The IT Mindset and Managing Vendors

A slave to the business?

Have you ever come across someone who, when asked, tells you they work in IT? I wonder about this answer, what it means, who they actually work for, and why they don’t tell you about the work that their company does. I mean, IT isn’t a company, is it? In fact, I more often hear the speculation as to whether IT exists at all? That is, whether IT is a part of the business rather than apart from the business. When I hear people answer that they work in IT, I conjure up images of many IT departments that I have walked into and feel my life-source drain slowly away from my body. I call this phenomenon the IT Mindset.

A mindset is a way of thinking that determines somebody’s behaviour and outlook. The IT mindset is a state-of-mind that puts people who work with IT technology at a subservient position to people who work within a business. It promotes the idea that the people working in IT are order-takers of the people who work in Operations or Customer Services or Marketing or Finance or Strategy or anyone who requires some technology solution that helps them do their jobs. This mindset comes through crystal clear in organisations where IT people refer to other members of the same company as their ‘customer’. For me, the customer is external to the company and is a person or business that pays money in return for the goods or service sold by the company. Thinking of anyone else as the customer is not a healthy view.

Not the norm

I was in an excellent session last week of one of my customers where they were talking about their first step of a transformation journey to change the way they bring products, services and features to market. This session had people from suppliers, technology and business units talking about the success that they had started to see after embarking on a transformation that included many agile and lean concepts. There was an air of back-slapping that was quite refreshing from large enterprises and there was a real sense of camaraderie that isn’t often seen. The CIO was watching this session and actively acknowledged and praised this behaviour, and told a story of how, when he first became the CIO, he was surprised at how much IT got the blame for all of the failures to deliver and how things had been steadily changing over the last year or so. In fact, it wasn’t even really the people within IT getting the blame; it was the suppliers. The interesting thing about this comment is that the CIO was a long-serving member of the business and was previously a marketing executive for the firm.

The interesting thing about this is that most of the elements of the transformation hasn’t really been in the IT department. It has been in the relationship of the people and their departments, and how the work is broken down into manageable chunks and passed effectively between the different groups in a steady stream. Funnily enough, these changes have actually helped the suppliers’ business as well as delivered more value to the customers, and made the way work gets delivered more enjoyable for all parties. Tritely, it could be considered a win-win-win situation.

So, why is this not the modus operandi for enterprises? Because people focus on power, politics and managing their turfs. Because people put others into boxes and stereotypes. Because managers don’t understand the psychological contracts between departments (and, indeed, suppliers). Because IT people haven’t figured out that they can add more value to their business and understand their business better than most. In my last post, I touched upon an issue that can create massive problems for a successful project or system delivery. Most of the problems described stemmed from different approaches for managing relationships and communication gaps between different parties who have competing and conflicting requirements, and from people who can create very different mindsets in how departments and suppliers interact with one another. Relationships need to be managed.

The Psychological Contract

The psychological contract was a concept introduced in 1960 by Argyris and has been used to describe the mutual awareness that employers and employees have for each others’ needs beyond their contractual obligations. This is a concept that is continually being reviewed as employees have more choices in what they do and how they do it, and as work is becoming more knowledge based. I believe that the same metaphor can be applied to the interactions between groups. Guest and Conway have further defined this contract as “It is generally not written down, it is somewhat blurred at the edges and it cannot be enforced in a court or tribunal… it is implicit. It is also dynamic – it develops over time as expensive accumulators. Employment conditions change and employees re-evaluate their expectations”. At the heart of this contract exists trust, depth-of-relationship, mutual benefits, understanding and dependability. This is very different to how most business treat their IT relationships and supplier relationships.

I used to spend a lot of time with my procurement department when I worked for BT because of a problem with a supplier relationship and their product. Nothing really met with our expectation, and, unfortunately, it led to many legal discussions focusing on penalties. This was a complex process of learning about the history of the relationship in both contractual and experience terms. Many people had been involved in the relationship and many people had set and reset expectations about the value of the relationship. No continuity of the relationship existed, so it fell to me to define what we wanted out of the relationship and to consider what we would be prepared for the supplier to get out of it. In this example, the one thing that was abundantly clear was that the performance of the product and delivery had to be improved otherwise we would not be successful, and it wasn’t going to be solved with the existing mindset and behaviours from both parties.

