The Four Ages of Solution Constraint

Solution Architecture is fundamentally the management of constraints. The ultimate constraints are the ones faced by all projects – time and money. Within the sphere of business technology these constraints have manifest themselves in different ways over the years. As each constraint gets solved the need to manage a particular constraint recedes into the background and other constraints comes forward. Managing a constraint that no longer needs management is not only wasteful, but it also takes our attention away from controlling the new opportunity.

Looking back, I think I’ve lived through four major ages of solution constraint, most organisations have moved from one to the next, but there are many pockets of organisations where people are still managing the constraints of an age long passed.

Age 1: The Hardware Constrained Age

Early in my career I helped a team of people who provided personal computing devices. This service was only offered to a select group who had excessively big budgets. I remember debating with a colleague why anyone would need 20 Megabyte of storage, no one had a budget big enough to buy a Gigabyte of anything, and even if they could there weren’t any systems capable of making that amount of storage available.

I remember being amazed by the capabilities of the very first Macintosh that I saw which I suspect was a 128 Kilobyte version, there weren’t many people that could afford the 512 Kilobyte model.

Where I worked people were doing serious engineering work on MicroVAX 3100 models which had a mind blowing 32MB of memory in them with teams sharing processors that sped along at 25MHz.

Hardware was so expensive that everything had to be built to fit into the footprint that could be afforded.

Solution design was quite straightforward, pick the right hardware for the task at hand, optimise things as much as you could and hopefully, you’d get something that would do the required work in a night. There wasn’t any point in designing too much into the systems because there wasn’t enough hardware available to do anything fancy. Most hardware had one job to do, because that’s all it could do.

Picking the right hardware wasn’t as simple as it might sound today, there was a lot of different hardware to choose from, each UNIX variant was built for specific hardware, each vendor had their own proprietary hardware and operating system. You tended to purchase all the hardware from the same vendor because if you didn’t the integration was your job, and that was a risky business strategy. Evaluating the performance of several types of hardware was serious work that required detailed technical skills.

Age 2: The Connectivity Constrained Age

One of my colleagues in the early days was called Paul and he was famous for the contents of a large wallet that he carried with him everywhere. Inside the contents of this wallet where the entirety of the organisation’s software library. The first version of this folder contained 5″ floppy disks; the wallet evolved through 3.5″ floppy disks and eventually ended up with CDs.

For those of you with a shorter memory than my own, this may seem like a crazy thing to do, why would someone carry a folder of CDs around? Because there was no other way of moving data around. The networks that we use every day, the Internet, home Wi-Fi, 3G/4G/5G cellular networks, didn’t exist. There were a few connections between different computers, but they were slow, and mostly constrained within an organisation. Each of the hardware vendors had their own idea of how a network should work, anyone remember DECLink and token-ring?

Later, organisations created connections between various locations within their organisation, but these were even slower than what you could do within a location. These wide-area networks were supplied by the local telco who were in many locations monopolies that saw this growing trend as a way to make a lot of money.

Teams sprang up whose job it was to make sure that the links between locations were optimised because getting it wrong could be an awfully expensive business. Overcommitting the network pipe between two production locations could have devastating consequences for the production organisation. Much of the time it was still quicker to put the data on a disk and mail it to the other location.

Systems needed to be designed to keep the network connectivity requirements to a minimum. Using devices within the local network was more cost effective than reading the same data across the network multiple times. When I first started working with email systems people regularly deployed small servers all over the network to try and avoid the wide area network costs, these were the days before email was a universally deployed tool.

Small data centres grew up in each location to accommodate the need for local resources.

This was, of course, all changed by the Internet. The availability of a connectivity utility changed things for everyone. The connectivity constraint diminished, and all those local servers disappeared – didn’t they? And all those teams managing the scarce wide-area network capability went on to do more interesting things – didn’t they?

Age 3: The Software License Constrained Age

With the cost of hardware plummeting, and the ability to connect services blossoming we walked into a new constraint – the software license. As the value derived by technology skyrocketed the people providing that technology decided that they needed to get their fair cut from the investments that they were making. How did they protect these investments? Through page-and-pages of license agreements written in legal terms requiring armies of people just to understand them and another army of people to advise people on how to get the best out of the license that they had purchased. We didn’t finish there; we still needed another army to count the number of licences that we were using and to stop the organisation from buying any more.

