Category Archives: Agility

Performance Management Programs and Annual Appraisals

Originally posted August 12, 2013. Updated October 20, 2015 with newer data.

Corporations adopting Agile practices on their way towards being Agile often struggle with many legacy operational policies and procedures. One question that always comes up is how to conduct performance management appraisals with employees when Agile Teams are supposed to be Self-Directed, Self-Managed and mostly autonomous? Adobe[1] and Motorola[2] have given us two good examples of successful transformations. Most companies not wanting to jump that far just yet don’t know where to go. This article will cover one of many paths we are exploring/piloting with some of our clients.

The typical scenario we find in organizations is a line manager who is responsible for the management of a team or group of teams, who is also responsible for the career development plans and performance appraisals of the people within those teams or groups. This has always proven to be a fool’s errand for managers. As New York Times[3] columnist Phyllis Korkki notes:

Many businesses feel that they must use formal reviews and rankings to create an objective measurement of performance and goals, so that managers can reward and promote good employees, and give poorly performing ones a chance to improve (while creating a paper trail in case they must be dismissed).

Making matters worse, in the mid–90s, a popular system for front-line employees emerged from GE’s Jack Welch which
stated that employees should be lined up along a three-piece bell curve: the top 20% would get rewarded, the middle 70% would be told how to improve, and the bottom 10% would be discarded. This is called forced or stack ranking; according to an in-depth Vanity Fair report[4], it’s the system that “crippled” Microsofts ability to innovate.

The system at Microsoft, pitted employees against one another in an attempt to reward the best and weed out the rest. However, the system back-fired. Former employees have been quoted[5] as feeing helpless and rewarded to “backstab their co-workers.” Bill Hill, a former manager, is quoted in Fast Company Magazine as saying, ”I wanted to build a team of people who would work together and whose only focus would be on making great software. But you can’t do that at Microsoft.”[6]

It is also the system still used by many of our clients and the reason why we find their cultures lacking innovation, trust, and employee engagement. We are finding the very behavior illustrated in the 2006 MIT study[7] that stated, “… the rigid distribution of the bell curve forces managers to label a high performer as a mediocre. A high performer, unmotivated by such artificial demotion, behaves like a mediocre.”

Motorola had a similar stack-ranking system which they dropped in 2013. Then CEO Greg Brown, noted in Crain’s Business Journal[8] that, “People had an unbelievable focus on their rating. So we decided to forget the rating and just link performance to pay more directly. You no longer have a forced bell curve, which can be demoralizing and can create a culture of infighting.”

Fortunately for Microsoft, stack-ranking was dismantled in late 2013/early 2014. Not so for Yahoo, which decided in the same time period to adopt stack-ranking. Yahoo later backed-off of stack ranking but it appears it has had a lasting effect. One of many bad decisions that have had a lasting effect. Motorola also made a number of mistakes too. They linked performance to pay, which the Federal Reserve study quoted in Dan Pink’s book, Drive, showed is largely a disincentive for most knowledge workers.

Which company is doing well? Microsoft is turning around. Yahoo is on life-support as of this writing. Motorola has had to sell-off most of its business units at fire-sale rates leaving only a former shell of itself to struggle to compete in the commercial and defense communications markets.

At face value, it was never the annual performance review that was the problem. It was that the line manager that didn’t do a great job of ensuring the context, contents and resulting rewards matched reality. Very few line managers have the line-of-sight to knowledge workers daily lives. Complicating the matter is the very definition of a knowledge worker: someone that knows more about a domain then their manager. Now ask that very same line manager to stack-rank their reports. The results have largely been disastrous. Using a system meant for judging the performance of factory work in the early 1900s, we attempted to adapt it to services organizations and knowledge work when we should have just replaced it entirely.

Some companies attempted to do just that in the 1990s recognizing the new era of knowledge work. In the 1990s it emerged as a method for reviewing and improving the performance of managers. It has been extended and used with employees at all levels.

My favorite commentary on the 360 Review comes from In their article[9] on the “Strengths of 360-Degree Feedback Schemes” they state:

The 360-degree feedback process involves collecting information about performance from multiple sources or multiple raters. For example, a review of a manager’s performance might involve collecting data, opinions, and observations from his or her employees, immediate supervisor, colleagues, and even customers. A review of an employee without supervisory responsibilities might entail eliciting the perceptions of his or her supervisor, customers, and colleagues. Typically those perceptions are collected using a rating system, so in a sense 360-degree feedback is a subset of the ratings method, with all the advantages and drawbacks of any rating system.

