alacrity in action
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It appears to be the height of the political parties conference season here in the UK. It means politicians get to make many announcements about their policy choices. Now imagine one of the political parties decided to announce that during the next parliament they will work to increase the average speed of cars on the roads. In principle you can see the benefits of decreased travel time and thus earlier arrival at your destination. In practice however I suspect you would quickly discard such policy as not being sensible. You most likely understand the relationship between speed, safety, road capacity, vehicles’ capabilities, traffic, congestion, etc. We tend to understand traffic because it’s tangible and we experience it either actively or passively almost every day.

When it comes to software development however even practical experience doesn’t always create the same level of understanding. Writing software is not tangible – it’s just “bits and bytes on disc” – and hence it’s much more difficult to obtain meaningful feedback which is essential to developing a correct mental model.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why organisations adopting Agile jump on the bandwagon of “increasing speed of software delivery”. It makes sense to want to deliver working code more quickly and with the initial introduction of Scrum or another agile approach a step change is often experienced. However, just like increasing speed on the roads, on it’s own an understandably futile effort, so it appears to me is the common focus on lowering the cycle time.

My point here is not to draw any direct parallels between driving and building software though I hope it serves as a useful illustration. I would like to emphasise that a holistic approach which includes the understanding of all the elements involved and their interactions is essential to providing a basis for continuous improvement.

Now, a party which declares to commit to improving the road infrastructure makes far more sense in my mind. So where would you like to see improvements focused for software development?

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Corporate Responsibility Hides Behind Ties photo by _Loaf_ on flickrI was considering recently whether a person higher in an organisation’s hierarchy should override a decision taken by their subordinates if they thought it was wrong. I realised an underlying assumption that I ignored in that discussion. The assumption is that decisions, taken higher up the chain of command, are more important because of a higher level of responsibility bestowed on the person taking them.

I don’t have a clear answer is my head yet, so I welcome your input on the few thoughts that follow.

I have always been told that managers and senior managers and directors in organisations earn more money than “regular” employees because they have more responsibility. I suspect this is a fairly common point of view. Those who are paid more have a larger share of the money, more skin in the game so they should also have a larger share of responsibility – they approve decisions and they should be held to account. Sounds like a sensible justification (or should I call this a rationalisation perhaps).

Looking at it in a systemic way: more responsibility means more money and more money means more responsibility… can you see it yet? A reinforcing feedback loop; A small factor perhaps to explain why in some businesses pay of the top staff spiral out of proportion.

Responsibility seems to be something people are not very comfortable with. It is often easier to have someone else to fall back on than to face all the consequences yourself. For some, it provides sufficient justification for not progressing with their “careers” – they don’t want the extra responsibility. For others, who are willing to take the extra burden, it’s the expectation of an additional remuneration. The pigs and chickens story comes to mind too.

Yet for some reason this logic always seemed flawed to me.

I have rarely seen the most senior people in organisations take the most responsibility. The very thing they are allegedly paid to do, they seem to, somehow, escape. Instead, when things go wrong, they look downwards to find someone to lay the blame on. Imagine the CEO of a supermarket issuing a personal apology when you’ve been sold and out-of-date product? No? Me neither.

It would appear more logical for the level of pay to be related to your contribution (success mode) rather than your assumed responsibility (failure mode). Alas, people are not entirely rational; psychological experiments demonstrate we focus more on avoiding losses than increasing gains, even if the loss is only a perceived one.

So far I only know of a handful examples where this common status quo is challenged, where pay is influenced or even decided by the employees, where contribution is more important than responsibility. Semco comes to mind, perhaps Netflix or Fogcreek to some extend and companies turned into partnerships like John Lewis.

What do you think?

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Every now and then my twitter stream comes up with an interesting statement or question that sparks some reflection. The latest one came from Paweł:

Should a senior manager veto decision of one of their team leads if they don't agree with it? Or should they do nothing and see results?
Pawel Brodzinski

I’m going to treat is slightly broader, speaking of a team rather then just a team lead.

This is not only an interesting question but also one which, I bet, often gets asked, especially as teams gain autonomy in organisations. Let’s leave out, for the time being, the more fundamental issue, whether we need managers at all, and Bob has some tasty thoughts about this.

Let’s consider the two possible solutions to this conundrum.

