Sunday, February 25, 2018

The effect of new ideas on learning

"It's always good to learn something new" - or so the proverb goes. Let's examine whether this is true, and how to maximize the impact of our learning.

In this article, I will classify new ideas into two categories: growth beliefs and limiting beliefs.

How our beliefs affect our learning.

To keep this article short, I will make a claim that I'm not going to back up further: Whatever we learn is merely a new belief, a new concept we hold about reality.

Growth beliefs

A growth belief is an idea which accelerates our future learning. Adopting a growth belief has a sustained beneficial effect on our ability to understand the world. Growth beliefs tick off slowly by slightly broadening our horizon, allowing us to integrate new ideas faster. Thinking in networks, a growth belief is a belief where further beliefs can easily be attached to. The following illustration visualizes the idea:

Upon the growth belief, further ideas are built and can be adopted easier.
The growth belief acts as a sustainable basis for growth of ideas

Limiting beliefs

A growth belief is an idea which inhibits our future learning. Adopting a limiting belief has a long-term negative effect on our ability to understand the world. Unfortunately, the danger of limiting beliefs is that in the short term, they might give a massive boost to our ability to understand certain things. Again, thinking in networks, a limiting belief has a strong connection to related ideas which are oftentimes adopted immediately - while at the same time, the limiting belief is inconsistent with other ideas which become harder to adopt:

The limited belief is closely related to similar ideas
 - and inconsistent with other ideas, which we then struggle with or reject. 

When conflicts between ideas arise, we usually reject the new idea based on the ideas we already hold. Subconsciously, we find reasons why the new idea is wrong - either by trying to prove how it is deficient, or by trying to prove how our current belief is "superior". We are no longer open to listen to the merit of the new idea, as long as the cost of adopting it feels higher than the cost of rejecting it.


Unfortunately, there is no certain way to know upfront which beliefs are growth or limiting ideas. As a general rule of thumb, though: The easier an idea tries to explain a complex problem, the more likely it will turn out to be a limiting belief. Or, in more scientific terms: The level of explanatory power of an idea is directly related to our long-term understanding of reality. Beliefs which we hold despite low or no explanatory basis are most likely limiting and should be put under scrutiny.

When ideas with higher explanatory power conflict with ideas we already subscribe to, we should examine what really makes us believe the things we already do and potentially discard the ideas we already hold.


It's only good to learn new things if we can either understand where the things we learn inhibit us, or if we have a mindset of letting go of inhibitive ideas. The latter is extremely hard, as beliefs we have already adopted are often strongly related and make up what we see as "real" - so the best thing is to avoid the trap of adopting limited beliefs wherever we can spot them.

Another thing we need to understand: One person's growth belief might be another person's limiting belief, based on both where the person currently stands and what the person is looking for. When we discover ideas to be truly limiting, it may already be too late to discard them without rejecting a major portion of who we are.

So - be careful what "new things" you learn! It might cost you dearly, years in the future!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Thought Reform and Mind Control in the Agile Community

How do we know we're making progress towards a meaningful goal? Are we following a carrot on a stick - or even worse: are we being led astray in our attempts to become more agile?
Has the agile community gone too far in their attempts of making agility a lifestyle?

I feel the need to write this post because I recognized some patterns in the agile community which I know all too well from the years of my life I spent studying and discerning the phenomena of psychological abuse. 

But let me start from the beginning.


This article isn't singling out anyone or pointing fingers.
It's not about calling, labelling or stigmatizing anyone.

 Instead, it is a reminder to those who already display tendencies described in the article that they might be on a dangerous track - and an invitation to think for those dealing with such individuals.

If you feel that this article is talking about you or anyone you know, ask yourself: "Why?"
Why are we seeing those behaviours in the agile community?

Dangerous Behaviour

In this section, I will examine a list of behaviours based on the four common domains of "Mind Control" - neither with a claim that some specific persons would do all of these nor with a claim that some of the can't also be found elsewhere, just with a note that these behaviours raise a red flag. For brevity's sake, I am going to limit this to central points that are most notable.

I. Mind Control

Behaviour Control

a) Major commitment

of time and/or money for indoctrination purposes.This is talking about stuff like requiring attendance at group events and the trainings required to climb up the pre-defined hierarchy.

b) Group Think

instead of individual expression of thought. Society grows by bringing completely new ideas to the marketplace of ideas, then examining these based on their merit, instead of their point of origin. Group think means that ideas contradicting the group's doctrine will be rejected even if they are true and useful.

c) Obedience and Punishment

to enforce compliance. Obedience to the group's rules is paramount to keep order, even if said order is detrimential to growth and learning. Punishment and the threat thereof is used to keep members obedient.

Information Control

a) Deception

taking many forms, from outright lying over hiding facts all the way to distorting unpleasantries in order to make them acceptable. It's pretty much the opposite of transparency.

b) Discourage dialogue

with people who are critical towards the organization and its goals, including outsiders, ex-members and dissenting current members.

c) Compartmentalization

of sources. Information provided by "members in good standing" is good, information provided by "others" is bad, especially when in conflict with the organization's goals.

Thought Control

a) Axiomatic Truth

of any statement proclaimed by the group. There must be no doubt that the official doctrine is true by definition.

a) Black vs. White

thinking. There is no ambiguity and no alternatives. If it isn't A, it is B. This provides the basis for simple explanations to life's complex problems.

c) Us vs. them

mentality: There is no sane reason not to be on "our" side: Everyone else isn't enlightened enough or has a problem.

d) Loaded Language

reducing complex topics to contrite buzzwords. This inhibits, rather than growing, a deeper understanding.

e) Forced positivism

where people may be branded or shunned for "negative thinking".

f) Thought stopping

techniques are applied to suppress the need for analysis, critical thinking or constructive criticism of the group's doctrine.

Emotional Control

a) Manipulating feelings

of people for or against people or ideas by using psychological or linguistic triggers.

b) Blame shifting

towards those expressing ideas inconsistent with the group. Nothing can ever be the group's fault, it must be those who see the problem. Also manifests as: "Shooting the messenger".

c) Use of fear

tactics to keep people silent and in line. This is also combines with:

d) Phobia induction

in current members. Something bad will happen if you follow other ideas, or, God forbid, decide to leave the group. And remember: there are no legitimate reasons to quit - ever!

