You may have a brilliant new business strategy, but unless employees are stoked about the idea, it won’t succeed, says leadership guru John P. Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of several books on organizational change.” So begins an interview with Professor John Kotter, widely regarded as an authority on change. Kotter goes on to promote a counterintuitive way to drive adoption of an idea: by encouraging employees to criticize it.

Change in an organization can be categorized, in one of the ways, from its breadth of impact. A change of software development from traditional (waterfall) to agile (say, Scrum) is a radical change. For a software organization, it touches not only engineering or development, but also sales, marketing, finance, even HR. The same is for Lean transformation from batch mode. A crucial element change leaders often ignore or underestimate is psychology.

Studies after studies in heath care tell us that 90% percent of the people who belong in high risk group like who have undergone coronary-artery bypass surgery do not change their lifestyle. In the words of Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University..”…Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t…“.

The same article goes onto reflect the view of John Kotter: “Changing the behavior of people isn’t just the biggest challenge in health care. It’s the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world, says John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied dozens of organizations in the midst of upheaval: “The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems…. And as individuals, we may want to change our own styles of work — how we mentor subordinates, for example, or how we react to criticism. Yet more often than not, we can’t.

Having seen through a fair share of lean and agile transitions, I can relate. The predominant emotions to be dealt with are fear, confusion, ego, greed (of power). In many organizations, years of traditional/waterfall with phase gate approach, command-and-control has defined a whole different culture, even provided a platform of survival to many. For them, it is now too important to let go.

I recall of an IT organization, global and big in all respects, for which the biggest chunks of revenue lay in client accounts using traditional way of running projects. Agile for it was more of a sales gimmick. They go agile only when clients insist on it. More than agile it’s a facade of agile: a series of short waterfalls. Obviously, people working in such projects suffered conflicts wondering what really the beast called agile is.

The same Fast Company article goes on: Unfortunately, that kind of emotional persuasion isn’t taught in business schools, and it doesn’t come naturally to the technocrats who run things — … who pride themselves on disciplined, analytical thinking. There’s compelling science behind the psychology of change — it draws on discoveries from emerging fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience — but its insights and techniques often seem paradoxical or irrational.

Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, in Sausalito, California, could bring the change where John Hopkins and Global Medical Forum couldn’t. Ornish helped 333 seemingly incorrigible patients quit smoking, follow diet, exercise; 77% of whom stuck with the lifestyle changes after 3 years.

Why does the Ornish program succeed while the conventional approach has failed? For starters, Ornish recasts the reasons for change. Doctors had been trying to motivate patients mainly with the fear of death, he says, and that simply wasn’t working. For a few weeks after a heart attack, patients were scared enough to do whatever their doctors said. But death was just too frightening to think about, so their denial would return, and they’d go back to their old ways.

So instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying,” Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the “joy of living” — convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer….

“Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear ” he says.

A McKinsey articleThe Psychology of Change Management” prescribes four conditions for changing mindsets: a purpose to believe in, reinforcement systems, skills required, and consistent roles models. And this S&B article tells us “Change is, at its core, a people process, and people are creatures of habit, hardwired to resist adopting new mind-sets, practices, and behaviors” and suggests “Build an emotional and rational case for change” as one of the key success factors.

Chip Heath, who along with his brother Dan Heath authored Switch, shows how managers can catalyze change more effectively by drawing on an enormous body of research from psychologists on how the brain works .In this interview with McKinsey Quaterly, Chip Heath posits : Pay attention to creating an emotional case for change, not just an analytical one.

Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns, in their excellent “Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideassays:  “I think the most important message behind the patterns is that we are not logical decision-makers. We act based on emotion, primarily fear. Most of us are afraid of change, even if it seems exciting. As a result, you need to appeal to emotion and relieve the fear.”

I have seen, unfortunately, a few organizations that couldn’t overcome the fear and couldn’t sustain the change; and then fell back upon old traditional way of building software. For high risk heart patients who are given the option to change or die, the odds are nine to one that people really changed themselves.

