The Biggest Challenge - Our Focus for 2021

The Biggest Challenge - Our Focus for 2021

Like nearly everyone else I'm planning out my personal and professional goals for 2020. On the personal front, my goals are pretty standard - get fit, lose weight, travel etc. Covid has impacted all three of those in 2020 but I'm optimistic about the vaccine rollouts.

On the professional side, my mission is to help companies shift from building software through projects to building autonomous product teams. The economist Carlota Perez has done some great work on historical disruptions (industrial revolution, mass manufacturing etc.) and unless companies can adapt to the new ways of working during the IT disruption then they will fail. I want to help companies avoid this.

This might seem like it is a technical challenge but there are a lot of good practices that teams can follow to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of how they work. Lack of good practices is not the problem - adopting them is.

From my experience, people and companies go through a few phases when adopting product teams:

  1. That will never work
  2. That will never work here
  3. Maybe it will work, but now is not the right time
  4. How would we go about doing it?
  5. Ok - let's start!

There are a lot of people that I really respect due to their contributions to establishing and validating the good practices that I mentioned above. But I've noticed a trend - a lot of them say they weed out clients unless they are in stage 5. This makes a lot of sense - in stages 1 -4 you are not actually implementing anything, you are spending your time meeting with people, making your case, working the political channels and trying to get buy-in for your ideas. Stage 5 is where you start to implement new practices, and where you need expert support to overcome the inevitable hurdles along the way. If you are an expert in these modern development practices, and you have limited time (like everyone does), it makes sense to focus where you can have the greatest impact.

But how do companies get to stage 5? To get through stages 1-3 you need top management buy-in. There are exceptions to every rule but I've seen a lot of grassroots, bottom-up agile initiatives teeter out when they hit the politics of crossing functional or divisional divides. To get to stage 4 you need senior management to set the vision, align the incentives and allocate the resources. Stage 4 is about putting in place an Action Plan. This is where I think I can add the most value.

Action Plans

When working in a waterfall organisation there is a tendency to want a detailed plan for the rollout of standardised processes with defined milestones and delivery dates. This demand has led to the supply of standardised solutions - Scrum, SAFe etc. These solutions are great stepping stones for organisations shifting from Waterfall but they are just the first step and not the destination. The destination is that you want your organisation to be more efficient, effective and sustainable. The standardised solutions focus mostly on efficiency and mostly within the realm of the IT department so they fall short of delivering the outcomes that companies need.

Change is a complex problem. You cannot plan it out perfectly because change involves people and every person has different needs, wants, skills, incentives and biases. Companies need to apply some rigour before investing in a digital transformation so we can't just give up on an action plan because it is complex. Fortunately, there are some good practices for how to break down complex problems, but they are not as widely known as they need to be. Using these practices we can create viable action plans that can get management buy-in and be used to achieve the outcomes that organsiations need to achieve.

So my professional goals for 2021 are:

  1. Write up and share the practices around breaking down complex problems
  2. Create Action Plan templates for people to be able to adapt to their organisations

Happy 2021 everyone.