The theory makes sense. If you want to improve performance, you can learn more by taking into account the perspectives of a number of “involved parties,” rather than only the perspective of the employee’s immediate supervisor. The implementation, however, is problematic.

Clouding the issue considerably is that the sale of 360- degree feedback instruments, particularly computer-based tools to make the process easier, has become a huge and very lucrative business. Because of the amount of money involved in the industry, there’s a huge level of hyperbole and a lot of exaggerated success stories out there. The 360 method has become one of the more common “management fads.” That’s not to say it can’t be useful, but often the problems associated with it are ignored in favor of an unbalanced focus on its strengths.

So what is the company to do when transforming themselves?

The goal should be to get to a system more like what Adobe Systems did in late 2012. They replaced their system with “check ins”. Some companies choose to jump straight to that once they have the basic organizational structures to support agility in place. (e.g. Scrum or Kanban with a Scaled Framework around it like SAFe) Others chose what I’ll outline here.

One option we are seeing happen a lot is the 4-part Performance Review. The review is broken down as follows:

  • Part One: 1/3 of the score is a 360-Review from the team.
  • Part Two: 1/3 of the score is a more traditional regarding career development goals
  • Part Three: 1/6 of the score is the Team’s Performance to all of the delivery metrics (build the thing right and the right cadence)
  • Part Four: 1/6 of the score is the Team’s Performance to all of the Pirate metrics (build the right thing)

The critical piece to make this work is to make sure all of the instrumentation is in place to make quantitative judgements.

Deeper Dive into the Performance Appraisal

To ensure that the performance appraisal is fair and an accurate representation of individual performance to plan, lets first discuss what a Performance Appraisal is and isn’t.

Again, from, there is a difference between Performance Appraisal and Performance Management. Performance Management. The Performance Appraisal is part of an overall Performance Management program. Where Performance Management is about the entire system of managing the performance of the organization, the performance appraisal is the natural end-point for assessing how an individual did during the performance period. It started with the development of a strategic plan that became and operational plan that became a tactical plan which became an individual development plan (sometimes called a Personal Development Plan or Professional Development Plan).

The performance management program is “an ongoing communication process, undertaken in partnership, between an employee and his or her immediate supervisor that involves establishing clear expectations and understanding”[10] Topics of collaboration should include:

  • the essential responsibilities of the employee
  • how the employee’s job contributes to the goals of the organization
  • what “doing the job well” means in concrete qualitative and quantitative terms such as specific markers for skills mastery using a framework such as the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition and Bloom’s Taxonomy to inform goals in Hard Skills (Content or Technical Skills) and Core Skills (Soft Skills).
  • how employee and supervisor will work together to sustain, improve, or build on existing employee performance including professional continuing education goals
  • how job performance will be measured (What does below expectations, meets expectations and exceeds expectations really mean?)
  • identifying impediments to performance and removing them

From every work written about Performance Management, it requires regular, two-way dialogue between the performance management (line-manager) and the employee. The emphasis should be on learning and improving.

Note that Performance Management isn’t:

  • something that happens to an employee without their input
  • a means to dictate how a person is to work
  • used only for performance remediation
  • checking the box once a year

If I get some time, I’ll walk through one transition plan to the type of Performance Management program Adobe is using.

HINT: They call them “Check-ins” and it happens almost every week. It kinda sounds like a Retrospective. The 360-degree appraisals should happen once a quarter and be like a private retrospective. If using SAFe, consider using the Program Increment (PI) Inspect and Adapt (I&A) as the point for the 360-degree review and resetting goals.

