Agile 0.0 – Balance continuity with change

March 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Out of my mind, Practice Excellence, Scrum and agile, Software Engineering, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

Introduction: It is understandable but unfortunate that the very mention of the term software engineering evokes such a strong reaction in the agile community. It is understandable because of the burden of the past when good intentions turned into bad practices and unfortunate because in the process we tend to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Agility: The essence of agility is transparency inspection and adaptation. If we look at the Agile Manifesto, we see that the earlier focus on terms like “processes and tools, comprehensive documentation, contract negotiation and following a plan” had frozen the continuity. This I like to call as Agile -1.

Change over continuity: The terms on the left of the value statements in the Manifesto like “Individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration and responding to change” emphasized the importance of a human observer who would inspect the content with the context and adapt the approach to align them. The intention was very good but the potential energy of the earlier imbalance was released and swung the pendulum on the other side. This was a phase of Agile 1.

Agile is now mature: By the end of the first decade, agile has become a mainstream methodology and matured enough to be able to give equal importance to both the sides of the equation and provide a way for the practitioners to adapt their practices to the changing context. It has thawed the frozen continuity and can help us to consider logically the benefits of managing continuity well while also responding to change. So we are entering a phase of Agile 0. At first sight, 0 appears empty and hence meaningless. But being empty also frees it from the burden of the past, and opens up limitless possibilities.

Continuity with change: Let us look more closely at continuity and change. When we start developing a new software system, it is all about change. As it grows, elements of software maintenance start entering the picture. Over a period of time, the proportion changes and ultimately we reach a stage when the bulk of the work is to maintain the existing system with little new functionality added from time to time. Managing continuity becomes more important than managing the change. So at different stages, the mix of continuity and change differs and our practices also need to change accordingly.

Systems perspective: It would help to look at this from the systems perspective. The internal state of the system is represented by the state of its content. Similarly, the external state of the system is represented by the current state of its context. Whenever there is a misalignment between the internal state and the external state of the system, it results in creative tension. This tension can be reduced by suitably changing the content or the context or both. But before this happens we need to inspect the current states of the system, which in turn needs access to the right information in time; in other words transparency.

Real life example: Let us understand this with an example. A person brought up in a traditional joint family marries and starts a nuclear family in a big city. He still carries with him the values of a joint family but has to deal with the expectations of living in a big city. He needs to objectively see this and change either his values or manage expectations of others. How he decides to adapt is up to him but unless he is aware of the misalignment, he may end up bring an emotional wreck.

System states: The internal state of a system is the assumptions beliefs and the values it holds along with the current set of practices being used repeatedly. The external state is the interface projected to others and expectations of others from the system, along with the repetitive interactions. In the above example, the tension is generated by the misalignment between what he is and how he wants to appear to outsiders.

System stability: Apart from the system states, it is important to understand system stability. A stable system has minimum hindrance to the free flow of system energy, or synergy for short. Internal stability comes from well-coordinated actions, while external stability is about well-coordinated interactions with other systems. An internally stable system may or may not be externally stable, and vice versa.

From the software system perspective when we start making any changes to it, the internal system becomes unstable till it goes to the next stable state. The iterative development brought in small jumps from one stable state to another as compared to waterfall. This is also expressed as “potentially shippable product” in Scrum. The external stability is governed by the interface exposed and the changing expectations of others from the system. So during iteration as long as the earlier stable version exposed outside remains in sync with the expectations, there is external stability.

Adaptation options: The concept of internal & external stability is important for deciding between continuity and change while adapting to the new reality, as it becomes visible after inspection. During inspection we observe the internal and external states of the system. If they are misaligned, it may call for change. However, the change may be required to the internal state or external state or both.

If the system is internally unstable, we need changes to make it stable. But we have a choice to either take it back to the earlier stable state or forward to a new stable state. This in turn depends on how it would impact external stability.

If the system is internally stable but externally unstable, we have to decide whether to make external changes or internal ones and accordingly plan our actions. It is not always prudent to start changing the software as soon as new requirements come, without considering the resultant states. Sometimes it may be necessary to delay or deny the requested changes in the overall interest.

So far we have seen responses which were reactive. What if the system is currently stable both internally and externally? Should we let it be or proactively anticipate changes in future? We may decide to either continue the status-quo or to go for change, but we will reach the next level of stability much faster.

