Category Archives: Consulting

On Top of Your Game

On Top Of Your Game

Sharpen The Saw

I love the idea of being able to take some philosophical ideal and somehow apply it to my world. If it can be used to help solve real issues, remove blockers and/or present opportunities for continual improvement, then that must be a good thing. Most agile practitioners or enthusiasts have heard of the concept of Kaizen. It’s a principle from Japanese philosophy that says something like, small changes made daily add up to life changing experiences. The corollaries are many with some being stated by famous personalities over the years. One of my favourites is by Albert Einstein when he postulated; “compounding is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time”.

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Of course he’s right. Small changes really do add up, and they really can bring large benefits over time. This whole concept got me thinking, about how I might try to apply the same thing to a typical agile delivery model. What improvements might I look for that could be applied daily and that would continually improve the application delivery lifecycle? Where could I find small adjustments that are easy to understand, even easier to implement and yet  still yield measurable results over time?

There are so many elements to consider. Some are process orientated, some related to tools and yet others that were clearly about people? When I started to get into it, I realised that there wasn’t a simple answer and that like Kaizen itself, I would have to take things in small, discrete quantities, each addressing the various elements of the whole. Delivering working software would be essential to the whole thing obviously, but what are the dependencies and how can they be manipulated for the better?

In the agile delivery world, understandably there are many, many tools and processes across the full stack of any given platform, be they open source or proprietary. I decided that one way forward might be to go back to the agile manifesto and look at the 4 core values. In other words, to examine: individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation and responding to change over following a plan.

Would it be relatively straightforward to address each one with a Kaizen mind set? I wasn’t sure, but I thought that I should try to work through it by a process of inductive reasoning. My conclusions wouldn’t be guaranteed, but perhaps more common sense-based. There wouldn’t be a step-by-step guide to agile delivery heaven, but if I realised that if I could manage to change just one, small thing daily, then perhaps I might find myself on the road to agile, cumulative righteousness.

Steven Covey phrases it well when he talks about “sharpening the saw”, [1] . In his book he asks us to apply the habit to ourselves. In doing so, I think that we cannot but help apply it to our lives and our work. To keep the saw sharp is to be at the top of your game, to deliver well using the tools at hand and a winning mind set. As the New Zealand All Blacks say, “ritualise to actualise” [2].

In this blog, I will address the agile manifesto with a ‘Kaizen’/’sharpen the saw’, mind set. I will look at tools and processes, and the importance of working software. I will examine why people and interactions are at the heart of every successful delivery model and why being able to adapt with minimal fuss is still important for businesses today.

Kaizen and the Agile Manifesto

In this section I’ll aim to develop the concepts of ‘Kaizen’ and ‘sharpening the saw’ and logically extend them to the agile manifesto.

Value 1 – Individuals and interactions over Processes and Tools
In my mind and in practice, individuals and interactions are interweaved. Therefore to ‘sharpen the saw’, we must look to the core of each to properly understand what exactly can be improved. We should work to build upon the following each and every day: trust (individuals and teams); value (your relationships); authenticity (be genuine in your dealings); flexibility (to maintain a healthy work life balance); development (encouraged, recognised and rewarded) and integrity (doing the stuff you said you would do).

Processes and Tools are extremely important but they alone are pretty useless without people and interactions to wield them.

Value 2 – Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation
Ensure that the spirit of the team captures the idea of delighting customers each iteration by continually delivering working software and something of value, no matter how small. It’s hard to over-estimate the meaning of this and in my mind extends back to the individuals and interactions part of Value 1. By delivering working code, as an agile team, we accomplish many valuable achievements. We increase team morale, we build trust with our customers and ourselves. We keep our business alive by shipping products that earn revenue. Delivering working software should be a value that is at the heart of every team and we would do well do remind ourselves of that on a regular basis. Working code, means revenue!

Comprehensive documentation can be extremely important, but if we have no working software, it’s pretty pointless. Documentation should definitely not be forgotten and agile is certainly not an excuse to develop code without it.