People designing solutions needed to consider the rules of each individual license to make the best use of the licenses that already existed or minimise the burden of new licenses. Many organisations created central database services just to minimise the license footprint from one database vendor, while at the same time locking themselves into using that vendor for a long time. Other organisations created reporting portals for systems to minimise the people who need a license to use the ERP system.

License vendors created mechanisms to stop customers moving to alternate solutions by signing long-term agreements with significant discounts for those willing to commit.

Some vendors became embedded within the psyche of organisations where significant intellectual capital was invested in a particular technology. Supplanting that technology with a cheaper, better solution was a demanding thing to do and many have failed in their quest.

Although at the latter end of it, we are still in this age. The armies managing licenses still exist, the technology to count the use of the licenses is still being deployed, the vendors are still making good money from the licenses. We still make design decisions on the basis that it constrains the license footprint.

Open source is steadily changing the world of licencing, but it’s going to take a long while for the third age to be completely overtaken by the next one.

Age 4: The Subscription Constrained Age

We used to buy a DVD and keep it forever; we owned the DVD even though we only watched the film once. We don’t do that anymore, we have moved to a subscription model – NetFlix, Disney+, AppleTV+ and on it goes.

The same has happened with technology, you may know it as “The Cloud”. The licensing age was characterised by one-off purchasing decisions, the subscription age is characterised by continuous adjustment of the blend of services being used. Organisations have a growing portfolio of applications and infrastructure they pay for as they use it.

This is where the parallels with media subscriptions gives us some insights into managing this constraint.

Does a single subscription to, say, Netflix give us more content than we could ever consume? Absolutely. So why do we also have a subscription to Disney+? Because we like a show that’s only available on Disney+. Does Netflix have a show that is like the one we like on Disney+? Sure, but it’s not the one on Disney+ and let’s face it the cost of a Disney+ subscription isn’t that big. Is it? But there’s also that new show on AppleTV+ that everyone is talking about.

Most subscription services don’t allow you to just buy the thing you want to buy, and if they can they’ll incentivise over-use of their service. Amazon is the master at this approach with both Amazon Prime and, from a technology perspective with AWS. In the case of Prime it’s all the additional services that you come to depend upon, in the case of AWS it’s the vast array of services blended with the data egress charges creating a huge disincentive to taking data out of AWS.

If subscriptions aren’t going to get out of hand solution designs need to manage the constraints. As a daft example, the best solution for a service may be for the database to be in AWS, the business intelligence to be in Azure, the business logic to be in a SaaS tool like Workday or Salesforce, the search to come from Google and the logging back in AWS. The problem is this service would be expensive and difficult to maintain. Whilst taking all the capabilities from AWS or Google or Azure may be a compromise for each of the individual services, managing this constraint, in this way, will provide a service that is easier to maintain and cheaper. But taking every service from a single cloud provider brings its own problems.

The armies of people managing software licensing in the previous age are rapidly being supplanted by an even larger army of people managing their way through subscriptions.

I used to joke that the best protected asset within software vendors was the licensing algorithm, I now joke that this role has transitioned to the team who create the subscription rules.

It’s Just Evolution

Having written this post, I was struck by parallels with the Wardley Mapping phases of evolution. In each age the constraint is moving up the stack as the elements lower down the stack move into the background as solved problems. The technologies in those lower levels aren’t going anywhere, they’ve just moved out of focus as they shift towards being utilities.

Focussing at the Right Level

I’ve highlighted throughout this post some of the places where people’s legacy practice needs to evolve to keep up with the new age. Teams that are still placing elevated levels of management on hardware in datacentres are likely missing the huge expenditure already taking place with the subscription providers of AWS, Azure and GCP.

Organisations who managed the internal WAN as the primary constraint have, hopefully, realised over the last 18 months how connectivity has moved beyond them.

The software license vendors are busy running around their customers seeking to secure their future revenue. In so doing they are seeking to slow the progress of the subscription providers. Many designs will be constrained by the need to consume these licenses beyond the point where they should have moved into a subscription service.

The subscription providers will continue to evolve at pace, this is the place where we need to be managing our constraints, delivering the best value to our customers for the right price. The model for how to do that is still evolving, but many organisations have already figured most of it out.

I’m not wise enough to know what the next age of design constraint is going to be, but I suspect we are heading into a world where the robots are doing more work and we will need to create systems that work well with the robots. I can also see all sorts of other constraints becoming primary: data sovereignty, privacy, security, cybernetics, skills, emissions. Testing is often a significant constraint on a design. I am glad that my job doesn’t involve predicting the future, many of us still have a hard time staying in the current age.

