“That doesn’t sound very agile?”

I’ve heard this phrase a number of times recently. The normal context is this:

  • Manager: “I must have the important widget for ABC Corporation by the end of the week.”
  • Product Owner: “Why?”
  • Manager: “Because we promised it to them last night?”
  • Product Owner: “I’ll have a look at the current work in progress and discuss what we can do with the team in the morning stand-up meeting. Because this is a new item, not in the plan for the current sprint I’m not sure that we can do anything by the end of the week.”
  • Manager: “That doesn’t sound very agile?”

There’s a miscommunication here. What the Manager has said to the Product Owner makes no sense to the Product Owner because what they have heard is “Well, that doesn’t sound very Agile?” with a great big capital “A”. What the Product Owner has defined IS Agile, it may not meet the Manager’s expectation of agile, but they are different things.

See: Office Speak: “Agile with a capital ‘A’” and “agile with a small ‘a'”

Somewhere along the road Manager Types have picked up the impression that they can ask Agile Teams to do whatever they want and it will be done at the drop of a hat. In their understanding Agile equates to “no planning” when the reality is that Agile means “planning differently”.

I suspect that this impression of Agile as ultimate flexibility is derived solely from the name and not from any study of the practices of Agile. In many situations I suspect that the Manager Types haven’t done any training on Agile and are simply fab-surfing with the hope that the latest fad will, at last, be the answer to all of their problems. What they haven’t realised is that Agile will only be an answer to some/many of their problems if they engage and embrace it, and to do that they need to understand it.

Stuck Between Reality and Rationality

There’s a piece of street furniture in my home town that is famous. It’s not a fancy statue, or even a bench. It has it’s own twitter account with thousands of followers, and it’s own listing on Google Maps, with 38 reviews. It’s even got its own tag on the local news site.

It’s know as the Fishergate Bollard.

Rather than famous, perhaps a better word for the Fishergate Bollard is infamous. It’s not known for its beauty, or it’s historic symbolism, it’s known because vehicles keep knocking it over and parking on top of its plinth:

It’s garnered so much interest that someone even submitted a Freedom on Information Request to find out how much it was costing the local council to keep fixing it, the answer – about £1,400 a year.

You would have thought that this was a relatively easy problem to resolve, but this has been going on for over 3 years. Why so long to get it fixed? I’m only guessing, but I suspect that there is an ongoing tension within the roads authority between rationality and reality.

I’ve driven past the bollard a number of times over recent years and I can’t see any rational reason why people drive into the bollard, but the reality is that they do.

Some people complain that it’s not tall enough, or bright enough, which I can kind of get, but it’s not small. If this bollard isn’t big enough, how big would it rationally need to be?

The Fishergate Bollard was created as part of major road renovation scheme which some people loved and others hated. Changing it would seem like a retreat from the original renovation concept, but the reality is that cars, vans and buses all park on top of it.

There are definitely times in my life when I get stuck between rationality and reality. There are things that happen which I can’t rationally explain. There are technical things that rationally should work. There are things that rationally should only take a certain amount of time. The reality is often different and yet I plough on in the hope that my rationality will overcome the reality.

“Well this should work.” I say to myself after the fifth or sixth failed attempt. I speak the words of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland (maybe) to myself “If at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again.” and rationally commit to persistence and ignore the reality.

I’m not sure I know the correct balance between persistence and giving in, but I do know that I regularly find myself stuck between rationality and reality. My life would be simpler if I gave in to the reality earlier more often, but I’m not sure I would have learnt so many lessons along the way if I hadn’t gone through the rational adventure.

Perhaps what I experience as an individual, many organisation experience collectively.

Header Image: This is a cove at Cleit/Cleat on the beautiful Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. They aren’t visible on the picture, but there are seals basking in the sunshine on the rocks. The water was so clear that we watched other seals playing in the water.

Axiom: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – Does age make you resistant to change?

For those of you not familiar with this saying it’s primarily referring to a reluctance to change that comes from old age. In other words, the older you get, the more resistant to change you are.

“You can’t teach on old dog new tricks” is generally referred to an idiom,  meaning:

a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.

But in practice many people treat it as an axiom:

a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true.

A conversation with a colleague got me thinking, is there truth in the saying, or is it just a rhyme that we’ve all assumed to be true and embedded it in our attitudes towards older people?

So I thought I would go on a journey of discovery because if it is true there ought to be good evidence to support such a strong statement.

My first thought was to try and define  the age at which you become an “old dog”? The “old dogs” idiom was likely first published in a book of proverbs by John Heywood in 1546. Which got me wondering about how long people lived in 1546. The earliest life expectancy figures I could find for England and Wales was for 1851 when, on average, women lived to 42.2 and men only to 40.2. Assuming that in 1546 it was something similar, an “old dog” would be anyone older than 35 perhaps, but definitely 40? Or perhaps I’m messing with statistics a bit too much and average isn’t such a great indicator but it’s enough to get you thinking.

