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aacennprrsTy and the failureship

I ran an exercise where I asked a group of executives “What is transparency?”. Take a moment, think what it means to you and say it out loud before you read the answer I gave.

Transparency is when you give someone the information they need, in the format they need so that they can make the decisions they need to make to fulfill their responsibilities.

Transparency is a collaboration. Sometimes the person asks for the information they need in the format they need. Sometimes the person with the information decides that another person needs it and works out the best format to present it. Formatting the data is often about constructing the context so that the information has meaning.

Transparency is not open kimono, the sharing of all information. It is not drinking from the fire hose, receiving huge quantities of data to be sifted and sorted. It is not the pretense of sharing everything, expecting the receiver to find Transparency in the aacennprrsTy. Transparency is the sharing of information with context to allow everyone in the organisation to achieve their goals. Sometimes the information is focused on an individual or a small group, and sometimes it is shared with the entire organisation. Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to help someone understand that they need the information you are providing.

In “risk managed” cultures, the leadership create an environment where everyone, including themselves, share information so that others can decide and act. In “failure” cultures, the failureship create an environment where information is carefully controlled, and sharing of information can be seen as a crime against the organisation. The failureship do not want information to be freely shared as they want plausible deniability in the case where they fail to fulfill their responsibilities. Speaking truth in a “failure” culture can be career limiting or career destroying.

In “failure” cultures, information is carefully curated and filtered, often translated through several excel sheets, powerpoint decks and summaries until it presents the story that subordinates want the failureship to read… which is the story that the failureship want to read. Drilling into the information requires the failureship to navigate the reverse trail through the organisation, offering the opportunity to correct or delay access to the truth. In a “risk managed” culture, information is automatically assembled to be always available for all concerned, with alerts when appropriate. The information acts as an “invitation to the Gemba” for the leaders in the organisation. “Invitation to the Gemba” is a phrase that Jabe Bloom introduced to indicate that the leadership should not act on the information they receive but rather use it to identify the places where they should “Go to the gemba”, go to where the work is done, and see for themselves what is actually happening.

In a risk managed organisation, the leadership create the culture and environment where everyone is encouraged to provide information to those that need it. They actively work to encourage people to share information up, down and across the organisation. This requires a great deal of work on the part of leaders as they will constantly be employing new people who are used to cultures where sharing of information is forbidden, discouraged, or where information is “power”. Leaders not only send out memos or give organisation wide speeches on the subject, they also encourage it in every interaction or meeting that they attend.

All leaders ask for transparency, they all want to know what is going on. It is their behaviour when they receive information that determines how willing people are to share it. Getting people to share information requires the leadership to build trust. A second question I ask executives is “What do the RAG statuses, Red, Amber and Green” mean to you?”. The traditional meanings are:

  • Green – Everything is OK
  • Amber – The project might be late
  • Red – The project will be late – (actually, it means someone has revealed the truth about what is going on.)

Anyone who has worked in a failure culture knows what happens when someone reports a status with “Amber” and “Red”. It is a very unpleasant process for all involved, the failureship swoop in, possibly deploying someone from outside of the project to find out what is going on, even though the failureship already know. A lot of weight is thrown around with an associated dollop of Kabuki (Japanese theatre with the players cutting all sorts of shapes on the stage) until some sort of reset is performed and the status can return to “Green”. The reset normally involves moving out the target date if it can be negotiated, or reducing the scope until it no longer delivers any real value for the customer. Normality resumes until the next RAG crisis. Everyone knows that nothing good comes from reporting status of “Amber” or “Red”. The failureship lament that most projects are “water melons”. Green on the outside, and red on the inside. They lament that they normally only find out that a project is “Red” when it is too late and they can do nothing about it. They already know what is going on. They find out it is too late because they want to find out too late and make it unpleasant for those that tell them. They do not find out too late as they already know, they are forced to acknowledge the problem publicly when the options to address it have expired.

In a “Risk Managed” culture, the RAG status have a different meaning:

  • Green – We are good, and are unaware of any problems that will prevent success.
  • Amber – We might need help. There are problems that we might need help addressing. We are signalling that the leadership may need to step in and help.
  • Red – We need help. There are problems that we are unable to address and require the support of leadership to address them.

