Can you measure mess?

I frequently come across tenders whose aim is to standardise an existing, historically grown service. Until now, this service has been provided in the most diverse variations and qualities by a wide variety of people. After several company mergers, local IT in the countries, different cost centres and various internal customers, things can get quite confusing.

Many consultants recommend in such a situation that you only have to describe exactly what kind of service you need and demand corresponding service level targets from the providers. In many cases, this is an almost impossible task. The very fact that the organisation has to cope with different models in different business units. Makes it difficult to define the right service.

Such tenders are usually very obvious. When reviewing them, it is noticeable that the numbers do not match and that the required service levels are usually too high and hence too expensive. In further communication, the figures on the client side are typically corrected every few weeks, but remain unsatisfactory until the end.

I myself worked on the client side for several years and reluctantly recall the simplifications of central stakeholders with the blunt statement: “What’s so difficult about that?” I would like to give an answer to this. A structure that has grown over years without standardisation with hundreds of different user groups is complex, perhaps even chaotic. It is more than complicated and cannot be analysed adequately in a short time.

With the help of Cynefin, I would analyse the environment and instead of a simple answer, I would take a complex problem, for example, and respond with Probing -> Sensing -> Acting (Emerging Practice). What does this mean for a tender? For example, choose an adaptive tendering method or, if you want to keep it traditional, learn and standardise in phases using a framework contract.

If you start from the Cynefin categories and choose a simpler context than is actually given, you have fewer steering means than needed. Ashby’s law states that the variety of the control system must be at least as large as the variety of perturbations that occur in order to carry out control. In other words, category errors are high risk, intentional category errors are gambling.

And that is precisely my observation in such circumstances.

Cargo Cult

On occasion, you meet companies that outwardly claim to be agile, but on closer inspection have hardly developed or want to develop an agile culture. Agile consultants use the term cargocult for this, when organisations introduce agile methods without any utility value, but rather for symbolic reasons.

Cargocult is originated as a religious movement on some Pacific islands, where for example parts of airports are replicated out of wood and the activities of an airport operation are symbolically imitated to bring about the return of the ancestors who will bring cargo. Cargo of the kind that American troops brought to the islands in masses during the Second World War.

In my practice, the vast majority of “Cargocult” cases in companies are different. In one situation, I saw that agile methods were introduced into IT. The employees were told about this literally overnight, had no training whatsoever, but were supposed to convert all ongoing projects to agile ways of working. As it was a hierarchically managed company, this was also applied to most of the ongoing projects. The management announced after 4 weeks that they were more agile and better than the industry leaders.

The change to symbolic agile working led to significant delays in all projects. There was puzzling and interpretation by project managers on agile methods, very often with a simple misattribution like: Definition-of-Done is our old familiar acceptance protocol after all. Astonishing nonsense arose, even repressions were to be enforced under the name of agility.

The nightmare story ended after 9 months, with the management lecturing about the inadequacies of agile methods. I was approached during and after this large-scale experiment, I talked to the people. The vast majority suffered from this nonsense. A few have always been politically correct and found all things proper.

It was clear to the majority after a short time that this way of working has nothing to do with agility. Their emerging resistance eventually led to the official termination of the whole exercise. But what about the supporters, did they believe in a cargocult? I rather suspect they wanted to decorate themselves with agile clothes. They wanted to tell the world that they were now also an agile organisation. Inside, everything should remain as hierarchical as possible.

It seems reasonable to conclude that they wanted to appear modern and were not at all serious about it. It’s more like a kind of symbolic agile work to pretend something to the management and the outside world. For me, the term Potemkin villages is more appropriate, as no one expects agile culture to fall from the sky at one time or another.

“New Work” Potemkin villages are, obviously, a pointless as anything. In all the examples I know, they don’t do any permanent damage, the employees are familiar with such nonsense. A few young employees will leave in the short term. By the way, these companies also introduce legally necessary framework regulations in this way. These usually end up in a corporate department, where there are always designated ISO officers.

So the question remains: why do they do this? I spoke with HR colleagues who are usually appointed to carry out such “new work” culture changes. They were annoyed by such projects, there is almost always a lack of support, resources and budget in their companies. A transparent communication about which goals could actually be achieved with the far too scarce resources never existed in their companies.

It would be nice if anyone would say. We just want to have that written outside on the door because everyone is doing it the same way these days. However, that’s not the case…

Oil tanker blurred photo in the sea

IT social worker

IT, that’s the hoodie-wearing nerds in the vault. Especially in the news footage: There has been a publicity-grabbing computer failure in a company, and the background image is of a person in front of a laptop, shutters down, casting a striped shadow on a hoodie. The only new development since a few years is that the hacker is sometimes female.

