Have you ever seen a program or show by Derren Brown? If so, you might believe magic does exist in some real sense. What he does during a show is nothing short of breathtaking and has people scratching heads and whispering loudly as to how his wizardry is achieved. Recently I went to see his latest stage show, Infamous. Without giving away any of the details of the show (which was excellent), it made me think about creativity, talent and the path people travel to develop their skills. He weaves a story throughout the show about the trials of his childhood. It seems much of what happened shaped him and helped him hone his skills and passion, and, in some way, developed his desire to be infamous.
Sir Ken Robinson spoke in his 2006 TED talk about creativity and how the whole of our education system (indeed all education systems on earth) systematically remove creativity throughout school by focusing more on numeracy, literacy, logic and critical thinking rather than allowing people to explore their creative potential. His talk is funny and compelling, and makes you think about how you were educated and how your children are going to be educated. You should watch it if you haven’t. I agree with the thesis and I see the output of our education system every day – generally, folks shy away from innovation and creativity for fear of failure and non-conformity. Ever heard the term ‘I don’t want to stick my head above the parapet’? Our education system and the modern large company workplace seem to value similar things: conformity, standardisation and management-by-objective target setting. For the orthodoxy these words are all reasonable and positive things. Yet, they are the very things that remove creative thinking, make people compliant and turn people into sheepwalkers, and ultimately remove creativity and innovation from the workplace. In his book, The Element, Ken Robinson talks about many people who found their passion. Their life’s work. All of their stories are about trials and tribulations. It touches on the failure in the school system to captivate and motivate that person and how they developed a tenacity to find their talents elsewhere. Through these trials each person developed the character, found their passion and developed their skills to a point that they are in their element. He asserts that some of the most successful people you will ever meet didn’t do well in school.
In a previous post about the power of environment I touch upon the influences that shape us to develop skills. Every one of us goes through a formal education system and that environment has a different effect on every person. I believe we need to reduce the idea of conformity and standardisation, and improve the chances for people to develop their own passions. Everyone needs trials. And they need opportunity to compete, react, rebel, create, fail, create again, fail again and again and again. Much of this has been removed from schools in favour of teaching specific things to pass tests. It doesn’t help us invent and create new things. People (children and adults alike) need the support to build the capability to keep dusting themselves off and trying again.
Workplaces are becoming extensions of the education system as technology moves faster now than ever before and things we are need now to compete in the modern business world now were only invented in the last 10 – 5 years. Most of us couldn’t have learned those things within our education system. They are alien. The problem is that neither the workplace nor the education system has the approach to deal with this reality and it comes down to capacity of the individual rather than a deliberate approach to help build the capability.
This is what sets the stories like Derren’s apart from all of the people who were discouraged to really develop their passion and stopped. This is the bit where the system doesn’t work. We need an environment that works the whole brain and body, and spirit to keep trying regardless if you conform to the norms or not. It cannot be just about focusing on words and numbers. Failure and creativity are not the same thing. But you cannot be creative without being able to fail. I bet Derren did many times.
Have you ever wondered what education might look like in 50 years? Could this affect your business? Do you know what future skills your business might need? The internet is changing many things, not least education. How about the political landscape? Would a collapse of democracy affect you? Would a supreme leader of Earth change the way you did business? How would you react if international air travel was banned? What technology trends out there will change the way consumers interact with your product? Do you think your products will make any sense in 15 years time? The world’s population was 2.8 billion in 1954. It is currently 7 billion. In 50 years it has more than doubled. What will happen in the next 50 years? I wonder what the next world wide web is and how it might support 14 billion connected people? Is this an opportunity of an increased marketplace, or does this create a problem? This post from jobsworth really resonated with some things that I’ve been thinking about recently during my travels and client engagements.
One criticism that enterprises sometimes throw at agile methods is that it isn’t strong at dealing with future needs rather preferring to focus on the immediate needs of the here and now. It is true, most agile approaches do look to break big things down into smaller incremental chunks that can be used to build up a working model of reality by focusing on empirical feedback and working solutions, and focusing on the most valuable items that we know about today. After all, people only really know what they want when they see it and when it feels urgent and real. But, this doesn’t mean we should neglect the future or not even plan for it. Some things take a long time to put in place and there is no point waiting until it is upon us to deal with it. It will be too late. We know education and capability improvement programmes take a long time to bed down. We know things that materially change society don’t happen overnight. We also know that some big problems require big solutions. But not always.
