patkua@work

The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Organisational (page 1 of 4)

From Teams to Groups to Segments – An evolution using the Target Operating Model

A few weeks ago, I published an article about how we grew Product & Tech (P&T) at N26 during hypergrowth. I introduced the idea of a Target Operating Model (TOM). The first article focused on the why and what of this tool. In this article, I will share how we’ve evolved the core “building block” of P&T at N26.

From nominal teams to stable Product Teams

When I first started at N26, we had a set of cross-functional teams. This meant that we had people from Product, Design and Tech all sitting together (yay!) We had some organisational smells we wanted to address.

A code smell is a potential indicator of a larger problem. A code smell does not always lead to a problem. Rather you have to investigate and decide for yourself. An organisational smell is similar but to do with the organisation itself.

One such smell was a person moving from one team to another on an almost weekly basis. It also felt like a team’s focus would change on an almost weekly basis. Teams were rarely stable. The result was a lot of activity, but not a lot of outcome.

Our first TOM formalised the expectations of a Product Team. Each Product Team had an ideal size (up to 8) and a product area to focus on. Each team then focused on the evolution and support of that product area. We mapped out the complexity of our product set, to our team size and realised that we had many gaps to fill

The “Team” model

A large goal of our first TOM was to bring sustainability to product development. We needed to move away from relying on a handful of individuals (common in a startup) to a more sustainable model. Comparing our rate of hiring to our current needs, and needs for the future showed a huge gap. We kicked off an initiative to improve our recruiting, onboarding and retention approaches.

Part of this model revisited responsibilities of the informal leadership of each team. Instead of having a Product Owner and Tech Lead, we added in an Engineering Manager at a Product Team level. We wanted Tech Leads to focus on managing and aligning technical complexity. We also wanted to provide people with the environment and people support. When a Product Team was small, this was manageable As a Product Team grew, Tech Leads could not focus on both areas well.

From Product Teams to Product Groups

As we filled empty roles in Product Teams, we addressed what we wanted to. Engineers felt less overwhelmed. People could take holidays without worrying about being a single point of failure. We had deeper conversations around architectural direction. We also started having conversations about individuals’ career growth. People had more consistent 1–1s and feedback.

As we grew and changed, we noticed some new trends and organisational smells. As an example, some Product Teams reached the boundary of a reasonable team size. We needed to start splitting teams to minimise communication overhead. Some Product Teams also demanded a stronger focus on skills. As an example, our Payment Product Team was more integration heavy. Our Onboarding Product Team needed more front-end skills. Each Product Team needed more flexibility in how they structured themselves. Sometimes a product area needed a short-lived task force. We wanted to push more self-organisation downwards.

As a result we introduced the idea of a Product Group in our second TOM. A Product Group has 30–40 people from a cross-functional mix of Product, Design and Tech. A Product Group still had ownership over a product area. A Product Group had more autonomy to shape their own team structures and ways of working. We also made sure Product Groups knew company or global standards.

The “Product Group” Model — more autonomy and flexibility appropriate for the area

This meant that it was perfectly ok to have a Product Group with 5 teams. Or to have a Product Group with 3 teams and one small task force. Each Product Group had more flexibility to better fit their product area at the time. We expected Product Groups to be explicit about their choices and trade-offs. To aid this, the second iteration evolved the role of the Engineering Manager. Rather than being at a team level, the Engineering Manager moved to a Product Group level. This non-trivial decision deserves its own article, so I won’t discuss it further here.

From Product Groups to Product Segments

Our organisation continued to grow. An internal sample of different Product Groups showed more heterogeneity. Product Groups continued to ship product. Product Groups had more capacity to breath. Product Groups had more capacity to deal with more complex topics. Product Groups handled unplanned work better, minimising impact to other Product Groups. Product Groups had more people with relevant skills for their product areas.

The number of Product Groups continued to grow. We noticed that some Product Groups should co-ordinate more with some other Product Groups, but weren’t. As our business grows, domain complexity grows. We wanted to find a way to keep inherent domain complexity highly cohesive but low in coupling . Product Groups alone were not solving this. We also knew that some areas needed further domain knowledge and specialisation. Hiring needs started to differ.

