Category: Leadership

US National Archives - Creative Commons image

Workers assembling radios. Photographer Lewis Hine. US National Archives – Creative Commons image

Typically in a plan driven model, scope is fixed and the cost and schedule are variables.  Many large scale software projects were and continued to be implemented this way.  In many instances, when a particular scope is desired within a giving time-frame (fixing the schedule), plan driven projects add resources.  But as we know simply adding resources to a project doesn’t always bring about the desired goals.  As a matter of fact, if resources are added late on a software project, it actually has an adverse effect.  This was indeed observed by Fred Brooks in his book The Mythical Man Month, also known as Brooks’ Law: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. 

With Agile software development, the triangle gets  inverted – where cost and schedules are fixed and the scope is variable.

Waterfall-Agile Triangle

Even for Agile projects, there could be instances when a fixed scope is desired within a given time period.  For example, when an external entity drives a compliance or mandated project.  In those instances, the only lever stakeholders may have is adding resources for a delivery with fix scope and schedule.  But, are there better ways to add resources or capacity to an Agile project without falling in the same traps of experienced with plan driven methods?

Before we answer that, lets briefly consider teams on Agile projects.  Agilists  have generally made 2 recommendations for effective teams:

  • Keep team intact or stable for a long periods of time
  • Keep team size between 5-9

A recent paper called The Impact of Agile Quantified seems to support these two recommendations through empirical data.

Stable teams, defined as having less than 10% membership change in a 3 months period, versus Unstable teams, defined as 40% variance in their membership, tend to:

  • Have more throughput (volume or work)
  • Have less variance in their  throughput (they are more predictable)
  • Have less defect density (higher quality)
  • Have less time in process (better time to market)

From the same research findings, teams of 5-9 team members have the most balanced performance when it comes to predictability, productivity, quality and responsiveness. Generally, smaller teams (of 1-3 people) are 40% less predictable and have 17% lower quality; however, they do have 17% more productivity.

Instability in Agile teams can happen sometimes which may not be in direct control of the resource managers.  Like, for example, a team member gets promoted or changes positions or leaves the company altogether.  In some instances, a resource manager may also have to move team members due to skills match, team dynamics or performance considerations.

So given these findings, what would be the best options in adding resources to an Agile project or a release?  Creating a whole new cross-functional team of 5-9 team members during early to mid part of the project along with a Product Owner and a ScrumMaster (presuming you are following Scrum) would be the best option.  This will allow added capacity without running foul of the Brooks’ Law.

But if the budget add doesn’t allow addition of an entire new Agile team, then other viable options becomes little less ideal.  One option would be to add team members to an existing team to make them more cross-functional or remove a crucial skills constraint, so the team becomes more self-sufficient.  The other option is to shore up smaller teams that have less than 5 team members.

Alternatively, you can level-off a larger team and form 2 teams.  Take for example, there is additional funding for 4 team members and Original Team A makeup: 9 team members + PO + SM.  Form Team B: 5 team members – 3 new team members + 2 team members from Team A (presumably a team member can initially serve as SM initially) and  a PO.  Now New Team A would be: 7 team members + PO + SM.  Since, both teams would be within the ideal size range, and assuming you are able to maintain the cross-functional nature of both teams, you can still reap the benefits of higher throughput, better quality, more predictability and better time to market.  Again, these aren’t the best options because affecting existing well performing teams will inevitably create an initial setback as new teams re-form and then re-norm.

Ideally, if short term results are desired, say within a quarter, scope reduction is probably still the best option instead of disrupting Agile teams.


I have written about Regional Leadership Forum in the past.  This year they are celebrating their 20th anniversary.  As a 2011  NorthWest Forum colleague, Tammy Neeley, and I, both are featured in the video.  My segment starts at about 6:20 minute marker.  In the fast-moving Internet world, Warhol’s dictum of everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame is now reduced to 15 seconds! 

I don’t recall the whole interview and what I exactly talked about, but it is indeed flaterring to be included in this video. 


Just One More Level

TaeKwonDo Practitioners (© Aashish Vaidya)

As transition goes, shedding the old ways and adopting new ones are fraught with doubt and confusion.  This is true of any large organization transition effort as it is for scaling agile practices across the enterprise.  One of the challenges for enterprise transition community leading this change effort is figuring out how to move people with different understanding and different needs from novices to experts.

