There are nearly unlimited sources of advice on how to make improvements to nearly anything we could imagine. Not just personal improvements, but business improvements, management improvements, project improvements, technical improvements, world improvements.
I have a bias here shared by many of my colleagues. This bias stems from our domain, for the simple reason, we work where measurement dominates the conversation. We share a World View that performance performance improvement or even performance sustainment starts and ends with measuring things.
Measurements we'd find in the work we do, include but are far from limited from some basic questions that very person accountable for spending someone elses money must ask:
- When will we be done and what is the confidence in that number?
- How much will the thing we're building cost when we're done and what is the confidence in that number?
- How many people do we need to finish this work on time?
- What can go bad and how are we going to avoid the consequences when it does?
- What can go bad and how are we going to prevent it from going bad?
- When we're done, when will we break even on our investment and what is the confidence in this number?
But that are other measurements in our domain too.
- If we switch from this business system to another business system what will be the tangible evidence we made the right decision?
- If we adopt this new and supposedly innovative method of managing people, what will be the tangible evidence that things have improved and what is the unit of measure of that improvement?
- If we hire a training firm to improve our communication skills, how will we recognize we earned back our investment?
- If we change our organization structure and even our organization how are we going to know we made the right decision?
These questions come about because we work for people who spend either their own or other peoples money. If you're spending your own money (not someone else's) the importance of these questions is less, maybe even nonexistent. It's your money, spend it as you please. But the people that hire us almost always spend someone else's money. Many times they spend the money of a sovereign - the governments money.
The starting point for a look into this world of being accountable for other peoples money, is the book Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance, The Rocky Flats Story. This title contains the essence of our World View - Heliotropic Abundance and Positive Deviance and how Complex Projects in the presence of complexity, are managed using this paradigm.
When we say complex projects (or programs) and management at the same time, there is a specific set of meanings to these words. These words are based on Systems Engineering paradigms and the complexities of systems. System is defined in the context of a product or service provided to the people whose money is being spent. Of course this system has boundaries, relationships between its components and of course the relationships between the people working to produce the system or working in the system to produce something.
And also of course the system includes the people building the product or service. But it is the product or service that comes first. Otherwise why are we spending other people's money. Certainty not to increase the self actualization of the people working on the system. That may be a by-product, but rarely do strangers pay us to increase self actualization of our staff. You had pretty much better come fully funtional on the self-actualization front, before starting work on our programs.
All systems - at least all non-trivial systems - have complexities. They may even be complex. There is a science context for these words and a business context as well. In the domain we work, disorganized complexity is rare, for a simple reason. The firms we work for would have been eliminated from the gene pool if they could get the disorganized complexity under control. The systems we work are complex and have complexities.
Now We Get to the Hard Part - and there is Always a Hard Part
In the domain we work, we calculate things all the time. That's what we do, we calculate. We calculate Cost, Schedule, Technical Performance, Labor utilization, investment return, effectiveness of a process, effectiveness of people in their roles, effectiveness of the organizational structure and its behavior.
We calculate suggested ideas for improvement. We ask how would we know? How would we know the suggestion will actually going to work? How would know that the person making the suggestion actually has had success outside of personal experience? Is there are any tangible evidence that the suggestion is actually applicable to the problem we are facing?
So what happens when those making those suggestion don't have this evidence? Do we proceed? Maybe, maybe not. Remember it's other peoples money. We usually start by asking annoying questions - questions that we hope will produce answers in some unit of measure meaningful for our decision making processes
In the absence of these answers that have measures in them - numbers - we tend to lose interest quickly. This was the original problem with Agile. Just Try It works great when it's your money. When it's someone else's money, it's a bit more difficult to proceed with an experiment, without the full acknowledgement that it's an experiment.
When the problem to be solved is a people and organizational problem, the path forward in the absence of some unit of measure is more difficult. We need something that provides increased confidence that is we proceed it'll turn out all right. This can be case studies, reference processes, working prototypes. This is how Agile got going. Small examples of success, that started to scale. But Just Try It is probably not the basis of the decision.
So Here's The Suggestion
When you hear, read, or see a new and exciting approach to an existing problem, first buy and read Beyond The Hype. Then and only then, come back to the suggestion to see if those making the suggestion fall into the category of reprocessing ideas in a new language and passing it off as new.
Now there is great value in repackaging ideas. It may make the ideas clearer, more understandable. But usually anything that has a common name with a 2.0 or 3.0 behind the name should be suspect. Of course all thoughtful managers (or anyone for that matter) should be eager for and open to new ideas. They should also be just as skeptical that the latest sure-fire solution to what they realize are eternal problems that must be constantly managed, is just possible an old idea in new cloths.
They learn, either by instruction or by hard knocks that all suggestions must be actionable, measurable, and connected to tangible outcomes from the suggestions. It's that annoying measurement part.
So proceed with care. Beware of the Hype. Be-aware that problems are constant and pretty much unchanging. The same problems. There are rarely new problems, just old ones that have come back. New and innovative approaches to these old problems need to be tested. But while listening to the 3.0 version of the solution to the 1.0 version of the problem, ask some hard questions:
- Has the suggested approach worked outside of personal anecdotal experience?
- Has it worked in my domain? With the size of the problem I have?
- Have the benefits be verified? Independently verified?
- Has the return on investment been verified? Independently?
And don't listen to that Einstein quote about “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” That was about general relativity and the missing math (Rieman spaces).
Remember - everyone lives by selling something (Robert Lewis Stevenson). Find what they're selling before you buy. Ask those pesky annoying questions about how can I measure what you're selling in units meaningful to me. Don't buy the Hype, buy the outcome.