To address these issues we introduced the idea of a Product Segment in the latest version of the TOM. Product Groups working towards the same goal sit within the same Product Segment. Product Groups within the same Product Segment should better communicate and align their plans with each other as they should be more related to each other (highly cohesive). Hiring plans will now be made on a Product Segment basis.

The relationship between a Product Segment, Product Group and Product Team

Reflecting on our journey evolving our TOM

Our latest TOM is still recent, so it’s early days to see it’s impact. When designing software architecture, you consider explicit trade-offs as part of decisions. This is also true if you consider organisational and team structures. No organisation or team structure is perfect. You need to ask yourself, “What are you optimising for right now?” “How are you maximising autonomy and alignment?”

“What are you optimising for right now?”

Building Evolutionary Architectures tells us to design software systems for constant change. Organisational systems are no different. A company rapidly growing needs to optimise for different issues at different scales. It won’t help you to copy our structures if you don’t share the same issues. Gather input and reflect deeply to consider what you need to optimise for. Evolve, document and communicate the TOM best suited for your situation.

Introducing the Target Operating Model – An Architecture Decision Record for the Organisation

I’ll be presenting a new talk at QCON New York next week titled, “Cultivating High Performing Teams during Hypergrowth.” One of the topics covered will be a tool I introduced as the CTO for N26, called the Target Operating Model (TOM).

In this article, I will share its origins, its purpose and where we found it useful. I plan on sharing some details about our current model in a different post next month.

What’s the problem?

The CTO role is one of the most misnamed roles of all C-level roles. Its responsibility vary across companies and industries. When I first joined N26, I described my role as being the shake-up CTO. Imagine a snow globe where the snow had settled on the ground. The snow represents a company’s habits and processes optimised for finding a product market fit. Super useful abilities in a very early stage start up with lots of unknowns. Pivoting a product until customers rapidly sign up.

Snow globe with a corgi dog, where the snow has settled at the bottom
A snow globe, ready for shaking (thanks to James Pett under the CC licence)

As more and more customers join, they give feedback. The rest of the business continues to grow as well. More ideas on product enhancements or improvements flow in. During this stage the core business does not change. The biggest challenge at the stage is quickly trying new ideas *whilst* not breaking anything. Growing both speed and stability are key factors here.

Early stage habits and processes break down. Daily changes in direction leads to a lot of activity with few outcomes. Two people making a decision face-to-face excludes gathering input from others. Verbal communication results in missing context for other parts of the organisation.

Imagine a world where customer numbers double every six months. Or where the number of employees doubles every twelve months. Would your organisation be able to sustain that?

What’s the solution?

Our snow globe needed shaking. I wanted to keep useful habits and processes. We also needed to establish other habits and processes that would better scale. I needed to transition our company from startup to scale up.

To do this, we could tackle this one issue at a time. Wait for an issue and react. Or we could copy what other organisations do (e.g. let’s do with Spotify does). I wanted to address our issues and our context. I wanted to do this as intentionally as possible. I also wanted to do this in a way that scaled, not one issue at a time. This gave birth to our Target Operating Model (TOM).

What is the Target Operating Model (TOM)?

The TOM provides a shared view of how Product & Technology (P&T) should work in the next 6-12 months. The name fit well for what I wanted to communicate. Let’s break it down.

  • Target – The TOM doesn’t focus on where we are now. It focuses on where we are heading as an organisation.
  • Operating – The TOM doesn’t compete with our product roadmap. The TOM focuses on how P&T works best in the anticipated context.
  • Model – A model is never perfect. A model is an approximation. Our TOM works with the Pareto principle (80-20).

I versioned our first Target Operating Model (1.0) as I knew we would want future evolutions. As we evolve our product, we would also evolve our operational model.

Important elements of the TOM

Like a good Architecture Decision Record, the TOM outlines the organisational context. We included the current state of the organisation. We highlighted what’s working well in the organisation (what we should keep). We also summarised current pain points across the organisation. We also included some discussion about where the entire company was heading.