Inspection: With this background, let us examine what is involved in inspection. Traditionally, inspection means an action planned to know the current state and more often than not involves measurement, which requires collecting data and analyzing it. There is another part of inspection which is normally neglected. It is about observing the instances of exceptional behavior, capturing them and understanding the hidden cause or causes. Such exceptions have a tremendous potential to give us a glimpse into the emerging reality before it starts showing up through measurement.

Transparency: Reliable inspection depends on transparency. Transparency is the ability to see the reality without any obstruction or distortion. Normally, the persons who see it may not be persons who need to act on it. In case of inspection using measurement, it means that the persons who have access to the raw data do not hide it and those who analyze do not distort it. In case of observation, since the exceptions are not controlled by us, they need to be shared by those observing it to those who can analyze and ultimately to those who can act on it. Since this can’t be defined as a process, it needs to become part of the culture as an informal communication, almost bordering on gossip.

What’s in it for me? How does all this help us? Once we become aware of our attachment to one way of thinking and the knee jerk reaction against the other, we can start exploring the fundamentals at the human systems level and apply them to software development to see them in this new light. It will provide us pointers to examine our current practices and suitably modify them as we see them working. We can also benefit in other areas of our life beyond software.

Explore and share with others: Paraphrasing from the Agile Manifesto Let us together “Uncover better ways of managing our practices, by doing it and helping others do it”. When we are able to do it across the software community and get it into the collective consciousness, we would reach the stage of a perfect balance or in other words Agile 0.0


What systems mean to me

January 31, 2012 at 12:17 am | Posted in Blogroll, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

I am no expert on anything, but I am interested in everything conceptual. I am especially fascinated by a few of those concepts; one of them being “Systems thinking”. The reason is two-fold. On one hand, it helps me to drill down any thoughts or experiences to a very generic level and then try to apply them to specific situations. On the other, I always find it a somewhat elusive concept and more I read & think about it, more shades become visible; it provides a challenging and exhilarating journey.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of system which is “set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network”. I feel this definition comes more from the physical sciences. Other definitions are, “Combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole” “Ordered and comprehensive assemblage of facts, principles, doctrines, or the like in a particular field of knowledge or thought” So it is not limited to physical things but also applies to virtual elements like facts or principles. And all these definitions agree on its complexity.

Initially I also used to view a system as made up of parts but slowly veered around to an alternate way of treating the systems as indivisible; they can’t be broken in parts. The moment we do it, the system loses its wholeness and integrity. When we consider it as indivisible, each system gets lot more freedom once it is taken out of the hierarchy of systems. After all systems are conceptual constructs and we can define them whichever way we want.

For example, rather than treating individuals as parts of a bigger system called family or employees as parts of a bigger organization, I prefer to treat individuals & employees as independent systems in their own right interacting with other systems like family or organization. Family and organization are concepts and not collections of individuals or employees. In a given organization, all employees may be replaced by robots and still the organization remains an organization.

This is a fundamental shift in approach. Each system has its boundaries. If we consider it as collection of parts, these parts are inside the system boundary. When we consider a system only as a concept the interacting systems are outside the boundary of the system. In one view, employees are inside and customers outside. In the other view, both are outside. It leads to very different outcomes when applied to specific situations. Instead of systems being bigger or smaller which automatically means more important or less important now puts every system on equal footing.

Another aspect is difference between individuals and roles. When individuals are considered as part of the family of organization, we tend to mix the roles. For example, an individual who is an employee of an organization may also be a shareholder of the same organization. But the management would treat him as a single individual and get disturbed, annoyed or enraged when his behavior as one role may be very different from expectation of the organization from the other role. Similarly, two brothers may also be partners in family business. If they mix the two roles, there are endless tensions and problems. Whereas if they are clear that their interactions as brothers are part of a different system from their interactions as partners of a different system and keep them completely isolated, there would be no problems.

Another aspect of systems is their complexity. A common approach is to treat it as inevitable and deal with it accordingly. I feel complexity is relative to how much we know about the system and the dimensions of the environment in which it operates. A system is complex as long as we don’t know enough about it. We may not be even aware of certain dimensions on which it operates. The moment we become aware, the complexity starts vanishing. In addition, as we become aware of new relationships in a given dimension, the system starts losing its complexity. So apart from taking indirect routes to deal with this complexity, we can also try to look for other dimensions or relationships which exist but are so far not visible to us.