Like a Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, once saidWhatever organisation we try to create, it always ends up looking like the Communist Party.


Control- the military way

When my learning from military was restricted to a measly General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” or Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke’s “No plan survives contact with the enemy”, a recent post at infoq went a good way in enriching me.

The infoq posit on “Command and control military gets Agile” talks about how “The military is suddenly taking Agility (big “A”) very seriously”.  It points to a fine resource of Department of Defense Command and Control research program DoD C2 (C2 stands for Command and Control) and a precis on Agility Imperative.

That seemed, at least to me, contradictory. I understood ‘command and control’ very much the same way as Joel Spolsky once wrote – “Primarily, the idea is that people do what you tell them to do, and if they don’t, you yell at them until they do…. No room for questions, opinions, thoughts, big picture, context. Just blind subservience. Agree though that my learning of military comes from rented DVDs of war movies.

That led me to question : ‘What exactly is this ‘command and control’?

I was in luck as this very site has a 255 page paper – ‘Understanding command and control‘.

And sure it seems to have a different meaning of command and control. (The paper even uses a special font for the word ‘command and control’ to stress the difference). Few extracts are like this:

– Command and Control determines the bounds within which behavior(s) are to take place, not the specific behaviors themselves. The degrees of freedom associated with these bounds can vary greatly.
– It is important to always keep in mind that there are many different approaches to accomplishing these functions. No specific approach or set of approaches defines what Command and Control means.

And then:
Successfully accomplishing the functions of Command and Control does not necessarily require: • Hierarchical organizations • Explicit control

It goes on to say:
While the determination of intent and its communication to mission participants are traditionally thought of as responsibilities of the one who is in charge or in command, this does not have to be the case…There are numerous instances where there is no supreme or higher authority that can, in practice, determine intent. What is important is that the behaviors of the entities involved (individuals, organizations, and systems) act as if they are working toward some common purpose. Thus, intent may or may not be (1) explicitly communicated, (2) consciously or formally accepted, or (3) widely shared.

I understand that in this command and control – you don’t bark orders (I need to return those DVDs) but draw boundaries within which you are free to choose your behavior towards the best interest of the group or organization. The boundaries can come from framework (think Scrum), roadmap, goals , vision and/or culture.

Another paper “Agility, Focus, and Convergence: The Future of Command and Control” focuses on the need to change the term command and control as it is liable to convey a wrong message. The authors say : Focus & Convergence is the term that I have chosen to replace Command and Control.

In old view, it’s the control part usually being held for the stigma.

There are enough evidences in behavioral science on how control affects behavior and is linked to, say, performance or even life span. A group with a control button to reduce ambient noise performs much better without the control button; it doesn’t matter if the first group never used the button (I can’t remember the source. Dan Ariely?). It is the sense of control rather than usage of control that makes them perform better.

Leonard Mlodinow writes in his ‘The Drunkard’s Walk’ about control:
“Our desire to control events is not without purpose, for a sense of personal control is integral to our self-concept and sense of self-esteem.”

Further down the pages, Mlodinow tells how psychologist Ellen Langer, one of pioneers of psychology of control, studied the effect of the feeling of control on elderly nursing home patients. One group was given control on their room arrangement and which plants to care. Other was not. Eighteen months later a follow-up study shocked researchers: the group that was not given control experienced a death rate of 30 percent, whereas the group that was given control experienced a death rate of only 15 percent.

Still many business houses and management functions considers Control, even to the lowest level, as an essential form of management.

War/Team spirit

War, in its many hues, is hardly understood ever. Sebastian Junger, war correspondent, goes deep in the trenches with American platoon in Afghanistan, and gives us ‘War’, an outstanding war report. But what caught my attention in this Economist review is the question the author asks – what is the reason of soldier’s “good-tempered acceptance of, indeed sometimes relish for, appalling danger”?

Mr Junger is more interested in the war as it is experienced by the American soldiers, mostly white 20-somethings, with whom he eats, sleeps and very often nearly gets killed… He is in awe of his fellows’ fighting skills and mostly good-tempered acceptance of, indeed sometimes relish for, appalling danger. This leads him to a broader inquiry into why this is generally true of modern soldiers.

