Tag Archives: Mindset

They always laugh at you…

They always laugh at you...

They always laugh at you.

When you are a nobody, they laugh at you.

When you tell that you don’t know, they laugh at you.

When you sign-up to learn, they laugh at you.

 When you don’t have ideas, they laugh at you.

When you tell your idea, they laugh at you.

When you ask for help, they laugh at you.

When you offer to help, they laugh at you.

When you startup early, they laugh at you.

When you startup late, they laugh at you.

When you take small risks, they laugh at you.

When you take big risks, they laugh at you.

When you keep trying, they laugh at you.

When you make mistakes, they laugh at you.

When you fall down, they laugh at you.

When you fail, they laugh at you.

When you keep struggling, they laugh at you.

When you make something new, they laugh at you.

When you find no takers for your idea, they laugh at you.

When you eventually succeed…they stop laughing at you…but just for a moment…and then they start laughing at your jokes…but behind your back, they still laugh at you.

When you fall from your success, they laugh at you.

When you don’t restart, they laugh at you.

When you restart, they laugh at you…

Yes…they are always gonna laugh at you…whatever you do, or don’t! So, let this not be the factor that defines your identity. Let it not be the reason for you to lose heart. And most certainly, let it never be the reason for you to stop trying!

Of course, they are not laughing at you…they are laughing at themselves…because if they had guts, they would be out there in the sun and trying hard…just like you!

Just ignore them…

(Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/always-laugh-you-tathagat-varma)

Why do you pay people? No, really?

(Originally published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141204175129-3616140-why-do-you-pay-people-no-really)

Ask this question to cross-section of professionals across functions and experience levels, and you are bound to get millions of answers. Some of them might look like these:

  • For their knowledge, skills and abilities
  • To do the job!
  • For their efforts
  • For their time
  • Because the law says we must pay them!
  • Else they won’t work
  • So our competitors can’t poach them
  • So they stay committed
  • So they don’t make noise
  • Because I am worth it!
  • and so on…

Sadly, none of these are the right answers in my view (though some of them might be correct, technically speaking). They reflect the largely old mindset that people’s motivation and loyalty (rather, forget these fancy words – actually we are only interested in one thing, and that is productivity!) can be best bought for fair wages, which was perhaps ok when you gave them a one-size-fit-all standard process that they had to follow. A hundred years back, Henry Ford raised his workers daily wages from $2.50 to $5.00 just so they won’t leave his plant (full story herehttp://www.thehenryford.org/education/erb/HenryFordAndInnovation.pdf), where he had built a then ultra-modern system of manufacturing that needed them to simply follow the process blindly (and newcomers on the job could learn the ropes in five minutes flat). So much for paying people to get the job done!

However, what about today? Why do you pay people? No, really?

I think the only reason why we (must) pay people is so they bring ideas to the workplace. New, big, fresh, stolen, borrowed, bold, controversial, unscientific, unproven, risky, weak, potential gamechangers, disruptor of status quo, creative, ridiculous, audacious (big hairy audacious is even better), slayer of mindless bureaucracy, harbingers of change…just about anything will do as long as they bring something to the workplace, as opposed to just being a plug-and-play part in the giant corporate machinery whose daily activities are pretty much pre-decided as per the giant process manual. Much like washing the cars. As long as they don’t see the workplace as a watering hole (or, more contemporary parlance, see a place where they can charge their cellphones – both literally and metaphorically), but like a literal greenfield where they enjoy freedom of tilling fields and joy of sowing seeds and the grit and patience of seeing them grow and flower. Chances are if you are not hiring people for these traits, and not creating conducive environment (including paying them or rewarding them) for these behaviors, they are probably bottling up their real abilities – and you are shortchanging yourself! Given half a chance, they will surely walk out to a place that offers them such chances (and their tribe is surely swelling every passing day), but you perhaps stand to be the biggest loser by not benefiting from their creativity and new ideas. Who knows, they might go across the street, open their startup and buy you out in a few years from now 🙂

Do you pay people for blind obedience to a fixed process, or something else?

In today’s knowledge age, our employees perform best when they bring their ‘heart and mind’ to the workplace – they need to see an emotional connection to their workplace and they must be cognitively challenged by the work to be creative, happy and engaged. Anything short of that, and they are only likely to somehow get through the day! So, do you know why do you pay your employees?

As for me, if my employee doesn’t bring anything new to my workplace, they can as well take their old and stale ideas to my competitors. I would much rather they have it!

Why is your agile still a lot like dogma on steroids?

I still continue to be amazed (thought ‘shocked’ and ‘dumbfounded’ will be more appropriate words here) by the amount of dogma in agile circles. Do this! Don’t do this! Wasn’t agile meant to liberate us from the tyrannies of the so-called big monolithic non-agile white elephant processes, and create a more nimble mindset, flexible culture and adaptive process framework where ‘inspect and adapt’ was valued more than ‘dogma and prescription’? I sometimes think the poor old waterfall, for whatever it was worth (and I do believe it was worth a lot more than most people are willing to give it credit for!), was more open-ended and invited innovation simply because it was not perfect enough, and was very clumsily built for a rainy day, and depending on how sunny your day was, you were allowed (rather encouraged and expected) to pack only that much ration that you felt might be needed for the jungle trip.

For example –

  • You could have had any team size.
  • You could choose to locate your team members anywhere they wanted to be.
  • You could tailor your process in whatever way that made sense for you.
  • You could choose to slice your functionality in any which ways that made sense.
  • You could stagger the releases in whichever way you felt offered better yield.
  • and so on.

In several ways, such innovation required one to master the nuances of software development. And for those who would apportion reasons behind failure of such project on the method, my response would be – when there is so much flexibility in the system, why blame the system for being so ‘rigid’?

I have experimented more with waterfall methods in my career than with agile methods (which also I continue to do, much to purists chagrin :)), and here’s a small list of key exeriments that I remember doing – something that gave me immense joys because I had the liberty to try out stuff to see if that solved my problems better –

