Software and technology are bringing a lot of changes to our lives - just think of the things in the news set to make waves in the near future - robots, AI, blockchain, and self-driving vehicles.
If only part of the revolutionary claims for this tech comes true, the world will look very different.
This cocktail of technologies brings a lot of opportunity as well a great deal of upheaval.
One thing I've noticed about this digitally transformed world: every technical requirement of a project is also a business requirement.
I've often heard these words spoken: "That's just technical detail."
But I agree with less and less as time goes on.
It sounds wrong now. Just a technical detail? What product are we building here?
Yet it's true, in a way. It is a technical detail. But that doesn't mean that it isn't important or you can just ignore it or you can pretend to ignore it until it becomes a problem.
So how do we deal with this?
Over time we'll all benefit from current changes in eduction - more focus on reasoning, outcomes, and learning code will help. More people who know what code is and who have written a line or two will help demystify the whole thing a bit.
Business people: You need technical awareness and patience and you need to ask the good questions. Again, eduction will help.
Technical people: You also need patience and improved listening and communication skills. I've written before about the pain of the unasked question. Ignoring hard questions because you don't like the answer isn't OK. Ask the question you know is there.
We all need to get better at explaining trade-offs in non-technical ways. This really shouldn't be that hard.
But what is the quickest fix? What can happen now? Where do I see people stumble?
The answer is more agile adoption and commitment to great product owners.
Needed to spend half their time talking to people buying the product (getting their thoughts on the latest incremental release and how it delivered value) and half their time with the team creating the Backlog (showing them what the customers valued and what they didn't).
That would definitely help a team move fast and understand the right technical/business requirements very quickly.
It's why I believe so strongly that Agile is the right methodology and that following as closely as possible to the recommendations makes sense. I've seen a lot of product owners who did a lot of the first or a lot of the second, but only a few who did a great job of balancing both (and who were given the organizational bandwidth and charter to do it).
Today everything - every part of an application - is a business requirement. Waiting around for business experts to answer questions, when they have many other responsibilities, is a delay that almost no one can afford any more.
We all have to go fast.
And we all need the business expertise and customer awareness built into our teams.
I recently conducted a book club using Dr. Alan Watkins book Coherence. The most useful tool in the book is the idea of the emotional roller-coaster related to change in an organization.
The basic idea is that for every change in a company (and we all have no shortage of those) the individuals that make up the company must pass through a spectrum of emotions that looks like this:
Yes, every time, with every change.
The picture in the book is better, but I don't have permission to reproduce it so I've Cliff-Noted it for you.
We've all seen this before. When confronted with change, people resist. This turns out to be normal (and required) human behavior to process this change.
The key insight for leaders? You can't force people to move forward on the roller-coaster. You can appreciate where people are, acknowledge it, and help them move toward the future.
This was a very helpful insight for me. I know that several times over the course of my career I have tried to force people to where I was on the roller-coaster. I remember one series of meetings in particular where a group of unsuspecting people were essentially expected to attend a 30 minute meeting and arrive on the right hand side, without any time to process at all.
I've also questioned why they couldn't instantaneously reach acceptance (at the tail-end of the upswing on the right). They can't because none of us can. Though time and the right kinds of experience can help you move faster.
But something has occurred to me after all this. The roller-coaster image is very helpful in order to grasp the initial idea, but it misses something important. As a leader, you need to help people with the left side so that you can gain their help on the right.
In real life the down part of a roller-coaster is the fun part. It's the pay-off for have ridden up to the top. So, with organizational change: you work through the hard part on the left to get the help you need on the right-hand side.
So initially I wondered if something like this wouldn't be more useful:
This is nice in that it matches how you actually feel on a roller-coaster. Trepidation going up, thrilled going down.
But it doesn't work at all and here's why. It flies in the face of the up=good, down=bad metaphor that is deeply written into the brain of every human on earth.
Even looking at it and seeing negative emotions going up sort of gives me the heebie-jeebies.
So, that's a no go. What it gets right (in addition to how it feels to be on a roller-coaster) is the notion that in the emotional build-up is a build-up of potential energy. Going through the necessary negative emotions helps us to be ready for what comes next. We wouldn't be sent careening down the thrilling part of the coaster without the build-up of potential energy that occurs.
Similarly, people who can work their way through the change and the associated negative emotions are really positioned to truly accept the change, embrace it, and become champions once they reach the right-hand side.
The processing of negative emotions are what sets that positive trend in motion in a real way.
So what visual does capture this? The best visual I've been able to come up with is the idea of the slingshot. In the slingshot, potential energy is captured as the sling is drawn back - nicely matching the work required (as both a leader and individual) in order to actually pass (constructively) through the negative side.
Then, with the potential energy of the work captured, you can release the slingshot and actually draw all the momentum you need on the positive side.
I could not come up with a way to capture this in a single drawing, but I think a two part drawing does the trick:
My apologies to the artists in the room.
This is really a leadership view of this path through change. I think the original roller-coaster is probably best and sufficient for everyone else in an organization.
In searching for images on potential energy, I came across this image:
This turtle is about to undergo a change (and probably highly negative emotions).
But that doesn't have much to do with organizational change. I'm not sure it has a lot to do with potential energy either - at least the turtle part.
You've worked at a business for several years, you're really starting to understand how it works. You're grokking it. You're gaining a deep understanding of the innerworkings, outer-workings, and every kind of work-between.
And you suddenly have it - a moment of insight - a blinding flash that helps you to solve a problem you've been stuck on.
They're great when the happen. But how often do they really occur for you? For the lucky, perhaps several times a year. For the rest of us, less often.
One of the great promises of AI is to be able to achieve these types of insights faster and more repeatedly by asking the right questions.
AI will allow us, as it becomes more ubiquitous, to ask better questions and find the answers faster.
