Activity vs Action.

In our modern world we are constantly expected to rush and frantically finish our tasks in the name of efficiency. Yet often we find that activity does not translate into the desired action or outcome. It is this “Rush to Action” which is the actual issue, often leading to poor outcomes and undesirable states of mind.

So why do we do it?

The basic fact is that we generally can not distinguish between activity and action. The realm of busywork is populated with people filled with a sense of accomplishment. The simple fact is we are driven by the evolutionary reflex of Fight or Flight. This predisposes us to rapidly respond by reaction, it is this proclivity to activity which makes us feel a sense of control when we are in activity. The difference between activity and action, is often only observed in the final outcome therefore it is very difficult for us and any onlooker to distinguish the two.

Doing things make us feel empowered and better; we feel in control and have a sense of fulfilment because we are doing something about it. Yet this activity is a hollow victory, if the end goals are not reached. The true reward is when we attain our objectives and goals.

If we take the real world example of Cave Diving, a highly technical and inherently dangerous activity, which happens to be fun and scary. Imagine you are diving in a sinkhole cave system and before you know it, you realise you’ve reached the bottom and have lost your bearings and the rest of your group. Initial instinct would be to begin searching for the others and this naturally becomes more frantic as time passes. Although this is a natural and understandable reaction, it usually is not the best course of action. This initial behaviour which manifests itself as activity, will often cause greater problems. The reason frantic activity in such a situation is not a good idea is that you will stir up any silt and mud off the bottom, this will muddy the water and reduce your visibility to the extent you can loose your orientation to the stage where you don’t even know which way is up.

Activity is not always the best action.

So in the above example reactionary activity is highly problematic but even in this example calmer heads and cool action will prevail. Surrounded by zero visibility, not knowing which way is up many would feel lost yet the fact that the bubbles you expire using SCUBA gear will always rise actually will help you identify which way is up. This simple fact and calm action can and will safe your life.

This predisposition to activity can and often does muddy the water when we are trying to determine the actions necessary to attain our goals. Running around like a headless chicken, is an apt description because we loose our senses in the frantic rush. We don’t see, don’t hear and can not clearly understand which are the best options, opportunities and course of actions.

Observations In How Things Go

Have you ever noticed the way new ideas and innovations seem to decay with their mainstream acceptance and growth?

The usual scenario plays out something like this….

1) A new idea or innovation is developed. The core community which includes the originators of the concept and a small group of early adopters contribute to its betterment, fine tuning and working the concept. These early adopters also promote the particular idea, innovation or methodology.

2) The community is comprised of mostly like-minded people all contributing their particular talents for the betterment of the whole. This is the pinnacle of the communal symbiosis for any new idea or innovation. The community is focused only on the betterment of the concept.

3) Now things begin to get noticed by the larger population and the core community starts to grow. This seems a good thing but in reality, the growth of the group leads to the decay and ultimate corruption of the original value of the idea of innovation.

So why is there; this inevitable degeneration and how does it happen?

What seems to happen is that as more people become aware of the concept, the fewer true collaborative contributors you get entering the community. The new idea quickly becomes the latest trend and is USED in the truest sense of word. The new community becomes widely known and becomes seen as a must do/have item. It is during this transitioning that the foundation principles of the original community are under the greatest threat.

The core community becomes the latest bandwagon to jump onto by the rest of the broader community. It is this extra weight of the “Hangers On” jumping on the Bandwagon that breaks the axel and makes the wheels fall off. These “Hangers On”, USE the new idea or innovation as a means to virtue signal and big note themselves. The focus drastically shifts from collaboration and the concepts improvement, to a “What’s in it for me” narrative.

This often leads to the decay and ultimate failure of most new ideas.

These “Hangers On” join the new community not out of like mindedness or a collaborative philosophy with a willingness to contribute and embrace the foundational idea or philosophy of collaboration. Their motivation is to be seen as part of, what I call, “the leading herd”.

So how do you identify the “Hangers On”?

They rarely understand the innovation or the collaborative nature of learning, they just want a quick fix to their problems. Just like students wanting to know the answers rather than putting the effort into actually learning and understanding the lessons they are taught.