Header Image: This is a beach in the Outer Hebrides. The Queen used to park the royal yacht in the strait and have the crew row the family over for the day. The locals know it as Queen’s Bay. We also had it to ourselves the day we went.

Out of Office & Decline All Meetings – Outlook on the Web

As we approach this holiday season I thought I would share with you a productivity trick that you should absolutely use – assuming you are an Office 365 user.

Here’s the scenario.

You are about to take some days off and you want to block out your calendar, you also want to decline all of the meetings that people have decided are important to you, what’s more, you’d like to decline any meeting invitation for those precious days and to cancel any recurring meeting that you have set up.

In Outlook on the web, the Office 365 client that you use through a browser, Microsoft have made this really, really easy to do, right there in the Automatic Replies interface.

Automatic Replies on Outlook on the web

The Automatic Replies interface isn’t the easiest thing to find, so let’s start there.

  • Click on the gear icon in the top right corner.
  • Click on “View All Outlook Settings” at the bottom of this interface.
  • Select the “email” section where you’ll find “Automatic Replies”.

Once you turn on automatic replies and “Send replies only during a time period” it will show you three extra options.

  • “Block my calendar for this period” – is self explanatory and will create an “away” event in your calendar for the dates defined.
  • “Automatically decline new invitations for events that occur during this period” – again, self explanatory, if a little wordy.
  • “Decline and cancel my meetings during this period” – this is where the gold is. Select this and you’ll get another dialogue asking how you would like the meetings declined including the response text. You also get a full list of the scheduled meetings so you can selectively retain some meetings, but why you would want to do that is beyond me.

Be warned though, I’ve found that people aren’t used to others actually declining meetings, so when they get a flood of emails for the 50 meetings that they have scheduled with you it can lead to some frustration.

For anyone wondering why this feature isn’t in the “full client” then it’s worth understanding that Outlook on the web is the target for all of these innovations. Browser based development is quicker and far easier to deploy, the “full client” is always going to be further behind.

Header image: a misty morning walk on one of my regular routes.

Do meeting cancellations make you grumpy? A not so scientific study.

I work in a role where it’s possible that a meeting can happen anywhere in the 24 hour of a day. In general people work together to respect people’s working day, but there are times when a meeting at an anti-social time is unavoidable, that’s accepted. What makes me grumpy, though, is when these meetings are cancelled or postponed, particularly at short notice.

Yesterday evening I finished my normal working day with the expectation of joining a teleconference at 8:00pm. When I had started my break at 6:00pm I had already attended a preparation meeting with the full expectation that the later meeting would go ahead. Still expecting that the meeting would go ahead I retreated into my small study at 7:55pm ready to connect, but in the 1 hour 55 minutes I had been offline the meeting had been reschedule to a later date. I was a bit grumpy, I wasn’t a lot grumpy, because I had some expectation that this would happen. Why was I grumpy?

This experience got me thinking; if the notice of this postponement had come to 6:00pm I would have been delighted. The timing of the cancellation/reschedule made all the difference to my response.

I wondered whether I could create a model, or an equation, to understand this phenomenon, something that would help us to empathise with others in different time zones attending a meeting.

First step, create a chart of grumpiness/delight for a typical meeting cancellation based on time of the meeting and notice period given:


How grumpy/delighted am I if a meeting is cancelled, based on how much notice I was given?

The first observation is that most of the points on this chart are actually ranges that depend upon the type of meeting and the importance of the meeting that is being cancelled or postponed. If a meeting is at an anti-social time, but I don’t think it’s important, I’m not likely to attend anyway. If the meeting at an anti-social time is critically important to progress another activity and is postponed I’m likely to still be a bit grumpy even if I get good notice of the move. Imagine that this charge represents a moderately important meeting that doesn’t represent anything that is time critical.

There are some interesting aspects to this chart:

Good notice can bring delight

If you give me good notice of a cancellation for a meeting at an anti-social time I will be delighted that it’s been cancelled. The reverse is also true, give me poor notice and I’ll be especially glum. If I know before the end of my normal working day that I don’t need to interrupt my evening with a work commitment I’ll be very happy, thank you. If I interrupt my evening, or even my sleep, to attend something that I then find out that I didn’t need to attend will make me sad.

The later it gets the more notice you need to give

There are degrees of anti-socialness, evenings are different to very early mornings but for each of them you need to consider how much notice you might need to give. The danger here is that the more anti-social it is the more notice you need to give; giving 2 hours of notice for a 2:00am meeting isn’t helping anyone.