Many times, a model or a construct of learning helps us classify how to approach people with different levels of understanding and teach them new techniques.  Alistair Cockburn introduced the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri to software development.  Shu-Ha-Ri is borrowed from the martial art practice of Aikido.

Here is how Martin Fowler describes it:

Shu-Ha-Ri is a way of thinking about how you learn a technique. The name comes from Aikido, and Alistair Cockburn introduced it as a way of thinking about learning techniques and methodologies for software development.

The idea is that a person passes through three stages of gaining knowledge:

  • Shu: In this beginning stage the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. He concentrates on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, he concentrates on just the one way his master teaches him.
  • Ha: At this point the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working he now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice.
  • Ri: Now the student isn’t learning from other people, but from his own practice. He creates his own approaches and adapts what he’s learned to his own particular circumstances.

One of the common refrain you hear from many people who have learned some basics about agile methodologies is to say, ” see we understand the agile practices, but how are we going to do this differently here?”  The questioners, here might presuppose that certain practices just won’t work in their environments and want to start tailoring things right out the gate.  Especially, when they have learned that agile is all about adaptability and change.  So there is this predisposition to jump to the Ri stage.  But, agile practices are supposed to be an experiential process.  You do things, reflect on what worked and what didn’t , in short you inspect and then you adapt.

But, many balk at directive practices in the Shu state as it run contrary to the agile manifesto, itself.  Here is Rachel Davies, co-author of Agile Coaching who takes on other agilists, in a post  called Shu-Ha-Ri Considered Harmful:

I’m uncomfortable with approaches that force students to follow agile practices without questioning. These approaches seem to violate the first value of the Agile Manifesto “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” I question whether introducing agile software development techniques to people is anything like martial arts training. Software development is knowledge work and our aim is to build a team of reflective practitioners. To do this we need to engage with how people think about their work. Are techniques from physical arts that build muscle-memory really applicable here?

For me, agile Boot Camps and Shock Therapy approaches lack basic respect for the team’s unique context and the experience of people on the team. Agile software development is a much looser discipline than a martial art like Aikido. Organizational culture and nature of the product being built are major factors in what agile techniques the team will benefit from most. If we establish a sensei-novice model, we’re not fostering the independent thinking and reflection that will take the team beyond the Shu level.

To some extend this is a valid argument.  You have to respect the individuality of the team members and allow them to question the practices they are supposed to be following.  And invariably boot camps and shock therapy approaches will only have an ephemeral effect like a motivational speech would.  You are pumped up for a while and get a boost of energy, but the sugar high wears off quickly.

But at another level, this is a very shallow read of martial arts and the sensei-novice model.  Even cursory look at history of martial arts would suggest that they are not merely about physical activity, but means to develop deeper connection to moral and spiritual dimensions.  Just as you wouldn’t confuse the practice of yoga to be only about physical well-being.  That is just an aspect called hatha yoga , but in larger context yoga has much more to do with “knowledge work” than building simple muscle memory.  Albeit, the knowledge is different, not software development variety.

The issue isn’t necessarily with the Shu-Ha-Ri construct, but how it might be used within the context, and it is more about its understanding and its implementation.  Further on in the post, Davies calls out the real peril:

Installing a basic set of agile practices by force can be done quickly so the organization starts getting benefits from new ways of working faster. Teams are superficially at the Shu level in the space of a few weeks. Often, the management team considers the agile rollout is now complete. It’s assumed that teams will continue to apply what they’ve learned. But without any experts around to enforce agile practice, pretty soon a team falls back to their old ways or sometimes worse carries on with agile practices that don’t make sense for their project.

I was pleased to see “cargo-cult agile” called out in the new book “Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development” by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde. They say “Avoid forcing–When coaching we encourage: volunteering; do not force any agile or lean approach onto people; people should be left the choice to think and experiment…with concentrated long-term, high quality support. The best, the most sticky adoptions we have seen had this approach.”

In a large organization, there is rare chance that you will encounter people who do not fall into all three categories of learning: the complete novice, who just wants to be told what should he do next; the intermediate, who knows agile practices well enough to start digging into deeper underlying theory and principles; and experts, who are adept at reading the context and tailoring their own practices to continually achieve business goals.  For enterprise transition community leading adoption of agile in their enterprise, the goal is obviously to encourage people to think critically, experiment and continuously learn, and deftly deal with people at all 3 levels.  Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist, who developed the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery has a second prerequisite for expertise – “the notion of deliberate practice, which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths (ref Maria Popova’s blog post).  This notion is something the enterprise transition community and agile coaches need to be aware of, and one which our software brethren who design video games understand real well:

[The “zone of proximal development” is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.”

