1,000% improvement is a statistical outlier

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This cautionary tale came up a few times at Agile 2010 (yes I know this may be old news!) – including one of the keynote speeches.

“For a million dollars we’ll make you Agile.

Here’s a list of previous clients whom we helped achieve a 1,000% performance improvement. Lead times halved, profits doubled and everyone was AWESOME!.

Here’s some REAL DATA …”

A graph going "up and to the right"

Axis titles shamelessly acquired from a recent company presentation

What you’ve not been told is that those testimonies are statistical outliers!

These are the top 1-5% of companies that have successfully undergone a major transformation. (or the bar was set very low to start with) There are thousands of companies out there that don’t reach these lofty heights.

The journey is longer and harder than the marketing will ever tell you but that’s fine as long as you know what you’re investing in and why.

Your organization is unique. There are many factors about your organization that will make significant improvements hard to achieve and most of them will not be technical. The forces of resistance will be many and will be a mix of institutionalized and personal.

Let’s replay this with a more realistic conversation…

A consultant visits your site, and does a “free” one-day Agile Assessment of your teams.

“OK Boss. Right now you suck at developing software. Give us a million dollars, a year of your time and a willingness to drop productivity for a while and we can make you suck a bit less.”

Furthermore, they won’t actually be able to tell you just how much less you can suck and by when.

Why not?

Back to all those forces of resistance – how many of those can you really prod, assess and quantify in a day or even a week?

Every company, organization and site differs.

The investment may still be worthwhile but it’s time to manage expectations better. Those assessments should highlight where unexpected limitations lie. Maybe they could offer alternative higher priority areas to tackle (rather than up-selling scope).

If product development and software engineering was like cutting coke cans, there really would be a “one true right way” of producing software products.

Moreover. There wouldn’t be a thousand consultancies promising you the moon on a stick, there wouldn’t be conferences on improving the state of the art and there wouldn’t be hundreds of books full of great ideas on how to do/be agile or perform software engineering a little bit better.

In fact chances are there wouldn’t be a competitive software industry.

Or would there?

• Maybe there really is a one true way and the entire software, consulting, authoring and conference industry is in on the joke.

• Maybe all those leading lights on their skiing trip a decade ago came up with one of the world’s greatest “Long Cons”

• Oh and they invited 3M to the party and agreed to promote stickies in the 21st century in exchange for a marketing budget.

Probably not…

There are no “best practices”. Stop looking for them, stop asking consultants and Scrum Masters to implement them.

There are only “best known practices for your current state, knowledge and context”.

When your state, knowledge and context change, it’s time to look at what’s next and more importantly – what’s beyond your current focus – what have you missed or not considered yet?

What did you discard previously because there were constraints or issues preventing them working? (I learned a great term for this from Chris Matts &/or Dan North – I can’t remember which – “Idea Wombling” – seeking out great ideas that were previously discarded)

You may reach a point where your organizational immune system (politics and process) blocks progress.

Sometimes you’ll need outside help to see what’s “better” or learn new ways of working. That outside help can often be more effective at delivering hard truths than you can yourself. It’s worth investing in “straight-talk” from strangers sometimes.

Figure out what is holding larger improvements back (and where) and determine who you could pair with either externally or in a different part of the organization to make a real difference!

We Create The Politics Ourselves

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Back in June 2013 I was asked to facilitate a discussion exploring one of Red Gate’s company values – No Politics. This was the second in a series of open sessions that the company had initiated to preserve and highlight what they have valued for many years and to get to the bottom of what these values mean, their relevance and impact on individuals and teams around the business. The expanded wording for our “No Politics” value is:

No gossiping, no intrigue, no pussy-footing around problems and no telling people what you think they want to hear whilst privately disagreeing. We will be transparent in our dealings.

Many of our staff – myself included – were starting to feel that we were no longer being true to this value.

