Tag: leadership

Escape the Build Trap? Yes. Silver bullet? No.

mt-successfulIMAGE: Modern Toss

In “Escaping the Build Trap”, Melissa Perry presents a lively and cogent argument for a structured approach to building (digital) products, in order to deliver sustainable value for businesses and their customers.

That sentence only describes some of what Ms Perry explains in her relatively short and eminently easy-to-read book.

Continue reading “Escape the Build Trap? Yes. Silver bullet? No.”

Mirror, signal, manoeuvre: what I’ve learned from working in a remote team

I’ve spent the last 9 months working in a team with people from as near and as far as Darlington, Portishead, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bordeaux and Bangalore.

In the last few months, we’ve added 4 new people from Porto, adding some more non-native English speakers to the party.

Standup meetings and Slack have become good fun as we’ve got to know each other, but some of the pitfalls I expected from remote working have surprised me.

The remote working ideal swaps a long commute for improved productivity and more time to see your family (and do household chores). That has certainly been the case for me. But much like starting in any new team I’ve found myself putting in extra effort to fill in the gap that an ‘in real life’ presence – with all of its nuance and non-verbal cues – leaves behind.

Where I’m working, the approach to making software is vaguely agile, so there’s no shortage of team communication. Nevertheless when a remote team is learning to work with each other, there’s no opportunity to just get everyone in a room and “whiteboard it out”.

Regular voice and video calls provide a useful yet limited simulacrum of a team workshop environment. But there’s nothing like putting your own post-it note just in the right place on the wall yourself, then stepping back to see it in context.

RealTimeBoard (now mysteriously rebranded as Miro) has worked as a decent replacement for visualising ideas and doing team reviews, but I’d rather have a research wall in the office everyone could see on their way to and from their desks. I think the real life version embeds deeper in the sub-conscious where all the best ideas come from.

Tackling larger challenges together is more or less impossible. I’ve found I’ve had to hand off work more frequently than when working in one office, rather than working through it together. Handoffs are also more brutal because the shared space to share, and discuss, and bounce off ideas is not as rich, and the feedback less flowing than when I’ve worked in the same room as the rest of the team.

I’ve put a lot more effort into typing things up after conversations have been had, explaining the rationale behind the work and making things readable and easy to understand. In short, I’ve produced quite a bit more ‘short term’ documentation, just to communicate direction, rationale and status, and ensure people are informed and consulted as we move through design and development.

I’ve also been doing my best to stop myself from starting on new pieces of work or tackling things in new ways until I’ve made sure at least some of the team knows what I’m doing. I’m a self-motivated sort so this has been the hardest – to make sure you’re bringing the team with you (and with their blessing) when you feel the need to act immediately.

None of that is in itself bad. It’s a trade off for what for me is a 2 x 2-hour commute every day. And I think the extra work is helping the ‘lay people’ the team is dealing with – people who have limited previous experience building software  – understand the effort and thinking that goes into making a quality product.

An old client had a modus operandi for working in a bigger company. He said: “Always remember: mirror, signal,  then manoeuvre”. That way people understand your intentions rather than striking out (in vain) on your own.

I think that’s also a good motto for trying to build a remote team.

Turning management upside down

“Industrial age” management – that which has been in place since the Industrial Revolution – models all kinds of work endeavours as factories. Managers must set direction, define processes and achieve consistency of outcome. Staff must demonstrate competency and deliver what they are told to deliver, otherwise they will be “performance managed”.

In contrast, leading proponents of new styles of management are arguing for ‘autonomy over automatons’. This is particularly prescient in a time when many are predicting that robots and artificial intelligence technologies will take jobs away from humans.

In his recent post, Simon Terry argues that the new role of the manager is not to reduce variation in the work and increase consistency, it is quite the opposite.

“Too many managers can be replaced with robots because of the predictable nature of the algorithm at the heart of their work.  Worse, those who suppress variation in their teams will be left behind in the disruptive economies ahead.”

Read on for more…

Why so many modern IT programmes feel like fighting World War 1

On this historic day – one hundred years since the Battle of the Somme – this article by Richard Moir at Vanguard Consulting eloquently describes why modern management practices have so many similarities with World War 1.

“The common response to projects showing signs of failing has been to increase oversight by committees, boards and sponsors through increased emphasis on reporting in order to regain control.


Efforts to reduce bureaucracy and simplify project delivery are laudable and on the face of it very plausible, however in themselves they are unlikely to provide a sustainable change in project delivery performance.

The various artefacts and control mechanisms that may be the target of simplification efforts will not have appeared in organisations by chance or as a result of any physical laws of nature.  They will have been introduced by somebody at some point in time to satisfy an assumed, but often unstated and misunderstood, need such as maintaining control of activity through compliance.”

I couldn’t agree more. The real battle, however, is persuading those who instigate these processes and controls that they are ineffective. Because doing that questions the  value they believe they bring to the organisation. Tread carefully and carry a big stick.

They’re not employees, they’re people

“Executives will have to learn what the effective department head of a university or the successful conductor of the symphony orchestra have long known: The key to greatness is to look for people’s potential and spend time developing it.

To build an outstanding university department requires spending time with the promising young postdocs and assistant professors until they excel in their work.

To build a world-class orchestra requires rehearsing the same passage in the symphony again and again until the first clarinet plays it the way the conductor hears it. […]

Similarly, leaders in knowledge-based businesses must spend time with promising professionals. Get to know them and be known by them; mentor them and listen to them; challenge them and encourage them.”

– Peter F. Drucker in the Harvard Business Review 2002