The challenge, then is to figure out a mix of practices that you know the teams will be able to take on, and add that 20% “stretch” practices, which allow the teams to flex and get to another “level”.  And hopefully soon, they will internalize what gamers who are hooked – they beg for that 5 extra minute to complete one more level!

Rachel Davies continues:

Learning new ways of working takes time.  As Ron Jeffries once said “They’re called practices for a reason.  You have to have done them. Practice makes perfect.” If you base an agile adoption on Shu-Ha-Ri model, the trick is to remember the goal is beyond the first-level. Your teams need more than training. Allow plenty of time and on-going coaching support for teams to get them into the Ha phase and beyond.

The constant care and feeding of agile teams will be needed at least till the organization moves through the Ha stage.  After all, you come across many agile teams, who have practiced agile for years, but are stunted in their growth.  These teams are upper bound to their organization’s proficiency in new techniques and inextricably linked to its culture, its inertia and change aversion, which doesn’t allow continuous improvements to take place.  So then the Shu-Ha-Ri model can still be useful model, provided that the community understands that you have to look beyond the rollout of initial agile training and project kickoffs.

PS: A parting note, though this was much before my time, if you want to see Ri practitioners in action, then watch the video of these two cats, who delivered a 90% improvised piece, but still based on an underlying musical framework.  They are still grounded in the principles and theory of their craft, but their uniquely tailored performance fits the context, and with their virtuosity, they transcend the rules to create a masterpiece – in essence, they make their own rules.

Corn Field, Sauvie Island, Oregon (© Aashish Vaidya)

Back in 1930s, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl – the dual economic and environmental degradation – caught small family farms into its vicious grip.  To reverse this devastating effects on farmers, the federal government enacted farm subsidies “aimed at helping small family farms”.

Fast forward decades later, the well-meaning policy that sought to help small farms is now producing unintended consequences and counter-productive outcomes.  An USDA publication notes that over those last decades, the total number of the farms has declined from its peak of 6.8million to 2.1million by 2002.  Increasingly, large operations make up to 73% of the production value, even though; they constitute only about ten percent of 2.1million farm operations.  These small number of operators controlling a higher concentration of agriculture production value also produce political clout.

Mike Russo of U.S. PIRG Education Fund in his white paper Apples to Twinkies: Compare Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food, notes:

Since 1995, taxpayers have spent over $260 billion on agricultural subsidies. Reflecting the political clout of the biggest producers, the lion’s share of the dollars go to a very small number of larger operations – roughly 74% of subsidies go to 4% of U.S. farmers. These large operators, who are recipients of federal subsidies may then turn around and use the money to buy out more small farms.

So, now you have a situation of the original intent of incentive completed subverted and turned upside down. Instead of helping smaller farms, it actually hurts them!

USDA is responsible administering subsidies and making nutritional recommendations for a healthy diet. USDA has replaced the food pyramid with a food plate, which now shows that a balanced diet should be equal parts fruits and vegetables and equal parts grains and proteins. However, USDA doesn’t quite distribute its aid in accordance with its own food plate recommendations. States Mike Russo, USDA “distributes considerable federal financial support for the [grains and proteins], and virtually none for the [fruits and vegetable].” Since 1995 to 2010, the US taxpayers have put up $260 billion in agriculture subsidies.  Notes Mike Russo:

…by far the lion’s share of taxpayer dollars go to subsidizing a few commodity crops. Of the $260 billion spent since 1995, a full $77 billion went to subsidize corn; wheat and cotton growers received just over $30 billion apiece; soybeans were subsidized to the tune of $24 billion. Commodity crops are not unhealthy (not counting tobacco or sorghum – which type of grass-fed to cattle). But, with large subsidies, the commodity crops find a different path to our tables: But most of the corn and soybeans we grow do not go to Americans’ plates as-is. For example, only about 1% of U.S. –produced corn is the sweet corn that is usually directly eaten by humans. Instead, most commodity crops are fed to livestock, turned into biofuels, or processed into additives like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils.

So where do Twinkies come into all of this? Mike Russo writes:

Take the Twinkie: of its 37 ingredients, at least 14 of them are made with federal subsidies, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and vegetable shortening. Twinkies are sweet, fatty, and calorie-rich but utterly lacking in nutritional value. And they’re cheap, too, in part because consumers have already made a down payment on many of the ingredients with their tax dollars.