Some final thought to share.

“With great acceptance comes greater corruption.”

If you are a member of a core group be watchful of the decay which will degrade the foundations of your community. This doesn’t mean not to share your ideas or innovations but to understand that you can only really learn when you have reached the particular mind set or mental maturity to actually learn and understand.

Knowing something does not mean you understand it.

Knowledge is not Wisdom but only its starting place.

Anything learnt needs to become part of your daily experience.

Not everyone is ready to learn and embrace new and foreign ideas at any particular time.

The Factory Analogy for Software

This is a reflection piece working on similar themes to a post by Tobbe ‘The Software Factory — an idea wrong enough to be useful’

When we think about automation, it is easy to imagine factories. The standardisation of work that was brought in with ideas such as The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor allowed us to automate jobs that were previously performed by craftspeople. So it is pretty easy to think of software development as like a factory because we are automating functions – but the ‘goods’ we are producing are transactions – not physical items.

I like Tobbe’s idea of the flexible factory line where we have teams and architecture that support delivering software in more flexible ways. Most of us do not think about factories like that. I had a part-time job packing biscuits in a health food factory working my way through university. So when I think about factories, I am thinking about highly repetitive (and boring) tasks that are getting automated.

Where we trip ourselves up is using factories as an analogy and mis-applying the metrics that are useful for high-volume repetitive tasks to tasks that are less repetitive. Even though I was manually assembling the boxes for the biscuits, I would pride myself on finding more efficient ways to do this – and shaving a few seconds off this part of the process (which I did at the start of each shift) was useful as well as rewarding. This is where tools such as control charts, six sigma and paying attention to changes in trends is very useful. The production version of a piece of software is similar to a factory in this way – I really want to know if my many transactions per minute start to take even a tiny bit longer to execute – this could indicate a problem that is easy to fix and avoid a big outage. I once looked after a system that lost sync between the 2 databases and it took 24 hours to re-sync (with degraded performance for the end users over that entire day). We made sure that when we found out what had caused the issue, we watched the early warning signs with a lot more rigour and I’m happy to say that it did not happen again.

Installing new code is like changing the setup of a factory. In my health food factory example, it might be automating the biscuit packing job that I did. I imagine that if we automated the whole process, then the factory might be offline for a few days – losing a few days of production and therefore sales. Taking an agile approach, perhaps we just automate parts of the process in one go, such as starting with the box assembly. I’m not sure how big a machine to assemble cardboard boxes would be, or how much it would cost – but we could get in the experts who have done it before and they could tell us. We might use project metrics such as on time, scope and budget to ensure that we are not causing too much disruption to the factory production and sales. We can also go back to the production metrics to see if we are making a difference to cycle or lead times, once we have installed the new parts. There might be a way to install some of the packing automation without disrupting production and we would need to design the factory in a different way to the one that I was working with if we needed to have continuous production while upgrading the machinery. This example is like the release management process when we deploy new software into the production environment – we should be using metrics that allow this process to become more efficient and project-based metrics would be appropriate – especially if we add the quality check about the impact the change has to the production environment.

Software development is like deciding what we need to automate and then designing the machines to perform that automation. If no-one had built a box assembler before, then we would need to observe the manual process, the steps surrounding it and then design the machine. We would need to take into account how it would be maintained – this is a bit like the architecture role in software design – in the factory, we would not be making large machines out of gold – it is too soft, very expensive and would be hard to maintain – but it would be nice and shiny. In software design – how do we make sure that it integrates well into the existing software and requires minimal operational intervention? We do not want to be having to re-index the database every day – just like we would not want to have to service machines every day.