II. Apologetics

Apologetics is a huge chapter in and of itself. Talented apologists have a massive arsenal at their disposal, with the main goal of silencing dissent. Apologists tactics range anywhere from "working the issue" towards character assassination. Again, for brevity's sake, I will reduce this to an examination to the three core tactics employed by apologists.

Logical fallacy

The largest category of weapons in the apologist's arsenal is the employment of logical fallacies. There are too many to discuss - it's really worth exploring this domain of philosophy to be less prone to manipulation, so we will limit this to the most notable ones.

a) "Misunderstood"

When caught on a contradiction, the first line of defense will be "Ah, you misunderstood". Can be well combined with Loaded Terminology ("join us to lean what we mean") and blame shifting ("YOU get it wrong!") Note that the apologist will do their best to avoid clarifying the real meaning, as this would put the burden of proof on them.

b) Moving the Goalpost

Another powerful bait is to move the topic away from items which can be scientifically examined and scrutinized by changing the meaning of things mid-discussion. Combines very well with Loaded Language ("It means something else") and axiomatic truth ("If it were wrong, we wouldn't say it").

c) Appeal to Authority

or to Popular Opinion. Instead of tangible evidence, names and titles ("Doctor X") or sweeping statements ("Everyone knows ...") are offered as "proof".

Making it personal

Instead of arguing or providing evidence about the matter, the person of the critic becomes the topic of discussion in an attempt to "shoot the messenger" to avoid that the message itself needs to be examined. This can range anywhere from:

a) Who are you?

It looks easy to discredit a person who doesn't have the combined experience of those one the other side of the argument by simply stating, "We have industry leaders, professors and scientists - and you are?" If this doesn't end the discussion, they will move on to:

b) Mud slinging

and shifting the dicussion towards personal shortcomings of the dissenter, either in tangible aspects ("You failed at ...") or even their presumed emotions ("Why do you have such anger/hate towards ...?")

c) Character assassination

Providing unsubstantiated reasons why listening to the person speaking the different idea is a bad idea, such as "The person is a fraud, a criminal, psychologically defective and you'll be damaged if you listen"

Shifting the burden of proof

What's more convenient than turning the entire discussion around - instead of "Why should I do X?", let the dissenter explain "Why do you not want to to it?", which allows the apologist to lean back while the critic has to waste time and energy, exposing their thinking and providing additional places of attack for the apologist.

Instead of digging deeper here, let me refer back to Hitchen's Razor: "That which is assumed without evidence may be dismissed without evidence." What this means: If someone claims that a certain thing works, you don't need to disprove that. They must prove that it does.

I also want to combine this with Sagan's Standard, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" - so the next time someone says that "this always works" or "it can be used in any context", remember: that's an extraordinary claim which still needs to be proven!

III. Change of character

Thought reform modifies people's character in ways that are detrimental to society as a whole. In order to avoid getting too personal to anyone, I will keep this section at short, commented headlines.

Situational ethics

Things which a normal person wouldn't do in normal circumstances are okay when it's required to protect the group's special interests or to further the group's declared mission. For example, being deceptive, outright lying or saying bad things about outsiders.

Need for conversion

Once you believe your group has "The Truth", you want to do everyone a favour by converting them to your group. Rejection isn't taken lightly, as this attacks the very thing you believe in. "They" must be evil if "they" don't take your gracious offer.

Following leaders

The group's charismatic leader(s) offer "The Truth", so what comes out of their mouth must be good. Critical thinking is shut down when words are spoken by a leader. Members of thought reform movements just can't understand why other people wouldn't have the same level of veneration for their leader as they do.


You don't have time to waste on things such as thinking or interacting with outsiders, as you need to do things which further the agenda of your group. After all, you have an important mission - and it can only be achieved if you're fully dedicated.

Mental shutters

You are no longer open to ideas that conflict with the group's ideology. Instead, you invest time into ideas that are "in party line".

Limited social interaction

You reject people who propose ideas that don't fit with the group - and break "dangerous" relationships, warning others about such "poisonous/toxic" people as well.


You don't understand a joke at the expense of your "truth". NOBODY is allowed to joke about the truth, and you will make sure that those who dare do so get put into place.

Concluding words

Thank you for continuing to this point. It is sad to see that even in the agile community, we see many people who are affected by such symptoms without even realizing. It's even sadder to see when people entrench themselves further in such limiting beliefs and behaviours day by day. Such behaviour is often the consequence of having too much vested interest in this entire Agile/Scrum thing a bit too far or too seriously.

I would leave you with a few open questions, that you may reflect for both you and those around you:

  • Do you see positive growth in character caused by following an Agile career?
  • Is there a willingness to discuss the option that there might be the slightest chance that all of it could be wrong?
  • Are sound, factual reasons brought forth when contradicting ideas are raised?
  • Is there respect and positive openness even towards those who hold conflicting beliefs?
  • Are any detrimental behaviours developing, and what is being done about them? 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Five Things to avoid as Scrum Master

What makes a good Scrum Master, what makes a bad Scrum Master? Here is my short list of things a Scrum Master will not do in my team. This post is written from a Product Owner perspective, so YMMV.

#1 - Dogma

This has got to be the absolute #1 on my list as it is my personal pet peeve.
I don't care what this or that guru said about Scrum, and I don't even care what you think Scrum means. I'm not using Scrum for Scrum's sake. I care for stuff that works - and for fixing stuff that doesn't work. I've had too many conversations with certified ScrumMasters who claimed "According to Scrum ...", and my only response was: "Show me the passage in the Scrum Guide!" (knowing full well they were proliferating a myth). If you can't explain to me (or my team) why the things you think should be different would work better than what we're currently doing, you're wasting everyone's time.

#2 - Factions

Your job as a Scrum Master is to create one high-performing team, and that just won't work if the team is wasting energy fighting against others (or even worse, against each other). If factions exist, you should try to mend them - and if none exist, I would expect you to be the last person to create some. Factions often come with actions such as placing blame (aka. finger-pointing) or perceived feelings of superiority. I expect you to not tolerate, much less support any such behaviour.

