Tag Archives: Quality

A Magical 1997-era Web Form & the Illusion of Progress

This morning, while I was checking my email, the power went out.

There was no storm, the neighbors still had power… did I forget to pay the bill? Surely not… I get an email every month & immediately click through to process the payment. But I decided to check anyway.

I went to our local electric company’s web site to check on the status of my account. It’s not a big town, and their development budget has got to be tiny… it looks like they haven’t updated their web site in more than a decade. And the “Pay Your Bill” form is even more extreme… that form is straight outta 1997, complete with a little moving text, like ants marching across the bottom of your screen. It looks like Peoplesoft used to look like, at the dawn of the millennium.

Not my power company’s web form. But close. You get the idea.

Turns out, I did make a mistake last month. I was traveling when bill time came around, and instead of clicking the button to pay all accounts, I accidentally only paid one and not the one that corresponds to the house where I live, where I work, where I absolutely positively need internet all the time.

There was a text box at the top of my screen with a phone number, and a message saying that power could usually be restored by 8pm. I started mentally arranging my work day… how much connectivity I’d be able to get by tethering to my phone… how much battery life I had left in my laptop… how much crow I’d have to eat, as the impacts impacted other people and other meetings.

I quickly filled out all the little boxes to let the electric company know that I really wanted them to take my money and turn my power back on as soon as they could. Like usual, their clunky looking web form was smooth to actually fill in.

But then magic happened.

I clicked the “Pay Now” button with the stylus on my phone. TAP! Before my fingers returned to the position they were in when they started the downward trip to click the button (literally milliseconds later) I heard whirring all around me. The printer was going through its startup sequence. The TV started to flicker on.

That 1997-era web form was like a lightswitch. When I flipped it, my power went back on. For whatever the power company didn’t invest in making their web site look slick and exciting, they sure did invest in what means the most to me: automatically, instantaneously, magically getting my power back in the blink of an eye.

Why don’t all companies invest, like this, in delivering meaningful value over delivering the appearance of value?

I’m thinking of a company I know, right now, that’s invested several million dollars over the past year trying to get a web app in place to perform a basic revenue-driving function of their business. They even “built an MVP”! But they’re still falling short of their goal. I wonder if they, like so many others, are falling into the most nefarious trap that exists:

The Illusion of Progress… showing that you’re moving forward without showing that you know what really matters, and then surgically focusing on that.

Are you making progress on what really matters? Or what looks like it matters?

There’s your challenge for this week (and life).

Agile Should Not Make You Feel Bad

Agility can be great (even though for many neurodivergent people, it’s the opposite of great). But when teams go through the motions to be “Agile” they often end up overcomplicating the work, adding stress to interactions, and achieving less agility.

If your agile processes are “working”, then over the next iteration (typically 1-4 weeks):

⬜ You have a clear understanding, as a team, of the value you’re working to demonstrate. (Note that this is not a promise or a commitment, but a shared purpose, direction and intention.)

⬜ You have a clear understanding, as individuals, of the actions that will generate that value. You know what to work on (and think about) when you’re not in meetings or with clients.

⬜ You don’t feel alone – you have teammates to communicate with and collaborate with, and resources you can use, as you move forward to advance project objectives.

⬜ You are working at a comfortable, sustainable pace.

⬜ Your team is improving every week – you continually do things a little differently to help improve quality, productivity, collaboration, or other outcomes.

None of these things require meetings (or “ceremonies”) – just communication and inclusion. We should always be asking ourselves and our team members: what’s the easiest, smoothest, least intrusive way of building this shared understanding and maintaining it every day?

When teams work with agility:

⬜ Everyone understands the overall goal and the next increment of value to demonstrate.

⬜ Everyone has clear things to do to contribute to that value.

⬜ Each person (and the team as a whole) works at a sustainable pace.

⬜ Nobody feels alone. There’s a group of collaborators to share the work with.

⬜ The client or project champion has visibility into the work and is happy with progress.

⬜ There’s an opportunity to rest, reflect, and adjust every week or two.

It’s not ridiculously hard to adjust to changes in scope, tools, or personnel. 

But I regularly see “agile” teams flailing… unhappy… in constant panic mode, with stress that just won’t end. They are very busy and always seem to be scrambling to show their client or project champion some kind of value… with the feeling that they have to defend their existence. They have a nagging sense of confusion and impostor syndrome may be creeping in. They can tell you exactly what tasks are on their JIRA boards, but they can’t tell you why those tickets exist or how their task is contributing to overall project value. They have lost sight of the forest (value) because they have planted so many trees (tickets).