In a “Risk Managed” Culture, the responsibility for delivery remains with the team, including the responsibility for requesting help. No team should be green until they have completed their first end to end production delivery of value. In a “Risk Managed” culture, the leadership act as servant leaders to the team. The leadership work hard to build trust with the team so that there is no barrier to revealing the real status of the delivery. The leadership see it as their responsibility to help the teams. The crime in a “Risk Managed” culture is to sit on information that you know others need.

Transparency is not about systems and reports, it is about how the leadership behave when they encounter transparency or the lack of it.

Failure Cultures Reward failure.

For over twenty years I have been reciting the mantra:

“In agile, we fail fast to win early. Traditional teams are afraid to fail!”

For many years I have been observing agile teams and non agile teams, and their attitude towards failure. Once I started to observe them using the lens of “risk averse” and “risk managed” culture I realised that the agile mantra about failure was wrong.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

In agile teams, practitioners do not fail fast to win early, or fail fast to learn. In agile teams, they act with self discipline as a single team to deliver value in small increments. At regular increments, the team and/or team of teams come together in a retrospective to identify what is going well and what should be improved. Agile teams do not focus on failure, they focus on value delivery and continual improvement. When failure occurs, agile teams acknowledge the failure so that they can learn from it and improve.

It is not the goal or focus of an agile team to fail or learn, it is the focus of an agile team to deliver value.

In addition, traditional team are NOT afraid to fail!

Teams in “Failure Cultures” know that their managers in the failureship are even more scared of failure than they are. As a result, their managers will never acknowledge failure. The result of this is that the failureship will REWARD failure to prevent anyone knowing that a failure has occurred. The bigger the failure, the bigger the reward. This inability to acknowledge failure and the subsequent rewarding of failure is why I call this “Failure Culture”.

Career progression in a failure culture is based on avoiding failure rather than being successful. If your portfolio of interest contains a large strategic project, it has to be hailed as a success regardless of whether it is a failure or a success. If you have a large strategic project in your portfolio and the key individual(s) are not rewarded for their contribution, people may question why they have not been rewarded. So if you are in a failure culture, the easiest way to get promoted is to join a large strategic project in a key role. Once you are established in the role, your promotion is guaranteed regardless of whether you are a success or failure. In fact, the bigger the failure, the bigger the chance of promotion.

I worked on a project that was meant to be an Agile Flagship. As an Agile Coach I gave it my full attention. The business users and product team adopted the agile approach with gusto, even reorganizing to sit together in the same space within earshot of each other. The technology team was a different matter. The technology lead refused to engage and turned a blind eye to his lead developer’s misogynistic and bullying behaviour. Eventually the team refused to even listen to suggestions about how they could improve the way they worked. “The developers are working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. They do not have time to work in new ways”. The senior executives were informed of the situation and responded by saying “That’s not Agile, Its not even Waterfall, Its a death march project!”. The first production delivery on the Agile Flagship project took over a year. It failed to be useful because the the business users had built an interim shadow tech solution which better met their needs. The technology leadership blamed the business users for not being engaged enough. The same executives who declared the project a “death march” promoted the technology lead who was the main cause of the failure.

Another project started with a decent plan. The introduction of a new pervasive technology would begin with a three month pilot period with teams scattered across the organisation. Even though the technology was well established in the market, the internal implementation at scale needed to be debugged. After the three month pilot, the plan was to roll out the new tool to the entire organisation. I am a huge fan of the work of Chris McDermott and Marc Burgauer with Social Practice Theory. Introducing a new tool is normally a way for getting the organisation to adopt a new practice. Building organisational muscle memory in a new practice takes time and should ideally occur before the tooling. Those engaged in the pilot were the best of the best in the new practice and easily adopted the tool. Hundreds of teams adopted the new tooling. At the end of the three month pilot not one single team had successfully migrated. Just before go live, we summarised the status as a “shit show!”. The executive explained that it was a game of chicken. “Who will blink first, the central team or the teams implementing the new tooling. No one wants to call it a failure.” The mass migration of the entire organisation went ahead over Christmas. Some highlights from the project:

  • A lot of teams discovered that the migration had failed for them and were unable to work.
  • The central team had not considered that thousands of developers in India do not take vacation over the Christmas period.
  • The entire central coordination team went on vacation the day before the week long migration started. No one knew who to contact for help.
  • The central team did not even think about creating a help desk or support team until weeks after the migration by which time teams were in chaos.
  • The definition of done for the migration was cut back, and cut back, and cut back as the end date for the migration moved out quarter by quarter. As a result, cost savings were not realised as licenses needed to be extended.
  • There was a lot of disruption for teams, with many millions of dollars worth of lost productivity across the organisation.