And what about those apples?  Well it turns out that “only one of the top twenty federal subsidy programs directly supports a fresh fruit or vegetable: apples.” Since even that subsidy is very tiny. In fact so tiny that Mike Russo says, it is as if “each of the America’s 144 million taxpayers would be given $7.36 to spend on junk food and 11 cents with which to buy apples each year.”

Though, there are many complex reasons for the obesity epidemic, “one of the simplest is also among the most significant: junk food.  Between 1977 and 1994, Americans increased their daily caloric intake by 206 calories.” That is equivalent to 1.25 Oreo cookies (my own calculations using information from Nabisco website). It is expected that health expenses related to obesity and related co-morbidities will increase from $150 billion a year to $216 billion by 2030, and with projected half of the Americans meeting the definition of obese.

Junk food brand display at grocery store (photo credit: aashish vaidya)

What we can surmised is that a well-meaning incentive is put in place (US farm subsidies to affected small family farmer) which then over time is subverted and actually hurts the very people it was supposed to incentivize (large farm operators get the giant share of the subsidies, which they in turn use it to buy out more small farmers).  Then, the institutionalized incentive gets misdirected  and produces unintended consequence (USDA directs vast majority of the subsidies to few commodity corp and those cash crops make junk food cheaper and ends up directly or indirectly contributing to obesity and vastly increases, amongst other things, health related expenses).

Is this is a pattern unique to government entities only, or do we see an equivalent in the corporate world as well?  I will  pick up this line of inquiry in a future post.

In an ironic twist, Hostess Brands Inc., the makers of Twinkies and Wonder bread, amongst other products, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, citing pensions and a soft economy.  The reasons conspicuously don’t include that perhaps the American consumer may already be turning away from unhealthy products to healthier ones.


Shape The Path

We embrace change all the time

Humans are not averse to change.  Some changes we embark on gleefully, but with some changes – we struggle mightily.  This is true whether the change is at personal, organizational, or at community level, or whether it is big or small.  We don’t shy away from big changes, as a matter of fact, those types of changes happen all the time.  For example, a decade ago, I decided to change jobs, change states, while expecting our first son.  We decided to take on three huge changes simultaneously.   And yet, small change like getting to the gym 3-4 times a week, confounds me.  This is despite learning from books like Brain Rules which shows that exercise is the closest thing we have to fountain of paradise.  Exercise not only keeps us physically fit, but it reduces diseases, increases life expectancy, and keeps us mentally sharp.

The book, Switch, provides a simple framework, which can make change stick.  Of these, I looked at 2 ideas  – one to direct the Rider, the rational side of our brains (see blog post: Resistance is Futile) .  The other is to motivate the Elephant, the emotional side of our brains (see blog post: Willpower to Change is an Exhaustive Resource).  To this, the Heath brothers add a third idea – Shape the Path.

Wretched is, as Wretched does

The brothers recount a study in their book, done by Brian Wansink, who runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University.  Moviegoers are handed a free bucket of popcorn and a drink in exchange for answering some questions after the movie.  What the unsuspecting moviegoers didn’t know was this:

There was something unusual about the popcorn they received.  It was wretched.  In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched.  In fact, it had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it.  One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they’d received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.

(Did researchers actually had to produce wretched popcorn, isn’t theatre popcorn generally wretched to begin with?).

The moviegoers got either of two size buckets – the so called medium or large.  But these sizes were so huge that there was seemingly inexhaustible supply of popcorn.  Everyone got their own bucket so they did not have to share.  The question the research was trying to answer was “would somebody with a larger inexhaustible supply of popcorn eat more than someone with a smaller inexhaustible supply?”

As part of research protocol, the researchers had weighed the before and after weight of the bucket.  So what were the results? Surprise, surprise:

People with the large buckets ate 53% more popcorn than people with the medium size.  That’s equivalent of 173 more calories and approximately 21 extra hand-dips into the bucket.

Brian Wansink changed other details, like cities, or the kind of movie they were watching, but that didn’t change the outcome.  People were eating stale popcorn, whether they were hungry or not.  And they were eating more popcorn, if they had a bigger bucket.

The Heath brothers conclude that if you want the moviegoers to eat less popcorn, you can go the hard change route, which is to worry “about their knowledge or their attitudes”.  That is to say, you direct the Rider or motivate the Elephant.  Or you can make it an easy change by simply “shrinking people’s buckets”.  That is – shape the Path.

