Sunday, September 11, 2011

Insane or Enlightened Leader?

A friend of mine alerted me of this book, A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi.

In it, the author makes a case for insanity as a positive indicator for effective leadership and sound mental health as an indicator for effective status-quo management.

I take this to mean that in order to keep things running, we need the sane to keep the lights on and the insane to make things better.

Loosely translated, the Managers who see as their mission to keep things the same are best suited for a status quo situation. They tend to resist change and see it as a direct attack on their whole being. They experience deviations from protocol and procedure as failure. These types are the most prevalent in top management today because they gives us comfort that they can be controlled, or at least won't do something unexpected. As such they are the main impediment to progress.

The Leaders who see as their mission to change things are best suited for an undesirable situation (like several around us now). Their appetite for risk is much greater than the ordinary person. Rather, they experience a low-risk situation as uncomfortable and even frightening. These people are often attributed with mental illnesses ranging from ADHD to paranoid schizophrenia. These individuals scare common folk with their outlandish ideas and frighten managers with their roguish behavior. What makes things worse is that these kinds of characters have a tendency to achieve actual results, which creates a power struggle between the Managers and the Leaders.

In order to achieve true results, Managers and Leaders must collaborate and learn to appreciate each other's points of view, giving each other the space to apply their talents while managing each other's perceived neuroses.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Introduction to Patterns of Corporate Behavior

After observing people and organizations at all levels for a long time, a set of standard behavior patterns emerge. Some are helpful, but a surprising number are quite harmful. In this series, I’ll discuss the harmful ones, how to spot them and how to replace them with helpful patterns.

Mind you, this is no corporate self-help series. Just like behavior therapy, there is no substitute for someone coaching an individual through improvement. But it will allow the reader to start to identify whether something’s wrong and realize that there’s something that can be done about it.

For example, imagine a person with so-called Borderline Personality Disorder. These individuals come across as perfectly normal, if slightly quirky. But when interacting with them for a while, you’ll find that their reactions to ordinary events are somewhat exaggerated. When they turn their fury on you, for no apparent reason, you’re left to wonder what it is that you did that was so heinous. If you don’t know the pattern, you’ll be challenged to see the symptoms, let alone the underlying issues. What’s worse, you will react in a counter-productive way, exacerbating the problem.

Recognizing patterns is only the beginning. A critical aspect of improving behavior is the driving motivation. Incentives often are long-term: if you stop smoking NOW, you’ll live longer. If you start exercising NOW, you’ll be healthier at advanced age. If you try Agile NOW, you’ll have a better grasp on your project portfolio a year from now.

The motivators that keep people locked in their behavior patterns are immediate. If those are not diminished or neutralized, there is nary a chance for any improvement. And without changed behavior, any Program Of Change is bound to fail.

Notwithstanding the pathological aspects of addiction, if a smoker were to get nauseous soon after taking her first drag, if an alcoholic were to get a splitting headache soon after one drink, it would be hard for them to keep up the habit. So if bad behavior were to have immediate negative repercussions, whereas good behavior would have immediate positive effects, the person in question would be more bound to stick with the good behavior.

As with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one cannot be expected to figure this out on their own. You have to be coached through it. Instead of taking a pill to numb the symptoms (e.g. push your teams to be more Agile), you change the behavior that creates the symptoms in the first place. Therefore, there has to be an incentive to change that is almost as immediate as medication.

Let’s look at a few textbook examples of seemingly laudable, but ultimately destructive behavior. The Over-promising Sales Guy, the Blame-Storming Executive and the Bleeding-Edge technologist

The sales guy is afraid to disappoint the customer, yet by over-promising beyond his company’s capacity, he’s doing just that. But he doesn’t know, he thinks he’s being aggressive and pushy. If every time he over-promises, he is confronted with this early on and has to go talk to the customer and apologize, he will experience exactly what he’s trying to avoid, immediately.

The newly minted executive has learned that holding your staff accountable is the way to stature and promotion. After all, as project manager she got her projects delivered come hell or high water. And now that she manages other project managers, getting them to get things done should work the same. Especially if she publicly berates under-performers her staff will get to know her as someone to be reckoned with. When there’s trouble, she holds lengthy blame-storming sessions, not so much to figure out what collectively went wrong but on who to pin the blame. Her expectation is that her staff will fall in line and execute her assignments to the best of their ability if she holds them personally accountable.

But instead, her project managers and other staff spend more time covering their backs than getting actual work done. Now the whole project portfolio is making hardly any progress. Unfortunately for our newly promoted program manager, her PMs are Agile and the waste from cumbersome process becomes apparent within a few iterations, indicating her as the main impediment.