I think you know what happened next. The migration was declared a huge success by the Group CIO, and a few weeks later the Group CIO was rewarded with a promotion to the Board of the Group.

In a “Risk Managed Culture”, stage gates based upon success criteria rather than arbitrary dates would have determined progression, and retrospectives would be held on a regular basis to learn and improve. There would be proper transparency rather than a game of “Chicken”. The retrospectives would seek to ensure that similar failure would not occur in the future for the same reasons.

In a “failure culture”, the failureship do not want genuine transparency. They do not want to know that there are problems. They just want to make sure that they can contain and hide it. They promote the people who cause failure so that they do not need to acknowledge it.

Failureship doesn’t avoid failure… Failureship REWARDS failure.

Introducing Failureship – The dark twin of Leadership

The culture of an organisation is vital to its ability to change and acquire new capabilities so that it can adapt to new contexts. Whilst academics and thought leaders will tell you that culture cannot be changed and is different for each organisation, careful observation will reveal that there a couple of key cultural archetypes when it comes to change in organisations. Like blind men scrambling over an elephant, there are many ways to describe these polarities. Currently I name them a “risk managed culture” and a “failure culture”. Associated with each culture is a set of behaviours. In a “risk managed” culture, we have a set of behaviours that lead to change, a set of behaviours we call leadership. In a “failure culture”, we have a set of behaviours that prevent change and perpetuate the status quo, a set of behaviours we shall call failureship.

Image by KRISTEN FOSTER from Pixabay

“All that change needs to fail is that good leaders do nothing”

Failureship is the set of behaviours that prevent change and perpetuate the status quo. It is a mixture of conscious AND unconscious behaviours that undermine and block change. Failureship behaviours are not the fault of an individual “managers” but a complex interaction with the culture itself. They are a behaviour-plex where one behaviour leads to another which leads to another which feeds back and stabilises the original behaviour. Sometimes they are held in place by an enabling constraint rather than a governing constraint.

An understanding of behaviours in a “risk managed” and “failure culture” and the associated “leadership” and “failureship” behaviour sets can help us better predict the success and failure of a change within an organisation. As most people consider leadership synonymous with leaders, I will refer to “leadership” as “changeship”, the act of leading change rather than leadership which most consider to be the rulers of an organisation.

It is worth noting that failureship often leads to huge success for the individuals but ultimately leads to long term damage of the organisation they work for. The “failure culture” rewards individuals engaged in failureship and although it does not punish those engaged in leadership, they are likely to be undervalued and will seek organisations where they are valued. The result of failureship is the squeezing out of leadership and the eventual dominance of a failure culture and the establishment of a ruler group who are experts in failureship… the failureship. As the goal of the failureship is value extraction, the failureship will ensure that the organisation will appear to be in rude health even though it is unable to change to meet changing contexts. The Failureship will trade long term health for short term gains.

An understanding of failureship will help the following groups of individuals:

  1. Leaders of organisations that are genuinely interested in change. An understanding of failureship enable them to identify colleagues that are consciously or sub-consciously preventing change. It will also help them to understand the behaviour-plexs that need to be disrupted in order for change to occur. Most importantly it will help them to understand how their own behaviour contributes to change and prevents it.
  2. Change agents can use it to identify whether the leadership in their organisation is commited to change or is consciously or unconsciously opposed to it. They can identify whether their efforts to help an organisation improve will result in success, or frustration and failure.

It is worth noting that any organisation consists of many sub organisations. It is possible for different sub organisations to have a different culture, especially if the leadership of the sub-organisation is strong enough to resist the culture of the wider organisation.

Wrong-order-o-meter (An experience report)

About a year after implementing Capacity Planning ( aka Delivery Mapping ) at Skype, the product leadership team asked for reporting to support the process. Tony Grout, Lisa Long and myself implemented the “Strawberry-jam-o-meter” and the “Wrong-order-o-meter” with the product leadership team ( report names inspired by Dr Seuss books which were a favourite of one of the product executives ). The product organisation consisted of about two hundred product owners working with about three hundred scrum teams. Capacity Planning meant that for a year the product organisation had come together once a quarter to prioritise an organisation wide product backlog based on the available capacity of teams.

