Blog

Travelling, houses and Change

In this weeks blog: business travel, selling and buying houses and insights into change. So on with the show…

No blog entry for a little while because I’ve been travelling – business travelling, not in business class you understand (although thank you British Airways for the upgrades to Economy+) but travelling for business. Now I don’t want to turn into one of those people who is always talking about frequent flyer miles, and comparing airports – heaven forbid I start to sound like Tyler Brule (FT columnist and Wallpaper editor) but I thought I would explain the absence of a blog.

Actually, one of the nice things about flying (or other travelling) is that you do get some time to catch up on reading and even writing – albeit at the expense of sleep. So, this is the first blog entry I’ve ever written while sitting in the back of an Airbus.

Unfortunately this travelling has all happened at a bad time. I’ve been saying for years that I would like to do a little bit more business travel but I expected the fun would ware off very quickly. Well, I’ve been proved right, this is my fourth flight in 8 days (including two across the Atlantic) and there are another three in the next two days. The fun has gone very quickly.

Its come at a bad time for another reason too. We’re in the process of trying to move house. Suddenly, the time I should be spending looking at houses and discussing financial options has gone. Which all adds to the stress of selling my flat and finding a house.

Selling my flat is a pretty sad emotional process. I’ve had it over 8 years now and my girlfriend has been living there with me for nearly 2 years. I don’t want to leave. I love the place, I’ve made it my own, made it my home. She’s pretty attached to the place too.

Knowing we needed somewhere bigger was part of the story. Knowing our future life together demanded somewhere else was part too. But trying to just give up something we both love was hard.

Then we started to look at other places. And as it happened we liked the first place we saw. I think we’ll buy it but don’t count your chickens yet. Now we’ve seen a few places, and we’ve talked about how we would make them our attitude has changed.

Selling my place is still sad, and its still a wrench, but now we have a future. We have something to look forward to. Something to pull us.

So here is the insight into change – whether it be personal or corporate…

Change mean giving things up. This is hard, if you like something, if you are familiar with something it is hard to imagine life without it, it is hard to imagine a new life. And of course, there is a whole load of uncertainty – what does the future hold? You know what is what before the change, what will it be like afterward? Is this as good as it gets? Is everything else inferior?

But, when you have a future to look forward to, when some of the uncertainty is removed, when you can start to imagine a better life, well, everything becomes easier.

Its not enough to ask people to give something up, you need to offer them a better future. That is my insight for the week.

How do you offer someone a better future? Well, you can start by telling stories. More on that next time.

So, I became a product manager.

It happened in an unexpected way – I won’t go into the details but about 6-8 weeks ago I had an opportunity to move from the development side of things to the product side of things.

Has taken me a while to get my head around it all – I still am in fact. I spoke to a couple of the product managers here to get a better idea of what I should be doing but it wasn’t until I spoke to my long time friend Richard Hall that I really made progress on understanding what I was doing.

Richard’s been a Product Manager for many years, when I decided to do an MBA a couple of years he said:
“You’ll become a Product Manager, all MBAs become Product Manager!”
And I said:
“No I won’t! I’ll still be a developer.”

Well, I got my MBA and I stayed a developer. Now he’s been proved right, for a while I didn’t want to admit it to him – silly of me I know. I spoke to him at the weekend and yes he laughed when I reminded him what he said – note, I had to remind him, he’d forgotten.

I picked his brains a bit and I got some good information. In particular he pointed me at the Silicon Valley Product Group (http://www.svproduct.com.) They have some really good papers on their website, I recommend them to any new (or existing) PMs.

And this reminded me of something else. When I went to Silicon Valley I discovered all these Product Managers. Not marketing people, but people concerned with what should be in the product.

In the UK you never meet a Product Manager. You meet lots of “Business Analysts” but they aren’t the same. Over time I came to appreciate their role and I saw that the existence of this role, and good people to fill it, was one of the differentiating factors in the Valley.

Now I’m working for a company in London which is doing well, and guess what? Unlike most British companies they actually have Product Managers. Actually, Richard is back in the UK too and is a Product Manager for another successful British technology company. So maybe the idea is spreading.

I think I’m going to like being a Product Manager.