#3 - Menial labour

Also known as the "Jira Admin". If your entire responsibility in the team boils down to doing the things nobody else wants to do, such as updating tickets, writing reports or organizing meetings, you have clearly not understood your role. As Scrum Master, your value is exclusively limited to the additional performance you bring out in the team. If you can get 5 people to work 50% more effective, you're pulling your weight. If, however, you're just doing work that a minimum wage worker could do after a week of training, don't expect a higher pay than minimum wage.

#4 - Breach of trust

As Scrum Master, I expect you to be the person in the team who has the highest level of trust from anyone within the entire organization. I would expect that people should feel ready to confine their innermost secrets to you, even stuff that's totally NSFW, because they might need someone to talk about it in order to have a clear head for work. If you do stuff like reporting to management or tell team internal information to outsiders, you will never again be able to regain the trust you need in order to do a proper job.

#5 - Project Management

I do agree that not every team is ready for self-organization and sometimes, an intermediary path needs to be taken. As Product Owner, the person who would be doing inevitable PM activity would be me. As Scrum Master, frankly, you don't even need to know more about the team's progress than I and the team feel necessary. There is no reason why you should feel the need to coordinate, organize or report anything for anyone. Well, unless you're being asked to - and even then, you should ask "Why?"


If I see you, my Scrum Master, doing any of the above things, you're up for a long conversation with me regarding your role and responsibility. You will walk out with a clear list of things that you will change about your own behaviour as soon as possible.
If I see you continuing these things against better knowledge, I will make sure that I get a Scrum Master on my team who knows their ropes.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Agile / DevOps ecosystem

The question, "How does an organization, especially one that is already using an agile framework, benefit from DevOps?" is very common. In this article, I provide a succinct answer to this question by examining the benefits provided by some standard frameworks.

The development lifecycle

Irrespective of which approach a company is using, it all starts with a customer need:
This need must be understood, so we need to invest some effort into understanding.
In Scrum, we call this "Refinement". It could also be called an Ideation or Prototyping process. Regardless of how you call it - it's essential to build the right product!

Once understood, our next job is to build something. Any kind of iterative approach encourages us to build just a little, then learn from that. We want to minimize our upfront planning efforts and jump right into doing delivery work. In Scrum, that's our timeboxed "Sprint".

The objective of delivery is to get something shipped right to the customer, we want to make the product available. This is often called "Minimum Viable Product", in Scrum we call it the "Product Increment".

When we got the product out of the door, we want to learn how customers respond to it. This is where most agile implementations disconnect: Scrum has a "Review" - although the Review still happens disjoint of both the problems and opportunities arising when our product hits the shelves!
What happens in the "Real World" becomes the job of Support, Customer Service or Marketing.

This final piece of the puzzle is vital to build an even better product in the future. We want to iterate a full cycle in increments as small as possible:

The business opportunities when integrating this cycle are immense: Anything that is of value can be turned into revenue, anything that wastes effort can be turned into saving. To harness this potential, it's essential that a single team has the ability to recognize and create these benefits.

Now, it's time to take a closer look at some agile frameworks:

Standard frameworks


Scrum is the most common framework. It excels as a delivery framework. Based on the Scrum Guide, it neither cares for what happens in order to get the right items into the Product Backlog nor what happens after the product increment has been delivered.
A small fly in the ointment is that Scrum scopes the timebox: it doesn't bode well for a Scrum team to deal with unplanned work. Yet, everything that happens with customers in real time is hardly planned, much less does it make sense to plan it upfront.


Like it's cousin Scrum, Kanban focuses strongly on optimizing the delivery process. Kanban provides less emphasis on getting a planned shipment through the door, offering higher flexibility in dealing with unplanned work. Teams that have productive maintenance responsibility often fly well with Kanban.

Side note: Scaling Frameworks

Scrum scaling solutions, such as Nexus, Scrum At Scale (S@S), LeSS focus on doing the same thing with more people - getting better at delivery. Combining these frameworks with Enterprise Kanban practices, like suggested in SAFe, is still limited to the delivery portion.
While SAFe strongly encourages integrating DevOps, the suggested use of DevOps is still restricted to getting the product through the door in the most reliable fashion.

Design Thinking

It's often adertised that Design Thinking combines well with Scrum, and indeed it does. Design Thinking addresses understanding the customer need through systematic exploration before delving into a more costly delivery process.

Lean / Six Sigma 

Regardless of whether you're thinking Lean, Six Sigma, or the standard combination "Lean Six Sigma" - these frameworks address optimizing our existing product through better insight:

Extreme Programming

Returning to the agile hemisphere, Extreme Programming and some of its derivates, such as Programmer Anarchy, add more emphasis on understanding the customer and providing the right solution for the customer's needs.


DevOps is concerned with two things: Getting the product to the customer with minimal overhead and delay - and understanding how the product is being used.
The first, and well-known, portion of DevOps is providing an automated delivery Infrastructure - Continuous Delivery, Infrastructure as Code, Containerization, Logging, Authentication and many other things come to mind.

In addition, DevOps, done well, provide a myriad of analytical insights into the product: which features are being used, how new features are being received, where unexpected things occur, how to solve customer issues etc. This requires more than technical insight - it requires harnessing business insight as well!

The big picture

DevOps is an essential piece of the puzzle towards hyperperformant teams. The full power of an agile team requires a smart combination of discovery and delivery methods. It's your choice whether your team sails under the Scrum, Kanban, XP, none or any other banner - just make sure you cover all of the blocks:

Design Thinking shines for the "Understanding customer needs". Scrum is great to cover the "Doing work on customer needs" section. Combine these two with DevOps to optimize your "Working on the available product - both before and after delivery" approach.
For best results, you might want to add a touch of Lean, an ounce of XP and a pinch of Kanban,

Closing the loop

Let's forget frameworks for a minute. What's important is that you got everything covered. Use Design Thinking where it helps you build a better product. Apply XP where it helps you build the product better. Try Scrum elements that improve your delivery process. Utilize DevOps tools and practices to ensure you're doing the right thing when the rubber hits the road. And never forget - Lean/Six Sigma has really powerful tools that help you do the right thing better!

If you look closely, you will discover that this cycle is an implied "Build-Measure-Learn" cycle, which is the core premise of Lean Startup, yet another framework from the agile bucket.