12-hours notice may not even be enough

Even with a 12 hour notice there is still a window for grumpiness. Assuming that I finish my working day at 6:00pm and don’t check in the evening, the postponement of a meeting scheduled for 7:00am the next day will still make me a but grumpy. I’m normally awake about that time, but attending a meeting at this time will be outside my normal routine, which I’m happy to do as long as there is some value in doing it. Interrupting the normal routine and having nothing to show for it it frustrating.

Zero notice is nearly always going to make me grumpy.

While it’s not always possible to give people notice of a cancellation giving zero notice is always likely to lead to a level of umbrage. If you have some notice you have a chance of re-planning your day, zero notice takes away that possibility.

Lunch is a special condition

Cancellations for meetings that happen around lunchtime are a special condition in the model. Meetings at mealtimes are themselves anti-social, there’s a less marked impact, for me anyway, for breakfast and dinner, but messing about with lunchtime makes me grumpy. Treat that meeting at 12:00pm to 12:30pm with special care.

The end of the normal day boost.

The end of the normal working day is another special case. This is the one time I’m likely to a little peak of delight that a meeting is cancelled with zero notice. Strangely I feel more delighted about a meeting cancelled at the end of the working day than one postponed in the evening.

Having looked at the chart I concluded that there probably wasn’t a formula for this. I also concluded that there were several other factors that influence my response to a meeting postponement or cancellation:

  • Day of the week – a Monday looks different to a Friday.
  • Time sensitivity – how do I feel if the results of a meeting are needed for a time critical activity.
  • Social impact – what I am doing outside of the normal working day makes a huge difference, especially if I have chosen to forego a personal commitment in favour of a work commitment that then doesn’t happen.
  • Reasons for meeting timing – there are very good reasons for some meetings happening at anti-social times, the reasons are not as clear for other meetings.
  • Expectation of postponement – there are some meetings that give me, for various reasons, I have a high expectation of change. My response to these meetings differs.
  • Overall meeting-load – there are regularly situations where I need to choose one meeting over another. Getting short notice of cancellation of the chosen meeting can lead to high levels of frustration.
  • Family and cultural routines – some people’s chart for the anti-social hours would be very different to mine and that signifies their family and cultural routines. I tend to regard early evenings as easier than late evenings, people with younger children probably see this the other way around.

In short, there isn’t a simple formula to work out what my, or someone else’s, response to a reschedule will be, but giving people as much notice as possible is an excellent working practice. Avoiding zero-notice cancellations should be very high on meeting organisers objectives, especially at anti-social times.

More Features = Lower Utility: Watching the TV

Not all change, is change for the better. We may get more features, but do we get more utility.

Then:

Once upon a time an evening at home was a simple activity.

Having completed the necessary activities it would become time to watch the TV. There was a simple choice available from a few over-the-air channels, the choice was tiny, but I don’t remember ever being lost for something to watch.

Deciding on which of the four-way choices to watch meant opening one of a number of magazines to see the now and next options. The lack of choice made this easy.

The transition to the main event – watching a programme – took a few seconds.

There was only one screen to watch and we all watched the same thing.

Now:

(Last night to be precise)

Having completed the evening’s activities we sat down and decided to turn on the TV. In our current configuration we also need to turn on a companion box from the local cable company. The list of available programmes is staggering and we scroll through the list for a few minutes before settling on a particular channel.

Once that programme had finished we again scrolled through the list of available channels. Not seeing anything we particularly wanted to watch we scrolled through the list of available programmes that the companion box had decided to record for us. I used to know why this box recorded what it recorded, but it’s evolved to have a level of free will while it’s been with us and now chooses which programmes to record for itself. I considered moving over to one of the streaming services, in order to gain further choice, but these run so slowly on this box that the wait is excruciating for a brain that has been conditioned to expect immediate gratification.

Returning to the list of available programmes we settled on something that would get us through to bed time.

We were tired though, and decided to move our watching to the screen in the bedroom after a few minutes. The channel we were watching was one that was also available over-the-air from that screen. Unfortunately there was a problem with the over-the-air signal and all we got were a set of occasionally moving blocks and an intermittent soundbite. This is a recent problem which I had forgotten about, other channels are fine, but this one is unusable in its current state. A false start, but I wasn’t going to be defeated.

That’s OK, I thought, we can do this a different way, this screen has one of the popular streaming devices available to it and there’s an app for the channel that we were watching.

