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.

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.

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.

Agile is like using a Chef’s Knife…

Agile has been described as a change in mindset, which is a tricky concept to explain and even trickier to do.

What if agile is additive instead?

Here’s an analogy.

If we only had a butter knife in our kitchen, there would be some tasks that we can do very well, such as spread butter and jam on bread. Imagine if we wanted to chop up tomatoes. The tomatoes would be in very big chunks and it would be very messy with a lot of waste.

Then we discover the chef’s knife and learn how to use it. Now we can chop tomatoes (and other things) with a lot more precision and much less waste.

We do not get rid of our butter knife though (I imagine that trying to spread butter on soft bread with a chef’s knife will result in a very torn and unpalatable result).

Now we can do many more tasks in the kitchen, using the tool that is best suited for the job and the main changes we have made is to purchase the chef’s knife and learn how to use it properly – which is a case of ‘both/and’ not ‘instead of’.

The 12th State of Agile report from VersionOne has just been released, below is some data from the 11th (2017) report about the challenges experienced adopting and scaling agile.

Source: VersionOne 11th annual State of Agile report


Back to our chef’s knife analogy – it would be unwise of us to purchase one and start waving it around – they can be quite hefty and very sharp things. If used inappropriately, they can be very dangerous. We need to start slowly and learn how to use it until our muscle memory kicks in and then we can go a bit faster.

It’s the same with learning new ways of working – we need to know when it’s appropriate to use them and be careful that we don’t cause unintended damage as we build our ‘muscle memory’ and get used to the new practices, principles and techniques.

It’s interesting in the state of agile report data above that 2 factors appear that we can address in fairly obvious ways with training, coaching and deliberate practice.

  • Lack of experience with agile methods (47%)
  • Insufficient training (34%)

The remaining 10 factors have a lot more complexity and uncertainty to them and will be much trickier to influence.

If we stop thinking of agile as a change in mindset and see it instead as learning a new set of tools, perhaps that would help us to focus on the 2 factors above and reduce the impact of the other 10 at the same time.

It’s nice to get new things – and even nicer when we can still find uses for those items we have grown to love (like a favourite butter knife).


Effective Efficiency

Efficiency is not a good goal, effectiveness is a better goal.

What do we mean by being efficient? In simple terms it means doing a good job, a job that has the intended outcome with the minimal amount of effort. At an organisational level this is usually interpreted as saving costs and that can lead to what I would call some ‘cheap and nasty’ outcomes.

So we have started to rebel against the cost-cutting aspects of efficiency and are now very focused on effective outcomes…almost to the point that using the word ‘efficient’ is not really acceptable.

We can be both effective and efficient, and we should be. It’s a good idea to monitor for opportunities to reduce waste, while being selective about which types of waste make sense to keep or reduce.

The one place that it makes sense to be less efficient is when we are tackling complexity. This requires a probing, exploratory approach which can actually be more effective when it is not super-efficient…because we are looking for things which we are uncertain about.

The thing that holds the thing that the Stakeholders were holding

So we all know about stakeholders…those people that care about what we are doing and should have a say in what happens.

Are there also people that care about the thing that the stakeholders care about that we would not call stakeholders?

What does the ‘stake’ mean when we refer to the stakeholder? According to Wikipedia, the term originally referred to the person who temporarily held the stakes from a wager until the outcome was determined. Business has since co-opted the term to mean people interested or impacted by the outcome of a project.

Tobbe and I were having burgers for lunch today…they were so tall that they had skewers in them to keep them together. So the chef held the skewer (stake) and we held the skewer when we ate the lunch, but the person serving us never touched the skewer…just the plate that supported the burger with the skewer in it.

That got us thinking about what supports the interests of the stakeholders, and yet, is not a stakeholder of a project or outcome?

It may be what we call governance. The scaffolding in an organisation that ensures that business interests are looked after…ensuring that our burgers arrive safely and without toppling over onto the floor.

ITSM and Cynefin – Lightning Blog

I attended the itSMF 20th Anniversary Conference in Melbourne this week and it was great to see the emphasis from many speakers about automation and using DevOps principles.

The Cynefin Framework is subjective and I was thinking about where many of us see the service management framework and ITIL on it. It is easy to imagine incident management in the chaotic domain and standard change management processes in the obvious domain (highly repeatable and therefore great candidates for automation).

So it was interesting to see the keynote from Lindsay Holmwood titled ‘Mixing Oil and Water: DevOps in an ITSM World’ where Lindsay busted the myth that DevOps and ITSM don’t mix. ITIL and the service management framework are great tools to identify the candidates for automation and for where to ‘build in’ governance to our continuous deployment pipelines.

If we want to get into the market with safe and small changes that take into account operability, security, regulatory requirements, and resilience, we really need to partner with our service management colleagues.

Assumption Pillows – Lightning Blog

Expanding the thoughts behind a recent tweet of mine.

‘Pondering….less obvious reasons…generate ‘pillows’ of assumptions…and are ineffective cushions against the sharp rocks of risk below’

Assumptions are like pillows – they are very comfortable and we are not aware of them for much of the time. The trouble is that our assumptions and the assumptions of other people that we are working with are likely to be different. When we don’t inspect our assumptions, we can overlook risks – so that is why our assumptions are like pillows.

It can feel like a waste of effort to inspect our assumptions – there are ways of working them into a workshop facilitation plan – that’s the easiest one to address.

Another way is to be aware of the feeling that something is not quite right in a conversation. Once I was negotiating a contract and almost starting to argue with the other party about a particular point – both of us thought that the other one was being a bit unreasonable. After a short break, we took a moment to clarify what we were discussing and it turned out that we both agreed the point, but had been discussing quite different things before the short break.

The main risk that assumptions cause in projects is delay. If we find ways to highlight assumptions earlier we can save wasted effort in circular discussions, rework or duplication.

It’s better to see the sharp rocks of risk than to cover them with assumption pillows.

Agile Australia 2017

Melissa Perri at Agile Australia 2017

It’s been two weeks since the Agile Australia 2017 conference in Sydney, it was great to see so many people there and the quality of speakers was very high. Here are a few snippets from the conference.

Melissa Perri spoke about ‘The Build Trap’ and how it is easy to get very good at writing specifications and stories, which is the ‘build trap’. There is more value in understanding the true needs of the Customers and building to those needs. Melissa also had a great way to explain the difference between Product Manager and Product Owner ‘Product Owner is a role you play on a Scrum team. Product Manager is the job’

Sami Honkonen showed us how the Cynefin Framework is one of the building blocks of a Responsive Organisation – it helps us understand why Agile works in a complex adaptive system. Sami also talked about how structure drives behaviour and that it’s not the individuals, but the structure that they are in. I have also found the concept from Sami about designing very small experiments (ones that can be done in minutes) very useful.

Chris Chan at Agile Australia Lightning Talks – ‘Pirate Metrics’

The lightning talks were little nuggets of knowledge and very well attended. The picture above is from the ‘Pirate Metrics’ talk by Chris Chan – his way of explaining AARRR using examples of Pirates going into a bar is engaging. For example – Referrals – one Pirate saying to another ‘Arrr – you should try out this bar, it’s good’

The Deep Dive sessions with the keynote speakers were a bonus – Agile Australia has started doing this in the last couple of years. These give us the opportunity to learn more from the speakers, especially when they cover such interesting and useful items in their keynotes, that leaves us wanting more details.