Work with the right questions

At work people strive for a goal. This is often called the principal task, the value-adding work. It is the expressed intention at the levels of individual, group or organization. Related to this people solve problems with e.g. process, resourcing, business or technology. (It is always valuable to ask, what the principal task really is.)

People are, however, people. Especially when many. They have other questions at the same time, related to e.g. human needs, group dynamics or the organizational integrity. These other questions:

  • Take attention, time and energy
  • Do matter, have potentially significant consequences
  • Have second order consequences – build the culture, learning and so on
  • Block working with the principal task for shorter or longer time

In order to optimally promote the principal task, you need to recognize the right question and work with it. Forcing a solution to the wrong question does not really help. Have you ever heard: “Does not concern us, because we are rational adults.” Or “We can skip those, because we don’t have time.”

Conscious questions are the obvious normal stuff, technical and social things that people have learned to handle. Sources of questions

Pre-conscious questions are recognizable, especially when you try. You can observe and talk about them, and they become somewhat conscious. Examples:

  • Suppressed topics, taboos, cultural issues
  • Human needs: e.g. autonomy, safety, recognition, being heard…
  • Questions of trust, power, status
  • Question of leadership and dependency
  • Group dynamics
  • Should I invest the effort
  • Envy and competition – a sensitive topic
  • Games people play
  • Constantly ongoing inclusion and exclusion
  • Resistance, individual and group defense mechanisms e.g. groupthink
  • And some special cases

  • Scapegoat syndrome, tends to repeat
  • Pathological narcissism, difficult and dangerous

Oops. The list grows so easily! I will come back to these!

Unconscious is not observable. It can be considered the creative source where the other stuff emerges. You can not predict how the unconscious will respond to your actions.

Most of the times, things go naturally with no major roadblocks, just some very frustrating or insensible moments. People work with the preconscious questions unconsciously, and solutions emerges. This baseline is not the full potential – working consciously with the questions probably leads to a better solution. The group/team development is a good example.

It saves time and energy, if someone experienced can recognize the present questions and help to handle them consciously. Often just making the correct guess, giving a name to the question, makes it dissolve quickly, and the work can continue. Sometimes the interpretation is too much, and the group does not accept it. The proper timing, dose and form matters.

Sometimes, the unrecognized questions really block or deteriorate the work, and external help is beneficial.

A good situational leader, may it be boss, coach or scrum master:

  • Knows this preconscious people stuff. Actually it is not complicated, but needs some practise.
  • Has courage and social permission to work with all kinds of questions
  • Is able to use oneself as an instrument. For example when you feel strange, what is really going on? Are these feelings mine or what?

This is also called emotional intelligence. Surprisingly, it can be learned and practiced. I have coached many technically oriented people, who have turned to be emotionally talented – once they got the permission. The organizational culture and narrow identities sometimes really block people from using their full capability.

Three Interests causing alienation and a leadership vacuum

In the previous post I studied a local organizational Gap. This time I look at the whole business. From theoretical point of view these phenomena are just obvious, I found their significance by observing real organizations. This model has been helpful for understanding the product manager’s world.

I have seen this in many organizations, also in small companies. It hints, that healthy and close human interaction in an organization is a significant competitive advantage. Secondly, change is free, actually profitable – just Go and See and there will be many opportunities.

Three conflicting Interests


Every organization has three stakeholders that each have a significant Interests. There are high stakes, energy and passion. (interest with a capital I refers to the specific Interests)

The investors are playing in the capital market. They wish for a reasonable ROI and fear for losing their investment.

The customers and end users wish for a functional product for a reasonable price, and fear e.g. for bad quality and difficulties in the support.

The value adding workers wish e.g. for satisfactory working condition, a reasonable compensation and a safe future.
All three stakeholders need the organization, wishing it to stay alive and productive. All stakeholders have both long and short term interests.
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The Gap between the R&D and the product management

While looking around in any organization, you most probably recognize the Gap between the product management/PO and the R&D/Teams/designers. It is significant in surprisingly small organizations.

This becomes obvious when starting Scrum. The Gap has always been there. Why? What have been the workarounds earlier? Why is it important to understand the root cause? Actually there are more gaps on the value stream…

The Gap

the Gap between R&D and Product management

Drawing the Gap on a flipboard often stops the blame war.

