Agile Guide podcast with Woody Zuill and Tom Cagley

I’m on a mission to popularise the term Agile Guide. A few weeks ago Wood Zuill (farther of Mob Programming and force behind #NoEstimates) and I recorded a podcast with Tom Cagley – another in his SpamCast series – on the Agile Guide role.

You can download the Agile Guide podcast from libsyn or you can download it from Apple, Sitcher, Google or Spotify.

Recent talks online

During the last few months I’ve done a lot of online talks and presentations. Most have been public but some have been private, some have been repeats (with updates) of past presentations while others are completely new.

As always a full list in the insights section of my website and on my YouTube channel. These include:

And “Everything think you ever wanted to know about the Product Owner but were afraid to ask”, a conversation with Adrian Reed.

Unlike conference recordings which show me dancing around a stage these were all delivered online so I expect you will find the recordings better quality. The slides are available as PDFs, again on my website.

The Business Case for Agile in 2020 – video blog

A couple of weeks ago I gave a private presentation to an organization entitled: “The Business Case for Agile in 2020.” Actually, it surprised me a bit that in 2020 people still wondered what the business case for agile was but that probably says more about my arrogance and the agile bubble I live in.

I’ve re-recorded the presentation and it is now on-line: The Business Case for Agile in 2020 is on YouTube and embedded below.

Time value profiles – a little tool with big implications

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The picture above is a time-value profile: it shows how value changes with time. It is a graphic illustration of cost of delay.

A fine wine might increase in value over time but most things – think product, project, feature or just story – decay with time. Having something today is worth more than having it next week.

I invented Time-Value profiles – although I’m happy to acknowledge Don Rienertsen’s influence. I’ve included time-value profiles in many presentations and courses (they are a key part of my value workshop) but oddly, while I’ve mentioned them in this blog before I’ve never described them. So here goes…

Imagine we want to build a feature for a product. Naturally we ask: “what is this worth?”

Money is the obvious way to measure value but strictly speaking money is not itself valuable – unless you happen to want small colourful pieces of paper or decorated lumps of metal. Money is a store of value. The value of money is not the money itself but what you can exchange the money for. And because money can be traded for a wide variety of things, which are themselves valuable, money is a useful medium for comparison and measurement.

So the question “what is this worth?” may be answered qualitatively (“a vaccine is valuable because it saves lives”) or quantitatively (“a vaccine is worth $10 trillion because it allows life to return to normal”). In order to compare competing opportunities and valuations, and in order to draw a graph, giving value a numerical quantity helps greatly.

A time-value profile shows quantitive value over time when value is measured numerically: maybe in hard money like dollars or yen, or an abstract measure like business points, wooden dollars or Atlantic shillings (I just invented that but it works).

The graph starts today: we say “If we had feature X today it would be worth 100,000 shillings”. Maybe it is worth 100,000 because that is what a customer would pay for it, or maybe because we could sell 100,000 units at 1 shilling each, or so on.

But we don’t have X today. “If we get feature X next month it will be worth 90,000 shillings.” One month delay, one month late to the customer, one month later on Amazon, costs 10,000 shillings.

“If feature X is 3 months away then it is worth less than 50,000 shillings.” And so on.

Now, the unit of value – dollars, francs, shillings, wood – is of little important. Sure $1,000,000 is very different to 1,000,000 (Russian roubles if you don’t know) but as long as you don’t mix currencies the actual currency is unimportant.

What is important is the shape of the curve and, especially, where abrupt changes happen. Look again at the graph above: between months two and three there is a sudden drop in value. That has scheduling implications.

Once you start to think about time-value profiles then it becomes obvious that value is a function of time and we need to understand what that function looks like for any given work – project, product, initiative, feature, story, just anything in fact.

It should also become clear that the question “how long will it take to build X” needs to be inverted: “how long have we got to build X?”, “how much of X could we build?” or “in the time we have what could create something to satisfy need X”

And then “how much of the available value can we capture?”. Having X might be worth 100,000 but having a half of X might still be worth 50,000 more than not having X.

As I’ve written before: to any given problem there are multiple solutions. Engineering is not about creating the best possible solution, it is about creating a solution within constraints – as my widgets exercise shows.