Blog at 2 months, the National Theatre and food

I’ve been writing this blog now for nearly 2 months. It doesn’t feel like it but I have. It still feels new. I guess that’s because I haven’t written very many entries. I suppose I started with a feeling that a blog should be updated every few days and well, it just doesn’t work like that!

I have lots of ideas for blog entries but just finding the 30 minutes or so to write them up can be difficult. It hasn’t helped that during these last two months I’ve had to do final preparation for EuroPLoP (preparing my paper, shepherding), being shepherded for VikingPLoP, finalising my chapter in the PLoPD5 book (due at the end of 2005 or start of 2006 I’m told), co-ordinating work on the ACCU website and holding down a full time job!

Luckily my girlfriend likes me being active like this but I’m sure she’d like me to spend a little more time with her 🙂

Personally I like being busy, I can’t imagine it any other way but it does tax you, and its is stressful keeping all the commitments you make to people. The only way is to constantly try to reduce them – still the list grows.

The other thing I always want to do more of is culture: theatre, opera, ballet, art galleries, music and so on.

For some reason the Proms programme has been difficult to get hold of this year so the season has started and I’ve hardly got any booked.

With all this in mind it was especially nice to go to the National Theatre last night for “The UN Inspector” – a “free” interpretation of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” by David Farr.

It was a good play, it had some not so good reviews when it opened a few months ago and I can see what some of the critics where saying but like most plays the first few nights are not the best, I guess it has changed a little and tightened up a bit. If you get the chance go and see it, it is very enjoyable.

Its a while since I’ve been to the National and in that time the Royal Festival Hall has closed for refurbishment. Which means one of my favourite restaurants in London is no more. I hope People’s Palace will return in time but until then I need to find somewhere else.

Now, it might be that my memory is faulty but I don’t recall the National Theatre being a place for restaurants but it now has three. Or rather, one cafeteria and two restaurants.

We went to the Terrace Cafe last night. The weather was OK but not great so we where inside not on the Terrace. What is obvious is that this Cafe has been squeezed into a bit of surplus space. This could mean something pretty awful but it isn’t, it was actually very enjoyable and hit the spot.

The secret is that the designers of this Cafe have integrated the food, service and space. The product offering (to use a marketing term) is tailored to the space and confines. So, there is no starter menu but a salad bar is included. The main courses are stock items (beef, duck, salmon fish cakes) but are prepared well, simple but tasty. The price doesn’t break the bank and the service is great – they know everyone there is going to the theatre so you don’t have to wait long for a waiter and the bill arrives ASAP.

If you want a lesson on how to integrate your service offering with your operational constraint go and have a meal at this restaurant and look at how it works.

And if your going to the National Theatre and want a not-too fancy pre-theatre meal you could do a lot worse than try here.

By now you can see my problem. Even when I’m not working my mind is racing.

The opposite effect

Sometime you do something and it has the opposite effect of what you intended. This is a problem at the best of times, and its a problem when your dealing with change.

Maybe you want someone to do something. But actually asking them to do it can bring about a defensive reaction. For example, someone changes to a new role in your organisation. They start working with different people, it makes sense for them to move desks, they may even know it. But when someone suggests they move desks they ask “why should I?”

This happened to a friend of mine recently. He’s not really been seeing eye-to-eye with his manager for a while. He’s got a new role in the company, a role he’s actually quiet glad to have taken on – and a new manager too. Yet he had a feeling he’d been shunted out of his old role, that the old manager didn’t want him there.

And this kind of manifested itself with his desk. He knew he should move desks but it wasn’t clear where he should sit, nor was it ever the right time, and in truth moving desks signalled an identity change, a move away from one team. Yet every time his former manager mentioned moving desks he felt less included to. Every time it was mentioned he was reminded of this feeling of being pushed out of his old department.

So, actually by mentioning the change it became less likely because he became defensive. This was minor for my friend and his desk but think about an organisation undergoing radical change. People can feel unwanted, threatened and scared.

To finish the story, my friend recognised this within himself and realised the managers requests where the reason he was not doing what he himself thought was the right thing. Finally he moved desks because he knew it was right and was just not moving because of the requests to move desks.

Return from EuroPLoP 2005

I’ve just returned from the EuroPLoP conference in Germany. For those who’ve never been to a PLoP conference you don’t know what your missing – get along now!

