Your Company is Not a Machine

December 12, 2018

Your organization…
Your company…
Your division…
Your team…

None of these things are a machine. In fact, if it’s made out of people, then there’s a pretty good chance it’s probably not a machine.

Oh I know, we all really wish our organizations functioned like a machine. It would be so much easier to deal with organizations if they would just obey a few simple rules. Look, I’m not really asking for much here. All I want is for everyone to behave in a clean, orderly and predictable fashion. That’s not so hard, is it? I mean, I’m not asking for a Swiss watch here, just a modestly steady, reasonably predictable outcome.

Well, apparently, that is asking too much.

People don’t work like that. People are all those terrible things that machines aren’t. They are messy, disorderly, and unpredictable creatures. Yet, we still try and create complicated process models and frameworks that will enable us to predict their work. I do it all the time. Many of us do.

Economists, really smart guys, fell into this process trap for decades. These very smart people came up with rational decision models that would enable proper economic decision making. Unfortunately for all concerned, it turns out that humans don’t work that way. In fact, Kahneman and Tversky showed us quite clearly that people will quite often make decisions that are directly counter to their own self interests. In fact, Kahneman earned a Nobel prize for figuring this out. It turns out we fall victim to things like feelings and snap judgements all too easily. This makes us terrible candidates for cogs in a machine. I’m not just picking on the economists here. The psychologists are guilty of falling into this trap too. We all do it.

So seeking a process to solve our problems is ultimately a fool’s journey. There is no process under the sun that will fix this problem. People don’t behave predictably. They are erratic, emotional creatures that behave in unpredictable ways. So what are we to do?

We have to learn to deal with those feelings. Yuck.

You see, we need to get away from the Taylorist model of treating people like parts in a machine and instead we have to start asking people how they feel. We need to find out what makes them feel that way. We have to find ways to reproduce those positive feelings.

People have all this baggage that we call “feelings” that tend to get in the way of their work. Emotions aren’t really baggage, though. In fact, I suspect that emotions may form the foundation for how we work together. If you want to change people, watch the feelings, not the process. In the end, whether or not I like you is a far more powerful influence than just about any process. Therefore, focus on the feelings first.

So how do we do this? If you are anything like me, a process person, how do you start paying attention to feelings? Well, I don’t know. Maybe you ask. One thing that people do well is describe how they’re feeling. OK, some are better at this than others. Ask them what’s blocking them. Impediments have a way of brining out the emotions. Ask about quality. Quality is a feeling. Learn to see the cues when the dynamic in the room changes. When the boss walks in, or the demanding teammate joins the standup. This is how you start to attend to the things that really make a living organization work.

So remember, your organization is not a machine. It’s a living creature. If we can find constructive ways to align our appetites and build on each others feelings, we might be able to achieve something much more powerful than any process or framework could ever manage. 


Push v. Pull: A Leadership Story

November 10, 2014

sailing

It hadn’t been a very good race. In fact, it wasn’t an understatement to say it had been a disaster. To Peter Smith it was embarrassing just to show his face in the clubhouse afterward. He was at a complete loss to explain how it had happened. He felt like had just managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

He’d put together a decent crew. There were no rookies on the boat. Everyone knew their jobs and some had even sailed together before on other boats. Some even had more experience sailing than Peter did. It should have been a pretty decent team.

The boat was brand new. It was the latest club racer with all the bells and whistles. It was blazing fast on the water upwind and downwind. They had all the right equipment, the right sails, and every reason to win.

That’s why their performance was all the more frustrating for Peter. They’d sucked. There was no getting around it. He felt like he’d made all the right moves and still managed to fail. He’d reviewed it backwards and forwards and still had no idea what to do. It was definitely time for a beer.

Still licking his wounds Peter took a seat at the bar. Things were hopping and the whole place was abuzz with sailors recounting the day’s action. It happened that Pete had picked a spot next to one of the club’s old timers, Rex. Pete knew him only by reputation, but he was supposed to be one of the best racers in the club.

Rex was the gregarious type and soon introduced himself to Peter and asked how his race had gone. Beer now in hand, Peter proceeded to tell the story of the day’s humiliation.

“We went out on the water early and did some practicing before the race. We needed to get used to working with each other and get the kinks straightened out. We had no problem there. A few short tacks, a few gybes and we were ready to go.

