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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 Does remote work work?

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Pros and cons of dedicated teams

One concept that’s been getting a lot of play in recent years is the idea of dedicated teams. In the context of software development and support activities, the concept boils down to this:

  1. Any single team is assigned to just one development initiative or to the support of just one set of technical assets at a time; and
  2. Any individual is assigned to just one team at a time.

With this model, you might dedicate Team A to ongoing enhancement and production support of the company’s call center systems. Team A does not do any work to support other business operations or other technical assets, such as contributing to the development of a loan underwriting system, or providing production support for the company’s enterprise service bus. In addition, if Stephan is a member of Team A, he is a full-time member of Team A. He is not assigned 75% to Team A, 15% to Team B, and 10% to Team C.

The dedicated team model is an alternative to a matrixed model of personnel assignment (or “resource allocation,” if you can tolerate speaking of humans as “resources”). With a matrixed model, teams are formed specifically to carry out particular initiatives (typically when the discrete project delivery mode is used), and disbanded at the conclusion of each initiative. Individuals may be assigned to more than one of these temporary teams at the same time, and expected to split their time among multiple initiatives.

Managers who are accustomed to thinking in terms of maximizing individual resource utilization often have difficulty understanding the potential advantages of the dedicated team model. I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of those advantages:

  • Avoiding artificial dependencies between projects
  • Reducing induced administrative overhead
  • Reducing context-switching overhead
  • Increasing domain knowledge
  • Increasing team cohesion
  • Improved visibility and clarity on progress

There are also potential disadvantages to be aware of, such as:

  • Stagnation of technical skill sets
  • Boredom and its associated morale problems
  • Reduced opportunities to learn about other areas of the company’s business, with the risk of developing a narrow perspective on the work
  • Missed value from deep specialists

Continue reading Pros and cons of dedicated teams

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The commoditization of “agile”

Sales consultant Phil Styrlund had an insight about the way markets have evolved in the Internet age that I think is relevant to information systems consulting in general and to "agile" and "lean" services in particular: Everything is a commodity. Anyone can obtain any goods or services they want by ordering them online.

It used to be that companies offering a product or service could distinguish themselves from others offering similar products or services by highlighting the special features of their product or by bringing unique capabilities to the table. Today, customers just don’t want to hear that. They have access to all the information available about your product or service. They already know. There’s nothing you could say about your product or about yourself that would make you any different, in the eyes of customers, from all the others in the market who are trying to sell the same things. You are a commodity.

Continue reading The commoditization of “agile”

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The fall and rise of shadow IT

Years ago, as far back as the mid-1980s if memory serves, IT managers were worried about a phenomenon they called “shadow IT.” The term refers to cases when business managers implement their own departmental IT solutions in response to poor support from their internal IT departments. The phenomenon raised alarms in the minds of IT management. They were losing “control.” Others were treading on “their” territory. Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!

I was reminded of this when I saw an announcement of an upcoming webcast entitled, “What’s a CIO to do About the Rise of Shadow IT?” This suggests that many IT managers still don’t get it. So-called “shadow” IT is not a “problem.” It is not an intrusion on anyone’s sacred territory. It is an indicator that something about the status quo is causing people’s needs to go unmet.

The question should not be, “How dare they try to take over our territory?” The question should be, “What are people trying to tell us about their needs?”

Continue reading The fall and rise of shadow IT

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BBUF: Big Budget Up Front

The packaging of ideas represented by “agile” includes elements pertaining to organizational culture and elements pertaining to processes and practices. Although many of us would like to see organizations adopt useful elements in both areas holistically, in my experience it is not the case that the two are welded together. Instead, cultural aspects and mechanical aspects affect work flow and outcomes differently and independently.

In most organizations that have adopted “agile” methods, people have embraced a subset of the mechanical elements of “agile” development, but they have no understanding of the cultural aspects and, in many cases, no interest. Yet, I think it’s fair to say they are “using” or “doing” agile development. It’s definitely possible to employ some of the mechanical aspects of “agile” development in the context of an otherwise-traditional organizational structure and culture. It’s happening all over the world right now. Because of this reality, I often use the word “agile” to refer only to the mechanical aspects. I sometimes run afoul of agile practitioners because of this.

When I suggest that the use of “agile” methods does not automatically mean we are doing adaptive development, some agile practitioners protest. Continue reading BBUF: Big Budget Up Front

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Choosing between traditional and adaptive development

The Iron Triangle of scope, schedule, and budget is fundamental to managing software delivery initiatives. Two general approaches are available for managing this aspect of delivery. With the traditional approach, we try to identify all needs, risks, and costs in advance and create a detailed, comprehensive plan before beginning development. With the adaptive approach, we begin with a vision for the product and incrementally evolve the solution based on feedback from stakeholders. Either way, we must deal with scope, schedule, and budget. However, the mechanisms we use are very different with each approach, and the metrics we can use to steer the initiative are different as well.

There are two key factors to consider when choosing an adaptive or traditional approach to Iron Triangle management: Urgency and uncertainty. Generally speaking, when either urgency or uncertainty is high, an adaptive approach is called for. When both urgency and uncertainty are low, a traditional approach is called for. It’s only fair to say that the choice is not always obvious.

Continue reading Choosing between traditional and adaptive development

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Value streams and value networks

Lean thinking is based on a model of delivery in which raw materials are progressively developed into a finished product that is consumed by a customer. This linear path is called a value stream. Many in the software community have criticized this model as too simplistic at best, and harmful at worst, as it risks ignoring key stakeholders by focusing on "the" customer.

In real life, a software product has many stakeholders. There may be multiple customers who have different needs and different usage patterns for the software. There may be people involved who are affected by the functionality or quality of the software product who are not, strictly speaking, customers. The process of building and delivering a software product is far more complicated than a simple, linear "stream" of activities. For those reasons and more, some people prefer the term value network to the term value stream. Continue reading Value streams and value networks

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Paranoiac-critical project tracking

A recent tweet of mine in which I whined about the waste of tracking work hours garnered quite a few responses. The reaction surprised me, as I was only venting and didn’t expect any replies. Apparently, I’m not the only one who is frustrated by this. Not only is it useless to track individuals’ hours by task or by project, it is particularly annoying to use poorly-designed time tracking tools. I was complaining because I presently have to enter time in three different tracking systems. I wrote that the first seems to have been designed by a roomful of monkeys; the second, by a roomful of monkeys on crack; and the third, by a roomful of monkeys on heroin laced with rat poison.

The ensuing Twitter thread reminded me of the futility and waste of tracking individuals’ time at all. People shared their own experiences with the problem and how they had dealt with it. Later, I recalled having written a blog post on a related topic. I visited the Wayback Machine and located it. Here’s the post, dating from December 29, 2007. It lacks only the image of the Dalí painting Suburbs of the Paranoiac-Critical City; Afternoon on the Outskirts of European History, which I hesitate to reproduce in view of recent…er, paranoia about intellectual property rights.

Continue reading Paranoiac-critical project tracking