In Lean manufacturing setting up feedback loops is considered a critical part of the operation, so much so there is a term for this – Andon – a system to notify management, maintenance, and other workers of a quality or process problem.
The principle is that it gives the worker the ability, and moreover the empowerment, to stop production when a defect is found, and immediately call for assistance. Workers are encouraged to use this feedback mechanism freely. Common reasons for manual activation of the Andon are part shortage (dependency), defect created or found, stoppage, or the existence of a safety problem. Work is generally stopped until a solution has been found.
Loosely translated an Andon is a Paper Lantern – To shine a light on a problem.
Sounds great in principle, any worker is empowered to give feedback to management if they have concerns over safety quality or even a weakness in a process, but for it to become culture it needs to be adopted in a no-blame manner and used frequently, lack of utilization of an Andon is a serious problem and is addressed in Lean.
If a feedback mechanism is not triggered regularly then the settings are considered too loose. The threshold for triggering an Andon would continually be made tighter and tighter, quality is expected to be higher, time for a task is squeezed and so on until there is an increase in frequency of Andon being used.
The aim is to get a regular feedback of actionable information, too little and the feedback loop has failed, too much and you cannot see the problem so it needs tuning and adjusting slowly.
What does that mean to us in a non-manufacturing environment?
We have got pretty good at retrospectives and giving feedback locally, but feedback to management is largely absent.
The difficulty in many organizations is that senior management hide behind an open door policy. “Employees can talk to me any time, my door is always open”. It is very easy to pretend you are open to feedback but much harder to actually be open.
“Employees can talk to me at any time, my door is always open”
– the unapproachable manager
In many cases the open door is actually an invisible barricade: fear of retribution, fear of not being supported, fear of being ignored, fear of the messenger being shot. In many cases the fear is justified, but even when it isn’t, it doesn’t make the fear any less real to those with genuine feedback to share.
Creating Feedback Loops
Just like with Andon, this is feedback that should be sought and encouraged and your measure should be how frequently you are given constructive feedback from your employees, if you are challenged regularly and respond to it regularly then it is working, but if you are not getting regular feedback (from those outside your inner circle) then it is likely your “open door” is not that open.
Has someone in the last week given you critical feedback without being asked?
If on the occasions you do explicitly ask for feedback are you bombarded with hostile questions? Do the questions catch you by surprise? Do people seem dis-satisfied with your responses? Do you only ask for feedback when people quit? If yes then perhaps you are not asking for feedback often enough, or are not responding to the feedback you are getting.
Feedback is not passive
Feedback is generally not passive, you need to invite it, create forums where feedback is invited and expected, be open to the feedback and when you are not willing to change be prepared to explain yourself, and be prepared to repeat yourself.
It really comes down to whether you truly are a feedback culture, if you are you have to work for it.
Would it surprise you to learn that the person in your team or company that regularly works 60 hours a week (and makes sure everyone knows it) is very likely the least productive person on the team?
The person working 60 hours is likely the least productive person on the team.
And I don’t simply mean that productivity diminishes after 40 hours, I mean absolute total productive output is less from someone working 60 hours compared to someone working less than 40. The reality is that you would actually get more done by NOT working that time than you will working those extra hours.
This is a hard pill to swallow in a culture where ‘working hard’ is seen as a virtue, and the more hours I work the more virtuous I am. Long hours are often assumed to show commitment, dedication, loyalty. Maybe they do, but they don’t show productivity. If your company values those things above actual productivity then so be it, but understanding that it is about those attributes rather than productivity is a rather brutal fact to face. However, if you want to produce more and maintain high quality then you need to work less hours.
I am likely to offend a few hardworking people with this but my assessment of the findings of these studies is that is is a subconscious manifestation of Parkinson’s law. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” If I expect to work 60 hours then I’ll make my work last 60 hours.
Not just a European thing.
Europeans have a reputation for favoring reduced working hours and I’m sure it is an ongoing frustration to those in America that despite typically working more hours, American companies are consistently similarly or less productive than their European or Japanese counterparts despite the longer working hours and less vacation.
Interestingly, the study was actually a 12 year study by the Ford Motor Company of production in the USA.
Henry Ford… again.
Before I go into the study in more detail I’d like to go back in time and talk about the history of working hours and in particular Henry Ford.
If we go back 150 years there were campaigns all over the world to reduce the working week from 16 hour days, 6 days a week – 96 hours was considered a normal working week for many. Forward thinkers pushed for limiting the working day to 10 hours with breaks for food – a radical concept at the time.
