“Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker

We live in a townhouse.  If you don’t know what a townhouse is, it’s built high rather than wide, so our kitchen is on the middle floor.  It’s my job to deal with the recycling, but rather than bring each can, tin, and paper box downstairs individually, I stick them in a bag and bring them down in one go.

I used to be an Engineer so I’m incredibly lazy, so I want to minimize the number of times I clomp down and up the stairs.  However, if I leave it until the recycling bag is full you can imagine what happens.  That’s right, I leave a trail of recyclables through the house like an eco-friendly Hansel and Gretel.

It’s more effective if empty my bag before it’s overflowing.

The same thing is true for your teams.

Why aren’t you writing code for eight hours a day? 

With the economy the way it is, we’re all being pushed to do more with what we have.  The years of being able to hire to take on extra demand are over, so our business partners are looking at how we spend our time more than ever.  

You’ll be pushed to explain why your teams aren’t cutting code, testing, or delivering for a full eight hours every day.

You’ll be asked to provide timesheets, cut meetings, and push your teams more to get the work that directly delivers customer-value up to 100%.  Ruthless efficiency may look good on paper, but is it effective?

  • What about collaboration?  Are your teams working well together?
  • What about experimentation?  Are your teams innovating and learning?
  • What about customer feedback?  Are your teams building the right things?

Like the recycling, it’s more efficient to only make the trip when I’ve packed the bag full to overflowing, but it’s not effective because I have to tidy up afterwards. 

Are your teams more efficient than effective?

Sunday Scaries

When I was a kid, there was a soap on Irish television every Sunday night. Glenroe, was set in the Wicklow mountains and had massive viewership all through the 80s and 90s, but my only real memory was the theme tune.

When the jaunty pipes and slide-show of Irish farmland came on, my body went into shock.

The Sunday Scaries hit!

For you it might have been the theme to Sounds of Praise, or the Simpsons, or even listening to the top 40 on Radio 1, but we’ve all gone through the Sunday Scaries – in fact two-thirds of workers in the UK have some form of Sunday anxiety!

Thirty years later, and I still get the Sunday Scaries. But it’s not that I’ve forgotten an English essay that needs to be handed in on Monday morning, it’s a signal that something is not quite right.

Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, describes this feeling as “Sunday neurosis”:

“…that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.”

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • Is the work you’re doing meaningful and does it create value?
  • Do the people you work with raise you up and make you a better person?
  • Are you trying to do difficult things that will make the world a better place?

If you’re feeling the Sunday Scaries and the answer to these questions is, “no”, then your body is trying to tell you something – Find meaning in your work life or find a work life that gives you meaning.

“Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes. It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” – W. Edwards Demming

When I was a baby engineer, the VP of Engineering where I worked decided to measure build breaks as a proxy for quality. He was so excited by this, he then went wild with power and decreed that no developer can break the build more than once per quarter. So much quality, right?

You can guess what happened next – no developer committed to the code base more than once every four months, those changes were huge, and tracking down where the build was broken took months.

This is an example of Goodhart’s Law:

“Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

Charles Goodhart

As soon as you start using metrics to manage people, those people will change their behaviour to game those metrics. It’s better to use measurements as a temperature check to examine your Engineering system then zooming into areas that aren’t working using qualitative techniques (a fancy way of saying TALK TO YOUR ENGINEERS).

What metrics are best?

In Working Backwards, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr at Amazon describe two types of measures: Output and Input metrics.

  • Output metrics: Measure how successful a process or activity is.  
  • Input metrics: The activities that lead to changes in output metrics, 

Most of us concentrate on output metrics, for example looking at defect rates, but forget that there is little we can do to directly improve that measure. To drive down defect rates, we might think about how much testing is automated and how often those tests run – this is your input metric.

Choose output metrics that align with the value you want to give to your customers and choose input metrics that you think will improve those. Always start with customer value.

Measure multiple dimensions

Don’t be like the VP – balance your metrics across multiple dimensions. Nicole Forsgren describes five dimensions for highly effective engineering teams:

  • Satisfaction and Wellbeing
  • Performance
  • Activity
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Efficiency and Flow

You want your metrics to balance across two or three of these to avoid forcing your teams into strange behaviours.

