Freedom For Ideas

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Archive for the ‘Management’ Category

Towards post-industrial IT

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 20, 2009

Modern railways station

After reading Tools for Conviviality from Ivan Illich, it seems to me that the large IT organizations I know are some of the best examples of industrialization gone wild.

Ivan Illitch introduces a maturity model for the industrialization of a product or process. Before the first threshold, the costs of industrializing exceeds the benefits. It is like transportation with the very first steam machines: noisy, filthy, not much good for anything. Then maturity arrived, and usefulness exceeded the costs – when steam power was mature enough to be applicable to helping in the real life. In this way, many products and services were industrialized successfully and transformed the world: medecine, transportation, education, food…

But then the cost of industrialization in terms of energy, human life, environment, excessive complexity, indirect costs can become too high and exceed the benefits, at least considering the overall society – some people or groups can still benefit by concentrating wealth and power. Ivan Illitch defends the case that many services in in developed countries have exceeded this second threshold, the threshold of decreasing marginal usefullness.

In large IT organizations, industrialization has been used as a set of methods for tackling complexity and volume. Up to a certain point, we have seen some success. New, more complex, more ambitious software applications are being developed, improved, and are to a certain extent serving the business. But as a method for improving the efficiency of the business, the industrialization of large IT systems seems to me to have exceeded the second threshold. Every new aspect which is submitted to industrialization and centralization, turned over to experts, adds a cost which is out of proportion with the benefits the company gets from the move. This added cost takes many forms: human life essence, efficiency, resources, indirect cost on users or customers…

What should we do? Turn to industrialization with the same tool which has helped in the beginning: rationality. We have used rationality to industrialize, but are not applying rationality anymore if we consider the tools of industrialization as mandatory, as an ends in themselves. We should realize that it is not rational anymore to go on applying these tools without any discrimination, that we should better add some new tools, the tools of conviviality to be able to develop a post-industrial IT.

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You don’t need a damned e-shop, your customers deserve more!

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 24, 2009

Going shopping?

I admit it, I am a telco guy, having worked in that sector for longer than I care to count. It is thus a pleasure for me to see telecom operators transform and adapt, when they do it for good. I appreciate seeing new ideas take form and shape for the benefit of all, vendors and customers. But it seems to me most telcos are struggling with their Internet strategies. They have a hard time setting up nice enough Internet site, keeping them up and running and attracting customers to them.

Probably that’s the reason why I want to share here what I would like to tell them, especially after reading Jeff Jarvis.

1- Stop calling the Internet site where you promote your products and sell them an e-shop or an Internet boutique.

Once you know a thing’s name, your control it. That’s the nice side of the coin. The other side is: you name it wrong, you get it wrong. Naming your selling site a boutique means it will be only this, a copy of a physical shop, where you only expect to sell at a reduced cost – to you. Thus at best it will provide a slightly worse experience than a physical shop. Don’t ask why your customers are still going there.

Instead, you should find what else it could be, and try to do it. But that should be something better, unique, which can be done only via the power of Internet – and we know that we can do many new things thanks to Internet. If you don’t, just take a tour before building your web site.

2- Stop positionning it as a competition to your physical shops

A bit of a competition is good, too much can be dangerous, especially inside a firm. Build your business relationships, most of all with your colleagues, on trust and cooperation, not competition – don’t worry, competition will come by the side, even if not encouraged. This means you should develop the Internet media as a new, original one, which has its own niche, and is complementary to shops. If your Internet presence compete with your physical shops, it means that you are not promoting at their best the advantage of each channel. And don’t forget: while your are busy managing the devastating effects of internal competition, others might be taking care of your (old) customers.

3- Create a community and hand it control

The Web 2.0 is all about communities. We are lucky in that mobile phone and even Internet access are already community-oriented. Mobile phones are trendy gadgets, and for many accessing the Internet via an operator is being part of his community. Not for everybody, but you only need a small critical mass to start with it.

So the advice is, straight from What Would Google Do?: make your on-line presence a platform on which communities can live and flourish. As a side-effect, these communities can help you sell your products, or better use them. If you take care to listen and cooperate with them, they can help you improve your products, get better support, package them the right way or price them the right way. First, you accept to be influenced, and then you give them some control. Then they can help you and work for you – by working for themselves.