For the chief architect, playing with the latest gadgets and tools has become a way of life. He became chief because he helped his firm enter a new age of computing by introducing SOA. He continues to introduce new technologies, well beyond the needs of the firm and the capacity for adoption of the IT staff. Implementations are not thought through and as such, the support burden for developers continues to grow. At some point, the company is hamstrung by the very technology that was supposed to give them a competitive advantage. The recent close collaboration between Operations and Development make it abundantly clear what behavior has gotten them in this bind.

Patterns persist because people have seen their superiors be successful with them. It’s learned behavior. Conversely, people promote others who are like them, for better or for worse. So people are filtered based on their behavior, not so much on their results, ensuring the perpetuation of these patterns.

Much like certain forms of abuse, these destructive corporate behavior patterns are hard to break and are passed on from senior to junior workers. it is imperative that they are recognized and treated with short-term incentive programs in a low-risk setting.

We will discuss each pattern and outline possible approaches to disrupt them or at least diminish their impact.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Agile and the Trough of Disillusionment

Everywhere you look, companies are turning to Agile. Even my sister, who works for a huge European city’s government, said that she’s introducing Agile practices. Professional Services organizations say they need to “go Agile” because their clients demand it.

Yet, when examining what that means in practice, not much is really changing. People are still starting multi-year projects, with massive scope, budgets and resources. They still fail to establish proper project context within which costs and risks can be contained. And they still plan the execution in excruciating detail, to then execute the plan to the letter. Wavering from this plan equals failure. And as such, people expecting Agile to finally solve their organizational challenges are very disappointed: Agile seems like a lot of smoke, mirrors and snake oil.

The rub lies in how organizations measure success.

The only reliable measure of success is the value of capitalizable assets. It doesn’t matter how well you executed the project to plan, if whatever your team delivered does not generate revenue, make you more competitive or reduce costs, it was wasted effort.

The concept of putting a clear business value on each project already sets them up for success. Success as measured in low-risk, high-value execution. Stopping a project because it has become too risky or net negative value is only sound business. Better to use the resources on a different initiative that remains viable rather than have them go to waste on a deathmarch project.

Agile, unlike Scrum and XP, is not a set of activities and processes: it’s a risk-mitigation philosophy. The activities employed to implement this philosophy tend to be industry-specific. Furthermore, the way these activities are executed differs for each organization. If the results are supporting the philosophy, there is no wrong way to do Agile. If an organization continuously evaluates its effectiveness and output, and seeks to diminish any factors that negatively impact it, it could be called Agile.

From this follows that ‘going Agile” is not something that can be relegated to the troops while the generals continue business as usual. On the contrary: there has to be very strong leadership, by example and by changed behavior, to support an organization’s move to Agile.

So in conclusion, the disillusionment with Agile is understandable. Now that practitioners are waking up to the root causes, we’re entering a new, more mature stage of Agile-ness and move into the era of Executive Agile Transformation.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Corporate Behavior Therapy

A while back I started to write about how organizational transformation is not rooted in activities and tools, but in people’s behaviors.

After several more years in the field, I have noticed that the most effective approach to OT is akin to Cognitive Therapy. In a nutshell, CT aims to change how people think about and react to inputs and as such change how they view themselves and the world around them.

OT has a very similar goal. You aim to change the way a company or division views themselves and their ecosystem. And that is done most effectively by changing people’s behaviors.

The most critical part of that behavior is how people measure each others performance. Do political apparatchiks make it to the top, despite their lack of business contribution or are people measured on their impact on the firm’s revenues, reputation and talent retention? From a simple survival perspective, people will behave according to how they can be judged most successful.

On a more tactical level, how project portfolios are handled and how the projects therein are valued is another critical component of how a company executes. Is the concept of a project portfolio a list of projects with people’s allocations? Or is it an asset portfolio, with constantly changing valuations and real-time feedback of the overall health? Are projects judged by how well they follow some process or by how rapidly and accurately business needs are met?

Then finally, how are innovators treated? Does every new idea need to be vetted with one person or a committee or are people given a forum where they can display their ideas and stir enthusiasm? Do a few people have the power to squash new initiatives unchecked or are these evaluated on their objective merits?

Most corporate behaviors are rooted in its culture. So to change those if needed, a culture shift will be necessary. That is a huge challenge, often avoided by OT practitioners. It’s a lot easier to talk about specific activities and tools than about people themselves. However, this topic cannot be avoided if OT is to have a chance to stick.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Real Adventure Begins

Well, I finally did it!

I started my own management consulting practice. It sounds like a bigger deal than it is, really. But being a free agent surely has its advantages. And I just LOVE that title, president…

Starting an S-corp is not the hassle it used to be. You can incorporate, get a domain with a website, get your EIN, open a corporate account, and pay your taxes, all without getting dressed. You still have to mail in your articles of incorporation and fax in your form 2553, though. Poo…

So the next challenge is creating a pipeline of work. As I have written before, The Network Is Your Career, and no more so than when you are your own product.