Have you ever heard the following, when taking Scrum into use:

Team: Scrum says Give us the prioritized backlog.
Product manager: Yes, but we don’t know about tech, you do. Here You have the 5-liner. Just start working.
Team: Yes, but we need to know where to start.
PM: Yes, but we can’t prioritize technical items, you have always done it.
Team: But we can not work if we don’t know the priorities for the next sprint.
PM: What’s wrong with you?
And so on…

The Gap means simply that there is too little knowledge power, too few people who would understand both technology and business. I have many many times experienced how drawing this picture on a flipboard will stop the blame war in the room, when people realize that it is the system, not us.
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Focusing on projects ruins your business

I have seen product development projects used as tool to extract results from the organization. It has been chosen to solve an organizational problem. It worked in certain conditions, but when the organization grew and outside competition became harder yesterday’s solution became today’s problem.

I try to explain my point with a lifecycle of an imaginary organization. My real life example companies vary from 15 people to thousands.

Startup phase

Once upon a day a group of engineers started to develop a product. In the beginning everyone knew each other and there was fluent informal communication. The techno-cultural foundation was laid. The business started to grow.

Growth and the first coordination crisis

Money comes in and the organization grows. There is more coordination work, so some developers become managers. The organization develops “naturally”, creating specialized roles and competences. There are more customers and releases. Ownership of the product gradually becomes scattered. There are bottleneck resources.

At some point the “professional project management” steps in. It is solving the coordination problem, one project at a time. The project manager has permission (by role) to demand results. She becomes powerful member of the organization, getting credit for creating order and bringing money in. Often the personality of the project managers support this specialization. Portfolio management still works or is less important. Business does well.

This is a critical bifurcation point, a leadership crisis of unrealized significance . There is still an opportunity to start a Lean evolution. My example goes to the mainstream way. From the psychological perspective this is the easiest solution. It requires least personal change from the most of the people.

Gradual Scattering of the organization

Eventually there are several parallel and sequential programs going on at the same time. Each project is re-built and re-learned every time, because they surprisingly are different from the previous one. The projects becomes a separate powerful dimension of the organization.

The projects become a kind of device extracting money out of the complex and uncontrollable organization. The business management alienates from the R&D, because the real value seems to come from the project device – the development can be replaced, off-shored, outsourced. Long term development of the R&D is seen risky and difficult. Frustration and distrust grows at both sides.

You may recognize one or more of the following characteristics:

Short term rules. Quick fix. Avoid conflict. Nonproductive feedback. Gap between business, customer and development. Continuous reorg. Exploit development. Specialization and separation of responsibility. Cling to nonfunctional ERP. Clear social classes within the organization. Big power differences. Command and control. Waiting. Big plans. Wish for predictability. Slow and vague feedback. Learning and improvement don’t work. Projects compete of resources. Cost management. Number management. Measure hours. Maximize resource utilization. Knowledge and power seems always to be elsewhere.

Market saturation and the productivity crisis

Now the product (family) is growing old. And there is competition. The business management is facing a situation where the portfolio management is very difficult because of the complicated product and organization; lack of transparency and flexibility.

Even in this situation, I have seen the management to grab the tool that used to work, trying desperately to improve the project management. This is very painful for the project managers.

My point here is, that in product development you may do excellent “conventional” projects, and fail. Even fail because the projects have been successful.

My vote for the one word root cause would be overspecialization.

Please comment and share experiences, I have not emptied this subject.

The unbelievable power of the Organizational culture

Suddenly bumped to an old lover… reading Liker’s “Toyota Way”. On page 299 he quotes Edgar Schein’s definition of the organizational culture. This is heavy, please meditate carefully.

Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Originally in Edgar Schein, “Coming to a New Awareness of Organizational Culture” in Sloan Management Review 26 (winter 1984): 3-16. and in the book “Organizational Culture”.

Knowledge waste in organizations

Why do people and organizations do what they do? What is the wisdom in the stupidity? Making sense of this helps to find primary questions, root causes or basic assumptions. Knowing those helps to make synthesis and applicable new solutions. And it helps to be merciful towards oneself and others. I will be blogging about models that I have found useful.

