Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 2: Work, Work, Work…

…work, work, work. It’s what we do.

“I have to go to work.”

“What do you do for work?”

“OK, team. Let’s get to work.”

“Where do you work?

“Is that working for you?”

“That’ll never work.”

“Let’s work together.”

“Time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

The notion of work is so pervasive it underpins my belief that Agile principles and practices can be applied to a variety of human endeavors beyond the narrow focus on software development. In fact, the case can be made that Agile principles and practices have been around for millennia and only very recently were codified for a software development context. Agile simply feels more natural, more aligned with how humans think and interact to solve problems. From the way we explore and learn as children to the way we solve problems at home as adults, it’s much easier to recognize Agile patterns than waterfall patterns. Somehow, when we go to work we’re subject to the behaviors and measures of machines and Taylorism.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Agile has been shown to more effective at increasing productivity and decreasing costs in contexts beyond software. So why isn’t it practiced everywhere all the time?

I can think of a couple of broad generalizations that answer this question. First, Agile isn’t a panacea. Nothing is. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Agile is the worst form of project management, except for all the others. Second, in the light of Conway’s Law and Shalloway’s Corollary, the systemic monster pushing back on change is a formidable one.

I have no aspirations of making Agile a panacea and will never claim it to be one. But until something more promising comes along, I can work to improve the practices for applying Agile values and principles. As for the systemic monster, that’s what this series of articles are about.

Monsters are scary because we don’t know them, we can’t see them, they’re hidden from us, they’re “out there, somewhere.” We’ll begin the process of understanding the systemic workplace monster by shining a light on work. What is it? How do we define it?

With each new day, in one form or another, we face a newly filled box of Work to Do. On the far side of the day, there is an empty box of Work Done.

In a perfect world, by the end of the day, Work to Do is empty and Work Done is full.

This transition doesn’t happen by itself. Magic won’t get work moved to done. There’s effort involved. More effort means more progress. Less effort, less progress. On Agile software projects, Work to Do is described in the product backlog and Work Done manifests as a deliverable product or service.

Typically, there is some form of measure on progress toward the goal of getting work to done. In scrum, this might be story points completed or business value delivered.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Whatever the endeavor, errors and mistakes are part of the work effort. Instructions were unclear or incomplete, time constraints caused the work to be rushed, the person doing the work was apathetic or otherwise unfocused – there are thousands of reasons for why some of the work fails to meet expectations.

Since our efforts to complete work are always less than perfect by some percentage, part of the effort that creates progress is also an effort that generates errors. Anyone managing a project – especially a technical project – should expect that there is a box of Undiscovered Rework hiding somewhere. How big that box is or how fast it’s filling are unknown. All we know at this point is the box of Undiscovered Rework exists. In software development, the contents of this box are referred to as defects or bugs.

We know the box of Undiscovered Rework is there somewhere. So now we need a deliberate effort aimed at discovering that rework. This is the job of quality assurance and testing professionals. Their efforts at rework discovery bring the defects and errors to light so that they can be documented and added to the flow of Work to Do.

This is the work loop.1 Human interactions and behaviors aimed at achieving some larger goal provide the energy for driving this loop. The quality of those interactions determine how fast work moves through this loop.

In subsequent posts, we’ll begin to explore several specific human interactions and behaviors the can either support or inhibit the flow of work through this loop. But first, a sidebar to learn how to read the diagrams that follow. We’ll cover that in the next post of this series.

Previous article in the series: Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 1: The Revenge of Frankenagile

Next article in the series: Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 3: System Dynamics and Causal Loop Diagrams 101

References

1The core of the model I use to assess team and organization health is based on the work of James Lyneis and David Ford: System Dynamics Applied to Project Management, System Dynamics Review Volume 23 Number 2/3 Summer/Fall 2007

Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 1: The Revenge of Frankenagile

The ubiquitous employee handbook is filled with rules, regulations, and descriptions of how employees are expected to behave. The larger the organization, the thicker the handbook. Handbooks and associated policies like this have been described as “corporate scar tissue.” Someone somewhere at sometime made a serious mistake, whether intentional or not, and so a policy was created to prevent that something from ever happening again. The same effect can be seen with many consumer products that have lengthy warning labels and manual pages stating things like “This toaster is not suitable as a flotation device in the event of a boating accident.”

In an effort to prevent a re-occurrence, the policies effectively limit – much like physical scar tissue – the ability of people within the organization to adapt, improvise, and innovate. They limit an employee’s range of motion within the organization’s solution space. The goal is to save the organization from human error and create the perfect business machine. But in the end, excessive policies condemn the organization to a slow but certain death.

Anyone who has worked within a large organization recognizes this. For some, it’s a comfort. Knowing the rules. Knowing where the fences are. And knowing where to place blame. The less ambiguity around how a situation can be interpreted the better. For others, maybe after an attempt to change things, the environment becomes too stifling and they leave for greener, wider pastures.

Given enough time, the policies become the document of record for the organization’s culture. Any attempts to change the way work gets done within an organization that has deep scar tissue will have to confront Shalloway’s Corollary:

When development groups change how their development staff are organized, their current application architecture will work against them.