What if we decide to produce a different type of item. In the health food factory we also had lines that produced pies and cakes – which were separate to the machinery that produced biscuits. What if the company decided to manufacture something different, it could be a small difference such as a new type of biscuit or a large difference might be to manufacture coffee mugs. Whether there are sales out there for a new biscuit or coffee mugs is very similar to identifying if there are needs for new software features and we can use the same human centred design or user experience toolsets for physical and virtual things. Once we’ve identified the need we then need to decide if we should start a separate production line or modify an existing one. It is hard to imagine being able to manufacture pottery mugs and biscuits on the same factory line (and health regulations would likely not allow it) – but I have seen people try and add new functions to a piece of software that was never designed to do that new function. An example is where we were asked to add a fraud-handling function to an application which would have incurred a huge cost (in time and money) when we already had a separate system that could do what was required with much less cost.

How we measure the effectiveness of new items in a factory or features in software is very different to how we measure the efficiency of the production environment for both. We look at how sales are progressing, the level of interest shown by Customers etc. At this point the analogy is breaking and becoming less useful – the key point of this post is that using a factory as an analogy for software development can be useful in the ways described. We need to remember that an analogy is only saying that elements of software development and operation are like a factory – and we need to be careful that we do not equate building software with assembling items on a factory production line – especially if we then try to apply factory production metrics to software development.

Splitting, Refraction and Facets

 

Chatting with Steve and Tobbe – we were discussing refraction – light going into a prism and then splitting into a lovely rainbow. It is useful to slightly separate things and it can help us to clarify terminology.

A good example is the term Product Management – I was asked for a definition – so my first place of reference was ‘Escaping the Build Trap’ by Melissa Perri – with an excellent description of the role of a good product manager. This helped a lot – and when I looked into the situation a bit more, I realised that there was more to it. In conversations, not only did we start mixing together the terms Product Manager and Product Owner, but there was something else that was more than the role.

The landing point was to split it out into a few different facets; Profession, Role, Skills and Process – there could be other facets – these were the helpful ones for the recent conversations.

The Profession of Product Management grew from marketing and brand management and has evolved as organisations place more focus on Customer experience and the technology supporting that experience. In some places your career could take you through a range of product management roles all the way up to CPO – Chief Product Officer.

The Role of a Product Manager is to be able to articulate the ‘why’ of a product or feature so that the various teams can build the ‘what’. There is a lot more to it than this – but this is also where it is useful to split out the role from the skills and process facets.

The skills of Product Management need to be performed by many roles. There is the skill of stakeholder engagement to understand needs, goals and drivers. Being good at this skill means that the skill of prioritisation gets a bit easier. Then there are other skills such as data-driven decision making – all of us could use some of these skills in our work activities and we certainly should develop enough of these to be able to understand the outcomes we are aiming for (not just getting the bit of work done).

Product Management in Processes was a bit of a surprise when I noticed it. If we think about large organisations that allocate a certain percentage of time to innovation, this is an example of it. The organisation has prioritised innovation – allocated effort (which is time and therefore budget) with the outcome being to identify and develop new opportunities. The decision about the amount of time to dedicate and the level of priority is a product management decision that has been adopted as part of the regular planning and scheduling process. I’m certain that there are other aspects of product management that we could embed into processes and I will be looking for them.

I have previously blogged about the gradients of misinterpretation – those are still there, in this example there are gradients between one ‘end’ of the definition of Product Management and the other ‘end’. The point of this post is that is can be useful to put a definition through a ‘prism’ and split out some of its aspects or facets into discreet chunks.

“Need to Know Framework” derived from the PRISM

Trying to work out what you need to know and which information is most relevant at a particular time is like trying to hit a moving target. Not impossible but many factors play a role in the result. We all know that things change, yet we can fortify ourselves by becoming aware of which factors can impact us either directly or indirectly. Even factors out of our control can be planned for and risks mitigated.

The idea of a “Need to Know Framework” is actually an acknowledgement of how things used to be. The traditionally small groups of people working and existing together, organically gave rise to a sharing of information and knowledge, each person knew what the other person was doing and a network of awareness of the whole developed naturally. In the modern workplace the scale actually prevents the easy flow of information between indirectly but still connected groups. The recent ideas of tribes, regularly scheduled meeting and intranets etc. all are modern devices to try and replace the paradox of increasing isolation in larger groups.