Even without a clear definition of what constitutes an “old dog” I started my search for evidence. I was particularly hoping for resistance to change in the workforce.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 0
Can Teach Old Dogs: 1

Starting with a search of “resistance to change” age I was presented with a study from 2013 entitled “Age, resistance to change, and job performance” by Florian Kunze, Stephan Boehm and Heike Bruch. They investigated the correlation of resistance to change (RTC) with age but also looked at the correlation with tenure in a role and job status (blue collar v white collar). This was their conclusion:

Contrary to common stereotypes, employee age is negatively related to RTC. Tenure and occupational status are further identified as boundary conditions for this relationship.

Age, resistance to change, and job performance

Just to be clear here, when is says that employee age is negatively related it means that older people tend to have a lower resistance to change. Within the report the relation isn’t huge, but it’s there all the same, and if definitely doesn’t support the axiom. Someones job status and their tenure also have an impact on their RTC, but these correlate in the stereotypical way; a lower job status creates a higher RTC as does an extended period in a role.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 1
Can Teach Old Dogs: 1

But that’s just one study so I continued my search and ended up as the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. They published a survey in 2008 which concluded:

“late-career employees were perceived to be the most resistant to change (41%), reluctant to try new technologies (34%), and difficult to train (18%), according to the States as Employers-of-Choice survey (Fall 2008).”

Older Workers Seen as More Loyal But More Resistant to Change

So there’s certainly a perception that late-career employees are resistant to change. Treating surveys as evidence is always tricky, you have to look at the actual questions and make judgements of whether the perceptions being highlighted are genuine. You also need to look at the cohort of people who were surveyed in order to understand whether their may be bias in the data. I’ve not had chance to do this so I’ll leave the information here as potential evidence for the axiom. Another challenge with this survey is the term late-career employees, there are bound to be more late-career employees who have had a long tenure than early career employees, you have to have been around for a whole to have enjoyed a long tenure so some of this perception may simply be the challenge of long tenure.

So one report that says that age isn’t the issue and one that says that people perceive that late-career employees are resistant to change. Let’s continue our searching.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 1
Can Teach Old Dogs: 2

Another survey? This time looking at people in government organisations and snappily entitled: “An Investigation of the Difference in the Impact of Demographic Variables on Employees’ Resistance to Organizational Change in Government Organizations of Khorasan Razavi” (Khorasan Razavi is a region in Iran)

The aim of this study was to investigate the difference in the impact of demographic variables, including age, gender and level of education on employees’ resistance to organizational change. According to the results of Student’s ttest, the mean of variables in the groups of men and women is equal and there is no difference, thus gender has no significant impact on employees’ resistance to change. Investigating the results of correlation test indicated that since the significance level is greater than the confidence level (0.05), there is no correlation between the variables of age and resistance to change. In the following activity, the individuals were categorized into four groups, including under 30, 30 to 40, 40 to 50 and over 50 years old. The results of test analysis of variance indicate that the significance level is greater than the confidence level, thus these four groups are the same. According to the results of Duncan test, there is no difference between these four groups, thus employees’ age has no significance impact on their resistance to change.

An Investigation of the Difference in the Impact of Demographic Variables on Employees’ Resistance to Organizational Change in Government Organizations of Khorasan Razavi, 2016

This is a relatively small study and used a questionnaire technique, so can’t be defined as conclusive, but is another piece of evidence for the age has no impact side.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 2
Can Teach Old Dogs: 2

Where to next? Find another study? There’s this one: “Impact of Age on Employee Resistance to Change. A Case Study Cotton Company (COTTCO)
in Zimbabwe”
they surveyed 60 employees and concluded that age was a factor. They also highlight that other factors impacted this conclusion, such as the openness of the organisation.

Conclusion?

That makes it 2 for and 2 against and perhaps that also makes it time to stop. Is this simple scoring mechanism sufficient? The first study is by far the largest with 15,243 participants and should carry more weight than the COTTCO one with 60 participants, but they weren’t asking the same questions so it’s not as simple as that. What can we conclude in this confusing landscape? There’s enough evidence to question the validity of the axiom and to question the use of age as a reason for resistance to change.

What about the other factors?

Whilst doing this research I was most struck by the idea of the other factors, particularly length of tenure, openness and role status. Whether someone becomes resistant to change as they get older, or not, would be something that was difficult to change. If it’s a biological condition, and I’m not saying it is, then it would be very difficult to change. If, however, the perception that late-career employees are resistant to change is primarily driven by factors, other than age, then organisations should take that very seriously indeed, these are things that organisations can and probably should change.