  • In 1995, when we realized that we are in a technologically evolving and complex domain (Asynchronous Transfer Mode switches), we didn’t build castles in air with the ‘non-negotiable’ waterfall-based product development process that the company had mandated, but decided to build an early prototype what would allow us to validate some key assumptions about our architecture. Yes, the company’s process didn’t support us, but yes, we broke the rules :).
  • In 1997, when we ‘discovered’ that standard waterfall won’t help us speed up the development cycle while we wait for the previous phase to complete, we didn’t blame the process for it, we simply ‘invented’ sashimi model and kept going.
  • In 1998, when conventional estimations didn’t work out in a domain that was completely new and unknown to us (digital set top boxes), I was not obligated to follow some obsolete standard process (though we were a CMM Level 5 company), but encouraged to try out estimations using complexity weights using methods like PROBE to mitigate the risks in estimations.
  • In the same project in 1998, when the project’s technology was new to us, I was able to home-brew and define a process with five increments that recognized the experimental nature of the problem we were solving and the learning curve of the team rather than sticking to a one-size single-release process.
  • During 2000 to 2003, I liberally experimented with waterfall methods to build teams that delivered large products in telecom and datacom domains with high success rates. At one time, I had 190+ engineers on a single product in my team organized around 14 parallel projects running on a common timeline and delivered on-time product in complex 3G Softswitch space. Yes, all in waterfall :). At that time, we were ranked last in global market. Today that company is global leader in that space, and I can proudly say some of our efforts were behind that turnaround.
  • In 2004-05, I experimented with our conventional enterprise service pack release model by liberally adding the weekly cadence from Gilb’s Evo process to create a weekly delivery model, and by accidentally stumbling on the concept of limiting work in progress to create one of the world’s first kanban implementations without knowing kanban – to be fair, it didn’t exist at that time – all without any prescriptions but just with a liberal dose of enthusiasm and undying spirit of experimentation.
  • …and the journey continues.

And what has been my take on the agile theory and practice? Not so open to experimentation or innovation. Sad, but true. Take some simple things for a start:

  • Agile methods recommend a small team size. That’s good common sense, and backed by scientific studies and acendotal data from ages, and is a generally good advise. What’s no so good is then we insist that agile teams can only be in a certain numerical range, and any team size more than that is blasphemy! In fact, my extreme view is that the best team size is what you have right now and not an ideal something from the literature, howsomuch backed by data that might be! In several ways, it is same as the ideal body weight – most of us will never have it, but what we have ‘here and now’ is the most important number to start with. So, why waste time over building an ideal team and lose all precious learning opportunities in that process? If my team has a true ‘inspect and adapt’ DNA, irrespective of where I start, I will get to the finish line. Somehow. Isn’t’ that more important and being truly agile rather than finding the perfect take-off point?
  • Take user stories. The notion of moving to user stories makes lot of sense give the constant pace of world around us. PRDs could never cope up with documenting such copious amount of details – and if anything, they would only succeed in documenting history of what customer wanted a year back! Now on one end we want our user stories to be ‘negotiable’ (from the acronym INVEST) so that we can create meaningful conversations between product owner and the development team. This again makes a lot of sense in an imperfect world where documenting every single requirement with its myriad corner conditions might be practically impossible, and has diminishing rewards beyond a point. So, if we can create a quick and cheap way to get started and have both, the process and the humility to listen to development team come up with more questions and options, then this premise holds very high promise. However, as a philosophy, something that is non-negotiable might not be so good in the same spectrum. For example, the Scrum process that we want them to follow must be non-negotiable. Why is that? If Fosbury had listened to the best way of high jumping, he might have never broken the proverbial sound barrier in high jumping.

Hey…what happened to the big promise of team being allowed to figure out its own ways and means? Once we ‘tell’ them, shouldn’t we step aside and let the team find its true north? Do I hear you mention ‘Shu-Ha-Ri’ thingy? Do yourself a favor – go and find a student (even better – try it on a second-grader) and then keep telling him/her that they are still a ‘Shu’ and hence must obediently listen to whatever you are telling them. They are supposed to follow your instructions to the hilt and not even think of wavering a bit. Good. Now take a deep look at their reaction. Count yourself lucky if they choose to ignore you and decide to move on, for there are far more violent ways they could have chosen to respond to such dogmas. In short – this is not the time and age for dogmas. Kingdoms, Colonies and Communism are all long dead. Accept it and change your own coaching methods, if you want to be counted.

To me, agile is a state of mind that tells me how to proceed in an imperfect world. Not to somehow make a ‘perfect’ world and then proceed. To me, a successful agile implementation is not about finding the perfect team + perfect process + perfect customer + perfect timeboxing + perfect sprint planning + perfect retrospectives + perfect product owner + perfect scrummaster + perfect

When does experience get ossified into dogma?

When does experience get ossified into dogma?

engineering practices + many more perfections = perfect landing. To me, a successful agile means starting with team that you have at hand, with the process that you have under the constraints you have, with the requirements that you have on a best effort basis and a many such real-world realities that works under a mindset of taking things one after other and improving the journey with the hope to get to the destination better than without such effort. Remember, we are being melioristic, not idealistic. We are being adaptive, not laying down pre-conditions for take-off. And in that pursuit, the most important guide for decision-making is our own judgment. Everything else is just that – everything else, and while it might work at times, it might not work at other times. So, like the Swiss Army manual that says – when there is a gap between map and the terrain, trust the terrain, go ahead boldly and experiment. In the worst case, you will lose some time and dollars, but if your DNA is built on the premise of self-improvement, you will quickly recover and eventually find your own path. If you are not able to ‘find’ it, you will ‘build’ it. Even better…

In many ways, there were no royal guards so zealously guarding waterfall model that made it sexy enough to be experimented with and experimented upon. On that same scale of flexibility, I don’t find agile methods sexy enough. It appears to be a lot like dogma on steroids. And I think that’s a serious problem.

Is your agile still a lot like dogma on steroids?

Does the internet know you?

In the last few years, I have seen several well-qualified senior folks leaving their rather stable careers (and not to mention their well-paid jobs) to pursue their inner calling at the end of (typically) a quarter-century of innings that often started with a bang, ran with illustrious career growth but ended on a whimper of long and lone bouts of boredom, lack of challenging assignments, dead-end role and stifling bureaucracy. These folks eventually outgrew their roles, and decided to step out of the daily rut of monotony

Does the Internet know you who you are?

Does the Internet know you who you are?

and endless boredom to explore a bold, new, uncertain world. These folks are brave – they decided to act while still having time on their side. However, these folks probably make up less then 5% of their peer group (purely self-made-up stats based on anecdotal data, but the reality could be starker). The rest 95% are still suffering daily in the purgatory, and offer themselves no real hope of ever leaving their make-believe world till one day when it would be too late to act anymore. This blog post is not about them – I really can’t offer them anything but tell them straight on their faces to just wake up and smell the coffee. This blog post is about those brave 5% who decide to take matters in their hands and leave the comforts of corporate job and social prestige to walk alone into an uncertain but perhaps more exciting future. I salute their fortitude. Unfortunately, in many of those cases, they are extremely ill-prepared for the uncertain future that lies ahead…the internet doesn’t know them!

I am typically seeing four major types or categories of career pivots, in that order of occurrence – 

  • consulting as a freelancer with other companies, or becoming executive or organizational transformation coach
  • entrepreneur / social entrepreneur / author
  • teaching at a college, and lastly
  • moving to completely different profession (like taking up a grocery franchise or launching a men’s clothing line)
  • well, I have seen one more category where people just left everything and literally sat at home – for years. There can’t be any more meaningless waste of human talent than simply whiling away the time, so I won’t even discuss it any further!