Shape the Path in software development

The Poppendiecks in their book, Lean Software Development state the importance of situation or environment, they paraphrase quality gurus Joseph Juran and Edward Deming:

It was once thought that factory workers personally caused quality defects, and if they would only be more careful, there would be fewer defects.  Then, we learned from the quality movement in the 1980s that less than 20 percent of all quality defects are under the worker’s control; the rest are rooted in the prevailing systems and procedures, which are under management control, not worker control.

In software development the same probably holds true.  The root cause for the defects in our software has less to do with individuals and more to do with our processes and procedures.  What we tend to think of a people problem is usually an environment or situation problem.  As part of agile process, then  the emphasis is placed on removing impediments.  And that is why, one of the three questions in daily Scrum is “what is getting in my way”.  This is an attempt to constantly shape and reshape the Path, so it bypasses having to constantly worry about the knowledge and the attitudes of the team members.  ScrumMasters know very well, that to make people more productive, impediments have to be constantly identified and removed.

The Heath brothers say, ” when you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.”

Change is possible, but, you have to approach it from 3 angles: “direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path“.  And if all 3 elements are present at one time than “dramatic change can happen even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.”

Resistance is Futile…

The Rider Spins his Wheel (photo credit rykerstribe on flickr)

In my last post: Willpower to Change is Exhaustive Resource, I explored some ideas about change management. This topic is relevant for me and my team members, as we are going through major changes at work: reorganization, wider adoption of the agile practices, scaling the methodology outside of IT and in much larger context the market-place that we operate in. It helps to have some mental models to provide us with a framework to understand and adapt to these major changes.

Change Models

The model developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and adopted to change management show that when change is introduced, we go through distinct reactions to it: shock, denial, frustration, depression, experiments, decisions and finally integration. It is important to know where we, and our team mates, are along this change curve.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Switch which uses the analogy of the Rider- the rational side of our brain, and the Elephant – the emotional side, as a short-hand to understand the dynamics of change efforts.  Behavioral economists Richard Thaler and H. M. Shefrin use a similar analogy – the farsighted Planner and the myopic Doer.

The Heath brothers explain that when we are looking to change, we are going up against “behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision”, by our rational side. And depending on the size of the change we are making, the rational side simply gets overwhelmed and exhausts its willpower.

Many of us, have experienced this first hand. With good intentions, we embark on writing effective user stories, story tests, acceptance criteria, stories that fit a single sprint, have periodic retrospectives, write automated tests, demonstrate working software to our users, and so on. But under stress and schedule pressures, we abandon these good practices. We revert to writing technical user stories, coding only stories and testing only stories.  Sometimes, we resort to having an architecture-only sprint, data modeling sprint, analysis sprint, and then lots of coding sprints and in the end stabilization or “defects fixes” only sprints. We keep committing to stories, even though, we know we will barely finish coding, and then split stories across sprints. Automated unit tests or UI functional tests end up on the cutting floor. We cancel our demos and retrospectives, because we really need to use those 2 hours to do some more work on the stories we didn’t finish during the sprint. Sometimes, it gets so reductive, like this one candidate I was interviewing, who told me that on his agile team, the only practice they performed consistently was the daily scrum. The Heath brothers say, “anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”  The Elephant will always seek out path of least resistance.

The Rider spins his wheels

If the elephant is hard to motivate and overwhelms the Rider, then the Rider has his own problems, too. In IT, we frequently succumb to analysis paralysis, or as one of my colleague calls it, “excessive navel-gazing”.

Jonah Lehrer, a journalist, was inspired to write a book How We Decide, precisely to understand why the Rider spins his wheels. Here is what he said during an interview on

Q:Why did you want to write a book about decision-making?

A: It all began with Cheerios. I’m an incredibly indecisive person. There I was, aimlessly wandering the cereal aisle of the supermarket, trying to choose between the apple-cinnamon and honey-nut varieties. It was an embarrassing waste of time and yet it happened to me all the time. Eventually, I decided that enough was enough: I needed to understand what was happening inside my brain as I contemplated my breakfast options. I soon realized, of course, that this new science of decision-making had implications far grander than Cheerios.

