Parkinson’s Law of Perfection

C. Northcote Parkinson is best known for, not surprisingly, Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

But there are many more gems in “Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration.” The value of re-reading classics is that what was missed on a prior read becomes apparent given the accumulation of a little more experience and the current context. On a re-read this past week, I discovered this:

It is now  known  that  a  perfection  of  planned  layout  is  achieved  only  by institutions  on  the   point  of  collapse.  This   apparently  paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the  more esoteric details of  which we need not concern  ourselves. In general  principle, however, the method pursued has been to  select and date the buildings  which  appear to have been perfectly  designed for  their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a  period of exciting discovery or progress there is  no time  to  plan the perfect headquarters.  The time for that comes  later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

Several years back my focus for the better part of a year was on mapping out software design processes for a group of largely non-technical instructional designers. If managing software developers is akin to herding cats, finding a way to shepherd non-technical creative types such as instructional designers (particularly old school designers) can be likened to herding a flock of canaries – all over the place in three dimensions.

What made this effort successful was framing the design process as a set of guidelines that were easy to track and monitor. The design standards and common practices, for example, consisted of five bullet points. Building just enough fence to keep everyone in the same area while limiting free range behaviors to specific places was important. These were far from perfect, but they allowed for the dynamic vitality suggested by Parkinson. If the design standards and common practices document ever grew past something that could fit on one page, it would suggest the company was moving toward over specialization and providing services to a narrow slice of the potential client pie. In the rapidly changing world of adult eduction, this level of perfection would most certainly suggest decay and risk collapse as client needs change.

(This article cross-posted on LinkedIn.)

False Barriers to Implementing Scrum

When my experience with scrum began to transition from developer to scrum master and on to mentor and coach, early frustrations could have been summed up in the phrase, “Why can’t people just follow a simple framework?” The passage of time and considerable experience has greatly informed my understanding of what may inhibit or prevent intelligent and capable people from picking up and applying a straightforward framework like scrum.

At the top of this list of insights has to be the tendency of practitioners to place elaborate decorations around their understanding of scrum. In doing so, they make scrum practices less accessible. The framework itself can make this a challenge. Early on, while serving in the role of mentor, I would introduce scrum with an almost clinical textbook approach: define the terms, describe the process, and show the obligatory recursive work flow diagrams. In short order, I’d be treading water (barely) in endlessly circuitous debates on topics like the differences between epics and stories. I wrote about this phenomenon in a previous post as it relates to story points. So how can we avoid being captured by Parkinson’s law of triviality and other cognitive traps?

Words Matter

I discovered that the word “epic” brought forth fatigue inducing memories of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Shakespeare. Instant block. Solution out of reach. It was like putting a priceless, gold-plated, antique picture frame around the picture postcard of a jackalope your cousin Eddie sent you on his way through Wyoming. Supertanker loads of precious time were wasted in endless debates about whether or not something was an epic or a story. So, no more talk of epics. I started calling them “story categories.” Or “chapters.” Or “story bundles.” Whatever it took to get teams onto the idea that “epics” are just one of the dimensions to a story map or product backlog that helps the product owner and agile delivery team keep a sense of overall project scope. Story writing progress accelerated and teams were doing a decent job of creating “epics” without knowing they had done so. Fine tuning their understanding and use of formal scrum epics came later and with much greater ease.

“Sprint” is another unfortunate word in formal scrum. With few exceptions, the people that have been on my numerous scrum teams haven’t sprinted anywhere in decades. Sprinting is something one watches televised from some far away place every four years. Maybe. Given its fundamental tenets and principles, who’s to say a team can’t find a word for the concept of a “sprint” that makes sense to them. The salient rule, it would seem, is that whatever word they choose, the team fully understand that “it” is a time-boxed commitment for completing a defined set of work tasks. And if “tide,” “phase,” or “iteration” gets the team successfully through a project using scrum than who am I to wear a the badge of “Language Police?”

A good coach meets the novice at their level and then builds their expertise over time, structured in a way that matches and challenges the learner’s capacity to learn. I recall from my early Aikido practice the marked difference between instructors who stressed using the correct Japanese name for a technique over those that focused more on learning the physical techniques and described them in a language I could understand. Once I’d learned the physical patterns the verbal names came much more easily.

Full disclosure: this is not as easy when there are multiple scrum teams in the same organization that eventually rotate team members. Similarly, integrating new hires with scrum experience is much easier when the language is shared. But to start, if the block to familiarization with the scrum process revolves around semantic debates it makes sense to adapt the words so that the team can adopt the process then evolve the words to match more closely those reflected in the scrum framework.