For these teams, the Scrum process and Agile ceremonies may be adding layers of stress and bureaucracy rather than helping the team work sustainably to consistently drive value. They are “doing Agile ” but have actually made themselves less agile… less able to flow and adapt and respond to changes in scope, tools, or participants.

Agile methods first emerged in response to the slow, painful, unsatisfying, unhappy practice of software development. It was really depressing to spend months building software, only to have customers and users complain how bad it was when they got it (especially when you developed exactly what they specified). It felt isolating to have to figure out how to deliver a piece of the software without any input from other engineers, and it was distressing when others were blocking your work and you had to convince them to listen to you. The whole endeavor was inefficient, and people were often tense and stressed. 

The realizations in red (in the 90s) led to the Agile Manifesto items (2001) in blue

We’re applying processes and tools without really examining why we need them

So let’s prioritize…

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Since the beginning of time, development teams tend to get hung up on the details of using tools (e.g. MS Project, JIRA, kanban boards) rather than why the tools are there in the first place: to make sure people are getting the information and context they need – on a regular, routine basis – to make continuous progress on the team’s overall deliverables.
  • What we should do in 2022: Focus on information sharing, context building, and working arrangements that help people get work done. This applies to interactions within the team as well as interactions with the client.

We’re doing a lot of work that doesn’t actually contribute to our goal

So let’s prioritize…

Working software [ie. tangible stuff that’s valuable] over comprehensive documentation

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Software development in the 1990s was documentation-heavy. I even remember, in 2018, throwing away a few hundred pounds of paper (in about 20 4” binders) containing requirements and design documents for a really big software project that we did between 2002 and 2004. Often, development teams wouldn’t even produce software that matched the documentation because we’d learn about what was feasible and what was not as we were doing it. Everyone tended to deliver software that the business needed a year or two ago. We didn’t learn together and co-create the software. 
  • What we should do in 2022: We provide value in the form of information, shared understanding, and working software (which may be in the form of quality controls) – that’s it. Anything we produce that doesn’t directly contribute to making these things happen shouldn’t be done. 

We’re unable to deliver something we don’t know how to define or describe yet

So let’s prioritize…

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Because deciding what you’re on the hook to deliver at the beginning of a project – and exactly what the deliverables are going to look like – is dangerous. You and the customer rarely have enough understanding of the problem (or of each other) to get it right. 
  • What we should do in 2022: Establish shared accountability. (Note: this is rare. How many times has a customer been on your team and just as accountable to the project champion for the end result as you are?) A workaround is to set expectations with the client that we are discovering the shared understanding together, and we will get as close to the desired deliverables as we can, given the fact that we are embarking on a process of learning together.

We’re unable to commit to a plan when we might learn that our plan isn’t feasible

So let’s prioritize…

Responding to change over following a plan

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: As you learn about what’s possible, what’s not possible, and what the client actually values… plans will change. Instead of establishing a timeline that won’t end up working out (and that will cause you a lot of stress when you start deviating from), just start with the understanding that your Gantt Chart and your intermediary milestones will probably not be achieved when you think they will – or maybe even at all.
  • What we should do in 2022: Always keep the final goal in mind, but revisit and adjust the plan as you learn more every week. Iterate! 

“Documentation” is a Dirty Word

I just skimmed through another 20 page planning document, written in old-school “requirements specification”-ese with a hefty dose of ambiguity. You know, things like “the Project Manager shall…” and “the technical team will respond to bugs.”

There’s a lot of good content in there. It’s not easy to get at, though… for each page I want to understand, I can expect to spend between ten minutes and an hour deciphering what’s going on. (That’s half a week of work, and I have a lot of other work to do this week. Is it even worth it?)

Also, this document is boring… and there’s a lot of filler (like “package X is useful, flexible, and open source” – OK, that’s great, and factually correct, but not very informative).

The whole document could have been condensed into 4 or 5 slides of diagrams plus annotations. If that had happened, I’d be looking at a 10 to 30 minute commitment overall to get my brain into this particular company’s context… and then I’d be able to make some useful contributions. (As it stands, I’m weighing whether it’s worth my time to go spelunking in that 20-pager at all. Probably not.)