Agility is not about doing Agile. It is about being able to respond to market conditions and forces. As the famous Wayne Gretzky quote says you need to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. If this is the case we need to be scanning the horizons, taking risks and learning fast. In sporting terms this would be known as ‘reading the game’. The best way to respond is to change and opportunity is by being prepared, learning our industries, examining other industries and learning about different walks of life and having time to consider what might become. Oh, and it would be useful to have working practices that allow you to respond and react to changing conditions and priorities.
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” – Wayne Gretzky
Enterprises today are successful based on what they have done in the past and present, and are full of people who have made great careers based on those conditions. It is hard to challenge the things that made you what you are. But many business models are being challenged. Customers are changing. Technology is changing. Society is changing.
These enterprises might have people who see potential shifts that open up future challenges and opportunity, but how does the ‘elephant dance’ as a whole? The Scenario Planning process devised in Shell was a way to improve the overall management of one of the biggest companies in the world to better react to future possibilities. Scenario planning was their way of working through extreme scenarios that are unlikely to ever be 100% true, but have core elements of truth and possibilities that can help managers create better responses to changing and uncertain conditions. When people are open and conscious of potential changes, they are more likely to react and spot ways to solve future problems.
In his book, Joseph Jaworski explains the key elements of the process:
Instead of relying on forecasts (which are invariably wrong) the Shell Group does its planning for the future through the use of decision scenarios. Scenario planning […] is not about making plans, but is the process whereby management teams change their mental models of the business environment and the world. In the Shell Group, scenario planning is a trigger to institutional learning. A manager’s inner model never mirrors reality, he explained – it’s always a construct. The scenario process is aimed at these perceptions inside the mind of a decision maker. By presenting other ways of seeing the world, decision scenarios give managers something very precious: the ability to re-perceive reality, leading to strategic insights beyond the mind’s reach.
Scenario planners […] included experts in economics, sociopolitics, energy, the environment, and technology. They conduct ongoing conversations with fifty or so top managers in the Shell Group and with a network of remarkable, leading-edge thinkers from around the world in many disciplines: politics, science, education, business, economics, technology, religion, and the arts. Every three years or so, they synthesize this information into two or more scenarios – stories about how the business might evolve over the coming years and decades.
This process is also highlighted in solving tough problems and was a key enabler to unsticking some of the really hard problems that South Africa once faced. I wonder what some of our famous brands and traditional businesses that we all know and love today will look like in 50 years time. It will be interesting to see how software and technology will be dealt with in the future enterprise as more core processes and experiences are enshrined in technology interactions. I wonder if business leaders and technology leaders will be one and the same thing. I wonder what capabilities people will need as standard to operate in the business place of the future. I think an institutional, systemic process that encourages organisational learning that encourages real examination of future trends and marketplace dynamics, plus an approach to delivery that embraces change is a powerful combination to consider. I wonder who will embrace such approaches and do this well.
In most organisations IT is a central function. It started off as the experts who ran large mainframes with huge tapes. Weird science to many of the day. Even, Tom Watson of IBM predicted there would probably only be need for 5 of these things in the world. How wrong he was. IT then became the place that looked after all the computers on our desks. Growing to the hundreds and thousands. It grew to a department looking after e-mail, and a PC and handheld device for every employee. We’re now talking hundreds of thousands of devices within a major enterprise. Then IT started looking after the company website, and the infrastructure that manages all of our enterprise applications. All the while they were probably dealing with the telephone systems too. Basically, anything Technology related. Along the way it also picked up other disciplines: software engineers and solution designers and enterprise architects and service managers and user experience experts and project managers and testers. All this seems an eclectic mix of responsibilities, and it seems odd to lump all of these under one umbrella called the IT function. I wonder why we did. Was it because it was still weird science for the masses. It was only the technically minded folks who really got it, and it wasn’t really what the business was about. Unfortunately, for most companies now, IT is the business. Our products are IT based. Our service is IT based. Our processes are enshrined in what IT can do, and our people are only as good as our IT systems allows us to be. Our customers are tech savvy and they engage with us in new ways. No longer can an IT service manager really be separate from ‘the business’. If IT doesn’t work our business does not work. A software engineer who develops the core user experience, operational experience, process experience is the front-line of the brand and the customer experience. We need a new approach for IT.