Value 3 – Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation
Much pain has come from awkward or badly negotiated contracts and much of this could have been ameliorated by focusing at least equally on effective customer collaboration. Build and maintain good relationships with customers is at least half the battle of delivering a great product. Like Value 2, Value 3 also harks back to Value 1, individuals and interactions. It’s much easier and productive to collaborate than to negotiate.

Value 4 – Responding to Change over Following a Plan
Plan for change is the best way to think about this. Within teams it is a really good idea to help them understand that adapting to change quickly and with minimal fuss is not only great for efficient delivery, but also for team morale. A happy team is a productive team, is a responsive team.

I am also a firm believer in the tenet that an organisation will eventually or inevitable move into a phase of decline, unless there is a concerted effort to prepare for change; EVEN when sitting on top of a current and very successful peak.

Remote Working: Office Not Required

Remote Working in Modern Times

One of the workplace topics that I have seen hotly debated on occasion, is the issue of remote working. Can it truly work? Are employees genuinely motivated? How can quality, working relationships be established and maintained? And so on. I have been involved with remote working and managing remote teams for a number of years, but I was still intrigued when I received a copy of ‘Remote: Office Not Required‘, written by 37 signals co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I knew of the company and their products, and that they have a very successful business run entirely by remote workers.

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I have long since finished the book and have only just now gotten around to blogging about the concept of the remote worker. It is not my intention to review the book here, suffice to say it is an exceptionally easy read and has a fluidity of prose rarely associated with tech-related books.

It currently has four stars on Amazon, and what could have been a potentially mundane subject to write about, is actually a well-crafted, enlightening and sometimes an amusing read.

So what’s the big deal? Why does the concept of remote working elicit widely differing responses and why do some people say they could never remote work whilst others are highly successful, mini-managers? The reason is really simple, it’s all a matter of trust. You have to trust your colleagues and trust yourself to fulfil your end of the deal.

What do I mean? Simply, you have to trust that you have the drive, motivation, desire and ability to be able to work away from the rest of your team, not on your own, but not co-located either. I really believe it’s that simple. Colleagues should be assured that you are the type of person that given a lull in the general day-to-day activities, will look for something to do, an improvement in process, finishing off the operations manual from 2 projects ago, or simply chasing down customer responses to emails.

Still, there is one area where I think remote working is lacking. Ironically enough it’s the tech needed for a typical remote team operation. It’s definitely not up-to-scratch in certain areas, but not to the point where the experience is unpleasant’. It’s just clear to me that it can be improved upon. Although tools such as Skype, TeamViewer and Join.me have improved by leaps-and-bounds over the last few years, I still find that they are easily affected by bandwidth/signal/wi-fi issues and in some cases lack a clear, intuitive interface.

With 4G availability and coverage ever expanding, and devices offering ever more facilities through powerful, rich apps this should be the impetus telecoms companies need to provide a true internet society with always on, always connected and always secure technology. Fast, secure, intuitive apps are key components to happy, remote workers.

37 Signals’ secret to success is pretty evident from the manner in which they openly recruited remote developers from all over the globe. By ensuring that each member of the team had appropriate tools and a solid service provider, there are few, if any complaints in the book that the lack of tools and/or suitable internet connection hindered their progress in any way. It’s also clear in the book that the interview process is rigorous and aimed at weeding out candidates that don’t suit the remote worker profile they have studiously crafted over the lifetime of their business.

And the secret for you as a remote worker? This excellent article by Zapier outlines a number of traits that remote workers need to possess in order for them to be successful and happy. They include more obvious things like being trustworthy and having an ability to communicate effectively via the written word, but also, and I think, just as important is having a local support system. This means of course having a life outside of work where interaction with people occurs on a level different to Skype and TeamViewer conversations. Clearly all digital work does indeed make Jack a dull boy.

