Unintended or invisible consequences

Have you ever tried to do a nice thing that went completely pear shaped ? 

Have you ever said something that was taken out of context ?

These are the unforeseen consequences, that surround us every day of our lives. The basic fact is that every interaction is open to misinterpretation. Sounds absurd but I propose it’s painfully true. The fact no one can read your mind or understand precisely what you mean is founded in the variety of life experiences we all have. We all have a “mental rule book” that we inherit/adapt/devise as we live our lives, moulded by our experiences and more importantly, our interpretation and responses to them.

Management and the unintended and invisible consequences

We are a modern culture of goal driven and result focused beings, rushing towards completion. The result is that there is entry level and management and the erosion of the middle.

The loss of the middle
The rush to completion culture, that is modern life, results in an erosion of the middle. Think about it, there is a devaluing and almost loss reflected by the middle layers of our work place and lives. This doesn’t mean that the middle layers don’t exist anymore because they do and if anything there are more of them. What has happened is the middle has expanded all while an erosion of its substance/quality has occurred. The middle has become a waiting room with no intrinsic value, just a place on the way to somewhere else. We are all trying to be/get somewhere else and therefore are focused forward and not in the present. It’s like people who are so busy, thinking of the next thing say, that they actually aren’t listening. They are actually, just frantically scanning /searching for the next sound bite to hang their comments upon. This type of hollowness is symptomatic of the erosion of the middle. This layer has become what I call “fluff” taking up a lot of room but with no real substance. The term busy work, tends to be made for this middle layer. So why has this happened?

Apprentice easy to learn hard to master

I remember buying a backgammon set when I was very young which had an instruction booklet with it. The instructions/rules were rather simple but it ended with this statement “easy to learn but hard to master” this line always resonated with me because I was a moratore’s son and knew that most things are easy to learn but really hard to master. The mastery of a skilled task takes time, time to encounter all possibilities and time to develop responses and reactions to them.

How many of us have learnt things, passed the exams and only years later, does the penny, actualy drop? Only then do we see for the first time what the concepts heart or the true nature of the knowledge was. Maths is littered with these sort of realisations, trigonometry is one.

Trig Wiki
I remember being told by a professor at university, when I was demonstrating and discussing with him how we learn and teach. He replied you only really learn something when you have to teach it, when you first learn anything, it is really just a getting to know you exercise, like a first date. This introduction allows you to pass an examine but really only superficially introduces you to the concepts involved. This initial exposure familiarises you with specific terms and basic concepts, so when you actually need to know and teach that lesson you can find the solution more easily and make it part of you.

The act of learning is greatly enhanced by teaching, why? The answer is simplicity itself. Everyone sees and exists in the world differently, these differences mean that when you learn something and try to understand it, you frame it in familiar and logical steps, for you anyway. When others try to learn and understand the same lesson they will also try to make sense of it according to their life view and understandings. So it’s obvious that when teaching you will find a continuum of how others perceive and try to understand the lesson. Some will think very much like yourself, others slightly differently and still others will need vastly different points of reference to come to terms with and understand the lesson. Good teachers must and can rephrase and explain things in a variety of ways, this necessity is what makes teaching the best way to learn because it stretches us to examine what we “know” from other perspectives and points of view.

The unforeseen consequence of teaching is you learn much more completely. This takes time and understanding.

So why do we rush to “completion” ?
Our modern culture is densely populated with 5 year plans, strategies, expectations, milestones and the list goes on and on. Every minute of every day in our lives is under constant scrutiny both internally and externally. We must develop and attain certain milestones within culturally expected time frames or we seem to be ineffectual or below the curve.

There is no room or time for mastery, we learn and we move on. The modern view is that “the now” is only a stepping stone to a future goal. The worth of the journey seems lost to us and only the allure of promotion and success is our goal. We have become tradesmen, with no patience or will to develop into master craftsmen. Society accepts the passable, to feed instant gratification and speed. The respect and value of craftsmanship and quality has become subservient to efficiency and greed. The attention span of the modern world is framed by sound bites and popularity poles.

Bread and Circus rule the day, with distractions and being seen as cutting edge, objectives in themselves.

Think about your workplace, how many times do we heard “they’ve been in that dead end job for years”, “they have no ambition” these statements maybe true but only partially so. The fact maybe that the worker derives get pleasure and satisfaction in developing their skills beyond acceptable and into the realm of mastery. Yet we don’t acknowledge this, we only see the same person in the same role, and evaluate this as “what is wrong with them?”