Over time much of this became law despite fierce objection from industry, and by 1914 a normal working week was 9 hour days, 6 days a week. The pressure until then mostly came from humanitarian motives and agendas, and perhaps because of that, businesses took steps to prevent it taking hold, reducing pay in line with reduced hours so a reduction of 20% of hours came with a reduction of 20% in wages, this undermined the whole movement.
But then came Henry Ford. Ford created the 5 day working week, and a limit of 40 hours, but best of all he did it for profit and not for social good. At the time his factories worked 6 days and 9 hours a day (54 hours per week) just like everyone else, but he reduced working hours by 25% and instead of cutting wages he doubled them.
The productivity increases resulting from reducing hours were so significant that Henry Ford was attacked by the Wall Street Journal “To double the minimum wage, without regard to length of service, is to apply Biblical or spiritual principles where they do not belong.” going on to say “in his social endeavor he has committed blunders, if not crimes. They may return to plague him and the industry he represents, as well as organized society.”
As you can imagine his competition was not happy either, paying more for “less hours” was maddening, but what really made them mad was that productivity jumped up massively. People simply couldn’t get their heads around the idea that less hours increased overall productivity. Slowly the competition copied Ford and got the same results, productivity went up for less hours, and eventually this carried across to office workers too. But even with those starting results and seemingly unquestionable evidence we stubbornly cling to the notion that more work is more productive.
Last time the proposed reduction in hours was met with hostility but eventually it was seen as beneficial to everyone, especially the business owners that fought so hard against it. Once again studies show that reducing hours will increase overall productivity, and once again industry is pushing back on it in the face of the evidence. Challenging established culture with only facts is apparently not an easy battle.
Studies repeatedly show that long hours (40+ hour) results in reduced productivity, reduced quality and a less healthy lifestyle, and yet society still perceives the number of hours worked as a measure of hard work.
It is as if we see more value in the hours worked than the output of their labour. Someone that works 30 hours and produces 30 widgets is seen as less valuable than someone that works 60 hours and produces 25 widgets, because he works so much harder.
In our culture we see more value in the hours worked than we do in the output of our labour.
How did we get into such a mindset and how do we challenge that way of thinking. Surely we should reward the more productive and effective person? But we don’t, we reward the inefficient, we lift up Jane for being here at 7:30 PM finishing up his work and we criticize Anne who got all her work done and left at 4.
Part of the problem, especially in knowledge work, is that productivity is not easy to measure, just like quality and mistakes are hard to quantify. So rather than focusing on what is important we focus on what is easiest to measure – number of hours in the office, it is ironic that in our laziness in finding effective measures we end up working longer hours.
So what about overtime?
There is more bad news in the 12 year study by Ford they found that overtime (over 40 hours) results in reduced productivity in the long term. 40 hours is the very limit of maximum total productivity for a manual worker, this applies in both the short and long term.
Short term (less than 3 weeks) there are productivity gains for working beyond 40 hours, but after 3 weeks those gains disappear and actually reduce productivity afterwards. Even just 2 weeks of overtime and then stopping results in more loss in recovery than the gain made in the short term boost.
In other words, yes you can make a short-term gain using overtime to meet a deadline, but it will cost you more than you gain over the following weeks. So use it wisely and expect a recovery period.
Bad news for knowledge workers
For knowledge workers the news is worse still, the point of peak productivity is under 35 hours, and any hours above that are actually damaging, quality is markedly worse, mistakes and resulting corrections mean that productivity reduces dramatically when knowledge workers work beyond 35 hours, primarily because fatigue, stress and concentration have a profound impact on the quality rather than the quantity of work. We simply cannot be creative when tired, we struggle to solve problems come up with ideas or compose constructive discourse and debate, we are actually very likely making things worse not better and the clean up cost for knowledge work – bad decisions, introduced bugs, stifled creativity is far more damaging than not being there.
Worse news for Lawyers
Lawyers are typically in an unfortunately situation where they bill by the hour rather than by quality or even quantity of work. They are essentially encouraged by their business model to be unproductive (not consciously, it is just a product of the business model). Essentially a 60 hours week for them is the result of rewarding bad behavior, if you pay for time they take more time, pay for productivity and we become more productive. We also reward with status the hard working guy that is willing to sacrifice his weekend for the appearance of working harder. More encouragment of bad behavior.