Closing remarks

No single framework, approach or method is sufficient to deal with the complexity of creating and maintaining a successful product. All frameworks have useful and important elements to offer. Combining them for best results is a core practice of agnostic agile practitioners.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Rules in a structureless organization

A critical aspect for Structureless organizations is how they deal with rules. One might think, "As soon as humans need to deal with each other, we need rules". Yes and no. Let's explore how rules change as an organization becomes Structureless.

We will explore the topic by starting with an unstructured organization, then progress from there.

Unstructured rules

Martial law - Unstructured rules
Unstructured organizations have rudimentary rules, which are often simply made up on the spot, either ad hoc or post hoc. Rules mostly serve as a means to protect existing power structures, i.e. to beat others into submission and to exhibit superiority.
Rules are made exclusively by those who have power, and the rules serve them and their interests.

There is little mention of rules unless one is quoted or created to deal with a specific situation - and even then, the rule is hardly ever communicated to anyone beyond those involved. There is no examination whether these rules are consistent, conflicting or even make sense.

Most rules are arbitrary and wouldn't stand up to scrutiny, yet they never get challenged, as challenging them would equal challenging those who hold the power. The only people who will challenge rules are those higher up in the food chain, and only when it serves their purpose. This is usually not necessary, as further rules can be added at any point in time, as the lack of transparency around rules will already ensure that nobody realizes the conflict.

The following characteristics are symptomatic of "rules" in an unstructured organization:
  1. Double Standards: Rules apply only to some groups. Others are exempt from the same rules for no transparent reason. For example, favorable rules apply only to those with power and unfavorable rules only to others.
  2. Rules that don't solve problems: Rules serve more to shame those who have infringed upon them than to solve a real problem.
  3. Post-hoc rulemaking: When a situation occurs that is unpleasant to someone in power, rules are set up post-fact as a smoke screen to deflect the blame.
Such rules will never be written down, as the mere prospect of doing so might end up in a lawsuit. Those in power will make sure that it stays like this.

    Indirectly structured rules

    Indirectly structured organizations do have rules - and lots of them!
    There seems to be a rule for everything - and most of these rules are highly formalized. They are intended to prevent any potential misunderstanding.

    Most rules serve as a means of avoiding the need to address the root cause of the problems which have surfaced in the past, and every action of people is encompassed by some form of rule. Similarly to unstructured organizations, there is little discussion around whether rules make sense or are even applicable.

    When people are unsure what to do, they will either try to discover which rule needs to be applied, or will look to someone in charge to provide a rule. In fact, people will try to avoid situations where no existing rule can be applied, as this poses an undetermined challenge. People tend to be more concerned with keeping the rules they have than whether these rules make sense.

    Rules in indirectly structured organizations serve a more noble purpose than those in an unstructured organization. There are actually two different purposes:

    • Providing safety to those acting upon the rules that their actions are meeting prescribed standards.
    • Providing a sense of reliability to those creating the rules that people will act predictably.
    The most denominating characteristic of indirect structures is the separation of decision and execution: Those making a decision are not the same people as those acting upon that decision. The indirection is in full effect when people state, "If you want to know why - please ask that person!"

    The following three items are symptomatic for rule-making in indirectly structured organizations:
    1. Decision proposals: Instead of just doing the right thing, people need to prepare formal proporals with slide decks for managers to get approval for doing what they feel should be done.
    2. Central Process Decisions: It's not the people doing the work deciding what the best way to do the work is, but some people who - for some reason - are believed to have some form of superior knowledge about this work. This often comes with a Process Management division defining SOP's.
    3. Finger-Pointing: People would rather apply an inappropriate process than admit they are not aware of what needs to be done. They can point to someone who prescribed the process and will claim inaccountability for the consequences.

    The rules in indirectly structured organizations are often religiously followed by people at lower levels of the organization, while people on the higher levels are hardly aware of their existence. 
    Managers in indirectly structured organizations are often even aware of this problem, yet are unable to trace this back to the system they have created.

    Directly structured rules

    Directly structured organizations oddly have fewer rules than indirectly structured orgs!

    Rules are less constraining and prohibitive than in an indirectly structured organization, as they are aimed more at clarifying structure, helping people organize themselves and getting things done than at stopping undue actions.

    Rules serve everyone and no longer treat everyone equally unfair. Rules acknowledge context and provide guidance. Rather than abolishing the application of common sense as an indirectly structured organization would, they guide common sense decision making at every level. Unlike indirectly structured organization, inapplicable rules are scrutinized and reworked as needed.

    Rules help people discover the most sensible course of action without being prescriptive on the course of action, permitting leeway for sensible choices. As the social and procedural context of the work might be dynamic, people need to be comfortable with discovering the best way to move forward. Rules would only be created when those doing the work are unable to produce a desirable result.

    Rules in directly structured organizations serve an even more noble purpose than those in an indirectly structured organization. Rules are directed at:

    • Providing a basis for mutually beneficial, positive collaboration.
    • Providing consistency on a larger scale.
    • Avoiding preventable fault, thereby providing psychological safety for those doing the work.

    Direct structures align need and provision: Those who have the need are able to either resolve it by themselves or directly access those who can. Rule decisions are made by those who can see and affect the outcome of their choices. The most sensible form of rule making in a directly structured organization is by asking those at the receiving end of a rule which kind of rule makes most sense for them.

    Characteristics of rules in a directly structured organization include:

    • Alignement with business goals: Rules support the work, rather than impede it. Rules that contradict business goals will be revised.
    • Scrutiny: Everyone may discuss rules, and this doesn't happen out of frustration, but to drive improvement. Rules that no longer serve their intended purpose might be abolished or changed.
    • Consistency: Conflicting rules which would result in a stalemate get revised.

    Rules in a directly structured organization clearly correlate purpose and outcome. It's not essential for people in areas unaffected by the rule to know about the rule - and when effects occur that are not intended by the rule, it will be subject to scrutiny.

    Structureless rules

    The weird part about rules in a structureless organization is that they don't seem to exist. This, however, would be a misunderstanding as rules actually do exist - except that they are usually implied rather than defined and people don't even feel the need to formalize them, as this formalization does not add any value.

    In general, the need for rules decreases as mutual understanding and alignment increase - and the high levels of collaboration in a structureless settings foster these things. While the creation of collaborative bonds usually requires a clarification of mutual expectations, rules are often not very helpful, because they are created with a lot of ambiguity and therefore, often misdirected. Much more important than setting a rule is aligning on the intended outcome of collaboration and creating an environment where impediments are quickly addressed and resolved.

