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The new competitive advantage is the ability to anticipate, respond and adapt to change.

Bell Labs – Innovation

By | Communication, Development, Disruption, Organisation, People, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

I fear this will not be a popular blog post, for two reasons: one it’s too long and two it raises some inconvenient truths as we consider how to drive more innovation in our organisations. I am however on a sabbatical reading and thinking hard about these things… Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

Beginning with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention (and monopoly making patent) of the telephone it’s hard to point to a group outside Bell Labs that have been more responsible for shaping our society today (granting that the Xerox PARC Labs took the torch and ran with it as the flame at Bell started to die out in the 70s) we’re talking about the group of humans that invented telephone, valves, electrical cables of all kinds, radar, the transistor, microwave, the unix operating system, lasers, optical fibers, CCD chips and celluar mobile networks and on and on.

Curious isn’t it – a telephone company and a photocopier maker have defined the information age. Also interesting is that Bell Labs perhaps even more so than the PARC group at Xerox were very keen to understand how to measure and turn innovation into a process. Sound familiar?

“Of its output, inventions are a valuable part, but invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced”; experimentation was to provide an environment for “the operation of genius” – Harold Arnold, the first leader of the new R&D group talking about his team.

By taking a long-term, first-principles, research-based approach to innovation the Bell Labs did indeed discover, invent and innovate nearly all the fundamental building blocks we now take for granted as routine technologies driving the information age. There were a number of distinctive and consistent elements of the Bell Labs system:

1) The distinction between theorists and experimentalists. The most effective research groups combined both skill-sets, and they rarely sat with one individual.

2) Co-located and cross-functional teams. Kelly (the bloke in charge) was combining chemists, physicists, metallurgists, engineers, theoreticians and experimentalists. The leaders of these new structures were unconventional too: younger, bolder; not just the longest serving or more ‘senior’ member of the group.

3) There were no closed doors. Total transparency was expected, as was a willingness to help a colleague if required, no matter your level.

4) Progress was made by groups, not individuals. There were of course a few brilliant minds across nearly a century but like most good stories, a few heroes take the credit for a large group of people working effectively together.

5) Two principles…
i) If you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated.
ii) If you haven’t found a market to sell the product, you have not innovated.

The term ‘innovation’ dates back to the sixteenth century in England. It described the introduction of a new idea relating typically to philosophy or religion. By the mid-20th century we begin to see the words innovate and innovation applied to technology and industry.

If an idea leads to discovery, and if discovery leads to invention, then an innovation is the lengthy transformation of an idea into a product (or process) suitable for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, cannot alone create an innovation.

The early days of any innovation are typically underwhelming, even demoralising. The first valves were very difficult to make, not durable and not always reliable. The first transistors (a device we take for granted in their many millions in all our every day electronic devices) were very difficult to make, not durable and not always reliable.

Even the lawyers at Bell were trying to ‘quantify’ or find the patterns in their innovations. They only found one consistent pattern – their staff with the most patents (signed over on day one for a crisp $1) had breakfast or lunch with Harry Nyquist. Harry wasn’t the source of specific ideas; it turns out he was just really good at asking good questions.

Let’s also consider for a moment the non linear nature of invention. Shannon, an employee of Bell Labs who wrote “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” (better described by Scientific American as ‘the magna carta of the information age’), went on to study chess-playing computers in 1949 (before computers were invented): a fairly frivolous pursuit for a telephone company. In his own words: ‘what if we might create machines capable of logical deduction?’

Back to their process. Broadly, the ‘system’ at Bell was divided up like this. 1) Research. Scientists and engineers creating a reservoir of completely new knowledge, principles and materials, methods and art.
2) Systems engineering. Using the new knowledge to look at how to integrate the possible, plausible, necessary and economical ideas.
3) Manufacture. Engineers developed and designed new switches, transmission system and so on from groups 1 and 2.

The handoffs between the three departments, however, were often (intentionally) quite casual – part of what made the labs ‘a living organism’. Physical proximity was everything; people had to be near one an other. Phone calls alone wouldn’t do.

A system carefully curated

As much fun (and cultural benefit) as there is in a hack day, it can’t be your innovation strategy. Also, innovation doesn’t best happen in a secret lab (unless that lab has ALL the people required for the whole end to end – perhaps Apple or Lockheed Martin). There does need to be a critical mass of talent; very very rarely do big innovations come from a single individual. Sometimes a revolutionary idea, yes, but not ultimately delivered as an innovation.

