Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Bucket - or the Tin Cup?

Last post, I was speaking to an old friend about 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 my friend and I spoke about the problem of over allocated resources and the resulting decrease in quality and deployment commitments, he immediately turned to a lack of leadership as the core issue. Indeed, usually this is a component or teams and organizations that over allocate themselves. It certainly is not the only issue, but the way he framed the response, and my immediate reaction to it opened my eyes. In the world of leadership/management, we do find the above tools/personalities at play every day. These people are tasked with limited resources in an ever-expanding responsibility spiral. And with the pressure applied, their humanity burst forth in the weakness thereof – namely, jumping into the “patch mode” immediately – with their toolset kicking and screaming right behind them. I did notice two types of responses, and I call those “short game” and the “long game”. And it has to do with how the issues are handled.

I have a few friends that play golf. They tell me there are two parts to the game. The Long Game consists of driving the ball over long distances with some accuracy to get to the green. The short game consists of getting the ball from being in the green to being in the little cup. The log game is essential to reaching the opportunity to achieve your goal. The short game is what completes a scoring cycle. The goal is to get the ball into the cup with as few strokes as possible – and to do this, you need to be strong on both types of games!

One of my golf buddies also brought up an interesting but powerful quote that he heard from someone in the company. It is “the urgent is the enemy of the important”. Within a Scrum framework, this is an important concept to keep in mind. With these two concepts in mind, I have seen that in a healthy organization you need to be good at both, and placing the right emphasis on the wrong syllable can lead to unnecessary pain. In theory, while executives should look at the “long game” management should focus on the “short game” in order to meet organizational goals. In reality, well…

Working within the analogy, the “short game” has to do with handling the immediate and urgent items that must be dealt with in order to continue day-to-day operations. Phrases like “firefighter”, “hero worship”, “superstar”, “mission critical resource” are usually associated with this approach; because people who use this approach are always seeming to rescue the organization from any of a series of impending doom. And upper leadership finds this irresistible! They add the cape, uniform and theme song, and everyone loves to see the guy “work his magic”. This approach is needed, but overused. And it leads to interesting patterns of work – I worked in a large “startup” that built this so much into their culture, by the time they reached maturity, people were known to create “issues” to get their bonuses! Definitely not a wise use of their resources! But it not only looks good – in many cases, it gets the immediate job done. And it sets the “hero” up for promotion, which leads us to a rapid fire promotion loop…

The “long” game is exactly the opposite. This is an approach where the manager looks at the right thing to do, at all costs. This is much less common, but there are models out there that use this. This ensures that the long-term strategy is followed, and that the organization is set up for long-term success. Being very vulnerable, this is usually how I tend to think about things. But just like in golf, to win you need to have an organization that has good skills in both aspects of dealing with issues.

The types of issues organizations face are neither all long term nor all shot term, instead you have to face both. On a continuous basis. Keeping a strategy on succeeding in your market makes you think in terms of the long game, but changes in the market place and possible outages require you to think in terms of the short game. It is wise, then to have a built in mechanism that allows organizations to grow and reward both types of resources. The key is identifying the skill set and knowing when and where to use them. As stated before, the sexiness of urgency can lead a company to”patch upon patch” architecture. The focus on “the right thing at all times” can lead to rigidity that leaves you vulnerable to changing market forces. Indeed, an organization needs both skills to thrive. Within a team, you have to respond to urgency, but maintain code integrity or architectural rigor. You have to know when to address the urgent, and when to focus on the important. This requires time, thought and communication, as there are no easy answers.

When I say “time” I mean time to THINK about the issues, even as far as the type of information you are looking at. Think on things, if it is not an outage, resist the urge to “fix it right away”. Learn and practice listening. Too many times in requirements gathering sessions I hear developers immediately come to an answer – for something that is mis-communicated or misunderstood. When I refer to thought, look at the information you are getting and THINK about what you are seeing. I read an article on survival bias not too long ago, and the concept is fascinating. What is the actual issue, and not just the symptom? Could a deeper fix prevent other problems, and might it be less costly? How can we approach this to improve the user interaction, and not just “patch the code”? And lastly, when I speak about collaboration, I mean get a team together to review the issue. If all of you take time, and put thought into the problem, having a small group of people providing valuable insights can make all the difference. Sometimes, the most “outlier” member of your team, or the quietest, or the “unrelated” one can come up with the best solutions to a problem. But if you only listen to the leader, you automatically miss out on your greatest resources.
I guess if anything, I would like for you to look at yourself and your team, and ask – do I have a blind spot? Am I a short game guy, or a long term guy? Are my lists helping, hurting or just in the way? Once you think about this, look to your team to help you overcome these natural human tendencies. Because after all, a team helps all of its members become stronger – if we allow it to.

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