  1. D. Baer, “Why Adobe Abolished The Annual Performance Review And You Should, Too,” Business Insider, 10-Apr–2014.  ↩
  2. J. Pletz, “The end of ‘valued performers’ at Motorola,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 02-Nov–2013.  ↩
  3. P. Korkki, “Invasion of the Annual Reviews,” The New York Times, Job Market, 23-Nov–2013.  ↩
  4. K. Eichenwald, “How Microsoft Lost Its Mojo: Steve Ballmer and Corporate America’s Most Spectacular Decline,” Vanity Fair, Aug–2012.  ↩
  5. J. Brustein, “Microsoft Kills Its Hated Stack Rankings. Does Anyone Do Employee Reviews Right? – Businessweek,” Bloomberg-Businessweek, 13-Nov–2013.  ↩
  6. D. Baer, “Performance Reviews Don’t Have To Be Absolutely Awful,” FastCompany, 02-Dec–2013.  ↩
  7. C. Vaishnav, A. Khakifirooz, and M. Devos, “Punishing by Rewards: When the Performance Bell-curve Stops Working For You,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, Masters Thesis, 2006.  ↩
  8. J. Pletz, “The end of ‘valued performers’ at Motorola,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 02-Nov–2013.  ↩
  9. Bacal & Associates, “Strengths Of 360-Degree Feedback Schemes,” The Performance Management & Appraisal Resource Center.  ↩
  10. Bacal & Associates, “What Performance Management ‘Is’ And ‘Isn’t,’” The Performance Management & Appraisal Resource Center.  ↩

Scaling Agile Doesn’t Necessarily Lead to Business Agility

What we now call “the Agile Movement” seems to have gone mainstream around two years ago. When it did, late adopters showed up and started trying to do what they always do… re-define a concept in their own image. Well, if that image is big, fat, ugly and slow, I would rather they just “opt-out” and go extinct (aka allow market forces to let their companies die, thus freeing-up resources and people for higher purposes.) The irony is that the organizations that came late to the agile game tried to “adopt and scale agile.” In most cases they have not seen the gains they expected.

My hypothesis is that most are simply missing the point. Here is a review of the background context.

  1. Agile is an adjective, not a noun. Defining “Agile” as a set of processes won’t make an organization more agile in the market.
  2. Being able to give the market the product feature it wants when it wants it and for the price it is willing to pay while at least covering costs plus a profit that offsets inflation is THE only thing that matters. Any other focus and the organization will become extinct…and they are, at an ever growing pace!
  3. You can create reinforcing “double loop learning” structures that may create a culture that enables the right team dynamic in multiple teams; however, because corporations are complex adaptive human systems, you cannot scale a team dynamic.
  4. Being agile doesn’t mean automatically lowered costs of new product development or product operations and maintenance. Nor does being agile mean delivering the entirety of a product’s features to market faster than more traditional methods. It just means delivering the product features the market wants close to when the market wants them.

Based on these basic market precepts, I say the following not simply to be critical but to engage in much-needed critical response for the purpose of opening up rational conversation.

You don’t scale agility. You create a business-market fit with adaption capability.

Yes, you can adopt a framework that allows the organization to scale agility-enabling practices. The first attempt at large scale agility that I was aware of was the Scrum of Scrums pattern. The second was Scott Ambler’s Agile@Scale model while at IBM (later renamed Disciplined Agile Delivery due to branding/trademark issues). The one that has garnered the most attention as of late is the crowd-sourced, Dean Leffingwell-owned, Scaled Agile Framework for the Enterprise (SAFe). All three of these are good frameworks, each with their appropriate context and limitations. None of them enable business agility by themselves.

Consider this example:

The SAFe framework talks about quarterly release planning. It talks about release trains of Potentially Shippable Increments(PSIs) of product features in the form of releases.

This is good… sorta.

You see… the way that most organizations have adopted SAFe, the PSI/Releases end up codified into release cycles. The SAFe materials talk about an 8 to 10 week time box. Most folks I’ve talked to have turned the quarterly release planning cycle into a quarterly release cycle. For those organizations, generally this has been a huge improvement. It doesn’t mean that the organization is adapting to the needs of the market quickly enough to remain a viable concern.

The 8 to 10 week release cycle and quarterly release cycle are remnants of the dysfunction of big delivery thinking. I keep seeing releases larger than one or two features, or enough just enough features to be able to deliver an experiment of the business model to the market. This implies the organization hasn’t figured out how to get their releases small enough to build-measure-learn what the market actually will pay for. This also likely means companies are delivering product features that won’t increase revenues, acquisitions, activations, customer retention or referral business. In other words, the market is still evolving faster than the organization and thus at some point in time in the future, the organization’s product will no longer be viable. For some companies this is just for one or a few products. For others, it means the entire business model is no longer relevant.