We’ve written about this before: too often we are focused on iterative improvement, not innovation. I’m reminded of my favourite quote:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by obvious realities. We need [people] who can dream of things that never were.”

– John F Kennedy

Full credit to Jon Gertner’s ‘The Idea Factory’ for an insightful history of Bell Labs.

 

 

 

Collaboration Here There and Everywhere

By | Agile, Communication, Lean, Organisation, People, remote | No Comments

There’s nothing I like better than using a physical wall to make a team’s work visible and communal, indeed one of our most popular blogs is about the physical working environment and it’s impact on team communication.  

Luna Tractor’s predilection to the realm of the physical world and our obsession with beautiful stationery often leads us into passionate debates on using physical walls versus digital tools for visualising work.

It may however interest readers to know that ‘back in the day‘, (a phrase I can now confidently associate with the dawn of Agile software development as it’s been over two decades!), as soon as digital tools were available to manage things like User Story cards, we (and by we I mean I) jumped onto them immediately. Most ‘agilistas’ around that time were fast adopters of new ‘Agile project management tools’, many of us were fighting objections that you couldn’t possibly manage a software project without some kind of digital tool. I can’t tell you how many MS Project plans I saw with a bunch of two week iterations wedged into them like a neat set of stairs. As well as being a bung tool for project management, we had found yet another task it seemed to fail at — Agile project management. 

Putting aside the tooling debate, an even hotter topic is that of co-location and Agile teams.

An increasingly common workplace trend is orgs extending flexible work conditions to their people. A lever of engagement and also a gesture of human decency, more companies are becoming ok with regular work-from-home, and also work-wherever-you-choose arrangements. Like all of you out there, we can see the world changing, and organisations becoming not only more customer-centric, but more human-centric and valuing the individuals working within ‘The System’. 

As proud Systems Thinkers we are joyed by this, but we are working for a number of clients that are too often panic stricken when they perceive that the collaboration that we advocate and teach, comes with undertones of ‘everyone back to the office’ and over eagerness to index towards the ‘co-located’ principle of the Agile Manifesto.

In fact, it is possible to interpret three principles of the manifesto; numbers 4, 5 and 6 as contradictory, and almost discriminatory in their nature. 

#4 “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

What if the team cannot be together daily, are they not an Agile team?

#5 “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

Why couldn’t we trust the team to chose their own environment and be where they want to work that’s most productive for them instead of demanding co-location?

#6 “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Will people who chose remote working be damned with a moniker of less efficient and effective in our Lean and Agile ways of working? Are Systems Thinkers opposed to remote team working? And can remote flexible workers never be successful at Lean and Agile ways of working?

Luna Tractor advocates high levels of collaborative and collective work, for solving complex problems. Why? 

We understand the challenge of conveying tacit knowledge and learning to a virtual world.

It’s a common belief that knowledge is something that can be represented in words, visualised in pictures and taught, however this isn’t always the case. Tacit knowledge is by it’s nature difficult to communicate. Tacit knowledge is deeply rooted in action, commitment, and involvement.

For example, I may study Turkish language by reading a book and practicing a lot, but living in Turkey for two months had me conversing with Turkish people — even though there was a lot of hand waving going on. I can study the attributes of great leaders but I won’t pass muster as a leader without the opportunity to experience leadership myself. I can cultivate my own view of what is aesthetically pleasing but I cannot easily transfer that ‘eye’ into another person. Languages, leadership, aesthetics all fall into categories of tacit knowledge, and along with the desire for innovation, emotional intelligence, body language, intuition and humour, we tend to stack these challenges up as more reasons to front up to the same office with your co-workers every day. 

Or… are we just being lazy about it?

Look around a little and you’ll find companies that are reaping the benefits of not only allowing remote and flexible working but openly promoting and embracing this workplace trend, these are companies that have also embraced the collaborative working practices of Lean and Agile.  How are they doing it and what are the factors that are making them successful? I’ve been fortunate enough to work at a couple of these companies.

In 2016 I worked at REA Group, the digital giant behind successful property website realestate.com.au. They have been presenting at conferences for years on the innovative ways they integrated distributed development into their Agile software development operation. Working with around 100 developers in Xi’an in China, their teams have virtual portals into their space via large screen ‘always-on’ video connections. They consciously invest in creating positive team culture by funding travel back and forth during the year and all manner of fun joint activities like virtual cake for birthdays and celebrations. To see these teams when they get together physically, it’s akin to witnessing a family reunion, the team members speak of each other as treasured friends. 