I have shared above one way of viewing systems. I don’t propose it as the only way but since I find it quite useful to understand as well as sometimes predict the behavior of systems I as a system interact with. I would like to know whether any of this makes sense to you and whether it is helpful when you try to apply it.


Synergy – Redefined and Demystified

November 21, 2011 at 11:05 am | Posted in Blogroll, Organizational Excellence, Out of my mind, Practice Excellence, Scrum and agile, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

For business organizations, Synergy is an important concept as there is greater emphasis on human interactions and need for better & quicker decision-making on the frontline. To provide this agility, the teams need to organize and manage themselves rather than always waiting for control and direction from above. Synergy has a tremendous untapped potential to enrich human interactions. But whenever we talk of synergy, the most common definition I keep hearing is “The whole is more than its parts” or as an example “Two and two equals five or more”. Though it all sounds nice & magical, there are limited ways to put it in practice.

I feel that if we can understand synergy in logical terms, it would provide us many more opportunities which we don’t look at because of the way synergy is defined. We need to get out of the mystery and evolve rational ways of dealing with it. First step is look at possibility of redefining what synergy really is and where it comes from. After searching on Google for better definitions and giving it a lot of thought, here is a possibility I have come up with; please see if it makes sense.

(Sy)stem + E(nergy) = Synergy

Next, where does it come from or what is its source? Here again, though lot has been written about synergy along with many examples, I did not find any reference which clearly explained the mathematical inequality “2 + 2 = (>4)” or what is the source of this extra energy.

Again after much thought, a possibility suddenly struck me. What if we approach it from a diametrically opposite direction?

Any system by itself has abundant energy. However for the systems that participate in or interact with it, the energy available for their interaction gets limited by the restrictions they place themselves or others place on it. These restrictions could be for a variety of reasons and may be placed either intentionally or unintentionally.

This line of thought can help us to investigate the common types of restrictions we frequently encounter in the context of an organization where employees & teams participate in it while the customers & other external agencies interact with it.

Dimensions of awareness – An organization works on many dimensions but each individual or groups involved may not be even aware of all such dimensions. As they try to selectively expose themselves, it opens up possibilities of collaboration in existing as well as new areas.

Limited span of attention – Everybody is so busy that there is hardly any time to expand the span of attention even on the dimensions they are aware of. Taking time out even for a glimpse at other related areas helps a lot. Assumptions and beliefs – We are so blinded by our assumptions and emotionally attached to our beliefs that it restricts our interactions. Intentionally suspending them and see beyond really helps.

Being on the defensive – Everybody has a right to protect himself against threats to very existence. The problem arises when we get obsessed with self-preservation and are unduly on the defensive. The problem is accentuated when it is expected to give up self-interest in the cause of larger good. This cycle can be reversed by accepting the right to protect oneself which makes the person more open and confident.

Excessive homogeneity – Everybody has a unique combination of strengths & talents. It needs an opportunity to make full use of them. The problem arises when in the name of standardization these natural impulses are curbed or in some cases put down with a heavy hand. The cycle can be reversed by accepting this reality and providing right environment to nurture the talents and strengths.

Lack of freedom – Everybody needs adequate freedom to respond quickly and appropriately to myriad challenges he faces. The problem arises when in the name of keeping things predictable and under control, too many or unnecessary rules are enforced. The cycle can be reversed by accepting the need and minimizing the rules while helping to evolve appropriate strategies to deal with variety of situations quickly & correctly. This in turn would build respect for a few essential rules which still remain.

Resource bottlenecks – Resource bottlenecks is natural phenomenon and there are ways to deal with it. The problem is when everybody rushes to grab the scarce resource which creates artificial shortages which is a far more serious restriction. Impatience – Many of us are so impatient to take a decision and to act on it. If there are differences take a vote and move on. But for complex problems this speed is illusive because we land up in another problem. The solution is to really listen to diverse points of view with an open mind and keep improving the original solution till all concerned agree that collectively we have come to a much better solution.

Motivation by competition – There are two ways to motivate. One way is to choose & reward the best or number one, where those not found to be the best may lose heart. Other approach is to recognize and appreciate for their contributions and give their achievements higher visibility.