After an hour’s discussion between about 40 of us including concrete examples of where many of us felt we’d seen or been involved in “politics” we established:

Politics are created when “your needs” conflict in some way with “my needs” and where both “you” and “I” fail to openly communicate.

Taking this further – all the examples of politics we’d seen boiled down to a combination of failures in communication of motive and intent and failure to share conflicting needs. Ironically, we’re usually all trying to achieve the same ultimate goal.

Our encouraged altruistic culture tended to exacerbate the situation further and cause us to wade in when we felt a decision had insufficiently involved those impacted – even when the person taking exception felt the decision was right. (You should have seen the angst when a rapid decision was taken “on high” to move to Github for all product development)

Our values and culture have encouraged this “challenge everything” behaviour for years!

Being on the receiving end of a change or decision we don’t fully understand, agree with or have had no involvement in makes us feel bad, we internalize and build that frustration up and start sharing it in passing conversations, at coffee and in corridors – because we’re entitled to share our opinions. But we’re all pretty gentle and fluffy here. We’re a software company, many of us are shy and conflict-averse. This means we share our worries in private and let them radiate out. (This also means any vocal or forceful minority have much stronger voices)

We create the politics ourselves

Since discussing and recognising this fact I started making a concerted effort to tackle issues head-on again and had a deeply humbling moment when a colleague pulled the “grown up” card on me for my own bad behaviour.

It’s amazing how the weight comes off when you realise that everyone is trying to do the right thing within their own context and needs and often have simply not recognised where this butts up against our own. (And that you have failed to empathize with them!)  Gently calling out those disconnects and addressing them has defused even some of the thorniest conflicts I’ve faced.

Oddly, I hadn’t recognised a link until a serendipitous moment yesterday but my friend Clarke talked me through some aspects of this same challenge a few years ago. He’s since written up his thoughts in detail here.

I also see this same expression and sharing of uncommunicated needs as a cornerstone of non-violent communication.

If you’re still reading, as some background here’s the wording of the full set of values as included in the “Book of Red Gate”  (an earlier 2010 Edition is also available) - we’re reviewing whether these are still the right set and the right words even now but they do capture a lot about working here.

  • You will be reasonable with us. We will be reasonable with you

We’re all trying to treat each other as we would like to be treated in the same circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances are difficult, but we will all still be reasonable.

  • Attempt to do the best work of your life

We’d like you to achieve your own greatness and to be all that you can be. We’ll try hard to allow that to happen and we’d like you to try hard too.

  • Motivation isn’t about carrots and sticks

Constant oversight and the threat of punishment are incompatible with great, fulfilling work. We believe in creating appropriate constraints and then giving people the freedom to excel.

  • Our best work is done in teams 

We work in groups and towards a common goal. The company is more important than the team, and the team is more important than the individual.

  • Don’t be an asshole

No matter how smart you are, or how good you are at narrowly defined tasks, there is no room for you here if you’re an asshole.

  • Get the right stuff done

We admire people who get stuff done.  While there’s a place for planning, thinking and process it is better to try – and try well – and fail than not to try at all.

  • Visible mistakes are a sign that we are a healthy organization

What we do is very difficult, the current situation is hard to understand and the future is uncertain. Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of attempting to get the right stuff done. Unless we can make mistakes visible both individually and collectively we will be doomed to mediocrity.

  • No politics

No gossiping, no intrigue, no pussy-footing around problems and no telling people what you think they want to hear whilst privately disagreeing. We will be transparent in our dealings.

  • Do the right things for our customers

We believe that if we do what is right for our customers then we will thrive.

  • Profits are only a way of keeping score, not the game itself

Focusing purely on the numbers is a sure way to kill Red Gate’s culture. We believe that if we focus on the game – building awesome products that people want to buy, and then persuading them to buy them – the success will follow.

  • We will succeed if we build wonderful, useful products

Shipping something amazing is better than creating something average and to budget and on time. We cannot market, sell, manage or account our way to success.