Speaking of business models, I also don’t see where companies adopting scaled agile frameworks are also learning to evolve the business model with each release cycle. There is this assumption that the business model is correct for the entirety of the product development release cycle, when in reality, there are very few ways beyond business model experimentation using the build-measure-learn cycle to even test that the business model is correct. So businesses get really good at delivering a product that the market may or may not want using a business model that may or may not completely work. Again… the business is ultimately doomed because it cannot adapt to the market fast enough.

In order for a business remain viable it must:

  • Manage its cash flow, maintaining generally a positive cash flow (I know… duh! It’s surprising how many people forget this, though.)
  • Release a functional product that contains only the product features that Kano analysis would call “must-have” and “exciters”, leaving off as many neutral/indifferent features as possible.
  • Release product features at a rate that the market demands as user-expectations shift as a reaction to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
  • Understand and attempt to out-deliver new product features at a rate faster than your competitors can react to each product feature release. Sometimes this is a feature-per-day. Sometimes this a unique feature-set per quarter. Either way, it means the company must be able to…
  • Understand the market demand cycle and adapt just before or at the point of inflection in the adaptation cycle.

Again, merely scaling “agile” (noun) won’t make a company agile (adjective). For most organizations, especially those late-adopters and laggards, it means fundamentally transforming to continuous, adaption of the business model for market-fit.

Special thanks to Elinor Slomba of Arts Interstices for the kick-in-the-pants to get this out and for being the other set of eyes.
The Space In Between

Who Owns the Space In Between?



Stuart Scott  “Making space for powerful conversations” 

After 20+ years in the software business, Stuart tends to look at software development in terms of human interactions.  After all, most of the effort that goes into creating, selling, and using software consists of people working with people to serve people.  And most of the challenges we face with software have to do with working together, making mistakes together, and learning together.  He keeps finding new ways to help people learn together how to work together in ways that amplify their effectiveness – and their enjoyment of the work!  He is looking for people who are persisting in deliberate practice of new positive change behaviors to keep projects “Fun Until Done” and restart the joy of new beginnings with each iteration.

Elinor Slomba’s stories at the interstices of art, business and agility can be found at

The Space In Between

The Space In Between


SS: Any human system exists because individuals are interacting. A company, an organization, lives and breathes inside those interactions. So, if I’m in the process improvement business, I’m actually intent on improving the quality of human interactions.

When there’s a process problem, it’s a good bet that either a conversation isn’t happening or isn’t focused on the right issues or isn’t including all the right people. For example, people in one department will often get together to discuss how they wish people in another department would interact with them. But they don’t actually reach out to the people in the other department to include them in the conversation about how the two groups will interact.

How do we break this? I like to help groups focus on improving their interactions with other groups, and one tool I like is the “business interaction model.” It helps people identify the other groups they regularly interact with, and examine the quality of each of those relationships.

ES: Yes, because most human interactions seem to live in the interstices, the places where various groups come together in an organization, not inside the bounded categories. I’ve applied the old SWOT exercise of mapping out Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to these in-between spaces. Inviting subcultures or groups within the organization to consider how to improve their interactions through this kind of Interstitial Planning (all rights reserved) seems critical to organizational pathfinding and sensemaking.

SS: I see enormous value in that. First you draw a line on the diagram to represent the connection or interaction between two groups. And then have a conversation about what’s working and what’s not working inside that interaction. This calls to mind a model of human relationships that helped me understand what I’m responsible for in a relationship with another person.

Imagine a piece of paper with two circles for the individuals and a line connecting them. How do we share responsibility for the relationship represented by that line? How much of that relationship am I responsible for, and how much are you responsible for? Most people I’ve asked have suggested that each party is responsible for 50% of the relationship. The person represented by the circle on the left is thus responsible for the left half of the line up to its midpoint, while the person represented by the circle on the right is responsible for the right half of the line. The goal, it seems, is to meet halfway.

The Mid-Point

The Mid-Point

In practice though, this approach doesn’t work very well. On any given day, I might feel you aren’t owning your full 50% of the relationship. So I might get annoyed with you because you’re forcing me to do more than my share. The only way the relationship can work is if we always believe the other person is doing his or her 50%.

