“Distance…is the one true enemy…”

Gregory Brown tweeted a great series on the problem of distance last week:

It’s amazing how much information can be conveyed in nine tweets. It’s amazing how many aspects of a very complex socio-technical undertaking, software development, are affected by this concept of distance. I would argue that this concept of distance applies likewise to the social systems that software development belongs to as a component part.

Distance between action and result as well as distance between result and response are just as much a problem for social systems as software systems. This was one of the main themes of “The Ignorance of Management – Deep and Wide”, trying to manage too far down the hierarchy just doesn’t scale. There are too many decisions at too deep a level of detail across too many areas for this to be effective.

It’s a case of mismatched impedance, resulting in overload. Increased distance equals increased transmission time, meaning that remote decisions will either take longer (risking timeliness of the decision) or will have to be made with less consideration (risking the fitness of the decision). Likewise, the greater number of decisions being made due to an inappropriate distance will force the same set of trade-offs. Time spent on lower-level issues also reduces time available for issues that are appropriate to the decision-maker’s level. This places even more pressure on the decision-maker in terms of being either hasty or late.

Ironically, better control is likely to come from delegating decision-making to the appropriate level of the organization than attempting to micro-manage. The true test of leadership, in my opinion, is not how things run when a leader is present, but how things run when they’re not. Adding distance stacks the deck, and not in your favor.

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 403

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This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 403, features Tom’s essay on Agile practices at scale, Kim Pries on transformations, and a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “NPM, Tay, and the Need for Design”.

Although the specific controversies have died down since we recorded the segment, the issues remain. Designs that fail to account for foreseeable issues are born vulnerable. Fixing problems after they “emerge” can be much more expensive than a little defensive design.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

When Will We Learn?

Plato's Academy mosaic from Pompeii

We’ve all heard the sayings about history repeating. Did we pay attention? Did we actually hear what was said, or were we just in the room when it was mentioned? Did we learn anything?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading posts on innovation for more than seven months. His last post, “Black hat innovation”, touched on the dark side of innovation:

I think the following are good examples of black hat innovation in the digital space: credit card fraud, ransomware and identity theft. There are many other black hat innovations that does not rely on tech such as chain letters, counterfeit money and even weighted dice.

Greger noted “Sometimes, it might seem as if black hat innovation out paces white hat innovation.” Certainly, a black hat innovator faces fewer barriers to innovation. Following rules is less of a consideration when breaking rules. We also have to be aware of the advantage we give them when we fail to learn from the past. None of the abuse cases that Greger mentioned are black swans. They’re merely new ways to commit old crimes. Waiting to react to a foreseeable issue means we start from behind because we failed to learn.

Failure to learn can manifest in a variety of ways. In his post, “Enterprise challenges”, Peter Murchland noted:

All enterprises face challenges (of varying magnitude and complexity). These challenges are either problems to be solved or opportunities to be pursued. One way of considering these challenges is through the following three lenses – those arising due to:

  • external change
  • internal change
  • growth and development

Peter asserts that the health of an enterprise depends on integrating coherent responses to these challenges into its architecture. This is a position shared by Aaron Dignan in “How To Eliminate Organizational Debt”:

Organizational Debt: The interest companies pay when their structure and policies stay fixed and/or accumulate as the world changes.

Let’s unpack that. As time passes, companies create roles, structures, rules, policies, and other norms that become fixed, and often, difficult to change. This is by design. For example, a company’s travel budget may balloon one year, only to be restricted by a travel policy the next — a well intentioned control designed to reduce expense. If that policy starts costing more than it’s saving (e.g. by reducing commercial success due to a lack of face time, frustrating top talent, etc.), it becomes an unacknowledged debt. The “interest” comes in the form of reduced speed, capacity, engagement, flexibility, and innovation that ultimately undermine the macro objectives of the firm: to survive, thrive, and achieve its purpose.