In many cases, it was a true calling and the individuals marched in knowing very well what lay ahead. However, in most cases, there were virtually ‘unknown’ outside their professional circles and had no clue if what they had to offer was in demand in the market. They didn’t know if people liked what they had to offer to them.  Their problem – the internet doesn’t know them! No one knew their abilities, interest and work outside their immediate professional network. There was practically no record of their body of work on the internet in public domain. Would they be a good coach? Do they understand what is takes to lead without authority? How else would they bring about a change in my organization? Do I know what school of thought they come from? Are they ‘more of same’ guys or someone who have the knowledge and courage to bring about required change? The result is that while many folks start out with good intentions and become self-appointed coach or consultant, they haven’t quite ‘tested’ their core product – “themselves” – in the market, and have no real clue if the market needs them. In the end, they simply get relegated to play roles much lower than their potential and calibre and live yet another life of boredom and dissatisfaction. Why jump from one life of boredom to another life of boredom for no good reason? Why not do something about it while you are still actively engaged in your current assignment? After all, market value and marketability are two different things and one thing doesn’t mean the other.

When I speak at conferences and meet people, I still continue to be shocked at the pathetic low percentage of professionals who make any contribution at all to the community, online or offline – e.g., speaking at conferences, writing articles, volunteering for professional organizations, presenting papers, sharing their presentation decks, blogging, sharing comments on others blogs, tweeting or simply even retweeting! In short, they are neither known as thought leaders or being as a good assist, and hence fail to acquire any reasonable level of credibility for them to be seriously considered as an accomplished consultant or a qualified coach. In fact, it is not even about a career pivot. I am willing to lower my bar to anyone even looking for a job change – chances are 98% that when people put themselves up in the job market, the only piece of credibility they are pedaling is their four page resume and if you google their name, you get nothing. In this time and age, when I can simply look up someone’s credentials and endorsements on LinkedIn, when I find nothing on you, what do you want me to interpret? (Of course, I know all about how people often barter endorsements on LinkedIn, but like everything else in life, there are ways to separate wheat from chaff).

People ask why is that important? They equate any form of sharing of ideas or work as narcissistic self-promotion. If my work is good, people will find me. Surely that was the good old world value – let your work speak, and be modest about it. If you keep blowing your own trumpet, no one would take you seriously. However, they are missing a key point – as Steve Blank says it in the context of building products – “Build and they will come” is not a strategy, it’s a prayer. How is the world going to discover you? Your intentions might be good, and others might be even willing to accept your perspective, but how do they bet on taking you? There is a huge difference between agreeing with you in a social setting versus butting money on you and taking you onboard for a business-critical problem – don’t expect the former to have any rub-off on the latter.

After all, they haven’t seen you in flight.

What if you initially come across as the swashbuckling hero from the corporate role that you were wildly successful in, but end up being an ineffective change agent when stripped of all titles and positions? Maybe your success was the result of systems and people supporting you, and without them, you are nothing!

If you can’t inspire an audience with your ideas, how are you going to coach a team?

If you have no point of view, why should they even listen to you?

If you don’t have what is takes to communicate your point of view, no matter how good your ideas might be, how will the world know about them, given that ‘reading the mind’ skill hasn’t been perfected yet?

Are you too scared to test your credibility? When why should you expect others to do it for you?

Do you remember one of the most compelling marketing punchlines in 80s – “No one got fired for buying an IBM“. It was the epitome of brand credibility as we knew it back then. Could the people say the same about your personal brand?  

The other day I met some wonderful people. One of them is a middle manager in a large MNC who is passionate about agile product development methods. He looks for every single opportunity to deliver talks at conferences – these are sources of his own learning. And often his company doesn’t support him – he has to put up internal ‘fight’ to get approvals for his talks, which he doesn’t always get – enough obstacles already. And if that is not already enough, he even funds out of town travels from his pocket. I met another very enterprising young professional. He was so proud of the fact that he has just seven years of experience but he has delivered twenty talks and presentations at various conferences during that time. His confidence oozes from his body language. I was amazed and inspired talking to these folks – may their tribe prosper. While I have seen delivering talks as a source of learning for me, these individuals are much ahead of me. At such early stage of their careers, they have figured out their passion and they are determined to do whatever it takes to pursue it. These folks will never have a credibility problem – the internet know them! Their talk material is on the net, people are tweeting about them, they are blogging their views – even if these are all half-baked and not fully supported by theory or practice, or even if they are not the perfect TED-speaker material. On the other hand, there are 98 other people for every two folks like these who are sitting quietly in the corner – sometimes basking in the past glory and living in a make-believe world, sometime just being cynical, shy or simply indifferent, and sometimes living in a fear of rejection or ridicule if they were to speak up their minds in front of others. Whom do you think you will want to hire? 

So, here you are. One one hand you have all the tools (did I say “free”?) at your disposal to make sure the internet knows you. You don’t have to write an epic novel or deliver an acceptance speech, but like millions of other netizens, you can just send a tweet or write a comment on someone’s blog and take the first step towards building your own online credibility. And then someday, the internet will get to know you.

But for now…does the internet know you? 

Where is the shark in your cubicle ?

A friend sent this story sometime back:

The Japanese have a great liking for fresh fish. But the waters close to Japan have not held many fish for decades. So, to feed the Japanese population, fishing boats got bigger and went farther than ever. The farther the fishermen went, the longer it took to bring back the fish. The longer it took them to bring back the fish, the staler they grew. The fish were not fresh and the Japanese did not like the taste. To solve this problem, fishing companies installed freezers on their boats. They would catch the fish and freeze them at sea. Freezers allowed the boats to go farther and stay longer. However, the Japanese could taste the difference between fresh and frozen fish. And they did not like the taste of frozen fish. The frozen fish brought a lower price. So, fishing companies installed fish tanks. They would catch the fish and stuff them in the tanks, fin to fin. After a little hashing around, the fish stopped moving. They were tired and dull, but alive.
 
Unfortunately, the Japanese could still taste the difference. Because the fish did not move for days, they lost their fresh-fish taste. The Japanese preferred the lively taste of fresh fish, not sluggish fish. The fishing industry faced an impending crisis! But today, it has got over that crisis and has emerged as one of the most important trades in that country! How did Japanese fishing companies solve this problem? How do they get fresh-tasting fish to Japan?
 
To keep the fish tasting fresh, the Japanese fishing companies still put the fish in the tanks. But now they add a small shark to each tank. The shark eats a few fish, but most of the fish arrive in a very lively state. The fish are challenged and hence are constantly on the move. And they survive and arrive in a healthy state! They command a higher price and are most sought-after. The challenge they face keeps them fresh!
 
Humans are no different. L. Ron Hubbard observed in the early 1950’s: “Man thrives, oddly enough, only in the presence of a challenging environment.” George Bernard Shaw said: “Satisfaction is death!”
 