In ‘bill by the hour‘ work environments it is a challenge to change the model, productivity is hard to measure – even if we see stress, mistakes and problems taking longer to solve. So it is hard to convince clients that working less is more productive, especially when it means charging more, and it becomes even harder when we can’t even convince ourselves because this notion is so culturally ingrained in us.
It is pretty simple really if you want to maximize the productivity of your teams, then reduce their maximum working hours to less than 35 hours (without reducing pay). They will work harder and more effectively for five 6-hours days than they will for 8 or 10-hour days. Your overall productivity will be higher.
Or work 8-hours, 4-days a week and you will find your teams will be more focused, more energized and and noticeably more creative. They will be happier, harder working and make less mistakes. They WILL get more done and it will be higher quality and more creative. They will also be refreshed have a happier home life.
Or we can ignore the brutal facts and continue to pretend that working long hours is a good thing, and praising the guy that works 60 hours a week and yet produces less than a part-time worker.
Note: my wife finds this particularly amusing as I work long hours and when I’m not working I’m blogging and when I’m not blogging I’m working on my game or running meet ups – there is a significant degree of hypocrisy and self-denial at play here.
Let’s not underestimate the difficulty here, this is a complex topic, and it is unlikely to be accepted any time soon, there is a lot of resistance – and that resistance is not based on a lack of facts or data. There are numerous studies on this topic, all with the same findings. Oddly enough despite the strong resistance to this idea, I couldn’t find a single study that didn’t find that overall productivity went down when hours went above 35-40 hours. There were even some studies that showed that regularly working 60 hours resulted in the same number of mistakes and level of performance as being drunk.
(If you see a study that contradicts this please share it, I spent quite a few hours on this but couldn’t fine one – and no, the contradiction has not escaped me.)
Decision makers typically work longer hours and it is effectively theirmoney, asking them to pay more for the perception of ‘less‘ work is never going to be an easy decision. We come from a puritan culture where we make a cultural assessment of someone based on effort not outcome. Deep-down we know this is not objective, I think we know this is wrong, but culture is not based in logic and changing culture will take more than facts and figures. It needs someone like Henry Ford to lead the way again.
I am continually fascinated by the notion of self-organising teams, how they motivate themselves and how you can create an environment that is conducive to self-motivation.
Unfortunately my experience is that self-management works for the minority and is highly rewarding and highly effective, but it does not work for all. Bystander Syndrome is prevalent and too often the plants do not get watered. Why don’t developers water the plants?
So, recently I ran an experiment and discussion on the general low involvement and engagement of extra-curricular activities. In particular events that are considered to be core to the effective working of the company but are not explicitly part of your core objectives.
The premise of the experiment is that we have become more focused on benefit to ourselves or benefit to our local teams, rather than the benefit to the wider organisation.
For those out there ready to point out that an experiment requiring voluntary attendance already excludes those that are more focused on themselves – you got me!
I stacked the deck in favour of the more social minded of the organisation.
Our organisation is very much built around self-organisation and we are expected to manage our own time and priorities. However, we have a number of activities that are ‘global’ in scope: some where the time spent is voluntary and expected to be worked above and around billable time. Or facilitating other team’s retrospectives which is billable time but can conflict with your primary team priorities. Even our Guilds, which are groups of people based around a single focus or competency have an implied ongoing commitment to attend regularly. Finally, “Lunch and Learns” or bookclubs where there is opportunity to share ideas and learn from colleagues, which is a core cultural goal of the organisation but is done as part of your personal development and on your own time.
All of these activities could be considered to be valuable to the organisation and in most cases to you personally (directly or indirectly), but all require an investment of time and effort. My observation is that in many cases the involvement is diminishing either proportionally or absolutely as we grow. Attendance at lunchtime events seems to be diminishing, involvement in volunteer groups like guilds is a challenge to the organisers and maintaining membership is probably the number one challenge.
The goal of the discussion was to identify ideas for how we maintain or stimulate these activities and how to involve a wider audience, preferably without putting a greater burden on a few (and often the same few people), and without directing people to attend, which is counter to our culture.
We played a game loosely based on the ‘Public Good Game’ We set up two relatively large groups. All participants were given $10 each and the game is played in rounds.
Each round players can contribute as much or as little as they like to ‘a pot’ but the total contributions will be combined and then a pre-determined bonus would be added to it. One team got a 30% bonus the other team a 40% bonus.
All players were asked to choose how much to contribute, in the 30% team the contributions were visible, in the 40% team the contributions were secret.
