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I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. - Confucius

One of Steven Covey's Seven Habits is to 'Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.' Human relationships are certainly advanced when we careful and thoughtfully listen to the perspective of others. But achieving an understanding of a topic requires us to probe much deeper until we have considered and acknowledged the viewpoints of all parties for the presenting circumstances. We must intellectually engage, properly diagnose the situation, recognize the body of knowledge relevant to it, confront the constraints imposed on solutions, and be able to act on available information in ways that will result in better outcomes being achieved.

 ​imageA business's product catalog is made up of the products which it offers to its customers. When such products are related by one or more reference architectures or shared elements, the collection is called a product line, or less formally, a family of products. Each family of products is designed to respond to a spectrum of customer needs, including positioning for offering a stream of more cost-effective derivative products over time. The approach which produces these collections is known as product family engineering, and it requires focusing on the core characteristics that will satisfy the broadest set of applications within the planning horizon established for each offering.

imageThe ability and willingness of organizations to make commitments is a function of their environment, capabilities, capacity, and the clarity of what they have been asked to do. When these commitments are made, they should not be empty promises, but should represent realistic intentions for how the organization will be utilizing its resources. A structured framework can help these organizations by providing a basis for negotiating and documenting their commitments, so that the ways and means are available which can realistically be used to accomplish target objectives.

The organizations responsible for performing this work may be unwilling to support the required planning and scheduling of the work itself. They may view such planning and scheduling as just an exercise to check off a box, rather than an essential effort to carefully think through the sequence and resources required to satisfy the intended business objectives. Other individuals may be too overwhelmed by existing commitments and known unknowns to take the required time to orient and determine where they really are, so they can plot a course to their destination. Those responsible for traversing this terrain may also be fearful that their project will not stand up to scrutiny, or believe that their reputation will be best served by keeping commitments vague.

imageEntropy is an expression of the degree of disorder which accumulates in a system over time. Entropy has a natural tendency to increase within a particular system over time, though nailing down exactly what this means can be problematic. Conceptually, it is the amount of additional information needed to determine the exact state of a system at any particular point in time. Unfortunately, as the second law of thermodynamics postulates, it is not possible to measure this quantity in systems without impacting the system being measured.

Entropy is also an unfortunate fact of life on projects, and despite our futile desires for predictability, the interventions we introduce can be futile. Systems theory tells us that as we try to rearrange a system, the system often pushes back, usually in unforeseen ways. For example, the more energy we inject into projects in attempts to measure their status, the harder it may become to try to determine exactly what is going on.

When a particular job can be performed by a single, experienced individual,  the effort required for planning, decision-making, and status reporting can be kept to a minimum. But when a job instead requires a team to develop a complex product, which must be implemented within a multi-tiered architecture, the time, effort, and skills required to coordinate among the team members to accomplish these same activities can quickly become substantial. Sadly, when we plan for such jobs, we rarely give this coordination the forethought it deserves before these needs are upon us.

Jim McCarthy describes the ideal we should strive for when we perform this coordination:

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Nearly all organizations have gaps between their aspirations and their actual performance. These gaps typically are the result of the structure of the organization, the environment in which the organization operates, the capabilities of individuals and infrastructure in the organization, and the interactions of these elements. The way we think about these gaps usually affects how successful we will be in addressing the underlying causes of these gaps over time.

A learning organization can incorporate these performance insights into behavioral changes quickly, efficiently, and effectively. For this learning to gain traction, an organization must design affordable interventions, mitigate constraints arising in different situations, and channel information to where it is needed. These practices are more likely to get traction when they emerge from the collective insights of team members rather than appearing as mandated interventions from above.

imageThe pursuit of value is usually a tenuous and uncertain quest for meaning. There are often many applications of technology that are possible, but only a relatively small portion of them may be relevant to a particular set of needs. Even when these stars align, resource availability often limits the extent to which such opportunities can be pursued. And when these resources are available, circumstances may preclude the pivots necessary to exploit them.

Like most qualities, the characteristics we seek in the pursuit of value are usually specific to the eyes and circumstances of each beholder. As Thomas Sowell describes it:

Materials and structures have strength and fatigue properties that determine their engineering applications in systems designs, and the failure modes that result from these uses. These properties must be considered when designing systems and performing stress analysis in order to assure that the designed structure will fulfill its intended functions within a given environment. The structural integrity of a design is impacted by both the static and fatigue characteristics of its constituent materials, and can lead to crack initiation and propagation under cyclic loads, excessive elastic deformations, and other time dependent failure modes, such as corrosion, creep, stress ruptures, and thermal fatigue.

Software, unlike physical materials, is immune to these types of failures. While the computer on which software executes may exhibit many of these failure modes, for a deterministic algorithm that is correctly implemented in software, it will always work in the future in the same way as it has in the past, for a set of initial conditions and a given sequence of inputs.

Planning and estimation strive to anticipate and shape future events from an imperfect understanding of the current situation, the desired outcomes, relevant historical information, and the actions required to achieve success. Planning and estimating must discover, focus on, and document assumptions about key unknowns, develop hypotheses about current and future constraints and their likely impact on the course of the project, and translate these assessments into action plans and affordable resource allocations.

These plans must launch the project with focused momentum directed towards the project's vision and objectives, with monitors that will help to ramp up velocity appropriately, proactively manage non-conformant work as it arises, and fine tune the involvement of participating actors. Such self-correcting project controls are essential to successfully pursuing a project's goals.

image​An organization is an adaptive system that seeks to accomplish more as a collective body than it can as self-organizing individuals. Over time, organizations evolve by making changes to their structure in order to balance the forces which the organization is under. This is important since the throughput of an organization over time is a function of an organization's ability to shape its performance in response to these forces. The success in performing these pivots is largely determined by the the behaviors of its actors, the ability to discover real customer needs, the clarity of interfaces, and crispness of transactional exchanges. These factors determine what utility an organization can offer to its customers, and the resilience it possesses as stress is introduced into its operating environment.

As described in the book Improving Performance:

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