So the only way forward is to begin at the level of the individual and instil a sense of “the Whole”. It is only when we appreciate the perspectives and requirements of others in the group that the greater good of “the Whole” moves forward. Some of the greatest advances in human history have only occurred when a discipline is examined from another perspective.

The need to understand the interconnections and dependancies that impact our tasks, is crucial to the understanding of the environment or “ecosystem” that our body of work will exist in over time.

It is essential for us to examine and determine which information and facts we will require. The resulting maturity that will develop, if we attain this perspective will be essential in helping us to reach our goals. The byproduct of striving to this end will be an increase in “Transparency” and a Need to Know Framework where each piece of information, can easily be prioritised into impact and according to our specific needs.

So how do can we get to this point?

Well it is only when we realise that just focusing on the immediate and specific task at hand, although seemingly efficient is actually detrimental to the ultimate whole. When any one thing is focused upon solely the result is always that the whole suffers. This does not mean that concentration on a particular task is bad but that any task no matter how small must and should be considered as part of a larger system. It doesn’t matter if your API is perfection, well coded, efficient and a masterpiece if it can not interact with its larger ecosystem.

So how do you generate a Need to Know Framework” ?

The inspiration for this comes from newtonian physics, in particular Refraction of light through a Prism.

Using the PRISM we can utilise the colours as indicators of the Importance, Directness and Impact of Information.

Centrally at Level 1 (RED) would be the direct and immediate information required for you to do the task, and the task only with little or no appreciation of where your task fits into the larger landscape. This is the equivalent of just in time management.

Next at Level 2 (ORANGE) is the knowledge required to perform your task and deliver it.

Level 3 (YELLOW) is information which helps you locate and position the task at hand, within a slightly broader framework. Such as knowing how it will impact and interact with its immediate neighbours or dependences.

Level 4 (GREEN) is information which is not usually considered required but when obtained frames and allows the project or task to comfortably sit within the broader landscape. This type of information aids in allowing you to grasp the interconnection between your task or project and those not directly involved, the first cousins to your work.

Level 5 (BLUE)  this level of information frames you task or project in the broader environment, with awareness of interconnection and nuance between the up stream and down stream relationships.

Level 6 (INDIGO) this level like the colour is between BLUE and VIOLET, the interconnection and interdependencies of all the tasks and projects, yours included and the information required to distill the over arching “5 Year Plan” or Vision..

Level 7 (VIOLET) this is the highest level of separation from your work, and as such is not often seen as essential or even required. Yet, it is the guidance under which all your tasks and projects have been organised to function within. This is the “5 Year Plan” or Vision developed from the Level 6 (INDIGO) information when evaluated and seen in the light of the company in the Global Economic and Social Ecosystems.

TRANSPARENCY; the Emperors New Clothes and You can’t handle the Truth

The very term Transparency as used in the modern world of Management and IT is at best ridiculous and at worst dangerous and an unsettling endeavour.

Harsh words but think about it; few of us could actually deal with knowing every detail about everyone or everything. The human animal has not evolved to store and process billions of bits of data and analyse them without bias or errors. The terms “Option Paralysis” or “Information Overload” spring to mind.

Despite our modern life styles, which are information saturated, we actually only skim or glance over the actual information by taking other people’s narratives as easily digestible chunks. The fact that, very few of us even try to understand the complexities of our own environment natural or man made, socially and biologically is testament to millions of years of evolution which has resulted in our ability to filter and categorise.

This same ability to group similarities and make inferences from them is the very same reason we find the simple task of analysing data, without bias very difficult.

We often extrapolate from only a few data points and behave as if the presented data is “True” because it supports our previously held beliefs. We even find the weight of truth behind an unsubstantiated and sample of one (statistically irrelevant) as highly engaging and important :-Anecdotes.

So is it any wonder why, as a general rule we find true Transparency difficult. We actually don’t want transparency; like the Emperor, once he realised he was naked, we feel exposed; naked for all to mock and find fault. So is it really Transparency that we crave or is it actually the ability to access the information that we need or may need to complete our tasks well and in a timely manner, without any foreseeable obstacles or errors.