In other words, failure to learn leads to failure to adapt to a changing context, internal and/or external. This mismatch between the enterprise and its context represents a destructive friction. Since an enterprise is a social system and the components of a social system are people, this means that the effects of this friction erodes morale. Disengaged, demotivated employees will hinder an organization’s ability to deliver effectively. The only question is how much of a hindrance it will be.

In my post “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, I talked about the value of a learning culture for an organization. Effective execution requires effective decision-making, which requires learning. If we haven’t learned from the past, then there’s no rational basis for our future actions. We’re winging it solely on the basis of hope.

An organization is unlikely to develop a learning culture by accident. Just as a tornado hitting an auto parts store is unlikely to spit out a sports car, it’s unlikely that a system of sensing and adjusting to an ever-changing environment will emerge without intentional action. The social system that is the enterprise has a design and requires design, much the way an automated system has a design and requires design. Part of that design should incorporate learning.

Different organizations will have different needs and different styles of learning. Getting groups of people together to play with technology (as described by Matt Ballantine in his post “The Art of Play”) may not work for every organization. However, it is shortsighted to make no provision for learning whatsoever. Even the British Army in World War I, a conservative institution with an aristocratic officer corps in a conflict that can be described as 19th century warfare with 20th century weapons, “…developed a number of different methods to disseminate knowledge, catering for a variety of different circumstances and needs”. With a hundred years’ worth of extra experience and technology, it would be hard to justify taking a less rigorous approach.

Building a Legacy

Greek Trireme image from Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany

 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve run across a flurry of articles dealing with the issue of legacy systems used by the U.S. government.

An Associated Press story on the findings from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued in May reported that roughly three-fourths of the $80 billion IT budget was used to maintain legacy systems, some more than fifty years old and without an end of life date in sight. An article on CIO.com about the same GAO report detailed seven of the oldest systems. Two were over 56 years old, two 53, one 51, one 35, and one 31. Four of the seven have plans to be replaced, but the two oldest have no replacement yet planned.

Cost was not the only issue, reliability is a problem as well. An article on Timeline.com noted:

Then there’s the fact that, up until 2010, the Secret Service’s computer systems were only operational about 60% of the time, thanks to a highly outdated 1980s mainframe. When Senator Joe Lieberman spoke out on the issue back in 2010, he claimed that, in comparison, “industry and government standards are around 98 percent generally.” It’s alright though, protecting the president and vice president is a job that’s really only important about 60 percent of the time, right?

It would be easy to write this off as just another example of public-sector inefficiency, but you can find these same issues in the private sector as well. Inertia can, and does, affect systems belonging to government agencies and business alike. Even a perfectly designed implemented system (we’ve all got those, right?) is subject to platform rot if ignored. Ironically, our organizations seem designed to do just that by being project-centric.

In philosophy, there’s a paradox called the Ship of Theseus, that explores the question of identity. The question arises, if we maintain something by replacing its constituent parts, does it remain the same thing? While many hours could be spent debating this, to those whose opinion should matter most, those who use the system, the answer is yes. To them, the identity of the system is bound up in what they do with it, such that it ceases to be the same thing, not when we maintain it but when its function is degraded through neglect.

Common practice, however, separates ownership and interest. Those with the greatest interest in the system typically will not own the budget for work on it. Those owning the budget, will typically be biased towards projects which add value, not maintenance work that represents cost.

Speaking of cost, is 75% of the budget an unreasonable amount for maintenance? How well are the systems meeting the needs of their users? Is quality increasing, decreasing, or holding steady? Was more money spent because of deferred maintenance than would have been spent with earlier intervention? How much business risk is involved? Without this context, it’s extremely difficult to say. It’s understandable that someone outside an organization might lack this information, but even within it, would a centralized IT group have access to it all? Is the context as meaningful at a higher, central level as it is “at the pointy end of the spear”?