4- Don’t do it all yourself

If this program sounds pretty difficult, you are on the right way. But don’t do it all yourself! You can build the minimum infrastructure, hand them the tools, and then get ideas and help from the masses. Your devoted users can help you design your next best-selling products. They can also build many aeras of your next successful community platforms (aka web sites). Allow and encourage plug-ins and links.

5- Provide them access to your best deep resources

That’s the best of true SOA and SSOA. If you really want to get help and you are serious about it, you should do your best to those people devoted to help you. You should give them access to your most valuable resources, to the depths of your IT, network and service infrastructure. And the best part of it: be happy if they are using it better than your own guys.

And now, where do we start?

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Discipline and teams, part 3

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 24, 2009

A social activity

I know I should be doing some sport. I like running and live close to the forest. I know it would be better for my body and my health and I do not have any reason not go running every Saturday morning. Or do I? I just cannot discipline myself to go. Comes my son, Simon. He wants to perform better at the running competition organized by the schools of the sector. He then suggests that we should go together to run a bit every Saturday morning, that it would be better for my health. And I say “Yes!”, with good chances to stick to it. I have even stopped using the elevator for getting up the six floors to my flat.

Alone, I lack the discipline. The two of us are stronger. Interestingly, Scott Peck does not develop much this topic, but only mentions group therapy exercises without developing much. My point is that the two of us are a team: a group of persons oriented towards the same goal and willing to cooperate towards it. Simon wants to perform at the competition and his dad to be healthy, I want the same, we have found a way to work together to the two objectives. And I think we will stick to it more easily because we will support one another. This can be the same with a husband and wife couple, and this is the same with a team at work, a true team.

Indeed a group of people can be much worse or much better than a single individual. When not performing, it can be lazy, prone to self-indulgence and sustain poor results – bad attitude can be reinforced. On the opposite, a well-oriented team can offer very strong support to its members – each one is helped by the others and by the conscience of the team.

This is the reason why I have a lot of hopes in the power of team to help in making deep changes in firms, such as infusing a new culture of customer orientation or continuous improvement. Peter Scholtes in The Leader’s Handbook mentions that change is a social activity – we can make better changes in groups if we treat it first as social change, as change in relationships. And we can make better changes if we get help from true teams!

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Discipline and teams, Part 2

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 15, 2009

Beach at sunset

Let us go on today with discipline, following my first post.

Discipline is not a very popular value today, in a cultural environment which is prone to anxiety, leading to withdrawal and the erection of barriers and walls. What is the worth of discipline when hope is missing? “Lack of hope may give place to despair or cynicism“, and hope is surely missing a lot today.

We must be strong, perform, be autonomous and so on, but we look for magic bullets, easy ways of becoming what we wish to be. And lots of people are ready to sell them! We want quick results, not years of slow progress! We cannot understand that some results can be obtained only by a long, disciplined and oriented effort.

This is still worse when we wish to discipline others: “il est interdit d’interdire” (“it is forbidden to forbid”), from the students movement in May 1968. I nevertheless realize that if we believe we can help other people grow, either our children, colleagues, team members or customers (our boss?), then hope and discipline are required – from us and from them. How then can we foster discipline?

Indeed, true discipline cannot be enforced. Going back to The road less traveled, we understand that discipline is nothing less than a grace, which can be accepted or refused.

Scott Peck finds that some patient can improve spectacularly when another, with a much less serious case, does not. Professionally, some people have this inner strength and willingness to improve. They will learn new things, experiment, trying to get better and better. They will also lead when required and follow when it is better. Some other people will just do what is required to avoid problems, and be happy with it, without trying to help when possible, without seizing opportunities.

Why is that so? For sure, personal histories, environments, corporate culture have a role to play. But they fail to explain it all. A huge part of it is indeed a mystery.

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Discipline and teams – Part 1

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 10, 2009

Britanny, early in summer

I have recently read the french translation of The road less traveled from Scott Peck. I particularly appreciated his arguments on discipline as the base for any progress, including spiritual growth. I would like here to share some of what I noted in the book, and then some thinking on teams which it lead me to. As it will be a bit longish, I am going to split the post in two or three. So bear with me, we are for today talking about discipline.

Scott Peck presents discipline as necessary for any progress or growth. Discipline is necessary for succeeding in any difficult learning situation, any spiritual evolution or any improvement process. The opposite of discipline is laziness, which leads to stagnation, and allows entropy to take over – and thus regression and return to mediocrity. Discipline here is meant as self-discipline, I believe, the one which is coming from inside, not enforced from the outside.