Skype consisted of several front end products (Windows, Windows Tablet, XBox, iOS, Android and Windows Phone) that implemented back-end products (Audio/Video Codecs, Transport, Login). The architecture was constructed using Reverse Conway principles with the aim of allowing each scrum team in a release vehicle (a set of scrum teams) to be able to deliver independently.

The organisation wide backlog (known as the meta backlog) was a set of business goals whose success was measured using metrics. For example, reduce the day one churn (number of users that only use the product once and never return), conform to regulatory rules to prevent significant fine or enable asynchronous chat by moving it chat from peer to peer to server based.

Anyone who has worked in a large organisation knows that it is pretty much impossible to set up your organisation such that every business goal can be delivered by a single scrum team. Several teams are often required to achieve a business goal. Large organisations need to create a single ordered backlog to provide focus and create alignment between the teams.

Once the leadership team had established the process to create an ordered backlog, they were able to get better insight into what was actually happening in the delivery. To that end, they reduced work in progress by over 50%. They also created two reports:

The Strawberry-Jam-O-Meter was used to identify teams that had the most backlog items in progress. Inspired by Jerry Weinberg’s “Law of Strawberry Jam”.

The Wrong-Order-O-Meter was used to identify teams that were working on items in the wrong order according to the organisation wide backlog that the product owner organisation had specified.

The reports were to help the leadership understand which teams needed their help and support. The reports provided bad smells that helped them identify issues to resolve. To quote Jabe Bloom, the reports Were an “invitation for the leadership to go to the gemba”. There was an understanding in the product leadership team that the “behaviours” were often a result of constraints in the system. For example, the team is blocked waiting for another team and moved onto the next item. In some cases the product owner was not aware of the impact of too much work in progress which was a “learning opportunity”. In one case, the product owner on the 16th priority was very aggressive at getting their own delivery done such that they put the 1st item at risk.

The two reports provided leadership with a system wide view so that they could identify constraints. The leadership were more interesting in solving system wide issues rather than issues with an individual team.

Layout and Calculations

The Wrong-Order-O-Meter was very simple. It showed the team name and the effective position in the backlog that they were working. It was possible to drill down on each team to show the items they were working on.

TeamEffective Backlog Position

Drilling down into Slytherin’s backlog:

Organisation Backlog ItemPriorityEffortPriority Weighted Effort
Improve App Store ratings in Asia18%0.08
Reduce churn in Asia235%0.7
Improve on-boarding conversion rate314%0.42
Increase new customers into Funnel435%1.4
Items not on the Organisation Backlog58%0.4
Effective Backlog Position3.0

Fifty percent of the effort in the organisation will be for “Items not on the Organisation Backlog” because the teams will not be able to work on the backlog item as there will not be enough capacity in the teams acting as the constraint in the system. For this reason, the leadership needed the strawberry-jam-o-meter as well to identify teams that are spread too thin both for items on the backlog and for items not on the backlog.

Stress testing Skills Liquidity

Corona virus has raised the importance of Skills Liquidity or “key person dependency”. As well as managing the normal skill liquidity risk, organisations now need to consider the “summer holiday” effect. During the summer holidays the productivity of many teams plummets for an extended period because of skills liquidity. The absence of one or more team members means that the team experiences a significant reduction in throughput and a massive increase in lead time. To address this, organisations need to move quickly address risks that are normally annoying but are now significant.

To address skills liquidity it may be necessary to redeploy people from non-core applications to core applications. So the first step is for organisations to classify applications as core and non-core (possibly with more refined classifications).

Then create a skills matrix for each application ( I like the way Cat Swetel describes it here ). We end up with a skills matrix like this one:

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 10.30.18

Then we create a scenario where team members are unavailable for any number of reasons such as:

  • Being ill for a few weeks
  • Looking after sick friends or relatives
  • Unable to login due to lost internet capability
  • Called up by the government to assist in army or medical capability

We assess the scenario impact on the ability of the team to fix problems or make critical emergency changes:

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 10.30.33

Where we do not have enough skills liquidity (options), we need to create them. Bring new people onto the team, possibly former team members if they are not supporting other core applications. Creating new features is probably higher risk and can reduce the stability of the application. The new team members can refactor the application, create automated tests and pay down technical debt. They can automate the build chain and generally make the application more resilient.

Core versus Non-Core

A follow up on core / non-core and the risk profile of each skill / component to follow.