Add in capacity planning and a whole new paradigm of scheduling opens up.

Not that I wish to ignore costs – and effort estimates – but they are secondary, and the subject of another blog. I’ll write more about this, and perhaps put something into a workshop, in the meantime my value workshop is the best place to find out more.


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Product owner as a homeowner

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For years people have been comparing software construction with building construction. Think about how we talk about “architecture” or foundations, or the cost of change and so on. As I’ve said before, building software is not like building a house. Now it occurs to me that a better metaphor is the ongoing ownership of the building.

Every building requires “maintenance” and over time buildings change – indeed buildings learn. While an Englishman’s home is his castle those of us, even the English, who are lucky enough to own a house don’t have a free hand in the changes we make to our houses

Specifically I’m thinking about the Product Owner. Being a Product Owner is less about deciding what you want your new house to look like, or how the building should be constructed, its not even about deciding how many rooms the house should have. The role of the Product Owner is to ensure the house continues to be liveable, preferably the house is getting nicer to live in, and the house is coping with the requests made on it.

I own a house – a nice one in West London. As the owner I am responsible for the house. I do little jobs myself – like painting the fences. More significantly I have to think about what I want to do with the house: do we want to do a loft conversion? What would that entail and when might I be able to afford that?

I am the Product Owner of my own house. I have to decide on what is to be done, what can wait and what trade-offs I can accept.

When I bought the house the big thing to change was the kitchen and backroom. There was little point in any other works until those rooms were smashed to bits and rebuilt. I had to think though what was needed by my family, what was possible and what the result might be like. I received quotes from several builders – each of whom had their own ideas about what I wanted. I hired an architect for advice. I looked at what neighbours had done. And I had a hard think about how much money I could spend.

An Englishman’s home is his castle – I am the lord of my house and I can decide what I want, except…

My wife and children have a say in what happens to the house. Actually my wife has a pretty big say, while the children have less say there needs are pretty high on my list of priorities.

My local council and even the government have a say because they place certain constraints on what I can do – planning permission, rules and building codes. The insurance company and mortgage bank set some constraints and expectations too.

My neighbours might not own my house but they are stakeholders: I can’t upset them (too much) and they impose some constraints. (In my first flat/apartment the neighbours were a bigger issue because we shared a roof, a garden and the walls.)

So while I may be lord of my own house I am not a completely a free agent. And the same is true with Product Owners.

The secret with Product Owners is: they are Owners. They are more than managers – managers are just hired help. But neither do POs have a free hand, they don’t have unlimited power, the are not dictators, they are not completely free to do what they want and order people around.

Like me, Product Owners have limited resources available: how much money, how many helpers, access to customers and more. I have to balance my desire for a large loft conversion (with shower, balcony and everything else) with the money I can afford to spend on it. That involves trade-off and compromises. I could go into debt – increase my mortgage – but that comes with costs.

Product owners have responsibilities: to customers and users, to the those who fund the work (like the mortgage bank), to team members and peers to name a few. Some decisions they can make on their own, but on other decisions they can only lead a conversation and guide it towards a conclusion.

What the homeowner metaphor misses entirely is the commercial aspect: my house exists for me to live in. I don’t expect to make money out of it. The house next door to mine is owned by a commercial landlord who rents it out: the landlord is actively trying to make money out of that house.

Most Product Owners are trying to further some other agenda: commercial (generating money), or public sector (furthering Government policies), or third sector (e.g. a charity). In other words: Product Owners are seeking to add value for their organization. This adds an additional dimension because the PO has to justify their decisions to a higher authority.


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The problem with Product Owners

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After submitting his review of The Art of Agile Product Ownership one of the reviewers sent me a note about the review was and said:

“Gee, I really wish I could be that type of Product Owner.”

His comment made me smile. He nicely summarised much of the argument in Art of PO. The book makes a case for an expansive product owner – one with product management skills and business analysis skills; a product owner who looks to improve value over the short and long run, and for product owners with more customer empathy and marketing skills than code empathy and technical skills.

Many of the Product Owners I meet aren’t really owners of the product. Rather they are “Backlog Administrators” and as such the industry is creating another problem for itself.