The absolute irony I noted while I was working IT, no matter how expert and skilled the programers were they were never “appreciated” as much as management. In fact it was sad to watch true masters of coding, having to become management so they could earn more money and get some appreciation. The actual engine which kept the company in business was devalued because they were content applying their craft. The ironic topper to this observation, was that graduates who had studied coding, just used coding to get a foot into a company, so they could quickly move into the management streams. Does the saying “too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”, spring to mind.

Words of wisdom from my father an old muratore “It takes hardly any extra effort to do a good job than a bad one.” This is very true, when you actually think about it, how much time, effort and money has been flushed down the toilet by bad projects with little or nothing to show for it?

The unforeseen consequence of our modern society is we rush to our goals and loose sight of the reasons and real benefits why we started in the first place.

There seems to be a disconnect between the limbs and the governing body, the brain. The “new talent” needs mentors to help and aid learning of best practises, while the “wiser” and older ones need the vitality of youth to physically accomplish the task and encourage new exploration into possibilities.

Companies are run like the military, chain of command, need to know and follow orders. They should be run as a biological system or organism, where there are feedback systems with more than one way to elicit change, the nervous system for rapid responses (management) and the endocrine system for slower invasive moderation (cultural).

Natural Flow

I’m a morning person – I like to get my chores out of the way first so that I have more options later in the day. There are others who are night owls, their flow is to stay up later and get things done and then sleep in a little later the next day. These patterns are an example of our natural flow.

Natural Flow SketchFor example, I am writing this post on a Sunday morning because it is the first time this week that I have had the energy and time to do it (after work during the week is harder for me).

How does this impact us at work? When working with other people, how often do we stop to ask them about their preferred ways of working. It might be terrible of me to schedule a 7:30am meeting with someone who was a night-owl – but highly effective if that other person was like me and was able to start early. On the other side, how often would we speak up and say that we don’t do our best focused work after 5pm?

We have natural flows and rhythms of working in many other ways

  • Our conversation habits – the gaps we leave between when we start speaking and others have finished (these are also influenced by our geographic culture)

  • The ways that we perform repeatable tasks (such as filling in time sheets, drafting emails, transport between and to/from offices)

  • Ceremonies such as how we start meetings, where we sit/stand how we make tea or coffee

  • Engagement flows – how we greet people and get started with conversations and work items

We are subconsciously observing a lot of these flows whenever we interact with others, but there is a risk that we are misinterpreting our observations. I have also not given my own natural flows much thought aside from the morning person observation already mentioned. I am about to start working on a few small projects with some colleagues and will try having a conversation about preferred working styles in the next month – a good future topic for this blog.

“Biological flow” and the implications upon work-flow and enjoyment.

The concept of biorhythms is an ancient one founded upon the observations of the seasons, tides and even life itself. The validity of biorhythms is debatable, yet we all have fun reading our horoscopes which are based upon astrology and biorhythms.

The word biorhythm is a composite of the two Greek words, bios and rhythmos, which mean life and a constant or periodic beat. The theory of biorhythms defines and measures three basic and important life cycles in humans: the physical, emotional, and intellectual.

The key thing here I wish to expand upon is the idea of cycles and rhythms. The idea that we all have a natural rhythm and cycle is the basis of the idea of biological flow.

Biological flow is defined here as the natural flow that exists in every individual. The basic premise of biological flow can be seen in the length of your stride when walking or running, this is the result of many factors unique to you and as such is natural to you. Now consider you have to walk using a taller persons stride. The distance covered by each stride would be larger and feel awkward to you, so much so, you may actually stumble and fall. The basic fact is that the longer stride of a tall person is not suited to your biological parameters such as length of leg, muscle mass etc. Now the same would be true if a tall person was forced to walk or run using the stride length of a shorter person, the end result would be unease and a lack of comfort and even failure such as stumbling or falling. This is easily observed when a child is trying to match the stride of their parent, they often loose step and run to catch up.

Now I propose that we all have a natural metre and rhythm when performing any task. When singing, the number of words a vocalist can sing is determined by factors such as lung capacity, the way they usually phrase their words when speaking, if they are a smoker etc. Now most of us have tried to sing along and at some time have just run out of breath in the process. This is partly due to technique, not taking a big enough breath at the right time but it is also due to our natural and unique biological flow, shaped by our lung capacity, phrasing etc.

The concept of biological flow owes its framework to musical theory in particular musical metre and musical rhythm.