Unfortunately:

  • The bulk of technical documentation that I read is unintelligible or lacks sufficient meaning. I have three decades of exposure to this stuff, so if I can’t understand it, I feel super sorry for the early career people (who might think they can’t understand it because they don’t know enough).
  • Nearly all of the technical documents I see are uninteresting. And tech is interesting.

99 times out of 100, technical documentation is dull and dysfunctional. While it’s supposed to help people and teams establish a shared understanding of a system or a process or a concept, it just ends up looking really impressive and convincing you that the authors know a lot more about this than you do. It doesn’t help you much, if at all.

And as a CTO, CIO, or VP of Engineering, I don’t want to pay for crappy documentation. This particular document probably cost me between $32K-50K, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg… because it doesn’t account for the incremental costs of the people who will attempt to decipher it – which could be 10-100x more over the lifetime of that document. Although the person or team that wrote the 20-pager probably knows what’s going on (at least a little bit), the artifact itself is going to cost other people time and take them away from more value-adding tasks.

The sheer volume of information we’re required to wade through to gain understanding – without the assurance that it will lead us in the right direction, or even in any direction at all – is probably what’s led to the disease of devaluing documentation

A lot of managers think documentation isn’t value-adding, and shouldn’t be done, because… in most cases, people do it so badly that it wasn’t worth the investment in the first place.

Dear tech workers: can we fix this, please? I know it will take a whole generation to effect meaningful change, but… I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

Scrum and the Illusion of Progress

Agile is everywhere. Sprints are everywhere. Freshly trained Scrum practitioners and established devotees in the guise of Scrum Masters beat the drum of backlog grooming sessions and planning poker and demos and retros. 

They are very busy, and provide the blissful illusion of progress.

(Full disclosure: I am a Sprint Grinch, and my heart will not grow three sizes, or even one… on any day.)

Despite the mirage of progress, the people on the front lines doing the engineering work feel little relief from the ill logic and misplaced pressure of the pointy haired bosses. The managers aren’t getting the deliverables faster (like they convinced themselves they would). There are tons of charts and graphs that tell us how we’re doing (like burndowns) but now the CFO is using them to whip our horses just a little bit harder, trying to get them to go faster. They’re not going fast enough. (Spoiler: They will never go fast enough.)

And isn’t that what Agile is supposed to do… speed things up? NO!

Once upon a time, we used to build software like we built skyscrapers: plan every single task, put in on a Gantt chart, and make sure there are approval gates between every phase of work: elicit requirements, design the systems, write code, test it, deploy it, maintain it.

But a couple of big, bad things tended to happen over and over: 

  • By the time we got to “test and deploy” we’d discover that the thing we built was not what the users and stakeholders actually needed. (“But it’s exactly what you asked for in the requirements,” we’d say, “and you approved it at multiple decision points.” “Sure,” they would say, “but we learned a lot in the meantime, and things are different now. You just built us what we thought we needed six months ago.”)
  • The software developers would build something that the operations team, responsible for standing it up and maintaining it, wouldn’t be able to support at the intended service levels. (“You can’t expect us to maintain this,” they’d say. “It’s fragile.”)

Agile practices emerged more than two decades ago when engineers said… hold it, there’s got to be a better way. If we work collaboratively with our users and stakeholders, learning together, figuring out how to realize value together… then we’ll produce something that real people are able to get value from much faster. We need control over our process, and we need you to be actively engaged, business people. We can eliminate all these handoffs, and replace them with shared accountability.

The two solutions were: 

  • Agile: We said “let’s take a more collaborative approach to development, and get the users and stakeholders together with the engineers, so they can all learn and co-create together until they’ve produced the next nugget of value.” 
  • DevOps: Instead of two groups siloed from each other, let’s automate the handoff and make it seamless, and give the developers tools that will alert them when they’ve got to fix more stuff. If tests automatically run before the code is merged into production, we’ll always know that we’re deploying stuff that runs. (I’m pretty sure everyone agreed this was a good idea.)

Agile is a great aspiration. But how often have you ever seen the users and stakeholders sharing space, sharing accountability, sharing the process of creating value? Not often. They still coordinate through user stories, and tickets, and handoffs, and PRs. 

Agile speeds up value delivery, but not necessarily software delivery. Having daily stand-ups and burndown charts and JIRA tickets won’t make people code faster. But it will make managers think they should be coding faster, and that’s where the poison will settle in and grow.