If you are steadily conquering challenges, you are happy. Your challenges keep you energized. You are excited to try new solutions. You have fun. You are alive! Instead of avoiding challenges, jump into them. Do not postpone a task, simply because its challenging. Catch these challenges by their horns and vanquish them. Enjoy the game. If your challenges are too large or too numerous, do not give up. Giving up makes you tired. Instead, reorganize. Find more determination, more knowledge, more help. Don’t create success and revel in it in a state of inertia. You have the resources, skills and abilities to make a difference.
 
Moral of the story: Put a shark in your tank and see how far you can really go!

Not sure if you agree with such extreme measures to push people (or is it motivate people ?) to achieve the impossible or even accomplish everyday tasks, but I think there is an important message in the story. Quite often, we underestimate the power of ‘positive pressure’ (some might prefer to call it a negative pressure, though) dismissing it as a constraining force rather than an enabling one. However, there might be situations where such tactics might actually be a good, rather better, way to get things done.

I believe opportunities almost always masquarade as problems. I have never seen an opportunity present itself as a career-building assignment, or a game-changing company event on a silver platter. They all present themselves as a small, constant irritating pain of no major importance or immediate consequence. Most of us ignore them and walk right past them, prefering to often wait to work on ‘bigger’ problems, strategy and so on. I remember a highly inspiring talk by Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, a few years back in Bangalore. Scott talked about how they do the strategy for their products. Instead of a very hi-tech way to define product development strategy, they go about identifying pain-points their customers experience while using their products. They simply work on improving the user experience as the primary way to create opportunities for themselves. And it works for them.

Don’t run away from the shark in your cubicle, and if you have none, start by putting a shark in your cubicle first 🙂

How good is your ‘bad news management’ ?

No one likes surprises, least of all executives who might have given high-level commitments on project delivery to their peers in customer organizations, investors or other key stakeholders. I hold Project Managers largely responsible for poor ‘bad news management’. In most cases, there are half-baked estimates that never are a firm basis for project planning to begin with, or there are inaccurate project metrics that lead to an ambitious planning. During project execution, Murphy strikes and then the fun begins – the project manager is fighting a losing battle but is not willing to admit that (professional’s ego?), nor is he asking for help! The result is a blindly predictable situation where it is too late to do anything anymore. Could this have been avoided? Well, its possibility surely could have been lowered, even if not eliminated 100%.

My advise on how to minimize ‘bad news’ events would consist of:

  • Don’t rely on bravados. They might be ok for a weekend to complete a build, release some critical feature or deliver some part functionality, but to rely on them for anything larger and non-trivial would be setting up for grand failure. It definitely is not sustainable in the long-run.
  • Remember Fred Brooks when he said “how does a project gets late by a month – one day at a time”. No one likes to know about a project that suddenly pops up with a one-month delay. If that’s what you report, don’t expect any sympathies or support. Period. This typically happens when the project manager continues to have blind hope that the schedule he lost earlier would be recovered subsequently by some stroke of luck, magic or overtime, or all three. However, in reality, it just doesn’t happen. While you might be able to bring back some of the tasks on track, the time lost one day at a time just can’t be gained one month at a time without doing something radical like dropping a key feature, but not definitely by adding people (because that’s when you meet Brook’s Law).
  • Don’t overstuff your plate. It is very tempting to fill up the plate because that shows manager and team in a very good light – you know, like shining as a ‘good corporate citizen’ who understands company’s obligations to its customers and so on. However, non-essential features eventually take up lot of design, development and test effort relative to the value they provide to the customers. They also unnecessarily elongate the development cycle without creating an opportunity to get real customer feedback if those features are required at all. A project manager must do effective gatekeeping. 
  • Use enough prototyping and feedback cycles (like Agile development methodologies in software development).  

There are perhaps many more, but you get the idea – it is possible to reduce ‘bad news’ possibility for your project without hurting project goals.

That said, if there is a bad news, no point in covering it up, or externalizing the faults. Own it up as the Project Manager in-charge  – no one is going to hang you up for that. However, be prepared with an extremely thorough analysis of how the problem could be fixed, and the support you require from senior management to make it happen. Involve your team into a complete commitment to the revised proposal before discussing with the upper management. Also, try to explore multiple options and not a single-point solution – giving multiple solutions not only shows your analytical ability and intent, it also gives flexibility to upper management to take the best possible option. Finally, don’t go to your management as a postman and deliver bad news – go to your management with solutions and explain your preferred solution and various pros and cons.

A few years back, while working with a group in Germany, a project manager colleague of mine overcommitted on a delivery and decided to deliver the code against recommendations of his team. It was actually ‘code’ only – as it was not even compiling. I was the Quality Manager and I was not made aware of the delivery. When my boss came to know, he was naturally furious. However, before talking to our peer in the German office, we first sat down and made a careful plan to fix the problem. We got the team involved in it, and once we had a plan, we called up our German colleague. The fact that he was upset would be a gross understatement, but we worked sincerely to make up for our mistakes. In another case, during early phases in another project, the technical team delivered a high-level design that was a complete fiasco. The team in headquarters was extremely doubtful if we even understood the problem. In the morning, my boss pulled me in to that project and that evening, we were in the flight to Amsterdam. Next morning, we had transparent discussions with our peers in the Business Unit, and by afternoon, we were discussing high-level project plan. In both these cases, we had serious project problems, in one case in the delivery phase and in the second one during initiation phase itself. However, in both cases, we were confronted the issues as soon as we came to know about them, and without neither defending nor externalizing our initial actions that resulted in this problem, we worked towards finding a solution to the problem.

Failing first time is not a crime and almost everyone is entitled to a second life, but don’t expect a third life. That happens only in video games. In real-life, bad news will happen, but it can be managed much better if people are willing to keep project goals in the forefront and do not go about taking hardline positions. With sincerity and a willingness to fix the problem, we can improve our ‘bad news management’.

So, how good is your ‘bad news management’ ?

Art Fry shares views on Failure…

In  my previous post When are you planning to fail ?, I argued that early failures were a far more effective learning tool than early successes. Those ‘gentle failures’ could help you avoid, or at least minimize the chances of ‘grand failures’.

My colleague from PMI NPDSIG, Kimberly Johnson, shared that post with some of her ex-colleagues (Thanks Kim !), including Art Fry, inventor of perhaps most-well-known office product, Post-It Notes.  Here is what he wrote back:

“Good article, Kim. In most product development programs you must consider dealing with failure, because only one in 3000 to 5000 raw ideas become a success. So the question is, How do you check out the failures as quickly and inexpensively as possible?