If you apply pure logic, the maximum gain is obtained by everyone contributing fully, that way everyone gains a lot. But an individual can work out that by opting out and reducing their individual contribution they can benefit at the expense of others.
Over the course of a number of rounds as more and more people realise that others are not contributing fully, they will either call the others out for not contributing, OR they too opt out and eventually those that are still contributing receive back less than they contribute and at that point system fails as everyone eventually opts out.
What we found was that the transparent team reminded each other and kept the focus on the public benefit and maintained a better contribution level, the secret contributions team had two or three participants who were able to benefit considerably at the expense of others by not contributing (leeching from the pot). There was sufficient reward to keep the others motivated although that was diminishing each round. Overall it was the transparent team that benefitted more, but both teams missed out on a huge amount of potential benefit by a focus on personal gain.
In the recap there was a suggestion that it was unclear whether the goal of the game was for collective gain or individual gain – e.g. How did we measure the winner?
But the reality is that this is the same quandary that we face in our day to day life, are we working for the benefit of ourselves or our team or our company? All our choices for extra-curricular activities are an investment of our own time and effort and we are motivated either for personal gain (what is in it for me?) or collective gain (How would me attending benefit my team/company?)
Many of the arguments we heard were around billing, and utilisation. There seems to be a reluctance to use personal time for ‘extra-curricular’ learning, which implies that there is a perceived lack of sufficient personal benefit from involvement in these activities.
In other cases such as facilitation and helping other teams people are balancing time spent with their local team against involvement in activities that benefit a wider group. The question is… Which is more important?
The challenge for us then is how to change priorities such that activities that benefit the company as a whole are perceived as valuable (not necessarily more valuable but valuable enough to make that effort), or to highlight the benefits to us as individuals resulting from a greater involvement in company wide activities.
The conversation that followed created some great ideas, as well as highlighting some of the concerns.
The Dunbar number
Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.
Dunbar has a theory that as groups exceed a certain number approximately 150 people their sense of community diminishes and the group becomes less effective, less cohesive and it is more difficult to self-organise.
Many of the issues raised could be interpreted to have their root in the Dunbar number. As we grow we don’t personally know the other people that are presenting at LnLs or the others that are attending the guild meetings. This lack of personal attachment results in a diminished sense of interest, ownership and responsibility, skipping is downplayed as it is only letting down people you don’t know, or an assumption that others will attend.
Ideas for increased engagement
Educate people on calendar etiquette, e.g. show up if you accept
Increase advertising/promotion of events and activities
Write up a “What you missed” summary for those that didn’t attend
Leaders show support by attending,
Reward directly or indirectly those that present and/or attend
Make clear the purpose or learning goals of events
Introduce compulsory lunch breaks, or compulsory attendance
Highlight the understanding/visibility of what happens when you don’t step up
Identify Champions to help organise and promote these activities
Have fixed times/days for lunchtime activities to regulate number and ensure quality.
Invite only those from a sub-group (accept Dunbar’s Number and work with it).
Our goal with this experiment was to gain ideas and gain a better understanding of the problem and to share these concerns with a wider audience, we were not aiming for a solution to the problem just a start to the conversation.
Any more thoughts or ideas on this would be greatly appreciated
After [reading / posting] a recent article on waste, (read it here), someone asked me why we shouldn’t do work that we will need later if it is more efficient to do it now? You have already dug the hole—doesn’t it make sense to do all the work in that area together?
This is very similar to the argument for splitting stories horizontally along business layers: “We can be more efficient if we optimize and specialize.”
Yes, you might achieve local efficiencies by taking these steps. But local efficiency is not the most important factor in your decisions. Efficiencies and optimizations need to be considered in the context of the whole system.
The primary goal is to Maximize Value Early
For both project and support work, our goal is to maximize value for our organization, and to realize this value as early as possible. In a consultancy firm, there is a slight abstraction, as work is paid based on time and materials, and these steps are distributed between client and team. Regardless of who owns the following steps, success depends on shared awareness of these priorities.
The 4 Steps
The four steps are designed to focus our energy where it will have the most impact first, and then building upon the previous step by shrinking the focus area through each subsequent step. Hence they are in descending order of impact.
1 – Prioritization
(Selecting Which Project/Product to Build Next?)
The most important decision your organization needs to make is which work will bring the most value NEXT. This has the most impact on your company’s bottom line, so should get the lion’s share of effort and focus.
