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Archive for the ‘Methodologies’ Category

Poor, transparent tools

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 26, 2009

Poor, transparent bike

Coming back to Tools for Conviviality, I want to share some thoughts on software architectures. Software products and associated frameworks on which we build them are tools. As such, the criteria of choice is usefulness to our goals. They should be servants.

Ivan Illitch advocates that “the simple, poor tool is a humble servant; the elaborate, complex, secret tool is an arrogant master”. How many times have we seen choice of tools which we do not master? Which are “elaborate, complex, secret”, and the more fascinating because they are? Can we mention:

  • Complex, poorly understood architectures, based on new concepts which are barely understood?
  • Huge packaged products, which contains the expertise of generations of analysts and programmers, but which you don’t pretend to master in a lifetime?
  • Sophisticated frameworks, which are supposed to do it all and are the best you can get. But cannot sometimes the best be too much?
  • Assembly of “best of breed” products, which can turn into “poorest of suite”?

Have you seen these? For myself, I have seen them too many times. With Ivan Illitch, I want to advocate a preferred choice of “simple, poor tools”, which can be mastered and are not too much for our hands, and this apply too well to our software architectures. Thanks to Tools for Conviviality, we have guidelines for selecting them when KISS is not enough. Guidelines which show us how to put at the center the human beings who are going to run, use and rely on them.


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Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

I expressed on a recent post that the activities done upstream from software development where amongst the most difficult ones in producing a quality software product. Specifically, I was thinking about the role of the product owner.

A software developer has a very creative job, implementing requested features, within the boundaries of time and the constraints of language, framework, existing software and knowledge. Still, the job is pretty clear, even if difficult at times. Then tests, automated or not are there to help declare a job is done.

The role of the product owner in an Agile project on the other hand, is to will something and communicate his willingness. He is to produce a view of the software which would be the most useful for the company or organization, define a trajectory, negotiate with peers, feed this view iteration after iteration to the development team and interact on a daily basis to adjust. It is a bit like the job of a captain guiding his ship through a difficult passage, but without the ability to be happy about your job even if you reach a “correct” destination.

As a ship captain, a good product owner must listen, and then decide – I repeat as it is very important: listen and then decide. We concentrate here two major risks, on which the whole project might flounder: listening without deciding or deciding without listening. This is willing with being helped. Alas, in many corporations willing is not encouraged amongst managers, as it goes with taking risks, and accepting help is seen as weakness.

Is that an obstacle to truly benefiting from Agile methodologies? Yes, but indeed no project can go right without somebody assuming this charge, whatever the method – as for many things Agile only help making it more apparent.

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Working on the bottleneck – the right one

Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Are you attentive?

Are you paying attention?

From Lean Management and The Goal, you know where to look for when you wish to improve a complex process: you need to search for bottlenecks in the process flow, and first of all the major bottleneck. Find it and then concentrate all your actions on improving it. Then the process will get better (produce more and/or faster), but you will find have another bottleneck, another limiting factor. Just find it and work on it, and so on.

In IT, Agile has been proposed as a solution to the difficulties in the software product development  process. As Agile concentrates on software design and development, it can really help only if difficulties were indeed in design and development. That’s probably partly true as we effectively see improvements when Agile practices are really applied in development projects.

But then from Lean Management, we know we should look for the next bottleneck in the process. Where to look for it? We get an answer by looking at a typical Agile project: somewhere between three and eight weeks after the beginning, the pressure is no more on the development team but on the product owners. And thus we have found our next (and maybe really first and most important – why not?) bottleneck: the team in charge of knowing what to ask.

To me, it is particularly important to effectively address this bottleneck, first because the bottleneck is stronger: knowing what to code is at least as important as knowing how to code it – and generally coding correctly is easier that knowing what to code. Once the development team is ready and eager to produce value, all concentrated on it, it can gell pretty fast and request to be guided, request to know what to produce – pressure has moved.