    Formal rules in structureless organizations are usually externally imposed, such as laws. It goes without saying that structureless isn't anarchy - so such imposed rules need to be maintained. As they are not an intrinsic part of the organization, people will discuss these rules not in a setting on what to do with them, but on the easiest way to get along with them.

    Because structureless organizations no longer care about the rules themselves, discussions aim at:

    • Finding positive, effective ways of collaborating
    • Aligning mutual perspectives, understanding and outcomes
    • Resolving issues which might otherwise require rules.
    Nonetheless, these are already implicit rules - the rules of getting along and communicating. Probably the most important implicit rule of a structureless organization is the "No Asshole Rule". It will never be mentioned, as the mere need to mention it already means that a problem occurred that should not exist.

    Characteristics of the rules in a structureless organization include:
    • Implicit: Probably the most important characteristic is their implicitness: Rules do not need to be formalized, because they are implied by interactions.
    • Minimal: Since rules cause or hide problems, they are a "last resort", when all else failed.
    • Ephemeral: Structureless organizations rely on being able to constantly change and adapt, so rules might simply disappear when their context disappeared.
    • Local: Rules would only exist in a local setting, and there is no attempt trying to consider whether they could be generalized to a broader context, as if there was a need, it would pop up anyways.
    Structureless organizations aren't about rules. They are about aligning, collaborating and moving forward. When considering, structureless organizations have a lot of implicit rules - potentially more than the explicit rules found in an indirectly structured setting. The big difference is that rather than being in a manual nobody has ever read, these rules live and are part of people's lives.


    An unkeen observer might confuse structureless rules with unstructured rules - although the difference is immense! Whereas unstructured rules are makeshift constructs to preserve power, a structureless organization understands the advantages and disadvantages of formalization and has moved from the level of top-down exercise of power to mutual understanding.

    Structures are created to minimize communication over rules, assuming that rules can be formalized in an unambiguous way. Structureless organizations acknowledge that communication is essential to move beyond a limited and superficial mutual understanding. Once the necessary communication over collaboration has happened, the need for formalization disappears. Hence, the rules become implicit rather than explicit.

    Sunday, December 24, 2017

    Communication in a structureless organization

    How do structureless organizations communicate - and why is that an advantage?

    In a recent post, I addressed the topic of "structureless organization" from a maturity perspective. Let us explore structureless communications by comparison.

    Unstructured communication

    An unstructured organization doesn't have direct, congruent or consistent links between people. Somehow, everyone fits into the picture - but this "somehow" may neither be meaningful nor helpful to the organization or its customers.

    Broken links, ineffectivity everywhere: Unstructured!
    In the above illustration, there are inconsistencies between formal and lived structure (center), people who are somehow isolated from the structure (on the left) and broken links (manager to CEO). This means that necessary communication either doesn't happen - or only by chance.
    An unstructured organization amasses communication debt at the missing links!

    Now, let's look at what the communication looks like:
    Rabbit Trails, Loose Ends - good hunting!

    There are two communication chains. Assume you are a customer and need something that only the person (!) can help with.
    Should you happen to address person (1) in the picture, they will refer to their manager, who will refer to another employee, who will refer to a coworker, who will ... blah yada yada -- until another manager gets involved, who will address an employee who happens to know the person who can help you. There's a good chance you've already stopped in frustration before you ever meet person (!).

    Should you be so unlucky to address person (A) in the picture, they will refer you to person (B) - and you are none the wiser.

    Of course, "unstructured" is merely a strawman as this is definitely an undesirable state for any organization to be in. Just be aware that even within your structure, there may be unstructured areas that simply "fall off the chart".

    Indirect Communication

    An indirectly structured organization has directed and usually consistent links between people. The only downside is the nearly inevitable incongruence between need and structure. 

    A typical org chart

    This is what a typical "org chart" looks like. Communication is centralized around managers, who then delegate the task back into their own unit, until an executable level is attained. The idea behind this is to maximize the efficiency of the workforce by minimizing the amount of disruption due to inadequate requests.
    And this is how the communication is intended to flow:

    Don't worry. You will get an answer. Eventually.

    When you have a request that needs to be served by Team Blue (Tech), but your contact point is Team Red (Customer Service), the request will be judged by their manager, who will then take it yet one level higher, who will then inform the division manager, who will then inform Team Blue. The only good news in this one is that even though you have a long wait, something is eventually going to happen. It just takes patience.

    Let us examine what happens when people are missing: Flu season is coming!

    In this example, the blue manager has delegated represenation (<) to (?), so when Manager Blue is missing, (?) will act in their stead. This works out quite well when only one person is missing at the same time. However, when (1) needs a specific kind of help from team Blue, and the person named by Manager Blue as contact (?) is also missing, the communication chain is broken. When (4) realizes that neither (<) nor (?) is available, they might approach one person that occasionally also represents (<) - (5). However, that person is equally unable to help and so, the matter might remain sticking around until (<) returns. Usually, by then, the issue will be rotting as mail #51194 in Blue Manager's mailbox - abandoned, forgotten.
    In the worst case scenario, person (1) would require something from their communication partner (2), but has been named representative of (2) and the superior of (2), namely (3) is also missing - so (1) might be stuck in a catch-22 - making indirect structures similarly susceptible to fault as unstructured organizations.

    Side note: I happened to work for an organization once where the CEO claimed in an official newsletter that "if everyone would follow the defined communication paths and stop addressing other departments directly, we would be much more efficient". Does he really believe that?

    In reality, most communication in org-charted, indirectly structured organizations happens outside the formal chart - because it's so terribly ineffective. They implicitly create - direct communication, just to be able to get things done.

    Direct Communication

    The issues so commonly often associated with indirected structured can abysmally hamper an organization. Silo structures with broken escalation chains lead to tremendous inefficiencies. Direct structures resolve this matter by installing direct points of contact between departments who reduce both the amount of managerial involvement as well as the amount of steps required to get something done.

