A manager of a global software factory asked me during a conversation if I agreed to this bold statement, or to tell him my point of view.
The famous quote of Management Guru Consultant Peter Drucker must have inspired my privileged interlocutor! But I doubt that we are talking in the same spirit here…
“Strategy eats Culture for Breakfast”Peter Drucker
It is certainly true that an established and nourished enterprise culture feeds strategic thinking and acting. Purposeful organisations see further and in a more holistic way. We can also see many examples where the lack of cultural development is generating weak, short-sighted decisions. The building up of organisational debt or entropy is inversely proportional with the cultural level of organisations, we can say.
Is bullshit the culture of delivery? Certainly not! But, yes, bullshit and delivery have an intimate relationship. Anyone who has ever been responsible for a major delivery will agree to such views. So here is what a guy like me, who has “delivery” tattooed on his forehead since a few decades, would say about bullshit, delivery and breakfast:
“If you get bullshit only for breakfast, you are lucky. I am used to getting delivery bullshit also for lunch and dinner, and sometimes for snacks!”Rosho
But first, what definition would we give “bullshit”?
Definition of Bullshit
Is “biased reality communication” the best definition? Some people would prefer truth instead of reality, but for me, truth is as subjective than moral. Is bullshitting intentional or is it ignorance? I would say it is intentional or at least laziness-based, rather than ignorance-based. It is also a regional cultural question. For example, in many Asian cultures, social politeness is more important than objectivity, while in European or Anglo-Saxon and North-American cultures communication is sometimes excruciating straight-forward and direct, which can lead to clashes or at least misunderstandings.
The Role of Humour in Delivery
Close to the topic of bullshitting are different ways to use humour as a communication register. To me, humour is one of the best ways to convey messages and communicate in delivery. It is a fantastic way to build, but it can become a double-edged sword very easily and needs to be carefully controlled, taking into account that individuals and cultures are different in their perception and sense of humour. You can’t make the same kind of joke with a DACH (German, Swiss, Austria) guy than with latin or Anglo-Saxon culture people…
Be an Organ when it comes to Communication!
Some have seen church organs and noticed the presence of many registers, keyboards and pedals. Organs are my way to conceive and practice communication. It happens that I am an organ-builder master and built organs during the first half of my life before I started Project Management in the IT sector. I guess this is where I got the inspiration for my concept. But let me explain the analogy: the organ is a mighty instrument, and can play many different sounds and an infinite combination of them. From the tiny flute to the might trombone, or the Tutti, where all or most of the registers are drawn and activated, equivalent of the orchestra hit, the organ player chooses what he needs at the moment, according to the music he plays, the place, the circumstances and the audience. Even when the tiniest flute plays alone, it is still the mighty organ. People know it and feel it. I guess, on my organ, there are also registers called quiet professionalism, passionate enthusiasm, sarcasm, irony, anger, fun, harmony and even bullshit, not my preferred one, though.
From where comes Bullshit in Delivery?
That is the interesting part! To my experience, bullshit is four-dimensional: spherical 360° and 24/7. It comes from anywhere, anytime and is sometimes utterly surprising in shape, form, power and depth.
Who is bullshitting delivery responsible people?
Everybody is ready to bullshit everyone in a corporate world or any other world. In delivery, it would come from developer teams or individuals, project manager, scrum masters, system architects, any subject matter experts, colleagues, third parties, any ranks of management, up to the highest.
How do you deal with Bullshit?
You can’t avoid it, so skip to the real question, how do you deal with it?
First: analyse the circumstances and people involved. What are the motivations, drivers of behaviour? What is the purpose of such smoke screens? Is it lack of trust in yourself or the organisation you represent? Or just laziness and comfort zone protection? Is there an elephant in the room? What is the real problem, can you see it or is your seventh delivery sense telling you that there is a story behind?
Second: How do you get to the level of reality you want? Your strategy will depend on the results of your first level investigation. You may want to find out more. In that case, avoid big room discussions and go direct, one to one and build a better relationship, build trust and confidence. Align the vision of purpose, iterate values, propose a re-evaluation of the constraints. It could well be that these were underestimated and no one dares to stand up and tell.
Third: re-evaluate your delivery strategy if necessary, clear non-identified impediments or re-baseline as a last resort. Sometimes you will need to go the escalation path with some people or cases if you can’t get things straight with franc discussions. Knowing that this carries the risk of worsening relationships, but can also help with empowering you in your role.