One technique we have used with brainstorming sessions is to first brainstorm for the good ideas. This can be an individual or group effort. After a day of incubation, come back and brainstorm the barriers to success for those ideas. On day 3, Brainstorm the ways around those barriers. Sometimes a program that didn’t look so good at the start, turns out to have the most promising path. It is amazing how much time it can save in a program with a lot less cost than charging ahead with unchecked enthusiasm. Action without thinking is the cause of most failure.

Cheers,

Art”

He sent one more viewpoint:

“One more thought. Why would people want to work on new things, if most of their work is going to lead to failure? The good news is that when one of the individual’s ideas does find a successful path, it requires the help of a lot of people who have the satisfaction of building something successful. It is like hitting a good drive on the 18th hole. It keeps you coming back.

Cheers,

Art”

It is indeed great to have Art’s views on this highly underrecognized subject (in my view, at least). Art raises a very pertinent question: when the success rates are as low as just about 1 in 3,000 to 5,000, what is it that keep people going on and on and on ? Surely, large organizations could fund ideas in various stage of a concept-to-realization pipeline (that is, starting from thousands of raw ideas to finally the ones that will get productionized and are expected to be released on a commercial basis) even though they also need to count their R&D dollars (very carefully, I must add !), more so in these tough economic times. In the startup world, there is Darwin again at work – it is perhaps the democracy at its best that the strongest ideas stand up to various survival tests and eventually make it big. However, what is it that keeps people pushing at their ideas, day after day, week after week and year after year – just based on the strength of conviction about their ideas ? Are those ideas winners by themselves (i.e., genetically endowed), or is it the tireless efforts of those individuals that bakes those ideas to be a winner (i.e., genetically engineered) ?

Another colleague of Kim, Wayne wrote back:

“This conversation reminded me of the question Russ Ackoff posed to me when he came to town to speak for a day about 10 years ago . . .
 
Russ asked “Is it true what I hear about 3M that you give an annual award for the Biggest Failure to reinforce it is OK to fail?”  
 
Russ will always be a hero of mine for his insight into systems . . . see his wikipedia summary at this link –>
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Ackoff
 
Wayne”

Wow…wouldn’t that be splendid to be awarded the “Most Promising Failure of the Year” or some such ‘recognition’. I think it is a valuable (and rare perhaps ?) skill to be able to ‘smell’ failures from miles away. Imagine the power of an action that helps a company move out of random choas and uncertain future into a clear direction. I think Performance Management Systems are overdue for a big overhaul, for they glorify and celebrate achievement-orientation and happy endings. I would really love to hear back about an appraisal system that actually places premium on intelligent failures as opposed to run-of-the-mill non-consequential routine ‘successes’.

Failure is the new Success. Do you care ?

When are you planning to fail ?

Yes, you read it right…when are you planning to fail ?

In the world where insatiable hunger for ‘success’ is an obsessive-complusive disorder (OCD), we don’t think of ‘failure’ much. It is shunned, scoffed at, systematically eliminated (or mitigated, at least), avoided, bypassed, ignored….everything but embraced with open mind and open arms. All management ideas are directed towards the age-old wisdom of “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” and not on something like…”what won’t kill you only makes you stronger”. All project management philosophies are centred around safeguarding the projects from any possible failures…but has that stopped projects from grand failures? Every risk management action is towards making the project safe from failing…and yet we still see so many projects biting the dust, struggling for survival. Failure appears to be a social embarrassment that is best avoided at dinner table conversations. New-age enterpreunership, especially in Internet world, has helped a lot to eliminate the stigma that eventually comes with people associated with any well-known failure, but in everyday lives, we still continue to play safe, rather extremely safe. Of course, I am not talking about breaking the law and driving without seat-belts on or driving in the middle of the road jeopardizing everyone’s life. I am talking about thinking like Fosbury and challenging the established way a high jump is done – even at the risk of failing because what you are about to propose hasn’t been tested and certified to succeed. I am talking about taking those small daily gambles that strenghten you when they fail. I am not interested in those small daily gambles that are supposed to strenghten you if they succeed – honestly, they don’t teach you anything. In fact, those small successes might limit your ability to reach for higher skies because you remain contended by those sweet-smelling early successes. In my view, people who don’t want to risk gentle failures must prepare themselves for grand failure !

The word ‘fail’ is such a four-letter word that is evokes very strong emotional responses. In an achievement-oriented society and success-intoxicated corporate culture, fear of failure drives people to seek safer havens. When choosing what subjects to take in college, we ‘force’ our children to take the ‘safest’ subjects – they are the subjects that have maximum job potential ensure maximum longevity in job market. (I agree that ‘force’ is not the right word here, but it is not in its literal sense that I use this word here. The ‘force’ can come from parental expectations, societal pressure, peer pressure, ‘coolnees’ of a job, perks of the job, etc.). Traditionally, they have been Engineering and Medicine and anything else that ensured a government job (in India, and I am sure every country has had its own fixations at different times). So, the foundation to seek safety from failure gets laid right at the start of one’s career (well, in my view it is erected right after birth and we are still curing it by the time we start our careers, but that’s for another blog post). After graduating, there is once again a massive derisking operation: find some company that has a ‘big’ name (even if one is doing a fairly mechanical job there). Basically, trade any hopes or ambitions to do something new and creative in life with rock-solid jobb safety in a mundane assignment! As a rookie, you then become a link in this enormous chain where your job is dictated by the volumes of SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) that trade your urge to experiment / innovate with a higher ‘percieved’ safety of the given process. The logic being: this is the way we know it has been done before, and since it worked the last time, we expect it will always work and hence this is the standard procedure. Wow !

You then become a manager and have to now run a project. You have the ‘process police’ breathing down your neck challenging every single thought, let alone a decision, to deviate from those SOPs. You want to try an innovative recruitment…no, that is too risky. Why not first prototype this sub-system…no, the finance won’t allow that because we can’t bill the customer since nothing tangible has been delivered. How about a 200% make-or-break bonus for this team that is up against Mission Impossible….no way ! we will have mutiny in other projects. How about this….and how about that… Finally you give up and give in…and the project somehow starts. Most optimizations, if any, have been seriously watered down by now, and are highly local at best. The result is predictable – no substantial improvement from the previous project, at best, and an utter fiasco, at worst.

Let’s pause for a moment and quickly run through the script here. We are taking every beaten path that has individually been successful in the past (or so we have been told), and yet there is no guarantee of success in its next run. In each of these situations, the project manager faces the music – after all, the process did work the last time and if it is not working this time, this must be a capability issue (or, even worse, attitude issue) with the manager. Being at short end of the stick and facing an imminent loss of professional credibility, the manager pushes his team to burn themselves over really late evenings and long weekends and somehow gets past the finish line…but not before incurring emotional and professional scars, not before pruning down some of the original features, not without some ‘known’ bugs in the release and definitely not before going way above the original budget.