In my team at REA Group we had a developer who had to relocate to Sydney for family reasons. We didn’t want to lose her and asked her to trial remote working. Pleasingly she did and still does a year later, visiting Melbourne every month or so. Since then the same team has had a member working remotely from Russia, and one that has been working from all over the world as he tours with his fiancé — a member of Cirque du Soleil. I was really impressed with the whole team’s attitude to problem solving and making it work in order to retain their valued team members. I remember a time when they were all in the office together, practicing remote communication by working in different parts of the office holding their retrospective over video conferencing. 

I also spent some time working at Envato, they have a unique culture and are very publicly ‘not fussed’ about where people work, this gives Envato an amazing hiring edge. As well as a ‘Work from Anywhere’ in the world policy they enjoy employees dotted throughout regional areas of Australia. 

There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a problem to solve that problem; that means try, try and try again. Experimentation with tools, techniques and remote etiquette is rife at Envato.  When you enter their Melbourne hub for a meeting, you naturally assume someone will be attending remotely in a Google Hangout. The entire building is kitted out for frictionless communication over video conference, the most you might lose is a minute if someone has to drop out and rejoin a conversation.  Forcing yourself to partake in being remote provides empathy for other remote teammates and  makes you become very good at solving problems (even remote problems), remotely.

Another way Envato becomes super skilled at remote working is something so simple it’s sophisticated. Regular disciplined practice and behavioural role modelling. Leaders throughout the organisation ensure they are remote some of the time, it’s written into team working agreements. It’s clear to all that it is supported culturally and people are trusted, remote workers are not relegated to feeling like a poor underclass and Envato enjoys high retention and engagement as a result.  

I also attended a wonderful talk at LAST Conference in June 2017 ‘Synchronous communication is overrated’ where Thoughtworker Kelsey Van Haaster shared the issues and joys associated with working with her team of five globally distributed support team members, who between them service a workforce of 5,000 globally distributed users. Kelsey’s research and approach is thorough and results inspiring. Her experiences echo the importance of investing in culture building for teams. It was interesting to hear the team are friends on social media platforms outside of work, a solution for incidental office chatter, that increases the human bonds of connection.  

Perhaps we should be advocating to other technology giants about increasing the pace of technology change to support remote working?  I’m on record as being impatient to attend daily stand-ups as a hologram. Some of these companies would do better to place their efforts into solving those challenges of communication instead of calling everyone back to the office, as IBM has recently done.

There are a heap of technical tools available in the world now that can help you accelerate and improve remote collaboration — they exist and are being well and truly used all over the world, they are evolving and they will increase in number as more organisations experiment with remote working. Get in touch with us to understand more about how to utilise these tools and apply collaborative techniques to remote teams who want Agile and Lean ways of working. A big hint would be to start with company Culture and Working Agreements before you try and solve Stand-ups and User Story Cards.

Even if an organisation has the motivation and drive to invest in evolving technology solutions to support frictionless remote working for your teams, the more critical question is: Can organisations make the cultural leap to trust employees to work remotely? Fabiano Morais Delivery Coach, also from Envato, gave a terrific presentation ‘Global Nomads’ at Agile Australia 2017 and LAST conference, on how mobility is shaping the futures of people around the world, and how more organisations are pushing autonomy down to teams.  To quote Fabiano “It turns out when you trust people, they start to trust themselves”. 

Whether or not you have the technology investment or cultural foundation to support flexible and remote working, I can confidently assert that you definitely have the problem solving DNA inside your organisation to make it work, for what are human beings if not natural at solving problems of communication?

(This blog was written in two cafés, in the lobby of a large building, on the train, on my sofa at home and at a beach holiday house; everywhere except an office.)

Stop and Watch – Coaching for behaviour

By | Agile, coaching, Development | No Comments

 

Attending the Melbourne Lean Coffee meet up a couple of weeks ago I picked up a little coaching gem from an attendee that I’m keen to try out, despite it hinging on a sporting metaphor for work, which I’m usually strongly opposed to – teams working together is rarely akin to a game of two halves.