After outlining the situation, our TOM focused on what was next. The TOM introduced a few principles for decisions, not only the decisions themselves. I find articulating principles useful for highlighting why we made certain decisions. The TOM introduced new roles (skills, capabilities and responsibilities). The TOM also set expectations for changes in existing roles. Many people often ask, “What’s in it for me?” or, “What’s changing about my role?” and I wanted to provide people clarity on this.

An important part of the TOM is new terminology about structures. I’m a big fan of DDD and the idea of a ubiquitous language. For example, “Do people have the same mental model when you describe a team?”

The TOM also provided visualisations how how our organisation would “look” different. Visualisations provided a way for people to link different concepts together. Imagine the visualisations as the new patterns that settle, after shaking the snow globe.

We also added gaps and next steps in our TOM. A TOM won’t every be comprehensive. As the old saying goes, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” A TOM cannot address all pain points so we found it useful to acknowledge known gaps. Next steps provided answers to the question, “What will change and when?” and, “How does this impact me?”

What was the result of using the Target Operating Model?

I introduced the first Target Operating Model over 18 months ago. As of this article, we’re now on our third iteration (TOM v1.2) and more than five times the size we were back then. Nothing grows at the same rate in a hypergrowth environment.

Given that, the TOM has been a useful tool. The TOM provided a shared vision about where we were heading. Hypergrowth creates a lot of uncertainty. The TOM created some certainty in a very turbulent environment.

The TOM provided a shared basis to have useful conversations. The TOM set expectations about change, even when you couldn’t predict when change would happen. More importantly, the TOM provided transparency across the entire company. It wasn’t information held by a select few. Everyone had the opportunity to understand, reflect and a chance to demonstrate leadership and a step towards the desired direction.

Find the follow up of applying the TOM in Part 2: From Teams to Groups to Segments – An evolution using the Target Operating Model.

Learning about More with LeSS

Background

I took part in a three day course before Christmas to better understand Large Scale Scrum (LeSS). LeSS’ tagline is “More with LeSS”. I’m pessimistic about most “Scaling Agile Frameworks.” Many give organisations an excuse to relabel their existing practices as “agile.” Not to fundamentally change them. Bas Vodde (one of the founders of LeSS’) invited me to take part in a course just before Christmas. I took him up on the offer to hear it “From the horse’s mouth.”

This article summarises my notes, learnings and reflections from the three day course. There may be errors and would encourage you to read about it yourself on their LeSS website, or post a comment at the end of this article.

About the Trainer

I met Bas Vodde about a decade ago. We met at one of the Retrospective Facilitator’s gathering. He is someone who, I believe, lives the agile values and principles and has been in the community for a long time. He still writes code, pair programming with teams he works with. He has had a long and successful coaching history with many companies. He worked with huge organisations where many people build a single product together. Think of a telecommunications product, for example. Through his shared experiences with his co-founder, Craig Larman, they distilled these ideas into what is now called LeSS.

What I understood about LeSS?

LeSS evolved from using basic Scrum in a context with many many teams. I took away there are three common uses of the term LeSS.

  • LeSS (The Complete Picture) – The overview of LeSS including the experimental mindset, guides, rules/framework, and principles. See the the main website, Less.
  • LeSS (The Rules/Framework) – The specifics of how you operate LeSS. See LeSS Rules (April 2018).
  • LeSS (for 2-8 teams) – Basic LeSS is abbreviated to LeSS and is optimised for 2-8 teams. They have LeSS Huge for 8+ teams, and modifications to the rules. See LeSS Huge.

Practices & Rituals in LeSS

LeSS has a number of practices and rituals as part of its starting set of rules. Some of these include:

