I work as a software consultant and often in the role of a so-called “team coach” or “agile coach”. That’s basically just a hyped-up term for helping teams and departments to improve, to be more effective, and guide them on their way amongst a myriad of options. So coaching is great and many coaches I know are great, but there’s something bothering me. My opinion is that much of what I do is a kind of management – not of the people but of the work, and I’m getting more and more concerned about this. Should this really be the coach’s job?
“The times they are a-changin'”, as Bob Dylan put it and that’s more true than ever today. Software is eating the world. Every firm is a software company now, whether they understand it or not. We’re in what Steve Denning calls the creative economy, driven by customers with an infinite amount of information at their disposal.
In these times of upheaval you might guess that many companies are going through major internal reflection and restructuring. The general answer is sadly, no. Many companies are still by-and-large acting like product pushers to the ignorant masses. Almost every traditional company is still leaning on tenets of management created in the 1800s. Radical changes are far and few apart. As a result of this fundamental inability to adapt, the life expectancy of firms have dropped significantly, now less than fifteen years and declining rapidly (Fortune 500 companies).
I think it’s fair to say that many existing organisations are in desperate need for major redesign, not just structurally but dynamically, how they work to create value. Nothing happens. It seems to me that CEOs opt for a safe tactic, maintaining the system instead of fundamentally changing it. CEOs are playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
Now this made me curious. I mean, why is that? I mean, are they idiots or just incompetent? Hardly. Perhaps some other forces are at play?
There is a coffee shop in southern Stockholm where I have taken the habit of procuring my morning shot of coffee. There’s nothing special about the place, devoid of charm and located at the busy entrance of a metro station, but the coffee’s pretty good. I always order a double latte with an additional carrot-and-orange juice. One nice touch is that they put cardboard holders around hot paper cups, making them less uncomfortable to hold.
The coffee shop is managed by a middle-aged man, often working in the back room. The best thing about the place is probably not the coffee, but the young, female shop-assistant, who’s very service-minded and efficient.
This morning routine of mine hummed along nicely until one day a couple of weeks ago when, to my concern, I was met by two girls behind the counter. The new girl looked very confused. During the following weeks, the training period I assume, the new and old assistant worked side by side, but after that, the one I was used to was gone.
When Ian told them what he’d done, they couldn’t believe their ears. He had what!? He had erased every document in the company database concerning hiring and retaining staff. Joan’s deep thoughts on “talent management” simply gone. Gone! “Hey, what about the backups?”, Helen asked. Ian just smiled, “Those too”.
The Pledge of the Sheriff
In the movie The Pledge (2001), directed by Sean Penn, a weary police chief, played by Jack Nicholson, investigates the murder of a young child. In the pivotal scene, on the day of his retirement, he promises the mother of the murdered girl to find the killer.
The sheriff gradually goes to extremes to fulfil his promise. He dedicates all his time to the case. He moves to a small town in the mountains, where he suspects the murderer could be found. The pledge he made propels him to forsake everything else. His mental health starts to decay. The guilt and shame of the unfulfilled promise lie heavily on his shoulders.
This movie reveals how incredibly powerful a promise can be, even today. Human beings can become very preoccupied in their quest to fulfil a promise.
In my last post I described a project restart, a simple, generic process for handling a software project when there are too many things left to do a few months before deadline. In this post I’d like to get more hands-on and talk about what actions you might actually consider in this unpleasant situation.
My experience is that some ideas that people consider sound great but are really, really bad ideas. And some suggestions, that many people may be unaware of, could have a positive impact.
Be warned, though! There is no magic dust you can sprinkle on a team to make them considerably faster in the short term. If you can help them become just 10-20% more productive you should feel proud. You have more leverage reducing scope on every level and modifying the system in which they work.
Before the Storm
Projects have a way of distorting people’s perception. When the seductive promises have been made to the almighty directors to get funding, the deadline is closing in (fast), and the development team is not nearly as productive as you’d expected, then desperate measures certainly are close at hand.
I think we’ve heard all the variations by now:
- The Ostrich: We need this by June, you figure it out!
- The Compromiser: What about quality? Can’t you fix the bugs later?
- The General: How many more troopers do you need?
- The Virgin: Why can’t you just… well, work faster?
- The Blackmailer: If you won’t come through, we will get shut down.
- The Pleader: There’s no turning back. We’ve promised this to the higher-ups.
- The PM/Cruncher: OK, listen up! Everyone is on overtime until we’re back according to plan.