Describing the value a project will bring is far and away the most important aspect of software delivery. If possible, create a formula for calculating business value to help with these decisions. If you are unable to quantify or qualify the value to the organization of the work being undertaken (at a high level), then you are likely working on the wrong thing and all other actions you take could be waste.
Some projects/products will obviously bring in huge amounts of revenue. Others may save huge costs in manual entry and work-hours. Some may support business-critical systems that, if not supported, create extensive risk and potential cost. A project might also fulfill a safety or regulatory concern, or business objective.
Naturally this is complicated and can be difficult. Priorities change. Time factors and organizational politics come into play. A lot of the time you will be making informed guesses about value and costs. But this decision dwarfs all of the others in the impact to the bottom line, so is critical to put the right amount of effort here.
I would consider this to be the responsibility of the Program Manager or Project Management Office, but I see the responsibility to be to identify the projects that will bring most value to the organization as the end of their role. “Day-to-day Project Management” responsibility lies elsewhere.
I would however strongly encourage this decision-making process to be transparent and inclusive. Hold a regular Project review board and invite the stakeholders. Make the process clear and help everyone understand how the decisions are made. I would also suggest a visible roadmap of work planned.
Finally, I would encourage you to not plan beyond your company’s horizon. If new work is likely to emerge in the next 3 months that may significantly change priorities, then only plan for 3 months. Only start a product or project at a point you feel committed and certain it will be completed. Starting something with the expectation of pausing or pivoting suggests it wasn’t the most important thing to work on next.
2 – Direction
(Product Ownership – Building the right Product)
Whether this a new product or supporting an existing product, it is important to ensure that you build the right product, Product Ownership is covered in lots of detail in other places so I won’t go in to details but I suggest watching this video:
Like prioritization in Step 1, the most important responsibility in Product Ownership is Maximizing value–Are you working on the most valuable thing next? You do this through experience and through feedback from users and stakeholders.
Feedback is crucial. To get frequent user feedback, you should be thinking about how you intend to deploy your software and then update it regularly. You should be thinking of this before or with your first story.
Deployment and ongoing updates should not be an after-thought.
Product Ownership is also about maximizing the work not done. The product should meet the needs and goals but only do what is necessary. There will be a point when the returns diminish. All work carries an opportunity cost, and at some point your time is more valuably spent elsewhere. Understanding this is vital.
Finally, I want to stress the importance of getting value to the customer quickly. Value is only realized when the software is used. We should be striving to getting the software in use as soon as possible. This may be in an unfinished state. It may be only a partial solution, but it should be adding value. e.g. it can be used alongside an existing product, or it could be used for this workflow but for another you use another tool etc.
Feedback from people actually using your software is the most valuable feedback you can get.
Just like prioritizing projects, prioritizing stories has far more impact on the success of the project than the following steps.
3 – Quality
(Build the Product Right)
Building the right product is more important than building it right. Building the wrong product is just a waste. But that doesn’t mean that quality is not important.
Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.
When assessing cost of software, it is easy to focus on the initial development cost alone. But support maintenance and future enhancements all fall into the total lifetime cost of a product. The cost of defects magnifies over time, and the cost of supporting poor quality code is significantly higher and more risky. Re-learning and knowledge transfer are painful and costly to an organization and I can think of numerous examples where companies have been forced to abandon projects or replace software because they lost a key employee who had the knowledge locked in his head–or software so fragile no one dares touch it.
Good practices such as Test Driven Development, Pair Programming, Behaviour Driven Development and Automated Regression Testing may seem costly at first. But when considered in the context of lifetime cost, they are a sound investment. More importantly, they enable the right business decisions to be made because there is a confidence in the software.
Quality code with a solid set of tests enables refactoring and new features to be added with the knowledge you are not causing unintended consequences elsewhere by breaking older functionality. This reduction in risk is a considerable advantage, especially when supporting older applications.
This is not a carte blanche to gold plate or over-engineer. Quality Code is the right code for the story and No More. We write just enough to satisfy the story and we write it well. Over-engineering applies to the GUI too–we don’t add features or over-engineer.
4 – Efficiency and Improvement
(Building it Better and Faster)
By this point we should be working on the most valuable product to our company. With that taken care of, our next focus is to work on the most valuable feature or story for our users/customers. We should be doing it in a manner that enables us to be confident in the work and able to expand it later.
But guess what? You can do it better. We should reflect on the decisions we made and how we make them. Are we making the right decisions? What helped us make those decisions? Are we making the wrong decisions? If so what could we change to avoid repeating those mistakes.