Over the years the product owner role has been diluted, so many product owners are not really owners of their products. Instead their role is limited and constricted. They are judged on how many features they get the team deliver, whether those features are delivered by some date or whether they have met near term goals of doing the things customers – or internal users – are complaining about.

In other words the whole team is a feature factory: requests go in and success is measured by how many of those requests reach production.

Sure that is one way to run a team, and in some places that might be the “right” way to do it (a team dedicated to addressing production/customer issues perhaps.)

Unfortunately agile is prone to this failing because of the sprint-sprint-sprint nature of work. The things in front of you are obviously more valuable than the things that are not. The people shouting at you today obviously represent greater value than those who are sitting quietly asking nicely. And both groups can mask bigger insights and opportunities.

Hang on you say: Is this the same Allan who has argued against long term planning? And against analysis phases? The Allan who always argues for action this day?

Well, yes I am that Allan. And I agree that I regularly argue that teams should get started on coding and limit planning and analysis.

But that doesn’t mean I’m against these things, it only means I’m conscious of the diminishing returns of planning; and I know that what is technically possible frames not only the solution but the problem – because often we can’t conceive of the problem until we see how a solution might change things.

Teams need to watch out for the “bigger” questions. Teams need to take some time to thing long term. Time needs to be spent away from the hurly-burly of sprint-sprint-sprint to imagine a different world. Dis-economies of scale may rule but there still needs to be consideration of larger things, e.g. jobs to be done over user stories.

The responsibility rests with the Product Owner.

They own the product the way I own my house: I have to pay the mortgage and I have to change blow light bulbs but I also need to think: how long will the roof last? Will we build an extension? When will we rebuild the patio? And where am I going to put a car charging point when that day comes?

I don’t take those decisions in isolation, I don’t spend lots of time on them and I don’t let them get in the way of work today. But spending a little time thinking about them, and I may well leader on the discussion. Taking a little time to think through out how things might fit together (don’t do the roof until after the extension is built) has benefits.

And so many Product Owners aren’t doing that. Worse still their organizations don’t expect them to. Maybe they see an Architects doing that, or a Product Manager – or maybe nobody does.

The thing is: the Product Owner is the OWNER.

Managers and architects are hired and fired as needed. The buck stops with owners.

Many organizations have got this the wrong way round. The Product Owner role is diluted and individual Product Owners emasculated.

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Pandemic in the digital age

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It was hoping to keep this blog virus free. Indeed my “Conflicts in coaching” was going to be the first of several on agile coaching (what else could I do in the air going to and from Agile on the Beach New Zealand?) But…. the world has changed, I’ve changed…

It is a very scary time. Both health wise and economically: I know at least one software engineer who has lost his job as a result of the slow down. But I also know random (inappropriate) coding jobs still appear in my mailbox, I continue to see job adverts on Twitter and LinkedIn and I know one company that has landed work and had to hired contractors to work on a corvid-19 project. So some observations…

Observation 1: Covid-19 will go down in history as the first digital health crisis.

Digital technology has a big role in fighting the virus. Decisions and actions are being driven by software models of what could happen. The famous Imperial model is now OpenSource and Microsoft engineers are reported working to improve the model. (At a few hundred lines of R code there isn’t that much to refactor – although there are some very long functions and I can’t see any unit tests.)

Apps are being created to track contacts and you can bet that the search for antidotes and vaccines is utterly dependent on software. Digital powered home delivery networks and internet shopping have made closing the economy just about possible.

Those who are not directly fighting the virus are continuing to work because of digital technology. Zoom, Skype, and the like might be the most obvious beneficiaries of the virus but many others will benefit too. Although the virus is simultaneously putting a strain on our digital infrastructure and necessitating human action – witness the search for Cobol programmers in the US.

Not only have most IT, sorry digital, workers decamped to home but so too have many others – in fact almost any occupation that can. Schools are delivering lessons and distributing home learning kits online. Industries which can’t move to online working will suffer the most. (Except those which put themselves in harms way like medical staff and, to a lesser degree, delivery staff.)

And when not working online media like Netflix, YouTube and BBC iPlayer keep us sane.