So instead of Transparency we actually require a “Need to Know Framework” that would allow us to recognise and highlight important information in concentric layers of Impact and Importance from you the Epicentre. This framework would be derived from the PRISM – a topic for another blog.

How much Transparency?

The picture is an analogy about transparency – I want to see the person step out from behind the pillar – but I really do not want to see into them (their skeleton – or even worse, through their clothing). I’m also quite confident that other people do not want to expose such an extreme level of transparency.

So what is the ‘right’ level of transparency and why to we seek it?

I’m sitting in my lounge room and I can see out the window – it is a frictionless way for me to observe the front yard (through the transparent glass). If there was no window, I would need to go out the front door and walk around the corner to see the front yard – it requires effort and I would need to justify doing it.

At the risk of abusing the window analogy, perhaps what we mean by being transparent about things in the workplace is that we reduce the effort to find out and we also eliminate the need to justify why we want to know. It can be very useful and pleasant to observe things – we can feel happy seeing that the environment is as it should be – and we can take action when things are not ‘right’. If my cat starts to growl looking out the window – there is probably another cat in the front yard and I can choose to chase it away or not. If neither of us could see it (due to the lack of a transparent window in the wall), we would never have known the other cat was there and we would have lost the choice to act.

We need to be careful about where we seek transparency – I do not want my whole house to be made out of glass – and we have curtains over windows when we want privacy.

In the workplace, it would be great if we could see everything without any effort and justification – but it can feel very threatening. When we feel threatened, we want to protect ourselves – so reducing effort in one way (frictionless observation – transparency) can increase effort in another way (trying to close the curtains or cover up our skeletons).

Be careful what level of transparency we ask for – it can be a good thing, and just like other good things (such as water and oxygen), too much of it can cause damage.

What the Culture? Chicken or the Egg

Since the late 90’s and over the last decades we have been bombarded with buzz words, “hipster” ways of working and living etc. Our workplaces have undergone numerous changes in both managerial and social spheres, all under the banner of increased efficiency and improving the work environment. Yet regardless of what the goal is we often hear the term “Culture”.

So what is culture?

Culture is a pivotal concept in anthropology, which includes a range of phenomena that are transmitted through human societies by social learning.

Evident in the social behaviour and norms of human societies, culture is “the way of life” for groups of people which has been passed down through generations, often tightly linked and specific to the groups environment, history and even genetics (sickle cell anaemia). Their shared ideas, customs, procedures and their shared world view or perceptions.

In our modern lives, the most invasive and under-defined term used would have to be culture.

So why is this a problem?

The issue is that when most people use the term culture, they seem to regard it as a lever to effect change. The idea you can simply, enact new procedures and change the “Culture” of a company is flawed at best and potentially dangerous.

So why and how do people truly change?

Like evolution, Culture is the product of a change based in advantage. The better suited a species is to its environment, the more likely it will have an evolutionary advantage. Similarly Culture is gradually developed and evolved over time with the underlying driving force being an advantage, better social cohesion, support, robustness etc.

So if you wish to enable true and lasting changes such as “Culture” there must be a definite advantage. In the workplace this could be more pay, job security, better and clearly defined processes and therefore roles, better management and a greater sense of self worth in the companies landscape both socially and economically.

The idea that “culture” can be changed from the top down is doomed to failure because if the advantages of the changes are not obvious, why would anyone adopt them.

“What’s in it for me,” is the driving force behind all change, even Altruism. Without an advantage why would anyone change the way they do anything.

Culture is not a lever or process but the goal to attain an improvement and lasting change for the better which is reflected in the mechanisms we perform.

Culture can be a Vexing Word

This post has been inspired by a conversation about culture with Tobbe and Steve.

I was pondering why I have trouble with the word ‘Culture’ and it’s related to the ways we misinterpret words and misuse them to influence people.
So I tweeted a thread earlier this week which captures some of the problems

Culture can be a vexing word

In this context ‘vexing’ means causing annoyance, frustration or worry (from the google dictionary)

The word ‘Culture’ is annoying when used as a convenient excuse For example ‘the culture is not right here’ or ‘we need to change the culture’

The word ‘Culture’ is frustrating when we try to define it
‘We need to change the culture’
…..’What do you mean by culture?’
‘You know – how we do things around here’
…..’What things?’
‘How we communicate, interact, collaborate…’
……..