The Arbinger Institute have done lots of work in helping solve issues between parties (normally individuals) working with each other. Their central premise comes down to one of self-deception. In short, it points to the fact that people normally blame others for the relationship that they have, not themselves, and that the most effective way of breaking the cycle of an unhealthy relationship is to focus on changing your own behaviours.

Changing our ways

What does this have to do with the IT Mindset and Managing Vendors? Everything! There is often a very human instinct to look to pass off the risk of our own shortcomings or unknowns to others. This is normally more of a reputation or responsibility risk being passed (remember, nobody ever got fired by hiring IBM?) rather than any real business risk. Business risk cannot really be passed as a failure to deliver is still a failure to deliver and damages the firm’s ability to deliver value.

Enterprises today are at a point where most products and services are based on some sort of technology and have some form of vendor involvement. Michael Porter’s value chain has very much been extended to third parties and no company lives in isolation of other companies who can help them create enormous value. Having a mindset of ‘we’re in this together’ and ‘we all succeed or fail’ is necessary for performance. End-to-end thinking without organisational boundaries is more important today as things become more complex and complicated. Every part of the system needs to be positively engaged to bring innovation, critical thinking, energy and enthusiasm to the workplace. All parties within a value chain need to feel a sense of ownership and accountability to make things happen and to succeed. I have seen this challenge to the IT Mindset work wonders within companies. I have also seen changing the focus of supplier relationship from one of persecution based on problems, legal discussion and procurement beatings, to working collaboratively for success be extremely successful.

The IT department needs to figure out how to behave differently. They need to be the business. They need to stop waiting for a written invitation. Also, as Business Leaders, IT Directors need work alongside their colleagues to actively review and monitor the intentions towards other individuals, departments and third-parties, and make sure any policies, processes, pride and prejudices don’t get in the way of the whole business being as successful as it can be.


What can the enterprise learn from DSL Max?

Thinking about networks

My formative years in technology and delivery were spent in the telecoms industry.  I have learned a lot about how networks work, how they are controlled, managed and planned, and the strategies involved to deliver certain qualities of service to customers.  In fact, at one point in my career I was responsible for designing and delivering all of the systems that planned, designed and stored most of the network assets and services within BT.  I spend most of my time now considering how enterprises deliver value through projects, programmes, products and services and I find there are many overlaps between the two worlds.  I have been re-reading Don Reinertsen’sThe Principles of Product Development Flow‘ recently and it brought me back again how telecoms theory can influence the delivery of value in an enterprise.

A past experience

The last major programme I worked on in BT before leaving was designed to introduce a 24MB broadband service to large parts of the UK.  There were many firsts in technology underpinning this programme in creating a ubiquitous IP core network and how that would be planned, managed and controlled, but the key element that would enable the faster (and I know other technologies are faster, but not as available) speed to customers was based on a technology called DSL Max which had previously been used in the rollout of 8MB broadband.  This technology was designed to enable any copper line carrying broadband to an end customer’s house to be as quick as it can physically be.

DSL Max is an example of a ‘Rate-adaptive service’.  Wikipedia describes it as ‘… intended to offer the best possible speed attainable, which may vary over time. The maximum speed permitted is determined both by current line conditions and the level of noise, and also by recent history based on factors including the rate of communications errors and the best and worst DSL modem sync speeds achieved during some recent period of time …Customers with long lines or poor quality lines or who experience high levels of noise or interference will be limited to much slower transfer rates, and some customers whose lines are very poor or who are affected by high levels of noise may be unable to obtain service at all.[1]

Interestingly, this technology has created a little bit of contention in the marketplace because customers like to know the exact speed that they are likely to get from their broadband provider, but this technology says (at least in the copper network) that you will receive the fastest possible speed.  It reminds me of the need from enterprises to know exactly how each team compare to one another and how fast they will go in the next 6 months – it kind of misses the point!

The technology does not necessarily dictate the ultimate end-to-end service speed because of the different aspects of how the core network and internet operate, but it has a major influence as to what the end-to-end speed can be. The interesting points, for me, from the excerpt above is the there are a number of factors that can influence speed – the end points or Interfaces (DSL Modems), Distance (from the Controlling elements), Noise and Interference – and it may vary over time.  In some ways the things that impact network speed are similar to those that can impact speed-to-market for companies.

What does this mean for teams?