But there is another, more subtle, reason: softtware development is more related to product design and development than manufacturing (more related to designing a new model of Prius than manufacturing it). It is a profoundly creative activitiy, requiring communication, trust and confidence. If a strong bottleneck is left in the process and it is not addressed, then you risk mining the efforts which have been done elsewhere and loosing everything you’ve earned. More concretely: if your product definition process is visibly the bottleneck and you don’t address it, the demoralizing effect will destroy whatever gains you’ve done by implementing Agile in your development team and you’ll quickly loose the discipline to go on with Agile practices and continuous improvements – maybe creating a secondary bottleneck again.

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The Wave

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 3, 2009


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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Why the Church as a model?

Posted by Yannick Martel on December 9, 2008

The Church in the village

The Church in the village

From my previous post on the Church as an organizational model worth studying (here), I hope that you agree at least a bit that some of the organizational qualities of the Church are desirable as well for modern corporations. Now the question is: why is that so? Let’s look first at the qualities which the army brought to the first “modern” corporate entities.

The army as a model brings a strong command and control organization. It is designed for hierarchical control, with limited space for horizontal sharing (interestingly modern armies in the XXst century have learned some new ways to cooperate – maybe some matter for another post). This was good for a train company in a simpler time, when it was important to manage traffic with some fluidity and adequate security, in a mostly predictable and stable environment.

What about the Church? It was set up as an organization to propagate faith with limited resources, on a global space, with capacity to teach to a wide audience. The Church also needed (and still needs) to adapt the message and learning, to geographical and historical contexts (over space and time, language and culture), while keeping the cohesiveness and truthfulness.

A large part of today’s core of knowledge has been built over time via exchanges and cooperation between bishops (representing their local people), theologists (experts) and innovators. In essence, the Church has functioned as a learning and self-learning organization.

To me, a modern corporation also has a central core business to manage and develop. It must adapt to complex and different contexts, while staying coherent and cohesive. It must also learn about products, clients, technologies and its own purpose, while redefining the way it address it addresses the contradictions and tensions along its path. No wonder the organisational model of the Church can bring something to the business world of the XXIst century!

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A 2000 years old new model!

Posted by Yannick Martel on November 6, 2008


I recently came to read this fascinating article by Poppendieck.LLC, where the roots of the organisation of our modern corporate entities and teams are traced back to a train accident in 1841. The Western Railroad company conducted an investigation on the accident, and concluded it had to find a new model for its business to be able to manage safely its growth and the geographic dispersion – elements which were historically quite absent from the old workshop and small factories.

Two notable organisational models existed at the time: the army and the church. They choose the army. This founded the tradition of hierarchical organisations and the culture of delegating to individuals pieces of the job at hand. One individual is responsible for each piece, and delegates downwards to other individuals in charge of smaller and smaller pieces. When there is a problem, the fault is on the individual (or individuals) in charge of the faulty element – and we only have to blame him and ultimately change him to solve the problem.

Today this hierarchical model and the culture of (blame) delegation which goes with it show their limitations with the complex problems we face, such as cooperating to manage and evolve complex IT infrastructures. In many places we try to infuse a new culture of collective responsibility and to foster self-managed teams – along with other Agile practices.

What would modern corporations look like if they had got inspiration from the church during the post train-wreck reorganisation? This is quite difficult to say now! Interestingly though some of the practices which at OCTO we try to propagate parallel some elements of my personal experience of the Catholic Church of today.

Let’s take collective responsibility. The Agile mouvement holds that the best products are made by self-managed teams practicing collective responsibility. In the same way, the Church teaches that everybody is hurt when one fails: just as the Christ suffers from the sins of every one of us, every one of us suffers from the sins of any of us. Thus everyone of us can mention to a brother his fault. If the brother doesn’t hear me, then I have to grab a few other brothers and come again to talk to him. As in Agile, if I see a problem, then I own it – even if I don’t actually know how to solve it. Christians have been traditionnally very active socially, for instance in charity organisations which often have emerged without the need for central leadership or coordinated and structured action from “management”. The local Church as well works if not always smoothly at least reasonably well thanks to individual initiatives and much goodwill.