Inherent system limitations – Last but not the least, even the organizations are systems which participate or interact with larger ecosystems. Thus they are also subject to all the above restrictions which in turn become restrictions for internal and external individuals & groups dealing with it.

There is also mention in the literature of “Negative synergy”. It doesn’t make sense how synergy can ever be negative. It probably follows from the choice of a wrong benchmark. Currently the benchmark is kept at the energy available to us individually. When joining hands with others gives better results it is called (positive) synergy and we feel happy. Whereas when such collaboration leads to even less output than what we could have individually achieved it is called negative synergy and we feel bad about it.

Compare this with the possibility of choosing “System energy” as a benchmark where we want to ultimately reach. Our attention would then be focused on identifying & removing the restrictions in a given situation guided by types of restrictions cited above. This focus would help us to identify cases where the collaboration leads to increased restrictions like when two persons can’t just get together or two teams end up having fights whenever they have to work together. Understanding the real reason would help us to quickly take the corrective actions. In either case, both whether working together reduces or increases the restrictions on interactions, as we understand the reasons and take quick actions, we feel happy and this motivates us further to move towards the full potential of synergy.

To summarize, the term Synergy has traditionally been defined and used in a certain way, including in the latest book “The 3rd Alternative” by the bestselling author Stephen R. Covey. This approach seems mysterious & illusive to me. Through this blog, I am exploring another possibility where we define it differently, set the benchmark accordingly and deal with it realistically. It could open up new possibilities of tapping the abundant energy present in all human systems which is potentially available to other systems participating in or interacting with it, provided they can work on removing the restrictions placed on their interactions. The main benefit of this approach would be that we can take charge of our actions and adopt an attitude of “we can and we will”. This rational approach to identify & remove the restrictions on our freedom will release the tremendous synergy available in the systems we deal with. Give it a thought and share your views.

Practice excellence – Manage diversity at the point of diversity

August 22, 2011 at 8:22 am | Posted in Blogroll, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

Whenever there is a discussion about processes, it invariably gets around, as it happened recently, to whether the “people aspect” is adequately being covered. It would be useful to think through what exactly we mean by the people aspect so that we know what we are missing when we don’t consider it as well as to know how we can take care of it.

In my opinion, two major factors that come into play in people aspect are human diversity and adaptability. To some extent, the processes do try to take care of variations in situations covered by them. However, the variations provided for by the processes are nowhere near the complex variations amongst different persons. These variations are in terms of needs as well as capabilities. Different individuals have different needs from a process; some will find it quite useful and would like to continue using it while some others may find it cumbersome and would look for ways to bypass avoid or even sabotage it. Similarly, those involved in executing a given process may have their preferred ways and if the process is too rigid or restrictive they will look for ways outside the defined process.

That is why it is important to consider practices, which are what we do in a variety of situations. They are far more flexible than processes and can account for a wide range of variations. With practices, individuals are free to choose which mode of execution they find useful to achieve a given result. They are free to make full use of their adaptability as they learn from experience.

With this background, let us now look at how processes and practices can co-exist to make best use of standardization and at the same time deal with immense variations. Diversity does not occur in discreet steps but is on a continuum of variations along many dimensions. The needs & capabilities of an individual differ from situation to situation; similarly they also vary for a given situation from individual to individual. Our mind is incapable of dealing with this magnitude of variations and deals with this complexity by trying to find patterns. These patterns form the basis of standardization. What is lost in finer details is gained in human ability to deal with it.

Let’s take an example from business organizations to understand this better. There are multiples teams working in an organization. Each of the teams is in turn made up of more than one individual. Each team has certain standard processes to be followed by all the team members. This defines a shared basis of dealing with each other and provides certainty & predictability to their interactions as well as helps improve the productivity of the team. In addition, each team member is free to follow their own practices to deal with different situations as they arise. The same applies at the organization level as well. Each organization defines the standard processes for use by different teams while dealing with each other; while each team is free to follow its own practices.

Thus in its external interactions, a team tries to evolve its way of dealing with others within the structure of the organizational processes; at the same time matching it to its own unique needs and capabilities. Internally it provides the structure of team processes to its members and should provide enough freedom to its members to evolve their practices within this structure. The same approach can be generalized to any human system where on one hand it provides a structure of processes to the participating systems and on the other evolves its own practices while interacting with other systems.