When we look at musical theory, musical metre and musical rhythm often become confused and meld into one. The actual fact is that music is all about beats, timing and sound patterns. A metre is a regular pattern of beats indicated by a time signature. A rhythm is the way different lengths of sound are combined to produce patterns in time.

The following terms are used to describe and preform music :

  • pulse

  • simple and compound time

  • regular, irregular and free rhythms

  • augmentation, diminution, hemiola, cross-rhythm

  • dotted rhythms, triplets, syncopation

  • tempo, rubato

  • polyrhythm, bi-rhythm

  • drum fill

The field of musical theory is vast and out of scope for this discussion, yet the same idea for biological metre and biological rhythm can be observed. We all have a natural and unique biological metre, the speed at which we walk, run, perform tasks etc.; we also have a tendency to have a set pattern of doing things, the rhythm to which we tend to perform tasks for example. There is even a set metre, the time signature per se, of when we naturally perform these patterns of work and life. Some of us work at a steady pace, others are more like sprinters, while others still are marathon runners and on top of this there is the metre of when our energies are expelled. The same could be said for the way we go about performing our daily tasks and even lives. This methodology or rhythm that we gravitate to, often is the reason why we find some people hard to work with and others easier to collaborate with. There is no one answer because we all process and respond differently to the stimuli of work and life but what is clear upon reflection is that the way we are wired definitely impacts our work-flow and enjoyment of work/life.

Our natural biological flow when performing tasks is also affected by where we are in the day; Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Do you need a coffee in the morning before you start?

Do you become so absorbed and consumed by a task you loose track of time?

Do you like to jump in and try things?

Do you like to have tasks defined and quantified?

Are the others you work with wired similarly?

So next time you’re working with others try to keep biological flows in mind, and accept the fact that these different work flows require awareness, understanding and communication and only then will we feel and attain collaboration rather than WORK.

The nirvana of collaboration can be obtained from the oppression of work when aware of the biological flows involved.

Business Serendipity

Innovation is the current silver bullet to fix flagging businesses and help grow new ones – it’s leading to a lot of interest in ideas like Design Thinking.

Design Thinking starts with observing Customers and identifying their needs – rather than asking Customers what they want (or how they respond to key marketing phrases). Doing this well involves lots of research, taking copious notes and then combining these notes in many different ways to gain insights. It is from these insights that ideas such as the pedestals for front-load washing machines came about at Whirlpool – the video is a great one to watch to see Design Thinking principles in action.

Done well, the research generates hundreds or thousands of notes – these might be stuck on a long wall and grouped together. It is key that different people do the groupings and that individuals walk away from the material for a while and then come back to it later. By doing this, the material is viewed in many different ways and the chances of finding novel ideas are increased.

How does this relate to serendipity in the workplace?

How many of us come into work at the same time each day, visit the same coffee place during our break and speak to the same people over lunch? With such regular habits, the chances of new ideas emerging are greatly reduced. It would be like one person taking all the observations from Customer research, classifying them and leaving it at that. The great ideas come from stepping away and then looking again with fresh eyes. Some of my favourite moments at work have occurred seemingly by chance – resulting in time saved for a project or a better way to design a solution.

The entire premise of serendipity is that it is unlooked for good fortune – so we really shouldn’t try and force it to happen. We can enable it to happen more often by changing our routine, mixing with different people and speaking about different topics with the people we normally work with.

Try something different today…it might lead to a new idea.

Not Perfect First Time

Not PerfectYou’ve spent the last 3 days putting together the deck for the workshop – speaking to the participants to get their input, collating, reviewing, updating and formatting.


So that we use the time in the workshop in the most efficient possible way.



A beautifully collated and presented deck is perfectly suited to use in a presentation – so we make the assumption that we should be creating one for a workshop as well.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that the purpose of a workshop is to do some work – to identify issues, solve problems and get creative. If we start the session with a presentation deck, the participants will immediately focus on the presented content and not move very far from it. We might get some suggestions to fix the spelling, grammar or re-word a sentence – the focus will be on polishing the deck – not generating new content.

It can be a lot more useful to start with a ‘template’ type of deck which reflects the outcomes desired from the workshop and fill it in as the workshop progresses.

Even a template can act as a framing or anchoring bias and restrict the range of thinking – so if we are after innovation, it can be a problem.

So don’t try to get things perfect first time – allow for inputs, ideas and refinement – these things take time. If we do not allow the time, we miss opportunities for innovation and the quality that comes from stepping away and revisiting/reworking a piece later on.