  • We base our decisions on the available evidence

Not on people’s opinions, the volume of their voices or who they are. When the evidence changes, we are prepared to change our minds. We will thank, and never shoot, the messenger.

  • We count contribution, not hours

What you achieve is more important than how long it takes.

A Year of Whiteboard Evolution

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Back in December last year I started supporting Red Gate’s .NET Developer Tools Division. As of this month, we’ve restructured the company and from next week, the old division will be no more (although the team are still in place in their new home).

When I joined the team things were going OK but they had the potential to be so much more so I paired up with Dom their project manager and we set to work.

The ANTS Performance Profiler 8.0 project was well under way already and the team had a basic Scrum-like process in place (without retrospectives), a simple whiteboard and a wall for sharing the “big picture”.

I spent the first week on the team simply getting to know everyone, how things worked and observing the board, the standups and the team activities.

We learned some time ago here at Red Gate that when you ask a team to talk you through their whiteboard, they tell the story of their overall process and how it works. Our whiteboards capture a huge amount about what we do and how we do it.

I attempted to document and capture at least some key parts of the journey we’ve have over the year in which we released over a dozen large product updates across our whole suite of tools. This post is picture heavy with quite limited narrative but I hope you’ll enjoy the process voyeurism :) If there’s any specifics you have questions about, please ask and I’ll expand.

Next time, I think I’ll get a fixed camera and take daily photos!

The end result? Multiple releases of all 5 of our .NET tools including a startup and quality overhaul for our 2 most popular products, support for a bunch of new database platforms, full VS2013 support (before VS2013 was publicly released), Windows 8 and 8.1 compatibility and a huge boost for the morale of the team.  See for yourself if you’re interested!

Of course this is just one aspect of what I’ve been up to. You might notice the time between photos over the summer grew a little. See my last post for more insights into what happens at Red Gate Towers.

Busy Times – Personal Development, Organizational Restructuring and Big Rocks

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I’ve been quiet on here for a few weeks as I’ve been head-down on some pretty major work at Red Gate and publishing what I and the team have been up to on their freshly launched dev.red-gate.com mini-site.

Here’s a roundup of the highlights:

“Slack” – Exploring how we approach “slack time”. Ensuring slack is available to the right people at the right time and trying to keep it guilt-free.

A Manifesto (of sorts) for personal development – what we expect from each other in developing ourselves and our careers. The outcome of 2 months of Genchi Genbutsu (go see at the source) – asking some really direction questions face to face (individually) with every single member of our development teams.

Top Tips for personal development – 12 Tips on personal development from Red Gate’s development team (plus another 12 linked from this one). These are the tips we use as part of our new personal development plans but are equally useful as prompts to simply “get out and do something”.

Skills Maps - An overview of the skills maps we’re developing at Red Gate for our development team roles (it turns out what we’re trying is pretty unique and developed a bit of a buzz.

Personal Development Plans – A distillation of the “Stop trying to fix your weaknesses” articles posted on here over the last couple of months. We’re still rolling these out but the trials from a dozen managers and staff so far have been resoundingly positive.

Fresh off the press yesterday; Organizational Restructuring – An Insider View – Putting Convergence & Divergence into practice. How Red Gate are performing a complete organizational restructuring to their teams without the usual cloak and dagger HR hell.

Finally, Johanna Hunt and I have paired up again on our “Cracking Big Rocks” cards and workshop. After much editing, re-editing and review we published the second edition of the card deck at the end of September and took them out for a first run at Agile Cambridge. The revised deck includes a few new patterns, rewording of many of the old ones, some basic instructions and some lovely artwork on a few of the cards from our good friend Paul Stapleton.

Enjoy the Friday reading.

