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?


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.

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Discovering Motivations and Needs

January 29, 2019

I have been working on a new way of doing organizational discovery lately. I think of it as discovering motivations and needs. It’s a very different starting point for an engagement that what is conventionally done (OK, it’s new to me). Here’s how it works:

My starting point is to find out how people feel about the place that they work. In this particular case, prior to the engagement, I used publicly available information on I looked up the company and found the employee reviews. These reviews ask for the pros, cons, and any advice the employee may have for the company. I gather all of the text from the pro feedback and aggregate it together in a file, then without any edits whatsoever, I put that file through Wordle. Now if you are not familiar with Wordle, it’s a tool that creates a visual map of the most common words found in any text you choose to feed it. It eliminates the ‘noise’ of common articles (words like: the, to, a, he, she). The remaining words that appear with the most frequency are given a correspondingly larger font. Words that appear less frequently are smaller. It looks something like this:

At a glance it can be a very good way to identify the most potent and prevalent themes in a text. So it is a good way to use a tool to discover the things that people feel the most strongly about when talking about a company that they work for. 

I take the text from the pros, cons, and advice and put it into three corresponding files that I then run through Wordle to generate a sort of heat map of the words that are most prevalent in each text. The pros tend to look like the things that people are most excited by and energized with at the company. These may represent appetites that people seek within the company. They are the things that get them out of bed in the morning to come to work. They are the things that attract us to our jobs. These attractors could also be called drives or motivations. It’s surprising some of the different motivations you can find simply by using this method. It offers a curious insight into the things that excite people at different companies. 

Similarly, we can run the same exercise with the cons or the things that people don’t like about a given company. Again, the Wordle can be very revealing. Often the words represent things that people want that are missing from the company that they work for. These ‘wants’ or missing things are what I characterize as needs. The aggregation of these needs as derived from the Wordle is what your employees want from the company the most.

We can run a similar exercise with the advice that employees provide, and it seems to map rather closely with the cons that they describe, so I tend (right now) to treat the two as synonymous. Advice is the employee telling us what they want – again, needs.

If you are getting started on an engagement, this sort of information is very compelling and useful for a couple of reasons:

  • It gives you insight into the emotional state of the organization. I don’t know of any other practice used in assessment or discovery that does this in a systematic fashion. Interviews are the only thing that comes close, and those typically yield very hard to quantify anecdotal data.
  • It gives you an idea what people will get excited by and what needs they have that aren’t being met. This is absolutely critical to the success of any change effort! 

This sort of information is very useful, because any change effort that matches these drives or satisfies these needs is much more likely to be successful. We need to match our change to the emotional context of the organization. That is to say, that our changes must match the things that motivate the majority of people or they must help ratify the needs of the majority of folks in the organization. Otherwise, what is the alternative. I would submit that any change you propose, no matter how powerful or useful, that doesn’t match the motivations or needs of the organization is ultimately doomed to fail. 

I’ll say it in one sentence: Figure out what drives people emotionally or your proposed change will very likely fail.

Swarming Context

September 29, 2014

The application of Swarming as a method can be broken down into four main contexts. For each context the process of swarming is different. Allowing for different contexts makes sense, because we really can’t expect the same process to work equally well in every situation. Even the simplest animals are able to exhibit variations in behavior based on the context, so why shouldn’t our processes? We change our behavior to match the circumstances. That is, unless we are using fixed methods like Scrum or Kanban. If you are using fixed methods, the proscription is to treat the process in a fractal fashion, repeating it everywhere. Practically speaking, by having only one process these methods ignore the context.

So what are the four contexts of Swarming? Here they are in no particular order:

  • Emergencies
  • Shifting Gears
  • Innovation
  • Building

Emergencies represent the simplest context for swarming. When a crisis occurs, it’ all hands on deck. Everyone joins the conversation and brings whatever specific expertise they have to the party. The group self-organizes to enable those present to contribute to solving the problem. You see this a lot in production operations environments when a “P1” defect occurs or, heaven forbid, the production system goes down. When this happens, everyone swarms on the problem. Some are gathering information, some are listening and integrating the information, and some are taking action to try and remedy the situation. All of this is happening dynamically in the moment without central organization. All of these activities are critical to the success of the swarm. During a crisis, nobody is going to stop what they are doing for a standup meeting, and they sure as hell aren’t interested in seeing your Kanban board.

Shifting gears refers to when the system is in transition. The corporate ecosystems that we are all a part of are changing faster with every passing day. New products are coming to market and disrupting the old ones. It’s not enough to simply work within the existing system. You can’t keep up that way. These days corporations have to match their structure to the complexity of the environment. That’s hard, and that’s where swarming comes in. Like when honey bees form a swarm, the corporation reaches a critical mass where a new structure is necessary. Up until this point, the hive has been a stable and reliable structure, but with the presence of a new queen everything changes. A cascade of events takes place where the hive moves on. This can also happen with companies. When they reach a certain size, they can spin off subsidiaries, divisions, and even teams. We see this when teams reach critical mass and split into two teams (meiosis). On swarming teams, we use simple rules to enable groups to decide on their own when division should take place (Team size of 7 plus or minus 2). We use the swarming values and principles to help guide who works on each team – always leaning toward letting individuals decide based on where their own passions take them.

In swarming, Innovation is treated as foraging. We are foraging for new information and new ideas. In this context we are actively using our social networks to recruit new people and new ideas to our cause. This can be initiated as part of a special state (shifting gears) or it can be part of the ongoing activities of the team. When ants are foraging, they tend to follow the strongest pheromone trails to a food source. However this rule is not universal. There are ants who wander off the pheromone trail from time to time. These solitary explorers are the ones who have the unique opportunity to wander off the beaten path and potentially find rich new sources of food. So too, we want people on our team not to follow the team too closely. It’s best if they can wander off and explore side avenues and blind alleys. This isn’t something that is dictated, it’s a natural part of teams with rich diversity. People make these decisions on their own and either bring them back to the original team or they form a new team.

Building takes place when we are trying to strengthen our networks. As a team is growing it uses it’s social networks to strengthen bonds both within and without the team. This can be as simple as increasing the number of social “touches” on a team. Social touches are things like: greeting each other, going out to lunch together, supporting each other’s work. There are some people who are stronger at this than others. Some people tend to form many lightweight social contacts (which is very useful). On the other hand, there are those who only have a few deep, strong relationships. A good swarming team is composed of a healthy balance of both types of people.

In summary, swarming is used differently based on the context you are in. Understand the context, and you are prepared to take advantage of the power of swarming.