Tag Archives: consulting

Introduction to the Group Grope

The military is a wonderful experience in life. Where else can you learn that a “Cluster Fuck” is a bunch of people busily working hard at nothing intelligible or productive? It’s a profane, yet colorful description of a business process many of us see every day. (Nice people use the phonetic terms. “Hey, look at that Charlie Foxtrot!”)

Yesterday when doing my startup standup startup blog entry, I used another one of those terms, not heard as much, the group grope.

Ever been to a group grope? If you’ve spent any time in the business community, I’m willing to bet you have.

A group grope is when people, who do not bear responsibility, assemble for purposes of solving a problem which none of them have the information or skills to solve.

So that last time your team got together to talk about source control, when none of you have the power to make a decision about what to do, or even have experience using various tools? You know, where you left feeling pretty good, but with the vague feeling that things were unresolved? That’s a group grope.

Group gropes are fun, yet subtly frustrating. You get to take time off from work, see your friends, talk about some issues of importance, get caught up. That’s all great. The next step, and the key indicator of a good group grope, is when each person asks the other what they know or can do about the problem without getting any positive result. “I don’t know how marketing feels about that, Bob, have you spoken to them?” “Those guys in marketing are doing a great job, and I’ve heard it could be a problem, Frank? Have you met with them lately?”

It’s like a Scooby Do episode where the mystery is never solved. It’s just a bunch of kids wandering around asking questions of each other.

It feels good, there’s a lot of fun people involved, you get to explore areas you normally don’t go into, but at the end of the day you’re left empty and unfulfilled. There’s no long-term benefit.

You can short-circuit a group grope, sometimes, by simply announcing you are in one. “Is there anybody here responsible for X? Also, guys, don’t we need some folks who know Y and guys from over in the Z department? Without them I can’t see us making much progress, can you?”

Be sure to separate a group grope from a brainstorming session. Brainstorming sessions are there to create potential ideas about a problem. The meeting ends, you have a list. You probably also have some assimilation and analysis to do to turn the list into action. Group gropes end with everybody knowing a little more about problem X, mostly trivial stuff, but nothing else of value can be gained from it.

Sometimes when you’re in a group grope you can stop it. Many times you cannot. Many times it’s just best to lie back and think of England. But if you’re the one responsible for setting a meeting up, and somebody calls “group grope” on you, it’s a good time to either kill the meeting and let folks return to work — or figure out what the hell you’re all supposed to be doing that’s going to be useful to the company. Don’t confuse social fun and a sense of learning with accomplishing something valuable.

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San Francisco Memories

Several years ago, for many months I had a client in downtown San Francisco. As part of that job I had a corporate apartment located right at the top of Nob Hill.

I have really found memories of living there. I’d walk the long walk down the hill into the financial district in the morning, stopping at 24-hour fitness for a workout. In the afternoons I’d hump all my gear back up the hill. San Francisco was a beautiful city, and, except for the bums they kept around everywhere, my stay there was pleasant.

I understand the word “bum” may appear insensitive or demeaning, but after many months of watching the same folks camping out in the same places, and being accosted dozens of times on each of my walks, my sympathy for these folks has waned. Considerably. Certainly many should be hospitalized. Many are in need of half-way houses, and many simply choose to make a living by begging. I guess “urban campers” might be a more acceptable term. Don’t know.

All I know is that during the first month of schlepping my gear all around the city, I grew an envy of those healthy folks that ditched the system and expected me to help them deal with the natural consequences of those choices. Especially once I learned that the city, each month, had police go around and give each homeless person over four hundred bucks. No wonder they were everywhere.

But I digress.

My fond memories of San Francisco was watching Chinese New Year, or the fog rolling in off the bay, or the view at the Embarcadero. On Saturday mornings all the sailboats would venture out into the bay, play about, only to return later.

Some of the things that you would think I would remember fondly I do not. Like the sound of cable cars. At first, I found these quite pleasant, but, since my apartment was right off their track, they got more and more annoying. There’s nothing like the DING! DING! DING! of a cable car at 8am on a Saturday morning when you’re trying to sleep in.