Talking about organisation, from an outsider’s perspective, the Church has a complex organisation, but we have indeed two levels of hierarchy: fidels and bishops. The bishops are guiding the fidels in their area – that’s it. Even the Pope is only the bishop of Roma. He has higher authority because he is the successor of Saint Peter, but that’s a very different authority from a boss at GlobalCorp Inc. He is officially referred as the “servant to the servants”, his role being to help and guide the other bishops, who are to help and guide the people of God. To me, it looks very much like the inverted pyramid of the Toyota Way: the managers’ role is to help workers who are everyday on the gemba, the floor of the factory. They are to provide longer-term guidance and help with their experience – to serve, not to request obedience. It is also similar to the role of managers in self-directed Agile development teams: helping, not interfering or directing work.

After all the Catholic Church has stood the test of time, being in existence for nearly 2000 years, going through difficulties, periods of decays, rebirths, schisms, but still existing and bringing a message to humanity. We probably could learn a few things from this collective experience.

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The Vietnam Syndrome

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 5, 2008

This was used in Vietnam to help you get out of hell

She was used in Vietnam to help get you out of hell!

Fighter pilot Ed Rasimus mentions in Palace Cobra that during his second tour in Vietnam in 1966 the US Air Force was a much more efficient organisation than during his first tour in 1972. This was the same war, but as it persisted, methods and practices where developed and implemented to more efficiently and reliably incorporate new arrivals, maintain planes, program missions, route pilots to refueling, direct them to bombing their targets and then get them back. They were able to operate smoothly with larger groups – in one word, they were more industrial. Was it enough to win the war? Not really. Did they achieve their strategic objectives? Not clear. Ed Rasimus even suggests that their very efficiency might be a symptom that the Air Force did not achieve their objectives – they just stayed and did their job, incrementally better, learning and improving, but it did not change the outcome of the war.

Let’s say it again: their very efficiency might have been a sign that they had been doing the same job for too long without any significant result. Of course, it had nothing to do with the guys who were actually in the war. They did better over time and achieved local, tactical success. Ed Rasimus instead condemns the way most of the war was managed, with no real intention of achieving a strong and rapid victory and with very bad understanding of the realities of war by decision-makers.

On reading “Palace Cobra”, I wondered if this could not apply to other situations. If I find a process which is very complex, smooth and well-established, it might mean that it does not really address the root of the problem – else it would have already solved it.

Recently, I found myself interacting with a very large IT organization. There, many years ago, the proliferation of releases, patches and applications lead to a nightmare of side-effects, non compatibilities and nasty disruptions. They decided to set up a mechanism of synchronization, forcing all major releases of applications to go together, with a strong project management organisation for coordinating them and performing qualification in sync. They have been doing it better and better over the years, and now it looks to me like an impressive war machine, very industrial and repeatable. On the other hand, they have made their release process very rigid and increased the time to market of new features and offers.

Is that a case of the “Vietnam Syndrome”? They addressed the problem at hand, which was solving the release nightmare. They kept going on and improving this solution. They kept bombing at the same place – but was it really the right target to bomb? Have they won the war? Maybe not, as they are still doing it. Clearly they have done right in solving their short-term crisis by strongly synchronising releases. Should they have done more than industrialising the approach? I am not sure, maybe address the issue of dependency between applications. Maybe something else. Then they might have won the war, or at least fought it on a strategic scale.

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Adaptable vs Adapted

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 25, 2008

Is it adapted? Would you like to adapt it?

Is it adapted? Would you like to adapt it?

As IT practitioners, we all want to produce solutions adapted to the needs of our clients. And usually we want our solutions to be fully adapted to a bit more than what we understand of the needs of our clients. We want to cover more in case we have missed something. We want to prepare for the future. This is why we make such long analysis, produce documents with complex business rules and go through long and tedious review and validation processes. This is also why we work hard at designing generic, elegant, general solutions. In the interest of the future. And that’s the right way to do, isn’t it?

No, Sir, it is not. As Auguste Detoeuf was saying in the 30’s in “Propos d’O.L. Barenton, confiseur”:

Contrairement à une opinion répandue, on fait quelquefois trop grand. Il faut faire juste, mais en ménageant tout pour agrandir le moment venu.
On se borne l’avenir en faisant trop large, aussi bien qu’en faisant trop étroit.