Philosophy, System, Mindset, or Process

A similar fate awaited team members that had latched onto the idea that scrum or agile in general is a philosophy. I watched something similar happen in the late 1980’s when the tools and techniques of total quality management evolved into monolithic world views and corporate religions. More recently, I’ve attended meet-ups where conversations about “What is Agile?” include describing the scrum master as “therapist” or “spiritual guide.” Yikes! That’s some pretty significant mission creep.

I’m certain fields like philosophy and psychotherapy could benefit from many of the principles and practices found in agile. But it would be a significant category error to place agile at the same level as those fields of study. If you think tasking an agile novice with writing an “epic” is daunting, try telling them they will need to study and fully understand the “philosophy of agile” before they become good agile practitioners.

The issue is that it puts the idea of practicing agile essentially out of reach for the new practitioner or business leader thinking about adopting agile. The furthest up this scale I’m willing to push agile is that it is a mindset. An adaptive way of thinking about how work gets done. From this frame I can leverage a wide variety of common, real-life experiences that will help those new to agile understand how it can help them succeed in their work life.

Out in the wild, best to work the system and process angles if you want meaningful work to actually get done.

Best Practices or Common Practices

I’m using the phrase “best practices” less and less when working to establish good agile practices. In fact, I’ve stopped using it at all. The primary reason is that it implies there is a set of practices that apply to all circumstances. And in the case of “industry best practices,” they are externally established criteria – they are the best practices and all others have been fully vetted and found wanting. I have found that to be untrue. I’ve also found that people have a hard time letting go of things that are classified as “best.” When your practices are the “best,” there’s little incentive to change even when the evidence strongly suggests there are better alternatives. Moreover, peer pressure works against the introduction of innovative practices. Deviating from a “best” practice risks harsh judgment, retribution, and the dreaded “unprofessional” label.

If an organization is exploring a new area of business or bringing in-house a set of expertise that was previously outsourced, adopting “best” practices may be the smart way to go until some measure of stability has been established. But to keep the initial set of practices and change only as the external definition of “best” changes ends up dis-empowering the organization’s employees. It sends the message, “You aren’t smart enough to figure this out and improve on your own.” When denied the opportunity to excel and improve, employees that need that quality in their work will move one. Over time, the organization is left with just the sort of people who indeed are not inclined to improve – the type of individuals who need well defined job responsibilities and actively resist change of any sort.

There is a dangerous inertia to “best” practices that often goes unnoticed. When one group reaches a level of success by implementing a particular practice, it is touted as one of the keys to its success. And so other groups or organizations adopt the practice. Since everyone wants success, these practices are faithfully implemented according to tradition and change little even as the world around them changes dramatically. In his Harvard Business Review article “Which Best Practice Is Ruining Your Business?”, Freek Vermeulen observes that “when managers don’t see [a] practice as the root cause of their eroding competitive position, the practice persists — and may even spread further to other organizations in the same line of business.” Consequently, business leaders “never connect the problems of today with [a] practice launched years ago.”

“Common” practices, on the other hand, suggest there is room for improvement. They are common because a collection of people have accepted them as generally valuable, not because they are presumed universally true or anointed as “best.” They are derived internally, not imposed externally. As a result, letting go of a “common” practice for a better practice is easier and carries less stigma. With enough adoption throughout the organization, the better practice often becomes the common practice. When we use practices that build upon the collected wisdom from an organization’s experiences we are more likely to take ownership of the process and adapt in ways that naturally lead to improvement.

There are long term benefits to framing prevailing practices as “common.” It reverses the “you are not smart enough” message and encourages practitioners to take more control and ownership in the quality of their practices. Cal Newport argues that “[g]iving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.” This message is at the heart of Dan Pink’s book, “Drive,” in which he makes the case that more control leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity, and more happiness. Pink cites research from Cornell that followed over three hundred small businesses. Half of the businesses deliberately gave substantial control and autonomy to their employees. Over time, these businesses grew at four times the rate of their counterparts.

When you are considering the adoption or pursuit of any best practice, ask yourself, “best” according to whom? It may help avoid some unintended consequences down the line where someone else’s “best” practice yields the worst results for you, your team, or your organization.

References

Newport, C. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Pink, D.H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead

Vermeulen, F. (2012). Which Best Practice Is Ruining Your Business? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/12/which-best-practice-is-ruining