Bottom line, my position statement is:

  1. Any (minimalist) process is better than no process.
  2. Agility is an essential goal, but Scrum and certified Agile practitioners are less likely to get you there.
  3. Go back to first principles: plan an iteration, co-create value, see where it got you and reassess your ability to reach your goal, then adjust. Keep experimenting.

Would I ever use Scrum? Sure, under specific conditions:

  • There’s something we have to build, and we’ve never built it before.
  • The road ahead is unknown.
  • We have access to collaborators who can help us see what’s needed.
  • We agree to intentional checkpoints where we can see how far we got, and whether we can still get to the place we’d originally intended.
  • We iterate, and iterate, until we agree we’ve incrementally added enough total value nuggets to move to the next project.
  • There are no well-meaning-but-not-helpful engineering managers or business managers hovering over the development team with bated breath, waiting to beat us with burndowns. The dev team can manage itself.

Agility is a laudable – and essential – goal. But only in rare cases do I believe Agile and Scrum will get you there.

Why Software Estimation is (Often) Useless

For 12 years, I blogged and wrote a whole bunch. For the past year and a half, I’ve let myself be pulled away from so many of the things that make me me… including writing. Today I heard one of the best anecdotes ever, and it’s the spark that will be pulling me back in. (Thanks, John.)

So here it is! It has to do with software estimation. Not only is it difficult to accurately estimate how long it’s going to take someone to do a programming (or similarly technical) task, the act of estimating often does not add any value at all. Estimation is a bad thing, especially if you’re trying to be Agile.

(And if you’re in a client/contractor relationship, you’ll have discovered that estimates are the lifeblood of the relationship, even as they drain all the life and all the blood out of the relationship, slowly and deliberately.)

Sometimes I get caught asking engineers for estimates even when the task we’re embarking on is new, unknown, uncertain, and requiring lots of learning and exploration and discovery. I should know better. But I cave, because the concept of the software estimate is so enticing: with a good estimate, I’ll know exactly how much time someone will need to spend working on a task that’s still kind of nebulous and mostly unknown. (That was a joke.)

My friend John shared the best anecdote ever today about why software estimation is so frustrating (liberally embellished):

Imagine that you’re standing on a hill looking down at a labyrinth, or a corn maze. It’s reasonably small… you can see that the corn maze is definitely doable, you can see a couple paths in and out, and the entire maze is a similar size to other mazes you’ve successfully found your way out of. So you’re pretty sure once you get to the entrance, you’ll find your way out.

But there’s no way you can say exactly how long it will take you to escape. Maybe you’ll run right through from start to finish, and it will be smooth. Maybe you’ll get stuck in the beginning, and spend a long time before winding your way out. Maybe you’ll run right close to the end, but have no idea you’re a few feet away from the exit, and you’ll get stuck there for a while.

And maybe you’ll make it halfway through, get lost, go in circles, and eventually just die in the maze.

Problem is, I can tell you how long it’s taken me to get across comparable mazes, but I have no way of knowing how long it will take me to escape from this maze, and just having another engineer in the maze to pair with me and see things I’m maybe not seeing is no guarantee at all that either of us will get us. Statistically, we’ll probably make it out, but the estimate I give you is just a guess.

Unfortunately, it’s a guess that’s going to make a lot of people unhappy, no matter what. Because even if I make it out of the maze fast this time, then they’ll expect that I’ll zoom through the next maze.

– John

The Endowment Effect: The Ultimate Organizational Rose-Colored (Risk-Enhancing) Glasses

Fifteen or so years ago, I was a member of a review team that assessed a major, multi-million dollar software project. We were asked to perform the review because the project had some issues — it cost nearly $2M a year, was not yet delivering value to users, and had been running for 17 years.

Were I the ultimate decision-maker, my plan of action would have been simple: shut down the project, reconstitute a team with some representation from the old team, and use the lessons learned to rearchitect a newer, more robust solution. It would have customer involvement from the start to ensure a short time-to-value (and continuous flow of value). But there was one complication: the subject matter for this software package was highly specialized and required active involvement from people who had deep knowledge of the problem domain… and the team already had about 60% of the world’s experts on it.

Still, I was focused on the sunk costs. I felt that the organization should not choose to keep the project going just because over $20M had been poured into it… the sunk costs should not factor into the decision.