Clearly there are pitfalls. How about this instead? Instead of saying that “we have a relationship” represented in our diagram by a single line, we can say that I have a relationship with you represented by a line from me to you, and you have a relationship with me, represented by another line from you to me.

Bi-Directional Communication

Bi-Directional Communication

In this model, I take on 100% responsibility for my thinking and behaviors in my relationship with you. That’s my line across the white space. My own creation. That means I can have a productive relationship with you without depending upon you for a certain percentage. Similarly, you are 100% responsible for how you choose to relate to me, regardless of my treatment of you.

Now imagine if you brought that conversation into an interdepartmental squabble. It might help those human relationships, which are so often filled with confusion and disappointment.

ES: You might bring the conversation directly into the conflicted space, or you might set it up outside the structure. In the spaces between departments, systems, and cultures, people can dip into a new way of relating, fill up and then return to their respective positions with greater clarity and perspective. Like a support group for people trying to find positive ways to handle interactions at work.

You almost need to be in a different space physically, where you can feel a new energy. That allows you to create what [our mutual friend and colleague] Devin [Hedge] describes as new neural and muscular patterns, in order to go beyond the situations in which the problems originally got created.

“In organizations, the truly intractable problems span multiple functional areas. They have no single owner, no single cause, they aren’t linear. To address these complex problems effectively, we need to create new spaces for conversation so that we invite people to step in and contribute their unique needs and perspectives.”

SS: Yes, it can help a lot to set up a different kind of “space” for the conversation if you want the nature of the conversation to change. That reminds me of how a group of my process improvement colleagues and I set up a weekly conference call so we could stay in a conversation about our efforts to get the right people involved in the right conversations. Our focus was on how we could contribute in any positive way. That was five years ago, and we still meet and talk even though we now work for different companies. People seem to find a lot of valuable in creating this kind of space for sharing interpersonal experiences and challenges within a business. We remember the power of being honest with peers on a regular basis. Indeed, it’s quite powerful.

ES: You mention positive contributions. With all the focus on organizational cultures, I’m often wondering how we could create structures that identify and support individuals who are good culture-builders. I’m working on one now, Scrum of One, which I’ve been invited to bring to Agile India. It’s a set of practices inspired by my work over the years with artists and arts organizations. These practices don’t depend upon a whole enterprise being oriented in any particular way. It’s both ongoing preparation for the creative individuals who get it as well as a way for enlightened organizations to find them so they can work with them.

What if positive culture-builders became fearless at work? How would business look if we could trust that if a system penalizes them for being authentic, another will be waiting that values them more and is a better match?

SS: You’re talking about raising the levels of personal responsibility. In other words, it’s about deciding what I bring to my relationship with you, regardless of how you are behaving toward me. It’s about reaching across the “white space” between the two circles in our diagram above, instead of just trying to meet you halfway. The motivation for that is not, of course, inside the system.

In organizations, the truly intractable problems span multiple functional areas. They have no single owner, no single cause, they aren’t linear. To address these complex problems effectively, we need to create new spaces for conversation so that we invite people to step in and contribute their unique needs and perspectives. I sometimes call this “creating space for the conversations that aren’t happening yet.”

ES: I can’t wait to see the energy and cohesion that will come when that occurs.

Lessons Learned From Five Years of Agile Implementation Failures – AgileDC 2013 Presentation


p><img class=”size-thumbnail wp-image-1142″ alt=”Picture of me taking a picture of Sprint Zero of the Wikispeed workshop courtesy Elinor Slomba of Arts Interstices.” src=”×150 Picture of me taking a picture of Sprint Zero of the Wikispeed workshop courtesy Elinor Slomba of Arts Interstices.

Well, another year of AgileDC is in the can. This year was another winner. Even though the flavor at AgileDC is always biased towards the Federal Government, it was strange that the topics seemed to be diverse and more engaging than those at the Agile Alliance‘s Agile 2013. I confess that the topics at Agile 2013 were so non-interesting that I didn’t even go this year. This is not to say I didn’t miss something. I did. First of all I missed hanging out with old friends. There was also a few sessions that I would have liked to attended. For the money, though, AgileDC was a much better deal. Additionally, we raised some $14,000 for a cause I’m deeply passionate about, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.