The team is an interesting construct because different people look at different parts of groups as teams.  Agile folks generally consider a team to be a small (7 +/- 2)  cross-functional unit of people delivering valuable features.  But for something like the programme delivering 24MB across the UK, the ‘team’ spanned hundreds (and maybe) thousands of people.  I was part of an IT leadership team tasked to deliver the overall programme that needed to operate as a team, and I also had around 300 people who were part of teams actually building features internal to my department and across other departments through integrated systems and technology.  In this sort of environment it is very difficult to define what a team should look like or how small value units might operate within this context to a shared goal for the organisation.  That is where project management has a role to play.

In Management 3.0, Jurgen Appelo covers structures and teams really well, and discusses the principles about the size of teams, the structure of teams and their interactions.  I liked his approach to the topic, because I have always found the rhetoric from the Agile community a little disconcerting and not too achievable in the context of massive programmes of work.  One of his points is the idea that the project managers role is to manage a project and not the people, which is counter to how most project managers and organisations behave.  For us though, it really made sense and that was the approach we had taken within the programme – we created networks of teams that came together to deliver value for the customer and disbanded to work with other teams.  That is to say, we allowed the teams doing the real work of developing solutions to be small enough so that they could self-organise around their own technologies, domains and features, but created some more ‘functional’ teams to act as nodes of understanding, communication and alignment between teams.  Our goal was to align all the different teams up-and-down the programme in order to deliver incremental business scenarios.  To start off with, we needed to give it a little nudge in the right direction as self-organisation wasn’t going to work across the different suppliers, organisational units and technologies.

My job as a manager was to help make all of my team units as effective and valuable as they could be across the wider programme.  In short, my focus was to manage and deal with the Interfaces, Distance, Noise and Interference impacting my teams so I could enable them to go as fast as we could go.

As a side note, this was for the good of the overall programme: the area I had inherited to ‘fix’ were already identified as the bottleneck for the overall delivery and a certain pressure came with that ‘gift’.

Noise

The definition of noise is: it can block, distort, change or interfere with the meaning of a message in human, animal and electronic communication.

I think anyone who has worked in any organisation can recognise noise.  The world is full of things that can distract you from the task at hand.  One of the roles of a manager is to limit unhelpful noise.  There have been many times in organisations I have worked in that I have witnessed people creating noise for the sake of wanting to be heard.  Throwing rocks from the sidelines.  Passing judgement on the work of others.  Often, this noise is like ‘anti-value’ for a team.  Noise can come from many directions when delivering complicated, integrated technology solutions for complex businesses.  It can come from the technology itself (especially if the technology chosen is new to a team – or just new).  It can come from centralised groups who are not focused on the flow of value and are part of ‘economy of scale’ thinking.  It can come from people who don’t really understand what a team is doing.  It can come from project managers who feel that they need to control activities because ‘that’s their job’.  It can come from people who are detailing the requirements if they don’t understand their own business.  In short, as a manager, you need to have eyes in the back of your head, but more importantly you have to be available to reduce the noise affecting a team.  Being there to breakdown organisational roadblocks and issues is an extremely valuable role when done well.

Interference

Interference is anything which alters, modifies, or disrupts a signal as it travels along a channel between a source and a receiver. The term typically refers to the addition of unwanted signals to a useful signal.

Similar to noise, Interference can come from many angles in an organisation.  In telecoms their are a couple of common Interference types such as Cross Talk and Adjacent Channel Interference that can have a major impact on the performance of a circuit.  The weather can sometimes make things worse too.  I think there are a couple of common interference personas in organisations:

  1. The Bulldozer – a more senior person who wants to come in and set direction.  Someone who generally bullies a team into doing what they want them to do without understand the full context.
  2. The Know-It-All – someone who solves the problems for the teams.  This person can take away any accountability and responsibility for a team and leave them headless when they are not around.  They can all set direction that often tries to solve the future and complicates the immediate task.
  3. The Seagull – we have all had senior managers and advisors who take a peek at a situation, swoops in, makes some snap decisions and swoops out again.  They don’t take the time to understand what is really going on and help the team.  Seagulls can sometimes be Know-it-alls.
  4. The Jobsworth – the homework checker who doesn’t like what they are seeing and have other goals to deliver that are not necessarily in support of the project being delivered.  I do have some sympathy for this role as everyone has their job to be done… it would just be nice for people to be able to apply some judgement to a situation.  These may well be the people who would want to compare one team against another.
  5. The Person-who-has-something-to-prove – people act from their own perspectives, and people’s goals don’t always align to the goals of the team.  This might be someone who wants to make a name for themselves, or someone who wants to exert their authority in a political situation.  Whatever the reason, this is something to be aware of.
  6. The Spare-Wheel – someone who doesn’t really know what their role is in the team.  They might have once been a manager of a team in an older organisational context that now doesn’t really know how to add value.  Changing organisations can often create Spare Wheels, so beware.