Reliance on Others

The agile concept of self-organising teams can be mistaken as allowing the people within a team to do whatever they want to do – because eventually they will self-organise into an effective group. If I was told to be part of a self-organising team, my first reaction might be a feeling of freedom.

I could do whatever I thought was the right thing, such as, come into work at 3am and leave around lunchtime or write all my documents in Latin (because that would be fun and precise – although I would need to seriously brush up on my high-school Latin – I can only remember ‘canis in mensa stat’).

I was trying to think of a list of things that I could do by myself and ran out of them very quickly – we rely on other people at work to get our jobs done. With the two (silly) examples above, my sense of freedom would place a burden on others – not many people would be happy to attend my 3am meetings and very few would be able to read my Latin documents.

Another misinterpretation of self-organising might be ‘without constraints’ – which sounds wonderful, and could end up with similar issues. Constraint can mean prevention or it can be a thing that helps to shape our thoughts and actions in useful ways.

Back to the concept of self-organising teams. Teams cannot work in complete isolation, even in a small company there are other people involved. Imagine running a sandwich shop. Our Customers are likely to buy sandwiches during lunchtime – so we have a constraint of peak sales likely between midday and 1:30pm. We can only afford a certain amount of counter space, staff and supplies – and each fresh sandwich takes a minimum time to prepare, wrap and conclude the sales transaction. We can think of the shop as having inputs of fresh sandwich ingredients and outputs of sandwiches to happy Customers. The way that the shop runs needs to consider the inputs and outputs and then come up with the best way to get flow happening.

Sandwich ShopNow we are very far away from the concept of freedom and without constraints – we are tied to the shop for the long hours of work to service Customers for 90 minutes a day (and a few sales before and after that if we are smart). And yet, many people think of freedom as running their own business – how can we resolve this seeming paradox?

Perhaps freedom comes from the serving of others and is enabled by our reliance on others and we need to consider this in our teamwork. An effective self-organising team cannot be a bunch of people doing random stuff and magically becoming organised. The group needs to consider the inputs to the team and the outputs expected from the team – as well as the inputs and outputs for all of the work within the team. By observing these inputs and outputs and the way the work flows, we can improve over time.

In the sandwich shop example, we can place the ingredients in consistent places and monitor them as they empty during the busy periods. We need to discuss our observations about the effectiveness of that layout and any processes for topping up the ingredients.

Only by working together to share observations and ideas for improvement will we see any changes.

There was a great lunch place near my office that changed hands a few years ago and changed from quick service into very slow service almost overnight. I persisted for a while, but it did not get any better and I always wondered why the old owners did a much better job and these ones were inefficient. Now that I am writing this post, I think that the people in the lunch place were too polite with each other and tried to share the work – there would be 3 people making my sandwich, when before there was only one – or 2 at the most if they were not busy. The new owners divided the work up so that one person would prepare the bread and another 2 prepare the other ingredients – but not like a production line and they would be working over each other and slowing each other down. I imagine that this would have been frustrating for them and perhaps they did not discuss these little frustrations and observations, so the opportunities for small improvements were missed. I stopped buying my lunch from that place and there is a completely different lunch place there now.

Perhaps it would be useful to rename the idea of self-organising teams because it causes a lot of confusion. I would like to see teams that practice continuous improvement aiming towards great flow and the creation of value. Teams that are observant of the flow of the work from start to delivery as well as within the team and considerate of the impacts to others within and outside of the team.

Considerate-Observant Teams – the freedom to create value… and recognition of our reliance on others in order to be free.

Customer Experience and IT Operations

IT Operations – the engine room of our organisations and seen as an unglamorous workplace area.

When we picture a software development lifecycle, we often picture it like this…

SDLC with textA business sponsor has an idea or identifies a Customer need, they ask the software development teams to build it and then it gets implemented into the production environment so that the business area can serve better experiences to our Customers.

In this picture, the operations teams are seen as being far away from the Customers and treated as a ‘back of house’ function.

But there is another way to look at this picture.

DevOps with textIn this one, the only way that our Customers can receive any value is from the operational (production) version of our systems. The operations teams are much closer to our Customers as it is their role to ensure that the production version of the systems are resilient and stable.

If we use this second way of looking at the software delivery process, the needs of our Customers are pulling the delivery of value into the operational environment. In order for that value to get there, the teams from operations, development and the business sponsor areas all need to work together. This goes to the heart of what DevOps means to me.