Anyone will do – except for the fact that I hear the original PLoP (outside of Chicago) has changed its atmosphere in the last couple of years so maybe that is not a first choice. VikingPLoP is a great little conference but it is small. Still EuroPLoP isn’t that big, about 45 people this year, much less than the 65 when I first went in 2003.

I return from EuroPLoP as usual, exhausted physically (too much beer, too many late nights) and mentally (so much to think about, so much to read, so many good conversations) but also inspired and ready to move on to the next year.

(Unfortunately while I was at EuroPLoP some bombs exploded in London – you’ve probably heard about this already. London is my home town, I was born close to Liverpool but I now consider London home. It feels like someone has attacked a member of my family. Still, I didn’t let it ruin my conference too.)

A few things deserve mention here.

First, much to my surprise, I was award the 2005 Neil Harrison Shepherding Award. This is a great honour for me, although I feel “I’m not worthy”. I look at the names on the Staff and they include great people: Norm Kerth, Joe Bergin, James Noble and Frank Buschmann. Thank you to the programme committee, I am honoured.

Second: I ran a long focus group (5 hours over 2 days) with Lise Hvatum on the subject of Conway’s Law. This was a fascinating exercise that opened up all kinds of ideas and insights. We learned too much to write it all here. We will be writing a report for the conference proceedings in the near future. For now lets just say Conway’s Law isn’t necessarily a Law.

Next: there where several analysis patterns at the conference, including a couple in my workshop. Didi Schutz asked me: “Are Analysis Patterns really Patterns?” I think we all tend to accept Analysis Patterns as Patterns but I’m no longer sure they are Patterns.

A pattern should tell me what to build, it should tell me how to go about building it, the pattern is named after what you build. The activity of Analysis is not about building, it is about understanding, decomposing and deconstructing. Therefore, how can you have a pattern about this?

Because patterns are about building they are about synthesis. Obviously, analysis is not synthesis. In fact, I’m in very close to revisiting Henry Mintzberg’s argument about strategic planning. (I recommend The Rise and Fall of Strategy Planning for more detail.)

Finally: I’m conscious that there is much pattern lore that is handed down by word-of-mouth, and in a somewhat random fashion. If you have the right conversation you will learn about “the but form of forces” but if your unlucky nobody will tell you about the “noun phrase” rule for pattern naming. At a time when individual patterns are becoming less important and pattern sequences more so I feel there is a need to get this information to new pattern writers.

Writing a pattern should not be hard. You should not require years of learning. Patterns are usually written by domain experts, if you need to be an expert pattern writer too then we are going to loose a lot of opportunities for patterns.

I could write more but I’m going to draw the line there for today.

Getting ready for EuroPLoP

Well it is time of year again. On Wednesday I’m off on my annual pilgrimage to Munich – or rather a town about 80km West of Munich, all I’ll see of Munich is the airport.

It is the annual European Patterns Language Conference – otherwise known as EuroPLoP. The original PLoP conference still happens outside Chicago in September every year, and yes the name is deliberate – Pattern Languages of Programming but they chose something that sounded a little funny, thus “Plop.”

This is the third year I’ve been to EuroPLoP and it is going to be my busiest. As well as having my own paper work shopped I’ll be the work shop leader for my group, plus I’m co-leading a focus group on “Conways Law” with Lise Hvatum, and if that weren’t enough I’m shepherding a paper face-to-face.

Although EuroPLoP takes place in a conference retreat (formally a monestry, they kept the brewery and all drink is free) the energy levels are outstanding. Mentally I’m going to be challenged, emotionally I’ll learn to trust a whole bunch of people – most of whom I’ve never met before and physically I’ll be exhausted.

The focus group might be the most exciting bit of the conference. I’m expecting to learn a lot. However, as I’m the facilitator I’ll have to keep on my toes – a great challenge. Already this session has created a lot of interest.

I’m looking forward to shepherding a paper face-to-face. As a shepherd it is my job to help the authors make their paper better. Its a kind of coaching role, it is still their paper I just give them advice and help them improve it. The real trick is to help them make the discoveries themselves. The authors know the patterns best, my job is to help them with the “pattern” bit in such a way that they tease out a better pattern.

As to my own patterns, well, they have nothing to do with programming any more. My early pattern(s) did but the ones I’ve written for the last couple of years are focused on business issues. I’m trying to establish the pattern form as a useful tool in the business domain.