…..’What is collaboration?’

And the word ‘Culture’ is worrying because it can lead to rabbit holes, wild goose chases and cans of worms It’s far too easy to focus on activities attempting to change the culture directly (and these are very hard to measure – see previous tweet about definition)

It’s very easy to vent about an issue and a lot trickier to propose ways to address these issues.
The simplest first idea is to stop spending large amounts of time trying to define culture – sometimes it’s like…discussion about culture eats everything else…(with apologies to Drucker – although according to Quote Investigator the quote might not be directly from Drucker).

The next simple idea is to catch ourselves when we think ‘the culture needs to change….’ or similar and apply something like the 5 Whys to it.

  • Why do we think the culture needs to change? – Because people keep doing the same things and won’t try new ideas
  • Which same thing are we concerned about and why? – The funding process
  • Why is the funding process a problem? – Because we have to fill out timesheets
  • Why do we fill out timesheets? – So that we can be paid
  • Are there any other reasons why we need to fill in timesheets? – I don’t know
  • Who might know? – HR, Finance, Managers
  • Why is filling in timesheets a problem? – Because the codes are confusing and it takes around 15 mins a week when I could be doing more valuable work

We can see that the list of whys and who might know is getting very long and there are a lot of interesting and branching threads to explore. The timesheet one can be fairly simple to follow and it often ultimately relates to how an organisation does its accounts as well as allowing us to get paid properly. Accounting standards are fairly universal and are not going to change very quickly – so we are much better off educating ourselves about the need of the organisation to meet taxation, corporate governance, audit etc. requirements and finding more effective ways to achieve these as well as communicating this need with our colleagues.

We might find that a very measurable thing (that an organisation is a going concern in accounting speak) can have a dramatic impact on culture when we focus on flowing our work around that need.

Agile Governance

Or…How it is Difficult to Understand a Thing if you don’t Already Know the Key Thing

Governance is a word that throws me off – wondering what it really means.

It’s supposed to mean having clarified roles, accountability and responsibilities.
It means understanding how decisions get made and who makes them.
It means making sure that policies are in place and that processes are monitored to ensure that they are working as intended.

It’s tricky to explain governance in agile when people don’t already have a good grasp of governance in traditional organisational constructs.

It’s similar to when I was a new video editor and our organisation bought a fancy piece of equipment called an ADO – Ampex Digital Optics (It flew a small picture around the screen and cost over $100k AUD in the 1980’s/90’s…now you can do the same thing with free software).
We did not purchase the training reference materials and only had the operating manual – which kept stating to do this, that, or the other with a thing called a ‘keyframe’.
I had no idea what this keyframe thing was – and the glossary was not helpful – so I stressed and tried a few things – and eventually called another video editor who was more experienced and asked him.
He explained that in any movement from point A to point B, the key frames would be the start and end point (so you basically put the small picture into the spot you wanted it to start at and press the ‘keyframe’ button and then move it to point B and hit ‘keyframe’ again – then the small picture would move from point A to point B whenever the effect was run).


Once I understood what a keyframe actually was, the whole machine was unlocked and I could use all of the features – but until I understood it, I could not even start to use this very expensive machine.

Back to governance and agile – when we understand how decisions get made – it’s quite easy to translate roles such as Product Owner into an organisation – the same decisions are being made – we are packaging them in a different way in agile teams.

When governance is not well understood, we end up circling around definitions for Product Owner etc – we are already causing confusion by introducing a completely different way of working. And on top of that, we need to break apart the decisions, accountabilities and responsibilities and place them into the daily planning, checking and doing aspects of agile delivery.

A way forward is to spend some time ensuring that the governance principles are better understood for the pre-agile ways of working and only after that, attempt to translate into the agile context. It feels like taking a step backwards – and it is much better than going around in circles and talking at cross-purposes.

If governance was never really there in the first place – this is one reason for the impression that governance is absent in agile.