I see everywhere real life proof of the pertinence of this model. Let us imagine that I have just received an e-mail which makes me angry. I know, intellectually, that I should not answer it immediately, but wait a bit to cool down before doing so, or not answering at all. I can succeed first because I know it, second because I have the discipline to wait for a moment that I know is right – thus deferring my reaction. On the longer term, I can learn about situations in which I can answer immediately and other situations in which I would better defer my reactions – thus being a bit wiser and less subject to my emotions.

Or another example: it is clear to me that producing working software applications is a difficult activity, requiring creativity and inner strength to put it to work, day after day. We find people who are strong enough to put their hearts in working for the progress of the group or company they are in, putting things in perspective and making sure everyday that they do whatever they find the best for this progress. We find other people who are just doing whatever is fun and pleasant at the moment, doing barely enough to avoid trouble, ignoring what they indeed know they should be doing. They just don’t have the discipline to inquire really on what is best to be done today and stick to it. They wait for external guidance and act minimally on it.

A last, more complex example, from some typical mission of OCTO Technology: we can explain to a software developer good practices and convince him. But the practices will actually stick and bring progress only with discipline. One such good practice consists in first creating a new automated test each time a bug is found in an application, and then only to try correcting the defect. Then you make sure that the next time somebody makes a change to the application which provoke to the same bug it will be detected very soon, during unit testing and not in production. We produce arguments, explain rationally how defects found early and much less costly than found later, how it is a good practice to stop and set this test first because you will not do it later. Still a lot of people will not have the discipline to stick to the practice and will just correct again and again the same defects – or transfer them to unfortunate colleagues…

Posted in Books, Management, Motivation | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The failure of Agile?

Posted by Yannick Martel on August 17, 2009

Is this yet another blog post about the failure of agile? No, not really. More about the failure of Agile adoption, that is failing to notably improving the development process and its effectiveness in delivering features.

A major roadblock with Agile adoption is that Agile is more than a new project management methodology. It is a new approach to product development and application management, based on a number of principles and values, many of which related to management, not just project management. Thus an effective adoption requires new management methods, and its adoption can be gravely impaired by attitudes from decision-makers outside of the project if too far from Agile values.

This means that for an effective adoption (you want results, don’t you?) managers need to also change their attitudes and expectations. They need to change how they interact with their teams and what they expect from them, both explicitely and implicitely.

What if they don’t? Agile will just pass as another fad, but might be an occasion for your competition to benefit from huge productivity improvements and gain an edge. And as Edwards Deming mentionned: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

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The failure of tyrannies: information

Posted by Yannick Martel on April 23, 2009

Where do tyrannies fail? I mean, modern tyrannies, which are based on concentration of power and fear. In action, from information.

A tyranny can very well last and preserve itself, as Franco did in Spain. It establishes, and then maintain a traditional order. Then it only maintains what is already established.

On the opposite, in action a tyrant lacks information. To be informed in a complex system (a country, a large corporation) requires the use of eyes, ears and brains beyond those of a single man. This information is vital in action, because it is changing and required to be able to adapt to the flow of life. But the tyrant is isolated from the real world by the fear it provokes on those who could bring him information.

It is said that Hitler was not awakened on the morning of the D-Day, for fear of his wrath. The real state of his army has been hidden to many tyrants, leading to a sure defeat.

Fear on one hand allows action to be more powerful, because it allows the will of a single man to be widely deployed, on the other hand makes it blind.

Why does it matter to our corporations? Are there not some forms of (attenuated) tyrannies?

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Rowing, steering or shouting?

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 11, 2009

On the shore, ready and willing to go!

On the shore, ready and willing to go!

Recently we had a discussion with an interesting man at a major company. This man wanted a team set up to develop tools for new services. He wanted to go with Agile, and we suggested some critical resources for a team (coach, teach lead…) alongside with some developers. This man was worried he would get too many steersmen, and not enough rowers. We finally convinced him that our people would also provide muscle for his ideas, and we then set up his team.

Then, later, I gave some thought to his worries: yes, you need muscle, rowers, for his dreams to come true, and for sure you need a steersman with strong hands. On the other hand, we frequently see many people around IT projects, which he might have called steersmen, but indeed the boats are not controlled so well, and these persons are not steering. So what are they doing? They are only sitting on the shore, shouting advices…

It is much more comfortable on the shore: the ground is stable, it’s less humid, you don’t risk falling into the river. But the race is won by people in the boat. Of course it’s some help to be supported from the shore. But if your best people are not on the boat, rowing or steering, you’ve got a problem.