For the above example with the team as a system, the team members are participating systems while its ecosystem made up of other teams, the organization and external agencies like the customers are the interacting systems. We can apply this systems approach to family and other social organizations as well. Evolving and maintaining this fine balance between the structure and freedom, or in other words the “Structured freedom” is the key to the health of a system.

To summarize, the processes which cover the common aspects amongst diverse elements and their interactions provide the structure and practices which are adapted to unique capabilities and are designed to fulfill unique needs represent the freedom. When a human system is conscious of the need for a fine balance between the structure and the freedom and works to achieve it by managing diversity at the point of diversity, it would have adequately taken care of the people aspect.

Your views and inputs are valuable; please share.


Practice excellence – Avoid leakages

July 25, 2011 at 10:00 am | Posted in Blogroll, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

This week it is probably one of the shortest blogs but with tremendous potential of practical application.

From my experience, I have found that if we increase our sensitivity to leakages in three areas and make suitable changes in our way of working as we go through different situations, gradually but very definitely it leads to increase in efficiency as well as effectiveness of everything we do in all walks of our life.

These three areas are TIME, ATTENTION and ENERGY, and this is true for all human systems.

Volumes can be written and plenty of examples given to support the above statement, but it won’t make an iota of difference to achieving practice excellence till we become sensitized and start making required changes in the way we work and live. The way we respond differs from person to person and each of us comes across different situations. Once the change starts there is no stopping as it builds its own momentum.

Your views and inputs are valuable; please share.

Systems Improvement – Start small stay current

July 11, 2011 at 9:59 am | Posted in Blogroll, Out of my mind, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | 1 Comment

We normally read hear and talk about process improvement, but I prefer to think of systems improvement since it is more holistic and comprehensive. Apart from processes the systems include people & structures. When we look at all the three parts together along with their interactions & effects on each other, the improvements brought about are far more lasting and satisfying. In other words, we need to use systems thinking.

To bring about improvements to the existing systems, effective management of change is critical. It is good to remember 3 ‘A’s of change management; Awareness -> Acceptance -> action. Unless we are aware of the need for change, no improvement can be brought about. Once we are aware, we need to accept it before it can be put in action. Some of the common challenges faced when we try to put in action are covered below.

For last few years I have focused my work around systems improvement. A recurring challenge faced by me and others I help / coach in systems improvements is about managing the current transactional activities and at the same time working on improving the systems that we are responsible for or we participate in. One solution that seems to work is to start small and not to bite more than we can chew. I have seen umpteen cases where people take up a big chunk of improvement work and soon find that they can’t manage it along with other day to day activities. This soon leads to disillusionment and loss of interest and initial enthusiasm. The result is that the whole improvement initiative is dropped and we continue to do what we have been doing including firefighting as the problems keep recurring.

Another common challenge is that when we decide to change our way of working, quite often it affects not only the present and future but also the past history and we need to change that as well to keep the new way of working consistent. Amount of work involved in history and current transactions together can be huge so here again either we get overloaded or tend to leave the past as it is. Either of these creates a problem. Best way I have found is to definitely make the change for present & future and also plan to incrementally change the past within a timeline.

Once we implement the change, it is important to give enough importance to sticking to the new way of working. Old habits die hard and there is always a temptation to slip back to old ways. Self-discipline helps to stick to the new way till it becomes a habit for us individually and gets into the culture at the system level.

I can give examples from my experience, but the concepts are so simple it might make sense for you see them in your own context. If you face any problems in applying these concepts please respond. Similarly, if you find them useful I will really appreciate your comments sharing your experience.

Practice excellence – A systems view

July 4, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

Practices are what we do. Achieving excellence in what we do mean consistently & repeatedly acting in a way most appropriate to the situation. As this applies to actions we take throughout the day, day after day and in all kinds of situations, the variety can be mind boggling. It would therefore help to look at the whole thing in a more generic way. Taking a systems view has a potential to give us some useful clues. I am sharing here my current thoughts which are open to support as well as challenge.

It would be quite helpful to consider our actions in three specific domains (family / education / work) that we are all familiar with. If we come up with some patterns which apply to these three domains, they can be fairly easily extended to other domains as well. Exploring the concepts with examples from these domains would also help us relate them to our day to day experiences.

