It's okay to be weak

Martin Fowler writes: “I should also mention that I suspect I’m not as energetic as I used to be as I age. I’ve long known that when you’re doing very creative work, such as writing or programming, the useful hours you can do in a day is rather less than the accepted industrial eight. I’ve always been nagged by my conviction that I’m not working as diligently or effectively as I ought to be. Sadly I’m not getting any better at not letting that bug me.”

I love how he openly admits his weakness.

Let me clarify that I don’t mind if his weakness is real or just subjective. I think it sets a good example if a public figure like Fowler, who’s written quite a number of highly influential books and given too many great talks to list, is openly sharing his inner feelings.

In today’s work environments, there is this illusion and pressure that you have to constantly perform on the very highest level at least eight hours a day. This is hurting so many people, up to the point where good folks drop out of their jobs due to burn-out and depression. So, it’s important to recognize that we are all human after all and that the performance we are capable of is not constant. What we can deliver at work is depending on so many factors and many of them are actually outside of our control. We just have to accept that.

If in our daily work life we can all be a bit more mindful that we are collaborating with other humans and not robots, if we are open to actively listen to what is going on in the life of the people around us, and be able to connect this to our own struggles with daily delivering what we think we should be capable of — maybe then the overall work experience will improve for all of us.

Angela Merkel, HiPPOs and decision making

So Angela Merkel yesterday withdrew the decision to add another non-workday before Easter (cf. video of Angela Merkel’s press conference), apologizing and taking full responsibility for the half-baked idea. Many people paid her respect for this and so do I. Some thoughts on this, though:

First of all, this half-baked idea was the result of a meeting going on for far too long. As some MP said, they first heard of the idea at 23:45 in the evening, after the discussions had been running for many hours. As most knowledge workers would know, a typical effect of working too hard for too long is that the quality of your outcomes is diminishing. Too often, reflecting back on the result of yesterday’s overnight session will reveal that your fabulous idea might actually be totally off.

Second, apparently no experts were around which would have an idea of what it would entail to make this additional day-off a reality. This looks a lot like a decision based on “HiPPO”, the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Generally speaking, results are better if experts prepare options with effort / benefit arguments. And usually, it’s better to postpone a decision to “do it this way” until you know that it actually can be done that way.

Last but not least I find it a pity that the behavior of Angela Merkel, to openly admit a mistake, is apparently exceptional and surprising to many people. Admitting mistakes and taking responsibility should be the norm for any leader and not the exception. As a leader, you want to understand the problems your team is facing and what mistakes people are making. How else could you improve your results? But if you are not leading by example and are not open about your mistakes, it is likely that your people might have the impression that it is only okay to talk about the great accomplishments. This in turn means that everybody is afraid to make any mistake, trying to reduce risks at all costs, which will kill any positive attitude and atmosphere. Good luck trying to achieve great results in a context like that. article on Angela Merkel’s press conference to withdraw the day off before Easter

Goto conference Zürich 2013

Last week, I visited this years Goto Zürich 2013, which is a two-day conference with tutorials wrapped around it. Zurich Topic areas range from lean start-up over technology to a leaders track. I spent most of my first day on the so-called leaders track as here most talks revolved around adopting agile and lean methods, but also went to some more technical talks in other tracks, too. I’ll summarize most of the talks and my impression below. Btw., the slides to most of the talks can be found on the conference website, more precisely on the schedule overview for the two days.

The conference started out with a keynote by Scott Ambler on his work on Disciplined agile delivery which provides a framework on where decisions are needed when implementing agile methods in a larger setup, drawing from many different methods like Scrum, XP, Kanban, the Scaled Agile Framework and many others. The first part of his talk was mainly concerned with the question if agile holds up to its promise of delivering ‘better’, which he tries to answer with regular surveys. These seem to confirm that team size, location, complexity and methods used do have an impact. Not surprisingly, small team size are more successful than larger, co-located teams better than distributed ones and simple projects are much more likely to succeed than complex ones. And of course, there are still projects using waterfall-like approaches that succeed, while the difference between an iterative and an agile approach are rather minimal. Still, however, the number of project failures are always high, even for simple projects there are more failures than one might expect.