Or, translated in English:

Contrary to widespread belief, we sometimes build too large. We must build just right, while keeping open to enlarge when the time comes.
You can restrict the future by making too large, as well as too narrow.

In fact, when we we build “too large”, we develop mechanisms and answers for questions which have not been asked. When they arise, our solutions have to evolve because the answers we believe were right are not anymore. When other questions are asked, the complexity we have unnecessarily added is an obstacle to providing new, unanticipated answers. Thus by trying to be over-adapted, we prevent our solutions to be adaptable, which is really what our clients needs – really.

We should instead apply Gall’s law:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

Our job in IT is to build complex systems. We should build a complex system by first building a simple system, satisfying simple needs. Then we can augment and satisfy more sophisticated requirements, while making sure that:

  • the system is still working;
  • the system is still adaptable.

These two points are difficult, and require effort every day, but only then you will be able to help your clients – and keep being able to do so.

This is the paradox: by being adaptable, we can succeed at always being adapted (although it is not guaranteed, and we can still fail). By aiming at being fully adapted today, we are guaranteed to fail at being adaptable, and thus to fail at being adapted tomorrow.

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Agile Adoption Patterns, 1, 2, 3

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 16, 2008

A sleeping volcano in Auvergne (France)

This looks like a plateau, but is in fact a volcano. Beware!

Let me confess it: I am not an expert in Agile. I have yet read only the first three chapters of Agile Adoption Patterns, from Amr Elssamadisy, and I already want to share with you how much it has inspired me. Especially in relationship with a specific project we at OCTO Technology are helping to get Agile. I will go on reading the remaining 43 chapters and may later review them here.

Agile is nowadays quite fashionable, and this very success generates its own problems. Amr mentions that the very first teams adopting Agile “methods” obtained 500% improvements in productivity, but that as Agile is becoming more pervasive and adopted by a wider audience we see more teams getting instead only 50% improvements, or failing to obtain any improvement at all. Indeed I now realize that the project I have in mind has probably reached this 50% plateau. Amr’s intention is to help us overcome this difficulty and implement an Agile adoption strategy to go much beyond.

For this, Amr’s gives me two keys. The first key is learning. Learning is the bottleneck in software development, the limiting factor in your effort to develop efficiently useful and dependable software. Learning might be about the functional domain, your user’s preferences, technologies, software development processes, whatever. Thus many of the Agile practices help people examine frequently what they have done and get an opportunity to learn and improve: short cycles, retrospectives, test-driven specifications, etc.

My “plateau” team is not today using some of the most important learning-oriented practises, such as refactoring and retrospective. The emphasis is more on velocity, not on learning. IMHO, this explains the plateau: once you have adopted some basic practices, you don’t improve anymore if you are not willing to experience frequently the slight unease of realizing you could have done better and turn it into the next incremental enhancement.

The second key is personal responsibility. The best Agile teams are self-directed, self-improving and responsible. Collective responsibility can only be based on the individual responsibiliy of team members. Many Agile practices help people in the team evolve towards more individual responsibility. Just as an individual cannot be ordered to be responsible, a team cannot be declared self-directed, but you can help it.

My “plateau” team is not today self-directed. It is composed of individuals moving in a hierarchical environment, which does not encourage personal responsibility. Agile adoption has not been positioned as a change in culture, only as “just another software development methodology”. I think we have not worked enough to empower the team, maybe because we did not fully appreciate the effects of the cultural gap.

The third chapter is about business values. What are your most important goals? What are your reasons for improving your software development process? Amr suggests some candidates, and invite to look for the right motivation for your team. If we know why, we have better chance to improve, and in the right place.

My best idea right now is to talk to the various members of the team and project sponsors, and try to understand what is the motive for getting the team Agile. Time to market? Yes, we would all like to get a release a few months sooner. Cost? Yes, of course, as everybody. But isn’t there any other reason, more specific to their situation? Then, I hope we will be able to get them motivated and empowered to overcome the plateau.

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