The story in question came from Lean Coffee attendee  Daniel Ploeg, who was amongst a whole bunch of parents being coached on how to coach a junior soccer team by observing an expert coach and the example goes like this:

The kids were milling about playing and the expert coach noticed one kid running into ‘open space’ this is something you apparently want to encourage in your soccer players as it creates opportunities to collect passes.

Daniel’s instinct was to encourage the good tactics by shouting out ‘Well done Tommy!’ to the player while play continued however the expert coach did something else. He stopped the whole practice game, and explained to all the players what Tommy was doing and why it was good, he then restarted the game telling the players to watch how Tommy was running into open space.

This created more ‘level up’ opportunities in the following ways:

– Tommy was positively rewarded for his behaviour as all players had stopped to focus on his good tactics

– All players were able to see the ‘ideal’ tactics in action and could therefore mimic the same behaviour themselves

– When the game re-started all players started to running into ‘open space’ themselves; the entire team’s level up opportunity was increased in this moment

– And the final kicker – pun intended – all players saw that trying aspirational tactics is rewarded with positive recognition in this team

 

Applying this model to the world of work as a coach of delivery teams really got me thinking. How could we implement that ‘stop and watch’ behaviour when coaching teams of people and how could we use this approach to encourage the modelling of positive behaviours at work?

I can think of a few scenarios:

– At your daily stand up you could mention a behavior that you saw the previous day, and ask the person to talk or show the team right after the stand up.

– In any of the team sessions you run you can be looking out for contributions that are desired behaviour, stop the action to acknowledge the contribution or even ask for the contribution be repeated for the group so everyone picks up that behaviour

–  If you’re a person that likes to mix approaches to your Retrospectives, you could ask the team to identify good behaviours (coding, planning approaches, work practices or collaborating) that they have seen during the sprint and spotlight those individuals asking them to elaborate on that behaviour for the team.

– And what about stopping everyone in the middle of their day to spotlight something great?  “Hey! Great thing happening over here everyone! Come and check out what your team member is doing!” Perhaps that would be a bit disruptive, but maybe not? I can imagine a lot of teams I work with mentioning  this kind of thing in a Slack channel as a somewhat quieter alternative.

Do we shy away from stopping the action in order to focus and amplify great behaviours at work? How might that be preventing the team from building on desired behaviours? Will that stop a team dare to achieve aspirational goals? Are you brave enough to stop the flow of output in order to create a learning opportunity?

As a coach and a leader it can feel counter intuitive to single out individuals, I often hold back not wanting to create competition that I feel can be detrimental to team gel, but the expert soccer coach example illustrated more positive ways to achieve this and level up the whole team in the same moment.

Since then I have set my radar to observing positive behaviours in team settings, why not try it, and go one step further; Stop and Watch those behaviours with your team?

My final take-away from the session was how ‘levelled up’ I felt attending the Melbourne Lean Coffee and how I increased my knowledge both by observing and listening, and also by contributing my ideas, that were formed into new ideas, and built upon on the spot. I highly recommend you add these kind of sessions to your own curriculum of learning.

Melbourne Lean coffee meet-up https://www.meetup.com/Melbourne-Lean-Coffee/

Just like Bruce Lee

By | Agile, Food for thought, Organisation | No Comments

Just finished reading Dan Olsen’s book “The Lean Product Playbook”, after hearing him speak at the Leading the Product conference in Melbourne last week (his book is now firmly on our Luna Tractor MBA and available to borrow if you’re that way inclined). Other than being a damn fine guide on how to do “good product”, he made a good point early on in the book about learning a process and then customising it to make it your own.

Bruce Lee, philosopher and butt kicker

Bruce Lee, philosopher and butt kicker (from: goodwp.com)

He used the words of Bruce Lee to make his point:

“Obey the principles without being bound by them.” and “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

Firstly, quoting Bruce Lee is super cool. But beyond that, who’d have thought that us 21st century worker-bees could gain wisdom from a man most of us only know as a butt-kicking, strong and silent, hero type?

Olsen likened the learning of the process he had created to be similar to karate drills that students learn and practice on their path to a black belt. Once learned, it’s possible to move things around, “mix, match, and modify” to create something more your own.

The idea of learning something and then building on and improving it to make it your own resonates for me when introducing methodologies like Agile or Lean into an organisation.

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A nuclear submarine without orders

By | Communication, Organisation, People | No Comments
img_8959

A visit to Baum Cycles – Darren Baum, fellow bicycle fan David Marquet and JP.

We know innovation often happens in unlikely places and creativity thrives on constraints. Last year one of the great people we spent some time with was retired nuclear submarine captain David Marquet. I don’t want to spoil the whole story, for that you need to read the book. But … within the confines of a long metal tube full of people and a nuclear reactor which stays underwater for 3 months at a time he ended up learning a bunch of really important stuff about people, models of leadership and how we move on from command and control.

“Leadership has changed from command and control to engage and enrol” — Steve Denning

Convincing leaders that we need to move on from command and control is the first step. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. The next part, the changing part is always hard. If our people and organisations are conditioned to work in a strict heirachy then it’s not as simple as just giving that structure up and ’empowering’ everyone to make their own decisions. Like any new skill we need to learn how to work in a new way a little bit at a time.

David describes this challenge for leaders as slowly giving up control as you build capability and context in your teams. One of the practical approaches they developed was a model of communication called the ladder of leadership. We don’t start by trying to take the other person we’re communicating with (boss or subordinate) the whole way, but just to step one run up the ladder.

the-ladder-of-leadership-capt-marquetI ask my boss – “Tell me what to do about the problem with marketing ?” – instead of telling me what to do my boss says “Tell me what you think about the problem with marketing ?” … And so-on up the ladder over time and interactions until I’ve built up the capability and context to make a good decision independently. Engaged and enrolled.

Perspective Matters

By | Uncategorized | One Comment

When we study physics one of the interesting concepts to get your head around is the concept that your frame of reference, often referred to as just the reference frame, changes things a lot.

If we are zooming through space next to the Voyager II probe as it exits the solar system from our frame of reference Voyager would appear stationary and the sun and planets would appear to be zooming away at 17.5km per second.  The question is, which is moving, Voyager II or the Solar System ?

Voyager II

The answer ? Well it’s all relative.

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Human Factors Courses

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Throughout the year we run a series of invite only Human Factors Courses using the PCM methodology developed at NASA.  Please get in touch if you would like to know more and book a place.

What is the Process Communication Model (PCM) ?

PCM is a scientifically-validated toolset developed in partnership with NASA to help individuals better manage themselves and others, translating potential in to performance. PCM is accredited by the Australian Colleges of Surgeons and Anaesthetists, Paediatricians, and General Practitioners.

We use PCM as a foundation of our Human Factors practice at Luna Tractor by teaching skills and not rules so that you can:

  • Decode behaviour and assess personality traits.
  • Even better connect and communicate by winning motivation and co-operation.
  • Prevent, manage and resolve conflict.

Our personal experience working with a range of organisations is that it’s a potent multiplier for the Agile, Lean and Systems Thinking approaches we also teach — the other side of the coin if you like.  We need to solve for People AND Systems.

The three days cover not only an introduction to PCM but active skills development to ensure you leave with ability to better connect and communicate with others.  Lots of time for questions, practice and understanding.  Contact Luna Tractor with questions or for more information.

Strategy, forecasting and human factors.

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There’s not a lot of room for a fixed mindset in problem solving or innovation.

With that in mind, the LT team tend to view ourselves as specialist generalists, and over the last 9 months one of the things that has continually surprised me is the similarity of the processes we apply in our various specialties. I’ve found documents we’ve worked on where I could substitute ways of working terms for human factors terms and not change a thing more. It’s validated my belief that in times of change and innovation, it’s not content of your knowledge, but your ability to process and apply it to novel opportunity.

Scientific research is in a similar transition,and it’s exciting to see a lot of robust science being published supporting that approach, and the methods we’ve been using in projects, which I discussed a little back here. Read More

Technical and Non-Technical Capability: which lever are you reaching for?

By | Communication, People | No Comments

If you’ve read the news recently, you may well have been struck by the tragic absurdity of TransAsia flight GE235, which crashed shortly after take off.

42 people died after Captain Liao Jian-Zong accidentally shut down the plane’s sole remaining engine after the other engine failed on take off – an occurrence common enough to be specifically trained and tested for at regular pilot certification. Black box records reveal the pilot’s last words to have been: ‘Wow. I pulled back the wrong side of the throttle’.

Contrast this with 2009’s flight US1549, where Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger successfully ditched a much larger aircraft in the Hudson River, with no loss of life.

View YouTube clip

Both pilots had extensive military experience and technical training in the skills to safely respond to the emergencies facing them – so what went wrong?

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We go to the source of the problem. So that we understand the problem.

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