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.

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.

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

www.StateOfAgile.com

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).

 

OFFICE SPACE AND SEATING ARRANGEMENTS HAS IT GONE FULL CIRCLE.

Nowadays most of us spend most of our lives in an office type environment.

The idea of an effective work environment has always been present and yet often rarely discussed or analysed by most of us, myself included. I just know what I like and often modify my surroundings to make the best from a less than ideal situation.

The old school office/cubicles strategy, was rooted in hierarchy and even class structure. The “us and them” school of though between “management” and “labour”, yet it did allow for personal and private spaces which meant an inherent feeling of safety and ownership.

The open plan strategy, has its ideology based in the “we are a team” and “we are all the same” mindset. These ideas have issues in a work place; the bigger the team the more difficult to find harmony and we are not all the same. The funniest thing about the open plan office space is that a major reason for its popularity is not to develop an effective work environment but that its cheaper per headcount by easily fit more staff into smaller spaces and also that you can see everyone, giving the illusion of control.

The simple fact is that we often ignore or actively block out our environment be it work or otherwise. Details of our environment and how they effect our mental state, often go unnoticed and therefore are allowed to impact us without being monitored or adjusted.

How many of us remember the office spaces of our past and television sitcoms, cubicles, isolated offices and founded in the “us and them mentality”. Nowadays, we have the antithesis, being touted as the best option, the open plan, no partitions idea of office space. The driving force behind each extreme model, is only partly based in trying to allow for effective work.

The irony is that, as humans we need interactions with others and also our private space. Much like marine fish in a fish tank, I’ll get back to this later.

The traditional office space of the decades past, was one of higher management nested in largish offices around a space of partitioned cubicles. This lay out although not great had it’s merits. The physical barriers allowed the occupants to have a sense of private space and belonging. The ocean of cubicles provided a pocketed approach to office space, reminiscent of battery hens. Each isolated and working to produce, under the watchful eye of the farmer/manager.

As time and ideas changed the partitions got smaller in height and less common, the offices reduced in number and common areas began to spring up. The idea of this was to remove the barriers physically and hopefully mentally from the work space to allow for communication and a sense of community and partnership, to hopefully evolve.

The interesting fact is that different cultures behave differently but people tend to require the same things.

Ironically as the physical barriers, like walls and partitions, have been reduced or completely removed others have been erected to fill a need. The partitions have gone but the need for private spaces has meant that isolationist devices have become common place. The modern office space is open plan and headset isolated. The human need for self-space has replaced the partitioned cubicles with the modern cultural equivalent of isolation tanks.

The supposedly open office to encourage freedom and so we can have a sense of community and belonging has gone full circle to the isolationist mentality of boxes.
The mental isolation in the modern open plan work space is, far more detrimental than the cubicles of old and more difficult to see.

Personally I felt happier in cubicles, with lowish partitions and one glass partition so natural light could be allowed further into the room. The partitions were set out in blocks of four or six and sometimes even eight, allowing for team groupings and interactions.

The partition walls were low enough to see over, when you were standing but high enough to utilise them as extra work surfaces for charts and the tracking of work in progress. The sense of privacy was there and you also had a sense of belonging. You could hear others if you wished to focus or easily ignore the office murmurs.

If you have ever kept a marine aquarium or any fish tank for that matter there is a paradox which occurs when stocking your aquarium.
“The more hiding places there are the more you see your fish and the less stressed they are.”
In a marine environment fish are constantly on the look out for predators and prey alike, always aware and highly observant. The fish in a tank are no different, being exposed is stressful and a bad thing. A stark and barren environment, is a terrifying place and that is why fish kept in these conditions are rarely seen and often found cowering in what few corners or hiding spots there are. An aquarium with lots of hiding spots and ample swim throughs will make the inhabitants feel safe since they can always dart into a secluded spot, when danger is felt.

Maybe we should bare this in mind when designing work spaces.

A final thought is that traditionally homes are designed with common areas, lounge and living rooms, common rooms for eating and cooking and most importantly private zones the bedrooms.

 

 

 

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.

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.