  • A single prioritised Backlog – All teams share a single backlog with a priority managed by the Product Owner.
  • Sprint Planning 1 – At the end of this, teams have picked which Backlog Items they work on during a sprint.
  • Sprint Planning 2 – All teams do this separately. Like in Scrum, Sprint Planning 2 focuses on the design and creation of tasks for their Sprint.
  • Daily Scrum – Each team runs their own Daily scrum as per standard Scrum.
  • Backlog Refinement – Teams clarify what customers/stakeholders need. Good outcomes include Backlog Items refined into sizes where teams can take 4/5 into a Sprint. LeSS encourages groups, made up of different team members, to refine Backlog Items. This maximises knowledge sharing, learning and opportunities to collaborate.
  • Sprint Review – Teams showcase their work to customers/stakeholders for feedback. The Product Owner works to gather feedback and reflect this in the overall Backlog. Sprint Reviews should not be treated as an approval gate. It’s about getting more input or ideas.
  • Sprint Retrospective – Each team runs their own retrospective. As per standard Scrum.
  • Overall Retrospective – Members from every team plus management hold a retrospective. This retrospective focuses on the system and improving the overall system.
  • Shared Definition of Done – All teams share an overall Definition of Done, which they can also update. Teams can build on the basis of the shared Definition of Done.
  • Sprint – There is only one sprint in LeSS, so by definition all teams synchronise on the same sprint cadence.

Roles in LeSS

  • Scrum Master – Like in Scrum, LeSS has the Scrum Master whose goal is to coach, enable and help LeSS run effectively. The Scrum Master is a full time role up of up to 3 teams.
  • Product Owner – The Product Owner is the role responsibility for the overall Backlog prioritisation
  • Area Product Owner – In LeSS (Huge), Area Product Owners manage the priority of a subsection of the Backlog. They also align with the Product Owner on overall priorities.
  • Team – There are no explicit specialist roles in LeSS, other than the team (and its members).

Principles of LeSS

A key part of LeSS is the principles that guide decisions and behaviours in the organisation. People can make better decisions when taking these principles into account. You can read more about LeSS’ principles here. Like many other agile ways of working, Transparency is a key principle. Unlike other agile methods, LeSS calls upon both System Thinking and Queuing Theory as principles. Both are useful bodies of knowledge that create more effective organisations.

Another explicit difference is the principle of the Whole Product Focus. This reminds me very much of Lean Software Development’s Optimise the Whole principle. I also like very much the description of More with LeSS principle. This principle challenges adding more roles, rules and artefacts. So think carefully about these!

Overall observations

  • In LeSS, having LeSS specialisations is a good thing. This encourages more distributed knowledge sharing.
  • LeSS explicitly priorities feature teams over component teams to maximise the delivery of end to end value. Both have trade-offs.
  • LeSS doesn’t explicitly include technical practices in it’s rules. It assumes organisations adopt modern engineering practices. To quote their website, “Organizational Agility is constrained by Technical Agility.”
  • A lot of LeSS has big implications about organisational design. Agile teams showed how cross-functional teams reduce waste by removing hand-off. LeSS will be even more demanding on organisations and their structure.

LeSS Huge

The creators of LeSS made LeSS Huge because they found a Product Owner was often a constraint. Since Product Owner’s focus on prioritisation, it’s hard to keep an overview and manage the priority of 100+ Backlog Items. (Note that teams still do the clarification, not the Product Owner). With 8+ teams, they found even good Product Owners could not keep on top of the ~100+ refined Backlog Items (which normally covers the next 3+ sprints).

LeSS Huge addresses this by introducing Categories (aka an Area). Each Backlog Item has its own category, and each category then has an Area Product Owner to manage the overview and prioritisation of Backlog Items in that category.

Guidelines for creating an area:

  • This should be purely customer centric
  • Often grouped by stakeholder, or certain processes
  • Could be organised by a certain market or product variant
  • No area in LeSS Huge should have less than 4 teams

Conclusions

After taking the course, I have a much stronger understanding of LeSS’ origins and how it works. After the course, it feels much LeSS complex than when I first read about it on their website. It includes many principles which I run software teams by. I can also see many parallels to what I have done with larger organisations and LeSS. I can also see how LeSS is a challenging framework for many organisations. I would definitely recommend larger product organisations draw inspiration from LeSS. I know I will after this course.

The Technology Landscape in Singapore

Earlier this year, I held my Tech Lead Skills for Developers workshop in Singapore and Thailand. It was a short and busy week including some customer visits and a talk on Building Evolutionary Architectures for the local community.

As a consultant, I’m lucky to travel to different parts of the world where I have been able to compare technology industries and cultures around the world. Please note that the following observations are simply my observations and not necessarily backed by research.