For us digital folk this is no big deal. It is an extension of normal life: we are at home 5 days a week not one. But for other folk, this is big. Even the most digitally inept lawyer is having to get with the technology. As people are forced to become familiar with digital technology …

Observation 2: Digital technology adoption will be accelerated by the virus

Which means, while some technology companies (like my friend’s) will not survive, those that do are set for a boom. Post virus swaths of the economy will be destroyed but technology is in for a boom.

That boom is driven by the three forces above: 1) unlike others, our industry is not destroyed, 2) technologist continue to work remotely, and 3) non-technologist will learn to use more technology.

In particular digital healthcare – both back-office big data background analysis and customer centred applications – will play an oversized part. This field was already growing rapidly but the experience gained during this crisis can only help the sector.

But also…

Observation 3: The economic devastation caused by the virus will open up many new opportunities for digital companies to enter markets and thrive

Companies which fail create opportunities for new companies – either a like-for-like replacement or a new type of company. Previously, while those companies were active, digital technology had to compete with the existing providers, the incumbents. With those companies gone the way is clear for new digital technology companies to enter the market.

I’m not saying this isn’t going to be horrible; company failures will be painful and it new entrants will take time to get established.

And what of Agile?

Observation 4: Covid-19 is the ultimate test of agility

Forget arguments about what is agile and what is not agile. Forget ScrumBut, Wagile and the other insults hurled at those judged to be less agile than thou.

Forget agile assessments and agile maturity frameworks; forget ticking off ceremonies and declaring yourself agile. In the new world the more agile you are the greater your chances of survival.

On paper you may have the most agile team in the world but, if that team, and your organization, cannot now demonstrate how it changes rapidly it just isn’t agile.

Every single plan that existed before March 1st is now invalid. Right now companies need to pivot like never before. Agility helps companies pivot. Those who can’t pivot, or can’t pivot fast enough stand to loose the most. If you can’t pivot you aren’t agile, QED.

Companies which still operate in hierarchal command-and-control mode will find it more difficult to switch to distributed teams and remote working. When everyone is remote you need to delegate decision making. Companies which don’t trust employees, companies which constantly check what employees are doing will find home working incredibly difficult and expensive.

Individuals and interactions are more important than ever before. Processes and tools are essential but few heavy weight processes will survive the instant shift to completely distributed working. Any tool which doesn’t help now is an impediment.

Those companies which are still struggling with technical liabilities (aka technical debt) will find the cost of living with those liabilities just increased.

Observation 5: Test driven medicine

Day after day I read in the papers that the UK is not doing enough testing. It seems that countries like South Korea which do a lot of tests and base their strategy on knowing who is infected (and therefore who is safe) and then tracing the virus are doing best.

That means testing needs to be rapid – a short feedback loop.

And testing needs to be cheap so it can be done at scale.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

The cost of not testing is precautionary isolation. That cost is not sustainable.

If you could test anyone, and everyone, instantly the offices, shops and schools could reopen: you would just test everyone who arrives.

The testing strategy agile has been advocating is now needed to fix the world. And in the UK the Government seems to be as resistant to a test first approach as the most obstinate software manager or engineer.

As much as I hope the world will shortly return to how it was it will not. It will never be the same, we don’t quite know how it will be but it is already clear that digital technology and agility will be part of it.

(Test tube image taken from PublicDomainPctures.net)


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Framing the question frames the answers – my crown jewels

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Today I’m giving away my crown jewels. Once you have read this post I can’t run my favourite exercise with you. There is a bit of experiential learning I can’t give you. So if you’ve rather have the experience stop reading and go and book yourself on my May workshop.

I’m describing an exercise that models what happens in “the real world(tm).” Plenty of the people who have done the exercise recognise it was a real life problem. The insights are many, and some a little disturbing.

Dozens of teams and the answers are always the same. I live in dread that someone will guess and ruin the exercise but it never happens. Now I’m telling the world that might change.

On screen I put a story something like:

As a widget maker I want an online store to sell my widgets so that I can make money

I separate the room into teams. Each team represents a technology supplier – an agency, an outsourcer, whatever. I want each team to competitively bid on a piece of work. Each team gets to think about the problem and estimate the work. At the end I want each team to be ready to name their price, how long it will take and how many people they need. They may add any more details they like, e.g. staging, design, technology, etc. (and most do).