Lean IT is a set of concepts that has been gaining much traction over the last decade. It has started to look at how we can bring in some of the lean manufacturing concepts into the IT world. It started by looking back at the toyota production system, and what made them produce great products that conquered the US car market. But, today people are scrutinising the Toyota Product Development System in more detail because they realise that innovation and creativity is not so much about removing waste and variation out of repeatable manufacturing processes, but developing compelling products and services that require pushing boundaries, exploring solutions and working with customers more closely. It is inherently about more agile ways of working. It is about Lean Software Development and Lean Product Development. It is about a philosophy of collaboration, learning and creating feedback and empowering people to deliver what is right and in the right way. It represents the world of strategy promoted by Henry Mintzberg or Gary Hamel with their focus on learning, innovation and creative strategy in shaping and creating new markets. This is not so much about doing what we’ve always done more efficiently. It is about creating customer experiences and products that are loved and sought after.
The Lean IT movement looks how you might enable and sustain a lean transformation that enables you to be more customer focused, and how the culture of the organisation needs to develop to embrace collaboration, and working across boundaries to deliver an outstanding service for customers. This is in direct contrast to how most businesses set themselves up. Functional silos are normal. There is a belief that economies come from scale by bringing together functional expertise. This is not untrue for some things. It comes at a cost though, so shouldn’t be considered a general rule of thumb in environments where innovation and creativity are being sought, and where speed is essential. The cost is that these functions and departments are focused on their bit and not the end-to-end flow of value from a customer standpoint.
Bringing new products and services to market is a value stream known as Concept-to-market. This includes creative input from all functions across a business. Doing it fast will require us to focus on the value stream goal and not the functional goals. The same can be said for another key value stream that exists in most organisations, Order-to-Cash. Sales and Delivery need to work in tandem. The IT supporting these functions needs to work.
There are some elements of the central IT function that can and should remain central, but much doesn’t or shouldn’t have to be. How might you decide? Put simply, does pulling people into a silo slow down delivery in the eyes of the market in a way that might hamper our competitiveness? If yes, you should consider focusing on the value stream. If no, you might consider developing it as a function. If it isn’t on the critical path then it might be better value to consider economies of scale.
I prefer to consider things from the customers’ perspective first. After all, there is no value stream without them. We can’t make something more cost effective without first satisfying our customers to the extent that they are prepared to pay for the product or service. We actually cannot remove waste from a value stream without their being value first. So, what does the customer think about our organisation design and the place IT has in it? Not a lot, but they might feel the consequences of our choices. What do they think about the service they receive? Do they care how we set ourselves up? The person I use as my benchmark on this thinking is my wife, Helen. She always has great suggestions on how service can improve from the companies she deals with. She couldn’t care less about the organisational structure and decisions going on behind the corporate walls on how we manage ourselves and set goals. Her suggestions always make me smile as I then start thinking about how the organisation will be set up and why her suggestion will be a nightmare to implement because there will be no direct line of sight between the backlog of work for the specific system or process that will need to be changed and the customer experience being felt by the paying customer. There will be many layers between the person who wants something (Helen) and the person who can do something about it (a software developer or some other creative engineer who knows how things work).
The ‘Order-to-Cash‘ lifecycle is a great place for organisations to start when examining their focus. It exists for most (if not all) profit making enterprises on earth. It might look different in different industries and organisations, but at the highest abstraction everyone has one. Think Amazon and buying a book. Think ordering broadband. Think getting a new credit card (maybe the cash is going in the opposite direction for this one). All of these will have many different computer systems supporting the process. That could be the telephones, the e-mail, a website, the Customer Relationship Management system, the Billing Engine, the Workflow Engine, the Service Management systems, the Inventory Control systems. All of them will have a part to play in any fulfillment journey. For some forward thinking companies this might also include an interaction on facebook. Another one through twitter. These all play a part on the experience of interacting with the company. Each interaction gives us an opportunity to delight or disappoint. From a customer’s perspective, if one of these elements is not functioning then it isn’t working. It doesn’t matter if our CRM system has a 99% Service Level Guarantee from supplier X if the billing engine can’t allow us to complete an order. The customer doesn’t care about our CRM or our billing engine. If the Website is down, the service is down. It doesn’t matter if we cannot complete an order because of an out-of-memory error within our workflow engine that passes jobs and tasks around our enterprise. The customer just doesn’t care.