So race time comes around and we get to the start and begin working for a good spot on the starting line. You know how it is, it’s a tough fleet, so there are lots of boats and they are all pretty intense. If you leave those guys an opening, they are going to take it and you can kiss a good start goodbye.

This is where we had the first hint that there might be an issue. As the maneuvers on the start line became more intense, the crew execution started to weaken. A boat would cut us off and we would have to spin to avoid them. As we would execute the spin, one of the trimmers would make a mistake and we would get stuck, stalled out behind the line.

Of course we would recover and try again, but is was the same story all over again. I’d have to execute another rapid maneuver and the trimmers would blow it again! It was intolerable. I began to yell, because we were never going to win a race performing like this. I don’t think the yelling helped much (in fact they seemed kind of annoyed), but what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t exactly trim the sheets for them, could I?”

Peter saw Rex frown as he described this last bit, but he was starting to get some momentum in the story, so he powered on, “Anyway, when the starting gun when off, we weren’t in a good position and ended up starting in the second rank, sucking wind behind all the good guys who had managed to get off the line with good starts.

From there, things went tolerably well on the first beat to the windward mark. We did the best that we could with a bad start, but we still ended up toward the back of the fleet as we prepared to round the windward mark. Strategically, there wasn’t much we could do until we reached the mark, and we managed to execute well, with no major screw ups.

Of course that all changed when we reached the mark. That’s where everything fell apart. As we rounded the mark, the bowman wasn’t ready and we launched the spinnaker late as I was trying to gybe set and cover the competition. Nobody was ready! We ended up with the spinnaker wrapped around the forestay and the bowman was screaming at the trimmers to ease up on the sheets. There he was on the foredeck, flailing away trying to untangle the mess, as boats went by us on either side. Jesus was he slow! I hollered at him to hurry up, but I don’t think he was listening, because nothing changed. It was costing us the race.

Finally we got the spinnaker sorted out and we got ourselves back in the race. Only now we were at the very back of the fleet. That’s right, we were dead last. As if that weren’t bad enough, when we eventually got to the leeward mark, it was an even bigger disaster!”

Peter paused for a sip of his beer and continued, “I told the crew that we had to move faster to keep in the race, but it didn’t help. They just couldn’t execute. By the time we crossed the finish line, there was complete silence on the boat. No cheers from the crew. We all felt like we never wanted to do that again. I’m completely baffled. How could this have happened? Where can I get a good crew? I need a crew that can execute, not a bunch of whiners who shout at each other when things go wrong.

Look, I can’t change that it’s a race. We’re not in this to have a good time. We’re here to win a race. Why can’t anybody understand this? I need a little positive attitude here. I need people with a will to win! Where can I get some of that? We sucked!”

There was a long moment of silence. Rex was shaking his head and chuckling quietly to himself. He paused and looked at Peter with an assessing sort of gaze and said. “That’s a helluva story. I’ve seen it before. You want my advice?”

Peter looked down and swirled the beer at the bottom of his pint thoughtfully for a moment. Then he looked up and replied, “At this point, yes. I’ll do anything.”

“Buddy, what you are doing is pushing these guys, and what you really should be doing is pulling with them. You don’t succeed by pushing a team, you succeed by pulling along with them.” He said.

Peter frowned, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Rex paused to take another sip of his beer and continued. ”It’s like this, You can push the problems on the team. You can make it all their problem. In that situation, at the best, you are simply not helping, and at the worst, you are actually creating additional problems for the team.”

“Problems? What do you mean? I don’t give problems.” objected Peter.

“Hold on, let me explain: Let’s take your race today as an example. When you were maneuvering on the start line, what did you do to your trimmers?” Rex asked.

“I didn’t do anything to them. I spun the boat about and it was their job to trim the sails properly to execute the spin.”

“And did you tell them you were going to spin, or did you just slam the tiller over and wait for them to figure it out?” Rex tilted his head as he asked this last question.

“Well…I had to spin. I didn’t have any choice. Otherwise we would have hit another boat.” Peter said rather defensively.

“OK, so you had to spin, but you didn’t tell anyone what you were going to do, right?”

“OK, alright, yeah.”

“So, here’s the question: When you do that, turning without telling anyone, are you suddenly creating a problem for the trimmers or are you helping them?”