 

 

 

Stop Trying to Fix Your Weaknesses (Part 3)

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It’s been a month since I last posted about the work I’ve been doing around career development.  Things are moving well and trials of the process described in the first 2 posts in this series have been really successful and way more popular than I expected. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it has been really excited and we’re now doing an expanded second round of trials with another 20 staff before adjusting and rolling out as a tool to all our development teams.

This is just a quick post to highlight a few tweaks and important points for anyone wanting to try this themselves…

Participant feedback

So far everyone that’s tried it has found it really useful. My 2 favorite quotes so far…

“I never would have thought of some of the areas to action without this process”

“I’m better able to prioritize actions because of the process”

This will almost certainly work best for people with quite a strong sense of self-awareness and self-improvement already (as does any development plan) and remember you can’t force this on someone.

There’s bound to be cases where this process doesn’t work but we’ve not found one yet. If you try this yourself, we’d love to hear how it’s worked for you and remember, after trying it out once or twice, it’s worth tailoring to your own needs further.

 Recommended Adjustments 

  • Clarity - In a change to the original recommendation (working blind), we’ve found it’s more useful to share a clear agenda and state where we are in the process and why at each step so people understand what they’re meant to be thinking about and know what’s left to do.
  • Skill Levels - In addition to the “out of 10” ratings, we’re going to try developees/managers discussing where they feel they stand in terms of SLII (Situational Leadership) development level (e.g. D1-D4). This requires a bit more thought in understanding the differences but keeps our teams  aligned with our broader efforts to use SLII when developing each other. We’ve not tried this bit yet (but will be doing so in the next couple of weeks) so it’ll be an experiment within an experiment – we’ll be seeking feedback and thoughts on how this best works.
  • Action Grid - Rather than defining all the actions in the action grid up-front; partially filling the set of actions at the beginning and then pulling more in after each step seems to work better for people. It’s important however that developees have filled something in each space to work from toward the end of the session before transferring things across to their plan grid. The idea with pushing for all these actions is to stretch our thinking a bit and gently encourage people out of their normal comfort zone.
  • Supporting the write-up -  It’s still really important that the developee writes this up for themselves but format can be a bit challenging. Whilst we have a couple of people using Mural.ly and one other gave this a shot with excel, we’ve found keeping the visual management aspect afterward is important.  Here’s a “blank” PowerPoint presentation with heading placeholders and post-it templates to help people along. 

Pitfalls / Caution

  • Skills Categories - The skills category columns (Job/Role, Soft Skills, Domain/Industry) can be a bit tricky. We’re developing a role-based skills map for each role in development that participants can use as a cue (I’m planning to post more about how this is developing over the next month).  Our suggestion here is to select a subset of these skills and traits to talk about in more depth rather than using them all.
  • Flow - As we’re looking at similar things from multiple angles to find patterns, there’s not always a logical progression through activities. This is deliberate but can sometimes feel a bit “bumpy”.
  • Time - This takes a lot of time and effort (a minimum of 2 hours depending on how “chatty” the participant is) you could consider breaking it up into 3 sub-meetings:
    • Current activities/direction
    • Skills session (including one small next step)
    • Actions brainstorm around common themes (using action grid)

(I’d still aim for running one straight-through session first time around as the energy from doing it all in one shot is fantastic)

  • Managing the session - Seriously avoid time-boxing each step. It’s better to reserve more time and let each part play out naturally.
  • Energy - This can be quite an exhausting session for both participants and we know one size won’t fit everyone so it’s worth setting expectations that this is hard work. I’d recommend running this when participants both have a lot of energy (e.g. start at ~10AM)
  • Follow-through - It’s really important that you follow up within the first 2 weeks to ensure the write-up is done and first actions are planned, (Momentum tails off really fast for development plans) and then remember to follow up regularly – e.g. on a monthly basis after that.
  • Longer-term - We expect people to want to return to this session in future but not to need to spend quite the same level of effort again unless they’re radically altering their role and direction. At the moment, my thinking is an in-depth refresh after about a year however you may feel like 6 months is more useful.