First I want to present two jewels of organizational thinking, real diamonds. They point out sources of knowledge waste in product development organizations. Originally they were presented in the book Ward, A., 2006. Lean Product and Process Development, Lean Enterprise Institute. The book contains really careful and valuable thinking. It is mandatory reading for anyone working with organizations.

1. Sources of knowledge waste are:

  • Wishful thinking
  • Scatter
  • Handover

2. In relation to Scatter Ward explicitly mentions:

  • Whenever you separate Knowledge, Responsibility, Action and Feedback, there will be knowledge waste.

These are easy to keep in mind – you will see them everywhere.

Wishful Thinking is of course wasting knowledge, resources and money in huge lumps. It also makes you to choose organizational models, that cause Scatter. Scatter in time and space is causing Handover, which is the massive observable source of knowledge waste. And Scatter makes you loose the ability to decide – real power is always elsewhere.

Obviously wishful thinking comes from ignorance, complacency and fear; not knowing or not admitting, increased by loss of knowledge. A vicious circle.

From this perspective, doesn’t it seem obvious that learning together is the medicine? Seek wisdom, go and see. Having yet another strong management role, separate, does not solve the problem. Power lies with the knowledge!

Please check how Vasco Duarte’s blog PMI and the meta-planning process looks from this perspective.

Just to give some food for thought I list the specific knowledge wastes under the three major ones (italics my brainstorming).

  • Wishful Thinking
    • Discarded knowledge
    • Testing to specification. (Interesting explicit mention by Ward!)
  • Scatter
    • Physical, social and skill Barriers

      • Distance, time differences, data formats
      • Culture, language and organizational culture
      • Busying oneself
      • High power differences – “classes”
      • Continuous organizational change
      • Overspecialization – narrow roles and competencies
    • Poor tools and processes

      • Mechanical or narrow information channels
      • Manual duplication
      • Poor communication tools
  • Handover
    • Useless information

      • Extraneous documentation and communication, Lost knowledge, False information
      • Relearning
    • Waiting

      • Milestone, investment decision, technical decision, …
      • Meeting scheduling, resources, …
      • Plans, specs, information, comments, permission …
      • Test results, bug fixes, dependent components, integration, service from tool provider/IT, …

Projects and project managers in Agile SW development

Clearing some mess around project in Agile context. Thanx for Glen B. Alleman in his blog for the impulse and discussion.

A project “is a temporary endeavor, having a defined beginning and end.”

In SW development the development work, the actual knowledge creation, design decisions, stories, whatever, is best to do in flow, small batches. The work is complex in nature and benefits from really tight feedback and conversation, including the end user. Does not sound a typical project.

However, a release in most cases fits a definition of a project. Especially when we draw the system envelope so that it includes the paying customer. The new SW to be taken into use is causing a one-time change in the socio-techno-economical system of the customer and end user. It will be considered carefully before the investment decision. In some cases this can be a sequence of improvements, a flow. In most cases, I argue, it is a big change, definitely a project. (In this perspective every project is an organizational change project.)

Now, what is so bad about the concept of a SW development project? It comes from the experience of doing it in a stupid way:
– command and control projects, bad interaction, “resource management” approach
– focusing to a one time solution in a messy org, ignoring long term learning and portfolio management
– wishful up-front planning, ignoring the complex nature of SW development
Agile, look at the values, is a counter-argument against this stupidity. I think the question how much value PMI and other institutions add, is how the learn and cope these experiences.

In other words, a “traditional” project is a bad metaphor and practice for creating software. A project done wisely is often a good way to manage customer requests and releases.

I hope to blog soon why we have messed up with projects in the course of organizational evolution. People always make wise decisions in their local context.

Then the worry of the people and the organization; What to do with the project managers. Scrum does not mention a project manager. Clearly, based on the above, the product owner does that work. But the work of the PO is increasing, a natural place for the ex project managers’ contribution. They might be called customer project managers.

I often hear a suggestion that the project managers would become Scrum Masters. Dangerous generalization. In most cases I have seen, the project managers move naturally to some kind of a product owner role. Some human oriented PMs become good Scrum Masters. Then also the organization needs to relearn the role of these persons.

What is clearly disappearing in both cases is the resource coordinator/management role. So the ex project managers will be working more with the product substance. One overspecialized role less, provided that the whole organization is improving.