“Well OK, it’s not helping I guess.”

“That’s right. You’re creating a challenge or impediment for the trimmers to overcome – you’re pushing the problem on them. Not only do they have to trim the sails as fast as they can, but they also have to be mind readers – guessing at when you may spontaneously change direction without telling them.

Let’s look at this another way. What could you do to help them?”

Peter looked a bit sheepish and said, “I could call out the maneuver before it happens?”

“Right, if you did that you would be helping to make their jobs easier. You would be setting them up to succeed rather than setting them up to fail. You would be contributing to the successful execution of their work.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Peter said a little petulantly. “But I’m still not really sure what you mean by this ’pushing vs. pulling’ thing.”

“OK, well let’s talk about that mark rounding you did. What do you have to do to round a mark?”

“Hundreds of things!” Peter exclaimed. “Everyone has dozens of tasks that they each have to perform in a choreographed fashion in order for a mark rounding to be successful.”

“And what did you do to help them round the mark?”

“I did the steering, their jobs are their problem.”

“So again, how could you help?”

Peter gave it some thought and then said rather tentatively. ”Call out the maneuver?”

“Yes. What else could you do to help?” Said Rex.

“Well, I suppose I could slow down the turn in order to give them more time to make their adjustments?”

“Bingo!” exclaimed Rex. “That’s more like it. You have to be thinking of what you can do for the team to make their jobs easier. You need to think beyond your own role and be constantly asking yourself: How can I help the team? What can I do to help this team work like a well oiled machine? As long as you are thinking only of your job, you aren’t really part of the team. To be part of the team, you need to be pulling along with them to help them reach the goal.”

Peter nodded his head, “OK, I think I get that, but it’s kind of abstract don’t you think?”

“No, not really. I see it out on the race course all the time. You get these hyper competitive types rushing about without thinking about the team. They rush through mark roundings thinking only of themselves and winning the race and not about the crew. The poor crews are pulling as hard as they can, but they just aren’t in synch with the helmsman. They aren’t pulling together as a team.

It’s push vs. pull.” he finished.

Peter looked down pensively and was quiet for a minute. Then he called over the barkeep and bought Rex another beer. “Thanks. I appreciate the advice. I’m going to have to give that try.”


Make Resolving Impediments a Habit

October 17, 2014

David_City_Rey_grocery_store

I’ve talked a lot about the rigors of finding and resolving impediments for a team. There is one thing that I have left out: the people part. I learned this lesson at a conference that I was co-hosting. I had been in charge of setting up the food for the event. Getting the caterer, arranging for meals, that sort of thing. As you might imagine, it’s a pretty tough job to satisfy the dietary requirements for a very large group of people. I learned of whole categories of food allergies and needs that I had never even imagined existed! There was a little bit of every imaginable combination. Everything from your standard gluten free diet all the way to lacto-ovo-pesca-leguma-veganitarians (OK, I made that last one up).

We did the best we could to satisfy the needs of most folks and pretty much called it good. About halfway through the conference, someone mentioned that there was no food that fit in their dietary needs. I expressed my sympathies and referred them to the grocery store around the corner. I really didn’t give it another thought. A few minutes later, I heard the same complaint made by the same person, but this time the reply was, “I’ll get you something, I’ll be right back” And that person ran off to the store themselves. Wow!

I was humbled. The difference between my reaction and theirs was the difference between someone who could empathize and take action to resolve the impediment, and someone who couldn’t. The lesson I learned that day was that in order to help people with their impediments, it takes empathy. You have to feel their need, and be receptive to doing anything to help them out. I think I had missed that before. That willingness to serve the needs of others is really important. All the strategies in the world for resolving impediments won’t help anyone if you don’t care.


On Product Ownership

November 1, 2011

Recently I’ve been dealing with disengaged product owners. You know the type: they don’t show up for the stand-ups, when they come to the standup meeting they don’t bring any stories and instead simply review whatever the team has brought to them – and then leave early because they have more important things to do. When they show up for the demo, they obviously don’t recognize the stories and simply give tacit approval to the work that the team has done. And the scrum master marks the work as accepted. The only time they express any opinion about the project is if it is late. Otherwise they are off in other meetings for projects that seem more attractive to them.