Wikispeed Keynote

This year, the keynote was just as engaging as last year. Joe Justice of Wikispeed filled in the gaps between Agile 2012 and today. Always willing to put others before self, Joe brought J.J. Sutherland* of Scrum Inc. to talk about how he used Scrum to manage NPR’s coverage of the Arab Spring in Egypt. According to J.J. the situation was so fluid that rather and unifying the reporters, it had a tendency to put reporters at odds with each other, causing missed deadlines and misinformation. J.J. spoke of being reminded of a technique his father forced him to learn by attending a Certified Scrum Master course: Scrum. J.J. talked about pulling out sticky notes and pulling the reporting team together twice daily. It worked and NPR’s coverage remained some of the most relevant and comprehensive. ( Transparency: I contribute funds to NPR so it is good to hear that my money is being managed well. )

Finished product after three one-hour Sprints.

Finished product after three one-hour Sprints.

Another thing from Wikispeed is the phrase “eXtreme Manufacturing”. I like where Joe and the gang are going with this. It has all the makings of changing the world in the same way that Demming did. Yes… I just went there. Expanding beyond building a car that is posed to reinvent how cars are designed and built, Wikispeed is starting to focus on another one of my passions, solving the problem of involuntary homelessness using eXtreme Manufacturing to build MicroHouses. One application I could see of this refugee camps, displaced peoples from natural disasters, and a way for cities to set up transition programs for those placed in involuntary homelessness situations. (NOTE: I probably should talk sometime about what we are learning about why these programs fail and how Habitat for Humanity has overcome these obstacles to success.) Throughout the day, Joe and the folks at Scrum Inc. used the Wikispeed eXtreme Manufacturing workshop to teach pairing, eXtreme Manufacturing, Scrum and Kanban.

Personal Experience

Ballroom B where my session was at AgileDC.

Ballroom B where my session was at AgileDC.

My session went perfectly. I’ve never had that happen before so I thought I would make note of it. I was presenting on the topic of Agile Failures, something no Agile Coaching account manager or business development person is likely to ever talk about. I expected the session, Lessons Learned From Five Years of Agile Implementation Failures, or… What NOT to Do When Becoming Agile, to have about ten people show up. Ten minutes before the session, it was full. Five minutes into the session, it was standing room only.

Needless to say, I was nervous. This was also my first public appearance under the ResultLinq Associates monicker.  Would the audience get the message? That will still remains to be seen, but the feedback was overwhelmingly that I hit home. The feedback told me exactly what I expected. Everyone liked the format. The opening blew everyone’s mind. A lot of people were stuck in deterministic thinking headspace so they wanted a one-size-fits-all checklist when all that could be had are certain principles. Oh… and I thought the projector/screen combination was terrible, too. It made the smaller text unreadable and I was standing right in front of it.

I have to confess that I lied on one slide. The picture of an Agile adoption coaching plan was actually a release planning session. I couldn’t find my coaching plan pictures and had to substitute with something worked and looked the same as a coaching plan. I openly apologize and ask for forgiveness. I found the pictures today after some creative searching through my Dropbox history. I’ve updated the slide so that you can actually see what my coaching plan wall looks like.

Several folks have asked for the slides. I did one better this time around. Below is a corrected recording of the session and a link to the PDF of the corrected slides.

[vimeo 76835486]

PDF File

Feel free to ask questions and challenge some of my hypothesis and theories.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Story Mapping – So Easy a 7th Grader Can Do It

Grooming the Story Map

Building out and Grooming a Story Map

As she was thinking about how the user interaction would go, I explained that we needed to capture this somewhere so we could make it her 7th grade project. When we returned home, I was messing around with upgrading Parallels on my Mac when she walked up with Blue Tape, Post-Its, and a Sharpie. She simply asked, “How do I do this?”

Off to the races we went.

In explaining the story wall, I never used terms that were techie, geeky or anything but the language she was using. The result was she came up with a term called “a Story Map”. I have to believe she has heard me use that before, but I am most definite she has never seen one. I just asked two questions over and over:

  1. If you were playing the game, what would you do?
  2. What would happen as a result?

Those are two key ingredients for a Story Map.

All too often I spend hours and days un-teaching decades of “software engineering analysis and design” just to get to the basic two questions for starting a software engineering endeavor. I wonder why a 7th Grader can figure this stuff out in 15 minutes and adult professionals with four years of formal education, and typically two to seven years or more of professional experience can’t “get it”?