The main reason, Mr Junger observes and numerous studies have confirmed, is love. The Americans in the Korengal, heroes by the standards of any warrior culture, are not especially religious or patriotic. They show little interest in the war overall or allegiance to the army at large; indeed, they cheer other units’ misfortunes. Rather, with passionate intensity, they fight for each other. “What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analyses slowly came to understand was that courage was love,” Mr Junger writes. “In war, neither could exist without the other.”

Tom Peters too have a word on this ” It’s all about the relationships, duh“?

It will be interesting to know how team of soldiers arrive at this point. Do such a team also goes through stages of, say, Tuckman’s model?

Money, it’s a gas

It’s so true that it’s turning out into a cliché. Dan Pink’s ‘Drive‘ is out with the tagline ‘The surprising truth about what motivates us’. (Surprising to whom?). The Economist’s resident bard on business, Schumpeter, chimed in too, though surprisingly in right direction.

One can hardly help the feeling that we are directed towards a false dichotomy. It doesn’t have to be such. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps the need is to seek a balance or a holistic treatment taking the context in consideration. This is the very least to be expected from an author of a book on right brain thinking. The importance of context seems to be missing.

Schumpeter argues that for most of jobs being outsourced and automated, primary motivation need to be of intrinsic variety. (As if the people where the job is being outsourced to are too dumb or too cheap to need any intrinsic motivation). But people don’t always rely on their employer to unleash their creativity. There are millions who paint, write, make movies, form great organizations, champion causes, once their paying-the-bills-day-job is over. I saw a group of very passionate people holding onto their mundane jobs create and take to great heights a fine cinema club. Little wonder Hugh MacLeod had to suggest ‘Keep your day job‘. The losers here, hardly unsurprising, are the organizations.

In any case, it is next to impossible for anyone to imagine in separate context money and organization (at least in capitalism). Maybe that’s why not-for-profit and open source has involvement without monetary expectations, because the context itself is non-monetary, with organization not dying for the last dollar. Schumpeter also mentions “Paying people to give blood actually reduces the number who are willing to do so“. Because by linking it to money, market norms encroach on social norms; and expectations were different in both cases. Dan Ariely captures this well in his Predictably Irrational.

McKinsey Quarterly carried on with the suggestion that current recession gives the organization a good chance to move from financial to non-financial (intrinsic) opportunities. Money is scarce, employee morale seeing a new nadir everyday, yet the need for retaining and attracting talent is as crucial as ever. So, no better time than now to make the change.

McKinsey then asks: Why haven’t many organizations made more use of cost-effective nonfinancial motivators at a time when cash is hard to find?
It seems:

One reason may be that many executives hesitate to challenge the traditional managerial wisdom: money is what really counts. While executives themselves may be equally influenced by other things, they still think that bonuses are the dominant incentive for most people. “Managers see motivation in terms of the size of the compensation,” explained an HR director from the financial-services industry.

Another reason is probably that nonfinancial ways to motivate people do, on the whole, require more time and commitment from senior managers. One HR director we interviewed spoke of their tendency to “hide” in their offices-primarily reflecting uncertainty about the current situation and outlook. This lack of interaction between managers and their people creates a highly damaging void that saps employee engagement.

But there’s another dimension. And that’s money is not just about only money. It’s a lot more things.

In September 2003, Richard Grasso, who was then the head of the New York Stock Exchange, became the first CEO in American history to get fired for making too much money.

To explain, James Surowiecki in his brilliant ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘ writes:

‘ The explanation for people’s behavior might have something to do with an experiment called the “ultimatum game,” which is perhaps the most well-known experiment in behavioral economics. The rules of the game are simple. The experimenter pairs two people with each other. (They can communicate with each other, but other they are anonymous to each other.) They’re given $10 to divide between them, according to this rule: One person (the proposer decides), on his own, what the split should be (fifty-fifty, seventy-thirty, or whatever). He then makes a take it or leave it offer to the other person (the responder). The responder can either accept the offer, in which case both players pocket their respective shares of the cash, or reject it, in which case both players walk away empty-handed.”