If every system has a target of 99% uptime and there are 10 systems in a customer journey then the actual uptime ‘target’ is now less than 90%. 1 in 10 times a customer might come along and something not be right. That is a big deal. Imagine now 20 systems. We have sub-optimised the whole system from the customer perspective, but we’ve probably made sensible organisational design decisions and the targets we’ve given our staff are probably okay, right? Wrong.
This becomes worse when we consider how my wife’s improvement idea might make its way into the future service. This is the intersection between the Order-to-Cash processes and the Concept-to-Market process. If each system has a queue of work that they are crunching through in some arbitrary order, or if a critical transformation project is hogging all of the delivery capacity of our business, then it might take years for any idea to filter through our Concept-to-Market process to be implemented. We might be slowly losing our customers because we are focusing on our own internal transformations. Our functional decomposition seemed a good idea to group people together into logical departments of like-minded people who all have the same goals of CRM or Billing, but they do make our ability to respond to the people who make us money (customers) in a really terrible way.
The concepts behind Lean IT teaches us to think differently. We need to focus on the Value for our customers. We need to focus on the Flow of our improvements and new features of their service, and how we interact with our customers to find out how we are doing. And we need to focus on the quality that they receive from our service. Every IT interaction is a Moment of Truth.
I know we need to consider our IT strategy in terms of how we might share data across different products and services, and how we might re-use capabilities in order to help us launch future products more quickly, but this does not necessarily mean we need to bring everyone together into functional silos. The customer experience is what attracts our paying customers. It is what will keep our paying customers. It is also, if we don’t get it right, the reason why people will leave.
We need to get the tension right between the customer experience and the architectural purity of our systems and organisational design.
Our first goal is to look through the eyes of the people that create value, and then figure out the grouping, management and scaling problems that all enterprises have. We need to encourage customer perspective in every job.
I read an article by Seth Godin the other day. In it he said that the average worker is going straight to the bottom. The workplace has changed so much over recent time, that workers should not be content with taking orders and everyone should make themselves unique and different so people seek out their specific set of skills. If he is correct then this will be a challenge to every company that says ‘our people are our greatest asset’. I don’t think it is as black and white as the article suggests, but I do think that business environment has changed in terms of expectations and speed, and the average worker needs to figure out how they contribute more effectively. However, I also believe that some of that responsibility lies with the enterprise, and their need to change their environment to help employees.
In my previous post I wrote about the fact that talent isn’t as innate as we think, and that the only way to ‘world-class’ and becoming an expert is based on practice. Purposeful practice. And, lots of it (approximately 10 years of hard, deliberate practice). In reading around the topic it became clear that many of the stories describing the path to success seemed to be centre around a couple of things. A person who was to become the future star with a desire and motivation to succeed that was often developed as a result of an early influence in their life. And an environment that was constructed by circumstances often including the input of a third party who played a key role to the main protagonist. Matthew Syed put it well when he said, ‘Child prodigies do not have unusual genes; they have unusual upbringings’.
The environments within these stories turned out to be unique and extreme in some way that helps the future star become the person they become. An environment so powerful that the future star develops a dedication, the skills, the support and the opportunities to rise to the very top of their chosen pursuit.
There are lessons in these stories to help us shape our own environments to develop the talent of our people. We may not be starting with susceptible kids who at the age of 3 decide that they want to be the future star of formula one or the next mozart, but there are people who, with the right conditions, can strive to be the best. We always have an opportunity to improve and excel regardless of when and where we start. As leaders it is important to recognise the environment that we really find ourselves in. Max De Pree in his book Leadership Jazz said ‘People must be able to pursue their potential’. It all comes down to environment and opportunity.
Albert Einstein said, ‘I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn’.