I’ve learned this corollary is not limited to software companies. In every case I’ve experienced, whether in a software company or not, the system will push back. Hard. Every Agile practitioner needs to know and respect this. Riding into work on a unicorn with a bag of rainbows and pixie dust is a gig that will not end well. At best, the organization will have made an incomplete effort at implementing Agile and “Frankenagile” will be roaming the halls – a collection of project management methodological parts that by themselves served a valuable purpose in a larger or different context, but have been stitched together to form a monster in Agile name only.

In a small company, particularly if it is working to create a software product, the monster may be small. So performing corrective surgery, while still a lot of work, is quite possible in a relatively short amount of time. For larger organizations, particularly those with deep roots in traditional project management, it can be a scary sized beast indeed. Something not to be trifled with, rather something that needs a well thought out strategy and plan of action.

It is the latter scenario I’d like to address in this series of posts (this being Part 1,  the introduction) over the next several weeks. I’ll present is a method I’ve used quite successfully over the past 10+ years for assessing the extent to which Conway’s Law and Shalloway’s Corollary are in play. It is a method for determining both team and organization health within the larger management context. The extent to which Agile can be successfully implemented in an organization is dependent on how aware management, the Agile coach, and scrum masters are of the system dynamics driving organizational behavior.

Next post in the series: Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 2: Work, Work, Work…

What’s in YOUR manual?

You go to see a movie with a friend. You sit side-by-side and watch the same movie projected on the screen. Afterward, in discussing the movie, you both disagree on the motives of the lead character and even quibble over the sequence of events in the movie you just watched together.

How is it that two people having just watched the same movie could come to different conclusions and even disagree over the sequence of events that – objectively speaking – could have only happened in one way?

It’s what brains do. Memory is imperfect and every one of us has a unique set of filters and lenses through which we view the world. At best, we have a mostly useful but distorted model of the world around us. Not everyone understands this. Perhaps most people don’t understand this. It’s far more common for people – especially smart people – to believe and behave as if their model of the world is 1) accurate and 2) shared with everybody else on the planet.

Which gets me to the notion of the user manuals we all carry around in our heads about OTHER people.

Imagine a tall stack of books, some thin others very thick. On the spine of each book is the name of someone you know. The book with your partner’s name on it is particularly thick. The book with the name of your favorite barista on the spine is quite a bit thinner. Each of these books represents a manual that you have written on how the other person is supposed to behave. Your partner, for example, should know what they’re supposed to be doing to seamlessly match your model of the world. And when they don’t follow the manual, there can be hell to pay.

Same for your coworkers, other family members, even acquaintances. The manual is right there in plain sight in your head. How could they not know that they’re supposed to return your phone call within 30 minutes? It’s right there in the manual!

It seems cartoonish. But play with this point of view for a few days. Notice how many things – both positive and negative – you project onto others that are based on your version of how they should be behaving. What expectations do you have, based on the manual you wrote, for how they’re supposed to behave?

Now ask yourself, in that big stack of manuals you’ve authored for how others’ brains should work, where is your manual? If you want to improve all your relationships, toss out all of those manuals and keep only one. The one with your name on the spine. Now focus on improving that one manual.

Mindfulness? There’s an app for that!

It appears mindfulness is…well…on a lot of people’s minds lately. I’ve seen this wave come and go twice before. This go around, however, will be propelled and amplified be the Internet. Will it come and go faster? Will there be a lasting and deeper revelation around mindfulness? I predict the former.

Mindfulness is simple and it’s hard. As the saying goes, mindfulness is not what you think.  It was difficult when I first began practicing Rinzai Zen meditation and Aikido many years ago. It’s even more difficult in today’s instant information, instant gratification, and short attention span culture. The uninitiated are ill equipped for the journey.

With this latest mindfulness resurgence expect an amplified parasite wave of meditation teachers and mindfulness coaches. A Japanese Zen Master (Roshi, or “teacher”) I studied with years ago called them “popcorn roshis” – they pop up everywhere and have little substance. No surprise that this wave includes a plethora of mindfulness “popcorn apps.”

Spoiler alert: There are no apps for mindfulness. Attempting to develop mindfulness by using an app on a device that is arguably the single greatest disruptor of mindfulness is much like taking a pill to counteract the side effects of another pill in your quest for health. At a certain point, the pills are the problem. They’ve become the barrier to health.

The “mindfulness” apps that can be found look to be no different than thousands of other non-mindfulness apps offering timers, journaling, topical text, and progress tracking. What they all have in common is that they place your mindfulness practice in the same space as all the other mindfulness killing apps competing for your attention – email, phone, texts, social media, meeting reminders, battery low alarms, and all the other widgets that beep, ring, and buzz.

The way to practicing mindfulness is by the deliberate subtraction of distractions, not the addition of another collection of e-pills. The “killer app” for mindfulness is to kill the app. The act of powering off your smart phone for 30 minutes a day is in itself a powerful practice toward mindfulness. No timer needed. No reminder required. Let it be a random act. Be free! At least for 30 minutes or so.

Mental states like mindfulness, focus, and awareness are choices and don’t arise out of some serendipitous environmental convergence of whatever. They are uniquely human states. Relying on a device or machine to develop mindfulness is decidedly antithetical to the very state of mindfulness. Choosing to develop such mental states requires high quality mentors (I’ve had many) and deliberate practice – a practice that involves subtracting the things from your daily life that work against them.

“For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.12