Recently, when asked what I did for a living, I told a woodworker that I am a computer specialist. His answer was that he couldn’t spend the whole day sitting in front of a computer. I replied that I couldn’t do that either. He said he works with people. I asked him where and when he actually works with people. Approximately every 6 weeks, he advises customers on individual pieces of furniture or their restoration, apart from that, he works alone in the workshop.

He didn’t believe that I work far more with people. For him, IT means sitting in front of a computer and programming. And so I tried to explain to him the tasks of an IT architect. I told him that I need to understand the client, his culture, his maturity level. That we need to agree on the right level of IT services that will bring real business value to the client. That I have to reconcile the picture I have of the customer’s IT with the reality in the company. That I have to win people over to change their work and show them a nuanced picture of what their future could look like.

I honestly don’t know if I really reached him. At least he knows that there are people in computer engineering who work intensively with people and social systems. But I guess he still believes that most of us work with pizza fingers in the basement.

This highly stupid image of IT professions probably plays a great deal into why we have been lacking young talent in this sector for years. Particularly for female trainees and students, “sitting in front of a computer all day” is likely to be quite a put-off.

I can only say that the job opportunities in IT are extremely wide-ranging, you get to know great customers, and you can develop super interesting innovations for the business with them. Not a single day goes by that I do not work with other people.

Dear computer professionals, let’s talk more often about our profession, about exciting, challenging or funny encounters with clients, always in the bright sunshine as well as sometimes wearing a hoodie.


Everything is going to hell

When it comes to change, there is a Late Majority that is against transformation almost all the time. Even when an old system is on its last legs, these groups still find reasons why a new system, process or approach is really bad and will drive the company to bankruptcy.

The late majority is the last active group to contribute to the change. Once they are emotionally through the change, the new system is running extremely well, new customers have been won and so on, sometimes the same people say things like, „I always knew that the new system would be excellent for us.“

I enjoy chatting with these people over coffee to understand when the change of heart took place and whether I could have accelerated it in any way. The amazing thing is that everyone I have spoken to denies ever having been an opponent of the new.

Even if a person sitting next to him confirms that he actively worked against the innovation, all I hear are excuses like, “I didn’t mean it that way”. No matter how transparent or fault-tolerant the customer culture was, they always deny that they were ever against the new, now superior system.

In this context, initial reservations are perfectly understandable. If an organisation has waited too long, has been driven to wear and tear, the staff is often so stressed that a transformation seems like an impossible burden. When, after a successful transformation, an initial objector says, “Yes, I thought the team couldn’t carry that too.” That is perfectly understandable.

For change processes, the reluctant players are most important too, they help to stabilise at the beginning and at the end they sometimes have the chance to introduce the new system even better than the early adopters. Have the courage to admit that you were a doubter at the beginning, because we can all learn from that.


The 1% nonsense

A very popular narrative is that you only have to invest a few minutes every day in training, work, knowledge, contacts, physical resource or a sociological resource and after a year, through the effect of compound interest, something really big will be the outcome. In order to illustrate this, let us consider the following example.

Let’s imagine that it is true for a entire social network that one new post generates an average of 1 % new followers.

And now my 1% story: Invest 3 minutes every day in a posting on your social network and with every posting, the number of your followers increases by 1%. If you start out with 100 followers, after a week you have 106 followers, after a month 135 and after a year 3741 followers.

Why do these 1% stories impress us at first? Small investment – enormous growth – big profit!

For these 1% stories to be actually achievable, the projected growth has to be exponential. Unfortunately, this exponential growth does not apply to the propagation of 100 flowers in your garden, even if the initial values would also be 1% growth.

Biological systems often follow logistic curves, these are those curves that have the characteristic shape like an S. In the gradient part they look like exponential functions for a short distance. In our example of one posting per day, I chose such S-curve as my model, means the constant worker recognises the difference between 100 and 150 days later, because then the curve begins to slope down.

In my imagined model we reach 500 followers at the end of the year, which is a great increase and was worth the effort of about 18 hours of typing. However, compared to the targeted 3700 followers, the result is disappointing.

Which is exactly my point of criticism of these 1% interest rate stories, almost nothing in a limited market grows exponentially. I worry that the lack of realism and the disappointment along the way of not creating enough growth leads to dropouts and demotivation.

The reasons in the stories are often brilliant, it’s worth investing a constant 3 minutes a day in something good. You get smarter, generate more customers, become more athletic or whatever. Just not exponentially.

Exponential and logistic growth
Exponential and logistic growth