What I find most interesting about the stories of talent and determination I’ve examined is that one or more of the elements of any of the backgrounds has been completely uncompromising. The fathers of sporting prodigies such as Venus and Serena Williams, or Tiger Woods, or Lewis Hamilton created circumstance of every situation for helping their children develop mentally and physically. These environments were based around extreme and exacting standards. There was little compromise. They helped focus on their weaknesses to develop, but also helped them shape an utter belief that they were meant to be part of the elite. They relied on the idea that practice makes perfect, and nothing but perfection was acceptable. Does this sound like your workplace?
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit. ~ Aristotle
Standards such as these are often encountered in the business world too. Two examples spring to mind: IBM and Apple.
For IBM they needed to transform themselves from the mainframe supplier of hardware to a services based company that used the expertise to shape solutions. They created an environment based on values and principles that were upheld from Lou Gerstner’s vision. The change required a move away from the aggressive sales approach of product and a move towards a more service-based culture developing and delivering solutions, and relationships. Dee Hock’s quote describes the problem for most of us in the enterprise space well:
The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. ~ Dee Hock
Underneath all the sophisticated processes, Lou Gerstner concluded, there is always the company’s sense of values and identity. This is where he decided to focus. In his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, he said, “It took me to age fifty-five to figure that out. I always viewed culture as one of those things you talked about, like marketing and advertising. It was one of the tools that a manager had at his or her disposal when you think about an enterprise.” He added, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything”.
They spent years resetting the standards and upholding the expectations required. I think this is a key enabler for performance. It is rare to see it upheld. It is more likely to be talked about and dismissed like Gerstner refers to.
The other example (and there are many more) is Apple. Since his death, Steve Jobs has had many things written about him. Not least has been about his approach to leadership and management. He had a pursuit for perfection. It is written that his ego drove him in a way that ensured that everything about the product created by Apple was exact. He worked tirelessly to be the best and he held the whole of the company to his very high standards. Nothing was ever good enough and he constantly challenged to improve. It will be interesting to see if the environment continues.
Enabling Fast Feedback – To stretch, fail and learn
The complexities and dynamics of how a single person’s performance can be linked with the entire performance of an enterprise is too great. There needs to be another way of getting more direct feedback on performance, and what can be done to improve.
As business leaders or managers, providing fast feedback is critical for the growth of team members. This is what the environments of the elite did for them. Often we can go weeks, months or, in some extreme cases, years without giving real feedback on the work our people do and how they are performing it. We are often very critical of the results delivered by people, but not the practice that generated the result. This needs remedying, and we also need to create environments outside of the day-to-day job to develop skills.
Now, I’m not of the opinion that you only learn from failure. Learning from success is also useful, and good for the self-esteem. But, what I am a fan of is that you learn more from the situations where you have been stretched and tested. Max De Pree said ‘We need to learn to think in terms of discovery. Once a discovery is made, we need to make the right connections and to give relevance in our current environment’. This means we need to develop a learning culture.
Julia Cameron once said that ‘Making a piece of art requires a myriad tiny steps’. Many little lessons need to put together to develop a masterpiece or an outstanding performance. This is all the work that is done behind the scene that often goes unnoticed. People need an environment where they can make mistakes, gain feedback and improve. This needs to happen regularly. In sport, this is the training ground.
In business, we don’t have training grounds. We are always on. We don’t get the time and luxury of professional athletes. We are less tolerant of failure in business like sports fans are in the big games. Even Michael Jordan regales stories of missing some really important points in crucial games on his way to becoming one of the greatest. Maybe this is something we need to improve upon.
Developing the business training grounds is necessary. We need to develop communities of practice that enable us to learn and improve in a safe but challenging environment. Maybe in teams and projects outside of the normal spotlight. The problem is that many enterprises have developed a fixed mindset culture. One where a commitment made (however realistic or not) is one that must be met at all cost or at least expectations managed appropriately. And there is no room to learn or improve when you are on one of these projects. The fear of failure permeates everything and most people do things within their own comfort zone so that they are not to blame or culpable within a project that is destined to hit the rocks. This means that the project will never get the best and most courageous ideas or the most effort invested in it. In a sense, they are set up to fail because of mindset.