Call me a jerk, but these are the product owners that I least like to deal with. I almost prefer an actively hostile product owner – at least then I know that they care! Instead these ghost product managers do nothing to engage the passions and the commitment of the team. Soon I find that the team is coming to me and saying, “We don’t see much value in the work we are doing…” This is a very bad sign for a team. When you hear this from a team you can rest assured that you have a product owner who at best is distracted or at worst just doesn’t care.

Of course part of the problem is that I just haven’t worked with that many really good product owners. I think they are a rare breed. However, I saw something the other day that gave me pause. I was watching a coordination meeting for a big program that was getting started. The meeting was being run by a talented facilitator and there was a very charismatic product manager who was conveying a very obvious air of “being in charge”. You could tell that he had an ego the size of Texas. He was comfortable with public speaking, he used terms that were dramatic and conveyed a sense of purpose and commitment. He also conveyed the sense that he was confident an knew what he was talking about. People would defer to his knowledge of the business domain. He was brash, arrogant, had a full head of hair, and I almost instantly despised him. I know that type of guy all too well. He was just like me – with hair. What a jerk!

I saw him again a couple of months later and he was still selling the hell out of his program. I remembered thinking to myself, “Does this guy ever quit?” There he was in front of the team. He was basically reaffirming the value of the product that they were all trying to deliver. He was still selling the heck out of it! At the time I’m afraid I must confess I did not recognize the value of what he was trying to do. It all seemed a bit too “high school cheerleader” to me. So instead I settled for quietly loathing his presence.

So lo and behold, there I am a month or so later working on my own program. And I don’t happen to have a product owner who is charismatic, energetic, or at least has a face. No, instead I’m working with some guy I’ve only met once who lives on the east coast and who has not shown up for a planning meeting in recent living memory. The project is stumbling along, like many of them sometimes manage to do. Schedules are slipping, impediments are being worked around rather than being resolved, and we all pray for the day when we get to work on another project. And then it hits me.

I need to sell this baby. Well, somebody does anyway. It’s probably more suited to the product owner’s role, but in their absence somebody’s got to do it. Otherwise this project will just quietly fade into obscurity. Perhaps it should be put out of it’s misery. If you can’t get the product owner to care, then maybe the best thing to do is to let it die. But there is another school of thought here. Leadership on projects is not always clear. By that I mean that sometimes the product manager is a strong leader, sometimes the project manager is a strong leader, and yes, sometimes that giant dork, the development manager is a strong leader too. Sometimes, but not always. In fact the chemistry has been a little different on nearly every team that I have ever worked on. The fact is that the leadership may be hard to find, it may lie in different, even unexpected places – but it must be there somewhere.

One thing to keep in mind is that your leadership needs are going to vary based on the size of the group you working with. If the project you are working on is a nice little single team project with just a couple of iterations to it, then you probably don’t require much in the way of overt and active leadership. In that case it’s probably enough for the team to be well functioning and trusting each other. The commitment is small enough that it doesn’t require any particular skill of vision or any additional requests for re-commitment. The value of these small projects is often small enough that everybody usually feels that they are easily achievable and they don’t require much additional motivation to achieve.

Then there is the more complicated project, really more of a small program. These projects might have two or three different phases, milestones or releases to them. They generally take longer than your typical individual project and they require more commitment on the part of the organization and the team. The added risk and uncertainty, simply due to that introduced by the increased scope and the concomitant unknowns make these projects more worrisome to all involved. We’re not talking major fear, uncertainty and doubt here, but we are talking about the kind of program where, with just a few things going wrong, the mood can swiftly change from, “We think we can do this” to “We’re all going to die!” These are the types of projects that require someone, an engaged product owner – someone who will consistently paint a clear picture of the overall goal and help the team understand and appreciate the value that they are delivering to the customer and the organization. It may not take all that much, and you may even find that you can get away without it, but like I said, it’s much more likely in these situations that you will find that life goes a lot smoother with someone who is willing to actively rally the troops.

Finally, there is the genuinely large program – to me this is any program that has 3 or more teams, each of whom has multiple overlapping milestones that they need to hit in order to deliver the program successfully. Often times these teams are also distributed/dispersed teams as well. These are the programs where you need one hell of a good salesman. You need someone who is good at bringing people together and helping them feel like they share a common goal. Someone who is good at working with large groups of people – this can’t be the kind of person who will shy away from a room filled with 50 people. They need to be fairly energetic and be able to tell a compelling story. And they need to know the business really, really freakin’ well. They have to have some sort of very real respect within the group. For the really big programs, you probably need more than one person like this. Or maybe not. When I have worked with the multiple leader scenario I have also see a lot of infighting, which can be death for any project, large or small.