After a while, I gave up walking up and down the hill and started taking the cable car. What the heck. How many other times in my life will I be able to say I took a cable car to work? So I guess we made our peace.

When I say nothing is so annoying, I misled. There was always the fire department. Somehow or another my apartment was almost directly over a fire department, and I swear those guys would get tanked up on the weekends and go riding around in the firetruck around 2am. I’m sure it was great fun for them. Not so much for somebody trying to sleep.

There were a bunch of touristy things to do on the weekends, and I tried to do them all. Tour Alcatraz. Tour wine country (Wow! What a great adventure! Especially when you go with somebody who knows what he’s doing.) Drive up the coast to see the Redwoods. Visit some of the wonderful museums.

I had a blast living in San Francisco. After a while, though, the memories for me got dimmer and dimmer. I would tell people about my time there, but it didn’t seem so real.

So I was very happy to find a video a couple of weeks ago shot from my apartment. Somehow having the pictures or the video makes the experience much easier to remember.

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How Can I Help?

I’ve decided the most important conversational phrase in the English language is “How can I help?”

I don’t come to this decision lightly. There were several others that almost made it.

“I love you” was a top contender, but it says more about my own personal feelings than my relationship to the world.

“Let me help” also didn’t make it. It focuses more on my taking control of things.

“Try this” was big, but it was more of a plea for validation than anything else. I know more than you. Listen to me and you’ll do better. Nope, at times this might be true, but it’s backwards. My relationship to knowledge is nowhere near as important as my relationship to the person I’m talking to.

“We can do better” was also easily in the top ten. I think I’ll put that at #2. It reminds me that we are all in this together, and that there is always room for growth.

Nope. “How can I help” says it just the right way. If you will tell me how you think I can help, I’m willing to give it a shot. I subvert my own interests to yours. Tell me what you’d like. How can I help?

I do a lot of things — write, speak, train, consult, coach, manage, and so forth. I find most all of them are some version of “How can I help?” I also find that when I start drifting to any of the other phrases, such as “Let me help”, or “We can do better”, I always start drifting away from the true core of what I’m doing. I become a lesser person.

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Don’t Know Much

I’m having lunch with my oldest son today. He turned 25 this year! It was a big birthday for him, and a big moment for me too.

Looking over the last 25 years, I can’t help but try to figure out what’s changed. Am I the same guy I was at 21? Of course not.

A lot has changed. I think one of the most interesting changes has been in the last five years. I’ve decided I don’t know very much.

Up until then, I studied a lot, learned as much as I could about something, then dove in and took charge. In the last year or two, however, as my startups start taking off and I finish up my agile/kanban book, looking back over all of it, I realize how little I actually know.

Please don’t think I have a lack of self-confidence: I’m still the arrogant asshole I always was. But now I don’t automatically assume that the world is the way I suppose it to be. Looking at dozens of teams get more productive — and some fail — has made me rethink what it means to construct success.

In the western world, many of us are model-builders. Give us the specs, the shape of the system in question, and we will build a mental model that emulates it. Then we work the model to see what happens. If that works, we move to the real world.

As an example, if you were coding a large client-server system in the 2000s, the first thing you should do is talk about your domain model — which concepts are important enough to be in the system and which aren’t. Based on that discussion, identifying concepts and their relationships, you could continue down the path of development.

Or take playing a video game. As we play, we construct a mental model of how things work. Pull that lever there and the door opens. Do these three things in order and you can do the forth, and so on. As our mental model gets more detailed, we are able to play the game better. Life, it seems, is just a series of models that we learn to some degree of fidelity and then master.

All of this is true, but as I continue writing my book and looking back on teams I have led or coached, it occurs to me that successful teams were always rebuilding models, not elaborating even more on pre-existing ones.

If you ever worked in a successful startup, you’ve seen project managers do what comes natural to them: take what works best from each project and combine it into a master “cheat sheet” of how good projects should operate. I have seen this several times. These are all well-meaning efforts, but in the end they all fail. They hurt more than they help.

Why?

I think it’s because the human mind naturally models way far beyond anything that might be actually true. We can see a butterfly in a meadow in the morning and have a 3-page poem dedicated to it by lunch. Or — a much likelier scenario — we can observe 3 or 4 projects that do well, identify commonalities, then extrapolate that to the universe of projects.