Here are some examples of our own Rider. Which agile methodology should we use – Scrum, Lean, Kanban, DSDM, XP, FDD?  What agile techniques should we try first TDD, BDD, ATDD, CI, Pair Programming, Pair Testing.  What should we spend our energies automating – at the unit, component, integration, system level? What should we emphasis first, writing effective story cards, doing better demos, running honest and open retrospectives, fix bad team dynamics, and on and on.

The Heath brothers recount a story of two professors at West Virginia University. They are health researchers who were “contemplating ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet?”  For something like that, where do you even began?

Which foods should people stop (or start) eating? Should they change their eating behavior at breakfast, lunch or dinner? At home or in restaurants? The number of ways to “eat healthier” is limitless, especially given the starting place of the average American diet. This is exactly the kind of situation in which the Rider will spin his wheels, analyzing and agonizing and never moving forward.

After much brainstorming, the two researchers arrived at this insight:

Most Americans drink milk, and we all know that milk is a great source of calcium. But milk is also the single largest source of saturated fat in the typical American’s diet. In fact, calculations showed something remarkable: If Americans switched from whole milk to skim or 1% milk, the average diet would immediately attain the USA recommended levels of saturated fat.

But, the next question was, how do you get people to drink low-fat milk and how do you get them to stock it in their refrigerators? After all, people will drink whatever’s available in the house (path of least resistance, no one’s going to run out to the store to buy whole milk – the Elephant is lazy).  Researchers figured out, “you don’t need to change drinking behavior. You need to change purchasing behavior.”

After an effective ad campaign, the two researchers were able to increase the market share of low-fat milk from 18% to 41% and it held steady after six months at 35%.  What we learn from this is:

If you want people to change, you don’t ask them to “act healthier.” You say, “Next time you’re in the dairy aisle of the grocery store, reach for a jug of 1% milk instead of whole milk.”

Many times, our reaction to change efforts is similar, for example, we might think, why can’t everyone just fall in line and just follow agile practices.  But contrary to what the trekkie-referenced title suggest it is isn’t even a question of resistance, because “what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.”

Oh and what happened to Mr Lehrer and his cheerios? Well, here is what he said in the same interview:

Q: What do you do in the cereal aisle now?

A: I was about halfway through writing the book when I got some great advice from a scientist. I was telling him about my Cheerios dilemma when he abruptly interrupted me: “The secret to happiness,” he said,”is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions.” Of course, this sage advice didn’t help me figure out what kind of cereal I actually wanted to eat for breakfast. So I did the only logical thing: I bought my three favorite Cheerios varieties and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem solved.

Sometimes, as our CIO says, it is better to “Ready, Fire, Aim”, instead of getting ready and deliberating endlessly on where to aim.  And then never getting around to firing.

So far, we have looked at 2 concepts from the Switch framework – direct the Rider and motivate the Elephant. In the next post, I will at look at the third concept – shape the Path.

Recently, at work, we have gone through some major organizational changes.  We have moved away from an IT organization that was a collection of functional silos – Architecture, Design and Analysis, Application Delivery, Release and QA, and so on –  to more integrated groups aligned with our business units.  As we move towards more cross-functional, self-organizing agile teams, colleagues have noticed that many of us feel a bit disoriented.  Many don’t know what to do, many have a negative reaction to the changes and then there are some who have already accepted the changes, and are impatient that there team mates are too slow to change.

Reactions to Change

As we experience change, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined and categorized our psychological reactions to it:

We find  that people react to change differently and they might be anywhere along this change spectrum, including in the “pit of despair”.  And each need different type of support.  For those in shock and denial need information and communication.  Those who have self-doubt and inching towards acceptance, need emotional support.  And those who are exploring and understanding, need direction and guidance.

The Rider and The Elephant

The Elephant and the Rider (credit aashish vaidya)

Another framework to understand and initiate change is developed by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book Switch.  They note that our brains have two independent systems at work:

First, there’s what we called the emotional side.  It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure.  Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system.  It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.

The Heath brothers adopt the terminology of the Elephant (the emotional side) and the Rider (the rational side) introduced by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.  This isn’t necessarily a new concept, as you find variations articulated by Plato, Freud and many others.

When we are in midst of change, like moving our software development from waterfall to agile methods, or getting better at adopting and refining agile methodology; or for that matter any other type of change effort, we need to understand both these aspects of our brains – The Rider and The Elephant.  This is how the Heath brothers define it:

The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy.  So if you reach the Riders of your team but not the Elephants, team members will have understanding without motivation.  If you reach their Elephants but not their Riders, they’ll have passion without direction.  In both cases, the flaws can be paralyzing.  A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes.  But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.