    We know who can help you.
    The typical term commonly associated with direct organizations is SPOC - "Single Point Of Contact". A senior member of each unit who is familiar both with the work that can be done by the unit and the people doing the work within the unit is assigned "SPOC". This person can be approached by anyone regarding requests within their unit, so SPOC Red would receive all requests done by Team Red.
    SPOC's are transparent, so a customer would either approach SPOC Red directly, minimzing the amount of overhead - or, if they don't know who SPOC Red is, they would approach anyone who would immediately know that SPOC Red needs to be addressed.

    Optimized for efficient communication
    SPOC Red might either handle requests to Team Red immediately or involve any team member from Team Red who can help. If SPOC Red receives a request that would massively interfere with how Team Red operates, SPOC Red will involve Manager Red for a decision.

    The reason why many organizations do not move towards direct communication is fear - managers fearing the loss of control.
    In a directly structured organization, managers aren't even aware of what their staff do most of the time. They operate autonomously to do what they can do to help the organization. This requires trust

    So - are there any drawbacks? None that would warrant going back to indirect structures. Compared to indirect structures, there are no business relevant downsides to establishing direct structures.
    The only drawback is queuing - the SPOC is an implicit queue. In some cases, the queue becomes explicit by having a ticket system where the SPOC stores and distributes requests. The more SPOC's an organization has, the more queues they own.

    How do we solve the queuing problem?

    Structureless communication

    Queues are horribly ineffective to manage - request load is hardly ever balanced in the working world. While one SPOC idles, another might not know how to handle all those requests. Managers might be tempted to install multiple persons as SPOC - increasing the throughput of the queue without ever addressing the issue why the team receives so many requests.
    Structureless organizations are different:

    In a structureless organization, communication paths are replaced with communication networks. Each person has their own, individual network of persons they collaborate with to get their work done. Managers in a structureless organization work fundamentally different from indirectly structured organizations: instead of controlling the work and communication, each manager supports their own people in order to collaborate better.
    Structural boundaries start to lose importance, as the manager's focus moves from departmental efficiency towards organizational effectiveness.

    And this is how structureless communication happens:

    When someone (1) in team Blue needs something they aren't familiar with, they ask around in their network. Maybe this is another colleague or even the manager - no reason not to. Manager blue might refer them to another person who works closer to that area of expertise, but who might not have the answer either. This person will then check their network until they found someone who can help.

    This is where the Bacon Rule kicks in, which posits that the maximum separation path between any two people on Planet Earth would be six, so usually within an organization, there would usually be four or fewer leaps until someone (!) is found. Once help is avaiable, the person will connect directly with the requester - so the next time, no communication path would be traversed.

    In a structureless organization, neither Manager Blue nor Manager Red are concerned with what (1) or (!) are doing and how much time it costs: If it's the most important thing for (1) to work on, there's a good chance that (!) benefits the organization as a whole by chiming in.

    What happens in a structureless organization when people go missing? Not much. First, people get familiar with the work of people done in their network, so they might actually be able to do part of it by themselves - otherwise, they do have some insight who the contacts of the missing person are and will ask around there.

    I would like to conclude with a small illustration of what happens in a structureless organization when one person leaves: Fill a bucket with water and put your hand in. Look at the water, look at the hand. Take your hand out. Look at the hole it left ...

    In a structureless organization, you are treasured part able to contribute. No bad things happen when you leave. You are free to be where you are or go somewhere. The organization can cope with it. No bad feelings when you're on vacation.


    From an objective perspective of reason, there is no reason to not move towards a structureless organization. This does not mean that there are no arguments against structureless. Most of them fall into a fear category:

    1. Fear of the Unknown ("I don't know what Structureless is")
    2. Fear of Poor Results ("But we won't reach our quota")
    3. Fear of Losing Control ("I don't know what my team will be doing")
    4. Fear of Lack of Authority ("But people need to be told what to do"), or vice versa:
    5. Fear of Uncertainty ("I won't know what to do unless someone tells me")
    All of these fears can be handled, although this takes a lot of time. Once someone has seen the beauty and effectiveness of structureless organizations, most of them go away. 

    To conclude, I will provide you with some examples of structureless organizations:
    1. Your friends. Nobody manages the bunch of you, yet you still get along.
    2. Any well-functioning team. There might be managers, but it's about getting things done, not about following structure.
    3. The agile community. Not only do we have vastly differing opinions and goals, we also argue quite a bit. But we can well get things done.

    Sunday, December 10, 2017

    Moving towards a structureless organization

    In a recent post, I explained the concept of "Structureless". Let's dig a little deeper into how we can explore this concept to build high-performing teams and organizations.

    Structural Maturity

    Without explaining the above model too much further, let's see how we can use this model in team organization.

    Unstructured Organization

    It's very easy to set up an unstructured team - basically, all you need to do is: nothing. Even then, people dislike the chaos that ensues and will usually self-organize to create at least some kind of structure. What I see happen as a first step to move away from the total lack of structure is contact lists - people making lists who can be contacted for what.
    This is often the first thing people would do when confronted with a new working environment.

    Key characteristics:

    ComplexityNot clear
    People try to make ends meet.
    It's unknown how complex the system really is.
    Nothing is really known.
    There might be be problems hidden beneath the surface,
    which aren't even explored.
    When they surface, the way forward is unclear.
    Unstructured organizations are significantly less
    effective than even the added potential of each.
    Ad hoc
    Most problems never get addressed.
    Workarounds are commonplace.
    Ad hoc
    The best way to describe how roles are distributed is:
    "Might makes right".
    People either grab roles they can meet in ways that
    please people in charge or are assigned a role.
    There is constant dissonance between expectation and
    reality, bursting out in occasional conflict.
    The customer is the least problem people would care
    Next steps
    • Discover what structures already exist
    • Discover who is responsible for what
    • Make communication paths visible
    • Close communication path gaps
    • Create a "skill matrix" who contributes what

    Indirect Structured Organization

    Indirect structures solve the problem of not knowing who to address when or for what. The indirect structure tends to rely on bottlenecks, i.e. communication paths that are used more often than they are available. Most organizations never make the leap away from indirect structures, as those are already stable. Moving beyond this indirection means resolving the bottlenecks - and some people use their bottleneck status as safety zone.
    Typical bottlenecks are managers who insist on being part of communication chains and irreplacible specialists.