Forth: get prepared for the next round of bullshitting, it will come, count on it!
Why do we need Expertise AND Experience AND Maturity to succeed in Delivery?
Successfully understand and solve human relationships, and even more so human situations need three rare qualifications and some of the even rarer human qualities.
Expertise: This one you can learn at school, or from books. Methodologies, frameworks, terminologies, taxonomy, ontology, are at the reach of many. Expertise and knowledge are telling you how it should work in a virtual, perfect world, but this is not telling how to get around bullshitting, for example.
Experience: This one you need time and a good memory, an opportunity to exercise and piling up real-life data, which you can use for cross-referencing in the best case. It will still not help you succeeding in delivery, but it is better than not having it and it is the condition for the next component.
Maturity: when you are curious enough and analyse, drill-down and boil down the cumulated expertise and experience, patterns emerge out of the apparent chaos and you start being effective and successful, even under the worst circumstances. Maturity requires curiosity and empathy to be able to understand people deeply. You want to create win-win-win situations, wherever possible. Where does maturity originate? Some people build it up over their life span, and others don’t. Mystery? I don’t think so! If you study modern behavioural biology and evolutionary psychology, you will see that people have evolutionary levels and everyone is right from where they stand. That also means that people can only understand and learn from their level. You can’t teach a snail to run like a horse. Intelligence can only be conceived and understood from the same or a superior level, evolutionary world view and connectedness are the same. Some people, actually a majority, can only think in concentric circles and within their silo. The network and system thinkers are a minority and we can’t change it. To accept that and work around it is what is called maturity.
What would be success criteria for fighting bullshitting?
In an ideal world, people, teams and organisations work together spontaneously and exchange information in a structured way, always thinking receiver rather than the sender. In this ideal world delivery leads, project manager or program managers would have no job, because there would be no chaos and everybody would act responsibly, all the time and in every situation. A manager would have clear strategies and values, would see constraints and dependencies as realities and not deny them and request impossible things. Managers would never even have the idea of shooting wildly and make announcements, creating stray bullets and awkward ricochets. Instead, managers would support and protect their people. There would be no politics, hidden agendas, and everybody would pull together on the same rope. And there would be no bullshitting or even a reason to bullshit. Even if I become jobless, I would love such a world, with the risk of being slightly bored. I used to have this discussion with my wife: she dreams of heaven. I prefer to spend my time with the interesting people I would surely meet in hell. This thrill is probably the reason I still work in delivery instead of some quiet conceptual consultant job.
Why don’t we agree on getting shit done and milestones hit? Why don’t we agree on quality criteria and scope, maybe even budgets? That would be my success criteria.
Agile Bullshitting and the Brave New World: lighting more new campfires is not scaling but multiplying
One of the newest and most powerful illusions about how work should be done comes out of the new generation of agile evangelists. I insist heavily in the “new generation”, as I am of the initial generation of agilists, running agile projects since 2006. Recently I see more and more people confused with the notions of power hierarchy vs competence hierarchy vs no hierarchy. I see more people losing all contact with consistent strategy views and telling me “we are in an agile world” meaning to them it is enough to think two sprints ahead, maybe a quarter program increment in a big room planning et most. I see more and more people being completely confused with levels of portfolio or programs. I see people confusing supervision with alignment and coordination. That is sad on one side, but I must admit, competence hierarchies and integral or holistic views, multi-dimensional system thinking have always been a minority, by which miracle would that change? In the brave new world of digital transformation, with a multitude of smaller-scale tech-centred projects and quick and dirty mobile apps, the business or strategic view has not been favoured. It seems a whole new generation of tech-centred people, product managers, devs and DevOps, even system architects have lost contact with the broader common goals of business and deliver value for customers.
I see the difficulty of scaling, and the trap of lighting new campfires, especially with remote teams, missing tactile alignment capability. Multiple campfires, lacking the agile backbone, is favouring bullshitting. Agile Backbone building becomes key. Agile Backbones are solid alignment and coordination capabilities, able to cope with completely new challenges of global scaling, maximising self-organisation, mitigating delivery risk. Funny enough, the old-school knowledge of waterfall becomes precious, in the new scaled agile world. Being able to implement hybrid methodologies and becomes the key to successful, customer-centric agile scaling.
Conclusion: Delivery guys, enjoy your meal!
Rosho, Berlin, 15.02.2020