It is possible to get our rational side to exert control over our emotional side, but that can prove exhausting for the Rider.  To illustrate this point, Dan Heath in this FastCompany video and article, and also in the book, recount a study about radishes and cookies.

Will to Change is Finite

College students (the usual guinea pigs in these types of studies) were asked to fast for 3 hours and report to a study about food taste perception.  They were then led to a lab that smelled amazing from freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  In the middle of the room were 2 bowls – one filled with cookies and another with radishes.  Half the participants were asked to sample the cookies but not radishes and another half to eat radishes only.  Then the researchers left the room.  The cookie eaters probably had no issues resisting the urge to eat the radishes!  However, despite the temptation, the radish-eaters showed amazing willpower and did not eat any of the cookies.  Here is where another set of wily researchers came in and declared that the taste perception study was over.  But, they were doing another study about problem solving.  At that point, they asked the participants to solve a puzzle.  Unbeknownst to the participants, the puzzle had no real solution.

What the researchers were trying to find out was whether there was difference in a way the cookie-eaters and the radish – eaters approached the puzzle?  Well, it turns out there was.  The cookie-eaters made 34 attempts at the puzzle and persisted for 19 minutes.  The radish-eaters made only 19 attempts and gave up in half the time.  Why is this?  Well, study shows that the radish-eaters who were tempted to eat cookies but did not, simply ran out of self-control.  So when another challenging task – solving an impossible puzzle was giving to them – they were simply exhausted.  Of course, your takeaway from study shouldn’t be , eat more cookies and not radishes.  But, it should be that the will to change is indeed finite.  The Heath brothers say, “what looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

IT organizations, when they decide to change from traditional waterfall software development, or initiate any other major changes, find many team members, managers and business partners show reluctance to these change efforts.  In many instances, it is because their Elephants are genuinely spooked at the spectre of losing the clout they have built in an organization or potentially losing their jobs, or myriad of other real and imagined fears.  Change induces a fight or flight response.

Many times, we share information about changes, appealing to the rational brain, but we don’t really address “what is in it for me” part of the equation.  That is, we don’t engage the emotional side.  And so the changes simply don’t stick.  Our rational side tries hard, but in the end, the willpower dissipates. This is due to skittishness of  our emotional side, which is “often looking for the quick payoff”, at the expense of long-term gains.  Change management saps our willpower, if we don’t find a way to motivate our emotional sides.

In my next post, I will continue to explore more on the change management theme.

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As I read reports on the Occupy Wall Street and related protests, as a person interested in agility, I am intrigued to find commonality amongst them.  The protests are a collection of individuals with variety of grievances, coming together with a common theme.  These protest essentially are ongoing experiments in self-organization, using consensus as their primary decision-making, and adapting to various changes.  All this, without a command-and-control hierarchy.  These are the same concepts that the software development community, and organizations, are adopting to find better and different ways to work.  Self-organization, consensus driven decision-making and adaptability are all agility concepts.  And this is what makes these protests interesting at many levels, irrespective of what opinion you might hold about them.


An article on a local tv website, here in Portland, reported that the protests are not as chaotic as many would expect:

On the outside, the protest might seem a bit odd — there’s music, performers and a bunch of different smells.  But a closer look reveals that it’s not the chaos one might expect. Just stop by the information desk, which is one of about 20 committees helping to run the place, to find out more. There’s even a finance committee.

Reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests, USA Today states the group has received nearly half a million dollars in donation.  And they continue to receive $8k everyday from lock boxes:

The cash has forced changes in the “finance working group” that arose spontaneously among the self-governed protesters. Buckets were once used to collect park donations, and until recently, a 21-year-old art student played a key role in the working group.

It further states:

The amorphous group has no clear plans yet for spending much of the money. For now, the fund doles out $100 a day to each of the dozen “working groups” that keep the month-long protest going — from sanitation and medical to finance and media.

Look at the language these reports use – self-governed, working groups, various level of specialization (finance, medical, media, etc.).  We use similar lingo to describe our own agile teams.  As both of these reports show, Wall Street, Portland and many other groups are self-organizing and provide operational structure and cohesiveness.