Each of us individually can be considered a system. We interact with other individuals who are also systems. We do so while together participating in other systems. For example, as children we interacted with each other as also with our parents in the family system. As students we interacted with each other and with our teachers & principals while being part of the education system. Similarly, as employees we interact with our colleagues and with our supervisors & managers in an organization. So if we find something common in a way we take actions as children, students or employees; something common with the way we interact with other children, students & employees and the way we interact with our parents, teachers and managers; and the common way the family, education and organization as systems affect how we take actions and manage our interactions, it may give us some generic patterns. Such patterns would help us to improve our actions as well better predict & respond to actions of others leading to moving towards practice excellence.

Each of the actions that we take is not independent but is connected with other actions in a network of actions. The starting point is generally a goal like having a vacation with the family, getting a certain degree or completing a project. Each of these goals requires completion of many tasks. These tasks may have dependencies or need to be carried out in a sequence. We also need communication between tasks about their progress, status and outcome. Similarly, each task in turn requires many actions. There is a similar dependency and sequencing network with communication between different actions. Knowledge of these dependencies & sequencing as well as setting up a reliable communication network is essential for smooth functioning of the system. Similar to the goal tasks & action networks for a given system, there are goals transactions and action networks when more than one system is participating in a larger system. These concepts are applicable to all human systems and their interactions.

All actions are an outcome of decisions we make regarding actions. This is true for first time / one time actions as well as for repetitive actions. These decisions are of three types, conscious / subconscious / unconscious. We are aware of the conscious decisions, subconscious decisions happen without our being aware of them but internally follow similar steps whereas unconscious decisions get stored in our muscle memory and happen beyond our consciousness.

All decisions involve a mixture of logic & emotions to varying degrees and different for different persons. Some people are predominantly logically oriented whereas others may be strongly influenced by their emotions. Being sensitive to these variations and patterns we can understand our decision-making better as well as be able to predict how they will respond to different stimuli.

Most of our actions are repetitive in nature, hence the crucial decision is whether to continue an existing practice or to modify / replace it. Generally it happens subconsciously. It is heavily influenced by the attachment we develop for a set way of working as also the amount of risk we are inclined to take. If we play safe, chances are we will continue with same practice even though the situation has substantially changed. Our assumptions & beliefs which act as strong filters for the sensory information also have a strong influence in our decision making. Once we understand these patterns, we would be able to continue useful practices as long as they make sense giving us speed & efficiency and quickly adjust to the changing situations leading to our being more effective.

Whenever we act on our own or interact with others, it is always in the context of another system like family, school / college, work organization or any other human system. These systems provide the structures which could facilitate us or restrict us. We have freedom only within these structures. So it is useful to understand the types of these structures and how they influence us. These structures are basically of three types, institutional / legal / cultural. To take examples from our familiar domains, institutional structures are about the hierarchy and roles. Legal structures are in the form of rules, procedures & policies. They are legal in a sense that there are consequences of violating them. The third type is the cultural structures like traditions, conventions and what the members collectively value or care for. These are invisible but very powerful and have a long lasting effect. Members may change, even whole generations may change but they continue to influence. From the perspective of practice excellence, a culture of openness, freedom to voice concerns by different stakeholders and caring for other stakeholders in terms of effect of our actions on them is very important.

To summarize, looking at practices from a system perspective helps us see common concepts & patterns across a wide variety of domains and situations. What we learn from one domain can be easily applied to other domains. It makes sharing of experiences between practitioners from different domains because they can talk in the same language. All this will lead to practice excellence.

As always your views feedback and inputs are most welcome; please share them.

Practice excellence – Best practices or useful practices?

June 27, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment
We always think and talk of best practices. This term is so commonly used that we instinctively consider it as a gospel truth. But if we just pause and think about the assumptions on which it is based and how far they make sense in real life, it will be an eye opener.
  • The underlying assumptions are,
    There can be a standard solution for a given problem and it is the best way in all situations applicable to any person or a team
  • It can be prescribed by others for us so that our current way of working can be compared to identify the gaps and efforts can be made with an aim to reach the standard way of working
  • This is a comprehensive & complex activity which needs help from internal experts or external consultants

Let us now look at some examples from different aspects of our life and their serious impact on a large number of persons.