It was always the case in the navies of the age of sail: captains and admirals had to go with their teams, in their ships. The majority of victims were not from actual combat, but from just sailing on the sea: from weather, the waves, scurvy… Captains and admirals had to suffer them as well. They had to go, because the means of communication and the distance required them to be close physically to be able to command. Of course, they needed good people in the offices, at the Admiralty, but they also needed strong captains in the ships.

Now, that is the same with our projects: we need strong people rowing and steering, because whatever you do the distance is too large with the people who are just shouting from the shore – not physically, but mentally.

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The Wave

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 3, 2009

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After going straight in a direction with my previous post, I came across The Wave. I was fascinated by the experience it described, got a copy from the local library and finished reading it in parallel with a busy weekend. The Wave is a novel based on an experiment performed by an history teacher, when he wanted to teach about the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and the atrocities which came from the movement.

At first, the teacher used his authority and charisma to channel students into the experiment, discipline them into a more efficient group. Then discipline, peer pressure and the positive feeling of being part of a group took over as driving forces, making the group still stronger and more disciplined, more together. The teacher himself was then no more leading the movement – he was being lead and driven by it. Independent thinking was then felt as a threat to the movement – and thus to be condemned. Any objection was to be rejected.

I take many lessons from this story (as far as the book is true to the original experiment). One of them is that fascist monstrosities can be awakened any time, any place if we forget about the past. Another one is the power of the group as providing:

  • a sense of community, of being well together;
  • efficiency for some activities;
  • a relatively egalitarian environment, or at least leveling the traditional hierarchies of performance or popularity.

These are relatively positive characteristics, which makes group-imposed tyrannies the more dangerous. A group can be a wonderful environment, but it can also turn to be de-humanizing: a human being lost in a certain group with certain values can become a machine, losing critical mind and independence.

I appreciate that in all human systems, discipline and authority must be balanced by some regulation mechanism, especially when they are self-imposed by the group where they can be stronger and more cruel than when imposed from the outside. In the case of the experiment, the regulatory mechanism was the outside world, parents, other teachers, the principal, the history teacher’s wife, and himself. This mechanism played its role before it was too late.

How is that relevant to this blog? One reason amongst many: I have still more reasons to appreciate the value of thinking outside of the boundaries of the system, any system, thinking on it, thinking about it, understanding its mechanisms and meaning, while not being bounded by it. An illustration of the pattern is the retrospective practice used in Agile methodologies to look back, improve and make the team a better team. Here – hopefully – members of the group can reflect on it, criticize it and work together on improving it. Thus we avoid declaring as absolute what is only relative.

But, in itself, this experiment does not provide a proof against my thesis that discipline and authority can be good. It certainly provides a nice boundary to this declaration.

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An anarchist with an acquired taste for discipline

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 1, 2009

Discipline, discipline?
I hate to disclose it: at the core I am an anarchist, with an acquired taste for discipline and authority… At some point, I tended to avoid authority and discipline, not seeing its necessity. Indeed, I am mostly self-disciplined, and not wishing to get discipline from the outside, I was avoiding pressing it on others.

As personal as I feel about it, it is indeed a cultural trait of our time: paternal values of authority and discipline have been out of fashion for the last 40 years. The result is families where parents don’t so easily find their place. In the corporate world, managers want responsibilities, but don’t dare to use authority or to ask for discipline in their teams. This can result in indecision, hypocrisy, manipulation, or at the reverse to tyranny.

With my children getting older, and myself trying to be a better father for them, I have felt the necessity for pressing for discipline. Self-discipline is essential, but not sufficient and not always present. In periods of change or growth, parents have to use authority to establish discipline, and create the conditions for development of self-discipline.

In the corporate world, managers have to orient, channel and create the conditions for the right level of discipline – hopefully coaching their teams to self-discipline. Discipline goes along with consistency of effort, and both are required for getting results. That’s work, a lot of work. Hopefully, managers are getting better when they practice it, if they accept the challenge at every instant to balance between anarchy and tyranny.

As for myself, I am reading the Leader’s Handbook and hope to get better at getting results with my team. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll read that this post is irrelevant as based on the “old” “train-wreck” style of management – I am ready to be surprised!

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