Making the Time
If the numbers are to be believed and it takes 10,000 hours to develop a world-class expertise in sports, arts, business or any other discipline, what does it mean in terms of supporting the development of our people? Remember the Dee Hock quote? The skills that have already been developed in our existing workforce may no longer all be relevant. Some will be, but the business environment has changed. The business environment will continue to change. Traditional companies are already struggling. Kodak anyone?
We know teachers are already teaching students skills that will help them deal with jobs and technology that don’t exist yet. We need to be doing the same in business. This means unlearning some stuff that we’ve always known to be right (or at least we thought we did!). We need to prepare people for uncertainty. We need to encourage and support people to experiment and improve for the good of our companies. We need to create a culture of critical thinkers. This requires a change in our environment.
People will need time and space to improve. It might not require 10,000 hours for everyone in an organisation, but it will take committed time nonetheless. It means that we need the right influences in our organisation that represents a set of exacting standards that helps us develop. But it also requires a strategy for developing a new set of skills, and releasing the latent potential within the organisation.
The world of business is moving super fast, and the practice that is required to remain world class is increasing. We might not think the kids coming out of college are quite ready to run our businesses, but they are more savvy with technology than most of our workforces. They might not understand the politics of our organisations or the nuances of managing a message, but they certainly know how to connect with people around the world and are more ‘agile’ than most middle-aged business folks. They know how to communicate in 140 characters or less. Their environment is one of ubiquitous technology, speed and communication. This is what Godin was referring to, I believe. They are already many hours ahead of us on their way to 10,000.
Our environments need to cultivate learning and skills acquisition that help all levels of an organisation improve. Not just the graduates, or apprentices. Not just the people in the talent pools. Nor just the workers. This includes leaders and followers alike. It includes the young and the old. We are all products of our environments. So, our results depend on our ability to create the best environments for today.
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.
The PMI Announcement
As a result of the news that the PMI have endorsed Agile Project Management I was doing some reading around the topic and came across this article. The question posed seems like a very traditional project management question because it is asked from the basis that everything is delivered at the end of a project. It doesn’t consider that a scope could be wrong, or the times are impossible or the costs are not enough. This is what project managers are taught and this is one of the reasons that so many projects fail, in my opinion. To be able to predict an arbitrary date sometime into the future that is months, years or decades away is a nonsense. Predicting how much money you might spend or what the scope might be during that period seems even more impossible to my mind. And when you finally throw in poorly managed engineering techniques which diminishes the quality, you are always left at the end increasing time, budgets and reducing the scope. Without having built up any knowledge as to whether your predictions might be accurate or not people are committing to the parameters of time, cost and scope (quality is always high at the beginning of any project when it is just a thought in someone’s head, but diminishes when the reality of building stuff actually kicks in which is why the commitment of any project doesn’t really consider quality).
I know this is quite a glum scenario, but there you are. It is still the most common scenario that I see in environments where projects are the norm and commitments are made to be concrete on the back of an approved project. I think the fact that the project is really the only construct discussed by the project management community is what creates this thinking – the clue is in the title! I remember saying to a client a couple of years back ‘I guarantee 100% that you will NOT get 100% of the things you are thinking of right now on the date in your project plan that is over 18 months away. But, how about we work with a little more uncertainty and we aim to deliver 60% to 70% between this date and this date approximately 18 months away so that we can get something into the field for a real trial with real customers, and we would have already got feedback on what we have been doing at regular intervals beforehand. Which one would you prefer?’ The debate that this created was interesting, because people started to say: ‘well, it would be good to get something to play with before the end date and something we could show our customers’. Others were still very much: ‘well, we have to deliver everything on the date’. So, I simply asked: ‘what is everything?’. Stunned silence followed.
I know many of you will have been in similar surreal conversations in your work too, but it always strikes me as a little… well, stupid. The proliferation of the idea that complicated projects can be predicted so accurately is absurd. The XP game has demonstrated many times to many teams that even the simplest tasks (like blowing up balloons) cannot be predicted accurately until we have a few goes at it. If we try the same project over and over again, I guarantee we will get good at that project.