But then something very curious happened two years later, as the project was still hemorrhaging money… I was put in charge of it. So what did I do? Launched a two-month due diligence to reassess the situation, of course.

I was not on the review team this time, but their assessment was not a surprise — can the project, reconstitute the team, use the lessons learned to plan a new approach to delivering value quickly.

So that’s what I did… right? NOOOOO!!! I decided to try a little harder… because of course we could get the current software project to be stable and valuable, if we just gave it a little more time.

Even I was shocked by my transformation. Why was I feeling like this? Why was I ignoring the facts? Why was I, all of a sudden, powerless to make the appropriate and most logical choice?

Turns out, I was just demonstrating human nature via the Endowment Effect — which says, simplistically, that once you own something you value it more than before you own it. This is not just a curiosity though… because it can get in the way of effective decision-making.

Think about it:

  • Before you buy a house, you psychologically devalue it because you want to get a better deal. But once you move in, your psyche inflates the value because you stand to win as the value increases.
  • Why is it that leaders often value the opinions of consultants more than the opinions of full-time staff? Because consultants are more expensive, and once their reports have been submitted, you now own the intellectual property… and value it more.
  • The same effect occurs if you buy a company. You may be sensitive to issues and opportunities for improvement prior to the sale, but once your signature is on the dotted line… the endowment effect kicks in, and the rose-colored glasses magically appear.

This has a huge implication for quality and process improvement. Once you own something, you are less able to see the problems that need to be solved. This is why we use external auditors for our ISO 9001 programs, or review panels for our government projects, or a quality award assessment process for evaluating how well we are translating strategy to action.

Other people can see areas for improvement that you can’t, if you’re an owner of the process that has problems. The lesson? Get external eyes on your internal issues, and pay attention to their insights.

Shifting the Mindset: Walter White on Quality

(special shout-out to those of you who saw the typo the 30 sec it existed!)

In college, to meet my phys ed requirement, I chose a class where I wouldn’t have to exert much physical energy: golf. Almost three decades later, I still can’t play golf, but I did learn one thing in that class that has helped me through life.

When you’re trying to reach a goal, figure out a process to help you reach that goal, then focus on the process instead of the goal. I used this approach to improve my putting. Here’s how it worked: to get the ball in the hole, don’t aim for the hole… aim for a point along the line that goes to the hole, which should be easier to hit. If your ball hits that midpoint, it’s more likely that your putt will go in.

For example, if you’re at the white dot, aim for the Red X, not the hole:

This approach centers you on the process of making the putt. Getting your mind off the pressure of the goal results in the freedom to focus on what’s most important: developing the discipline and habit that will lead to success.

Bryan Cranston, the actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad, had a similar experience until he was in his mid-40s. Although he had landed many roles in films and television series, none were the kind of long-lived and memorable performance Cranston was aiming for. So he made a conscious effort to shift his perspective.

Author Scott Mautz, citing Cranston’s 2016 memoir, describes the process:

Early in Cranston’s career he was an auditioning machine for commercials or guest-starring roles, a bevy of high-pressure stabs that might serve as at least a step up to the big time. But he was walking into a slew of rooms where he felt he had no power. All that changed when a mentor suggested a new outlook, and it led to an honest-to-goodness six-word secret to his success.

Focus on process rather than outcome.

Suddenly, Cranston felt free. He approached each audition as not going to get something, but to give something–a performance. And giving a great performance requires staying obsessively focused on the process of preparing to be able to give a great performance. He learned that if he overly focused on the outcome (will he get that part?) it set him up for disappointment and left him yearning for validation. Focusing solely on the outcome had also kept him from taking risks as he didn’t want to give a potential gig away with a mis-step.

But this mindset shift, of falling in love with and staying laser-focused on the process, changed everything for him. Soon after he adopted it, he got the role in Malcolm in the Middle, and then the career-changing Breaking Bad starring role.

From Mautz (2019): https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/breaking-bads-bryan-cranston-finally-achieved-success-when-he-adopted-this-powerful-6-word-mindset.html?cid=sf01001

When you have a challenging or aspirational goal in your sights, like when your organization is starting a lean transformation or digital transformation, it can seem overwhelming. The heavy feeling can actually prevent you from getting where you want to go.

The solution is to identify your intermediary goals — the ones you can achieve by developing and tuning an operational process. Let go of the aspirations, and focus on the daily work, creating the habits that will make you and your organization successful.

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