I really think patterns have a place in business education. So much of what I learn on my MBA could (should?) be expressed would patterns. That should make things a little easier to understand.

Anyway, enough for now, I have to pack…

Switzerland

No entries for a week – a bit of a gap by my own standards. I’ve been on holiday (vacation to US-English speakers). Went down to Switzerland for a week. We relaxed, we saw Zurich, met some friends, visited Lucerne for a few days (where I would recommend the Hotel Hofgarten), did some lake swimming, walked up (half a mountain) and generally had an enjoyable time.

Of course, Switzerland is expensive – I probably don’t need to tell you this – but its worth thinking about in more depth. What makes Switzerland expensive? Taxes are low, employment is high, salaries are high (so people can afford the prices) but you might expect these things to cancel out. At the moment I can’t answer my question.

(Another question I can’t answer: how can the subsidise the train system so much when taxes are so low? I suspect, the answer is limited public spending on health care, similar to the US where health care money is spent by the private not the public sector. This is the ultimate stealth-tax.)

What was clear is that Switzerland is a service based economy. Yes there is some farming, and some manufacturing – particularly precision engineering like watches and things but the driving forces in the Swiss economy are Banking and Tourism, both service industries – and both industries that don’t like change.

(OK, maybe I didn’t see another side of Switzerland since I only visited the home of Banking and Tourism, please correct me if I’m wrong.)

What is interesting is that Switzerland potentially offers a view into the future. We know that much manufacturing and even some services are migrating to low-wage economies, so what advanced economies like the UK is betting on is keeping the high-value services. There will always be some low-value services (e.g. bar tender) but the high-value ones are the ones really worth having and they are knowledge based. Bankers require knowledge of banking, IT people require knowledge of IT, Teachers require knowledge of their domain, and so on.

I’d like to learn more about Switzerland’s economic model and what it can teach us for the future.

I’d also like to know how Switzerland got to be where it is today. How did it create such an economy?

And, the malevolent curious side of me, would like to know more about the ghosts in Switzerland’s cupboard. The place is too clean, too wealthy – I was actually relieved to see homeless people, it told me the place was real!

An organization mapping exercise

Last night I ran an organizational mapping exercise at the Extreme Tuesday Club. What, you may ask is that?

Well, I learnt the technique from observing Jim Coplien apply it. Jim and Neil Harrison have been running these workshops for some years, their aim was to better understand development organizations and produce the patterns in their book “Organizational Patterns for Agile Software Development.”

Typically they run the workshop with a software development team, at the end of the sessions they have a collection of index cards they can analyze and produce a map of your organization. This map can then guide you through their patterns telling you which patterns your organization is using, which is isn’t using and which it should think about using.

This is a very powerful technique. It will tell you a lot you didn’t know, much that is obvious once it is pointed out and confirm a lot of suspicious various people have. As a tool for change its a great motivator: these guys come in, spend a day with you and can describe you back to yourself.

If you want to improve your software development efforts I strongly recommend getting them to run one of these studies.

Anyway, that is something else.

The sessions I ran with help from Giovanni Asproni and Rachel Davies was not really what Jim and Neil do, it was more inspired by Jim’s workshop. And what we didn’t do was go anywhere near the patterns. In effect, it was a demo of how you might go about mapping the interactions in your team.

So, what did I learn form this?

First thing I learned was that running this in a pub, with people drinking and eating, joining late and leaving early is far from ideal!

Second thing is that the people in the room hadn’t actually worked in a team together. So, we where trying to map an organization that didn’t actually exist. Naturally, each individual had different expectations of what they expected other people to do. The guy playing the “Architect” role had a different understanding of what an Architect would do to the person playing the Customer role.

To make matters more complicated, this was XTC, by definition, the people in the room believed in Agile development, Extreme Programming, Lean Software and all that jazz. Nothing wrong with that in itself but it made things even more complicated. There are few organization which are actually out and out XP, or Lean, or Agile. Everyone has a different take. For example, the person playing the “Project Manager” understood this as an enabler role, more of a coach, while others where expecting him to manage a project.

The other problem we faced was that time was limited – OK, time is always limited but the pub was going to close at 11pm. Having seen the technique used a few times before I knew where time would be wasted so I tried to hurry it along at stages. I probably over did this a little bit but it did allow us to finish in less than 2 hours so leaving time for a discussion.