Here are the stages of inspiration and insight as we move forward with Assisted Inspiration (we need a new acronym).
Human-Only Insight - the amazing and super-powerful capability that we humans possess to understand our world and make amazing leaps forward. Pattern recognition, dreams, emotional resilience, quantum gravity. It's all part of it.
Tool Assisted Insight - explicit use of math and spreadsheets and literature to figure stuff out, in addition to our own powerful minds.
AI Assisted Insight - use of machine learning and other sophisticated computer tools to value information and create models for problem solving.
As we get better at formulating our questions, generating and processing data, and creating these models - as these skills become more pervasive in the workforce - then the pace of AI Assisted Insights is only going to INCREASE. Think the world is going fast now? Think it's changing? Think we're in a VUCA phase?
Buckle your seat-belt. As our kids join the workforce and spend less time writing code (it probably really will happen this time) and more time thinking about problems and using AI to assist them, the more the pace of change will accelerate.
Will this be challenging at times? Yes, definitely. It also represent a fundamental new phase of work, life, and society.
What an amazing time to be alive.
I've been lucky enough to have some human-only and data-assisted insights in my life. Those moments are joyful when they occur. They are real breakthroughs when you see things in a whole new light.
Imagine having more of those. More breakthroughs. More insight. More inspiration. It will be challenging, and for those of who are willing to face these challenges a broad new plateau of opportunity and human potential awaits us.
I bring this up because it's something that I've heard a few times over the years (including recently) and I think it's worth examining the hidden anxiety behind this statement.
On one level, agile is not anything like communism. Agile practices extend some of the decision making in business to people close to the problem, people who will do the work. In this way, it's much more like a capitalist/democratic system than a communist/authoritarian model. In democracies individuals have agency/a vote/influence in the system (just like agile) and in capitalism individuals/businesses control the means of production and what work gets done, not a central authority (just like agile).
Looked at in this way, the answer to the question above is clearly 'No'. Agile equates to democracy and looks nothing like communist/authoritarian systems. But this doesn't get at the anxiety, which I think is important.
Why the comparison? Why do people say "Agile = Communism"
I think it's because in traditional businesses (a key feature of capitalism) the democratic principles of society don't extend inside the business. Inside the business the business owner and their appointed managers run the business and make key decisions. The businesses themselves demonstrate the authoritarian characteristics that the rest of society does not.
Looking at in this light, I think the anxiety could be expressed thus, "Agile is not like traditional business management and that makes me nervous. So, I will express my fear by equating it to something that also doesn't look like traditional business/capitalism, which is communism."
This fear is not unreasonable. Agile is different. It does distribute decision making differently. I think that it is hard to relinquish control and you should expect this type of reaction to change, as you should expect this reaction to ANY change at all. It's just one more manifestation of anxiety around change.
So, where does that leave you?
Understanding doesn't mean accepting. You understand the anxiety to facilitate the change, not give in to the resistors.
We've seen that the pace of change in life and business is accelerating. Predict and control structures become outdated too quickly. Your prediction will now almost certainly wrong because the assumptions that underlie your prediction lose their currency quite quickly.
Why rely on the assumptions of one person? Why not have a high functioning team working together? In this way, agile can be part of the antidote to the anxiety.
You (and your leadership team) need smart people working on effective teams with the ability to execute. Whether you call it Agile Management Practices or Holocracy or something else, it makes sense when the world changes quickly.
Of course, individual business owners and leaders are free to make decisions to run their companies in whatever way they see fit, that is capitalism.
But, as a leader, don't you want to hire the best people and get the most out of them? Empowering them is one way to do that. It does require you to let go of some control. And it does require you to have enough governance to ensure people don't bet the farm or the business without oversight.
But after that, you WANT people to feel ownership and make decisions. It's going to make them more loyal, successful employees, and it is going to help your business be more effective in the long run.
Discretionary effort is critical to business success. You need enthusiasm, time, and energy from dedicated employees to make your team or your product a winner.
Knowing how your team spends discretionary effort is important. For this reason, you should ask the question in the title of this post. Ask it before the outset of any significant effort or the adoption of new tech.
There are a lot of reasons why people choose technologies. Carefully guiding selection is an important part of the technology leader's job description. Managing and directing discretionary effort should be part of that calculation.
So, why do people choose different technologies?
This technology is a good fit and here's why ....
Sounds lovely doesn't it? Technology is chosen to meet the needs of the project. Nothing more, nothing less.
Our team already knows this technology.
This can be an excellent reason. Efficient, lots of knowns, starting with some pre-baked design work - very good.
We already know this other technology that looks a lot like the one we're choosing.
This can also be a perfectly acceptable reason to choose technology.
We like where this technology is headed and we believe it will help us meet our future needs.
A little bit riskier - when will the future arrive?
This technology is neat.
Neat is fine. As long as it is also good fit and we can get things done.
This technology is new.
See also, Neat. Beware of the following Trojan horse: everyone will be doing it in 5 years, so if we want to be able to hire people we better choose it.
Here's the trouble with new and neat technologies. You don't know them and you have to learn them.
Will this require discretionary effort on this project? Who is paying for it?
As I said above, discretionary effort is important. Nothing of significant value gets done without it. There are late nights for someone somewhere if this (or any) project is going to be successful.
The trouble with new and neat is that they can use up all the discretionary effort that people have to give.
When this happens, it's bad.
Especially if the value of a product doesn't reside in the new and neat technology that was chosen. If the value is in the logic or time-to-market or ease of use or anything else, then spending discretionary effort learning a new technology is ...
I wouldn't necessarily call it wasted effort as it probably benefits those learning it.
But it isn't high business value in the short-to-medium term. It's a long term investment. It may be that the investment is in people or infrastructure that benefit the product or project or business you are building.