Extreme Shortage of Developers

Talking to a number of managers, it’s apparently very difficult to find experienced and very good developers. There seem to be a number of reasons for this including how Singapore Universities aren’t producing enough software developers, a country limit that ensures a consistent ratio of foreign and local talent and a culture that values higher status over getting things done.

Dense and active community

Singapore reminds me a lot like London. The financial sector has a big impact on the technology market. London is much more diverse from that perspective. Singapore, like London, is a small dense population with a very good public transportation network. The public infrastructure enables many community meetups as people don’t have to worry about driving, traffic or how long the commute might take and thus enables a lot of learning to be done.

One of people I met during my time at Singapore, Michael Cheng (or @coderkungfu), organises the Engineers.SG website, where they go around to meet ups, film the talks and put them online.

Above is a picture of Michael and I during the course I was running. What he organises is no small time-commitment, and is a huge service to the community and makes the content available to a much wider group.

High Power Distance Index (PDI) matters

Accroding to Hofsted, a researcher on the cultural dimensions of countries, Singapore has one of the highest PDI ratings. This means that ranking, titles and the relationship between titles matter more to people in Singapore than in countries with a lower PDI (such as the US or the UK).

Translated into the local market – almost everyone wants to be a manager.

One person was telling me about one team where they had two developers building software and eight managers managing! It wasn’t of any surprise to me that this team worked in a finance industry. It also didn’t surprise me that not a lot of work got done!

Singapore is following, not yet leading in technology

Singapore is known for its passion and drive to make a big difference for its size. I see many great things changing on the island state, however I see many other challenges in their market that simply investing in programmes as a nation won’t necessarily change.

If you want any other perspectives on this market, I’d recommend reading the following article: Singaporeans, wake up! Why software is eating your island.

Book Review: Scaling Teams

This weekend I finished reading Scaling Teams by Alexander Grosse & David Loftesness.

I know Grosse personally and was looking forward to reading the book, knowing his own personal take on dealing with organisations and the structure.

tl;dr Summary

A concise book offering plenty of practical tips and ideas of what to watch out for and do when an organisation grows.

Detailed summary

The authors of the book have done a lot of extensive reading, research and talking to lots of other people in different organisations understanding their take on how they have grown their organisations. They have taken their findings and opinions and grouped them into five different areas:

  • Hiring
  • People Management
  • Organisational Structure
  • Culture
  • Communication

In each of these different areas, they describe the different challenges that organisations experience when growing, sharing a number of war stories, warning signs to look out for and different approaches of dealing with them.

I like the pragmatic approach to their “there’s no single answer” to a lot of their advice, as they acknoweldge in each section the different factors about why you might favour one option over another and there are always trade-offs you want to think about. In doing so, they make some of these trade-offs a lot more explict, and equip new managers with different examples of how companies have handled some of these situations.

There are a lot of links to reading materials (which, in my opinion, were heavily web-centric content). The articles were definitely relevant and up to date in the context of the topics being discussed but I would have expected that for a freshly published book. A small improvement would have been a way to have them all grouped together at the end in a referenced section, or perhaps, (hint hint), they might publish all the links on their website.

What I really liked about this book its wide reaching, practical advice. Although the book is aimed at rapidly growing start-ups, I find the advice useful for many of the companies we consult for, who are often already considered very succesful business.

I’ll be adding it to my list of recommended reading for leaders looking to improve their technology organisations. I suggest you get a copy too.

Making Change Stick

A gym instructor told me yesterday that it was the day that most people statistically give up their new year’s resolution. Whether or not it is true, it got me thinking about what works when changing behaviours, whether individually or in an organizational context. What follows are some of my favourite approaches to making change stick.

1. Keep it small

In my experience, the bigger the change is, the more likely it is to fail because old habits come back, or the change hits too many barriers. A more significant change means less chance of success because it requires more time, energy and motivation to accomplish – all of which can easily run out.

Five years ago I was unsure about whether I could be a full-time vegetarian. Rather than commit to being full-time vegetarian, I kept it small by deciding to trial it for an entire month. In this time, I made myself experience as many activities I enjoy in the trial period (eating out, traveling) to work out being full-time would not suit me. In the end, I decided a 2-day per week vegetarian habit would work instead.