You get what you think about
I have come across this saying a number of times: Watch your thoughts for they become your words. Watch your words for they become your actions. Watch your actions for they become your habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. See your character become your destiny. I don’t know who this should be attributed to, but I do like it. In this context, it brings to my mind the fact that the focus of the project management community is focusing on the wrong things.
I remember when I got my first real budget responsibility as an IT Director. It was a very significant sum of money and one of my more mature and long-serving colleagues took me aside and said: ‘Phil, always hit your numbers. Never underspend or overspend your budgets. This is the most important aspect of your job. Hit your numbers and you will be fine.’ The young, idealistic me was a little taken aback by this advice. I thought the point was to deliver the projects and programmes, but apparently I was mistaken. How naive.
For me, the focus on trading time, cost and scope off against one another is the wrong focus. I think managers should be focusing on Value, Flow and Quality. Each of these words require many more posts to do them justice, but my intention here is to say that the project managers (or any managers involved in delivering products, services, systems, projects, programmes etc) should focus on creating these three things in their organisations. I am not arguing that cost control is unimportant. It is important. But, it is ridiculous to believe that this is the most important thing. The biggest ‘cost’ of a business is a failure to turn ideas into valuable products and services that meet or exceed the expectations of customers. Going further, there is an implicit cost of not delivering quickly. For every extra day a feature takes to be delivered a day has been lost reaping economic benefit for that feature. This is the Cost of Delay and managers need to understand this.
Value is not fluffy
One argument I have heard on numerous occasions is that it is difficult to really understand the value of an individual feature or activity, and that’s why we focus on cost. We know how to deal with costs. Value is difficult to measure. This makes no sense to me. If it does to anyone who reads this, please try to enlighten me. I do want to learn.
In the agile community the word value is used a lot. In fact, in my experience it is overused and abused to argue for the things that people want to do rather than things that have real value (i.e. money/economic benefit). I hear the cries now: ‘What about other value types such as happiness of employees?’. Happy people has an economic benefit. Heskett et al postulated a model called the Service Profit Chain that links employees, customers and quality into a profit model. The challenge is creating a value model that works for your business that allows you to trade off different features, requirements and improvements in what you intend to deliver and the way you intend to deliver them. Please remember that any model you create can be refined as you learn more about how that model is being used. You might not get it right first time, but you can definitely have a good debate with your finance director about how you trade things off for the highest economic return.
Projects are short-sighted
One of the problems with projects is that they are inherently short-sighted. A project manager is judged on their ability to deliver the project, however they do that. It doesn’t matter what state they leave any underlying IT systems, product architectures or people who were working on the project. Managing the assets of a business with a view for the longer-term is a philosophy that is promoted in lean, and is an important principle to be instilled in managers and should be considered when designing any organisational structures and philosophies. When I see organisations that are set up solely around projects and not the underlying components and systems I get nervous. If more than one project manager affects a common platform without any need to care about the quality they leave behind and the ability for the next project manager to be successful then there is an issue. Projects do not promote flow. They should be used more sparingly than they are.
Quality is not negotiable
One of the strongest statements that has come out of the agile community is that Quality is not negotiable. As I mentioned in a previous post you need to demand technical excellence. However, as I mentioned previously, when people think about quality at the inception of a project it is easy to think that your project is going to be of the highest quality, but reality bites when you get going. It is easy to have standards about your engineering when you are in the throws of thrashing out your requirements and design in a traditional project. But, why do we believe spending our time on requirements and design at the beginning of a project is more valuable and important than spending time of creating the right environment for building high quality software? Quality and productivity are inextricably linked. Poor quality now will slow you down in the future. Great quality now will increase the flow of value and improve speed-to-market over the longer-term.
A virtuous circle
Time, cost and scope are often called the Iron Triangle. It sounds like a very negative phrase. I prefer to think about something that creates a virtuous cycle. Value, Flow and Quality creates a virtuous circle. This does not mean you are challenging the laws of physics as the article mentioned at the beginning suggested, but it does change the mindset about how you can manage your product, service and IT deliveries. The idea is to go as fast as you can possibly go. Managing projects to time, cost and quality hasn’t given us the ability to go as fast as we can go. If the PMI’s announcement starts to educate project managers to start thinking this way, then I believe it is a really valuable move for our industry. Time for a change? I think so.