Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Bucket

Recently, I was speaking to an old friend about a very common problem. The problem was the amount of work technical teams take on, and the negative impact to the overall effort. Our thoughts immediately went to leadership, but the reality is that most problems are complex and may need a separate approach. Just having experienced a painful team experience lesson, my thoughts went straight to how we see problems, and how as humans we try to solve them.

When organizations are faced with problems, we tend to jump right into the solution space. Indeed, when 49% of the population sees a possible issue it tends to rush right into the solution space! Just ask your partner… But I digress; the fact is that when you have limited resources, limited time and cultural pressures, you just cannot see beyond where you are and what the immediate need is. This tends to lead to a “patch the patch” approach, and we find ourselves where many companies are today. The problem with problems starts at the place where we do not spend enough time to determine what the real issue is, why it is happening and how do we look at it to not only fix the symptom, but make the organization stronger. In short, we as a corporate culture rarely ask ourselves – what is THE GOAL of addressing our issue? Sadly, many companies do not stop to ask this for their strategy or products as well!

In addition to this, we as humans have a built in tendency to look at problems from the limits of our experience and education, so we add a layer of built in response to the issues we face. There are some common ways we deal with problems. One of the more common ways is to get the problems on a list – in this way, we can remember the problem we were dealing with and scratch off when we are done. In theory, this allows us to feel that we know what our issues are at any given point and time. I have may extremely intelligent friends that use this method of at least organizing their problems or issues, interestingly they all seem to have the same flaw in implementation. A separate way of organizing or dealing with issues is to manage them personally for a team. Usually, this involves a person looking at the problem and listing, by priority what should be done for a small group of people. Two of the most common approaches I have seen are what I call the “vision and gone” and the “mission and gone” approaches. In short, on the vision the manager will get the team together and inspire them with what the end result is expected to be – and then they are gone. Not available, for help or discussion or clarification. Similarly, the mission and gone uses the manager as a vehicle on the HOW to get things fixed – and again, they are gone. Interestingly enough, these are prevalent in the US regardless of industry, and apparently have their place in our culture. One of the more rare approaches involves what I call “the fixer”. This is a manager who actually steps in and helps people fix the problems. Usually, I see a combination of all of these approaches when I go into an organization to try to help out. And one basic common thing is – the approach is used at the wrong time or with the wrong audience.

For now, I want to tell you about our Manager from Nantucket. He clearly used the problems/issues on a list. And really, it is not a bad approach. In the 90's and early 2000's an entire industry was centered on this very concept! Remember the Franklin Personal Organizers? And the now defunct PDA's? All of these were an attempt for us to see what our issues were clearly to help us make the right calls needed to get through the day. Seems simple enough - but we now know that we have something called "the illusion of control" to deal with now. So a lot of my friends who attended classes and tried to follow a problem ended up just like our manager -with endless lists of critical, urgent, important, strategic and menial tasks that never tended to all end. Even in the classes you were taught to keep your list small and manageable. But the reality is that too many things are coming at us day to day, and the higher in the organization you seem to be, the less time you have to think and process what your goal is, and it goes on and on, and you start to drown.

Sometimes organizing every little thing can allow you to lose the ability to focus, to find a quiet moment in order to set you OWN goals. For you as a person, for your day or your week or your quarter. Without taking the time to focus on you, there is no way any process will help you simplify things. I see it every day, recently with a Scrum Master friend of mine, who just happens to be under a lot of pressure and cannot seem to stop - even to help herself or her team. Even those of us who know sometimes forget the critical nature of taking time to set things on the right path. If you do focus, and you can look at your list, you may be able to reduce it by a little. But some of us just can't seem to bear throwing things away, or getting rid of clutter. There are a myriad of other issues that our own humanity brings to the table that will allow us to keep our now visible lists at an ever expanding cycle. So what are we to do?

Using Agile as an excuse, I tend to think that if we take the TIME to center our thoughts and goals, and follow the principles from the manifesto as closely as possible, things like this may start to clear up. It is definitely not a magic bullet! But if you actually try to get rid of that which you don't need, if you focus on people, and you consistently help others to achieve their goals, sometimes your goals clear up. Your projects are met, even if that critical metric report may go undelivered a few times. After all, "working software" always beats "comprehensive documentation"!

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