The reflection and improvement should be done at all steps and should incorporate the learning from all stages. If we continually look for ways to improve we will get better and better.
If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got
What about efficiency of developer effort?
So what of the original question about being more efficient with horizontal splitting of stories, or the perceived inefficiency of re-working the same area of code later?
It is a question of impact and perspective. In both cases the question is founded on ‘efficiency’ being a measure of the developer’s efforts. What I would like you to consider is that in terms of delivering value to your users and ultimately your company efficiency should not be measured in terms of developer effort, but should be measured in terms of delivered value.
Efficiency should not be measured in terms of expended effort, but should be measured in terms of delivered value.
The most valuable decision is to work on the right project – this dwarfs all other decisions by an order of magnitude. But it is at a different level of scope than this question.
The next most valuable decision is what to work on. This generally best considered from the perspective of delivering value to the customer quickly and of being able to respond to their changing and emerging needs.
When we split horizontally or when we do extra work, we know we will need later we may give the appearance of making more efficient use of developer effort, but in doing so we reduce our ability to adapt to changing needs and more significantly we delay the time to deliver the next most valuable feature.
This is an example of working with a waterfall mindset. The measure is that while it delays us this week, we will make back the time next month or next year. So if we are not planning to deliver this to our customer until next month or next year, it might appear to make sense. But you may not have considered two factors.
If we are deploying frequently, we are realizing value with every release and in the value of our software isn’t massively more than the cost of developer time to create it, then it is likely we shouldn’t be working this project at all. So ultimately the cost of developer effort for having to rework the same code later for a new feature is insignificant to the value gained by delivering sooner. We should measure ourselves based on value delivered not the effort to deliver it.
The second consideration is that the work you are doing on the assumption of needing it for a future feature may not actually be needed. That feature is by definition lower value and less important as it has been prioritized lower. There is a pretty reasonable chance that the customer may change their needs or there is the possibility of the project being cancelled or considered good enough as it is. That work may never actually be needed and you would have delayed the project for work that had no value. The efficiency you are trying to achieve may just be an illusion.
This is the business equivalent of spending $10 today to save $1 next year.
When considering efficiency and improvement, remember your goal is to maximize value to your customer and to realize that value as quickly as possible. Ask yourself if the efficiency improvement you are proposing fulfills those goals? If not it may be just be an illusion.
I found a number of quotes from a popular writer and favourite of Julius Caesar :- Publilius Syrus that I thought were so appropriate to Agile thinking today, it is fascinating how these lessons have existed for millennia and yet we still frequently fail to follow what would seem to be common sense.
Here are some of his maxims:
On agility in planning:
“It is a bad plan that cannot be altered.”
“Never promise more than you can perform. “
“Nothing can be done at once hastily and prudently“
“To do two things at once is to do neither “
2000 years later and the old Maxims are still relevant.
I have a theory that in the context of self-organizing teams in a business environment, there are zones of diminishing responsibility and thus the effectiveness of self organization as the tasks get further from the perceived core purpose of the team or individual.
That is to say that a self-organizing software development team may have little difficulty organizing how to create a feature in their product, but may struggle to water the plants or empty the bins in their Team area.
We as an organization have embraced Spontaneous Order (self-organizing teams) and have adopted a variety of Holocracy, the result is a pretty large organization (Approximately 400+ people) with almost no management outside of the core leadership team of four. The results are fascinating to observe, in some cases wildly successful and in other cases not so much.
Teams are created for a defined purpose, most often this is a defined project from a client, the composition of the team is decided by one of the leadership team based on personal knowledge of the skills of the prospective team members. This is obviously a limitation of scale and requires an exceptional level of knowledge of the available people. Clearly it is not self-organization in the context of team creation but this is the extent of outside influence for most teams (unless they have problems). The teams are expected to self-organize to deliver on their defined purpose.
For the most part they do very well and are able to deliver high quality software, interact effectively with clients and have a reputation for being the best in the custom App development business. Although there are a few internal difficulties, such as a tendency for excessive bike-shedding* early in projects, and for a few individuals, especially the stronger personalities to shape the teams to enable them to do the work they like relying on the others to do the rest.
Similarly strong personalities can limit a notion of continual improvement, that is to say that strong personalities can instill pressure to stick with what worked previously rather than being open to improvement.