Maintaining systems bit by bit, replacing them gradually over time, is likely to be more successful and less expensive, than letting them rot and then having a big-bang re-write. In my opinion, having an effective architecture for the enterprise’s IT systems is dependent on having an effective architecture for the enterprise itself. If the various systems (social and software) are not operating in conjunction, drift and inertia will take care of building your legacy (system).

[Greek Trireme image from Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany via Wikimedia Commons]

Skating to Where the Puck Will Be

Wayne Gretzky

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

 

Business people have a thing for sports metaphors, and this one in particular is a favorite. So much so, that Jason Kirby in “Why businesspeople won’t stop using that Gretzky quote” observed:

Its popularity has much to do with the ego of businesspeople who think they’re the Gretzkys of their industry. But, more than that, it appeals, in a way no other sports cliché does, to the current obsession with that other insidious buzzword, innovation. Get ahead of the competition by figuring out what the market will look like five years from now, says the management consultant to the client, while handing him a substantial bill. It’s that simple.

Of course, it’s not. Gretzky’s uncanny ability to read plays has never been matched. The hockey world has yet to produce another player capable of coming close to matching his record. Which makes the adoption of his quote by businesspeople all the more empty and galling. Warren Buffett can get away with it. Maybe Steve Jobs. But that’s it.

Do you have to be a Gretzky, or a Buffett, or a Jobs in order to get it right?

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

 

Nonetheless, difficult is not the same as impossible. Likewise, the future can be a very big target. Hitting the bits far down the road will be much more difficult than those closer in.

Greger Wikstrand and I have been discussing that “insidious buzzword”, innovation, for more than six months now. This post is the 23rd in the series.

Given the pace of change, “insidious buzzword” seems a bit dismissive. Someone born in 1903 when the Wright brothers first flew what was essentially a motorized kite might just be retiring in 1969 when the Concorde first flew. Almost an entire Radio Shack ad from 25 years ago is now available in the form of a cell phone (for a lot less money as well). Doubtless, some people misuse the term. The phenomenon, however, is very real.

So let’s return to the question of ability to anticipate change. Do you have to be a Gretzky, or a Buffett, or a Jobs in order to get it right? I think that’s a facile opinion, the Great Man theory applied to technology and business.

Greger’s last post, “Inevitable change”, contains part of the reason why I think it’s intellectually lazy to think that innovation is the province of the superstar:

Most changes in evolution are small. They are not big morphological changes. They are small physiological and immunological changes. The ability to resist new disease and the ability to consume new food is much more important than the (seemingly) bigger changes.

In his post, Greger talks about punctuated equilibrium versus phyletic gradualism, sudden radical change versus constant small incremental changes over time. In my opinion, it’s a combination. Species (and organizations) can reach a point where they are no longer fit for the ecosystem they inhabit. They reach that point, however, by degrees.

Likewise, Gretzky skated to where the puck would be, not in one leap, but step by step. Iterative sense-making and decision-making is, in my opinion, far more likely to lead to long-term consistent success than superhuman leaps of intuition. Rather than requiring just the right move at just the right time, what’s needed is awareness and adaptation. Constant, intentional learning is required to ward off the inertia that can be so deadly in an ever-changing environment.

Innovation is a matter of making changes to remain relevant/fit as the environment around you changes. Sometimes those changes may be sudden, but even gradual change can seem sudden to those standing still.

The straw that broke the camel’s back didn’t weigh any more than those that didn’t. It just happened to be one too many. That means there were lots of opportunities to move right up until there weren’t any more.

[Wayne Gretzky photo by Håkan Dahlström via Wikimedia Commons]

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 399

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This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 399, features Tom’s essay “Storytelling: Developing The Big Picture for Agile Efforts”, Kim Pries on deliberate practice, and a Form Follows Function installment on customer-centricity for IT.

