Take a walk in the desert

No one can see their reflection in running water.
It is only in still water that we can see. (Lao Tzu)

A friend of mine was telling me about the new apartment he and his family have bought. The building is under construction, and is located in a prestigious part of a major city. We got into a discussion about choosing where to live. He prefers large cities, and I prefer living far from a city (although I work in cities).
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Julio Cortázar and software development methods

Nadie habrá dejado de observar que con frecuencia marcos del proceso se aplican mecánicamente.

Maybe Julio Cortázar, whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year, would have begun a set of instructions for implementing a process framework with similar words. No one will have failed to observe that many individuals, teams, and organizations are quite befuddled by the process framework they are trying to use. They struggle mightily to follow every “rule” the framework “requires,” even when their goals are ill served by those rules.

Indeed, it is typical for such individuals, teams, and organizations to lose sight of their original goals altogether in their attempts to satisfy the real or perceived “rules” of the process framework. No matter how haphazard their previous mode of work may have been, many conclude that the framework “doesn’t work,” and revert to their former methods.

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Does remote work work?

First, here’s the short version for those poor souls suffering from tl;dr (too lazy, don’t read much) syndrome, that peculiar malaise that characterizes our times:

Can working from home be effective
compared with collocated teams?
Opponents are quick with invective
and full of opinions, it seems.

But what if we increased, in some way,
the ratio of signal to noise?
Could we discover a good way to
routinely deliver with poise?

And now to business.

One of the ongoing debates in the IT world over the past few years has been about the relative merits of team collocation, including intense collaboration, paired work, and continuous osmotic communication, versus solo work, including work from home and other forms of remote work as well as office spaces fitted with individual cubicles. Continue reading

Fish gotta fly

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how’s the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

(David Foster Wallace, commencement speech at Kenyon College, Ohio).

Yeah, so if you care to Google it, you’ll find lots of articles pondering the reasons why the majority of Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, Kaizen, TQM, and name-your-poison adoptions "fail." People you and I know from conferences and books and such tell the same stories over and over again of the one big success they had with organizational transformation. Everyone was stoked about their branded re-packaging of old ideas made new again through the magic of buzzwords. They achieved improvements of 4x, 10x, 50x, or more X’s than you’d care to count. One or two years after the consultants left the building, those organizations were back where they started. I’ve seen it happen myself. The organizations snapped back to their old equilibrium state. Maybe they always do. The buzzwords haunt the place like fading poltergeists, and the stories live on, but the substance is long gone.

If you’ve done much Value Stream Mapping in information-shuffling organizations (as opposed to thing-making organizations), then you’ve probably done a double-take a few times, unable to believe process cycle efficiency could really be as low as that, and the company doesn’t sink through the earth’s crust like the superdense slug it is. It seems they’re happy as can be to spend 3 or 4 million dollars and burn up a year of 75 people’s precious time to build a routine, web-based CRUD app, fundamentally no different from a million others, that could have been delivered by a team of 4 in 6 weeks for the price of a few pizzas. Nor do they seem terribly worried about the opportunity cost of having all those people duct-taped to their desks for all those months, busily waiting for each other to "review" or "approve" things.

I’ve been wondering, lately, why none of those people wants to shoot himself in the head.

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Size doesn’t matter

It’s a commonplace that large organizations tend to be stodgy and bureaucratic, and smaller ones tend to be innovative and flexible. When we see a large organization that seems to be innovative and flexible, we are amazed. The press springs into action to report on the existence of this Highly Unusual Thing. It’s an oddity, a curiosity, an anomaly, a freak of nature. The organization is cited as a case study in business books and academic papers. Executives in other companies try to mimic what they think they see the exemplary company doing.

Having participated in various change initiatives in organizations of all sizes (from around 20 people to around 240,000), it strikes me that size alone does not lead to stodginess. I think there’s something more fundamental: Identity. That is, the sense of identity on the part of the individual members of the organization. Do people feel like members of the same organization, all aiming for the same goals, or do they feel like members of a local tribe: Team, work group, department, division, etc.? As an organization grows, what factors might contribute to one sense of identity versus the other?

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The machine society and how to cure it

A rigorous scientific experiment

On the morning of April 21, 2012, I submitted a Google search for the term, productivity. The search engine returned “about 244,000,000 results.” For the term, efficiency, it returned “about 362,000,000 results.”

A search for the term happiness returned “about 56,000,000 results.” A search for the term self-actualization returned “about 1,340,000 results.”

The first two terms yielded a total of 606,000,000 results. The second two terms yielded a total of 57,340,000 results. About 91% of the results pertained to productivity and efficiency, while about 9% pertained to happiness and self-actualization.

Which values are more important in modern society? Clearly, productivity and efficiency are more important than happiness or self-actualization. Have I based this conclusion on my highly scientific and rigorous Googling experiment? No. I already knew the answer before I Googled the terms. My conclusion is based on 58 years of life experience as a card-carrying member of modern society. The Google results were not informative, they were merely unsurprising.

It isn’t necessary to conduct a scientific experiment or an academic study to know that we are preoccupied with productivity and efficiency. Management training, process improvement methods, organizational models, and the like all focus predominantly on those two values.

The question, then, is “So what?”
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