But it’s not just technology teams, that’s the kicker. We all do this, and we do it in every part of our life, whether we realize it or not. It was learning about startups that taught this to me. You’ll have an idea, try to sit around and decide if it’s a “good” idea, then, based on that judgment, elaborate on it some more. Maybe you write some code. Maybe, if you’re new to this, you write a lot of code. Perfect code. Use a bunch of TDD and have a rock-solid architecture and implementation. Make sure you’re able to scale. Pick the best problem to solve. Use a data-driven implementation. Pick the right corporate structure. Hire a lawyer.

How can I say this nicely? There are a thousand things you can do in a startup that don’t amount to jack shit. There are very few things that are important. All of them directly relate to getting customers.

You see, it’s easier for us — it’s more natural for us — to construct these models and flesh them out, turn them into reality — than it is to actually see the real world. The real world wants an iPod app that farts when you push a button. You and I may want a super-colossal app that ends world hunger, but nobody else will buy or use what we make, so in the end it doesn’t matter. But — and here’s the crazy part — instead of adjusting our work habits to try to continually find out what the world wants, instead we create more and more complex models or what we think they should want. We love models a hell of a lot more than we love feedback.

That’s why I think being stupid and humble is probably the best attitude for having a startup. I don’t know what people want, I actively resist learning, and the best I can do is struggle with that truth.

The same probably goes for the rest of life as well, although most of us (including me) are uncomfortable looking at it like that.

I don’t know much.

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Startups: The Alternative Factor

If you ever want your own startup it’s time I told you something you might find uncomfortable: you are probably living in the wrong universe.

Most people live in a universe where smart people study hard to get a good job that’s steady and provides for them and their family. There are a set of rules to follow in life, even though nobody ever comes out and tells you them directly. Those who don’t follow the rules are to be pitied or politely shunned. Among academics there are one set of rules; among business people another. Among laborers there is yet another. We collect and share these rules in clans which take the shape of churches, civic groups, political parties, or professional organizations.

Most people will never have a startup. Worst yet, they have no idea what it means to form and run a startup. Their value system, their experiences, their social structure — everything about their life has purposefully designed them not to understand the startup world. They live in another universe.

It’s difficult to explain this at the level it needs explaining. They’re not wrong — in their universe they are existing and doing things as they should. Or as someone once said, they’re not even wrong. You can’t be wrong if you are acting in a natural way as best as you know how.

I’ve had a passion for startups for several years. I used to think that forming and running a startup would be like learning a new skill, say C++ or flying airplanes. Apply enough hard work, pour yourself into the subject matter, find some examples to copy, then work until you reach your goal.

How wrong I was.

Instead what I’m finding is that all (or at least most) of the things I have learned before I started working on startups have conditioned me to do exactly the wrong things in my startup. Want to write good, solid, bullet-proof code? Excellent goal — become a true craftsman. Only it has jack shit to do with startups and can easily prevent you from ever having a successful one.

I thought at first perhaps this was an isolated incident: that there were a couple of things that work one way in the corporate world yet another way in startup land. But then the examples kept coming. Want to build a vision of utopia — a field of dreams — for your users to come visit? Never works that way. Want funding so that you can develop for a year or so and build a solid product? Forget it — you’re clueless. Want to educate people with your startup about some cool social cause? Bad idea. It’s a startup, not a charity. Want to build a business and flip it? Wrong thing to be thinking right now. Want to take some new technology and do really cool stuff with it? Great. You’ve got a hobby, not a startup. Want to do some stuff to impress fellow hackers? Wonderful. You’re now in a popularity contest, not a startup.

It goes on and on.

That’s not saying that there are exceptions to each of the conclusions above — there are plenty of folks who make a startup around a social cause and do quite well, and there are folks who take cool new tech and make a workable startup around it — but they are the exception rather than the rule. There are even people who don’t believe any of what I’ve said who have crazy successful startups. These people are an example of selection bias: a person with random attributes who gets lucky and then associates their success with one of those attributes. Who knows how much harm these folks have caused simply trying to help other entrepreneurs.