Switching over to the streaming device isn’t as easy as it may sound because I need to get out of bed to plug it into the back of the screen. We remove it occasionally because it interferes with the over-the-air signal. The streaming box always needs restarting in this situation, which takes a few minutes.

Thankfully the streaming box didn’t do the optimisation thing that it decides to do at the least convenient times. It clearly took pity on me because it knew what was about to come.

Once the streaming box had started I navigated to the appropriate app for the programme we wanted to watch. Like many of these apps this one has recently started asking me to authenticate myself. Authentication was to be done via a URL and a supplied PIN code. One of my evening rules is to leave my smartphone downstairs, so out of bed I get and retrieve the required touchscreen interface. Before I could enter the PIN I needed to authenticate to the web site via the URL. Having tried to log in with the email address that I use for such things I eventually conclude that I haven’t previously registered for this particular app – so I registered. Registering also meant validating my email address via an email notice. Having jumped all of the hurdles I entering the PIN and gained access to the app. The end was starting to felt like it was within reach.

Once I was within the app I used the search interface to find the particular programme. I don’t know how these apps decide what goes on the front page, but it never reflects the programmes I watch. Search on these apps is never that good, particularly as you need to enter the characters via a remote control interface a letter at a time – left-left-left-up-click-right-right-down-down-click-right-right-right-right-right-right-up-up-up-up-click.

Eventually the programme I was looking for showed up in the search recently, all I needed to do now was to decide which episode we had been watching. Thankfully, I picked the right one straightaway, but how far through were we? Time to fast forward, which highlighted another challenge, this particular app didn’t show a preview of where you were, so I just had to keep guessing. Another few minutes lost.

More than twenty minutes later we were back to were we had been before me made the journey up the stairs.

This isn’t the only app like this though, there are at least six different ones on my streaming box and each of them requires a different authentication. One of them loves to forget my credentials and it’s almost become routine to enter my details every time I use it.

I haven’t worked it out but between 15% and 20% of my viewing time last night was taken up with navigating the technology. Yes, I have access to unbelievable amounts of content but why does it have to be so difficult to watch a programme? Was the programme I fought to watch worth the 15% to 20% tax – no.

Running in Dark Mode all Day

It’s likely that most of the apps that you use have a white (or light) background with black (or dark) text. It’s also likely that the operating system capabilities that you use also has this configuration.

This is the default after all and why would you change it?

You may have gone to the effort of changing the colour scheme a little, but it’s probably still got a light background and dark text.

I’ve recently taken the step of reversing this on many apps and some operating systems as a bit of an experiment. My screen world is now predominantly dark – dark background with light text.

Why? There are a few reasons, but mostly it’s about personal taste and visual preferences:

  • Eye Fatigue – When you are looking into a screen you are looking into a light. It may only be a low intensity light, but it’s still a light. Using dark mode reduces the amount of light and hence, hopefully, the levels of eye fatigue. Some people claim a scientific justification for this, but the research I could find was quite limited. I find it easier on the eye and that’s good enough for me.
  • Reduced Blue Light – Of the light that your screen is emitting the blue light is probably the most destructive. It’s thought that this type of light impacts our ability to sleep, and that we should reduce the amount of blue light before we go to bed. My logic goes like this, if I don’t need it in the evening, why would I need more of it than my surroundings are providing it in the daytime?
  • Readability – This is a subjective one, I find light text on a dark background easier to read.
  • Reduced Distraction – Using dark mode reduces the intensity of many of the interface elements. Things like window borders and app icons are not as highlighted and hence grab less attention. At the same time, the elements that I am working on – the words and diagrams – stand out more and draw my attention.
  • Reduced Power Consumption – This is a tenuous one, dark mode uses slightly less power to light the screen and hence it improves battery life on a device. I suspect that the difference here is marginal, but what it has allowed me to do is to lower the light levels on my iPhone extending the battery life by a little.

