Tales from Paradigm Purgatory

Brian Scott, CIO, Experient
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Brian Scott, CIO, Experient

Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, Lean Startup, Lean Thinking, Extreme, Big Bang, V-shaped, Design Thinking, Six Sigma, DevOps, Getting Things Done…on and on and on. Do I need to continue? Name a month and I can point to the introduction of yet another new methodology for either building software, approaching innovation, driving productivity–quite honestly, whatever you’re interested in. It’s an industry unto itself. Take a handful of ingredients from predecessors, add a little spice and maybe some icing, and then write a book about some new methodology that will absolutely transform your company.

After you’ve been leading a technology or operations group for several years, if you’ve been a good steward of your responsibility and studied new material to broaden your knowledge, you will surely find yourself with the understanding that it could be a full time job just keeping up with the latest hot topic in business process methodologies. If you’ve tried adopting any one, or maybe a few, you’ve also realized that changing people’s work habits, mindsets, and thinking processes can be some of the toughest projects you’ve ever tried to execute. Just about the time you’re rounding first base and eyeing second or third, a new batter with a shiny new methodology has already cracked a worm burner through the gap that knocks your feet out from underneath you.

Before you know it, you may find yourself in one of two camps–either switching methodologies so often that you’re in danger of losing all respect from your staff or ignoring modern trends to the point that you’re labeled “out of touch”. And that label is not a good one for any technology worker. Damn if it’s not just technology that is changing faster than our brains can keep up with, but the way we’re supposed to be leading our people is changing just as quickly.

  ​Swimming through the chaos by adapting every one of your strokes is a key part of staying afloat, much less being successful in moving forward  

I have some VP’s or directors that work for me that meet this challenge by digging a trench and doubling down on their choice of methodology, the one in which they’ve invested themselves, like it’s a matter of personal honor. Others seem to want to stay out of the fray and simply give up on trying to drive change. “Just tell me what you want me to do, boss, and I’ll do it.” Neither of these positions are a win for the leader or the company.

I remember reading long ago about some CEO that believed in making decisions based upon approximately 60 seconds of information. The most important thing he could do was simply to make a decision. The magic safety net in that concept was he could always change his mind if he received new information. Now, although the strict practice of this concept may stray into the extreme side of business sense, it is no doubt founded on assessing a situation largely due to the gut response and being willing to just make a new decision. I happen to be the type of leader that resonates with this idea although I’d say I exercise it with a little more conservatism than only a single minute.

I’d like to share how I’ve applied this nimble mindset to the never ending flow of business process methodologies. In a nutshell, I listen to every pitch of a methodology, I approach every book espousing the new process, with a presumption that only a subset of the overall meal will entice me to invest the work to incorporate it into what is an ever-evolving process-goulash. I’m saying it’s OK that we don’t follow Agile to 100 percent to the letter of the law. It’s OK that we’ve only incorporated parts of Lean Startup. What’s better, it’s not only OK, but it’s the smart thing to do.

Of course there are lot of similarities between different businesses. In general, we all need to make money, have employees, and something that resembles customers. If you don’t have any one of these, please tell me what business you’re in as I might be interested. As for me, my company is primarily a services company, but one founded on proprietary technology. We have customers in every industry vertical. We have SaaS products, customized technology services, call centers, hardware products, software products, consulting services…oh, I think last week we decided to start selling space trips as well. (No, that was Musk…darn). After 17 years at my company and in my industry, I still feel like we’ve got unique aspects to our model that make it just that—unique.

I love Scrum, but for the life of me there is no way I have dedicated scrum masters or product owners or QA folks involved in every single project we have. I just don’t have those resources. This doesn’t mean we still can’t run Scrum. I love Lean Startup, but in many cases we simply can’t take the time to measure every single thing we do. Yes, there is much we do measure now that we did not in the past, but not everything. This does not mean that we are not exercising Lean Startup. Some things simply don’t merit being measured when compared to the opportunity cost of what those folks may be doing otherwise.

I’ve become comfortable with this. It’s OK. In fact, I’ve grown to start to feel like an accomplished Chef that recognized the best part of every spice and can create unique meals that best satisfy our consumers or staff. This doesn’t mean I approach everything as transient or of low value. It also doesn’t mean that everyone on my staff or in the organization sees things the same way as I do. But I’m willing to take the Build–Measure–Learn cycle from Lean Startup and apply it onto itself and every other methodology we try. I’m willing to iterate my way through process change. I’m willing to pivot on methodology specifics when they don’t seem to fit a situation well and there is a better way to get it done.

There is a constant fight to balance the chaos of change, but that’s not any different than what every day brings in today’s technology-centric business environment. Swimming through the chaos by adapting every one of your strokes is a key part of staying afloat, much less being successful in moving forward.

So be brave. Be courageous. Do your homework. Read more books. Take the best that resonates with you and share it with your staff with enthusiasm. Excite your team to do the same. Discuss the wins and the losses. Celebrate those that work and release with thanks those whose purpose was simply to bridge you to the next better idea. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll find a special recipe that works so well for you that you’ll find yourself writing a new book on the next winning methodology that is surely “the one”.

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