Veto the decision.

This is most likely the default answer in traditional, command and control organisations. When seniority and position in the hierarchy is confused with experience and knowledge senior managers fell obliged to make their stamp and protect their subordinates from doing the wrong thing. I hope this approach immediately raises your concern, at least a bit. First of all, the higher up you are in the chain-of-command the more removed you usually become from where the real work is done and your understanding of the context and specific challenges diminishes. More importantly however, to blindly veto your team’s decision is a stark demonstration that you don’t trust their judgment or their knowledge. It undermines their autonomy (assuming they had some to begin with) and demotivates them from taking responsibility for their own actions in the future.

Let the team fail.

If you care about your team accepting responsibility, about their autonomy and motivation you may think that the best outcome then is to do nothing and wait for the result. After all, you might accept that you are wrong in your opinion or you may want to give the team an opportunity to learn and fail. The team will continue with their own, independent decisions towards some outcome. They may succeed, or they may fail. If the latter outcome realises don’t be tempted to go and say “well, I always knew this was a bad idea but I wanted you to learn for yourselves”. Regardless, by not sharing your concerns you are withholding information from the team which can potentially harm the team and thus the organisation.

There is a third way.

When Paweł initially asked this question my immediate reaction was that it is irresponsible to do either. It felt very similar to the problem of delegation. “To delegate or not” appears to be a puzzle for many managers. Jurgen gives a good solution to this one reminding us that there are in fact perhaps as many as seven different levels of delegation between the two extremes.

I believe it’s better to aim for the middle in this particular situation too. My preferred choice would be for the manager to honestly and openly approach the team. They should share their concerns in a neutral manner giving the team the information and the context they might be missing. Seeking to learn their position on the problem, exploring the different potential outcomes, exposing any implicit assumptions that either side might be holding and then allowing the team to take an independent, but hopefully better informed, decision. And even though it sounds like a long-winded process it can all be done in a 15 minute chat at a cafeteria.

However, remember what Senge repeats after Argyris

If there is disagreement, it’s usually expressed in a manner that lays blame, polarises opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying assumptions and experience in a way that the team as a whole could learn from.

If that were the case, perhaps the question we begun with is not even the right question to be asking.

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I’m reading Flow at the moment, I’m looking at whats going on at Stoos, I’m recalling my different work experiences… and I’m thinking what might be wrong with the world at work.

Perhaps the problem with management these days is not just a problem of management. What if we also contributed by accepting the unacceptable status quo, by remaining silent when we should speak up, by holding on to a job we should have left long time ago? By forgoing the fundamental rights we should have had at work? Like these rights that just came to my mind:

  • right to respect and dignity
  • right to express my opinion
  • right to influence my work
  • right to enjoy my work
  • right to be happy

Yes. I have a right to enjoy my work. If I don’t enjoy my work it is my duty to speak up. It is my duty to take action, support change or leave the current employer. Regardless of my position, regardless of my title, regardless of my responsibilities.

I think of these rights not only as entitlement though, but also as an opportunity, a challenge, an obligation (via @auxbuss) and a direction. I can’t expect these to just happen to me, I have to consciously invest my psychic energy to continually improve in the direction they indicate.

What if we all did that?

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Lindesberg from flickr by Ahopsi

This morning, as I was cycling to work, I have noticed my rear tyre would do with some more air. I stopped by a large supermarket to see if I could buy a bike pump. Having quickly scanned the shelves with DIY and car accessories and some household goods, without much luck, I turned to one of the staff members:

– “Excuse me, do you know if you have any bike pumps?”
– “I’m sorry sir, we don’t. A lot of people are asking about it though…”

It’s not the first time I have had a conversation like that and it always baffles me. Clearly, there is an opportunity for the shop to sell an article. They could make some money or at least attract more customers. Clearly, people who work at the shop know very well about it and yet, it is being lost. The information does not reach the shop manager or they choose to ignore it. Those “at the top” believe they know better to make the right decisions.

I was also shopping at another supermarket. This time I couldn’t find my favourite olives so I asked a member of staff. After a nice conversation he said a lot of people were asking for them and they will be in stock from next week. The member of staff on the shop floor turned out be the shop manager. We regularly shop there now.

So which kind of supermarket is your company?