenty of room for creativity in this sort of culture change.

In the end, even after all this, you may come to the conclusion that you can’t change the culture in big organizations. Maybe it’s just too hard. Perhaps you just don’t like Dale Carnegie. I don’t know. That may just be the way it is. If that ends up being the case for you, then saddle up Rozinante. Grab Sancho, and go find some more giants to tilt at. The world is full of them.


Culture Eats Impediments Too

March 3, 2014

hippo

I stumbled across Pawel Brodzinski’s blog on Software Project management. In “Why Kaizen Boards (Typically) Don’t Work” he talks about the importance of having the right culture that will support using and taking full advantage of the tools (Agile, Lean or otherwise) that people try to introduce to organizations. He notes that when the culture doesn’t permit experimentation without permission, introducing any kind of continuous improvement effort is almost always doomed to fail. He makes a good point. I’ve seen this pattern myself and it applies just as much to managing impediments as it does for any other kind of improvement.

Some signs you may have a problem introducing a change:

  • Taking action requires getting permission (this is straight from Pawel)
  • Action can’t be taken because projects are too important to risk
  • Only certain people can take action

I have a great example of this happening recently: The group I was with raised an impediment. I had a nifty new impediment display that I wanted to try out (impediments displayed on a big monitor that everyone in the company could see). I sat down to add the impediment to the list, and then I had to pause…because the impediment called out something that might upset some folks. It might REALLY upset some people. I ended up not displaying that impediment. Why not? Was I just a chump? Was I too scared to make an impediment visible? Maybe…

Or perhaps I understood the culture well enough to know that certain things were acceptable to display as impediments, and others weren’t. That’s just the way it works at some places.

The take home message for anyone who is interested in initiating this kind of change: Make sure that you have the buy-in from your organization. Talk about these sorts of examples and discuss how you might deal with them. Use the feedback from that dialog to inform what changes you try to make.

 


Slowing Down

February 12, 2013

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Last week I led a session at Agile Open Northwest called, “Slowing Down”. The idea for this session was inspired by my own struggles with becoming quite over-committed to a variety of things (my job, my hobbies, etc.) and the resulting stress and crisis it has created for me. You see, the funny thing about it all was that even though I was perfectly aware of what I was doing by over-committing like crazy, I couldn’t seem to stop.

The Introduction

So I came to this session, not as an expert selling a solution, but rather as a novice seeking help. Since I really didn’t know where things were going to go, I simply started with the session title. I wrote “Slowing Down” on the whiteboard and introduced myself to the small group of people who had joined me for the session. I started with a story of my own. It was a bit like what I imagine an Alcholics Anonymous conversation starts like, “Hi, my name is Tom and I can’t slow down…”

Fortunately for me, many in the audience had a similar story. Since we are a bunch of software development types, it didn’t take long for the concept of sustainable pace to be mentioned. Of course we all knew full well what sustainable pace means. It is a term that I originally encountered in Xtreme Programming. I could ramble on for hours about the importance of keeping the pace and duration of your work under control so that you can sustain your creative energy and not burn out. Easy. But I can’t seem to do it worth a damn. That’s the interesting bit. Why? Why is it that, even knowing the importance of maintaining a sustainable pace, I and others like me seem to struggle so hard with it?

Why?

A few interesting ideas for why we get sucked into this dynamic were suggested during the session:

its-mine

Ownership – Feelings of ownership can make it hard for people to let go of tasks and delegate them to others. For example, it is very easy for project leaders to feel a very strong sense of ownership and commitment to the success of projects that they are working on. This can be quite normal – often our organization want this kind of commitment from us. However, like many things, this can go too far. The undesired dynamic plays out as a feeling that you and only you are personally responsible for the success or failure of the project (what happened to the team?). When challenged, people who struggle with ownership issues will often look with incomprehension when asked to give up some part of a project, “If I don’t do it, who will?” I think that in some cases this inability to give up ownership can also manifest as heroism (ownership + adrenaline junkie). Perhaps at its heart, ownership issues are tightly tied to ego. They seem to manifest as a very selfish view of project success or failure.

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Bad Habit

Habit – We form all sorts of bad habits that contribute to the stress in our lives. For example, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking my email compulsively throughout the day. Often even when at home. Habits like this that tether us to the office and constant communication serve to raise our overall stress levels. Other examples include habitually taking home the laptop with you every night and carrying the work phone with you wherever you go.

Culture – One major reason for difficulty with slowing down is the work culture you live in. People shared many different stories of how the expectations at work made it hard or almost impossible for them to escape the pressures of the office. Everything from evil bosses that demand attendance over performance to co-workers who make snide comments when a colleague dares to leave the office at 5:00. Some places even provide rewards for those who make decisions that put work above any other activity. Examples of these sorts of influences in the workplace abound.

All of these influences are very common reasons why people find it hard to slow down. It is no wonder that there are many who struggle to maintain a sustainable pace of work at the office. Understanding why you are feeling that pressure is critical to understanding what strategies to use to manage the problem. The strategies where where we ended up going next.

Strategies

As we moved along in our discussion, people identified strategies that could be used to deal with slowing down and establishing a more sustainable pace. We captured and expanded upon those strategies as we wove the narrative of slowing down.

Setting Boundaries

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The first strategy that came up was setting boundaries. Setting boundaries is fundamental to establishing control over your own schedule and pace. Fail to do this and all the rest really doesn’t matter. People told many stories about how they managed to establish meaningful boundaries in their work lives that helped them to keep a meaningful sustainable pace. Some made their 9 to 5 work hours non-negotiable. They never offered the longer hours that many fall into. You get me for 8 hours a day, and the rest of my life is not for sale. It was remarkable to hear the strength of some of these voices. Others refused to take work home or turned off the cell phone after 5.

Basically, what I heard were people establishing a service level agreement for their participation. One benefit that I noticed from this sort of boundary was that it made visible to everyone just what they could and could not expect from you. Visibility is a strongly held value in the agile community and it struck me that making my boundaries more visible would be a uniquely agile way of dealing with the issue (I’m closing the door now…). Another way of making my boundaries and limits visible would be to use a personal task board mechanism like personal kanban in order to not only make my existing commitments visible, but also to review them myself and keep tabs on how the work load is balanced (or not).

Reflections

Diana Larsen did a great session last year at Agile2012 on personal retrospectives. As team facilitators, we are pretty well versed in running team retrospectives, however I never do them by myself. That is exactly what Diana proposed: do self-retrospectives on a periodic basis in order to reflect on your progress toward your goals, and where you want to go next. I think this would be a useful tool for many, whether it is only at the end of the year or much more frequently. I know that my own responsibilities feel like they have changed quite dramatically in the last year. Stopping to assess those changes might just give you the opportunity to recognize stressful trends and start to do something about it. You can start to do it now, or wait until a crisis imposes that reflection. Your call.

This is just my summary of what I saw and heard during our talk. Looking at the sheer number of topics that we covered it’s quite apparent to me that we covered a broad number of subjects. Many of them are worthy of deep investigation. Perhaps, as the mind map suggests, we have created a map of the terrain of the topic of slowing down. Others may have different take aways. I certainly hope so. I appreciated everything that the group brought to the conversation and I hope that I was able to serve as a reasonable scribe for what was said.