Minding the gaps

imageChange initiatives usually secure sponsorship by promising breakthrough outcomes rather than evolutionary refinements. Yet the strategy of  swinging for the fences is notoriously ineffective, succeeding in only 16% of change efforts. Such acts of desperation are often launched long after it has already become obvious that the status quo won't change itself:

When a company starts losing money, or a whole industry starts losing ground because of a new technology, most of us follow leaders who call for revolutionary change—even if no one really knows what change is needed. Leaders who advocate the status quo look like dinosaurs.

This is why tough times produce radical measures, radical leaders, and radical change. The call for revolution sounds weird in good times, but when things are bad, upending the status quo feels irresistible. We rarely think about selling stocks when their value is rising (when we could lock in our gains) but are enormously tempted to sell, sell, sell when their value starts to fall.

Goalies facing penalty kicks... are heavily predisposed to dive to one side or another to save a goal, even though their best odds of saving a goal are when they stay in the center. In one analysis of 293 penalty kicks in elite championship soccer, researchers... found that goalies had a 14 percent chance of stopping a goal when they dived to the left and a 13 percent chance when they dived to the right. The chance of stopping a goal when they stayed in the center was 33 percent. But, like voters and people stuck in traffic jams, goalies facing penalty kicks are drawn to action, not inaction. The analysis of the championship penalty kicks found that goalies stayed in the center only 6 percent of the time.

Even in the ruts of chronic poor performance, sponsors may be unwilling or unable to commit the necessary resources, attention, and political capital to making the kinds of changes necessary, preferring slogans to substance. While it may seem like such investors enjoy pouring money down the drain, or are posturing for plausible deniability about the true state of affairs, their motives are unlikely to be so malicious. They may simply recognize that it may not be possible to actually accomplish change until the need for change becomes evident to everyone. 

Even when incentives for action have been established, affected organizations may be tempted to pretend that success is achievable by just communicating the right stretch goals, and creating the right environment for actions to emerge spontaneously from the underlying culture.. Yet succumbing to such "mission accomplished" declarations can doom their inevitable successor, and overlook opportunities for learning in the meantime.

Any change program should be structured to foster phases of discovery, learning, and mastery across the teams involved in or affected by the change. Each of these phases has predictable behaviors, such as those emerging from fears of operating outside everyone's comfort zone. Trying to ignore the distinctive signatures of these environments, or failing to properly manage their transitions, will only extend the time it takes to make it through to each subsequent phase. Teams must successfully navigate through discovery and learning in order to turn the corner and begin achieving positive results.  Yet just because a team has reached a basic competency in incorporating such changes into their work practices, diligence is still required for positive overall returns to be sustained.

Too often, when we suspect a change effort is troubled, we treat the perception of potential failure as an opportunity to turn up the motivational pressure, either implicitly or explicitly. Mandates for change can escalate as businesses seek to close detected gaps. Organizations must adopt a number of key practices as they work to become more mature in addressing these shortfalls:

  • the decision-making process must focus change efforts in ways that can be scaled to be comprehensive and relevant to the organization's work
  • the organization's change planning processes must be practical, effective, and realistic in choosing where, how, and when to apply resources
  • the execution of the change activities must be disciplined and focused
  • the measures of effectiveness of the organization must provide leading indicators and triggers so that available capacity can be deployed to recover from problems encountered along the way

Leaders and individual change agents pursuing these changes are highly susceptible to underestimating the effort and time required to implement change, and to overestimating the capacity of the change agents to successfully introduce them into practice. There are many reasons for this. They may fail to account for the impacts of product and organizational complexity on productivity. The proposed changes may not have permeated into the infrastructure and cultures that must adapt to the changes. Finally, those who must implement changes may not understand what will be expected of them, or their background may not be relevant to the environment in which the changes must be incorporated.

Each stakeholder's viewpoints of these changes are also subject to blind spots. The hard work of incorporating these changes into traditional practices may be perceived as disruptive, temporary detours from doing the 'real work' of the organization, and result in breakdowns of performance. These rose-colored views can have quite serious long-term impacts:

The research reveals three reasons for the breakdowns: Time lags between causes and effects make it difficult to see how they're connected; fallible estimates color the chain of decisions that determine a project's outcome; and a bias toward the initial goals prevents managers from setting revised, more appropriate, targets when project circumstances change. Sticking to an initial low budget goal after a project grew in scope, for instance, led subjects to ignore quality assurance, which led to soaring defect rates--and costs.