There are some drawbacks though:

  • It’s not the Default – Because Dark Mode isn’t the default for operating systems or for applications, you have to choose it. My experience has been that some applications will take the preference from the operating system, but not all of them will. Some apps provide an option which you then have to find.
  • Web Sites – The real challenge is web sites, it takes far too much effort to switch over to dark mode in each of these. I’ve tried a few plug-ins for browsers, but have concluded that the glitches are worse than just letting the web sites display in light mode.
  • Mixed Mode – Because it’s not the default it’s not always possible to work in dark mode in every application, and certainly not on every web site. The challenge with this is that you then get the rather jarring experience of switching between an app that is in dark mode and another that it in light mode. On balance, though, I think I prefer this experience to the default one. I’d call myself a lightweight dark mode user.
  • iOS Dark Mode – My primary smartphone is an iPhone. The iOS interface doesn’t really have a dark mode. You can use the accessibility features to invert the colours which is supposed to be smart enough to only invert the colours of the text, but it also has an annoying habit of inverting the colours of all of the images. Having said that, once you switch apps to dark mode it’s surprising to realise how little of the actual iOS interface you see day to day. Yesterday, Apple announced that iOS 13 will have a dark mode.

All I need, now, is for each of the apps that I use to give me the option to change, or better still, to take the default settings from the operating system. I suspect that web sites are always going to be, by default, in light mode, but perhaps a time is coming when they will pick up the correct mode from the browser that is being used.

As part of this experiment I’ve switched this web site over to a dark colour scheme and even there I’ve had some glitches to deal with, some of which still aren’t resolved.

Many people see dark mode as a way of making the nighttime visual experience better, but I’ve been using dark mode all day every day. I started this as an experiment a few weeks ago, I wasn’t expecting it to make much difference, but it has made a far greater difference than I was expecting.

I’m not advocating that everyone moves because I think that it’s primarily an issue of personal preference, but you might like to give it a try.

Header Image: This is Traigh a Bhaigh, Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides. Apparently this is how you park a boat around here.

“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.

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.

Navigating in the Mountains, Using the Right Technique for the Conditions – Testing an Agile Analogy

One of the joys and challenges of being human is that we communicate and understand differently. Some people prefer numbers and facts, others need a picture or a story. Art exists in many forms because it helps us to break through and communicate.

I’ve been trying out a new analogy recently and wanted to expose it to a broader community to see if it resonated. I’d love to hear your views.

One of the joys of my life is a day walking in the hills. There are various skills that that you need when you are out in the hills, perhaps the most important being navigation. I call navigation a skill because it isn’t a method, it’s a collection of tools and techniques that you need to apply in the right situation to get the right result. The tools and techniques that you use on one particular day, or even during a specific hour, are influenced by several factors, including:

  • Visibility – How far can you see?
  • Local knowledge – Do you know where you are going? Perhaps you’ve been there before?
  • Terrain – Is there a defined path? What are the hazards ahead, or to the left or right?

If visibility is good; if there’s a defined path and you are walking a route you’ve walked many times before you join the chosen path, look ahead and walk. Navigation is straightforward and doesn’t require you to spend all of your time looking down at a map. When things are really good you can even see places where the journey could be improved by taking a slightly different route or by taking a shortcut.

This approach is fine until the factors above change. Clouds roll in causing visibility to drop to a few metres and you arrive at a point where the defined path becomes less distinct and the terrain becomes indistinct. At this point the navigation techniques need to change, it’s time to get the map and the compass out.

For anyone who hasn’t used a map and compass in this situation what you need to do is to take a bearing. This video shows you how to do that:

Further details here.

The important point is right at the end of the video:

  • Take a bearing,
  • Pick a landmark that you can see,
  • Head to that landmark,
  • Take another bearing at the landmark,
  • Repeat until you get to the point where you are wanting to go.

Unless you are a very skilled navigator and there are lots of visible landmarks it’s not likely that this approach will get you directly from A-to-B, but it will get you there. Even if you could navigate on the direct route it’s likely that there will be obstacles in the way that will cause you to stop and adjust. Navigating this way is slower than when conditions are good, taking a bearing takes time and diversions cause extra work.

The key skill in this approach is to take bearings often enough to keep you focused on the end goal, but not so often that you are spending all of your time taking bearings. The length between bearings depends upon the amount of visibility and the available landmarks. If you can only see for 5 metres, then that’s as far as you can navigate. The last thing you want to do is to pick a landmark that is itself out of sight, that’s a recipe for disaster because you are likely to miss the landmark in the mist and plunge yourself into a situation where you don’t know where you are on the map. Relocating yourself on a map is another skill, slowing progress further.

Some days you start out on a walk where visibility is good and you have great local knowledge but that situation can change rapidly. That’s when the approach needs to change to match the conditions.