Those are problems that could be explored further but for today my interest is in observing how wider organizational responsibilities or team responsibilities that are perceived as distant from the defined purpose get lost, ignored or simply take far longer than they should to get done.
*Bike-shedding (or Parkinson’s law of triviality)
Way back in 1957 Parkinson observed that members of an organization give excess weight to trivial issues, spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing issues that everyone has an opinion on (in his example it was the the building of a bike shed), this discussion was at the expense of more important issues that were outside the domain of expertise of the entire group. In other words people contribute because they ‘can’ not because they ‘should’.
In my observations this is a MAJOR problem for self-organizing teams, the choice of electronic Kanban board is my favourite pet hate on this, the amount of time spent deciding on which tool to use or which columns to include, or future discussions about whether to add or remove a column is astonishing, these same teams will spend hours on these topics but will then declare a story writing activity unproductive if the quantity of stories written in an hour is below an arbitrary number, regardless of whether the discussion was effective in identifying details valuable to getting a feature right. Please note I am not suggesting that the decisions about tools or workflow are not important, just that it should be proportionate.
To remedy this self-organization may need a helping hand, a facilitator to keep the group focused, or to redirect in the face of bike-shedding.
Structure vs Empowerment
I often hear people talk about not wanting a framework imposed on them (e.g. Scrum) or “wanting to find their own way”. But in my observations many do find themselves with a workflow that would be described as Scrum to an outside observer. The concern I have with this is balancing the freedom to find your own path – allowing teams choose their path, balanced with the waste involved in teams repeatedly churning for weeks on end or longer until they find the path which is ultimately very similar to what would have been prescribed in the first place. Is it wrong to build on past experience by suggesting a proposed framework structure? Is it empowering to allow teams to repeatedly re-invent the wheel? I am oft told that it is empowering for them, but I wonder if they would feel the same way if they were paying the bills?
This applies to other parts of the organization too, it is all very well when entering a restaurant to be offered no menu and told to order anything you want. But when faced with that how many would feel imprisoned by too many unclear options, how many would rather have a menu and feel empowered to stretch it a little asking for tweaks or combinations, in other words having boundaries that can be pushed.
Observations of children playing show that if a play area has a fence they utilize the whole area, but when the play area has no fence the children cluster close to the center with each other. In our subconscious we are more daunted by the lack of boundaries, but when we have them and feel safe and empowered we will push at them.
In retail, studies show that customers faced with 6 choices are 15 times more likely to make a purchase than those with 24 choices, too many choices confuse and frustrate us and so we regress to safety which is to NOT make a decision. The same is true in our business life, we become overwhelmed with choice, constraining options is empowering not limiting.
The three layers of self-organization responsibilities
The teams will generally have activities and responsibilities fall into three camps, either trivial issues get blown up in to long and largely pointless debates that drag on, more complex issues get glossed over leading to problems later and finally there are certain responsibilities that get overlooked or dismissed as unimportant or out of scope of the team.
These are tasks that are clearly and directly related to your role on a team and directly related to achieving your team’s goals and objectives. In the case of a developer this may be writing code for specific user stories. Please bear in mind that a named role such as Developer or Quality Advocate or even Product Owner may imply certain responsibilities are theirs rather than the team as a whole (I am observing this not endorsing this)
These are the tasks that the team are responsible for but may not be perceived as core for the individual, again in the developer’s case this could include organising meetings, testing or writing stories or deploying or… well you get the idea.
These are tasks that need doing and are essential to the function of an organisation but are outside the explicit responsibility of the team such as: emptying bins, washing dishes, watering plants. Or less trivially ordering stationery, updating company web pages, ordering IT equipment and so on.
Exceptions: There seem to be two exceptions to these layers, the first is if a task in any of the layers is perceived by the individual as interesting or rewarding in some way, in which case the layers can be overcome, the other is when someone of authority (including peer pressure) explicitly assigns responsibility to an individual or small group which elevates the task to a Primary task.
Bystander syndrome is a phenomenon of anthropology where the more people are responsible for something the less responsible the individual feels. Sadly this syndrome is the reason that self-organization so often fails. Why in small teams or small companies things work well but as they grow this attitude slowly creeps in until one day there is a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, un-emptied bins, and someone has stolen my chair because their’s is broken and it was quicker to take mine than order a new one*. (*imaginary scenario – honest)
These minor annoyances are the start of the breakdown in your corporate society and the warning signs that self-organization has reached it’s limit. To keep things running new roles will need to be created to make people explicitly responsible for these Tertiary tasks. In short you will no longer be self-organizing someone will need to lend a discrete hand, to enable self-organization to continue where it really matters.