Proverbs aside, it is a vital point and one not to be taken lightly if you are thinking about entering the remote working arena. Having a good network of friends and family is really necessary to help fulfill the void potentially created by the remote working environment.

I have found that working remotely can be, and is, just as rewarding as going to the office. Having successfully managed a number of remote teams I can say with a sense of achievement and satisfaction that being co-located isn’t that important, but having the right attitude is.

Consulting – Build Your Own Bap!

Consulting

Sometimes there are things in life, work and business that remind me of a funny anecdote I occasionally recount to friends over a beer or two, and it relates a previous place of employment, their rather antiquated basement, a military-style canteen that opened every morning for breakfast and the humble bap. You may or may not be familiar with the term ‘bap’, Miriam Webster’s online dictionary offers up a somewhat short description; ‘a small bun or roll’. In my world baps are a little more involved than that, and they are definitely not small; especially not breakfast baps or late night, on the way home from a night out, scooby-snack type baps. No. The baps I am talking about are designed to comfortably accommodate a fairly substantial meal whilst at the same time acting as a field-dressing type of absorbent material for the interlaced layers of ketchup, mustard and whatever selection of condiments that may have taken your fancy. That is what I call a bap.

The funny part comes (hopefully) when I describe the notice board which was presented each morning in that same basement. It was a chalk board  looking rather resplendent and sitting just beside the breakfast bar. The board was there to helpfully inform hungry breakfasters what was on the menu that particular morning.  This in itself was actually a little bit odd, since the breakfast was the same every single morning, it was a cooked breakfast consisting of the ever faithful; bacon, sausage, eggs, mushrooms, toast, beans, hash browns and a military standard mug o’ tea. Below that however, and this is where the bap comes in, there was a fairly long list which listed items from the breakfast menu that could also be obtained, ‘in a bap’. The board appeared to be lovingly recreated every morning and a breakfaster typically had the choice of:

Bacon bap
Bacon and egg bap
Sausage bap
Sausage and egg bap
Bacon, sausage and egg bap
Egg bap
Double egg bap
Bacon and hash brown bap
Hash brown bap
Egg and hash brown bap
And so on…

The absolute killer blow for me was, at the bottom of this list, there was another option mentioned…

“Build your own bap!” … Ha!

Now, having seen the various bap options, combinations and permutations on the board, I was always in fits of laughter when I saw that final option giving an adventurous breakfaster the ability to create their own, fully customised breakfast bap. Later, when I gave this some consideration and pondered the reasons why this extra option was there, I began to realise what was actually on offer. The simple fact is, that even though there were numerous suitable options available, one additional option was to provide the customer with the ability to create a unique option, a special bap that was particular to each individual. Very cool indeed when you apply the same premise to other scenarios.

Some years later having worked as a consultant for numerous clients on-premise, with near-source teams, as a developer, as a manager, etc. I am beginning to see the value of extending the bap analogy to my clients. Clients may well know what they want, and a good consultancy may know how to offer it, but truly excellent consultancies offer that something extra, that ‘build your own bap’ option. Consultancies can provide the ingredients (people, skills, technology for example) and they can even provide the pre-made baps (outsourcing, managed services, procurement, development teams, BI, mobile apps for example), but ultimately they should also provide the ability for a customer to ‘build their own bap’. So what are we talking about here?

Well simply, we are talking about consultancies having the ability to release resources as and when they are required so that clients can pick and choose the resources, skills, technologies, they require; when they require them and for the desired length of engagement. We are also talking about presenting the ability to ramp-up teams for short or long assignments, about individual consultants working closely with clients on-premise, or remotely. It’s about going the extra mile to provide that something extra for clients and giving them the freedom to choose.

Hopefully you can now see my simple but effective analogy, and that the important point is that any consultancy worth its salt should offer the ‘design your own solution’ as well as the ‘pre-made’ or ‘bundled’ solutions. Clients should have the freedom to choose as they see fit, the consultancy business is after all, full of choices. Now go, and build your own bap!