The first talk here was about Spinning by Ralph Westphal, which is well-known e.g. for his association with the Clean Code Developer initiative. His premise was that today’s business reality is a constant change of priority which is at conflict with assuming bigger time boxes during which developers can focus on some goal. His answer is that we should ‘seize the day’ (as Dan North might have put it) and deliver ‘value’ daily. It’s important that this value should be something worthwhile to the customer and the customer should be able to give feedback daily as well. I’m wondering whether it is really always possible to accomplish this, e.g. fixing a bug might require analysis well beyond a day. But even if you might not always hold up to the idea, it might still be a worthwhile guideline for organizing work. Another question which I don’t have an obvious answer for is the question who should be in charge to decide what should be worked on on any given day? Ralph required a thorough triage to be carried out to avoid wasting time, but it’s unclear whether this job belongs e.g. in the hands of the product owner.

Dominik Maximi spoke next about ‘Hostile waters’, e.g. how company culture might influence your chances and approaches to introducing agile in an organization. He made the important point that every company culture exists because it is (or was in the past) successful to work like that. This needs to be respected when you want to change something fundamentally. He then gave a nice overview of the Schneider model on how to classify company culture. Non-representative survey results indicate that ‘agile’ has a similar characteristics to ‘collaborative’ or ‘cultivation culture’, but doesn’t fit in so nicely with a ‘competence’ culture or ‘control’ (no surprises here). Changing the mindset of a company might take up to 7-10 years. Dominik finally discussed John P. Kotter’s work on change steps to implement agile.

I'll never be anybody's hero now

One aspect I think is important for a Scrum Master or Project Manager is to make sure that your team doesn’t go on a trip to Vienna (if that term doesn’t ring a bell, search for “Tom DeMarco peopleware”). Quite contrary to popular management belief, I think in general it’s not okay if “occasionally” somebody on the team “puts in some extra work”. There is a reason why many agile methodologies insist on keeping a sustainable pace. Besides all of the very good reasons for making sure your team members stay healthy (see this Burnout story as a negative example), there is also a management point to it: your understanding of what the team is capable of (in terms of results/effort, aka velocity) decreases substantially if you have to take “heroic behaviour” into account. It’s particular bad when you don’t see the connection between reached goals and involved effort, i.e. when team members just move their card from “working” to “done” late in the evening without making clear that it involved five hours more than initially estimated.

Heroic behaviour just can’t be counted on, because nobody will be able to keep it up over a substantial amount of time (that’s the very definition of not being substainable). It’s highly understandable that project members after having committed to some goal can be tempted to go out of their way to reach it. What team members might miss is that “heroic behaviour” can only have an influence on the “time” aspect of the magic triangle of “time, budget and quality”. Extra effort is just that: effort. Hence, it comes with a cost, with the cost it just takes to reach the goal. I’ve also seen that there is a misunderstanding of the term “commitment”. It’s not an unconditional promise of “I can do that task with the effort I think it takes”, there is also the implicit condition of “I understand correctly what the task involves and there is no other external negative influence” (e.g. the urgent bug that needs to be looked at, or the lack of sleep during three days of the week due to the kids being sick at home).

Commitment to a particular goal might at times conflict with taking responsibility for the project as a whole. As a general rule of thumb it’s nearly always much more important to think about the entire project / the big picture than about a small aspect of it. There is the exceptional situation that needs exceptional reaction and maybe exceptional effort. But it’s important to treat it like an exceptional situation. And for these exceptional situations it’s vital that they get treated like a mini project: they should have a clear purpose and have fixed start and end dates. Plus, they should come with a compensation. Scrum Masters and project managers alike should communicate clearly that exceptions are exceptions, not the rule. And team members should clearly communicate that it takes what it takes. When it comes to professional work, follow the 501 manifesto (in case you don’t directly understand the “501” part like I did: it’s not about jeans, but about leaving at 5:01pm).

ObTitle: Morrissey, from “Ringleader of the tormentors”

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