    Key characteristics:

    Indirections add complexity to even simple requests.
    When indirection chains break, processes or requests
    might be hanging "mid-air" without being resolved.
    Major effort is required to maintain consistency.
    The bottlenecks inherent to the communication chain
    reduce the effectiveness of all those who rely on
    anything provided by a bottleneck.
    Problems get addressed when a bottleneck is aware
    of a problem and has an interest in resolving it.
    Communication paths typically determine a person's
    role aligned with their communication network.
    A person's role is often defined by the bottlenecks
    which limit their progress.
    Bottleneck roles tend to have high satisfaction, both
    from the feeling of being needed and the power
    at their disposal.
    Those limited by bottlenecks tend to get frustrated
    when blocked.
    Indirection is a customer's worst nightmare.
    The complexity of the structure becomes the
    customer's problem one way or another.
    Not getting responses, delayed responses and
    unproportionally high transaction costs are just
    some symptoms.
    Next steps
    • Discover where the bottlenecks are
    • Address the indirection issues
    • Strengthen direct communication paths
    • Create a "delegation matrix" to relieve the
      overburden of bottlenecks

    Direct Structured Organization

    Direct structures emphasize the value of getting things done. They regard results higher than personal affinity and value outcome over process.
    Very few organizations make the leap from indirected towards directed structures, and this relies especially on "managers getting out of the way". Direction requires re-thinking the manager role in fundamental ways. The toughest nut an organization needs to crack when moving towards direct structure is Larman's Law #1, the implicit optimization around preservation of personal power.

    Key characteristics:

    Indirections add complexity to even simple requests.
    Processes do not rely on single points of failure.
    Managers/specialists move from being bottlenecks
    towards creating robust structures that reduce reliance
    on their involvement.
    Centralized structures remove redundancies and
    optimize for "The Greater Good".
    Problems get resolved where they occur, by those
    who have central control over the domain.
    Roles are typically created to meet a specific need.
    Communication paths are then updated to integrate
    the role properly.
    People know what they are doing and where they fit in.
    Customers get the impression that people know what
    they are doing and that their requests move forward.
    They do not like that the company's structure is their
    problem - at least to some extent.
    Next steps
    • Simplify request processing from a customer
    • Instill a "customer centric" mindset in those
      not directly working with customers
    • Identify the communication issues that exist

    Structureless Organization

    The structureless organization is not to be confused with an unstructured organization. Instead of optimizing for reaching some kind of internal goal, a structureless organization sacrifices internal efficiency for meaningful outcomes. Redundancies are the means by which a structureless organization generate robustness without falling victim to stasis. 
    Managers are no longer the joints by which organizational units move, instead they become the glue keeping the construct together.
    Specialists move from adding value by executing on their topic towards enabling others to excel in their field.

    Key characteristics:

    From an individual's perspective, complexity may
    appear to be higher, as each person requires to be in
    contact with more people. From an organizational
    perspective, complexity is reduced, because less
    formal communication is required.
    People are not concerned with structure as much as they
    are with collaborating to achieve results.
    Where communication links are missing, "self-repair"
    will create the most effective new links.
    Removing indirection and structural overhead results
    in maximal effectiveness from an organizational perspective.
    Decentralization removes the local inefficiency and the
    need for ineffective compromizes.
    On the fly.
    Problems get resolved where they occur, by those
    who are involved in their occurrence. There is no longer a
    concern for local optimization, as decentralization removes
    the problem of needing to globally optimize.
    Roles are simply no longer important, as the focus moves
    from "job descriptions" towards contribution potential.
    Even leadership becomes situational to meet specific needs.
    People are able to align their personal sense of worth with
    the company's goals. Motivation and morale become
    Customers feel that the company is out to please them, and
    everyone is pulling in the same direction. 
    Next steps
    • Be aware of the danger of falling back into old habits
    • Strengthen informal links
    • Continuously improve


    It's not inherently bad to be in any given stage, even if that stage is "unstructured" or "indirect structure". The important pieces of the puzzle are understanding:
    1. At which stage you are
    2. Why you are there
    3. What can you do to move forward
    4. Why it's worth moving forward

    While I think that it's possible in theory to move directly from unstructured or indirection to structureless, my personal observation has been that this is extremely difficult. I personally like to move towards direct structure in a matter of days or weeks, and enable structureless from there. 
    The most important piece of the puzzle is understanding that once we stop with an indirect or direct structure, we create a stable condition where change becomes increasingly difficult as time proceeds.

    Saturday, November 25, 2017

    Ticket debt - why ticket systems are bad!

    Ticket systems are an easy way to organize your work - yet potentially, the most damaging one as well!

    What  could be so dangerous about a ticket system, the quick and easy helper tool which has found its way into almost every organization already?

    Creating tickets is easy

    The better the ticket system, the less effort is required to create a ticket. Some are actually as easy as "New --> (type some text) --> Save" and there you go, that's your ticket.
    And this is actually the biggest problem. Let's explore why.

    A ticket is an IOU

    Let's look really close what a ticket is. It is a description of some work that needs to be done. It's undone work. By documenting this work in a ticket, we create a future promise that this work will get done at some point down the line.
    Let's take a small real world example: "Send product offer to Tim Bobbins". That job might just take two minutes to do, or it might take longer (depending on whether Tim gets a standard document or a custom offer). In any case, by opening a ticket, we force our future self to promise to our current self that Tim will get his offer. In complete disregard what our future self will have to do later on, we sign an IOU for some work.

    Tickets are a debt

    Now that we realize that a ticket is nothing more than an IOU, we realize that we're actually creating some form of debt with each ticket we open. It's really work debt.
    Now, just like in the finance world, there is no problem if we take some debt contract that allows us to move freely now while paying off easy rates in the future.
    Unfortunately, this analogy hinges on a dangerous assumption: Inflation and business propagation allow us to earn more money with less effort in the future, so 100k Now-Dollars are a burden equal to maybe 80k Future-Dollars.
    The working world behaves differently: The time we have at our disposal to do work does not grow or expand, especially not in the short term!
    A 24-hour Now-day is equal to a 24-hour Future-day, so the best amount of interest you can afford to make tickets a good deal is zero.