What went wrong ? We did everything to prevent ‘failure’ but we still failed to deliver a decent product on-time, within budget (even if overtime is unpaid, it still means shooting out of the budget), blah, blah, blah …???

This is what went wrong – in order to safeguard our project from any (all?) possible failures, we fortified the project. We poured money like water to avoid being mousetrapped. We used innovative processes that allowed us to take baby steps and gain early successes. Those early successes, after all, helped us validate our assumptions and only then did we go all out. And yet? In this process of scaffolding the project, we actually erected artificial life-support systems to make the project stand on its feet. Most assumptions were then tested in isolation for its validity under ‘standard test conditions’. Unfortunately, those early successes gave a false illusion that everything was fine, even though several of the chinks in the armor were not fully exposed. Absence of ‘gentle failures’ early in the project lifecycle ensured that the team thought they were on rock-solid footing. However, in reality, we could never fully guarantee that, especially when those early cycles were done with the intent to make something work and not make something fail ! Imagine you were testing a tool to detect landmines. To do acceptance testing of the equipment, you operate it under ‘specified test conditions’ and accept it. However, the enemy won’t lay mines under those very standard test conditions! Chances are extremely high that enemy’s plan will fail your equipment. I am only asking you to fail it yourself before someone else does it for you.

Here is something you might want to do on your next project. Identify all possible and potential ‘points of failure’ in the project (there are always more than one). Challenge everything and everyplace where Mr. Murphy can strike. Design the project plan to fail, fail softly, fail early and fail as often as required to ensure there is no grand failure (or at least a significantly lower chances of a grand failure). Design your test criteria such that success is measured by how many of those assumptions have failed. Cull out important lessons from those failures and now build your project plan to avoid grand failures. Of course, you won’t completely eliminate grand failures, but will have moved a couple of steps closer to avoid them or minimize their impact compared to what an early success approach would have given you.

So…when are you planning to fail ?

Ten Commandments for Revolutionary Change Agents

Revolutionaries are a restless lot. In a way, they are like the ‘shooting stars’ in an organization – they are seriously outnumbered by the hundreds of twinkle-twinkle little stars, they enter an organization with tails-on-fire hurry, and (try to) change everyone and everything around them within the short time span that they are there, and then they burn out (or just lose interest when the work they set out for is either accomplished, or get bored when it doesn’t get accomplished) and just move on. They don’t have a lot of time, patience or socialistic motives making small changes here and there, or to make elaborate plans and do surveys, investigations and pilots, and so on. They would rather be out there in the middle of heat, dust and all the adrenalin-pumping and chest-thumping action than be found napping in a death-by-powerpoint meeting full of naysayers who believe it is their fundamental right to protect the status quo.

While some are born revolutionaries, some people don that role for some phase of their professional life. Irrespective of whether you are one or not, chances are that you might be reporting to one, or working with one, or managing one such person sometime in your life. I would even bet that sometime in your career, you might find the need to shift gears and play that role. These ideas have helped me over the years, and I hope they help you as well:

 

  1. Don’t ever give up. Conviction of ideas and persistence of efforts are as much a key to success as the merit of proposal. The easiest thing is to give up – and perhaps everyone before you just did that (that’s why no change ever happened before there). So, you have the choice to either join the ranks of people who just couldn’t handle the heat, or stay right there and befriend the heat. 
  2. Don’t scale down what you believe is right for the organization just because some people don’t feel that way. Again, it is very easy to offer a ten-percent solution that pleases the mighty bosses but misses out on the remaining ninety-percent hard part that will either optimize the way of working, or help it self-sustain for years to come, or make the operations more efficient, etc. By scaling down and showing only the best oranges, you might gain some immediate curreny for your ideas (and it might even be a perfectly safe ploy just to get out of a deadlock) but you run the danger of setting a precedent for your ideas: low cost, high returns. Like a ponzi scheme, you might be expected to routinely dish out such ideas that offer insane amount of returns on bargain prices, and that might kill the potential of other, far better ideas that might not offer the low-hanging fruits but are required for the organization.
  3. Don’t constantly remind people whenever things fail, even when they fail due to reasons being highlighted by you and ignored by them. Many a times, people will simply ignore your ideas and opinions for various reasons and will simply go ahead with their ideas. In some such situations, their ideas could also fail. The last thing you can do to help the organization (and yourself) is to “I-told-you-so”. We human beings need to save our face. When people are down on their knees, reminding them of the obvious risks (definitely obvious to you, but perhaps not so obvious to them) will not only make your relations strained with people, it will also not help the organization. Further, you stand to lose their support, especially when some of your ideas go wrong (as they will), you can imagine being paid in same currency.
  4. Use objective, industry-respected, hard data to support your proposals, especially if people doubt the merit of proposals (as the eventually will !). Nothing works like a fully-baked data to counter opinions of people, especially when those opinions are based purely on personal whims and fancies. However, also remember – it is not your job to respond to every possible objection. Let your work do the talking, but use as much external help as will be required to give wings to your ideas. After that, they must fly by themselves.
  5. If need be, run skunkworks. After all, the programming language Java was developed as a skunkworks at Sun. Sometimes the opposition to your ideas might be so much and strong that you must backtrack. What options do you have? Try running the project secretly. Only two outcomes are possible: either your ideas will emerge stronger, or you will discover limitations of your ideas. Either way, it is your progress. However, make sure you have some allies in the organization lest your efforts be seen as another one of the hobby projects by your already unhappy boss. 
  6. Build allies by sharing success stories from other organizations, making presentations. Most managers are extremely incompetent in the fine art of building allies. We think these are some dirty tricks of an old politician to save his government. Well, guess what, it applies as much to the workplace. The old command and control structure is gone, and in today’s world, we can’t force people to follow what we like. Even the owner of a firm might not always be able to impose his opinions upon the free will of his employees. Largely, that will be resisted tooth and nail, or offered a cold shoulder. You can avoid a lot of heartburn by building allies to support your ideas. (I will write another blog on this very important topic).
  7. Build your personal and professional credibility. If there is a possibility the reason you are not being heard within the organization is because you are not considered competant in that subject, build that credibility by writing articles, presenting papers outside the organization, get involved in your technical community networks, etc. However, this is a long-term effort. In the short-term, your ideas might get you branded as anti-establishment just because you are seeking a major shake-up and that could upset a lot of people who are not only used to doing things a certain way, they have also built their careers doing things that way. By insisting on your ideas, you might only start losing everyone’s support and your own credibility. Learn to feel the pulse of people around you when that begins to happen, and use alternate means to first restore your personal and professional credibility. Be seen as the guy who knows organizational stuff, has a feel for issues facing the company, is seen being a problem-solver, etc. Once that is done, you will be once again seen as ‘one among us’ and your ideas and opinions might then be viewed little more openly then before.
  8. Solve real problems with your change proposals. That will win allies faster than any attempt to woo them by any other legal means. Let the results speak for themselves. No organization can (and needs to) solve all its problems rightaway. Some of your ideas might be little too idealistic for the organization and some might be little too futuristic. On an apple to apple comparison, you might be right in proposing to take up your ideas, but you might be missing the big picture. Instead of taking the situation holistically, you might be able to command better respect (and support) by offering solutions for today’s problems that allow the organzation to move forward. Hopefully, today’s survival will propel the organization to tomorrow where rest of your ideas will be required. If the company doesn’t survive till tomorrow, of what possible use would those holistic ideas be ?
  9. Socialize ideas with engineers in the trenches – the people who will use them. If they understand and embrace the ideas, there would be a better buy-in as compared to the senior management asking everyone to follow. Through the history, we see one consistent pattern: the lower the level at which a revolution started, the more it endured the passage of time. Military coups have not stayed that long compared to people’s marches to democracy. So, don’t ignore the people power. They might not be the decision-makers but together they constitute a huge force that can alter the future.
  10. Don’t give up on the philosophy of the proposal. Don’t take your proposal as a prestige issue. If you can get something done today without losing out on sanctity of your proposal, it might be much better than insisting on a full support that might never happen. Further, the results from what you can do today might pave the way for future proposals. There is never a single best way to anything – if there were, everyone would already be doing it. Give credit to your colleagues, for their resistance to your ideas might be there for a reason. Be open to altering your course without diluting the vision. Just like in human relations, it is not always the content of communication that destroys the relationship – it is often the way it is conveyed. Same way, your ideas might still be palatable if served in the right china.

