Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

Posts Tagged ‘Responsibility’

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 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…

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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.

Posted in Agile, Management, Methodologies | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »