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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.)

A nuclear submarine without orders

By | Communication, Organisation, People | No Comments
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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.

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

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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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Weddings, Parties and Agile!

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Do you think Agile is just an IT thing? Well you’d be surprised!  

It’s the 24th February 2013, and my girlfriend and I just got engaged.

I’m sure many couples planning a wedding can relate to the
“OMG moments” when realising that they have agreed to get married, but also agreed to plan this once-in-a-lifetime event, where everything will be beautiful and run more smoothly than a precision racing team.

Having run many projects and led large teams across multiple timezones – I seem less than puzzled by the thought of arranging everything. After all it’s just another project isn’t it? Wrong! At least that’s what my fiancé reminded me 🙂

I’ve spent the past 12 months myself on an Agile journey, learning the ways of visual management, lean and flow. With much gusto I pulled together a Trello board. I was excited, but not sure that my fiancé shared in my enthusiasm. None-the-less we pushed on and started to plan our wedding.

Wedding Trello Board

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Self-Selecting teams – tales from WW2 Lancaster bomber crews

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ePredix Office, Minneapolis, MN in 2001

ePredix Office, Minneapolis, MN in 2001

Back in the day, when I worked in the USA in a fascinating startup (then called ePredix, who were rolled into Previsor and are now part of SHL), I was regularly set on my chuff by one of our amazing technical advisory board members for thinking that anything at all under our digital sun was NEW, or that any of our 21st century science of Industrial-Organisational Psychology (in simple terms, big data about people, for hiring and development) could be viewed as a sure thing.

Our tech advisory board had every right to proffer those kind of opinions to a young economist whippersnapper, as between them they had invented several of the things the science was founded on!

The tools we were building at ePredix were online selection tests, delivered in short form on the web. We had patented ways (don’t get me started on patents by the way…) of serving up a couple of dozen multi-choice questions and then stack-ranking the applicants in their suitability in the role. Bloody clever, big data, but a PhD required to do the maths.

Lancaster crew WW2

One of my most memorable moments was at dinner one night when one advisory board member quietly advised me “you know, it’s all baloney really, you might as well just let teams self-select – they’ll be just as successful”. He went on to tell me of the Lancaster bomber crews of the RAF in the early 1940s, where after short training periods, Bomber Command were stuck with terrible problem of selecting the crews.

Their creative solution? Jam them all (several different flying disciplines, from multiple countries around the world) in a hangar or mess hall, and tell them they had 10 minutes to join a crew.

The result was some of the bravest, effective, well put-together teams in the history of the war. That said, the odds were against them surviving as a team – at the final tally, half the 125,000 young men had been killed or wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 became POWs. The crews had a fair idea of what they were in for – in some cases, 25% of intakes were killed in training.

With a lot of discussion at present about team self-selection in the agile world, it occurred to me the Lancaster bomber story was worth looking into again. Here’s Sandy Mamoli’s recent blog post on squadification at Trademe in New Zealand for example.

Lancaster by Leo McKinstry 2009I found this book by Leo McKinstry from 2009. Here’s the key quote that validates what I heard way back in 2001:

“Once all the initial course had been finally completed, the recruits were sent to an Operational Training Unit, where they began their real preparation for bomber combat. It was at the OTUs that the individual trainees formed themselves into crews for the first time. After all the formality of the previous selection procedures and examinations, the nature of ‘crewing up’ seemed strangely haphazard, even anarchic.

“There was no involvement from the senior commanders, no direction, no regimentation. Instead, the trainees were all taken to a large hangar or mess room, and just told to choose their colleagues to make up the 5 man crew: pilot, bomb-aimer, gunner, wireless operator and navigator. The engineer, who had to undergo specialised training, and the second gunner, would join at a later stage. Without any guidance or rules, the trainees had to rely entirely on their own gut instincts in selecting which group to join.”

Location 4295 of 12152 in Leo McKinstry, Lancaster, 2009 (Kindle Edition).

The book goes on to discuss the kind of people who made up the trainee group of Bomber Command – aged between 17 and 27, self-selected into the jobs (not conscripted), intelligent, inwardly motivated, with broad-based educations.

“They did not need leaders or formal structures” concluded Frank Musgrove in 2005 (Dresden and the Heavy Bombers).

This story sounds a lot like the thinking at Zappos at the moment around Holacracy, and other innovative organisations like Valve and Spotify.

As someone deeply involved in my own day job experimenting with REA-Group’s organisation with new ideas that change traditional leadership roles and formal reporting structures, I’m excited to find these kind of references. I see similar patterns in the world of rock bands and music – but that’s another blog post!

Let me be the first to concede that RAF Bomber Command is a horrific story, for both the crews and the millions of civilians who bore the brunt of this brutal military strategy on both sides of the war. But the extreme nature of the situation called for unusual methods to be applied – we should not ignore them today as we find old ways of running things coming up short and wasting time and money.

And as a grandson of a UK war veteran, I offer a moment of thanks for their sacrifice.

Inspired by Agile – A guest post from Avril Jean

By | Agile, Development, Education, People | One Comment

Avril is a talented artist and QA super star.  While we worked with her team she would always paint pictures to express what was going on.  In this very honest piece (re-posted from her own blog with permission) she shares the story of what it was like for her team to try Agile in words and pictures.


The department I work in (Technology) did a bit of an experiment last year to get agile software development going for a bit – that was a really interesting time to live through.

(If you want to bone up on Agile: wikipedia article is here)

We had two mentors, Nigel and James, who took us through the process – they took us out to the Lonely Planet (an interesting story of a company that went entirely agile in every team) to show us the workings, and they worked through our issues with us. I have nothing but praise for these guys, they know their stuff:

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I need to point out that this was not their actual heights or what they looked like. I rather think James was affronted by this picture! hehe.

This is their company website: Lunatractor

Basically agile is a way of an attempt to cut out the pointless crap around a project, allowing the teams to run themselves, giving everyone a say at allocating their own work, making the workflow obvious, and doing small, continuous releases of working software so that there are benefits straight up (releases every two weeks, known as a ‘sprint’).  This way you actually start to get the benefit of project immediately, not wait months for requirements, and every two weeks, a reassessment of the next most important bit of work comes in.

The way we ran it was a modified version of ‘scrum’: the work was assessd, broken down into small do-able units, written out onto cards, which were stuck on ‘the wall’. Each bit of work was a ‘story’, and the stories went through development, testing, etc cycle.

An example of a story: “As a member, all my leave without pay must be factored into my service”. Then we’d take that and break it down into the tasks we needed to do and how long they would take. The devs would develop it and i would come up with test cases and a way of testing it.

‘The Wall’ was the source of truth, and anyone could come and look at it and see the stories was we were working on. If you moved a bit of work on, you physically moved the card to the correct spot on the wall. It was a really good way of keeping track of who was doing what. If you worked on a card, you put your avatar on the card (we all were represented by a different picture).

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At the start of every day we had a 15 minute stand up, where we discussed what we would be doing that day. We used to run our stand ups sitting down cause we were all lazy.

All the team sat together and conversations happened all the time about the work.  Sometimes there was cake. My team appear to be obsessed with morning tea. This is not a bad thing.

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Work was nutted out on the whiteboard, lots of yelling and gesticulation happened, and everyone knew at all times what they were doing. We all leveled up in how to interact with the other people we worked with.

It was a great project to work on. Of course, not everyone liked this approach, and it did not suit everyone as it was very different in mental approach to very traditional software development (lots of specs and paperwork).

At the end of each sprint we did a retrospective : what we did well, what we should do better next time, what the problems were.  The first few sprints were hard, very very hard. There were a lot of arguments. We had some defections from the team. There were some bodies – we put their little avatars into the ‘graveyard’ bit of the wall when that happened. By the end we were churning out 8-10 fixes and enhancements every two weeks, which was an incredibly fast pace – and we got no return prod defects from our work. Something to be proud of.

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Also at the end of each sprint we invited all the stakeholders to come to a presentation, which was usually prepared with much hilarity that day – this is me and Nancy and Erica getting the powerpoint slides ready:

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This is Mick and Aaron doing their very amusing presentation to the stakeholders at the end of their sprint:

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I attempted to do a presentation once but my public speaking is ATROCIOUS. I actually forget what I’m talking about quite easily and I also say “fuck” a lot when I’m stressed. IT DID NOT GO DOWN WELL.

We did very well and we got the backlog of work done, we fixed defects we found on the way, it was an excellent process.

Ultimately though my company is not an agile based company, and the methodology was misunderstood and not adopted.  We hit a lot of problems working against the status quo – Prince II methodology (which to me seems to be just moving shit around spreadsheets but not actually producing anything at the end of it – PLEASE can someone tell me why I’m wrong if i am!).

There have been a few more projects that have been done agile methodology, also with success, but the value is not really recognized and i doubt there will be more.

This picture represents the fight of us against the status quo.

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I would not mind working for another company that does agile properly one day, though that being said, I’m aiming to get out of doing software and get into doing art full time. So back to what they call waterfall but what is actually V-model software development for me!

Such a pity!

Such inspiration, at any rate.


As a postscript since this was written Avril let me know she’s working on new agile project, and things are changing for the better.

Agile Australia 2013 Reflections

By | Agile, Communication, Customers, Education, Lean, People | No Comments

It’s become a bit of a tradition for Nigel and I to write some reflections after the annual Agile Australia conference.  This year Nigel was stuck at home in Melbourne, so it’s just down to me.

I felt like the conversation was much more sophisticated this year.  Lots of people talking about Agile and Lean in the same sentence.  Lots of folks grappling with their whole end to end program, budget cycle and corporate cultures.  A recognition that iterative test and learn approaches are the future no matter what your size or market position.  After many years focusing on techniques, frameworks and patterns this year there was a new focus on values, culture and the human element.

5 years ago the conversation was basically: can this agile stuff even really work ? Now it feels like a whole new breed of people are wanting to understand and embrace Agile, and it feels much less cynical and defensive on their part this time. This is a promising evolution though it does mean I’m going to have to stop making jokes about a few companies like Telstra who have not only seen the light but are working bloody hard to change their course.

A couple of conference highlights for me:

Dave Snowdon – Cognitive Edge – Smart grouchy man; he hurt everyone’s brains… Understanding how we humans think and process information is really important.  Something Dave and his team are exploring is the idea of capturing what users want or are experiencing through micro narratives.  Stories.  If you want to know what your company is really like ask someone the story they would tell their best friend.

Ryan Martens – Rally Softare – An elegant and heartfelt call to action for engineers to think about how they can use their powers for good and not evil.  The world has many big and complex problems and if we can combine basic human empathy with our engineering chops and the scientific method, then maybe, just maybe we can make the world a better place.  Seeing an MRI machine turned into a pirate ship so that kids wouldn’t be so scared to go into it was a beautiful example of empathetic insight.

The reception for my own talk about applying Agile, Lean and Systems Thinking approaches to a small Australian high-end bike manufacturer was very gratifying too.  I’m not sure if the session was videoed, but I promise I’ll write about the story here soon for the people who missed it.  For anyone interested in seeing BAUM’s transformation in person just get in contact and I’m sure we can organise a field trip to Geelong.

Australia is training more personal trainers than IT professionals – really?

By | Education, People, Technology | 2 Comments

Michelle bridges not an itc careerI spoke at a conference this week where a CIO made this headline observation, noting that they had not been able to validate it in any way, but the horror of their claim was that it might be possible.

In true Luna Tractor fashion, and as the economist in residence, I felt the need to dig a little deeper.

The truth appears more like ‘Australia is training almost as many personal trainers as IT professionals‘ – around 14,000 ICT undergraduates in 2012; versus 10,000 studying personal training at private and public tertiary institutions in 2012.

The scarier statistic is that perhaps only 1/3 of those ICT undergraduates are coming into the workforce each year (3 year degrees on average); whereas MOST of those personal trainers (who do 1 year of study) are hitting the local gyms of Australia.

That means Australian employers get access to maybe 4500 ICT grads every year, whereas the Aussie fitness industry is over-run by 8,163 fresh grads every year.

There are twice as many personal trainers as ICT graduates entering the Australian workforce every year!

I won’t pass judgement on the state of Australia’s graduate developers versus passionate industry-trained coders (apparently we have about half-half, and I love them both equally); nor on the benefits that personal trainers bring our nation’s health. But Sam - the face of modern ICTsomething is NQR.

And for the record, IT is a way better job. Just ask this guy. What’s more, he’ll hack an award winning app with his team, and then school you on personal fitness at lunchtime for free.

My workings (for the inevitable statistical pseuds to comb through) are as follows. Note, I did not obtain the original ACS report on graduate numbers from 2012, as I am not a member. I relied on their press release.

a. How many Personal Fitness Students were there in Australia in 2012?

It’s a big and complicated industry – but there is this useful 2012 industry report by Deloitte Economics to consider, and in the executive summary (p3):

‘On the supply side, in 2011 the headcount for registered exercise professionals was 29,875 (24,875 registered with Fitness Australia and 5,000 registered with Physical Activity Australia), with average annual growth rate between 2005 and 2010 around 7.2% (Job Outlook, 2011). Approximately 56% of fitness professionals are female (16,749), and 44% male (13,126).’

This amounts to about 11,000 FTEs working in the industry (the full-time number diluted by so many part-timers). But how many are studying?

 A. Personal Fitness graduates from public RTOs in 2012: 2,768 graduates (with 65% completion) see p36 of the Deloitte report.

Suggests 4,258 total students studying – assuming it is a one year course, as the report concludes from research that there is an average time to completion of 1 year (page 35).

 B. Graduates in personal training from private RTOs in 2012: 5,395, with 90% completion (see p37)

Suggests a total of 5,995 students studying personal training in private RTOs every year.

The report was obtained here via this reference on Wikipedia.

Thus, in 2012, about 10,253 students were enrolled in Australian tertiary educational institutions studying personal fitness.

How many ITC students studying in Australia in 2012?

The Australian Computer Society suggest less than 3% of Australian tertiary undergraduates are enrolled in ICT courses in 2012. Half the number a decade ago!

The interweb handily reports on total undergraduate numbers in Australia, thanks to this emission from the government in 2011 = 480,000, so…

480,000 x 3% = 14,400 undergraduates studying ICT in Australia in 2012, across all the years of their courses. This of course ignores graduate study, which I am taking the economist’s stance on (ceteris paribus), and calling them relatively irrelevant for both professions (Deloitte certainly confirm that for Personal Trainers).

Shaping IT Organisations: CIO Strategy Forum presentation by Nigel Dalton

By | Agile, Lean, Organisation, People | One Comment

In which the 3rd Reich*, the Catholic Church, and Monty Python are resoundly thumped by William Edwards Deming in the race to design a healthy, productive IT organisation for the 21st century.

Third Reich example of extreme flat organisation structure

By the time this is published I will have presented the results of many hours research, debate and reflection on the design of modern IT organisations. Sadly, without actions and interpretive dance, the Powerpoint slides on their own don’t add up to much more than pictures. Invite me (or James!) for lunch sometime, and we’ll happily proffer an opinion on the subject.

The pivotal moment in the thinking process came when reading the new book from JoyceThe essential deming by joyce orsini Orsini, a deftly edited collection of Deming’s lectures, missives and thoughts from 1950 to 1992. A brilliant book, it is the closest you’ll get to Deming sitting with you and giving his opinion on a wide range of important matters. Including, organisation structures!

Deming’s simple idea (quoted in a 1992 presentation to General Motors) was to avoid traditional organisation charts in the form of hierarchical pyramids, and replace them with flow diagrams (aka value stream maps), and just put the people on the flow diagram as value was pulled by a customer. So simple!

“A flow diagram is actually an organisation chart. It shows people what their jobs are. How they should interact with one another as part of a system. Anybody can see from a flow chart what their job is. Take the chart, put the names on it. You belong here. Somebody else belongs here. Then anybody can see from the chart what their job is. And their work fits in with the work of others in the system.”

Compare that to the Hitlerian view of a flat organisation (so inexplicably popular since the 1990s, with ever-expanding numbers of direct reports), with this lightly edited paragraph from Wikipedia on the organisation of the 3rd Reich. The grey bits are the changed words. If this sounds like your IT department, run!

‘The CIO often deferred making decisions, avoided clear delegation and allowed subordinates to compete with one another, especially in the recent years. Therefore, a system of governance was formed whereby leading company officials were forced to interpret the CIO’s speeches, remarks and writings on company policies and turn them into programs and strategy.

Any manager could take one of the CIO’s comments, and turn it into a new strategy, of which the CIO would casually either approve or disapprove when he finally heard about it. This became known as “working towards the the CIO“, as the executive was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but a collection of individuals each trying to gain more power and influence over the CIO. This often made IT executive meetings very convoluted and divided, especially with the CIO’s vague policy of creating a multitude of often very similar posts.’

This is also an opportunity to put the many references given in the 30 minute talk, and used in the research, in one handy place. Enjoy.

Reading List

  1. The Management Century by Walter Kiechel III, published in Harvard Business Review, November 2012.
  2. The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality (2012) by Dr Joyce Nilsson Orsini. Available as a Kindle book, this is the only place I have read Deming’s theories on organisation structures and the negative impact of org charts.
  3. Value Stream Mapping – understand the theory of this special variant of process map
  4. Management 3.0 (2011) by Jurgen Appelo.
  5. Godwin’s Law by Mike Godwin, 1990. ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’
  6. Scaling Agile at Spotify (2012) by Kniberg and Ivarsson.
  7. Power to the Edge (2003) by Alberts and Hayes.
  8. Here Comes Everybody (2009) by Clay Shirky.
  9. The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) by Frederick Winslow Taylor.
  10. The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) by the Thorsten Veblen (the witty economist who invented the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption’ among other things). Best read in Wikipedia.
  11. General and Industrial Administration (1916 in French, 1946 in English) by Henri Fayol. Had Henri not been French, and writing at a tricky time in world politics, his ideas might have spread sooner. Similar to Frederick Taylor in many ways.
  12. Conway’s Law by Melvin Conway.
  13. Servant Leadership – best read about in this chaotic Wikipedia entry which features American Robert Greenleaf’s work.
  14. Peter Drucker’s contribution to management and organisational literature in the second half of the 20th century was biblical. The HBR article above does a great job at summarising his influence, or you can buy this book on Amazon.
  15. The reference to the 3rd Reich organisation structure and model can be found here in its original form (not adapted for CIOs).

What software people can learn from great Lego design – YOW 2012

By | Agile, Communication, Development, People | One Comment

Lego software design rule 1: design only in white bricks

At YOW! Australia in Melbourne I had the pleasure of introducing and getting to know John-Henry Harris, a product designer at Lego in Denmark. Originally from the UK, his passion for product design, and a love of Lego saw him land the job of many designers’ dreams at a young age.

His talk was about design and innovation, and I was struck by the parallels to the non-brick world – which is why YOW had him at opening spot on Day 1 of the conference’s agile stream of course!

John Henry Harris Lego dragons

Here’s 14+1 Lego design and innovation principles to consider (John Henry has kindly added a 15th in response to our blog post):

  1. Design using only white bricks: as you can see from the illustration above (my very own resident lego designer’s handiwork), making something look great with only white bricks is HARD. Your model immediately goes a bit flat, there’s no flashy accents of colour to rely on, and no detail – the essential form must stand on its own two feet. Then, when you get the design right, add colour a little at a time and ensure every colour adds some value. In software land, think Balsamiq over Powerpoint as your IDE.
  2. No new bricks – treat this constraint as a challenge to your inventiveness. Of course
    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    every designer wants new bricks developed to enable a special corner or moving feature of their model, but the cost of moulds and development is high, think tens of thousands. Now, Lego certainly isn’t shy of investing in new brick designs, as the Star Wars series shows, but every one must be heavily justified and be widely re-useable. Sound familiar to any Open Source guardians of the core application code? Every Lego designer also knows that somewhere in the world, their name is being cursed when a model rebuild is foiled by a failure to find the exact, rare, tiny 1 x 1 brick needed – the one with the hollow back and a rebated front side, rather than a stud.

  3. Always make options to test. John-Henry told us the story of a Lego technic bulldozerbulldozer model, where from Day 1 the team decided they would build two discrete options – a highly featured, and slightly larger model; and a smaller one, that used up a chunk of the design budget by adding a motor and some moving parts. The team felt confident that the test audience would choose the scale and functionality of the larger, non-motorised model over the mechanised version. Doubtless they even wondered out loud occasionally about the sense of going through the complete design process for 2 things almost the same, when one was clearly the superior product. The final result is above – mechanised won the day, against all predictions. Size ain’t everything.
  4. Involve your customers in design: Lego makes a habit of bringing in realLego-Emerald_Night_Train customers to co-create some products and solve tough engineering problems within other lines. In 2009 the Emerald Night train set was the first train to be made in many years from the standard Lego system, and AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) with expertise in trains were brought in to work out solutions for motor durability and help with engineering of the set. That is so much more than sending out a research team or conducting a survey on your website – do your products have enough goodwill and the love of your customers to ask them to be involved with design? Have you the humility to work alongside them? Chances are we’ll all spend big dollars on ‘consultants’ instead.
  5. Work in teams. Here’s a major overlap between Lego product design processes and agile software design and development. Multi-disciplinary teams are core to the innovation and design process in both places. There is a team space, shared and individual work environments, plans out in the open. I think our world of business agility is starting to understand the power of this – the Activity Based Working (ABW) movement in architecture is starting to build environments to suit a collaborative work style (with BankWest in Perth being one to see if you want your socks knocked off by futuristic socio-technical building design).
  6. Marketers and designers sit together from Day 1. It’s a subset of Principle #5 I suppose, but so often missed in software development projects. The diversity of personalities just adds to the creative environment, and much time is saved having the ‘go to market’ people in the room. This is grossly absent in most projects relying on software development to succeed. Marketing are too often the team on another level or in another building.
  7. Test with real customers – kids! A great story came up at YOW! to illustrate whether you really
    One of JHH's Creator sets (Fiery Legend) - showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    One of JHH’s Creator sets (Fiery Legend) – showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    know your customer, or whether you’re only making what your well-meaning product owner or business analyst has had inspiration to build for a perceived customer need. Testing Lego dragon designs (I think it was a dragon, might have just been a monster), the team waited anxiously to see of the efforts that had gone into the engineering of an upright walking beast had paid off. It had been a huge mechanical conundrum, constraining the leg joints with pieces drawn from sets across the group – a masterpiece in design. The end result was a shock to the team – to paraphrase the children’s choice: “why would we pick a dragon that walks, when this one fllliiiiesssssssss…” as the child picks up another model and simply swooshes it through the air in their outstretched hand.

  8. Take pride in building to a cost envelope. This follows on from Principle #2 to some extent, and  I reflect is core to many arguments I have witnessed in the past over the benefits of agile methods of working. The simplest resolution of the “how much will this damned thing cost me?” standoff between product owners, accountants and IT is to promise to deliver the highest priority features within an envelope of money. As Dave Thomas wisely once said: “budgeting is easy – simply find out how much money is your CEO willing to bet on this idea”. Building to a cost is an up-front constraint at Lego, and people’s energy goes into designing an innovative solution that kids will love, not fighting over budgets.
  9. Have coaches – coaches are part of the team at Lego, and designers get to spend time being a Technical coach or a Model coach. For many of us in agile-land, coaches are too often one row too many on a budget.xls file. How exactly do we expect to develop our skills at working with agility, which is a mindset founded on continuous innovation and improvement? Maybe to keep costs down, just one person on the team is nominated to read a book on agile, or get certified? Luna Tractor’s experience has been that your optimism will not pay off.
  10. Design rules come from deep user insight – if you are a Lego nerd like me, you
    Another JHH Creator set - 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    Another JHH Creator set – 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    will doubtless marvel at the instruction books, where no words are used to ensure universality of the document. But one thing you may not have noticed is a subtle product design rule around very similar parts being required in the same small build sequence. Say, a 1 x 6 and a 1 x 8 red brick. Not allowed! Why? Because a child searching for a 1 x 6, then a 1 x 8 brick amongst the tipped out packet of 200 bricks in a set is going to get frustrated, repeatedly finding and attempting to fit the wrong brick. Which to a young child looks like the right brick. Apple iTunes 11 developers, are you listing to this?

  11. The hardest products to design are the ones where re-use is mandatory. The Lego Creator series is a tough assignment. Essentially, 1 box of bricks, 3 different models within a theme required. With as few bits as possible left over after each model. Think code re-use is a challenge?
  12. Build with your left hand, or with gardening gloves. That is how far the Lego designers will go to emulate what it is like to be 4 years old and trying to pick up and manipulate the smaller pieces in the Lego sets (for kids just graduating from Duplo). In software, how often do we think of constraining our skill when using and testing our product? We’re all whiz-kid digital people, do we really imagine we can know what it is like to be a ‘normal’ person? When was the last time you explained search engine optimisation or the internet to a friend from a non-IT world?
  13. The Lego design team reviews the product – just like a retro/showcase, and you’d better be ready to have your say. With Lego, products may stay in design mode for months, and I dare say that it gets tedious, even for a Lego-nutcase to have to rebuild the same item over and over for weeks at a time, searching for better ways and faster, stronger engineering solutions. The team provides the context, the support and the feedback so that invention can be turned to innovation. Problem-solving is so often a team exercise in both our worlds.
  14. Every product can be analog and digital, so be open to options. The design team working on Lego’s Ninjago models used story-telling to develop characters and context for the individual mini-figures. Their clever solution to stimulating their ideas was to hire a cartoonist, who would sketch story boards and story lines and put them on the wall. Now, art imitates life, whichScreen shot 2012-12-16 at 4.23.45 PM imitates art, as the Ninjago TV series is a great success alongside the toys. Traditional merchandising turned on its head! Do you have the creative bandwidth to imagine games, video, books, and social media as well as your starting software product? Or is that someone else’s job in your company?
  15. Have fun – play is an essential part of the process of invention and innovation. You can see John-Henry talk on this subject at TedX here. I opened the day with a quote from JHH’s website: “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” – George Bernard Shaw.

And when you’re as good at playing as John-Henry Harris, you might one day create something as awesome as this. Santa, are you listening?

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

WHY ?

By | Agile, Communication, Customers, Development, Disruption, Lean, People, Strategy | No Comments

At various times I’ve heard Fiona, Nigel and myself telling people “If you only adopt one Agile practice make it the retrospectives” … But why ?

The boards are useful, but they are really just give you a prompt when you talk at your stand ups, and those are just an efficient way to make sure everyone is communicating.  While the demos and showcases give some social incentive to produce real things and check your progress over a useful timeframe (weeks not months or years).  But … The retrospectives (or reviews), that for me is where the real magic happens.  If you never stop to check, to ask how things are going and question why things are the way they are, why you are doing things and what you should do next in response then you risk having  the veneer of an Agile process which is either just micromanagement on the wall, Waterfall or perhaps worst of all, no real plan at all.

Being Agile isn’t enough.  Being Lean isn’t enough.

It’s all to easy to build and do the wrong things very well and very quickly using these techniques.  Perhaps the single most important thing is that your CEO, your leaders, your product people and you need to understand, ask and articulate is WHY you’re doing things.

If it’s a statement about profit and growth, start running. The powerful WHYs come from passion and insights from your customer (or potential customers if you’re doing something new).

WHY –> WHAT –> HOW … Simon Sinek

There are two standout statements in Simon’s TED talk.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

“There are leaders and there are those that lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead – inspire us. We follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to, we follow those who lead not for them but for ourselves.”

Too many companies and individuals talk about what they are doing, the great ones talk about why.

Book Review: We Are Anonymous

By | People | No Comments

There is some irony that I decided to read this book on a few days of holidays in a cottage where there is no phone, no 3G reception and certainly no internet. By following the journey of a handful of so-called hackers, Parmy Olson leads us into the sometimes facinating and sometimes seedy deep web (forums, chat rooms and other pathways hidden from google and outside your average facebook obsessed internet user’s conciousness) that houses the collective who call themselves Anonymous.

I won’t spoil the story for you, like the tale of uberhacker Kevin Mitnick (titled Take Down published 16 years ago) it’s an insight into parts of the internet, cyber security and some relatively distasteful behaviour online for a period of time from about 2006 to 2011. The links between Anonymous (and no doubt many similar groups) and WikiLeaks were eye-opening for me. As was frankly how rudimentary the exploits and techniques used by the group and the hysteria caused by garden variety SQL injection and confidence tricks.

As always, most hacking is possible because a) People are lazy and predictable and b) people are fairly easy to socially engineer. None of the techniques described in the book were particually advanced, to be honest back in my unix admin days I could have probably pulled off most of their hacks myself if I had the inclination.

A few observations from the book.

The internet is an amazing thing, its power to bring together like-minded souls from anywhere in the world, to transport information instantaneously and broadcast that same information to millions of people, can be used for both good and for evil.

Good password security which would have prevented most of the ‘hacks’ mentioned in the book is actually very basic, and yet even those who ought to know better got it wrong. As individuals you need to have secure passwords – long passwords, letters and numbers … 8 characters isn’t long, think 20!

Use different passwords for all your services important services, PayPal and your Internet Bank are probably pretty secure, but that doesn’t help you much when you’ve used the same password for some small online shop which doesn’t encrypt it’s password database and ends up giving a hacker your login (normally your email address these days) and password in clear text – we all use the same services Twitter, Facebook, PayPal and GMail etc – it doesn’t take long for a hacker to try these standard sites.

Also don’t email or share your password, ever. I’d suggest using a password you dont even know, applications like 1password will generate a unique, incomprehensible password.

Finally, anonymity, or at least the perception of anonimity leads to some pretty awful behaviour. It leaves me wondering how thin the veneer of civilised society really is. Maybe it’s nihilism ? Like Chuck Palahniuks Fight Club, these are a generation of lost soldiers – they channel the rage and futility of lives defined by suburban consumerism into destruction – of those they hate, and those they don’t even know. Academics call it the disinhibition effect.

Anonymous called it lulz, probably because they couldn’t spell schadenfreude.

Luna USA Field Trip: lessons for the future of retail in Australia

By | Customers, Disruption, Lean, People, Retail, Strategy | No Comments

If I had a dollar for every whinging column-inch where our Australian newspapers copy and paste press releases from Myer, David Jones and Harvey Norman’s PR departments, blaming the dreaded interweb for the end-of-days in our retail stores, I’d be wealthy enough to buy my Levis from DJs all the time. Which is another story, but to be fair, a related one.

As data from Marketing Magazine recently reported, and as I have duly illustrated above, online sales (the pirate) amounted to a mere 4.9% of total retail revenue in Australia. You’d think it was 49% the way the captains of industry are moaning! You would have to take the 15 top-ranked etailers (look away venture capitalists) to beat Myer’s sales in 2011.

Three quarters of those etailers are Australian based (like recent Melbourne niche startup Oola Toys, catering for quality kid’s toys online), belying the hysteria that the foreign pirate devils are plundering our shores.

Like pirates, etailers are moving fast and nimbly, growing 29% per year, but it’s a perilously small base, and although the power of compound growth of that kind is well-noted by economists, the pirate’s flag was visible from a great distance.

In the long run, can ye olde worlde Australian retail survive this onslaught from the internet? Will websites that enable people to self-serve, in their own good time (websites rarely snear “you’s been fixed?” while texting their mates on their iPhone), with near perfect information on price and quality, put bricks and mortar to the sword?

What’s particularly disturbing as Luna Tractorites, is that while we wait for the millionaire boys club to figure it out, the Australian retail experience just seems to get worse, accelerating our move online. As management consultants advise the command and control CEO-classes that the only sure-fire road to profit is cost reductions, they cut wages, staff numbers, staff benefits, premises and service.

I just don’t buy all their complaints about retail rents and wages. As this report on the state of Australian retail by The Australia Institute shows (yes, I know, they have an axe to grind and I should declare, distantly linked to my new employers), there is plenty of misinformation being spread at present to discombobulate us all.

Australian CEOs should know by now that by their very nature, big consulting firms will only recommend a cost-cutting program, since a well-known result of an ideas or innovation-based strategy is that some of the ideas won’t work. Cost cutting always gets a result for a CEO, and since they’re only going to be in the job 2 years, the next guy can handle the fallout.

The less than 5% of Australian retail sales that ecommerce plunders appears to have undone the psyche of the highly paid leaders of our big retailers. Their inability to grasp pure online is only surpassed by their choking over their morning tea and tim-tams trying to figure out how to make online and bricks & mortar stores work together. Which the rest of the world has had a better go at I might add – according to the Marketing article, 13 of the top 15 etailers have a bricks and mortar presence of some kind.

The web is growing fast too, off that tiny 4.9% base, and it appears nobody near the top of big retail has a single good idea to play. Remind me again why we pay them so much?

To add final insult to big retail’s EBIT injuries, the Australian ecommerce industry is still sexy, bright and cool 12 years later – and still attracting talent and investment. And more often than not, attacking using small teams moving fast and agile.

Luna Tractor sent me to the USA in May 2012, the land of BIG retail, and I am pleased to report that whilst on assignment, I have seen the future.

Knowing a fair few camera nerds (James, Gus, Jamie, Steve I am looking at you all), they often recommend a website called B&H Cameras, based in the USA, as trustworthy, value for money and easy to deal with. The 3 horsemen of the retail apocalypse.

And thus, being in Manhattan for a few days, I felt duty bound to check them out.

The approach, from Penn Station through roadworks and fairly drab streets did not auger well. The only retailers in this area were basic, small and a bit sad looking.

Eventually I spotted a nondescript B&H sign, and a couple of traditonally dressed and coiffed Jewish guys sitting outside the door to a loading dock, looking exhausted from their morning’s work, and seemingly pleased to be in the open air. Hmmm. Entrance round the corner. Okayyyy.

Round the corner, in the front doors and BAM! Like a cross between Penn Station and Willy Wonka’s factory, there are people everywhere, and the zziiippp, zzziiiippp sound of machines, rollers and gears. I look up to see green boxes flying around gantries above our heads at high speed, like a Terry Gilliam film.

Photo from wikipedia

With electronics gear everywhere. It’s about the size of a decent JB HiFi store in Australia. On each level!

It is immediately explained to me I should check my hand-luggage in at the concierge, and then I’m free to head into the store.

Nondescript on the outside, treasure trove on the inside. Hundreds of customers, and dozens more of those mysterious traditionally-dressed Hasidic Jewish men. They are everywhere, chatting to each other, chatting to customers, laughing, looking serious,

Level 1 of B&H

debating, calling out to one another. I quickly get the picture they own and run the business.

My genuine requirement (and yes, there is one my dear family) is a couple of packs of Polaroid’s new zero ink ‘Zink’ printer paper, for the gorgeous little GL-10 portable printer we use. It is portable, battery powered, and most importantly, emulates the look of a genuine old Polaroid camera print. Essential cool.

Having bought the printer at Michaels in Melbourne, I figured I would acquire more paper on the road in the USA easily enough. I figured 100% wrong, as I found in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Boston. “Polaroid?” they all said. “What’s that?” or “they went out of business”.  Even the specialist camera stores blanked. At worst I got the surly ‘haveaniceday’ which translates to ‘whydidIwastetimeonyouloser’.

I wandered upstairs at B&H, seeing the family safely despatched to check out the world’s largest 3D televisions, and am once again taken aback by the sight. Not dozens of Jewish men, but hundreds.

Product is divided by brand, and by categeory. A whole shop-sized stand of Canon cameras, of Nikons, Leica, and Olympus. Printers arranged accordingly. Historical displays. Apple computers, Sony, you name a brand, it’s there. I am drawn to the Polaroid and instant camera stand, and to my utter disappointment see their old Pogo printer and a paper rack saying ‘out of stock, new product coming soon’. Images of the Lady Gaga designed GL-10 printer as a paper weight flash into my brain.

“Sir, you look like you saw ghosts” says a man at my elbow. I explain my problem, what I want, and he steers me by the elbow – “it’s not my area, but come over to where the printers are, we’ll see what we can do”. I am introduced to the 3 printer guys, who have the tiny range of Polaroids (there are only 2 printers, and a couple of cameras) on their shelves.

Then my server shocks me – he opens the freaking company website on a computer on the stand! I quickly jump to the conclusion that the game is over, and I’m about to be sent home to order it on the web.

To have a retailer even admit they have a website is rare enough, but using the site within the store to actually assist a customer even rarer. There’s no commission on that sale surely! Having got a visual check on what I want through the use of a quick search, the guy CTRL-C’s the product SKU, alt-tabs to another boring old mainframe looking screen, pastes it in, and whammo, we have an order.

“Were you thinking of anything else on today’s visit?” he asks. As it happens, I have ummed and ahhed over a simple 50mm f1.4 lens for shooting indoors for a while. “Do I have to go somewhere else for lenses?” I ask. “No, no, if you know what you want we’ll find it” comes the confident reply. One website search, visual confirmation, cut and paste of the SKU, and I am done.

The B&H service counters where you inspect the goods brought up from the warehouse. Spot any queues here?

I now expect my guy to take me to a till and ring it up. Silly me. Nor does he point and tell me to wait in the queue over there. He TAKES me to a free service person at the biggest customer service counter I have ever seen (I counted about 70 stations), and introduces me to the next guy in the chain. Then he waves goodbye and goes back to the printer display.

I have a small ticker-tape printout in my hand of the items, with a bar code. I am greeted, the serving guy simply scans the code and suggests I try one of their delicious candies, as the goods will be a couple of minutes. Ummm, so where are they then?

In under 2 minutes, 2 green boxes with my lens and paper arrive on the invisible railway underneath this gigantic service desk. I get my credit card out, ready to pay. “Oh no Sir” he waves my card away, “we’re just going to let you check the items are what you wanted – you will pay downstairs at the next step…”

Now really intrigued, I decide to race the items downstairs. My effort to beat them will doubtless be foiled by a queue at the payment counter though. Except there isn’t one. In fact, I have not seen a queue anywhere in the entire store. Payments is only the second place I have seen any women in the store at all (the first was bag check). Six checkouts for credit cards, 4 for cash and cheques.

Having paid, I am ushered over to the collection counter, where my items, with warranty cards filled out, my receipt stapled to them, have been delivered by the magic railway and are in a bag ready to collect.

Boggling.

So what has happened here? Well, given that these guys have been in business for decades, I have just learned where Steve Jobs got his Apple Store commerce and Genius Bar service processes from.

B&H are basically masters of FLOW, and ensuring that value is accruing the whole time for the customer.

B&H have counter-intuitively divided up the value stream into discrete parts that are delivered rapidly by discrete people. In a time where everyone else is cutting staff numbers, training and service levels, they are dialing those factors to 11.

They have worked out the bottlenecks in their store flow, and simply calculated the required ratio of servers, inspection staff, cashiers, help desk and collection staff based on the pull of customer demand.

They also have a booming website business, shipping huge quantities of product across America and the world, with integrated logistics partners like Fedex. To comply with traditional Jewish law, they are shut on Saturday, and do not even process internet orders placed on a Saturday. The system just queues them up for Sunday.

Now, I’m not saying they are perfect. According to Wikipedia they are defending a 2009 lawsuit focused on the lack of progress opportunities for women in the store. I can see how that arose!

But between innovators like Zara (right next door to our David Jones in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall, and as busy as DJ’s is quiet), Michaels and B&H, there’s hope that a retail shopping experience in Australia can still be a pleasant, and profitable one.

Just don’t expect any consultants to recommend that strategy any time soon.

Luna USA Field trip: more skunkworks reflections

By | Agile, Disruption, People, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

Like so many exhibits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, this plane is not a replica, a copy, or a later model. This actual plane is the very first jet fighter produced by Lockheed Martin’s skunkworks team.

The 14 rules of the Skunkworks, written by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Martin in the 1940s are are clear antecedents of the 2001 Agile Manifesto, and the Agile Principles behind the manifesto.

Kelly Johnson congratulates the test pilot for the new Lockheed Martin jet fighter, the same plane pictured above 60 years later.

James talks about Skunkworks in our YOW! presentation, which you can view here on the YOW! site.

Kelly Johnson, the leader of the Skunkworks organisation, had one core principle – everyone needed for the design, build, testing and launch of a plane would be in the team, and in the room. Engineers, pilots, welders, engine-makers, contractors.

This principle was brought to bear on the Allies’ big business problem in 1943 – the Germans had developed a jet fighter, capable of 50% more speed than a British Spitfire and the famed US P51-D. Eschewing the usual ‘big design up front’ period for a new plane, they went to work in a hangar and 143 days later were flying the first US-manufactured jet.

One of the secrets of the speed to market of the design was the way the plane was constructed. The tail piece, which contains the engine, could be folded back in several simple panels to reveal the entire jet unit for servicing or replacement, allowing rapid changeover and trying alternate designs.

The customer problem. For solution, see above.

At the Smithsonian, they have the problem and the solution arranged side by side in an exhibition honouring the jet engine and the Lockheed Martin’s amazing new approach to product development.

Luna News: Team Update

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At the beginning of June 2012, the Luna Tractor network will farewell Nigel Dalton as a consultant, to take on the role of Chief Information Officer at REA-Group. As one of the founders of Luna Tractor, Nigel will continue to write here, sharing his insights and experiences as part of our growing network of executives, consultants, leaders and change agents.

Over the last twelve months Luna Tractor has worked with many different organisations, from banking, superannuation and health insurance, to handmade bicycles and professional photographic services. We’ve helped them find new ways to work, with new approaches to innovation, transforming business by linking customer insight with strategy and agile execution. Co-founder James Pierce will continue to lead this mission hands-on with all of Luna Tractor’s partners.

Nigel is currently in the USA where he is speaking at the Lean Software and Systems Conference (LSSC) in Boston. Both Nigel and James with be back on stage along with Luna Tractor clients at the Agile Australia 2012 conference at end of May to continue sharing their stories. We look forward to seeing you there – Nigel and James.

Documentation – is video an agile option?

By | Agile, Communication, Development, People | One Comment

Working software over comprehensive documentation – one of the tenets of the agile movement that was enshrined on the agile manifesto over 10 years ago. But it is often hard to convince grey-haired old men carrying sharpened stakes (aka the stakeholders) that when things go wrong, the safest path is NOT for someone to look up the very thick and comprehensive ringbinder your BA team created at release time, find the page with that code on it, and fix it.

Back in the day, a whole industry grew up around documentation and manuals for software development projects. You could even get a job as a ‘technical writer’! I’m glad to say we don’t hear much from those people today, but I have no doubt they still exist somewhere in the land of waterfalls. Plenty of people still make loser manuals, as Mary Poppendieck is wont to let slip. And between James and I, we must have tried ring binders, post-it notes, wikis, white boards, powerpoints, omnigraffle, photos, blogs, twikis, email, text files… just about everything except stone tablets.

Luna hero Donald Knuth would tell you that to some extent the software should be its own manual (aka literate programming) – if fortune smiles upon you, it will be able to be picked up by a later developer and sorted out, based on the use of well-known programming techniques, sensible structure, and the occasional comment.

Architecture is another matter again – agile talks about it being a shared responsibility, about anyone being able to draw it on a whiteboard at any time. Good principle, but things can get quite complex at times – most people don’t want to know everything, just where the dragons be.

Alistair Cockburn made an interesting point at Agile Australia 2011 – that principle #1 of the agile manifesto was about the importance of face-to-face communication, and principle #2 was around minimising documentation. What if we combined these two ideas? In a world full of Youtube consuming, non-reading, video-savvy people, surely a short piece to camera was the next best thing to having the creator of a piece of code on the spot to consult?

So, from a small scribble in my To Do list, was born a video documentation project to take some risk out of moving the Lonely Planet website with a new team being started up in London – 18,000km away with all new people.

The idea was simple – 10 videos, less than 5 minutes each, hi-res with a Flip camera so the whiteboard drawings could be easily seen, and the focus being on pointing out the dragons. Explain the interfaces, where test coverage was weakest, some detail around the databases (recorded brilliantly with a screen grab tool by the DBA) and a great lesson in all the gotchas. The lowest tech thing we could do was label them well, stick them on a USB drive, and ship them to London.

Great idea for release notes, progressively recording improvements to code. A now out of production Flip is only going to cost you a couple of hundred dollars on eBay.

If nothing else, it might avoid the kind of developer comments we once found in some packaged software code -“what kind of [email protected]#$tard wrote this? I have no idea what this is for!”

Give it a try with your iPhone and let us know how it goes.

Learning – yeah, yeah, we know. No, you don’t know!

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As James and I have been building our fashionably lean Luna Tractor startup over the last 9 months, we’ve had many moments to pause and wonder why people just seem to despise reading, listening, and learning about strategy, culture and new ways of working.

It boggles us! How can this be? Learning is the hot topic du jour!

Eric Ries just reiterated his 10c worth that ‘validated learning‘ is the only true measure of progress when you are building a product or company under conditions of uncertainty.

This has caused a bit of handbag swinging in agile circles, as ‘learning’ isn’t anywhere near as easy to measure as a team’s velocity (the throughput of development stories); or a burndown chart (points per iteration); or cycle time (time for a story to turn into cash). His point is that while you may have made good progress towards achieving a plan, that plan may actually be leading nowhere useful for customers.

“Validated learning is not after-the-fact rationalisation or a good story designed to hide failure (btw I hate those smart-ass CEO put-down quotes about ‘experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted’). It is a rigorous method of demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty in which startups grow.”

Revenue, no matter how small (in one of Eric’s startups $300 a week), is one good way to validate you have learned something useful.

It’s therefore obvious we all want learning – it makes us smarter and richer (and more like Eric Ries) for a start!

The science of learning is well documented – there are several theories, which if you happen to be an educationalist, we hope you are familiar with. One or more will likely have been inflicted on you by 10 years at school and perhaps more at a tertiary institution. We’ll side-step the science here for a minute.

Instead, we’ll talk about guitars.

As it happens we are both musicians – James an accomplished trumpet player, having played for years, and me, a struggling noob rock guitarist. It’s a skill I chose to pick up in my 40s, and whilst reading about strategy, lean and agile is a painless habit for me, guitar playing has been a start-from-scratch nightmare.

But what the guitar has been for me, I realise picking up a book or learning about agile is for others. Far out – no wonder people avoid learning!

The first thing about learning the guitar is the pain. Pain in the note-holding finger-tips (and some fine callouses to boot); along with pain in the left wrist, hand and fingers (I have a Bb7 claw hand at the moment). The pain comes from contorting my long-standing limbs and digits into new shapes and combinations.

That physical pain is nothing to the pain of emotional embarrassment at hearing notes and chords come out hideously (in front of friends and family); the feelings of incompetence that weigh down my shoulders; and worst of all the nagging, uncomfortable pressure just under the solar plexus that is my bruised self-esteem. You just suck at it, for quite a while. Nobody wants to suck. So we (quite logically) just avoid pain and sucking by staying the hell away from learning.

The second thing is that learning is tiring. I’m trashed after an hour of practice – listening, trying, re-listening, trying again, playing along … keeping up with band-mates and having fun jamming leads to the best night’s sleep.

Photo by Jamie Supple

Thirdly, learning moves at different rates. Some days it just clicks, others a small chord change can take a week to master. It doesn’t pay to plan (in my case) that I can master a song a week for example – too much uncertainty in that! Then, just as my left hand gains competence at changing from an F to an Am chord, my right hand can’t master the strum pattern that makes it sound rich and funky. The ‘team’ are learning at different rates!

The internet both helps and hinders learning – willing amateur musicians seem to have tabulated (aka written the non-notation cheats for) every song every written, and loaded them up to sites like Ultimate Guitar tabs. But most of them are wrong! As you can see in the example above I spent literally months in the wilderness with that Fly My Pretties song trying to figure out why it didn’t sound right – only to have a competent guitarist point out it was a B-flat, not a B.

Learning works so much better with feedback – and not after a week of doing something wrong, mastering the wrong damn thing only to find the chord progression was different all along – and quickly deciphered by a guitar master (see the hand-written chords at right on the photo above). Ten to 20 minute intervals of feedback are the natural human learning cycle. Which makes you wonder how useful a weekly retro can ever be!

Most of the time is spent on my guitar doing it wrong, listening and adapting. It takes a lot of repetition, and I often find it is best to just walk away and come back later – and then be amazed what your muscles have learned while you were cursing those chord changes.

Photo by James Pierce

Launching songs for real into the world at a band gig, or even a band rehearsal is a world apart from practising solo. Everything you thought you knew from doggedly playing along to the original song on the iPod goes by the wayside as the team rhythm takes over, and what matters is the skills and techniques more than the precise process of hitting all those notes in order. The order, in fact, can change with alarming speed!