The startup world is effectively its own universe: a place where the normal rules don’t apply.

Paul Graham (a person who studies startups and runs a startup “bootcamp”) said something once along the lines of “We used to think that you had to be smart to be a founder, but we found through trial and error that wasn’t a reliable indicator at all”

From what I can tell of their latest selection strategy, it’s somewhere between a beauty contest and just finding people who are too stubborn to give up and able to figure things out on their own. In a way this doesn’t solve the underlying problem at all — what makes for a good startup — but it works, at least more than other systems do.

The interesting thing I’m finding in my personal journey is that the more I learn about startups and figure out where I’m going, the less I am attached to the old universe.

For example, I was helping a large corporation out a while back. One of the projects they had completed was a huge repository of job instructions and process descriptions for how they develop technology. As an organization that built things, this made total sense: how could you build something without a clear set of rules? But as a startup person, I had two concerns. First, I don’t know what might be useful or not. (I also had some concerns about prescriptive process, but that’s not relevant for this discussion.) Second, unless we’re doing something that actually has value, we should stop doing it. That means measure whatever you do and stop doing things that don’t help anybody.

To me this seemed very natural — after all, I have a dozen ideas around startups. I could spend from here to eternity working on things I find cool. But instead of trusting my “coolness factor” or my own sense of self-confidence for something, I’ve learned to rely on the people I’m trying to help to tell me what I can do for them. That’s the only true metric I can trust — not my instinct or some huge body of knowledge I might have absorbed about some topic or another. But to the folks I was helping, this seemed odd, strange, threatening, and perhaps even rude. Why would we want to do things this way? Are you dismissing all this hard work we’ve done? Shouldn’t we be telling folks stuff? (even if nobody listens) How will people know what to do unless we provide them instructions? All great questions, by the way — but the assumption is that somehow we could sit around and reason what might be useful or not, then never check back with the folks we are actually trying to help. From a startup perspective, it’s just the opposite: assume you know nothing, form a hypothesis, then check. Repeat and rinse.

I could go on with these examples, but I’m afraid it’ll sound like I’m criticizing folks, and that’s not my intention. We just live in different universes.

I’ll close by sharing with you my comment to a teenager who made several hundred thousand dollars in his own business before being shut down by a legal threat. He had described his problems online, and received a sound thrashing for it by people who have never done anything like that in their life. Note the completely different value system I suggest than the “normal” universe:

Notes to people wanting to hustle and form a company/startup.

Note 1: Never underestimate the ability of the press and your fellow citizens to trash whatever you are doing. Because if you are providing value and making money, you are doing more than 99% of the people out there. They will punish you for this.

Note 2: Always expect a lawyer to call. The other 1% who are providing value have learned that the best way to keep making more and more money isn’t to innovate; it’s to use the political and legal system as a club to kill the little upstarts. Be ready for the club.

Note 3: People who end up making a lot of value usually don’t think anybody would much want what they have. First sale comes as a nice surprise. People who have grandiose dreams of killing the market usually wander off into fantasyland and never produce anything anybody wants.

Note 4: It’s all marketing and distribution. Know your customer and be able to get close to them. If you can do that, you can experiment with things until you find something that works. The market comes first, the product second. Great founders weren’t guys with genius ideas who went forth in some heroic journey: they were guys who were able to grok markets; to deeply understand the people they were trying to help.

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Putting on your Business Face

Leonard Nimoy as Mister Spock
Being coldly analytical about your business is a good thing — at the right times

I had a very large contract end a couple of weeks ago and am heading out on sabbatical at the end of the month, so it’s a good time to re-think/re-organize my business and marketing material.

I spoke to a few professionals in the consulting business, and they all told me I should do these things to “tune up” my presence:

Continue reading

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What’s Your Work Area Look Like? (Agile Coach Version)

I’m finishing up working for a large client next week, and I’m also playing around with the new SnagIt version screen capture widget, so I thought it would be neat to combine the two together and capture what my current work area looks like.

Note: you need Flash to be able to see this correctly.

Since this is my first shot at this, if you’re having problems with the display please let me know. Hey — works fine on my machine.

So what’s your workspace look like?

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