Another example, if you’re measuring number of commits (activity) only, then it’s going to be really easy for teams to stop helping each other while trying to optimise getting code into mainline.

Balance is the key.

Being data-driven is really fashionable, especially as business push to do more with fewer people. Being only data-driven is not enough, remember your teams are people, remember your teams need to collaborate. In the end, engineering is a human endeavor.

If the only tool you have is a hammer…

I’ve been talking to a lot of engineering leaders and every one of them asks some variation of, “What are the best tools to use?” Behind the question seems to be the idea that with the perfect set of tools, organizational transformation is easy.

No!

If you want a modern, effective, and motivated engineering team, tools alone will not help. You have to put the work in! It’s how you use the tools that’s more important, and that means process.

  • How does your business make decisions?
  • How do you communicate those decisions to teams?
  • How do teams turn those decisions into real customer value?
  • How does that value get into the hands of customers?

Make sure these are are in place first, then look for and use tools to support that. If you look at tools first, then you’re in danger of letting those tools decide how your business runs.

When I started my agile journey twenty-five years ago, we ran a full agile transformation using marker boards, post-it notes, spreadsheets, pen and paper. We didn’t have Slack, JIRA, GitHub, or CI, but we did have clear processes. This set us up to be able to pick the best tools as they emerged.

Start with asking “why” and “how” before running towards “what”.

Finding echoes of another person in yourself

It’s hard out there. Really hard. We’ve just been through a pandemic, lockdowns, Brexit, wars across the world, and now a cost of living crisis that most of us haven’t seen since the 1980s. How do we trust that the world is a good place in the face of all this?

Life is not perfect, individuals will always be flawed, but empathy – the sheer inability to see those around them as anything other than people too – conquers all, in the end. – Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

This week is Empathy Week and I truly believe that empathy is a super-power. Empathy is not some touchy-feely HR concept that means we all need to go do trust falls. Empathy is the core of what makes us human and without it we are nothing.

  • How can you deliver your best work without understanding what your colleagues need to deliver theirs?
  • How can your team work effectively without trusting each other and you?
  • How can your organisation deliver great value without understanding the pain your customers go through?

The good news is that empathy can be learned. You don’t have to be born a Ted Lasso but you do have to put the work in.

  • “Be curious, not judgemental” – When someone expresses a different point of view, ask questions. Try to understand before trying to fix. Bracket your own thoughts until you’ve put yourself in their shoes.
  • Remember that a person’s lived experience is real to them – Don’t dismiss what someone is saying out of hand, but instead understand what they experience is real to them even if you don’t feel it.
  • Read fiction – We love reading about the next big technology, process, or management fad, but reading fiction is an immense machine for generating empathy. Read books by people who don’t look like you. People who don’t come from the same background as you. People who don’t have the same viewpoint as you. Learn about the lived experience of others.

None of us is an island and none of us can be truly great without the help of our communities.

How are you going to spend Empathy Week?

There’s a voice that keeps on calling me

I’m Generation X – the lost generation who grew up too late to get the post-War bonus, too early to fully embrace the modern world. Growing up in the 80s, I was obsessed with a Canadian children’s programme called The Littlest Hobo. Every episode basically followed the same plot:

  • The eponymous Hobo, a super-smart German shepherd, travels from town to town across Canada.
  • When they arrive in a new place, inevitably something needs to be fixed to make the townpeople’s lives better.
  • Hobo inspires and helps the townspeople to solve their problems, learn valuable lessons, and then moves along to the next adventure.

Finding myself “unexpectedly available for work”, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about career and looking at my LinkedIn profile, remembered that I’m a Littlest Hobo.

Staying at one place, doing the same role, with the same people is not for me and I suggest shouldn’t be for you either. Without change, without growth, without the ability to learn, we’re stagnant.

We should all be like the Littlest Hobo and move on once our chosen townspeople can solve their own problems.

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