For those of you who have spent some time doing operational roles, the following will be obvious – for others, if you get a chance to spend some time in the operations department, please do – it will provide many insights.

I once worked with a team where the developers and the operations people were co-located and we changed our development processes to consider the impacts to the operations team right from the start of design. We called it Minimal Operation Intervention and below are some examples of this principle.

  • When we designed a batch process, instead of expecting the operations team to find out what was wrong and restart it manually, we would design in the ability for the batch process to detect common fault conditions and rollback/restart without operator intervention.
  • There can be a temptation to save money and time during development by making some processes manual – this goes directly against the principle of minimal operational intervention. In my view, if our operations team members spend most of their time in the operations room just monitoring our systems and nothing else – that is good design built in.
  • I’ve also heard of a case where development teams were doing the right thing by building alarms into their new features – but they never updated or retired pre-existing alarms. The operations team were left with a confusing array. We need to consider the experiences that we want our operators to have at the same time as we focus on the Customer experiences and value that we are delivering.

In summary, our operational/production environment is the only one that we can deliver value from – all other activities in the development process need to focus on making the production environment resilient and a seamless experience for our Customers, Users and Operators.

Thank you again to Torbjörn Gyllebring and Steve for the conversations inspiring this post – any quality or factual defects are all my own however.

Misconceptions and Insights about Collaboration

A Few Thoughts about Collaboration

The definition of collaboration in any given context is variable. It can be as simple as two people working on a task or as complicated as international diplomatic relations and anything in between.

Some people might think that collaboration means agreement, but some of the best outcomes have happened when people with very different views work together.

One of the problems with trying to solve problems is our inherent biases. We have only lived our own lives and therefore make decisions and contributions based on our experiences. It is easy to make assumptions without realising it, so when we are collaborating, it is important to check our assumptions with each other and make sure that what we are working on is an agreed view of the work.

Collaboration is not a static point but a dynamic interaction between the task at hand and the participants including their experiences and the interpretations they bring to the “table”.

A Couple of Misconceptions

1: Everyone is created equal

Almost everyone doesn’t like to hear this one but we are not created equally, if we were, it would be so boring, and we would all be the same carbon copies of each other, same job, same life and same house. Some of us find doing certain things easier than others, this does not mean they are better than someone else but have a predisposition towards that particular thing. This is actually the strength of any collaboration, we are not a monoculture or genetically engineered workers but individuals with different perspectives and abilities. This is the core of collaboration and teamwork.

2: Everyone must carry their own weight and do their share.

Collaboration/ Teamwork is rarely a balanced interaction (50/50 etc.) but most realistically an imbalanced one. The beginnings are like a “seed”, an idea of a purpose and/or direction, however the “seed” does not contain all the materials and experience to develop into the eventual “plant”. The contribution of the seed if measured by biological bulk is minute and of little significance; yet without the direction and/or purpose there is no “plant”.

Perhaps we should consider this when we think about the share of workload in teams and remember that a small effort that provides a large weight of outcome can be just as good as a large effort.

Sketch18219430When we discuss collaboration and teamwork we often begin to weigh the obvious, visible efforts that people are putting in and lose sight of the reality. Without the idea, thought and then the effort, the experience is a barren one. The ego and self often confuse and stifle the collaboration from becoming. We should check our Ego’s at the door and be open to ideas and possibilities regardless of where they may come from.

In summary – the differences in backgrounds, ideas and effort can undermine any team and result in very poor outcomes, however, it is these very same differences that can make any collaborative effort a great one and open opportunities for innovation, increased effectiveness and workplace enjoyment. How can we turn our thinking towards the positive outcomes from differences and ensure that we leverage these as much as possible?

  • Allow people to come up with their own contributions whenever possible and then share them – this will prevent premature convergence and make differing assumptions easier to detect.
  • When we feel that others are not pulling their weight, check that we are not just observing effort and instead look for contribution towards the outcome.
  • Recognise that different people are good or great at different things and try to avoid creating teams of very similar people or skillsets.
  • Use the different perspectives and backgrounds of other people to help us see things that we are overlooking – another good reason to have people with diverse experiences in teams.

Thank you to Torbjörn Gyllebring and Steve again for the discussions that inspired this post and Steve for contributing some paragraphs and editing. Any faults with this post, however, are my own.

Torbjörn Gyllebring’s post is about Estimates and Theory Building