These have helped me over years, and still continue to help. How about you ?

 

Change yourself, not the mirror

Change is painful, especially when you have to change yourself. However, in reality all change is really about – changing yourself ! When people ignore this simple and timeless truth, they start accumulating a lot of ‘rigidity’ – growing at the rate of one day at a time, until that years-of-accumulated-and-hardened-behavior becomes a Frankenstein’s monster and an inseparable and indistinguishable part of themselves ! So much so, that they don’t even see that as the problem. I read somewhere that it takes an average of 21 days for a practice to become habit. I think the same must be true for negative change – i.e., refusal to adapt to changes around us. And in, perhaps, as little as 21 days, we just fortify ourselves against the impending and growing change around us. When that happens, another fantastic thing happens. Since we are out of tune with the system, there is a real danger of the system rejecting us. To preempt that from happening, we reject the system ! We criticise the environment around us, we comment on people’s behavior, we become cynical of changes, we are uncomfortable with others enjoying their newfound happiness…and we defend our own stand tooth and nail….and become even more rigid in that process. There is one thing as maintaining your values and convictions, and quite another to be rigid. A hairline separates them, and any judgment is as subjective as any other one. In reality, one person knows the right judgment – you.

The trick, of course, is to view every small, delta, incremental change as something as trivial as driving you brand-new car on a dirt road in the country. Just as you would slow down at every hump or look out for potholes, and chickens and dogs trying to cross the road, so should you in real life.

Mac Anderson is Founder of Simple Truths who make lovely self-help books. In a post, he shared a wonderful story:

A few years ago, British Rail had a real fall-off in business. Looking for marketing answers, they went searching for a new ad agency – one that could deliver an ad campaign that would bring their customers back.

When the British Rail executives went to the offices of a prominent London ad agency to discuss their needs, they were met by a very rude receptionist, who insisted that they wait.

Finally, an unkempt person led them to a conference room – a dirty, scruffy room cluttered with plates of stale food. The executives were again, left to wait. A few agency people drifted in and out of the room, basically ignoring the executives who grew impatient by the minute. When the execs tried to ask what was going on, the agency people brushed them off and went about their work.

Eventually, the execs had enough. As they angrily started to get up, completely disgusted with the way they’d been treated, one of the agency people finally showed up.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “your treatment here at our Agency is not typical of how we treat our clients – in fact, we’ve gone out of our way to stage this meeting for you. We’ve behaved this way to point out to you what it’s like to be a customer of British Rail. Your real problem at British Rail isn’t your advertising, it’s your people. We suggest you let us address your employee attitude problem before we attempt to change your advertising.”

The British Rail executives were shocked – but the agency got the account! The agency had the remarkable conviction to point out the problem because it knew exactly what needed to change.

When confronted, don’t change your mirror – change yourself.

What is your cross-cultural quotient ?

This mail is doing its customary rounds on the net, and not for a wrong reason! Though there are obvious pitfalls of stereotyping people, it also serves as a handy learning guide, even a field manual, when the similarities are generic in nature, and far outweigh the minute differences that might make an individual unique and different from others, but not dramatically different from other fellow tribesmen. The fact is we are all different, and success at workplace is also impacted by our ability to recognize, appreciate, respect and work through such cross-cultural differences. In today’s increasingly globalized world, this serves as a good starting point to recognize that there are people different from us, and a team’s success is impacted by mutual understanding of such differences.

These icons were designed by Liu Young who was born in China and educated in Germany. She is an accomplished designer…check out her work at http://www.yangliudesign.com/. I found her usage of metaphors captured in nice little icons very interesting, and even if it is a gross generalization of human beings, it is a nice piece of creative work!

Legend: Blue –> Westerner, Red –> Asian

Opinion

 

 

 

 Way of Life

 

 

 

Punctuality

Contacts

 

 

 

Anger

 

 

 

Queue when Waiting

 

 

 

Me (I)

 

 

 

Sundays on the Road

 

 

 

Party

eastwest09.jpg

 

 

 

In the Restaurant

eastwest10.jpg

 

 

 

Perception of each other

 

 

 

Things that are new

 

 

 

The child

 

 

 

What is trendy

 

 

 

The Boss

 

 

 

Moods and Weather

 

 

 

Shower timing

 

 

 

Elderly in day to day life

 

 

 

Transportation

 

 

 

Three meals a day

 

 

 

Handling of Problems 

 

 

 

Travelling  

 

 

 

Stomach Ache 

How are Ethics and Excellence related ?

A friend sent a nice story:

A gentleman was once visiting a temple under construction. In the temple premises, he saw a sculptor making an idol of God. Suddenly he saw, just a few meters away, another identical idol was lying. Surprised, he asked the sculptor, “Do you need two statutes of the same idol?”. “No”, said the sculptor, “We need only one, but the first one got damaged at the last stage”.

The gentleman examined the sculpture. No apparent damage was visible. “Where is the damage?” asked the gentleman. “There is a scratch on the nose of the idol” replied the sculptor. “Where are you going to keep the idol?” asked the Gentleman. The sculptor replied that it will be installed on a pillar 20 feet high. “When the idol will be 20 feet away from the eyes of the beholder, who is going to know that there is scratch on the nose?”, the gentleman asked.