It seems it’s rational for proposer to make a lowball offer and the responder, left with no choice, to accept it. Whatever it is, responder is left with no money if he doesn’t accept it, which is worse than accepting a ridiculously lowball offer. In practice, though, this rarely happens. Responder, in most cases, rejects it.

This experiment is repeated across countries; with million dollar; with capuchin monkeys. The results are the same.

Because, money is an indicator of fairness, and humans and capuchin seem to care whether rewards are fair. It means people think it is very important that they (and everyone else) get what is deserved. People not only compare rewards within organization but also within society. We are all too familiar with banker bonuses and Wall Street packages. Also, we are not very unfamiliar to see in some cases the very executives championing intrinsic rewards eyeing fatter pay packages. Money being one of the few tangible things as far as rewards go, people are very likely to root for more money in such cases. If not anything else, it gives them the sense of being fairly treated.

Dilbert has a telling strip where Dilbert, Alice and Wally present a wrapped gift box to PHB pooling their bonus money, which on unwrapping appears to be empty. Dilbert and all say “Better luck next time”.

Culture called Agile

Agile is a paradigm change. Agile usually gets introduced in an organization as a new framework, new methodology, with new techniques, so on (Though, there is nothing ‘new ‘ to it) . Agile, after all said and done, is about culture. And philosophy. I am not saying that thinking in terms on framework, methodology, techniques is wrong, but we are not doing us a favour by not beginning at the beginning. This way maybe true agile will elude us.

In 90s, many organizations pretended that by ignoring the uncertainties inherent to software development, the uncertainties will simply go away. Like financial institutions pretending to ignore the black swans. So the some organizations built mammoth structure to control more and more minutely, more and more frequently. They gave an illusion of change, a false security. Meanwhile Standish group’s Chaos reports did good business.

Much has already been said about what the organization culture ought to be to nurture true agile. Definition is the easy part. The trick is in the transformation. And there you start seeing cognitive dissonance. They now have to deal with the layers and layers of concrete poured over the years. Change is so difficult. Much easier is the illusion of change. It’s not easy to unlearn gantt chart; or unlearn that actuals is garbage; or unlearn that time reporting is lame; or learn that pair programming is not waste of time; or relearn that ‘accurate estimate’ is an oxymoron; or learn that team’s and not programmer’s productivity matters.

The way to begin the transformation is to unlearn and relearn. Better to begin top down. The grassroot level, sensing freedom, might already have started changing. But there’s a lot to do there too. Years of command and control had inured masses and they wait for directions, which in the name of agile, never comes. They are deer in headlights. Mentor them to find and build ways. Teach them to own up. Show them the vision. Empowerment never can come if all one sees is laying bricks and not building cathedral. Clichéd metaphor, I know. Steve Jobs once famously hired John Sculley from PepsiCo asking him ” Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” . That is showing what vision is. (It is another story what Sculley did to Jobs later).

The managers by then should start building the right culture. But culture gets build brick by brick, over sometime decades. One can also start coaching  the right philosophy. Build the practices to support the philosophy. Build the techniques to support the practices. Use the tools to practice the practices. If you start at practices ignoring the culture or philosophy part, people  might be left standing with the why? questions. And they will end up in laying bricks, not building cathedral.

It’s all in culture. Right culture will spawn the right process. Right process will spawn the right techniques. If it doesn’t happen, look back at the culture, it might be broken. That way, anyday I will prefer ‘waterfall’ with right culture than so called agile with a wrong one. Scrum is after all the framework to help you reach that level of excellence.

Tackling the productivity beast

With all budget gone in vapour, everyone now is talking about productivity.  In software development ‘Productivity’ , per se, is a difficult beast even to  measure. More often, productivity improvement  is  basically plugging holes or innovative data presentation.

Still, few things you might like to do to improve productivity, which can save you the trouble and embarrassment of talking in terms of frameworks and datasets.