The teams on the right get a story which says:

As an international widget maker I want to sell direct to customers so that I can cut out distributors. I anticipate $10million turnover within 3 years and have budgeted $1.2m for this project.

15 minutes later the teams on the right read out their bids. They always want a million give or take. They want months, if not years. They want teams of half a dozen or more engineers, testers, UXD, analysts and project managers. They may propose an ongoing maintenance contract too.

Very disconcerting for these teams is that while they are answering and taking questions the other teams, those on the left, often burst out laughing – literally – when they hear these proposals.

What neither side knows is that they have different stories. The teams on the left get a story saying:

As an artisan widget maker I want to sell my widgets to customers so that I can give up my day job. When I make $100,000 a year in sales I can live my dream. My accountant tells me a WordPress website will cost $5,000.

These teams want a week or two, an engineer or two and perhaps $10,000 tops. In some cases they say “We can do it this afternoon, we’ll set up Etsy.” Even if they don’t want to use Esty or eBay they probably propose an OpenSource solution.

So what do you think?

True, it is a semi-artificial set-up but I would argue that these situations happen all the time in “the real world” work environment. However they are usually well disguised and hard to see. Maybe now you will spot them.

That aside there are many potential lessons this exercise illustrates, almost everyone is worth a discussion in its own right. To keep things brief I’ll just highlight some of them:

  • Anchoring (cognitive bias): individuals are anchored to those numbers, bigger number lead them to frame their answers as bigger numbers.
  • Assumptions: people jump to assumptions, people automatically fill in the blanks when they lack information and the information they fill in flows from the numbers mentioned. Few questions get asked.
  • Different solutions: the key lesson for me, confronted with similar problems, people (especially engineers) are capable of formulating very different solutions. Those solutions have different time and cost implications.
  • Problem bounding: presenting the same problem with different bounding constraints results in massively different solutions.
  • Effort estimates, and therefore cost estimates, flow from value: whether through anchoring assumptions or solution designs the estimates (time and money) flow from the value available NOT the other way around.
  • Prior experience often goes out the window. In one run a low-end teams told me: “We did this last week. A digital consultant showed us how to install WordPress and Magento for online retail in the morning and in the afternoon we did it ourselves.” While this team came up with a low cost proposal their colleagues who were given the $1m story forgot everything they learned last week.
  • People don’t ask questions: I answer questions while teams are creating their answers but people rarely challenge what is asked for. Maybe its because I’m usually in some position of authority as a consultant or workshop trainer and my word should be followed.

Occasionally a team with the million dollar story say “We could do this with eBay/WordPress/Shopify.” I keep a poker face and let them be. Inevitably left alone for long enough they talk themselves into a much more complex and expensive bid.

In fact, the longer I give teams the higher the estimates go. I heard a team in Australia say three times “Those estimates look low, lets double them.” And they did. (Again, planning has diminishing returns.)

So far nobody has offered two solutions: you could offer up a Shopify solution and a custom build solution but nobody has.

While we are going through the exercise the minimal viable product idea often gets mentioned – usually by the teams on the right. So recently I introduced a third story. This read the same as the international widget maker but has an extra paragraph underneath:

MacAllan consulting has advised the company to take an iterative and agile approach to this work using a minimally viable product model.

How do you think teams respond?

Think for a minute… your answer is?

It makes no difference.

Or rather, so far I’ve not had any of the million dollar teams propose anything close to the $5,000 solution. In one case a team with the MVP story actually came in more expensive – and longer – than the million dollar team without the MVP clause.

My learning here: talking MVP makes no difference. If you want an MVP you have to impose constraints. (Hence try an MVT.)

People continue to fill in the blanks after the charade is exposed. I’ve heard software architects argue forcefully they these are different problems because of the money involved and therefore require different architecture. They clearly feel cheated and want to justify the proposal they have made. I suspect they feel I’ve made them look silly and want to undo that impression, I’m sorry if I’ve made anyone feel silly.

I wonder how often that happens in the work place? How many of us would back down in real life? I’d like to think I would but I would probably first try and justify my position.

The architects have a point, in many ways the stories are functionally the same but the differences lie in the non-functional requirements: load, throughput, security and so on. But all of that is inferred by people from the price tag without question.