Here is where your reputation and the connections you have nurtured over the years make all the difference. In keeping with the season, if you have been naughty and driven a hard bargain, you may end up with lumps of coal for projects. If you have been nice however, and played fair, were reliable and kept your clients’ interest at heart, you are welcomed back wherever you go. In today’s hyper-connected world, it’s easy to spread the word. But there still is great value in contacting old friends and colleagues and explaining to them what your focus is. They may not be prospects, now or ever. But they talk to people that may need your help. And the better your network knows what value you can bring, the more leads you get.

Coming out of a nasty recession, it appears many companies are realizing that business as usual no longer cuts it. But they are grappling with formulating a vision of what “better” would look like. What makes improving even harder is that executives and directors have not woken up to the notion that nothing will change unless they start measuring their reports differently. A Program of Change is for staff, not the corner office.

Per the Gartner Group Hype Cycle, Agile is stuck in the Trough Of Disillusionment, and rightfully so. Agile was hijacked by faddists and me-too companies, just like SOA was, and subverted into another prescriptive, waste-prone process. Many people have not had a chance to witness the power of simplicity and transparency agile approaches bring. Pilot projects were started, agile and scrum coaches were brought in and things started feeling differently. But when the coaches left and the pilot projects were delivered, somehow everything went back to the way it was. The root cause is that people went through the motions of agile practices, but did not internalize its philosophy nor change their behavior. They can’t because the way their performance is measured hasn’t changed.

That’s why I decided to focus on Executive Agile Transformation, or EAT. EAT your own dog-food. You are what you EAT. Whoa, I better go trademark that…

All kidding aside, programs of change do not stand a chance unless a company changes the way it measures business contribution, from the top down. Yes, executives are a tough bunch to change. But they can do it and when they do, miracles happen. And not only at Christmas.

My biggest challenge will be to get executives to admit they have a problem. Here is where we will take guidance from psychology and apply practices from Cognitive Therapy.

And so the adventure begins…

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Gradual versus sudden shift from waterfall to agile

Hello readers!

Well, it's time to pick up the thread on my consulting adventures. Too many thoughts to share.

A former client of mine asked me:

"Do you have a quick summary of the plusses and minuses of a gradual versus sudden shift from waterfall to agile for an org? In other words what are the implications of transitioning over 2 months versus 2 years?

And if you have a portfolio of programs, with a common pool of resources, do you let the majority of programs stay on waterfall and move one or two projects to agile, or is it better to move everything to agile?

Do you have any papers, books, case studies to shed light on this topic?"

My experience is this.

Gradual change has the following advantages:
  • People have more time to adjust if changes are introduced piece-meal
  • People will be less likely to resist change if it's something they can get their heads around
  • Each incremental change can be evaluated on its impact and rolled back if it's net negative Incremental changes will have the time to engrain themselves in the daily routine, creating a ratchet effect: once the change is part of daily life, it will be hard to roll back.

The drawbacks are:
  • It takes a long time to see a payout from the changes
  • When changes are split up too much, they may fail to have a positive effect, causing the organization to falsely reject the change
  • The longer the rollout of changes, the more chance detractors have to discredit the change program
  • A long-running program of change is at risk of falling victim to business cycle volatility. An economic downturn will surely kill such a program

At a former employer, I introduced changes in packets. When I slowed the rate of change down too much,giving people a chance to catch up, the program stalled under constant criticism of detractors. When the firm had to struggle for its survival, (which it lost), they all but killed the program.

You move one project, or a cluster of dependent projects at a time.

The client responded with:

"Hmmm, hard to imagine an independent project in a portfolio. Shared resources, shared outcomes, shared technology infrastructures, shared release dates. If my assertion is true (there's no such thing as an independent project), would this not say you should go all-or-nothing with agile?

Assume you go "all-in" with agile, then it becomes a question of adoption speed, no?"

Ah, when I say independent, I mean independent delivery assets.

Another way to divide it is to decide a point in time after which new
projects are run in an Agile fashion. From that point on new projects
are properly incepted, storied and tracked.

Going all-in with Agile, or any program of change, is a recipe for disaster. You should approach the introduction of Agile as an Agile project in and of its own.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Agile, the SOA hangover cure on InfoQ

Here's a fun little story about making SOA happen by taking simple yet strategic steps, using Agile practices.;jsessionid=EFD8B5DED840DF9502597D7A080B1B8B

BTW, this will be my last Agile/SOA/Consulting Adventure post, since I have given up being a consultant for a more earth-bound existence as a Head of Project Management.

The adventure continues however with a sassy blog about Agile Organizational Transformation.