I’m sure there are many other personas we could name.  I would be happy to hear some of yours. The key thing for managers and leaders are to keep an eye out for interfering behaviours.  Advice is all well and good, if it does genuinely support the goals and needs of a team, but this does need to be managed carefully.

Distance

In the context of the programme, the distance I am talking about is that between the teams day-to-day work with their heads down working alongside their own product/domain specialists and that of the end-to-end business and Integration points.  In one respect distance issue is the same in both telecoms and enterprises – the further away you are (in space and time) the more the communication degrades.  It is often easy to become fixated with ‘getting your bit done’ in a large programme like this, but it is only as an end-to-end team would we be successful.  A lot of my job as a manager was about making connections between the different teams and stepping into situations where misalignment was occurring without any of the teams being aware that this was happening.  In large, complex organisations you cannot hope to know the full complexity of the political landscape and the intimate detail of the working software.  You must have bridges and connectors to get the right people talking at the right time.

Interfaces

In the metaphor of the copper line telephony service, the Interface is a Modem or other Network Node.  These are the senders and receivers of information.  In an agile team, this might be a Product Owner or another team that you need to interface your software with.  It might be someone within the business who will use your system.  It might be some other interaction.  Whatever it is, interfaces have a real ability to impact overall velocity of a team.  This is an area where the wider ‘team’ in a programme sense needs to spend time to discuss how interactions will take place and how alignment will happen to keep the overall system moving forward as quickly and effectively as it can.  Often, interfaces span organisational boundaries, technical boundaries or priorities and managers need to be aware how these can impact the teams.  Teams can start to self-organise once interfaces are understood and relationships are built.  Often the role of a manger with the wider organisational context is to grease the wheels of an organisation and make the connections to start with.  It can all flow from there.

Wrapping it all up

Ultimately, as a manager of an organisation, you want your teams to go as fast as they possible can go and that the organisation, as a result, goes as fast as it can go (we don’t want fast teams if the whole slows down!), and in order to do that, special attention needs to be given to the things that can hamper a team’s performance.  Noise, Interference and Distance are not things that you can do too much about in a simple copper network (there are some things you can do to help, but, only so much), but they are all areas that can be managed and looked at in complex organisational environments.  A lot of these elements are often overlooked by managers and in some cases it is the manager takes on the personas described.  Forearmed is forewarned.  The success of your programme may depend on it.



The Quality Responsibility

A few weeks ago I was facilitating a session with a group of people responsible for delivering a software platform to support a number of very large institutions in complex markets.  The session was centred around how you could create more collaboration, predictability, communication and feedback into their delivery cycle and how the different groups and roles might better interact with each other to deliver higher quality, valuable software and solutions to their customers.  They have had problems meeting their commitments to-date and when they have delivered it hasn’t really met their customers’ requirements.  A common problem that we’ve all heard about many times now.

Their normal approach is full of hand-offs, long lead times between specifying something and seeing it in reality to provide real feedback, and very document rich to support people’s ailing memories across these long lead times.  During this session there was a real feeling of parochialism.  The Development Manager was arguing the QA needed to step up to do such and such.  The QA Manager was saying the Dev were always delivering sub-standard work.  Everyone was pointing at the requirements still being worked on.  And the designers and architects had such grand plans that weren’t achievable.  It was the classic example of the silo organisation.  The interesting thing is that all of their backs are against the wall because they have deliveries to hit.  My point to them was:  QA fails, you ALL fail.  Dev fails, you ALL fail.  Design fails, you ALL fail.  There was silence in the room and then the penny dropped.  They realised that they should be a team.