The discussion that followed was very interesting. We discussed the technique, our companies, our experiences of agile, and how the technique had shown some things that we saw in real life (e.g. a frustrated developer got fed up of project management and testing and decided to talk to the user directly.)

Actually, discussions at XTC are always interesting but I don’t always feel I come away knowing something new. This was different. I got some insights from the exercise – I might write them up in more detail in the next few days or weeks.

The other thing I should say is that although this idea has come from software development its not confined to software development. It could be used to map any organization or process. (Interestingly, a lot of Jim and Neil’s patterns also apply outside of software development.)

Actually, in retrospect, since my objective was just to demonstrate the idea of the technique it may have been better to choose something from outside the software domain, say, getting a car services.

In the middle of the workshop I did have that “O no! Its all gone wrong, I can’t do this” feeling but in the end most people thought it was a great success.

(Who was it who said “In the middle of any change it feels like failure?” – I can’t remember, I think it was a Harvard Business School professor?)

I think I agree with them, it was a success for me because I got to try moderating this technique, it was a success for the participants because they go to see what an organization mapping technique could look like and it was a success for everyone because we did get some insights into the software process.

Do you believe in Phil Crosby?

So I’ve started using a bug tracking system.

Yet hate bug tracking systems – I believe they are wrong, rather than help fix bugs they help hide them, they create excuses for not fixing bugs. They allow us to say “Its in the system” when really we mean “No way will it get fixed.”

So, why have I started using something I don’t like…

He’s the simple explanation: I’ve now taken over some product management duties and I don’t have the people available to fix the bugs. I need to keep track of the problems that are coming up. I also need to show the company “I’m doing something.” Somehow people are impressed when I say “I’ve started using the bug tracking system.”

It also means people accept there bugs.

What we really want to do is not accept them, have zero-tolerance for such errors.

So, the longer version of why I’m using a bug tracking system…

Its a stock of work to be done, a queue, a buffer between now (the time they are discovered) and the time the work gets done. When they do get done…. well, that is the question.

It does have one attribute that is useful, it allows for prioritisation. So, we can decide which ones need to get done. But then, if we had zero-tolerance there wouldn’t be a need for this. (Or, if there had been more quality built in then we wouldn’t have the need either.)

A keen reader will probably also point out that with prioritisation comes the ability to decide not to do something. Say, we identify 100 bugs, we fix the top 20 and then the people above me decide it is good enough, why use scarce resources to work on such low priority items? If it does the job with these 80 faults why shouldn’t we just save our effort?

I suppose its a bit like building a car, and when it is done you see the faults, you fix some and sell it. Have you saved yourself a lot of work? Have you allowed your workers save time during the construction – thus introducing low priority faults – and later decided which time saving items where worth going back and paying for?

To my mind, if a job is worth doing its worth doing right. If we need to save time and money somewhere we should do it in a conscious management fashion “Don’t develop feature X” – not in a sub-conscious “Joe saved 10 minutes by not tightening the screws” kind of way – doing it this way allows the guys on the production line to decide what is worth saving on.

Really it comes down to “Do you believe Phil Crosby?” – that is, do we believe “Quality if Free” ?

People know what is wrong with a company and what needs changing

They may not tell their managers, supervisors or leaders but they will talk about it with others in the pub, the coffee shop, or at the water cooler, or some other place where it is safe to moan.

It is the work of a good leader to give people a safe place to express these problems in an environment where they can be dealt with. It is the leaders responsibility to listen, understand and see what can be done.

It doesn’t mean it is the leaders responsibility to do something about it. They may decide they need to act, but more often it is their responsibility to ensure the people facing these problems can act to solve them.

All too often people think “nothing can be done” so they moan about it to one another in the pub and absolve themselves from fixing it. Sometimes they don’t feel they can fix it, sometimes they don’t think they are allowed to fix it. In an enabled organization you want people to fix the problems as and when they find them.

I think it was Gerry Weinberg (Secrets of Consulting, 1985) who pointed out that problems can’t survive in the light of day. Once a problem is brought out into the light – or named as Gerry puts it – then your half way to fixing it.

The second half is more difficult: you have to want to fix the problem.

All too often people don’t actually want to fix the problem. Maybe they are scared of the solution, or maybe they fear the consequences of fixing it, or maybe one of many other reasons.