Thursday, 8 November 2012

Failure is an option...

One of the worst sayings I've heard recently is "...are we an 'Ameri-can' or an 'Ameri-can't'?" But reflecting on the spirit, and having reflected in my previous blog on "Being a Brit in the US" I've come to accept these truisms as part of the culture I'm now part of - however macho I find them.

The point that the author is trying to make here is a philosophical view that my current client company innately accepts that that progress is measured only by successful conclusions. "You're only as successful as your last project" is a common comment I hear in my adopted home.  KPIs, Performance Measurement and Capability are
measured, not by what I have learnt but by what I have delivered.  "Failure isn't an option" has now reached the point of a religion in American project management and I suspect in the UK as well.

But is it true?  Looking back over the last 20 years I can honestly say that I've learnt more from my failures than from my successes.  Every mistake I've added to my virtual "book of experience" in my head to make sure I don't make the same error a second time.  

It reminds me of a story about Thomas Edison...

Edison tried two thousand different materials in search of a filament for the light bulb.
When none worked satisfactorily, his assistant complained, “All our work is in vain. We have learned nothing.” 
Edison replied very confidently, “Oh, we have come a long way and we have learned a lot. We know that there are two thousand elements which we cannot use to make a good light bulb”
One of the most forgotten parts of Agile, and something that was oddly omitted from the manifesto, is the primary ability to "fail fast".  By failing quickly, and recognizing that failure and developing solutions that overcome it, we are able to avoid costly implementations of ideas that simply won't work.  
Agile is about failing to deliver what we expected but learning and developing better ideas quickly.  Constant learning, especially though the retrospective, is critical to effective Agile implementations.  Al Franken's quotation makes my point:
Mistakes are a part of being human. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it's a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from  - Al Franken 2002
So this week we've started the new Agile approach to software delivery.  To illustrate the point, and to improve the way that we work, I've started with the Executive Committee (for EC read really important people who run the company) and performed our first retrospective on the way they initiate and support projects.
Interestingly they immediately came to the conclusion that we needed better processes, people, capabilities, systems and attitudes to delivery.  From the review of how projects were going in the organization it was clear who was to blame for project failures... anyone but the Executive Committee.  Indeed, apparently the only way that we could be better than our competition was to ruthlessly eliminate failure and hold accountable those who made it happen - or at least got caught making it happen!
On that we disagreed.  Aristotle noted that:
It is possible to fail in many ways...while to succeed is possible only in one way.
Successful organizations are those that can recognize that failure is a critical part of innovation and ultimately of success.  You must fail many times to find the one way to deliver success effectively. While going through this process you will fail many times but the true measure of a company's ability to respond to the market place and survive is their ability to quickly change direction and investigate many options on find the best possible solution.  Truly successful organizations have recognized that the ability to fail fast, change direction and respond to market demands is the only way to true commercial success. Examples include Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

Fortunately my clients are now mature enough to agree to take the time to discuss my point, review case studies of their behavior and then work to create an action plan that I really think will move us forward on our Agile journey.  More importantly the communications that followed the meeting stated that they accepted that "failure was a necessity that was the true mother of invention"

Will they stick to that philosophy?  Only the next few months will tell - but I know that my retrospectives, agile start-ups and discussions with the business will be a little bit easier over the coming days.  I just hope that we can demonstrate the point before our leadership team loses faith in the epiphany they've just had.


Friday, 2 November 2012

Reflections from a Brit living in the US - The battle of language

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who noted that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language".  Having spend time in the US for the last 8 months working with a team in the US to make them more agile & effective I can sympathize with that.  I ask for a check not a bill, I'm good not I'm fine, I eat food to go not takeaways and I ride in elevators not lifts.  I talk about organizations not organisations and analyze problems soup to nuts not root & branch.  What I have noticed is how quickly I've adopted these changes into my everyday life to the extent that my family at home often look at me and say "What?".

Reflecting on this at our local tavern (not bar) watching soccer (not football) I've started to make connections between the importance of language in managing change and gaining traction in moving organizations to a new way of thinking.

It seems that every time we want to make a change we insist on shrouding it with special terms and jargon.  So in moving an organization from Waterfall to Agile methods we find that they are two methodologies separated by a common language as well.  So we talk of stories not requirements, products not deliverables, storypoints not effort, sprints not tranches, backlogs not plans, blockers not issues and themes not goals.

During a recent summit of waterfall and agile advocates this week I found myself listening to strongly argued points of view and intense conflict between two project management factions.  We talked about command & control, structure, need for predictability and timely tracking of progress.  What became evident to me, very quickly, is that both sides were in violent agreement about they were trying to do - they just didn't understand each other because they spoke different languages.

To break this down I brought the conversation back to the five standard questions... Why are we doing this?, What do we need to deliver?, How can we deliver it?, Who's going to deliver it? and When can it be done?  I sent the groups away to list the methods they'd use to answer each of these questions without using any of the words that I provided in a taboo list.  They found it difficult to drop the jargon but 30 minutes later they came back and presented their answers to the other group with case studies to illustrate what they meant.

The result? Two almost identical presentations written in English that everyone could understand.  I've often seen cartoons where you can see a light bulb suddenly appearing above someone's head - and it was just like that.

Yes there are differences in philosophy between command & control and servant leadership but the basic project management concepts are exactly the same.  When you strip out all of the methods & terminology your simply left with a group of people who want to know why we're doing something, what's got to be done, when it's got to be done by and how we'll know it's been done correctly.

By removing the language barrier, and the emotions attached to it, working out a transition plan became a lot simpler.  Yes there are culture changes needs, new ways of working and training for those involved.  But the highest barrier to overcome is  the language we use.  It seems such a small change but it really has made a difference - I just wish I'd thought of it earlier!

I started this blog with a quotation so it seems fitting I should close it with one: 
Language is the biggest barrier to human progress because language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old fashioned way. Edward de Bono

So a new way of working to add my experience in introducing change... build a common language that everyone understands.

Although, I don't think I can convince the whole of the US to adopt my way of everyday English so I'll pack that in the trunk, fill the car with gas and ride out into the sunset when I return home this weekend :-)