- Non-Zero

Improving the productivity or performance of an organization, requires actors to come to grips with how they create, deliver, and support value-added products and services over time.  When navigating this territory withinin areas that have been under constant cost pressures over long periods of time, there may not be much 'low hanging fruit' that can be harvested. Finding additional time and resources which may already be in short supply can reduce focus, lower morale, and erode the ability to deliver on existing commitments.

Rather than presuming prior experience is relevant to emerging situations, it is better to perform independent, unbiased assessments grounded in proven, industry-accepted assessment instruments. The perceived benefits from achieving such productivity improvements are usually obvious at the highest level of the organization. However, the risk remains that at that level, changes are reduced to slogans  - such as reducing waste, pursuing added value, or overcoming adversity. But translating such high-level direction into explicit performance changes requires translation, trial and error at the local level, if it is to deliver bottom-line results. That's why adoption of a proven framework for change can help the organization begin to make its decisions based upon facts, rather than politics.  

In reviewing these facts, a balance will need to be struck between starting new projects and improving the organization's performance on existing commitments. For example, in a software organization, some tactics may produce more code within the near term, but may result in more rework over the long term. For example, if the additional code produced is not sufficiently mature and useable for the stakeholders who need it, or does not have sufficient quality to provide a suitable basis for future product evolution, such tactics really just generate more technical debt, which manifests itself as a tax on future investments. Organizations with such biases may also be measuring the wrong thing; measuring 'productivity' in the absence of considerations of value does not make a lot of sense.

The extensive research drawn from experience with the Personal Software Process (PSP) highlights some of these issues. In the PSP, individual programmers keep careful measurements on their performance as they implement a standardized series of programs. As these programs are developed, they also incorporate a number of quality improvement ideas. The PSP experience indicates that at least in the short term, quality improvement ideas at best have no effect on productivity, but can have a significant impact on quality (and thus total system costs) over time. The most productive engineers may really be the ones who produce products that are most widely used, and which have the greatest positive impact on the organizations that are using them, rather than falsely presuming that producing more code is equivalent to generating more value.

This highlights a harsh reality: if you cut costs before focusing on quality and cycle time, your ability to improve quality in the long run will likely be seriously diminished. It also means that any absolute measure of production rates without accompanying measures of quality is meaningless. This is why it can be dangerous to pursue opportunities to increase productivity, without understanding where the leverage points really are for an organization. It also reinforces how difficult it is to predict the future, unless relevant data from past performance has been collected and can be extrapolated. Laying a foundation to achieve predictable performance can be especially difficult when estimates of resources are always scrubbed to unrealistic levels by stakeholders, or are derived from optimistic projections of how work will unfold (presuming the absolute best of all possible circumstances), rather than being based upon realistic >assessments of risk.

As a result, it is useful to build and calibrate a model of organizational performance which can be realized over time. Such an exercise can force us to be more realistic about what change will actually take to pay off over time. Deciding how to measure target outcomes, and which factors will actually be required to achieve those outcomes is crucial to planning the change effort so that it can be implemented with confidence. There are many decisions and trade-offs that must be made in order to ensure that the collection and aggregation baseline measurements are suitable for use over time. These include:

  • the convenience of instrumentation, collection, and measurement strategies.
  • the ability to accurately characterize results for different audiences, each of whom will likely have different agendas
  • the means of handling incomplete data (including data on project attributes)
  • the use of data in actively monitoring and controlling the phenomenon under study
  • how hypotheses are developed and validated regarding the data and projects which are under evaluation

On the other hand, if you need a quick win that sounds impressive in the short term, you can exploit Pareto's law, and increase your focus on the 80% of your work that takes 20% of your time. A checklist can help you filter and select that 80% in a pretty straightforward fashion. Additional benefits can also be realized by reduced multitasking and improvements in how the work flows through the work group. But none of these 'work shuffling' exercises will provide required solutions for the remaining 20% of your work, and this will still take 80% of your time, once you confront it. To solve this bigger problem, the cost of poor quality will likely need to be confronted... but at least you may be around long enough for that opportunity to play out.

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