Jobs, Projects, or Teams?

Posted by Robert Merrill on September 18, 2013 under Change Leadership, Projects | Read the First Comment

I just read a really interesting article, “Rethinking the Decision Factory,” by Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto business school, on Harvard Business Review (if you don’t follow @HarvardBiz, I suggest it).

When People are Jobs in a Project world

I understand Martin’s main point to be that most businesses think in terms of Jobs, namely sets of responsibilities and tasks with no definite beginning and end. (This is “Job” as in “Position,” not “Job” as in e.g. a print run). But the essential unit of knowledge work isn’t the Job, it’s the Project. Because what makes Projects is beginnings and endings, and some sense in which no two are alike. I think Martin is saying this is a mismatch between the nature of the work and how we organize and (more importantly) think about people.

Martin says there are two downsides.

  1. First, it’s difficult to get the right people on project teams because of the job-centric organizational structure.
  2. Second, it’s difficult to get knowledge workers to share information, or refine what they do that really is more or less repeatable into heuristics (patterns) or algorithms (formulas), because that undermines their Job and therefore leaves them vulnerable in the next round of layoffs. Further, Martin says, the “next round of layoffs” is inevitable, precisely because of the inefficiency and sluggishness of the job-centric organization.

(As an aside, I’ve seen this to be especially true of the specialist and support roles in software shops, specifically project managers and business analysts. The harder it is for senior management to understand what they do—at least programmers “type”—and the more expensive they are, the more likely they are to get shown the door).

Solution: The Project-Based Organization?

What Martin suggests is the Project-based organization, in which a person’s “job description” becomes “execute whatever project we give you next.” As a pattern, he suggests the major services firms such as Accenture and McKinsey. As an example, Martin takes through a year-in-the-life of a junior marketer at Proctor & Gamble, whose Global Business Services unit is considered by Martin to be the vanguard of the new way.

At this point I grow a bit nervous, for three reasons:

  1. Do we really want to pattern ourselves after Accenture and McKinsey? As my colleague Larry McManis recently blogged, “Businesses and Consultants Get an F” for their rate of failed change initiatives, IT projects (tech-enabled business change), and mergers & acquisitions. So I’m not sure that the big consulting firms are who we want to imitate, unless that’s the business we’re also in.
  2. I’m also nervous about the Project as the organizing principle. Projects may have a definite Begin and End (although even that’s questionable), but many seem to have a rather fuzzy definition of Done, or Scope, if you prefer. Projects seem to consist of a somewhat tangled set of outcomes, some of which are clearly essential, others of which are clearly not worth the effort, and a lot more that are in between. And a lot of this no one really grasps until we’re well into them. As much as we try to contain them with gates and sign-offs and other levees, Projects, like rivers, are invaluable but not always cooperative.
  3. Finally, I’m nervous about the “interchangeable-resource” view of people and its ugly stepchild, the multiple-project “resource” allocation. It seems we would rather have fully utilized “resources” and slow teams.

I’ve come to believe that the engine of project productivity isn’t the individual, it’s the jelled, cross-functional team. These take time to form, and have a productivity that’s so much higher than the sum of the parts, maybe 3x, that it seems a shame to break them up at the end of every project.

A Cross-Functional-Team-Based Organizational Adaptability Factory?

What if knowledge work is really an organizational-change factory, not a decision factory? And the central organizing principle isn’t the project, it’s the cross-functional team? And the best way to think about the work itself is as a set of never-ending queues of business forces, constraints, and opportunities, and response concepts, feeding each project team, and resulting in steady streams of (often technology-enabled) organizational adaptations?

I’m no B-school dean, but this is after all the Internet. Food for thought, I hope.

What’s Wrong with Business Analysts (or Agile / Lean coaches, or …)

Posted by Robert Merrill on September 14, 2013 under Business Analysis and Requirements, Change Leadership, Office Relationships and Politics | Read the First Comment

Julian Sammy, head of Research and Innovation at the IIBA® (International Institute for Business Analysis), compared finding a place to belong as a BA with romantic relationships. One of his conclusions from the latter was that the only common element in all of his unsatisfactory relationships was him. So he looked at himself and learned to be a better partner. He also found a good partner for himself in the process.

In “What’s Wrong With Us?” on LnkedIn, Sammy points to recurrent BA woes—not enough time, indifferent stakeholders, rank-pulling PMs, no time with sponsors, clients who won’t follow the process, etc., and asks, “What if it’s us?” Read more of this article »

Weaponized Facts, Brutal Facts, & Change

Posted by Robert Merrill on January 7, 2013 under Change Leadership, uFunctional Values | Read the First Comment

“How do you speak to this level of ignorance?” It was a social media friend reacting to a political statement.

The phrase came to me in a flash.

“Well, firing weaponized facts isn’t working so well.”

The air is thick with weaponized facts. Some of them might even be true. But no one seems to be changing their mind about anything. That’s scary, because the brutal facts (Jim Collins, “Good to Great”) tell me we need some pretty big changes.

I aspire to come alongside people and help them face their brutal facts, at their own speed, and make good choices.