Are we such creatures of habit that our former experiences render us incapable of thinking about “HOW TO THINK” about a problem? I’m beginning to wonder. I feel another human behavior experiment coming on.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Pie Chart Illustrating Pareto's Principle

Pareto’s Principle and that Sucking Sound in your Organization

No matter how many mistakes you make or how sl...

No matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you’re still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying. -Tony Robbins (Photo credit: deeplifequotes)

Think about this statement: 80% of the people that need your help don’t know they need your help.

Here is another statement: 80% of the people that need to read this blog post will never search for it.

Another: 80% of the people that actually find this post and read it won’t actually believe it. :-/

And another cookie: 80% of the people that don’t know they your help and will never search for this blog post, aren’t even online, don’t search online, don’t subscribe to Internet feeds, read Internet news or otherwise engage in anything online.

Finally, this 80% of 80% (64%) uses 80% of all resources of your organization and only produce 20% of the results.

Not surprisingly, Tony Robbins points out that 80% of businesses go out of business in the first three to five years. Of the the remaining 20%, another 80% will go out of business in the first five to seven years in business. The primary reason is product to market fit… planning and development. That 64% sucking up all those resources at work has a name. It’s name is Mediocrity and it is killing your company.

I’m going to follow this up with a post about where this phenomenon comes from (mostly not the 64%), how to curb and kill mediocrity, and how you can’t kill mediocrity but only contain and minimize its effect.

I’d love to know what aspects are important to the 20% of 20% (The 0.04%) that will read this post. What are your thoughts?



Enhanced by Zemanta
Me pondering Business Executive Decisions

NFL and ESPN leaving money on the table?

Continue reading

Overcoming the role of cognitive bias in critical decision making

Folks attending Agile 2013 got a treat this yesterday. Former colleague Manoj Vadakkan and Agilist Bob Payne are going to address how cognitive bias plays a role in Agile Adoption

English: GCOM Cognitive Schemata

English: GCOM Cognitive Schemata (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

. In researching and garnering feedback, Manoj and I were swapping anecdotal stories of cognitive bias. I’m going to share two here. If you happen to be at Agile 2013, try to catch this session as I know it will be great.

The two examples I want to share where I have seen cognitive bias preventing Agile Adoption are what I’ll call Hourly Estimation Bias and Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. It sounds fancy, but your see it is just a situation we take for granted not knowing its adverse effects in catalyzing necessary changes.


This bias can be defined as the need for managers who have not fulling embraced “The Agile Way” of Empirical Evidence in planning and tracking. In Agile practices we tend to shift away from hourly estimation of way, relying instead on relative estimation based on NUTS and Throughput Account measures such as Velocity, Cycle-Time and Lead-Time. While it is often dangerous to apply Lean Manufacturing metrics to Product Development due to the vast variation in effort from Product Feature to Product Feature, when sufficiently broken-down into work units that can be completed in 2-3 days, the law of averages in large datasets takes over giving you a nice Guassian Curve.

The anecdotal story I’ll share here is that managers, being unfamiliar with empirical evidence and having relying on vanity metrics so long, they suffer bias towards the vanity metrics even when we have proven that the Paredo Principle applies to these estimations and metrics… they are only correct ~20% of the time. Or stated another way, vanity metrics of Scope, Schedule and Cost in a complex human system are invariably WRONG roughly 80% of the time.

So why would a manager bet their bonus and possibly their job on something that it WRONG 80% of the time? Familiarity. The brain naturally filters and reduces the world around us into simples terms in order to perform sensemaking. This works when you need to know if a Lion is a threat while walking across the Serenghetti. It works poorly in estimation of complex systems and complex human system. Yet, time and again I have managers that ask: “What is your percent complete?” and “How many hows do you have left?” Why? Cognitive Bias towards the familiar. It turns out we favor five-to-one something we are familiar with over something we are unfamiliar with. Paredo’s Principle strikes again (One-Fifth = 20%).

So how can Managers overcome their natural bias towards the familiar? Managers should be required to read and peer-review two books that span a large body of knowledge about neuroscience, critical analysis and decision making. These two books are, “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long” by David Rock, and “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. In both books the skills of mindfulness (understanding when your brain is reacting again reason in its need for the familiar), and how to form new habits so that the unfamiliar becomes familiar.