Organisations need to ask themselves whether they are creating, for themselves, individuals who are resistant to change and if they are, then what is the cost of that conditioning? Whilst I doubt whether organisations are consciously creating people resistant to change, they are creating organisational environments where that is the result.

Header Image: These are The Kelpies in Falkirk Scotland, taken on a recent visit. I left a few people in the picture so you could get an idea of the scale.

“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to…”

“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them.

A senior executive’s job is to manage risk. We often interpret this as reducing or mitigating risk. But really the executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them. Since all action directed toward the future is risky, the executive must decide which risky actions to take and how best to take them. Investing in the stock market is risky, but if you want to earn a return, you have to do it. You balance risks and returns, and choose investments.

The simple reason that the contractor-control model of IT breaks down is the presence of uncertainty. Plans are made with an eye toward the future, but the future is largely unknown. Thus, rigid adherence to a plan cannot be effective—at best, the plan is valid only as long as the assumptions it makes are valid. The seated CIO is the one who tries new foods—well, if they look edible.

The presence of uncertainty is the simple reason why Agile approaches work better than plan-driven approaches—it is also the reason why a good IT leader will often have to make “wrong” decisions. An IT leader adds business value by adopting an intelligent attitude toward risk.”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

Office Speak: “Paradigm Shift”

Sometimes you think you know what something means, and then you look into it and you are no longer sure. You hear someone say something in a context and you are convinced of the meaning, but perhaps the meaning has been defined by the context.

Today’s Office Speak is a favourite term of a mythical group of people known as the Agents of Change (we’ll get to that one another day). These Agents roam the earth calling people to see beyond their day-to-day way of thinking and to make a Paradigm Shift.

paradigm 
noun
a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model.
“society’s paradigm of the ‘ideal woman’”

We were gifted the term Paradigm Shift by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) who was talking about changes in the basic fundamentals of scientific discipline driving a scientific revolution:

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.

Wikipedia

Our own world views have been impacted by these scientific revolutions. There was a time when people didn’t know that germs existed, imagine the change that they went through once it was understood. It’s not that long ago that DNA was discovered and we are all in the middle of the science revolution that this is enabling. That’s the level of a Paradigm Shift as described by Kuhn – a complete change of worldview.

You may have seen this diagram before, it was used by Kuhn to illustrate that a different perspective can change the meaning:

duck-rabbit_illusion

I’m going to assume that you can all see the two different creatures being shown here?

Let’s return to those Change Agents that patrol the typical office environment requesting a Paradigm Shift here and another one over there. What are they really calling for? Are they calling for a scientific revolution in our day-to-day office existence? Or, as I suspect, are they asking us to squint a bit and look at something in a slightly different way. This tendency to overstate is quite common in Office Speak.

Rather than saying:

“We need a paradigm shift here.”

Perhaps it would be better to say:

“Is there a different way of thinking about this?”

Or even:

“Perhaps we need to look at this a different way.”

It may be that I’m just being a bit too British about this, but it sometimes feel like we call all change a Paradigm Shift when all we’ve really done is moved from one desk to another, or changed from one colour scheme to another. These don’t quite compare to Einsteinian General Relativity do they? Perhaps the Agents of change or rewarded for the number of times that they use it? Or Perhaps it’s just become a lazy way of saying “we need to change what we are doing”?

Header Image: This is the view from Eagle Crag down Borrowdale an a cold but beautiful day in 2019.

Document Driven v Data Driven

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about forms. Why forms? Forms give us fascinating insights into that way that organisations work.

A Life of Forms

We are surrounded, some would say inundated, by forms:

  • Banking runs on forms.
  • Insurance wouldn’t survive without forms.
  • Most organisations have thousands of ad hoc forms for various diverse purposes.
  • One of the worst things to happen in some organisations is that a situation arises for which there is no form.
  • Visit a medical professional and somewhere within the dialogue a form will become necessary.
  • Subscribe to any service and forms will be used as part of the contracting process.
  • Start a new employment and you are likely to spend much of your first day completing forms.
  • Our birth and our death are accompanied by forms.
  • How many times a day do you complete a two-field form in order to gain access to some technology.
  • Interact with a government organisation and a form will be required.

Sometimes these forms are online, web page, or even forms on mobile devices. There are still, however, many situations where forms are completed with a pen. How many hours have you spent trying to complete a pseudo form that was sent to you as a Word or PDF document.

Document Driven Business

There are many PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that are in essence forms. They are created from a template that sets the titles and contents of each slide/worksheet/section. The person completing them is expected to say certain things in certain ways, just like a form.

  • This first slide has the title on including the reference number, person presenting and target date.
  • The next slide has the required content on and only this content.
  • The following slide will explain what it is you are going to do.
  • The penultimate slide will outline the business case in the supplied table.
  • The final slide will contain the risk register, using the supplied table headings.
  • No other slides may be added.