Projects, particularly IT projects, are journeys from one place to another. The methods that we use should be dependent upon the conditions, that’s where this analogy comes in. Agile is fabulous for those situations where it’s a bit foggy and the path isn’t clear. Take a bearing, pick a landmark and then sprint to it, then take another bearing. Lean isn’t great in the fog, but is the fastest way of making progress when conditions are good. Even in a Lean situation you may still want to define some interim goals to maintain motivation but you’re not changing the path or the destination just because you’ve reached an interim goal. Even if you think that the road ahead is clear and you can follow tried and tested routes doesn’t prevent the conditions changing and a different type of navigation being required.

Like all analogy this isn’t a perfect picture of the different approaches, but it’s helped most of the people I’ve described it to. Does it work for you?

The 5 Phases of a Reply-to-All Storm

Reply-to-all Storm: The set of events that occur when a group of people decide that the appropriate response to an email is to reply-to-all. In nearly all of these situations the replies add no value other than to fill-up the email account of everyone on the distribution list.

I’ve observed many a reply-to-all storm and it occurs to me that they have a set of phases to them, have a missed any?

Phase 1: Initial Contact

I’m not sure quite what the anatomy of an email needs to be to start a reply-to-all storm but there are some characteristics that will increase the likelihood of a storm starting. Emails with a pointless subject and equally pointless content are my favourites, they create a response in certain people that is completely disproportionate to the initial contact. It’s rare that a reply-to-all storm is generated from a meaningful email.

I’m pretty sure that the likelihood of a reply-to-all storm increases exponentially with the number of recipients on the initial distribution. Emails to 500 people aren’t likely to result in a storm, emails to 5,000 people have a much higher probability, correctly crafted emails to 50,000 people are almost certain to result in a storm.

Phase 2: Initial Reply

Someone has to be the person to start the storm. Much like a firework requires an ignition a reply-to-all storm requires someone to get everyone started. It helps if the initial reply is as benign as the initial contact.

The purpose of the initial reply email is to create a release valve that gives everyone else permission to participate in the storm. A single drip doesn’t create a flood, but it does make a pathway for what is to follow.

Phase 3: Engage the Pack

Two emails do not constitute a storm, but that’s all that the pack requires for those who are going to participate to become engaged. The pack, in general, only have one response which may use different words to these, but they are basically all saying the same things:

  • “Why was I sent this email?”
  • “Stop sending me these emails.”
  • “Remove me from this distribution list.”

None of the individuals involved in the pack realise the irony of their actions.

By this point most people have disengaged by clicking “Ignore” or “Mute” in their email app but this is where volumes come in, all that the storm needs to continue is one more person in the cohort to keep it going.

Phase 4: The Anti-Pack Becomes Engaged

The anti-pack’s role is to keep the reply-to-all storm going by telling people to stop replying-to-all. We are now in double irony territory.

These emails come in various grades depending upon the frustration of the recipient. This appears to be one of the few occasions where it has become acceptable to use capital lettering in an email subject. The use of the words “IMPORTANT”, “URGENT” or “STOP” become prevalent as does the use of bold, coloured and enlarged content all saying the equivalent of “please stop”.

Phase 5: The Die Down

Thankfully reply-to-all storms rarely last longer than a day, in my experience. You can sometimes get someone who tries to restart it the following day, not realising that everyone has already left the party, but that rarely does a restart result in a full storm emerging.

As quickly as they come, they leave.

Avoiding the Reply-to-all Storm

People have talked about getting rid of this problem for decades and yet it still persists, you may be wondering how we stop it. The simple answer is that you can’t because the instigator of the action is that weakest link in most processes – the human. You can do many things to avoid it, but stopping it altogether requires humans to behave in a logical way and that’s not going to happen.

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

wearspace_rolling

These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

Posting to My Facebook Profile – No More

I’m no longer posting from this blog to Facebook. It’s not because I’ve decided that I no longer want to post a link to Facebook. It is because Facebook have decided that they want to take away the ability for services to do that posting to my profile on my behalf.

I used to use the publicize features WordPress to send an update as I published a new post straight to Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, but Facebook have removed the capability to post there. I’ll still post to LinkedIn and Twitter.

Previously the way to do this was through a service like IFTTT, but they were using the same API and no longer work either.

There is an alternative, and that is to create a Facebook Page for my blog and to get the posts published there. That would require everyone I know on Facebook to also subscribe to my Facebook Page and I think that they probably have better things to do.

I could, also, click a few buttons and do it manually, but life’s too short for that.