It makes me sad that teams ask so few questions. People easily see themselves as a tailor not as a consultant (my Tailor or Image consultant post.)

Then there are the questions about the bidding process and companies bidding on the work.

Imagine you are the buyer: one supplier bids really low, the others were much higher but inline with your expectations. Would you trust the low bid? Have they blow their credibility?

And as a bidder: if you know the client plans to spend $1,000,000 why bid lower? The engineers cost estimates and designs aren’t relevant. Ideally you bid just below the competition. You are the lowest price with all the credibility and maximum revenue.

For that matter, should you be bidding on this at all?

If you work for a small e-commerce provider in rural Cornwall you may never know about, let alone, bid on a million dollar piece of work from an American multi-national. And if you did, would anyone take you seriously?

Suppose you got your big break: you walk in and offer a quick, low cost solution based on something like Shopify. Would they take you seriously? Would they want to listen?

Do corporations increase their own costs simply by being?

Conversely, if you work for a big consultancy and bid on million dollar deals every week will you be interested in bidding on a $5,000 piece of work? Of course not!

But that also means that if a corporation approaches you for a million dollar online shop, even if you could deliver it in a week’s time running on a third party platform do you have any incentive?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Indeed, there aren’t any right answers. All answers are valid, just some answers are “better” in some places than others.

Ultimately the lesson I take away from this is: we craft solutions within constraints.

More specifically: Engineers engineer within constraints, that is what engineers do.

That reinforces my belief that one needs to really understand benefit (value) and how that changes with time. From there we can work back to a solution.

If you would like to see this exercise for real then book yourself my Requirements, Backlogs and User Stories workshop. If you are in London Learning Connexions are running this again in May.


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Requirements, User Stories & Backlog

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At the end of January I’m running my 1-day Requirements, User Stories and Backlogs workshop in London with Learning Connexions. I get great feedback from people who attend the course, perhaps because it is mostly exercised based.

If your interested check out the Learning Connexions page – its just one day and won’t break the bank! Hope to see you there.

Flipping job descriptions

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When was the last time you read your job description? Or, if it is a separate document, your “roles and responsibilities” description?

My guess it was about the time you applied for your current position. Of course, someone decided to change your description you might have read the new document but even then, did you?

I now I’m atypical because I haven’t had a job description for a long time but I honestly can’t recall ever reading them after I got the job. And I’m not even sure I read them much before then. Once you get beyond the title most of it is boiler plate and I quickly loose interest.

My guess is most people remember little more then the job title.

Like so many documents, it goes in one eye and out the other. The longer it is, the less you are likely to remember.

So it won’t surprise you when I say: I don’t think roles and responsibilities documents have much use. And it might not surprise you when I say roles are pretty pointless too.

To my mind your personal sense of identity, your own idea of who you are and what you do, plays a much bigger role in the actions you take in work and the responsibilities you accept – and those you ignore.

If, for example, your business card says: “Business Analyst”. It is not because someone defined your work as a “Business Analyst” it is because you see yourself as a business analysts and your sought out a business analyst job. What you less to do with what it says in some document, it has more to do with how you define yourself and therefore your role.

If you consider yourself to be a programmer, a software engineer, software developer or whatever, then you may shun business cards altogether. That again is part of your sense of identity. Identity is a far bigger driver of what you do than any document.

Try this: imagine you go to a meetup for people like you – be you a business analyst, a programmer, a tester or whatever. The room is full of people who share your job title – and similar role and responsibility documents. You see an inspiring speaker who advocates people like you – with your job title – undertake a new activity called XYZ. You see how it can benefit your work.

When you go to work the next day do you: look for opportunities to apply XYZ, or do you find your roles and responsibilities document and check whether XYZ falls within your remit?

For some years I’ve been wanting to try and experiment – but I need a really forward looking, daring, company to work with me on this. I want to flip recruitment.

The company advertises a job by title with few, if any, details. They ask people to apply not with a CV (resume) but with the job description they would write for such a job. The candidate sets out the role and responsibilities as they see it. The company then interviews those people who write the description that bests matches their own thinking and the candidates get to explain how they would live up to that description.

Crazy erh?


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