We Interrupt This Broadcast

Posted by Robert Merrill on December 17, 2012 under Change Leadership | Be the First to Comment

Given the events of Friday, December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, I’m choosing not to write about software project failure as though nothing has happened.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but when I first heard the news, the needle didn’t even move. Another wacko shot up a school. Huh. I know my emotions don’t always work right—sometimes I get either nothing or over-the-top—but have I become so numb to these recurring tragedies that it requires conscious effort to feel anything?

It was when I read the unfolding reactions as relayed by my friends on Facebook that I became grieved—and angry. Mostly there was just an outpouring of emotion—welcome, because it helped me to feel something appropriate. But there were also predictable people quoted as saying predictable things about how it was someone else’s fault and someone else needed to change. Too many calls for a “national conversation” contained dialogue-killing words like “political talking points,” “cowed by extremists,” “pry away our Constitutional rights,” and “fantasies that the gun lobby hides behind.” Read Crucial Conversations. Please. You’ll serve your own causes better if you do.

Four days later, it feels like “this time is different.” I hope that’s true. But I’ve seen this pattern before. For about six weeks after September 11, 2001, I lived in a different country. The desires and pressures of everyday life had been put in perspective. People were more polite on the roads and more careful in their speech. But it wore off, and we got back to “normal.”

When we draw our power to change from emotion alone, it can’t be any other way.

Cause-and-effect emotions have a half-life. If the change takes longer to become permanent than the emotion lasts, we revert to the status quo ante—“the way things were before.” In order for things to change, enough of us must choose to cash in our emotions for convictions, and with them a more lasting power and changed priorities.

Before Newtown, there was an established set of people and perspectives around the subject of school shootings. If that set of people and perspectives is not significantly different three months from now, we will probably continue to get the same results we’ve been getting.

Maybe some of the existing activists will, in their emotion, embrace new perspectives.

Maybe some new people, with new perspectives, will become part of the activist mix.

Or maybe the emotions will run their course and things will get back to…Normal.

I Might Even Annoy You

Posted by Robert Merrill on September 16, 2012 under 100 Words, Change Leadership, Software teams, uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

One of my first posts was Who I am Not.

So, “You annoy me—You’re Hired!” on immediately caught my eye.

The premise is that you should hire people who aren’t like you, even to the point of rubbing you the wrong way, if you want to build great teams. (I would add that they must still be trustworthy, competent, of good character, and otherwise worthy of respect). Now, getting that team to jell—getting through the Storming stage of Forming, Norming, Storming, and Performing—might take longer and be more challenging, but the results will be worth it. And if the team’s mission is a worthy one, jell they will. And when they do, they will totally kick.

So, if you have a software-related mess, or better yet, you don’t want another software-related mess, listen to Uncle Albert (who was in fact just about the sharpest knife in the drawer):

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

I promise I’ll try not to annoy you. But helping you straighten out your software problems, and prevent them recurring, will my top priorities.

I hope this helps you make better decisions for your organization, whether they involve me or not.

And I think I just gained some additional insight into my sales problem.

Management remains in denial

Posted by Robert Merrill on April 14, 2012 under Agile Methods, Change Leadership | Be the First to Comment

So reads a section heading from “The Best-Kept Management Secret on the Planet: Agile,” by Steve Denning, a contributor to

Denning’s premise is that Agile was invented by the Wrong People, namely geeks—software developers—“the most problematic of a big organization’s employees,” and not B-School professors and management gurus. He compares it to the invention of the chronometer by a carpenter, the foundation of modern genetics by a monk, and the identification of the cause of stomach ulcers by a practicing pathologist (all true stories).

According to Denning, Agile is not just a software-development breakthrough, it’s a management breakthrough that allows disciplined execution and continuous innovation to occur at the same time. When I saw his article, my first thought was, “Here’s more evidence that Agile’s going mainstream!”

But then I got this sinking feeling. Read more of this article »

Everything looks like a failure in the middle

Posted by Robert Merrill on August 27, 2009 under Change Leadership, Client case studies | 2 Comments to Read

I’m involved in one client project right now where no one’s happy.

My relationship with this client is long-term and (fortunately) transcends this particular project. I was pointed at it last Spring to help get it back on the rails. The project manager and I came up with a problem frame—a container of the right size and shape to fit all of the seemingly random questions we were being asked—and identified several parallel work streams to make progress on all fronts.

We’re working cross-functionally within the organization, so there are relationships to be established and the concerns of bosses’ bosses to be discovered, sometimes the hard way. We’re working with new outside vendors, so there are negotiations and promises and documents and lawyers to review it all.

It’s really a research project, disguised as an information systems project. I used to be a research scientist, so I’m familiar with the feeling of pursuing a line of research that I know will pay off. But that’s not the client culture, and I understand that.

But the sponsor is frustrated. The team is frustrated. I’m frustrated.

So it was with relief that I read about Kanter’s Law: Change is Hardest in the Middle. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a named-chair professor at the Harvard Business School, puts it like this; “Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.” Read more of this article »