Tom and I discuss my post “A Meaningful Manifesto for IT”. It seems obvious that the business of IT is meeting needs, but how many organizations are really happy with what they’re getting? The prevalence of “shadow IT” would seem to indicate that there’s some real discontent.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Learning to Deal with the Inevitable

On Reconnaissance, Józef Brandt, 1876

 

My last post, “Barriers to Innovation”, began with a question. Is innovation inevitable? By the end of the post, that question had changed. Is innovation inevitable for your organization? Tom Cagley left a comment suggesting another change:

Think about changing the question again. “Is innovation inevitable?” might be better stated as “Is change inevitable?” The answer to the latter question is yes but no to the former. Change and innovation do not have the same thing.

Tom’s comment was, of course, right on the money. Change is inevitable and while all innovation is change, not all change is innovation. Scott Berkun’s definition of innovation is still my favorite:

If you must use the word, here is the best definition: Innovation is significant positive change. It’s a result. It’s an outcome. It’s something you work towards achieving on a project. If you are successful at solving important problems, peers you respect will call your work innovative and you an innovator. Let them choose the word.

Change, however, is not guaranteed to be either significant or positive. It will, however, be. It may be unwanted, it may be denied, but it not will be avoided. Organizations, like organisms, demonstrate their fitness for purpose via adapting to change. Organizations, like organisms, die when their ecosystems change around them and they fail to follow suit. Research in Motion, who quickly went from leader to laggard in the mobile communication space provides a graphic example of this.

Back in March, I noted that I find myself increasingly drawn to exploring the fractal nature of systems, both software and social, and their ecosystems. Understanding the social systems that make up the ecosystem of a software system is, in my opinion, key to getting and keeping the best possible fitness for purpose. Technology cannot help an organization when its structure and processes are working at cross purposes. Chasing these fractals to their logical end, we move from within the bounds of the organization out into its ecosystem. This is the level that Tom Graves refers to as the whole-enterprise, the “bold endeavour”.

This chasing of the fractals to form a mental model of the environment in which you’re operating is also known as situational awareness. Situational awareness is critical to effective sense-making which is critical to effective decision-making. Just as a body of troops with poor situational awareness risks walking into an ambush, an organization with poor situational awareness risks similarly unpleasant surprises (at least figuratively).

To be effective, the sense-making/decision-making process should be a ongoing process. Likewise, it is a process that should span the levels of concern, tactical through strategic, that make up the whole-enterprise architecture. To be effective, the process should yield action, adapting the organization to the changing context, not just insights into the divergence between the organization and its ecosystem. To be effective, you need to be intentional or lucky (and you can only control one of these).

My views regarding this are based on my own experience and what I’ve synthesized over the years from a variety of sources. I was pleased to get some affirmation recently while attending an event where Professor Edward Hess of the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business discussed his book, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. His premise was effective learning, something that humans can be really bad at, is key to organizational effectiveness. This view obviously resonates with me (which carries a hint of irony given that he talks about confirmation bias as something that inhibits effective learning – you’ll have to trust me that that’s not the case here).

Because of time constraints, Professor Hess’ talk did not go into the same depth as his book (which I’ve since read and will be referring to in upcoming posts), but some of the key points relevant here were:

  • a learning culture is useful regardless of whether the goal is efficiency or innovation
  • a learning culture is created intentionally
  • candor, facing the “brutal facts” is essential to a learning culture
  • permission to fail and psychological safety does not equate to lack of standards/control, a learning culture takes risk tolerance into account

His most important point is that while it is in our nature to be “suboptimal learners” who let ego and fear get in our way, we can learn to be better learners, both individually and as a group. Diversity, by virtue of bringing multiple mental models to the table, can diminish cognitive blindness (Gooch’s Paradox – “things not only have to be seen to be believed, but also believed to be seen”). By understanding that we are not rational thinkers, we can take measures to avoid the pitfalls of fast thinking.

In a changing world, sitting still can be deadly. Motion, however, provides little benefit if it’s not purposeful and intelligent. A cohesive whole-enterprise with a culture of intentional, effective sense-making and decision-making (learning) is well placed to make better moves in a dynamic world.