There are no stakeholders in (Scaled) Agile

A month ago a colleague of mine asked me about stakeholders in Agile. After a moment of thought I told them that there are NO STAKEHOLDERS in Agile.


What is a stakeholder?

In traditional development, someone puts together a business case, some business value that will be delivered, often with a high level description of the solution. A sponsor then secures funding for the business case and it is handed over to a project manager to deliver it. Funding is corporate gold, quite literally, and it attracts attention from anyone who has an idea that might have a claim to it. Some of those claims are more legitimate than others. Those people who have a claim on the budget are referred to as “stakeholders”.

The project manager takes direction from the stakeholder (often indirectly). The waterfall practice of “Stakeholder management” or “management of stakeholder expectations” involves minimising the impact of the stakeholder claims on the Sponsor’s deliverables. Where the stakeholder has a legitimate claim, it should be minimised. Where the claim is not legitimate, it should be ignored… politely in a way that does not offend the stakeholder.

In finance, examples of legimate stakeholders might be:

  • Someone from finance who needs a feed to general ledger (so that the CEO does not go to prison for a Sarbanes Oxley violation).
  • Someone from the regulatory department who needs a feed to the regulatory reporting system (so that the CEO does not go to prison for a MIFID violation)

Examples of stakeholders that are not legitimate might be:

  • Someone from marketing who requests a feed to the customer targeting system.

The project manager will ensure that the finance and regulatory requirements are met with the least possible effort.

Stakeholders in Agile

There are no stakeholders in Agile.

Stakeholders are a phenomena that only occurs in larger organisations. Stakeholders do not occur in small organisations.

In Agile, Stakeholders are either customer segments with a need, or more normally, they are product owners who represent customer segments with a need.

In Scaled Agile, there are no stakeholders because the customer and their needs are represented by the product owner. In the simple case, the product owner order the customer segment’s needs relative to the needs of the other customer segments and the associated value to the business. In complex situations, a group of product owners comes together to create a shared organisational backlog. To facilitate that process, the organisation can use “Capacity Planning”. In really big organisations, the “Capacity Planning” session would involve Product Executives who own parts of the business organisation.

Stakeholder management and big up-front business cases are an hangover from waterfall development. The organisation decides up-front what “Value” is going to delivered, and scope is managed (reduced and increase avoided if possible) to ensure the value is delivered. In Scaled Agile for Practitioners, executives decide which capabilities (teams etc.) they want to invest in, and then the product organisation optimises the business value delivered given the constraints inherent in the organisation. “Capacity Planning” provides feedback to the executives to indicate where investment in capacity needs to be increased and reduced.

If we consider the stakeholders above, it is possible that the product owners may consider that the need identified by marketing delivers the most business value to the organisation if it is satisfied.

In Agile, there are no stakeholders, only customer segments with needs, and the product owners who identify and prioritise those needs.




The London Agile Software Camerata

Gitte recently recommended this fantastic must-read article on Cameratas by Jessica Kerr. My only criticism is this statement:

One camerata emerged inside ThoughtWorks (consultancy) in London around 2003–2006. This group gave us Continuous Integration, Continuous Delivery, DevOps. They weren’t all on the same project, but they talked to each other, and they solved the problem of: Does deployment have to be so hard?

Jez and Dan and Chris Read produced The Deployment Production Line. Later, Dan went to invent BDD, Sam Newman became a prophet of microservices, and more. I keep meeting conference speakers who were part of this group.

The Camerata in London was not centred on ThoughtWorks, it was centered on The Extreme Tuesday Club. In fact, ThoughtWorks was one of several companies that played host to a chunk of the Extreme Tuesday Club, others being Connextra, BNP Paribas, Google, UBS, Sky, Springer and Zuhlke.


The Old Bank of England was the second or third regular meeting place for XTC. It was the first place where I attended.

Why Extreme Tuesday Club?

The Extreme Tuesday Club was one of many Local Agile Communities that existed in the early naughties. Other notable communities were The Salt Lake City Round Table (Todd Little, Alistair Cockburn, Jeff Patton), The Silicon Valley Patterns Group (Rus Rufer, Tracey Bailik, Joshua Kerievsky, Mike Hill), The Portland Patterns group (Ward Cunningham, Diana Larsen) and many others. Members of these local communities were networked thanks to the OOPSLA conference.