If you want to make a change, find smaller steps towards the end goal.

2. Build on an existing habit

I have a friend who gave up smoking but took up a running habit instead. After talking to him, I realised a lot of his success was described in the book, “The Power of Habit.” In this book, they describe how we often build responses to stimulus as rewards, which eventually becomes a habit. Our first approach to change is to simply stop the response but habits make that difficult because they are automatic.

The book explains that stopping the habitual response hard. However replacing the response with a different response can be a lot easier.

3. Keep it social

One of the many reasons fitness websites like Runkeeper want to connect you with your friends it that social pressure and acknowledgement from family and friends is a really powerful mechanism for instituting change. Websites like Runkeeper fail because they treat every connection the same, even though we have different types of relationships with people. Acts such as making a commitment to a group of close friends, or training regularly with the same group of people is great motivation to maintain a new change.

I saw this most recently when a bunch of friends and I signed up for a Tough Mudder. Before the event, a friend of mine didn’t regularly train. They knew the event would be a challenge so hired a personal trainer and went regularly several times a week. In the course of six months until the event, they built up the fitness, strength and skills required by Tough Mudder and finished it brilliantly.

4. Visualise the end state

One of the wonders of our human mind is our ability to influence the future simply through belief (or what’s commonly known as the Placebo Effect). In organisations and in personal coaching, I find the Futurespectives activities of the most powerful practices because it helps people imagine what the future state could be like.

All too often people fail at change because they focus too much on what is blocking them rather than focusing on what they can do to move towards this end state. An exercise I know used by a few friends is the Letter from the Future to visualise their desired end states.

5. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate

With my experiences using appreciative inquiry, I have found that celebrating the small achievements for what is working is often a more powerful motivating factor than focusing on what didn’t work. It leads into a positively reinforcing loop that can establish new habits and make lasting change as pictured in the diagram below.

Cycle of celebration improving motivation

Conclusion

There are many other opportunities to make change stick I find that these five steps are the techniques and practices I draw upon the most. Books I have found useful on this topic include

What do you do to make change stick?

Roles, not People

Naming functions and methods are one of the hardest tasks developers need to take. A good name is hard to find, but with enough thought, is useful to show intent.

Likewise, the name for a given role is useful to help establish what that role is accountable for, and can help speed up communication when people have a common understanding of that role.

All models are wrong, but some are useful – George E.P. Box

Unfortunately there are two inherent problems with role titles:

  • People do not understand the role
  • Roles are not the same as people

Issue 1: People do not understand the role

One point of confusion is assumptions about what the role does or does not do. For example, a Project Manager might assume that the QA role will be responsible for a Testing Strategy. In another situation, a different Project Manager might assume the Tech Lead will be responsible for a Testing Strategy. In this case, different expectations could be a source of conflict about which role is responsible for the Testing Strategy.

Another example might be where the Tech Lead assumes the QA role is responsible for the Testing Strategy, and the QA role assumes the Tech Lead is responsible – resulting in no one really thinking about a Testing Strategy.

A great way mechanism to force a way forward is to run a “Roles & Responsibilities” session. I find an effective method to run one is:

  • As an entire team, brainstorm all the important activities that must be completed by the entire group. Ensure that one activity is written on a separate sticky note.
  • Brainstorm some names of roles and put them at the top of a whiteboard/flipchart next to each other. You may want to add a generic “Everyone” or “Team Member” role as well.
  • Ask everyone to place each activity under the roles they think should be responsible for the activity.
  • Walking the board, review each role one at a time and their activities, inviting discussion and disagreement about why the role should be/not be responsible for that particular activity.

This is a very useful exercise for helping to define, and articulate confusion around particular goals.

Issue 2: Roles are not the same as people

Another common failure mode of roles is where people assume that a role is the same as the person. On my business card, I have the title: Generalising Specialist because it’s true – although I consider myself a developer, architect or Principal Consultant, I am also much more than that.

Generalising Specialiast

Generalising Specialiast

People come with a whole bag of skills and experiences that sometimes fit into a particular role. Just as important as it is to understand a person’s strengths – it’s just as important to understand where their fit for a role is and the gaps. A person may be much more capable of playing several roles at once, or a role can be split among a group of people with the right set of skills and experiences.