It’s a form, isn’t it?

A Form to Transact

Each of these form-types exist to support a transaction:

“Once you have completed sections 1 to 5 and 8 of the loan application form we will proceed to the next phase of you application.”

“You are required to complete a tax return of which sections a to e are mandatory.”

“We’ll proceed with your project once you have provided the project initiation template document.”

The boundary of the transaction is defined by the form, without the form nothing moves forward, or backward.

This way of working produces a number of effects:

  • Over preparation – in order to make sure that a transaction can complete documents tend to be over-worked. Many hours are spent making sure that every detail in a form/document are correct to a level of detail that is not required to move onto the next phase, but everyone strives for perfection to avoid rework at all costs. A small amount of over-work is compounded as a process is worked end-to-end. Imagine how much work goes into producing a set of 40 document? Add a little bit of over-preparation to each of them and the amount of effort being expended is huge.
  • Over-stating – The over-preparation of documents often includes over-stating, where things that aren’t required in the document are stated in the document “just-in-case”. The problem with this superfluous information is that it becomes part of the record and is then used by people who make decisions despite its heritage and trustworthiness.
  • Point-in-time perspectives – The information in the form/document was mostly correct at a particular time on a particular day, but that’s all that can be said about it. Any perspective that is taken on that document is locked into the context at that time. The information in the document isn’t being refreshed, it was completed, a transaction took place and now everything within the document is, at best, history. Yet, people will continue to refer back to it as information way beyond the valid life of the data contained within it. The reality is, even before the document is concluded the data within it will be out of date.
  • Action blocking – A form/document represents the end of one activity and the start of another – a phase-shift. The next phase can’t start until it has received the information from the previous phase. Even if an element of the next phases has all that it needs to proceed it can’t until the transaction has been agreed. Consider how many actions are expected to be undertaken following the transaction of a 100 page document? How many of those actions could have safely been undertaken way before the transacting of the document?
  • Phases based on documents – The definition of a document as the point of transaction means that production of the document often becomes the definition of the phases/stages of an activity. This way of planning has little to do with the amount of effort involved, or the value being produced, it just represents a transaction. An activity that only exists to produce a document is a bad activity.

Data Drive Business

Let’s turn our attention to data-driven activities.

The document has been with us for thousands of years, but we no longer need to work at such a coarse level. The information that is placed into a form was not generated by the form. A form is just a place to consolidate information that already exists elsewhere. When you are asked about your date-of-birth in a form you are simply recording information that has existed, for some of us, for many years. So why not link the data directly with the intent for which it is needed. Why bother placing a date of birth on a piece of paper when one system could ask another system whether I’m older than 18 and get the correct answer back.

There are situations where data isn’t enough and a set of information may need to be brought together to tell a particular story. Imagine a design for a network topology, the design may be the first time that it’s been outlined. This isn’t to say that in this situation a document is required, it’s just to highlight that an intermediate step from current state to future state may be required to fill gaps in the data. Even in this network topology example a diagram with meta-data is probably sufficient to communicate the change being proposed and for people to agree to transact. Once the change has been implemented the diagram is no longer required because the current state information becomes the record.

Taking the network topology example even further, the need for a human-readable design demonstrates a gap in policy and understanding. If the change could be codified in a way that a policy mechanism could understand and assess, then the change could have taken place without the need for a diagram. If, as an example, an application needs to add more resources to the network, the network would respond on the basis of the data provided and the policy defined. Likewise, once those resources are no longer required the policy engine would turn the resources off. All of this would happen before someone has filled in half of the “necessary” paperwork.

Our job, as humans, should be to assess and define the required actions for the exception, for those situations where data and policy is not sufficient for a decision to be made.

Time for Transformation

For much of the life of IT may applications have been little more than form replacements and that has given us some productivity gains. In many ways we are only just at the beginning of a transformation from a world driven by documents to one driven by data  This will require a profound change in the way that we think and act.

Organisations that continue to rely upon forms (including apps that are replacing forms) will be overtaken by the machines.

Header Image: This is one from a recent morning walk along the lanes near my house. I’ve always loved the shapes of tree skeletons in the winter.

“Requirements simply don’t exist…

“Requirements simply don’t exist. A requirement, by definition, is something required: the basis for a contract, a way of managing an external service provider, part of a deal where a buyer promises money and a contractor promises to deliver something well-defined. But within an enterprise, what does it mean for something to be “required”? A requirement purports to express a necessity, but where could this necessity come from? In a publicly held company, maximizing shareholder value might be a necessity, but how could a particular feature of an application be necessary when there might be many other ways of maximizing shareholder value?”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

Header Image: A spring sunrise taken on one of my pre-work walks. This was one of those cold and crisp days when sunrise often seems so vibrant.