These are just some observations and speculations. They aren’t based on any kind of empirical data. To a certain degree they are based on observations of things that I have seen missing in myself as I work with teams. They are also what I often need from a product owner. Teams really need leadership as much as anything else from the product owner. However, leadership is one of those intangible skills that is very difficult to impart in some sort of training class. Certainly it is not the kind of thing that you will find in any sort of product owner certification course. The point is, I think teams need it from the product owner, some more than others, but they all need it.

Of course I suck at things unless I find some sort of way to formalize it into a set of things that I find easy to remember. So how would I formalize what I am asking for here? First I would bring back a much stronger emphasis on the project kick off meeting. This is the first opportunity to sell the project/program to the team and it is very important that you do it well. Second, I would put together regular status updates with the group, perhaps along the lines of key milestones that would serve to bring the group together and reinforce that original commitment to the project. Finally, I will treat impediments very aggressively and review them with the product owner and make sure that not only are they aware of them, but that they are taking an active role in resolving them as well. The team needs to see that the product owner is just as committed to removing project impediments as anyone else – perhaps more so.


Leadership Is A Weak Social Force

August 15, 2011

In the “Robbers Cave Experiment” Sherif speculates that focusing on leadership to reconcile the differences between two groups is insufficient. I would even go so far as to characterize it as a “weak” type of social interaction that is not enough to counteract the “strong” social dynamics at play when there is conflict between two groups.

“Likewise, the alternative that exclusively emphasizes the role of leaders in charge misses the mark, because the effectiveness of leaders, even though weighty, is not unlimited. Leaders are not immune to influences coming from the rank and file, once a group trend gets rolling, even though initially the leaders might have been largely responsible for starting the trend.”

(Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, The Robbers Cave Experiment, 1988 p.151)

Simply put, exhortations by leaders to “get along” or to aspire to some higher social imperative like “cooperation” just can’t compete with the hatreds and biases (both I would argue are “strong” forces) that arise from inter group conflict.

This implies that if we are going to resolve a conflict between two groups, reconciling the leaders of the two groups with each other is not sufficient to resolve the conflict. This presumes that there is already a significant level of conflict. There has to be something more than just leadership: in Sherif’s case he recommends the creation of multiple overlapping superordinate goals.

In fact, the Robber’s Cave Experiment flips the whole equation on its head and implies, if not outright asks, the reverse question: can we reconcile two groups if the leaders of those groups do not cooperate with each other at all? Is it enough to simply put the superordinate goals in place without obtaining the cooperation of the team leadership? This is what Sherif is actually able to successfully accomplish in his experiment (which makes it all the more astonishing in my opinion).

All of this poses interesting questions about the role of leadership in reconciling inter group conflict. Can leaders actually control the tiger they hold by the tail? Sherif suggests they can’t. Keep that in mind the next time you are dealing with organizational silos. Don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking that if the leadership could just get along, that the situation would resolve itself. It very likely would not. Once two groups really polarize – when they really start to hate each other, then leadership isn’t enough. Just look at our recent debt ceiling fiasco in congress.

I rest my case.


First Class Impediments

April 4, 2010

About a year ago I put together a terrific tutorial on finding and managing impediments. It was something that I felt strangely passionate about. But I must confess that focusing on impediments felt a little weird. I’d refer to it as my “silly impediments presentation”. You don’t see many talks at major Agile conferences that discuss impediments. After all who really takes impediments seriously anyway?

Apparently, really good project leaders do.

In fact, it’s arguably the most important thing that good leaders do. Go ask your team what a good scrum master does. Dollars to donuts, I bet you get “remove impediments” for an answer every time. So I guess impediments are pretty important, perhaps equally important to some of the more glamorous subjects in the agile books (you know: planning, retrospectives, etc.). So it’s time that we made impediments a first class member of the project management conversation. After all, planning, stand-ups, and retrospectives won’t do much for you if you neglect impediments. You just end up stuck and reflecting on that fact.