Concluding thoughts

Remember that roles are a name we give to a collection of responsibilities and it doesn’t necessarily map to single people. A role may be split among people (where the responsibilities are distributed) but it is essential that everyone has the same understanding of who has those responsibilities.

Everyone can be a leader

There are so many definitions of what leadership is so I’m not about to add another one. A nice simple one that I like from the Oxford dictionary is:

The action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this.

Many people assume that playing a role with a title that has “Leader” in it automatically makes them a leader – although this is not always the case. In fact, I have found that sometimes people who pursue roles simply because they have a more senior association with them are not really prepared to lead a group of people.

In my consulting life, I have worked in many teams in many different roles and I have seen many acts of leadership demonstrated by people who don’t have this role.

Examples help.

Example 1: On one of my first projects in the UK that I lead, a developer on the team was passionate about user experience design. He decided to do some ad-hoc user testing on the User Interface (UI) we had written, found someone willing to act as a test subject. He observed what they were doing and reported back to the team his findings. His initiative convinced us that setting aside more time to focus on usability would be a good thing to do. He demonstrated (at least to me) an act of leadership.

Example 2: During one of the Tech Lead courses I gave, I split the class into smaller groups for a number of exercises. I remember one particular group that had a large number of opinionated developers, all trying to get their view across. There was a female developer, who I noticed, listened quietly to all the opinions, waited for a pause before summarising what she heard and asking the group if that was correct. When she reflected back what she heard, she had summarised the different approached, integrated all the opinions and provided a cohesive story that everyone agreed with. She established a clear path that allowed the team to move forward. She demonstrated an act of leadership.

Example 3: On a particular client, there was the traditional divide between the development organisation and the operations organisation (sitting on a different floor). I remember during one of our planning sessions, a developer on the team who had met someone from operations decided to, unexpectedly, invite the operations person to the planning meeting. Although it was a surprise to us, we saw the appreciation from the operations person being involved earlier and probably changed the outcome of what we would have planned without them. He was passionate about the DevOps culture and demonstrated an act of leadership.

I do a lot of speaking and writing on leadership in our industry and what I like about these examples are acts of leadership that come without the authority of a title. Taking initiative, driving people towards a common goal, even in small incremental steps are acts of leadership that mean that everyone can be a leader.

Book Review: The Lean Enterprise

This weekend I finished reading a copy of The Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly.

Top level summary: If you want to learn about the truly agile organisation, this is the book that shows you what it looks like.

The Lean Enterprise

I have read many books about agile, lean and organisations that build software, but this is the first that really brings it all together. Other books tend to be either too theoretical (founded from either Drucker or Taiichi Ohno) or with a very practical toolkit in a very narrow domain.

This book is aimed at executives and managers or organisations – the people with the authority to change to change the system. We know from W. Edwards Deming:

A bad system will beat a good person every time.

Like a book that was actually test driven by real-life questions, it provides answers to questions executives and managers ask time and time again.

The book is packed with information and provides solutions to problems that organisations, doing agile software development, struggle with in other parts of their organisation. Better yet they offer many examples of companies who are doing it right, proving that it is not just theory and that it can be done in many ways. There are many great stories from many industries demonstrating how different approaches can be yet still exhibit the lean attitude and culture that is so essential to success. I am also glad how much the authors focus on the importance of culture (and what people can do about it) and not just a single focus on either theory or tools.

The authors have done their research well, with excellent, tangible examples of lean concepts, practices and tools linked to much more detailed reading in a referenced article, paper or book. I would almost buy this book only to give people the reading list in the back – it is really that good. I have read many of the books referenced, and I remember how they challenged and changed my thinking in a positive way. After this book, my own personal reading list is also much richer.

What makes this book especially stand out for me is the pragmatic nature of the book. Even though, to many readers, the contents may appear idealistic or too unrealistic, the authors have given many examples of companies doing it, refer to many case studies or experiences where they have seen the practices and principles at work and shown their own insights into the challenges or dangers that lie ahead. This last part speaks volumes to the authors sharing their experiences about the questions some organisations have not even asked yet and advice on how to solve it. One good example is the paradoxical nature of balancing exploration through prototyping (discovery) against the disciplined nature of continuous delivery (e.g. additional work of well refactored code, tests and scripted deployments).

