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How to deliver value sooner and safer with your software

Jonathan Smart Partner, Enterprise Agility, Deloitte
Deliver value

Behavior, specifically leadership behavior, is the biggest lever for better outcomes, for delivering better value sooner, safer, and happier.

The world of work has changed. We’ve tipped from the age of oil and mass production, where most human endeavor was repetitive and knowable, to the age of digital, where human endeavor is increasingly unique and unknowable and where software enables a continual stream of product innovation, irrespective of industry sector. With the new means of production, change is no longer staccato; it is continuous, and the pace is accelerating.

Today, there is a need for experimentation, for collaboration, for the quickest time-to-learning, in order to pivot and optimize for outcomes. This requires an environment in which it is safe to experiment; to fail fast and often, without fear of retribution; and to collaborate, with high levels of empowerment and high alignment toward a common desired outcome. This in turn is a more engaging, more rewarding, more humane way of working.

Unfortunately, common sense is not common practice. According to the 14th State of Agile Report, four of the top five impediments to better ways of working are cultural, including not having enough leadership participation and having inadequate leadership support and sponsorship.

Here are three common anti-patterns and their corresponding patterns, for leaders at all levels in all roles, in order to optimize for better value sooner, safer, and happier. Anti-patterns are approaches that usually generate a headwind, making a hard job harder. Patterns are approaches that usually generate a tailwind. Because change is emergent and organizations are complex, adaptive systems, there is no one-size-fits-all fix, and no such thing as a best practice. It is important to optimize for outcomes in your unique context.

1. Do as I say, not as I do

In this anti-pattern, leaders adopt a "do as I say, not as I do" position. There is a lack of role-modeling, so that requests or even orders for others to change are made without that change starting at home. The incongruent behavior is clear to see. One thing is being said, and another thing is being done. Actions do not match words. To quote Fredric Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations, “the level of consciousness of an organization cannot exceed the level of consciousness of its leader.”

It is not something for other people to do. It is not the same as updating the operating system on a device, where you simply download the latest update, install it, and can declare job done. It is not a methodology you can adopt or an org chart change you can make, in all cases without a behavioral shift.

There is nothing in the origins of the words lead, leader, or leadership to do with the words order, command, direct, commit, or control. The definition of lead is not to order someone to take a journey, while saying, “Good luck! Let me know when you get there.”

The origins of the word come from the Old English words laedan, which means "to guide, accompany," and laidjan, which means "to travel." To lead, is to "guide on a journey." Leaders go on the same journey as the led.

2. Psychologically unsafe

On February 1, 2003, the Columbia space shuttle tragically broke up on re-entry due to foam hitting the wing. An engineer had tried six times to get images of the wing before being told “this is a dead issue.” Foam regularly came off at launch, and past success was viewed as an indicator of future success. According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, “organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as foam did” and “the causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger [17 years earlier] have not been fixed.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 was the worst accidental oil spill in history. Half of workers surveyed reported fear of reprisal for reporting unsafe conditions.

In March 2020, the US House Committee in its preliminary investigative findings into the fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes stated that at the height of the certification activities, “39% of employees surveyed perceived undue pressure and that 29% were concerned about the consequences if they reported potential undue pressure, painting a disturbing picture of cultural issues at Boeing that can undermine safety and oversight.”

When there is a culture of fear and a fear of reprisal, bad news (valuable learning) is buried until it is too late. Two levels up the hierarchy, everything appears to be fine; the RAG (red-amber-green) status remains green, until everything is firmly in the jaws of defeat, with no time to respond.

3. Deterministic mindset

Having a deterministic mindset results in treating unique, unknowable, emergent work as if it were predictable and knowable, and predetermining the output, the solution, and the tasks in a fixed project plan. Often there is "milestone-driven management," where success is defined as meeting milestones that use death terms such as drop-dead date and deadlines. This does not optimize for outcomes.

The focus is on fixed output rather than on learning and pivoting in order to maximize the outcome hypothesis. The output, which was determined at the point of knowing the least, may not optimize for the outcome, and the environment may have changed.

It is worth asking the question “How many times have we done this exact thing, in this exact context, with these people?” If it's been done many times before, as is the case with building a car or installing a server in a data center, there are known unknowns, and a lean, deterministic approach may be appropriate. If it’s never been done before in that exact context, such as is the case with product development, organizational change, or even installing an ERP system, there will be unknown unknowns. An agile, emergent approach, with fast time-to-learning, will reduce risk and enable pivoting in order to optimize for the desired outcomes.

Each of these anti-patterns has a corresponding pattern.

1. Leaders go first

Leaders lead from the front, guiding and accompanying people on a journey, as per the origins of the word. The same trials, tribulations, and triumphs are felt. Leadership requires courage and vulnerability, with the role modeling of desired behaviors.

It’s easy to say and hard to do. Change starts at the top. Behavioral norms exhibited by those in senior roles—the tone from the top—have a disproportionate impact culture, recognition, reward, reinforced behaviors, purpose, motivation, and who we are and how we are as a company.

Be more leader, less commander. Ensure there is high alignment on desired outcomes, then get out of the way of the teams and provide support to help clear impediments from out of the way of teams.

2. Psychological safety

In order to optimize outcomes, people need to be able to experiment safely. They need to feel that it is safe to learn, challenge the status quo, question someone in a more senior role, run improvement experiments, or test a value hypothesis that might fail.

More than that, people need to be actively recognized for the lowest-cost and quickest time-to-failure (learning), avoiding the sunk-cost fallacy. There is no such thing as a failed experiment; there is only learning. The only failure is assuming that the future can be predicted and that organizations are reductionist, like the workings of a mechanical watch.

Google’s Project Aristotle found that the No. 1 determinant of high-performing teams is psychological safety.

According to Amy C. Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, organizations must take three steps to take to build psychological safety. First, they must reframe failure as learning and the system of work as something that isn't personal, with blame-free inquiry. Second, they must invite participation, solicit input, and listen, especially if people have been conditioned to not speak up. Third, they must respond productively, express appreciation for feedback and learning, and celebrate fast, intelligent failure.

3. Emergent mindset

Adopting an emergent mindset in place of a deterministic mindset places value on experimentation, collaboration, and continuous learning in line with desired outcomes. It is a focus on outcomes over output. Change, improvement, and the future are not predictable, and the way a complex adaptive system (i.e., an organization) responds is also not predictable. In order to optimize outcomes when the nature of work is emergent, there must be a shift from output (fixed path, slow learning) to outcomes (wiggly path, fast learning), from predetermined solutions (sunk cost) to testing hypotheses (learn fast and cheap).

The best way to test a hypothesis when the type of work is emergent is to probe, sense, and respond. Organizations that want to survive and thrive need to build in new muscle memory, becoming a (re)learning organization, experiment, get fast feedback, and act on it early and often.

Role-modeling desired behaviors, fostering psychological safety, and optimizing the approach to the type of work will all act as a tailwind to help you deliver better value sooner, safer, and happier.

Want to know more? This article has been adapted from the forthcoming book "Sooner Safer Happier," to be published on November 10, 2020. Find out more at https://soonersaferhappier.com/. Jon Smart also spoke on this topic at the DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas—Virtual on October 13, 2020. Registrants have access to the recording.

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