The second cognitive bias I’ll discuss is a phrase I’m hijacking and twisting, called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. In a study about diversity in the workplace and the hiring habits of managers, it has been found that managers subconsciously hire people that act and look like themselves (homosocial mirrors), and that they favor candidates that are homosocial mirrors over candidates that are more qualified.

I have seen this behavior present itself in the following more times than I am even aware of. For example, say a manager needs to fill a position with someone that has Agile skills. Together, we look to hire someone internally first because it is seemingly less risky as a person is likely to already understand the political landscape and challenges facing the position. But, what often happens in a command and control environment shifting towards a collaborative environment? We look around the company for a likely candidate and don’t find the right mix of technical skills, domain knowledge and soft skills. We have to hire someone from outside. However, when faced with a marginally competent internal candidate and strong external candidate, managers favor an internal candidate over the outside candidate. Thus, the command and control culture is further cemented into place and change becomes that much more difficult if not impossible.

Soft skills (people skills) in an Agile environment are typically the more important than technical skills and domain knowledge. That is not to say that a person should not have a base competency in the requisite technical skills or domain knowledge; however, we have found that a person with the soft skills of mentoring, servant leadership and lifelong learning can overcome not having strong technical skills or domain knowledge.

So why would a manager purposely choose the lesser qualified candidate?

It’s called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction: a cognitive bias that favors hiring people that are “just like me” in order to make you feel good. This feeling of comfort comes from patterns of familiarity in the Superior Parietal Lobe combined with the fear of the unfamiliar in the Amygdala overriding our ability to reason using logic in the Pre-Frontal Cortex.

Unfortunately, knowing this is mostly useless. Typically, the people that need to know how to steer around this Cognitive Bias the most, are the least likely to know that they need to steer around this Cognitive Bias.

Русский: Cognitive Hazard by Arenamontanus

Русский: Cognitive Hazard by Arenamontanus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is also the single, most-challenging, and most-obvious “problem to everyone but the person suffering this bias” that I face when coaching.

We all naturally suffer from it in some small way because it is a natural defense mechanism built into the brain against wild animal attacks. It is also the root of racism, prejudice, and class (Caste?) politics.

The bias is that strong. There is one way to overcome this bias, but it is quite ugly.

Generally, the only way out of hiring bias is through judicious use of external recruiting, allowing internal wannabes to apply for the position through an external vetting agency. Corporate recruiters hate this strategy because they feel they don’t have control over the vetting process, so a certain “make HR feel part of the process” tactic has to be employed. Properly engaged, HR becomes your strongest ally in the process.

I’ve successfully used this technique for overcoming my own bias. The result was being able to work some of the most brilliant people in the business.

What examples of cognitive bias in decision making have you seen?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Agile Groups in the Washington DC Metro Area

I often get asked about where are the Agile groups in the Washington DC Metro Area. Here is my list as of the publication of this post.

Agile Leadership/Management

Technical Practices



Enhanced by Zemanta

Agile adoption of Continuous Integration (CI)

We Agilists talk a lot about the importance of Continuous Integration (CI) as a practice and we talk about it like it assumed; however, when adopting CI in what was a waterfall, iterative or undisciplined environment there will be a lot of hurdles to adoption that have to be planned as part of the CI roll-out. Here are just a few to consider:

  1. Is your code structured in such a way so that different sub-systems can be compiled and tested without the need to compile and test other sub-systems. If is isn’t you will need to refactor your code to remove the dependencies, create proxy classes, interfaces, and interface simulators for the dependent sub-systems.
  2. Is your code organized in the source code repository in such a way that you can check-out entire trees/directories and compile test? If not, you will need to spend time (task stories) to reorganize your code. Be sure to look for opportunities to separate business classes from helper, utility, and other common code.
  3. Are you using a source code repository that will even support the role of a Committer? If not, you will have to spend time migrating to such a source code control (SCC) tool. Why a Committer instead of everyone being able to commit code to the baseline? Simple, Code Committers are responsible for what actually is committed to the baseline. They perform such tasks as code-reviews, architectural compliance, and making sure the code conforms to style and quality standards. Think of it as a nice CMMI kind of practice that improves your product’s quality. You are performing peer reviews, right? What about overall code reviews?

Powered by Qumana

Enhanced by Zemanta