  • Recently many newspapers carried the cut-off percentage required for admission to various colleges and how it left few students & their parents happy while a vast majority was frustrated & depressed. Then I saw last evening on TV a nice movie F.A.L.T.U. on the same subject. It raised an important question about what is the real purpose of education and whether it is best served by such ridiculous practices. It then dramatically offered a solution, which may not be practical but brought out the importance of taking care of the needs of the vast majority.
  • Our legal system has borrowed many good practices from other countries and in principal they should be helping majority of the citizens. In reality they seem to be working for the powerful while creating inordinate delays for the vast majority of the people.
  • Nearer home, in software development we have seen proliferation of methodologies & best practices. Each of them seems quite attractive but few people follow them in day to day working. Then we need more practices to audit what the software developers actually do and to force them to follow the standard prescribed policies.

These are just a few examples but if we watch carefully, we can find many more such cases in day to day life. Is it possible that the common assumptions behind all such best practices are the main root cause? Can we start with a different set of assumptions for useful practices and see whether those will help us

  • Useful practices do not offer a standard solution for all situations or for all people / teams; they are context sensitive.
  • During a typical day, each of us goes through so many actions and related decisions about them along with use of right information to support the actions & decisions that it is impossible for any outsider to prescribe best practices for us that we will find useful in different situations. Each of us is also differently inclined regarding our preference for logical, emotional or a combination of the two. Similarly, each of us is also differently inclined towards sensory / intuitive information. With proper help, we can learn to find what suits us as useful practices.
  • This need not be a comprehensive activity with lot of time & resources thrown in. We can do it incrementally, almost organically. Over a period of time we can become adept at doing it almost automatically & effortlessly.

What about the experts & consultants? Do they have any role in this approach? Certainly, they can help us in two ways.

  • They could come up and make available to us generic useful patterns in broad areas of predicting / prioritizing / planning / capturing / sharing / communicating / assessing & so on, along with guidelines for using such patterns.
  • In the absence of changes to the supporting structures (social, legal & cultural) in the relevant system, it is quite difficult for individual practitioners to work smoothly. The experts & consultants could work on finding the right leverage mechanisms and get them implemented so that the inertia is transformed into momentum. In all the three examples mentioned above, a change to such supporting structures is a daunting task and can’t be handled by the practitioners themselves.
To summarize, the practical challenges with best practices can only be tackled by shifting the focus instead to useful practices, from experts & consultants to the practitioners to execute those practices. The experts & consultants have a different yet far more important role to play.
Your views and inputs are valuable; please share them.

Practice excellence – Importance of the system clock

June 13, 2011 at 10:34 am | Posted in Blogroll, Out of my mind, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

Quite often we see that some people are always on time for the meetings & other occasions, whereas some others are always late. Not just that; if we carefully observe, even their delay interval tends to be more or less constant. When I ask for the reason (of course when I know they won’t mind) each time their reasons are different but the effect is same.

This phenomenon makes me think, maybe there is a system clock which gets set because of our repeated behavior and then starts controlling our actions. Thereafter, even if we want to change it, somehow it becomes quite tough to do so. If it was just a cause and effect relationship, once we are aware, it should be fairly easy to change. But it does not happen that way.

Practices are what individuals do to take the tasks towards their goal. Situations change and we need to quickly adapt our practices accordingly to reach the goal. But the system clock tends to make it quite difficult. What is the possible solution?

Newton’s first law of motion states that “a physical body will remain at rest, or continue to move at a constant velocity, unless an outside net force acts upon it”. Though this is applicable to physical objects, it may provide part of the solution. If our habitual patterns create a large enough shock with a crisis or failure, that may act like as the “net force”. But this again does not always produce a lasting effect. We feel bad / guilty for some time, but soon revert to our old ways. Human beings are far more complex than physical objects. They require different solutions to reset the system clock.

It is said that humans are social animals. Unlike physical objects which interact with other physical objects in predictable ways, human interactions are far more complex and there are no simple laws that help us predict them with certainty. We have to live with this uncertainty and still find ways to manage our lives for better, by continuously striving for excellence in whatever we do.

As Einstein has said “you can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created”, we need to look for the solution outside the problem domain of practices of an individual and look to the human teams (and groups/ communities / organizations). These social structures use processes to orchestrate individual practices to achieve team goals. These groupings are also human systems and hence would have a system clock. With repeated execution of the team processes, the team system clock takes over managing their sequencing and information flows.