– Buy a whiteboard and place it well. Build a culture that short quick decisions are made over whiteboard, and encourage people to do that. Studies proved that communication over whiteboard is extremely effective. Not to mention efficient.

– Lot of time goes away in arguments and debates, which in itself is not bad, but should move towards something. Learn how to deal with arguments. A good place to begin are Roger Fisher’s books.

– Discourage, or better still, eliminate multitasking. Particularly for developers.  Which might mean no phones on desk; expectations to check mails only a few times a day; no ad-hoc meetings or status collection. Of course, planned work without frequent change of assignments is the bare minimum, without that better don’t do the project. Again, many studies and research illustrate the perils of multi-tasking and context switching for knowledge workers. Tom De Marco’s ‘Peopleware’ is a good reference, the Poppendieks’ (Mary and Tom) Lean books too. This NY Times study or this says it can take as much as 20 minutes for person to switch context back to his development work.

– Select all tools so that they give rapid feedback. Software development is all about  ability to change course; and that is impossible without feedback mechanism. Select tools that don’t make developers to switch context frequently.

– Give developers access to some noise free work environment. Private offices are more productive, though communication might suffer. Educate all to respect open space etiquette.

– Write documents in easy, readable style. Avoid jargons. Avoid needless words. Read and reread Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style‘. From what I see around, most of the documents meant for even programmers are too heavy. And needlessly.

– Get training in speed reading, without compromising with comprehension.

– Get training in increasing typing speed. Learn all hotkeys and shortcuts. Use relevant plugins. For all the tools you use.

And of course, there is peopleware.

Values: soft vs hard

You can’t ‘manage what you cannot measure’. Or so it seems.

If there is a choice, I will go for soft values over hard values.  But then they are not supposed to be mutually exclusive. As long as you are careful of what and how you measure.

The problem with soft values that is soft values cannot be measured directly. Tell me – how on earth will you measure attitude; or a warm smile; or leaving behind a legacy; or making people feel better.  And if you can’t measure, you start doubting, which in turn makes you feel insecure. But the problem’s here is you, not who or what you measure. Remember ‘Blink factor’?. Given enough experience and talent, you develop a kind of gut factor. Kind of trained gut feeling. And you have a hunch you are right. Mostly you will be right. And if you fail? So what.

Then why do we feel afraid. Because we don’t have either the expertise or talent to have developed that gut factor. Neither passion.

Let’s take hiring. In some industries, I am told that the use of gut factor is common, like in arts, like in music. But somewhere it is a poor dilbertian. In software, if you are not working for Joel, some MBA who never compiled a piece of code will interview a star programmer.  Peter’s principle at it’s best.

Or good companies will have detailed process and metrics (nobody can be hired less than score 10!) based on interview results. Or worse, a filled in questionnaire, complete with a macro to spit out the final score. Good, it tells us a lot. But don’t replace the need for intense communications, the need to feel good, so on.

Or let’s say a software development project. There might be 100 metrics to measure every aspect of work  – how much are we doing with money, how many days have gone by, how long are the defects, so on and so forth. How many time we felt safe looking at the numbers when there were dark clouds behind is. Or other way round – false alarms. You need to check the terrain as much as the map.

Tom Peters, the management guru, seems to be a long time advocate of soft values over hard values. Here he takes on a rant against Peter Drucker(yes), Taylor, Robert McNamara, Xerox.  Here he goes on to say:
…and they spent all of their time and energy arguing about “cross-elasticities of demand.” Meanwhile, they were content to make crappy copiers (albeit the first copiers). But they didn’t care about the product or the people or the customers. It was all about the numbers. The numbers, the numbers, the numbers. I was fed up with the numbers.

Search said, It’s not all about the numbers. Profits are cool. They give you room to invest in cool stuff. But somebody has to bleed. Somebody has to show some passion. Search, I like to think, put the blood back into business….”

Numbers are good and beautiful but don’t kill the gut factor; the ingenuity to know what’s behind the wall; passion to develop gut factor – all the softness around. They go long.