When I got to the end of the book, I knew that I would need to re-read the book for a deeper understanding because it is so rich with concepts and tools – some I have not had the chance to try out.

A perfect match for the target audience it was written for and a book that will continue to be relevant for many years to come.

A Tech Lead Paradox: Technical Needs vs Business Needs

Agile Manifesto signatory Jim Highsmith talks about riding paradoxes in his approach to Adaptive Leadership.

A leader will find themselves choosing between two solutions or two situations that compete against each other. A leader successfully “rides the paradox” when they adopt an “AND” mindset, instead of an “OR” mindset. Instead of choosing one solution over another, they find a way to satisfy both situations, even though they contradict one another.

A common Tech Lead paradox is the case of Technical Needs versus Business Needs.

The case for Technical Needs

Before cloud services were available on the Internet, most companies would invest in hardware to run their services. The work to setup and configure machines was easier for non-technical stakeholders to see because of its physical aspect. Today software requires even more software and non-physical services that need configuring, testing and releasing. Much more of it is virtual.

Practices such as Continuous Delivery do not come without some overhead, although it provides an invaluable business capability. All of these “internally-facing” technical requirements demand time from the software delivery team.

The case for Business Needs

A lot of software is written for businesses, whose overall goal is to make money. A business that does not evolve their business offerings will lose out to competitors or to the ever-changing consumer marketplace. This means a business wants to always experiment with their existing services, or provide new services to keep their existing customer base, or to attract new customers.

This pressure to modify, or introduce new services demand either software support, or new software to be developed.

The conflict

A business will always put pressure on a development team to produce as much software as possible. At the same time, effective delivery of software is not possible without addressing some level of technical needs – such as technical debt, deployment pipelines, or automated test suites.

Time spent on technical needs is expected to improve developer effectiveness, but this is often hard to measure and prove to outside stakeholders. An endless amount of time can always be spent tweaking, optimising and improving technical infrastructure and tools. What starts off as “just an afternoon” turns into a week, or a month and business features are put on hold as a result. If this happens too long, the business might miss agreed external deadlines for certain features and thus lose customers, or money.

What does a Tech Lead do?

Champion time for Technical Needs

A Tech Lead champions for time to spend on Technical Needs by being part of the prioritisation process. They ensure that enough work is delivered, or finds solutions to business problems that minimise the amount of software that needs writing. They ensure the team is not over-loaded with delivering new features and changes and finds small slices to work on technical needs that will provide a good benefit.

Explain the business benefit of each Technical Need

A team can spend an endless amount of time investigating, configuring and supporting their technical infrastructure. A Tech Lead will have support from non-technical stakeholders if they understand what benefits they bring. The successful Tech Lead can explain not just what the team is working on, but also why and who else benefits.

Some typical business benefits include: reducing the amount of repetitive work, improving the quality (by minimising the chance of human error), or to prove out a business opportunity.

The Tech Lead builds trust with non-technical people by highlighting benefits on Technical Needs and also demonstrating if they reach those benefits.

Work on high impact items first

A list of Technical Needs will often be endless, so a Tech Lead will work to prioritise the list, culling items that no longer make sense, or pulling work items forward that may have an immediate and significant effect.

Keep a balance

The Tech Lead is mindful that the team cannot work on Technical Needs alone, and watches to ensure a good balance is met.

Maximise the use of “quiet” periods

Sometimes a development team will outpace the ability for a business to prioritise, “What’s next?” You might recognise these periods when a Product Owner has met all their objectives, or they are working on clarifying the next set. The Tech Lead uses these “quiet periods” as an opportunity for their development team to work on infrastructure, or tasks that have always been deprioritised.

These are often good periods for a team to run a “Hack Day” or for the team to work on small ideas they have had themselves that provide a good benefit.

If you liked this article, you will be interested in “Talking with Tech Leads,” a book that shares real life experiences from over 35 Tech Leads around the world. Now available on Leanpub.

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