The individual is connected to these systems in visible as well as invisible ways, consciously or unconsciously. Effect of these linkages is not always possible to be logically explained but can be definitely experienced. Let me give an example from my own experience. In late seventies, I used to work for a steel forgings company in Bombay. Our office was in north of Bombay whereas I had to go often to south Bombay to meet our suppliers. There were many variations in time required at each stage of journey as I had to reach the railway station by my car, take a local train to south Bombay and then take a taxi to my destination. I had no control over these variations, yet if the appointment was say for 4 pm, I would invariably reach my destination between 3:50 & 4:00 pm. I can’t explain it logically but obviously my system clock was so well set that the other systems could sense it and automatically adjust the circumstances accordingly.

In last few years, I have also noticed that if I work on something with full dedication and great passion, in an area of interest to the other systems, they seem to pick up the signal and the circumstances are shaped to favor the work. I start coming in contact with persons with similar or complementary interests; I come across books & articles which help to show me next steps and in general the environment appears to be interested in guiding me. It is uncanny yet very real. So the solution for an individual appears to be not to limit his vision only to help himself but keep in mind how his actions are affecting other systems. Then working on it with passion & dedication no more remains an individual mission. It is a great feeling.

If you have any views or experiences on the above, please share so that all of us will benefit.

Practice excellence – Can process and practice co-exist

June 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Organizational Excellence, Out of my mind, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | 1 Comment

In the context of human organizations, especially technical organizations, we hear a lot about processes and their importance. In other social organizations a similar concept is used but with terms like conventions & traditions. By whatever name, it essentially means what the teams (in a generic sense as a group of individuals with a common mission) favor and expect its members to follow. These may be decided by the teams themselves or prescribed for them from outside. Defining and following certain preferred ways of working by the team greatly improves its efficiency and reliability. Taken too far, especially when the situations for which they were suitable no longer exist, it starts to exhibit the harmful aspects.

Practice is a younger sibling of process, which is what individual team members do to accomplish their tasks or take decisions. Though practices are equally, if not more, important than processes due to their impact on the outcome; they rarely get the attention they deserve. This probably happens because practices are considered part of the processes and given the same treatment, whereas they need a very different approach. Processes can be, and where possible should be, automated to ensure repeatability. Practice on the other hand is a human activity and to be effective needs to be quickly adjusted to the demands of the situation. Practices should allow and support discretion whereas processes can go haywire with too much freedom to change them as and when one feels.

I feel the solution lies in the principal of the “separation of concerns”. After all, a process is a network of practices and can be treated as black boxes by the concerned process. Processes should focus on defining & managing the sequence communication & dependencies amongst the practices, and not worry about what goes on inside them as long as the output is as expected. How the practice is executed is the concern of the member executing the practice and not of the processes. The team can certainly help & guide the individuals in terms of useful patterns and guidelines for using them; however it need not impose & monitor on the individual the standard way of execution.

We see plenty of examples of the above in real life, whether in the technical teams (those producing goods & services) or social teams like the family or the community. Quite often a team restricts in the name of discipline, an individual’s choice to act based on his judgment; sometimes with disastrous results. There are also enough examples of liaise faire attitude by the team members which mess up the smooth functioning of the team, affecting its performance and sometimes even threatening its very existence. This is unnecessary. All we need is a more balanced approach where neither the process nor the practice tries to dominate the other bur rather co-exists focusing on its own scope, while at the same time helping and supporting the other. Though this is quite simple, it is easier said than done; Old habits (and perceptions) die hard.

There is a fascinating book “How NASA builds teams” by Charles Pellerin, who worked as the director of astrophysics at NASA. Based on his close association with the failed Hubble telescope mission and the subsequent successful repair in space, he developed a system to improve communications, performance and morale among hundreds of NASA teams. He says from his experience that 80 to 95 % of the failures by technical teams are due to neglecting the social context. He suggests that rather than trying to influence the individual human behavior, it helps if the teams manage the social context in which individual members operate. He gives plenty of examples which highlight need for the teams to effectively manage the environment or context in which the team members operate rather than monitor & control their behavior.

To summarize, a small change in attitude to let processes & practices co-exist, with mutual respect, can have a profound impact on human teams. But it is a huge task to put it in practice and let it become the culture of the organization.

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