The sculptor looked at the gentleman, smiled and said “The God knows it and I know it !!! ”

The desire to excel should be exclusive of the fact whether someone appreciates it or not.

Most people would not set such high standards of self-approval when it comes to excellence, especially when it is very evident that their omissions and commissions won’t have any significant impact on the output and is unlikely to be ‘discovered’, and many will surely take the wrong route. However, there are many blessed souls among us who not only constantly strive for such excellence, but will also pursue it relentlessly, come what may – may their tribe prosper. So, excellence is not just an extremely advanced state of knowledge, skill and abilities – it is much more. It is about having the right attitude, a clear vision of what is required and, of course, a great sense of ethics. And that also reminds me of a great definition of ethics. This is not my definition, but if someone knows the source, please let me know so that I could credit the source with gratitude. It goes something like this:

Ethics is all about doing the right thing when you know that even if you were to do the wrong thing, no one would come to know.

How profound, and yet how simple. When I read the story that I mentioned earlier, I felt there was so much in common between Excellence and Ethics that they seem to be two sides of the same coin. Of course, excellence seems to have much wider meaning, and one could argue that ethics could be construed as one of the components of that. I believe someone who is truly passionate about excellence can’t be unethical, and vice versa. However, it appears to me that one can’t build a culture of excellence without having the strong and unshakable foundation of ethics. Excellence is the goal, but can’t be always guaranteed despite having best intentions and selfless efforts to achieve it. Failures do happen, and under pressure from stakeholders, there is always a temptation to cut corners. However, with a strong foundation of ethics, one can hope to build it all over again. Perhaps ethics is the self-regulator, speed-governor, the character-radar built in our conscience that doesn’t add anything to the knowledge, skills or abilities, par se, but acts as the mirror on the wall, the guardian angel, the lighthouse brightly shining its beacon in dark and choppy waters.

My interpretation is that ethics is the input that leads to excellence in output. It is the manure that leads to a healthy sapling which ultimately goes on to become a strong, tall tree. And unless you invest in this manure, how are you ever going to get such strong trees ?

Do you demand excellence at workplace without investing in building ethics first ? 

Toyota’s Wisdom for Tomorrow’s Managers

 

I just completed first draft of this paper for business review magazine of a city college of business administration. If it gets selected for publication, you will get to read the full paper on this site :). Here is the abstract:

Toyota’s pioneering work in automobile production systems continues to be among the most profound and radical departure from conventional thinking since the times of Henry Ford, and has led to unprecedented cost efficiencies and quality improvements for them. For long, it was thought to be a Japanese expertise – one that could not be duplicated by non-Japanese people, or outside Japan. However, subsequent to Womack and Jones’ pioneering works, “The Machine that Changed the World” and “Lean Thinking”, it has not only been adopted outside Japan, its universal principles are also finding huge acceptance in other sectors and service industries throughout the world.

However, any process is only as good as the people involved in it and their thought process behind it. Toyota’s production system is not only about how the production flow is organized – it includes fundamental aspects of professional ethics and work culture that are deeply ingrained in their thinking. These so-called “Toyota Traditions” serve as the guiding light for managers and employees alike and continue to remain relevant as ever. They also are ubiquitously applicable in almost every stream of management.

It is this author’s firm belief that by merely adapting Toyota’s Lean Production System, one can’t transform a normal organization to a Lean Enterprise. Alongside the changes in process, one must pay adequate attention to adapting the mindset behind Lean culture as well. With that context, I have analyzed and interpreted some of the Toyota’s Traditions that are most relevant in context of tomorrow’s manager in this paper.

Stay tuned for updates on this.

This is the festival season, and kids have holidays. I am also off to a short holiday. Festival greetings, and enjoy the winter holidays. See you soon. 

Is Scrum serving your Software Development, or the other way round ?

There was a question on the group Scrum Practitioners on LinkedIn if “…implementing Scrum as a whole should be our goal or would you use aspects of the Scrum methodology to realise an agile culture change ?”

Looking at the disproportionately large number (with an increasing trend) of posts on popular mailing lists on Scrum and Agile software development, I am alarmed that most energy and thought is being spent on figuring out “how Agile you are”, how should the user stories be worded, and whether one uses planning poker or not ? I mean…does it really matter whether you use ‘deal hours’ or ‘story points’ whatever that means ? If your team members are not speaking out ‘impediments’ in daily scrum…come on…that was the case in good old days also…expecting that Scrumifying the process will make everyone speak up honestly, do their job on-time and love thy neighbors is little too much of wishful thinking in my honest, brutal and uncharitable view. 

Scrum exists to serve its master, which is Software Development and not the other way round. So, implementing Scrum can never be the goal by itself (isn’t that where we went wrong with the CMMs and the ISO9000s of the world ?). Timely delivery of on-specs and high-quality software is almost always the goal. Anything that helps in that direction is a only a means towards that goal.

I would take whatever is applicable and makes sense to MY business situation – which is a unique combination of:

  • my organizational maturity +
  • organizational culture +
  • type of problem being solved +
  • management style +
  • … +
  • another one hundred and one reasons that must be analyzed before prescribing a one-size-fit-all solution.

To that end, I will not stop at Scrum but explore other Agile methods, Six Sigma practices, Lean principles, Kaizen philosophy, TOC / Critical Chain..even borrow from CMM / CMMI and ISO…and…why not…the good old Waterfall (sometimes, the old wisdom is not so bad after all !)….just about anything under the sun that makes my business look better. In fact, for more complex problems, I might look up to other industries like construction, shipping, logistics, etc. to see how they solve such problems and learn from there. After all, my business is far more important than an academic satisfaction of having implemented a one hundred percent bookish definition of Scrum without knowing whether it is working for me or not, and completely depriving myself an opportunity to know if there are better ways to solve my problems.

Scrum doesn’t have the monopoly over good software development practices. If we all started blindly following Scrum in toto, there won’t be any better solutions to newer problems. There must be a healthy effort to question Scrum practices and make continuous improvements in it instead of treating it like holy scriptures which can’t be challenged.

My prescription for myScrum test would not to measure it by inputs (i.e., do you do 2 week or 4 week sprints, are your specification complete before the next iteration, etc.) but as follows:

  1. Are your new practices improving employee motivation ?
  2. Are your new practices improving team productivity ?
  3. Is frequent software delivery improving customer satisfaction ?
  4. Are you able to accommodate late requirements with increasing ease ?

I think if you can answer all of these questions in affirmative, you have a winner in your lap – doesn’t matter if it doesn’t measure up to the ‘stringent’ criteria of Nokia Test or some other activity-based assessment of your software development religion. You don’t even need to call it Agile or Scrum…just call it Photosynthesis, Metamorphism, Evolution, Oxidation…whatever you feel like…after all, your Scrum should serve your software development needs, rather than you serving Scrum.

Is Scrum serving your Software Development needs, or the other way round ?