I read two blog posts yesterday that made me think about this situation.  The first was the TradableQualityHypothesis by Martin Fowler.  The second was Mike Gaultieri’s ‘Want Better Quality? Fire Your QA Team‘.  Both posts were ultimately about the ownership, accountability and responsibility of quality.  For some organisations they believe that quality is improved by spending more time on getting the requirements right.  For others it is about getting the design right.  For a lot it is about spending all the time on QA.  Not many firms actually believe (in my experience) that the developers are really the ones who can help because it has become for large enterprises a commodity – which is completely wrong.  However, for the teams and organisations who actually produce high quality work they understand it is about everyone systemically collaborating and working together to develop solutions.  Everyone is responsible for quality.  Interestingly, in Mike’s article, the extreme position of firing the ‘Quality’ team had the amazing effect of everyone else taking accountability and responsibility for the quality of the output.  It would be interesting to understand what actually happened and if it supported the hypothesis of Tradable Quality too.  My guess is that the Internal Quality was increased significantly as a result.

I’m not necessarily espousing that all teams need to fire their QA departments, but I am very much of the mind that all of the roles and responsibilities need to be blended into a one-team mentality whereby everyone succeeds or fails on each others’ quality and performance.  The key thing for me is that Managers and Directors need to understand that they will damage their future business unless they really understand this.  As I said in my last post, Demand Technical Excellence, or you will all have a case of high dynamic complexity and lots of finger waving when the IT platforms grind to a halt.


Nouns versus adjectives

A problem with labels

I find language fascinating.  In fact, it is more understanding and contradictions of words that fascinates me.  The same word said to two different people can conjure up wildly different opinions, thoughts, reactions and feelings.  This is an example of the map and territory relationship or the philosophy of perception.  Perception is reality to the person who perceives.  This is why nouns and labels within the world are useful and, potentially, dangerous and confusing.  Good marketeers use labels to attach good reactions and feelings to their products and services which draw people into in to spending their hard-earned money.  However, in my world I come across confusion to labels every day because the label has become a bucket for concepts.  An example that everyone can relate to is the word Gentleman.  This word is commonly used today to denote a man who is inherently good – ‘He is a fine Gentleman’ or ‘He’s a Gentleman and a Scholar’.  However, the meaning of the label in the UK was originally to describe someone of noble birth who was entitled to a coat of arms.  The meaning has been blurred from a noun to more of a describing word (although it is a noun) meaning good, courteous or chivalrous.

The crux of the matter for project delivery

In the world of software development there are a couple of words that spark and generate numerous debates.  These are the words Agile, Lean and Waterfall.  I always find the debates fascinating because I like to understand what meaning has been attached to the label by the debater.  The word waterfall has been used for decades to describe an overall project process that is phased from analysis all the way through to deployment of software.  Such a delivery has been categorised as one with a long process, laden with hand-offs, and lack of feedback and learning cycles.  In practice it is often seen as a method that tries to nail all the requirements upfront and then to all the design before actually building any software.  But, I have seen other processes that build right from the start in parallel to other activities.  I have seen variants with good learning and feedback loops.  So, to use a label like Waterfall really conjures up people’s previous experiences in working on projects that could have taken a long time.  This is really a massive generalisation and doesn’t necessarily speak to the challenges of project delivery.

The same can be said for Agile and Lean.  Again, these words conjure up elements of good behaviour to people who have been involved in projects that have an iterative heartbeat.  These projects can be categorised as one with learning cycles that have been built into the system, and software is used to measure progress – to name a couple.  However, I have seen iterative methods been used very successfully on projects that still only had one delivery into production that took year (because the market really dictated this launch approach).

Taking a more principled approach

With emergn we try to move past the label approach quite quickly.  Instead, the approach that I try to take is to understand the systemic issues with the current project delivery approach.  The question shouldn’t be about do we want to do Waterfall or Lean or Agile.  The question should be – ‘what do we want to be as an organisation?’  Every company I walk into has laudable values papered up on their walls, in their media and collateral, and even on mugs and t-shirts, but when you actually look at the behaviours within projects it is always unclear how the actual day-to-day working matches to the values being displayed so ostentatiously.  I would argue every organisation would want to be described as agile or lean.  Not one of them would like to be a waterfall (whatever that is!).  Agility comes from the organisation’s system of delivery.  The people, processes and technology that are in place.  Kent Beck first introduced the idea of a more principled approach to the delivery of software as part of XP.  This very much fitted with the ideas of thinking tools and the principles of lean.  Bringing the best bits from these different schools of thought helps us move past the debate of labels and onto solving problems in delivery organisations.  I think it is time to move past the labels and more towards being able to describe what a company can do as a result of improving themselves.  There is something said to setting a vision of how you want to operate and then working out how you live that vision.