Over the past number of months I’ve led a number of workshops on Agile Software Development. For me it’s really not about Agile as that topic is over done. In other words, there are plenty of really good courses that will teach you the basics of Agile. For me it’s about creating an experience in which people start to see possibilities for themselves and their teams.
It’s during these workshops I’ve really noticed a trend. I have learned I can confidently talk about the games played in organizations with regards to projects. Call it what you will; politics, messaging, stretch goals, etc. It doesn’t matter what label you want to put on this situation as the end result is the same. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck … it’s a duck!
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about; companies talk about projects with fixed budgets, scope and timelines. First of all this situation violates one of the most basic laws of the universe, in that you can not fix all three of these things. However we’ll give them their fantasy that it’s possible … they continue to insist this is how they do projects. They go on to talk about how they also have a high degree of success on their projects. Hmmm …
I’ve had the opportunity to peak under the covers in many companies to see just how successful their projects really are. At the most extreme one company told me how they have more than a 90% success rate on multi million dollar projects. I was intrigued as it sounds like they may have some magical formula I’m not aware of.
I asked this highly successful company to show me examples of successful projects as I wanted to learn how they did it. What I found is they have a six stage gated process in which they had the opportunity to re-estimate and re-baseline their plans at each step. So a project that started with a $500k budget at gate one grew with each gate until their final estimate of $6mm was baselined at gate 6. Gate 6 is defined as when software testing is completed. Does anyone else see the irony in re-baselining at this point? When the work is nearly completed? Of course you will have such a high success rate!
Almost every week I talk to someone who tells me how their company has drop dead dates, fixed budgets and scope they simply cannot miss out on. There’s talk about how projects are mission critical and someone’s neck will be in a noose if it’s delivered late. There’s this really cool game of schedule-chicken I’ve watch departments play as they count on the other team to fail before them. Here’s my view on these things … bullshit!
I hear this kind of talk all the time and yet what really happens? Not much! It’s a little like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic … nice aesthetics but doomed to the same outcome. Are you feet getting wet yet?
In the interest of transparency; I lived and worked in this environment for around 15 years. I’ve heard and given the motivational speeches, created the plans defying the laws of the universe, and told a good story to show how my project was still on track despite increased budgets, decreased scope, etc. I created change request after change request just to ensure my project appeared to be successful. I measured myself on the lack of surprises for my sponsors, which meant I placed paperwork ahead of the outcomes my projects created as long as I didn’t surprise them in the end.
Yes: I see this for what it is … I was actually measuring myself on my ability to CYA (cover your ass) … or mine in this case.
The human impact
I believe all people come to work with the intention of doing a good job. No one wakes up in the morning thinking “I’m going to screw something up at work today”. If this assumption is not true then you have a different problem on your hands which I’m not addressing here.
Organizational success is often defined by meeting goals & targets, while individual success is often measured in terms of promotions, raises or even a job well done. Regardless of how you define it, odds are your success definition is aligned with that of the company you work for. This is where good people eventually learn “good enough” is accepted and even expected.
Consider the Broken Window Theory. The Broken Window Theory essentially says if people look around and see broken windows and graffiti, they’re more to break windows and spray graffiti. Researchers have found in cleaning up a city, when people look around and see something nice they’re more likely to help keep it that way. This why you don’t see cities with a little garbage blowing around. When it’s not cleaned up and people see this it’s seen as acceptable to just drop your garbage where ever it pleases you.
So if your company accepts poor project results as “the way it is”, then people start to believe this is normal and the only thing possible. When they see so-so customer service as normal, they’re less likely to give exception customer service. When they see it’s acceptable to just coast through your working day, then they’re more likely to go on autopilot and not think for themselves.
Leading for ChangeTM
Everyone I talk to wants something better for them self and the company they work for. The message I hear over and over again is how these good people know there must be a better way. Yet they seem resigned to the best they can hope for is good enough.
When I talk to the leaders of organizations I hear a similar story. The best we can hope for is …
To create impactful changes in your organization you need to start by cleaning up the neighbourhood. Fix the broken windows, clean up the graffiti and stop accepting these so-so results as the only thing that could possibly happen. I know you will still break windows on the way, but that doesn’t mean we should be accepting them as acceptable.
Regardless of your job title, start by demonstrating the right behaviour yourself. Rather than playing political games about bad results, be transparent and work on improvements. Rather than focusing hoarding information to gain power, share the information to improve overall outcomes. Build a relationship with those you lead, and your customer as this is where real value comes from. Remove the word “they” from your vocabulary. Stop accepting the way it’s always been because the truth is …