Essentially these are growing pains, the result is what can be best described as a failing of human nature. The tasks that get the most effort and attention are those that fall in the sweet spot of being close to the core purpose of the team, are trivial so that everyone has an opinion, and are interesting or appealing or have clear ownership. The tasks that get ignored and overlooked are those that whilst important or necessary in the grand scheme do not map directly to the core purpose of the individual, are uninteresting, or have no clear owner. For these self-organization wont save you, a helping hand (or a gentle prod) is needed.
Providing self-organizing teams and people with boundaries and structure and for our leadership to have an understanding and acceptance that we thrive best when we know our boundaries makes for a safe environment to grow. We will push at those boundaries mercilessly if we feel safe. But don’t be surprised if the plants don’t get watered unless you assign the job explicitly!
Holding another person accountable can be a scary thing, even just saying that sounds a big deal. And whilst it is a big deal, it doesn’t need to be scary. Feedback is a skill, and it one that you get much better at the more you practice.
In theory feedback in the context of accountability should be the easiest kind. Your work colleague or partner has made a commitment to you or to the team and in doing so they are implicitly inviting you to give them feedback if they stray from this commitment. Learning to give that feedback constructively and supportively comes with practice, and frequency. If you are giving feedback regularly it is easier to give and easier to receive, eventually it will become a normal and natural interaction on a team.
If they took an action item to do something by the end of the week a polite enquiry on their progress, may serve as a reminder that the task is important and that they have committed to it. There is no need for judgement or pressure and certainly no need to micro-manage. An offer to help or an enquiry if there are any impediments you should be aware of, or can assist with, should be sufficient to reassert the importance of the task and a reminder of the commitment made.
In most cases if someone has taken responsibility and committed to something, they will be happy to be held accountable, especially if you have established trust on the team and have decided as a group this is something important, a good team player understands that group decisions impact all of us and are in all our interests to get it done, so understand and expect you to have an interest in getting it done.
Holding yourself accountable
Holding yourself accountable is much harder, after all if we could see we were slipping we’d do something about it. Which is why it is so important to explicitly ask others to help you with this or to find techniques to help you stay focused on what is important.
There are a couple of very easy techniques for creating opportunities for holding each other accountable. If done right these should lead to more frequent feedback, if they become a constraint and feedback becomes limited to these opportunities then try something new.
A regular stand-up meeting
Get together with your team on a regular basis, a lot of teams find once a day is a good cadence, review priorities, objectives and actions, by sharing what you are working on and where you need help you are inviting input from others, if an action item is being neglected this is an opportunity to ask why or to remind others of the importance of it. Be careful this does not become reporting to someone, this is about sharing information and looking for opportunities to assist each other.
Make your work visible
Something like a Kanban board or a todo list is fantastic for sharing with your team mates what you are working on, you and they can immediately see if an action is not being given priority and can see why or what is. If Kanban is used then priorities of work are clear and your policies are explicit, everyone is clear just by looking, what is going on. The key to maximising the value of this is by ensuring it is used correctly, all tasks are on the board and you follow the rules, ambiguity can ruin this technique.
If combined with a stand-up it can enhance the effectiveness of both techniques. Also whilst Kanban boards are great for team working, they also work well for an individual, many people find a personal Kanban board is a great way of keeping focused on what is important and avoids getting distracted by less important interruptions. and having it visible in a public space too will aid you holding yourself accountable to it.
Always review previous actions
At the start of a team meeting it is important to review the previous action items, and to not lose sight of any that remain outstanding. First the team should be focused on the most important issues, and actions should be the team’s collective view on how best to proceed. If as a team you don’t care enough to want to know how those actions turned out, you have to question your buy-in to those desicions or if your team is actually focused on the right priorities.
Was the purpose achieved?
Remember the reason for the Action item. I would also suggest that an action is the result of a discussion about resolving a problem, satisfying a need, or is progress towards a goal.
Taking some time not only to review whether the action was taken, but also to review whether it achieved it’s purpose would be valuable. It is quite common for an action to not have the expected results, and in that case the underlying issue still needs addressing.
Accountability should become routine, and we can all benefit from being held accountable. If it doesn’t become easier or routine then perhaps there are other underlying problems either with trust on the team or a lack of genuine commitment to decisions.
This is the fourth post on the theme, the five dysfunctions of a team.