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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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The Guinness model of release planning

This model isn’t based on release planning at Guinness. It’s based on drinking Guinness.

It’s the end of a work day. You and your mates are going out for a drink. Initially, you’re thinking you’d like to have three pints of Guinness. How do you place your order?

If you’re a traditionally-minded software development project manager, you’ll order all three pints at once, in the same glass. When the bartender tells you three pints of Guinness won’t fit in a one-pint glass, you’ll pound your fist on the bar and shout until he finds a way to make them fit. After all, the reason he doesn’t want to pour three pints into the glass is that he’s either lazy or incompetent, or both. Once you let him know who’s boss in no uncertain terms, he’ll get those three pints into the glass, one way or another.

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Delivery mode

This is the third of three posts dealing with aspects of management that I consider significant in choosing management techniques and metrics for software development and support:

  1. Iron Triangle management
  2. Process models
  3. Delivery mode (this post)

Despite the many complexities of software work, we are always working in one of two modes:

  • Discrete project
  • Continuous support

By discrete project mode I mean a mode of operation in which an organization creates a special initiative that exists for a defined period of time whenever it needs to achieve a set of related objectives, such as creating a new software application or upgrading the routers on the corporate network.

In contrast, with the continuous support mode of operation, the organization maintains a stable team to support each technical asset (such as the corporate network, a business rules engine, a COTS CRM package, or an ETL product) or suite of applications (such as the suite of applications that support consumer lending in a financial institution) throughout its lifetime. The size of the team may grow or shrink depending on the level of work needed to support the asset or applications at any given time, but the organization does not start a new project for every set of objectives pertaining to the asset or applications.
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Process models

This is the second of three posts dealing with aspects of management that I consider significant in choosing management techniques and metrics for software development and support:

  1. Iron Triangle management
  2. Process model (this post)
  3. Delivery mode

In my experience, no two organizations, and no two teams within the same organization, use exactly the same process model for software delivery; nor do they keep the same process intact forever. Everyone tailors their process to their own needs and to the realities of their own situation. In addition, most organizations use more than one process, depending on the nature of each particular initiative or work stream.

That is as it should be. Yet, despite the many variations, there are common patterns that can help us understand how we might plan and track the progress of software development initiatives and support activities in ways that help us make management decisions, as opposed to merely following a published guideline for planning and tracking.
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Iron Triangle management

This is the first of three posts dealing with aspects of management that I consider important:

  1. Iron Triangle management
  2. Process model
  3. Delivery mode

The reason I think these aspects are important is that they affect the way we handle various management issues, particularly our choice of metrics. Metrics that apply to one option in one of these areas may be meaningless or misleading when applied to a different option.

As George Box famously wrote, all models are wrong but some models are useful. The model I present here is based on my own experience and observation. It is wrong by definition by virtue of the fact it is a model; but hopefully it is useful, as well.

The order in which the aspects are listed reflects their relative effect on our choices, in my opinion. The strongest effect comes from our approach to managing the Iron Triangle. That is the subject of this post.
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Death is optional

In The Collapse of Complex Societies (ISBN 978-0521386739), Joseph Tainter observes that societies adapt to meet the challenges of growth by increasing their complexity. Over time, societies receive diminishing marginal returns on their investment in complexity. When they reach the stage that the demands of the complex organizational structure exceed the capacity of the resources available to support it, they collapse. It seems as if established, complex societies cannot respond to this challenge by simplifying their own structure. Instead, they collapse into smaller, simpler societal groups that may then begin the process of growth and increasing complexity all over again. The author examines the collapse of notable, successful, complex societies such as the Mayan and Roman empires and the Anasazi civilization centered on Chaco Canyon.

I can’t help noticing the resemblance between the pattern of growth and collapse in historical states and empires and the pattern of growth and collapse in corporations. It seems as if corporations, like states and empires, undergo a process of increasing complexity as they learn to deal with competitive challenges and as they increase their market share, their size, and the scope and range of their business activities. Historian Arnold Toynbee famously described the pattern of ascendance and decline of civilizations in terms of internal moral decay. The anonymous author of a Wikipedia article on Societal Decay put it quite nicely when he or she wrote, "societies that develop great expertise in problem solving become incapable of solving new problems by overdeveloping their structures for solving old ones."

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Utilization thinking vs. throughput thinking

In helping organizations achieve their goals for process improvement, I have found the single most prevalent conceptual barrier to be the notion of throughput as opposed to resource utilization. Many, and possibly most organizations hinder their own process improvement efforts when they try to maximize individual resource utilization rather than trying to maximize throughput. Once they are able to move beyond utilization thinking, many other challenges fall away naturally.
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The Blackbird Effect

This is a re-issue of a post from my old blog that people have asked for.

SR-71 Blackbird. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The SR-71 Blackbird, a global reconnaissance aircraft developed by the United States Air Force, first flew in 1964, and was in service from 1968 to 2001. Even at the time of its retirement, it represented relatively advanced technology as compared with most aircraft. In 1976, a Blackbird set the speed record between New York and London at just under 2 hours. The Blackbird’s speed record for manned air-breathing aircraft still stands, although manned rocket-powered aircraft and at least one unmanned air-breather have gone faster.

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