In 2003, the Salt Lake City Round Table organised the first Agile Development Conference which went on to merge with XP/Agile Universe and become the Agile20xx conference. In 2004, the second Agile Development Conference was organised by members of the Extreme Tuesday Club, namely Rachel Davies, Andy Pols, John Daniels and Steve Freeman, of whom only Steve ever worked for ThoughtWorks.

I was the only employee of ThoughWorks London to attend in 2003. Partly as a result of the write up of my experience, in 2004, about seventeen employees of ThoughtWorks London attended, and we had a ThoughtWorks stand. This launched ThoughtWorks London on the Global Agile Stage as the group made a major impact on the conference.

Like the other communities, the combined impact on Agile of members of the Extreme Tuesday Club has been quite significant. I will list a few below. Many of those members worked for ThoughtWorks for a period of time. However, it is the Extreme Tuesday Club that provided the community that generated the ideas.

The Extreme Tuesday Club had weekly feedback loops. People would suggest an idea one Tuesday, a week later they would get feedback. XTC was a hub. Visitors from outside London would head to XTC and the global network was strengthened. Famous visitors would also attract new members. XTC organised XP Day which was the only place in London to learn about XP/Agile for many years. Mainly, XTC was a friendly face and a empathetic ear for those trying to make XP/Agile work in their work lives.

Why ThoughtWorks?

ThoughtWorks was hiring people with experience of eXtreme Programming at a time that no one else was. Paul Hammant actively recruited people from the Extreme Tuesday Club into ThoughtWorks. Hence there was a very large overlap between the Extreme Tuesday Club and ThoughtWorks. I am eternally grateful to Paul for being one of the people he recruited from XTC.

ThoughtWorks was great. It was on the bench that Dan North explained BDD to me ( c/Assert/Should ) which made it much easier to coach people to adopt TDD. “Should” provided me a link between Business Analysis and Agile Development. I then introduced “GIVEN” to express mocks. Dan and I then collaborated to come up with the “WHEN” and replace “SHOULD” with “THEN” to complete the trio. This was only possible because of ThoughtWorks positive attitude to supporting innovation in the Agile Space. ThoughtWorks left us to work on things we considered valuable rather than find busy work for us.

I left ThoughtWorks shortly afterwards in 2004, continuing to develop Real Options, Feature Injection (which includes GWT), Kanban, Capacity Planning, Skill Liquidity, Tech Debt in collaboration with members of XTC and the wider network of communities. When people left TW, many remained together as a community as part of XTC. Sometimes, XTC members would help people find jobs when they left TW unexpectedly.

Why ThoughtWorks rather than Extreme Tuesday Club

XTC is only something that you will hear of if you are connected to an existing member or visitor.

Why do so many people think that the London Software Camerata centres around ThoughtWorks rather than Extreme Tuesday Club? The answer is simple… Martin Fowler, Dan North and Jez Humble are more famous than the Extreme Tuesday Club.

Within ThoughtWorks, like all consultancies, they promote their own and play down the role of others. Within ThoughtWorks, you are more likely to hear about the contributions of ThoughtWorkers that the shoulders of giants that they stand upon. Martin Fowler has 250K+ followers on twitter. He is brilliant. His job is to promote ThoughtWorks and he does it well.

So people see Dan and Jez and other famous ThoughtWorkers rather than the XTC.

The London Software Camerata

XTC is an important part of Agile History. It would be great if we tried to document that history, especially showing the collaborations between members.

Years ago I tried to list the contributions of XTC members to Agile. I gave up after about listing fifty people. I just want to give you a taste (Please add a comment with people I have left out):

  • Rachel Davies
  • Tim MacKinnon*
  • Ivan Moore*
  • Andy Pols
  • John Nolan
  • Nat Pryce*
  • Ade Oshineye*
  • Joe Walnes*
  • Liz Keogh*
  • Gabrielle Benefield
  • Robert Benefield
  • Benjamin Mitchell
  • Portia Tung
  • Keith Braithwaite
  • Mike Hill*
  • Richard Watts*
  • Paul Simmons
  • Tom Ayerst
  • Antony Marcano
  • Andy Palmer*
  • Giovanni Gasproni*
  • Douglas Squirrel
  • Marc Johnson*
  • Gojko Adzic
  • David Evans

* – Indicates they worked for ThoughtWorks at some point.

Goodbye Martin

It was with great sadness that I heard Martin passed away last night. My thoughts are with Lucy and his family.


