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. 


If Everybody’s Happy, You’re Doing It Wrong

August 11, 2014

So there you are, wrapping up another successful release planning session. Sprints are all laid out for the entire release. All the user stories you can think of have been defined. All the daunting challenges laid down. Compromises have been made. Dates committed to. Everyone contributed to the planning effort fully.

So why isn’t everyone happy? Let’s check in with the product owner: The product owner looks like somebody ran over his puppy. The team? They won’t make eye contact and they’re flinching like they’ve just spent hours playing Russian roulette. What’s up? Well, here’s the dynamic that typically plays out:

  • The product owner has some fantasy of what they think they will get delivered as part of the release. This fantasy has absolutely no basis in reality, it just reflects the product owner’s hopes for what he/she thinks they can get out of the team (it’s just human nature). This is inevitably far beyond what the team is actually capable of. My rule of thumb? A team is typically capable of delivering about 1/3 of what a product owner asks for in a release. That’s not based on any metrics, its just an observation. However, more often than not, it seems to play out that way.
  • The team is immediately confronted with a mountain of work they can’t possibly achieve in the time allotted – even under the most optimistic circumstances. It’s their job to shatter the dreams of the product owner. Of course, strangling dreams is hard work. Naturally enough, the product owner doesn’t give up easy. They fight tooth and nail to retain any semblance of their dream.
  • After an hour, perhaps two, maybe even three or four (shudder), the battle is over.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that this is no one’s idea of a positive dynamic. But it seems to happen pretty often with agile projects. It sure doesn’t look like much fun. I’m pretty sure this isn’t in the Agile Manifesto. So how do we avoid this kind of trauma?

  • The product owner needs to be a central part of the team. They need to live with the team, be passionate about the product, and witness to what a team does daily. Fail to engage in any of this and a product owner loses touch with the work the team does and loses the ability to gauge their capabilities. Doing all of this is hard. There’s a reason that the product owner is the toughest job in Scrum.
  • The team needs to embrace their product owner as an equal member of the team. You have to let them in. Work together. Let go of the roles and focus on the work.
  • Prepare for the release planning in advance. There is no reason for it to be a rude surprise. Spend time together grooming the backlog together. As a team.
  • Don’t cave to pressure from upper management. Behind every product owner is a slavering business with an insatiable desire for product. Ooh, did I just write that?

Release planning doesn’t have to be a nightmare. OK, in theory…