And finally, a good teacher makes all the difference. I am very lucky to have several, professional and talented amateur in my life. And now I can reflect on why coaching is such a fundamental part of learning to play agile in business.

At YOW! in Melbourne this month we heard Jeff Patton talk about agile adoption, and he told us the story of how Ron Jeffries responds to people who whine about their failed agile project “oh yeah, we tried agile and it didn’t work for us”. He says that is akin to  saying “oh yeah, we tried baseball and it just didn’t work”.

You need to practice, chances are you just suck at baseball!

And it is practice that is the biggest secret of all – for guitarists, baseball teams and agilists.

Footnote: for the curious, here’s a live recording of the original (and beautiful) Fly My Pretties song tabbed so badly, and scribbled all over in my song book above.

From Insight to Strategy to Innovation – while standing at the Toyworld Checkout

By | Communication, Customers, Disruption, People, Strategy | 2 Comments

Listen up lean and agile thinkers. This is a simple illustration of the kind of things that make innovation and strategy easy – a gift from someone on a toy shop counter that probably earns less than $20 an hour. Are you this smart? This brave?

With a 10 year old in my household, it’s little wonder I am a fan of Lego. From my own childhood memories, to their inspiring recovery from a near death business experience (after their long-standing patent for bricks expired) just by listening to customers and innovating the product accordingly, it is all good.

One of their recent products puzzled and infuriated me though. It is a single Lego minifigure in an opaque cellophane packet – ideal for for party bags for kid’s birthdays; the child at the checkout who MUST spend their pocket money on something (and they are cheap, $4 to $5 each); or perhaps the serious collector to get some custom mini figure accessories and body parts.

Yet, you can’t see which one of the 16 in the series you are going to end up with.

I will thus confess to having spent far too much time at many a big store’s Lego counter with Mr 10, eyes shut, feeling the packets to detect the slightest variation in the components to figure out if the character is Jane Torvill (uncool!) or Toxic Space Engineer (cool!).

Children’s (and collecter of greater years, ahem) ingenuity and social network savvy soon solved it – for Series 1 and 2 they quickly figured out the bar codes were different and published the key. So Lego moved the goalposts, using a single bar code and a system of dots on the packaging to differentiate figures in Series 3. The kids cracked it again.

Series 4 onwards you have no chance of detecting the difference from the packaging. The secondary market on eBay for these figures erupted, and the popularity of the series continued to grow. Business is booming. Yet I’m still grumpy about it. Why?

Why did Lego want the figure to be a surprise? Was that part of their strategy for the product? Perhaps I will never know, and Mr 10 and I quickly became disenfranchised by the whole thing.

So imagine my surprise, when dropping into Toyworld Palmerston North in NZ last week to find the Lego minifigure packets on the checkout counter, with each figure individually labeled with a hand-written number against the official Lego key. “You can’t do that”; “that’s naughty”; “that’s against the rules” were all thoughts that leapt into my rule-obeying lizard brain. Flabbergasted, I managed to regain enough English language ask why they’d done it.

And for the readers who are struggling with why the hell I am writing about toyshops, this is called INSIGHT and is the most valuable commodity you can possess when developing something new. It is Dan Pink’s ‘purpose’ and Simon Sinek’s ‘why’ in the words of a 20 year old shop clerk:

“I just saw the looks on the faces of the kids – so disappointed that they got a cheerleader when they wanted a deep sea diver, and the conflict they had, knowing they had to be grateful, but had chosen a useless gift”.

Now, agilists, here comes the STRATEGY bit – how will you do something about that problem your customer savvy product owner has found a really sharp insight about:

“Did you get an official cheat sheet from Lego on how to do it?” I asked.

“No, no – there isn’t one. We just had time while on the checkout and watching the door, so we checked each one individually, just like the kids would do.”

INNOVATION simply comes from making this a habit now, knowing things like there are only 2 robots in the latest boxes of 100 or so mini-figures, and thinking about which of their customers might really value that robot.

“The hair on number 3 in that set there is cool for making Call of Duty characters” trots out Mr 10 to the girl behind the counter. “Really? My brother is so into Call of Duty – he’ll love that one”. Minifigure #3, the uncool, pyjama-clad kid with the teddy bear just went from ‘can’t shift’ to ‘can’t keep in stock’.

That is called GROWTH.

If you’re smart, you’ll be down to Toyworld in Palmy and hire that lady on the counter for your agile innovation team. She gets it 100%.

Challenger 1986: NASA’s most explosive retrospective.

By | Agile, Communication, People, Space, Technology | No Comments

Space Shuttle Challenger in one of the most famous (and chilling) space photos of all time.

As I read this week’s Telegraph obituary of a great American rocket scientist, I was moved to thinking about how we deal with the whistleblowers and truth-tellers in an agile world.

How can we strike a balance between encouraging transparency and realism, while managing the impact on the morale of tight-knit teams from Negative Nigels and Whining Winifreds?

I’ll be the first to say that the command and control culture of committed waterfallers (like NASA) is a fast track to secrets being kept, and problems being swept under the carpet. When “failure is not an option” on a project racing toward a fixed launch date, with scope being secretly trimmed off Gantt charts to ensure compliance with public commitments and budgets, and all-nighters pulled by tech heroes, we are just hiding failure.

Is agile any different? If it is effective, yes. But agile zombies, with their card carrying undead marching into retrospectives and standups ritually chanting out their obligations so they can get back to their desks as quickly as possible, is probably just as bad as waterfall.

This tragic tale of an ignored voice is a stern reminder of the consequences of avoiding talking about engineering issues.

When I arrived at Lonely Planet in 2007, and proceeded to shut down a failed waterfall-delivered website program, the HR team had already initiated a training program called Effective Conversations. It seemed uncomfortably basic and quaint in intent – teaching people to get good information across quickly and confidently when in meetings, in casual conversations, one on ones, or in the lunch queue.

A month later, I knew it was gold – I had yet to find a person who did not say “I knew that would happen”. People had just not managed to get the complexity and interdependence of the hairball of product and architecture problems across to Steering Committees and executives. And after a few public scoldings for being naysayers, they learned to shut up and soldier on.

Edward Tufte tackled this same issue of communicating complexity for NASA after the second major shuttle program disaster – Columbia in 2003. This $7 report from his website is one of the best training guides for agilists to invest in around effective written communication.

The constraints put upon Boeing and NASA engineers to explain the complexity of the situation where chunks of insulation had broken off the booster rockets and damaged the heat protective tiles on the leading edge of the wing, using Powerpoint slides with bullets points and a constrained number of words per line, was too great. The wrong decision was made to not space walk and inspect the damage.

I wonder if that was a ‘didn’t work’ or just a ‘puzzles us’ in a retro sense? Either way it signaled the beginning of the end for the second great chapter of the USA’s space exploration efforts. If you are facing an ever increasing complexity in your product and IT architecture, our advice is to put as much investment into improving everyone’s communication skills as you are any engineering effort.

Buy your copy of Edward Tufte’s handbook from his website here.

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