So, for now, there will be no updates from my blog onto my Facebook Profile. But, if your normal interaction with me is via Facebook this post probably makes no difference to you, because you don’t know it exists, because this post won’t get posted on my Facebook Profile either. You won’t know what you don’t know.

“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.”
George Bernard Shaw

Update: As others have reminded me, Buffer is also impacted by this change, so any updates I would have posted from Buffer won’t be coming from that route either.

Technologist – Agents of Social Change

The other day I sat down with a colleague and recorded a podcast in which we were chatting about the ways in which technology drives social change.

Out of the back of that podcast a couple of people have asked about getting more details and this is partially a response to those requests.

One of the social changes that I became aware of recently was the way in which we now use YouTube to solve problems. We used to have a friend who we would ask and they’d show us, or we’d read a manual, now we watch a video on YouTube.

Technology has always driven social change. As I sit at this desk I overlook a street that has been tarmacked to allow cars to run on it. Many of the people around me drive to work, something that they wouldn’t have been able to do before the advent of the car precipitated a social change. The arrival of the car has changed the way we now build cities and the way we interact with our neighbours. The social change caused by the car hasn’t all been positive though, decreased mobility has caused many health issues, early cars weren’t very safe,  environmental pollution is another factor, the growth of the car also lead to the creative destruction of the coach building and many horse related industries.

The people who saw the potential of the motorcar became agents of the social change that it brought. Some of those social change entrepreneurs became celebrated, others were more hidden, but eventually there were millions of people involved in that social change.

In time society recognised the change that was happening and started to build regulations around it seeking to protect against the problems being caused. Car safety tests became an industry partly because regulations demanded safer cars.

These technology driven social changes are not one-off events, they are happening all of the time, probably sparked by the first person who worked out how to create fire or perhaps even earlier than that.

As technologist we are driving changes in our society, whether we like it or not. We are the agents of social change, and that cycle of invention-change-regulation is playing out before our eyes every day.

Much of the technology change is enabling things that our parents could only dream of. I can’t imagine being in a situation where I can’t communicate with all of my family members. The Internet has enable boundless communication to almost every corner of the world, and mostly for free. Every day I talk to people from at least two other continents and often more than that. That’s changing the way that our society works. I have friends who speak to their adult children every day and sometimes multiple times a day. That wasn’t possible when I was a young adult, even if I wanted to speak to my parents every day, I couldn’t afford to.

There are technologies coming that will significantly change the way we live our lives in the future. There’s much talk about the impact of robots and jobs that will be impacted, but there’s also a whole set of new industries that are going to be enabled. Robots will give some people with medical challenges a quality of living that they can’t achieve. We’re already having conversations about the regulatory frameworks that are going to be needed for those robots.

The in-ear translator is already here, if not mainstream, a role we might have expected to be done by a fish at some point in the future 🙂 These are just the latest in a growing list of technologies that we may choose to wear about our person in the future.

There are a number of recent examples of the regulatory steps in the cycle.

The World Economic Forum 2018 at Davos is currently meeting and one of the big subjects is the impact of social media companies:

Social networks would be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry”, Benioff told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Here’s a product – cigarettes – they’re addictive, they’re not good for you, maybe there’s all kinds of different forces trying to get you to do certain things. There’s a lot of parallels.

“I think that, for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive, and we need to rein that back as much as possible,” he added.

Facebook should be ‘regulated like cigarette industry’, says tech CEO – The Guardian

And also:

The prime minister is to ask investors to put pressure on tech giants to deal with extremist content on social networks.

Theresa May will say at the World Economic Forum in Davos that investors should consider the social impact of the firms they invest in.

Social networks need to stop providing a platform for terror, extremism and child abuse, she will stress.

Davos: Theresa May to warn tech firms over terror content – BBC News

Which is an interesting call from Theresa May as that’s exactly what some Apple’s major investors did recently:

Two of the largest investors in Apple are urging the iPhone maker to take action against smartphone addiction among children over growing concerns about the effects of technology and social media on the youth.

In an open letter to Apple on Monday, New York-based Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) said the firm must do more to help children fight addiction on its devices.

Apple investors call for action over iPhone ‘addiction’ among children – The Guardian

Meanwhile invention continues at a pace and the agents of social change go about exploiting that technology for the benefit of customers and the cycle moves on.

An inventors moral responsibility for their invention is an long debated subject. I think that the moral responsibility on those of us who utilise a technology to do so in a way that doesn’t bring harm is a bit clearer, but what do we do about all of the unforeseen consequences? Perhaps that’s a post for another day.