Martin and I were part of the LASCOT set. A group of Agile types that were drawn to each other once a year in Edinburgh. We did not agree on everything but we did have fun together. At every conference Martin and I would steal a quarter hour to exchange notes and plot the Agilification of some company or other. Our plans were fanciful, hare brained and never came to fruition. The thing I loved most about Martin were his earnestness and his subtle sense of humour. Either are great but Martin combined them with a subtlety that I think quite a few missed.

In May 2015, Martin and Lucy organised the inaugural SAFE Leadership Retreat in Crieff. An event that would become an annual “must attend” for the SAFE community. Martin invited me as the ‘invited trouble maker’. Also present at the retreat was the spirit of another trouble maker. Lucy, Chris (McDermott) and I would snigger in the corner that the SAFE people were unaware of the significance of different colour shirts, especially those “responsible for imposing cult discipline” who were wearing black.

I will not miss Martin because of his endless enthuiasm for SAFE. I will not miss Martin for his subtle humour. I will miss him because he was my friend.

Goodbye Martin, you will be missed.

Photo: Martin at the SAFE leadership retreat. Note the lack of shoes.

Whence road kill?

One of the largest companies in the world has a saying “Its nothing personal, you are just road kill.” The message. Your career and reputation is destroyed. You are sacked. But, it was nothing personal.. In other words, your identity within the company is killed but not because of anything you have done. Organisations where your identity can be destroyed like this are not safe.


So why are some places unsafe and others safe?

One of the reasons is alignment, or rather, a lack of alignment. Road kill often happens where two or more powerful forces in the organisation are not aligned. Nothing induces a chill in your guts more than a senior executive asking “Why are you doing that?”. The answer is normally “Because that other executive asked me to”. Its not an answer that protects you from that roadkill feeling.

Many of the Agile processes can be used to reduce the chance of roadkill, and reduce that roadkill feeling. Here are two:

  1. Capacity planning is a technique that brings together the most senior business investors to agree the backlog of initiatives based upon the capacity of the delivery teams.
  2. Reduce lead time as a strategy provides a means for delivery teams to justify the removal of technical debt.

Capacity planning allows delivery teams to focus on one item at a time rather than start multiple deliveries to keep powerful investors happy. Alternate approaches that ring fence a partial set of resources and “manage” dependencies do not create alignment and result in road kill situations.

Reduce lead time aligns technology and business goals on reducing the risk of investing in technology. Alternate approaches like a separate technology backlog lead to a focus on delivering business value at the expense of paying down technical debt.

Agents of the Agile Industrial Complex claim to focus on improving organisations effectiveness, often by increasing the road kill index. I have experienced weaponise versions of agile practices, and received personal threats from the agents of the AIC.

Agile Practioners help organisations become more effective at delivering value, they also make organisations better places to work.

I would like to thank Simon Powers for sharing the goal “Making organisations better places to work for our children”. The great thing about this goal is that it is fully aligned with the goal of “Improving the delivery of value”.

I would also like to thank Marc Burgauer and Gitte Klitgaard for having the patience whilst I came to this realisation.

Shared vision as enabling constraint.

Transformations are hard. Transformations are even harder when only the executives know where the destination is meant to be, if they even know that.

A shared vision

One of the most important responsibilities for executives in an organisation under transformation is to ensure that there is a shared vision to guide the organisation. A shared vision means that everyone in the organisation buys into the vision. Everyone understands where the organisation is going so that they can make the most appropriate decisions in their context. For some people, this may mean learning new skills as their current skills are unnecessary in the new organisation. An example of this may be manual testers who need to develop test automation skills. The impact of the shared vision can be illustrated as follows:


Once they understand the value to themselves, everyone in the organisation can align themselves to achieve the vision. The shared vision creates alignment. Alignment to the vision allows management to free up control and let the people in the organisation have autonomy about how they achieve the vision. This alignment causes resonance within the organisation which creates a higher order system, an organisation that works together to achieve a single purpose. A shared vision is an enabling constraint.

It is important for the executive leadership to ensure that there is a shared vision. It does not mean that they are solely responsible for creating and refining the vision. Ideally, the executive leadership team should facilitate the co-creation of the vision with the entire organisation. The vision should be a living, evolving thing. The executive team might paint a broad brush vision but individual teams will need to provide detail to the vision and feedback when context requires the vision to evolve.