    Tickets have a real interest rate

    When we borrow from the bank, we usually pay interest on our loan - we service our debt. This service pays for the bank's expenses and compensates inflation. We are fine with any amount of interest rate where our Future-Dollars are still worth less than our Now-Dollars.
    Let's return to the discussion of ticket debt, then. Just like in the bank, tickets have some kind of administrative effort. Starting with the (short) time of creating the ticket, we need to administer it, we need to look at it when we work it off, and at some point we 'll to close it.
    Depending on how the ticket looks like, the administration and consideration of its message may happen multiple times. Each of these times, we're not doing work, we're servicing ticket debt!

    And depending on how your organization has set up your ticket process, this service can take a whole bunch of time - potentially even more than the real work to be done in the context of the ticket!

    Ticket debt kills

    Once we realize that there is an interest rate associated to tickets, we can look at the effect of this interest.

    Here is an example of deadly ticket debt:

    As long as there is still flow and the amount of tickets that get serviced equals or exceeds, there's not much of an issue - but when this trend flips and there's more tickets in need of servicing than those getting serviced, the following happens:

    1 - Tickets pile up

    When you get a bill from your bank, it's usually not much of a hassle, but when you get hundreds, it actually does become a hassle. And we're not only talking about the work of servicing each one, but also about the amount of work invested into keeping track of what still needs to be done. All of a sudden, extra efforts start to be required into managing the pile: Prioritizing, sorting, stashing, deferring, reorganizing - just to name a few.

    2 - Ticket debt reduces ROI

    Like financial interest, the amount of service interest has no contribution to actual debt reduction. Once you get into a condition where ticket debt grows faster than you can reduce it, the amount of work sunk into service interest can quickly exceed the amount of work sunk into debt reduction.
    The increased service interest, especially when coupled to the limited amount of work available means that the ROI of tickets decreases with each additional ticket in the ticket pile - to the point where you may no longer be creating any value!

    3 - Ticket debt reduces Value

    Let's quickly return to our initial example: If Tim doesn't get his offer in 2 or 3 days, he may no longer remember the conversation and the great deal he's up for. Worse yet, he might have found another vendor in the meantime. By the time your Future Self is getting around to send Tim an offer, Tim may no longer be interested in buying anything at all. The value of the ticket decreases with each day.
    Of course, this also means that when you're creating tickets to be served months down the line, you're considering Now-Value, but get Future-Value.


    Take some time and look at how, where and why you use tickets in your organization. If you suffer from ticket debt, take a good look on how to reduce the amount of tickets you juggle in order to reduce the ticket debt you're servicing.

    There's also a chapter on ticket systems in my book, "Extreme Agility".

    Wednesday, November 1, 2017

    How career progression damages companies

    Is "career progression" really necessary? Let us explore how the very concept wreaks havoc in organizations and damages the very thing it's intended to foster - value generation. To illustrate the point, I will use the example of four individuals from my own network.

    Greg, the expert

    A while ago, I received a text from Greg: "Do you know any company looking for a team lead?" I had worked with Greg. He really enjoyed development work and did a splendid job. "What happened?", I asked. We met. Greg related his story: "I had a talk with HR, asking for a raise. It got rejected, because I was already at the Senior Developer level. I would need to become team lead to get more salary, but there's no vacancy." He was sorely disappointed.
    I probed: "Why do you want to be a team lead?" - "Obvious, to get more salary." - "But would it make you happy?" - "No. I hate the organizational stuff related to that role. But I got family - kids to feed." I shook my head: "You're not looking for a team lead role, you're looking for a way to earn more money?" He nodded. We discussed. "How about we find a company that's willing to pay developers as much as you intend to earn?" Long story short, Greg enjoys his developer role in another organization.

    Greg's company lost a formidable developer, because "developer" was considered inferior to a management role - both in appreciation and compensation. The loss? A great developer who would never want to be a team lead.

    Tom, the misplaced developer

    Tom fared better than Greg. He was in a similar dilemma, but slightly more "lucky": He managed to receive a coveted team lead role, with the additional salary on top. Tom's team had high churn rates. He let his responsibilities slide and continued doing his former job, with a new title.

    Tom was in a similar boat like Greg: He loathed the responsibilities of a team lead and loved technical work. He never bothered doing the things a team lead should be doing - for example, ensuring people had meaningful work, dealing with impediments or resolving conflicts.

    Tom's company suffered a fate worse than Greg's: Instead of losing one developer, they lost an entire team, just because they weren't willing to admit that a great developer doing great development work can receive the appreciation and compensation that their ability commends without needing to be in a leadership role.

    Sandy, the underpaid CSR

    Working with Sandy was a pleasure. She was amicable, smart, knowledgable and extremely resourceful. It didn't matter what the customer's issue was - she would manage to find a satisfactory solution. Getting a team lead role wasn't difficult for Sandy, and she excelled in that role as well.

    Over a cup of coffee, Sandy related that she wanted to switch out of Customer Service. I asked her: "You're great at your job, and you love what you do. Why?" Sandy confined: "CSR roles are notoriously underpaid. A regular worker close to minimum wage, the team lead's near-double salary might sound impressive, but it is still significantly below what others in the company made. If I could get into Engineering, my salary would rise by over 50%."

    Given her repute for the company, HR agreed to move Sandy into Engineering as a team lead. She actually did well in her role - being a great organizer and people's person, her lack of engineering expertise didn't count for too much. A small fly in the ointment: Since Sandy had left the CSR's, complaining customers had a much higher churn than before.

    Andy, who got it right

    And then there was Andy. His job? Close deals and keep customers coming back. He was a classic sales person - and good at that, too. He never played the title game and didn't want to get dragged into titles, either. I asked: "Andy, you've been a salesperson for over a decade now, why aren't you interested in having your own sales team?" Andy leaned back: "I don't need to. My salary is linked to the customers I bring in, and as a team lead, I'd have less time to take care of our customers. I'd probably make less than right now, and the company would have less customers, as well."


    Companies are great at setting up systems rewarding behaviours that are detrimental to their success. Corporate ladders are just one more example of that. By creating systems where people's personal goals can't be aligned with corporate goals in the most valuable, sustainable way, companies lose out on the ability of their most talented employees.

    Regardless of whether a person's role is technical, business-oriented, customer-oriented, managerial or administrative - if they are happy and good at what they do, don't force them to take another position, title or whatever. Create a reward system which allows them to align their own goals with the corporate's intended goals - not with the designed, corrupted goals that would force them to either stop doing what they do best or to leave.

    Winning companies encourage excellence, not gaming the system.