Consensus Building and Adaptation

Having organized themselves, these groups are also adapting and managing new impediments as they show up.  For example, the organizers, now are having to contend with those who are there for the cause and those who come there for partying.  The Oregonian says, these groups are using consensus driven decision-making to deal with new issues, like dealing with weapons and substance use:

In an effort to control the Occupy Portland campsite, the movement’s consensus government imposed rules of conduct Monday night for participants, including no weapons and no derogatory language. More volunteers are wearing white strings around their arms indicating they are camp “peacekeepers” with authority to calm disputes.

The groups are coalescing and arriving at organizing principles without any hierarchical decision-making bodies:

Occupy Portland vigorously resists the concept of “leaders” and instead calls organizers “facilitators.” Ethan Edwards, a facilitator who has been at the campsite since Oct. 6, said demonstrators walk a blurred line between protesting the nation’s economic disparities and caring for the chronically homeless and mentally ill who have moved in with a less political purpose in mind — such as partaking of the free meals served daily.

“Ship It”

As the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest gets beyond the one month marker, many have already started writing obits citing various reasons.  Here are some of the reasons Brend Arends at Marketwatch gives: they are in the wrong place (instead of protesting in lower Manhattan, they should be in up in Greenwich against the hedge fund honchos), the weather is turning, big money will eventually drown them out, and that the public at-large will forget about them.

And of course the bigger reason  –  they don’t have an agenda.  All of these reasons are plausible and may prove out to be true and protests may eventually die out.  For Occupy protests  to sustain themselves and to continue to hold people’s attention and support, they will have to develop a larger agenda and a coherent strategy.  In this sense, they have a myriad items or stories in their backlog that needs to be groomed, ordered and prioritized; themes that needs developing, releases to be planned; and they to articulate a sustaining product vision.

It is quite possible, these protests will never get beyond the expression of anger against the inequities that many feel.  They may buckle under impediments big and small, and fissure.  They may never find the cohesiveness and unifying vision to propel themselves forward.  But, for now what started in lower Manhattan has given voice to many who are affected by many incongruities and ill-effects of the lingering Great Recession.  In this sense, they have already “shipped” their first product (angst) by inspiring many such protests across the globe.   Self-organizing teams using consensus based decision-making, operating within constraints, is interesting to watch and witness.

Personal Reflections

I wanted to keep the post as apolitical as possible, but gotta ask, what’s up with Oakland police?  The protests have resonated the world over, even in the egalitarian Netherlands.  Over at Financialagile, Jamie Dobson has a beautiful writeup on reasons why he attended Occupy Amsterdam.

At the most fundamental level, all protests are a form of political theatre.  So about 2 weeks ago, I took my boys (8yrs and 10yrs), to the Occupy Portland protest, which has camped itself into two downtown parks (the pictures are from that visit). I figured this is a good way to show them how citizens exercise their right of free speech and assembly. In a larger context, I wanted my sons to begin understanding that when the protestors use peaceful means to raise awareness of their grievances, they have good company.  That is when they are part of long thread that weaves through civil disobedience of the transcendentalists, to their own heritage of satyagraha, to the civil rights movement of the 60s and the more recent examples of the Arab Spring.

As Steve Jobs retires from Apple, here is a collection of quotes compiled by WSJ.

There is enough good wisdom to distill from those quotes.  But, one jumps out at me:
“The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting. The cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.” [Apple Confidential: The Real Story of Apple Computer Inc., May 1999]

Today, more than ever, this sentiment is not only relevant to Apple, but to companies and even to countries.

And here is a very poignant Stanford commencement address he gave in 2005.  From this speech, you can also say he is a master story teller as well.

I used Macs while I was at college.  But thereafter, I was ensconced in the PC camp, especially since I worked at Compaq and Intel for few years.

Like many, I was re-introduced to Apple when the whole iPod phenomenon launched.  And I now have the iPad2.  Though, I am not an Apple “fanboy”, there is much to admire in Steve Jobs and Apple.  When it comes to design and abstracting the complexity away from the users, there are very few products out there that can do what Apple products can do.  And that is largely Jobs’ vision – making products that just works.  Working in IT, we always talk about figuring out a way to serve our customer’s needs.  But Job’s genius is in providing product to the user that he didn’t even knew he needed.  But, once he has it, the customer wonders how he lived without it!.  That is what I suppose delighting the customer is all about.  What real innovation is all about, sci-fi, but here and now!

As Jobs leaves center stage, his real legacy will be realized in 2-3 years.  This is when we will know if Apple was one man show, or will Apple continue to thrive and innovate without Jobs.

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