Shared visions create options for the people in the organisation as to how they achieve the vision.

The shared vision anti-patterns

A common anti-pattern for organisations undergoing a transformation is to not have a shared vision. Either there is no vision, or there is a vision but the executive leadership have not made sure that everyone in the organisation shares the vision.

A lack of vision means that people in the organisation do not know where they are headed. As a result, management will need to intervene and make every decision for the organisation. This leads to a lack of autonomy with the team dependent on management for decision making and providing “context”. Normally this leads to an ever increasingly more complicated rules. The rules end up constraining the organisation so that it is unable to achieve anything. These governing constraints remove all of the organisations options and it becomes inward focused rather than focusing on its customers and competitors.

The impact of a lack of shared vision can be illustrated as follows:


Sometimes an executive leadership team have a vision but they do not share it because they are concern about how the people in the organisation will react. People are smart, they will work out what the “leadership” intend and will work to oppose it. In such a situation, it is impossible for people in the organisation to act with autonomy. This lack of autonomy will result in all management energy being directed inward rather than focusing on leading the organisation to a new place.

Absent or unshared visions lead to rules and commitments on the people in the organisation that reduce their options to achieve their goals.

A shared vision?

The technology department of an organisation might adopt a vision of  “Be more responsive to customer and their needs.” which it makes actionable by saying “Reduce lead time for investments.”.

People in the organisation can then choose the appropriate action in their context to achieve that measurable goal. They can do small things that enable them to do bigger things. The act of making small changes alters the dispositionality of the system. Making small changes gives a team confidence, skills and experience to make bigger changes. The team can make any change that aims to reduce lead time. They can measure the impact of the change, and adjust accordingly.

To reduce lead time, they might do one or more of the following:

  • Increase test automation
  • Implement continuous integration/deployment or devOps
  • Make smaller investments
  • Adopt Scrum or Kanban
  • Reduce work in progress
  • Get teams to work more closely together
  • Apply theory of Constraints
  • Adopt Given-When-Then
  • Reduce technical debt
  • Adopt extreme programming
  • Hire experienced developers or coaches
  • Co-locate teams
  • Re-organise the organisation based on the Spotify model.
  • Cancel the SAFE or LESS implementation initiative.
  • Increase training and Learning
  • Many, many more things.

The team can adopt one of the above practices according to their context and dispositionality with the goal of “Reducing lead time”.

Alternatively, in the absence of a shared vision, the “leadership” might impose a number to initiatives on the team to do one or more of the following.

  • Increase test automation
  • Implement continuous integration/deployment or devOps
  • Make smaller investments
  • Adopt Scrum or Kanban
  • Reduce work in progress
  • Get teams to work more closely together
  • Apply theory of Constraints
  • Adopt Given-When-Then
  • Reduce technical debt
  • Adopt extreme programming
  • Hire experienced developers or coaches
  • Co-locate teams
  • Re-organise the organisation based on the Spotify model.
  • Cancel the SAFE or LESS implementation initiative.
  • Increase training and Learning
  • Many, many more things.

The team will pick those items that are easiest to achieve in order to get management off their back so that they can focus on their immediate business goals. Teams may have no investment in the outcome and adopt a “tick box” attitude to simply getting the “transformation” done.

What is a transformation?

You often hear about organisation transformations. But what is an organisational transformation? The transformation is when the people in the organisation value and commit to the shared vision of the organisation. The transformation occurs one person at a time until some tipping point is reached and the remaining people either buy in to the vision or leave the organisation.

So the organisational transformation is the point at which the enabling constraint comes into being. The point at which everyone values and commits to the shared vision. Leaders will discover that the can focus on the future of the organisation as the teams achieve autonomy. Without a shared vision, transformation is not possible.

Perhaps a good way to measure transformation is to consider how far into the future leadership are focused. If leadership are still focused on the day to day operations, the transformation still has a way to go.

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In summary, autonomy will occur when all the people in an organisation are aligned around a shared vision. A shared vision is one that all the people in an organisation value and buy into. A vision that is not shared is the same as having no vision, or possibly worse as the people in the organisation might be in conflict with the leadership. The impact of a lack of a shared vision is confusion over the direction of the transformation and an inward focus of leadership.

A shared vision is an enabling constraint as it constrains the actions of people in the organisation so that they are aligned.

So start the path to transformation, co-create and build a shared vision.