Review – Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

 Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland

There’s a rule of thumb in software development circles that the best programmers can be ten times as productive as average programmers. This is the underlying argument for why organizations seek to find and hire the best people. There is research to support this disparity in productivity. There is similar research on the relative productivity of teams. There, the range in productivity between the best and the rest is closer to two orders of magnitude; as much as a 1,000 times more productive.

Jeff Sutherland makes the case that the practices that collectively make up “Scrum” are one strategy for realizing those kinds of payoffs.

Sutherland is a former fighter pilot, a software developer, one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, and the inventor of Scrum. This is his story of how Scrum came to be, what it is, and why it’s worthwhile. The particular value of the book is its focus on why Scrum is designed the way it is and why that matters.

Scrum’s origins and primary applications have been in the realm of software development. Sutherland builds an argument that Scrum’s principles and methods apply more broadly. Although he doesn’t make this argument directly, this wider applicability flows from evolutionary changes in the the organizational environment. Changes in the pace and complexity of organizational work simultaneously make conventional approaches less effective and Scrum more so.

Scrum is a collection of simple ideas; it’s a point of view about effective problem solving more than a formalized methodology. That’s important to keep in mind because like too many solid ideas, the essence can get lost in the broader rush to capitalize on those ideas. There appear to be an unlimited supply of training courses, consultants, and the usual paraphernalia of a trendy business idea; you’re better off spending time reading and thinking about what Sutherland has to say first. That may be all you need if you’re then willing to make the effort to put those ideas into practice.

Sutherland traces the roots of Scrum to the thinking underlying the Toyota Production System. He also draws interesting links to John Boyd’s work on strategy embodied in the OODA Loop and to the martial arts. Scrum is built on shortening the feedback between plans and action. It is a systematic way of feeling your way forward and adapting to the terrain as you travel over it.

Sutherland draws a sharp contrast with more traditional management techniques such as Waterfall project management approaches and their well-worn trappings such as Gantt charts and voluminous unread and unreadable requirements documents.

Understanding the managerial appeal and limitations of these trappings is key to grasping the contrasting benefits of Scrum. Waterfalls and Gantt charts appeal to managers because they promise certainty and control. They can’t deliver on that promise in today’s environment. In the software development world, they never could and in today’s general organizational environment they also come up short.

Understanding that appeal and why it is misplaced clarifies the strengths of Scrum. There was a time when managers came from the ranks of the managed. They had done the work they were now responsible for overseeing and were, therefore, qualified to provide the direction and feedback needed to pick a path and follow it. Management was primarily about execution and not about innovation.

The illusion in waterfall and other planning exercises is that what we are doing next is a repeat of what we have done before. If we have built 100 houses, we can be confident of what it will take to build the 101st. If we are building a new road or a new bridge, then what we have learned from the previous roads and bridges we’ve built can provide a fairly precise estimate for the next.

This breaks down, however, when we are building in new terrain or experimenting with new designs. The insights and experience of those who’ve built in the past don’t transfer cleanly to this more dynamic environment. The world of software has always been new territory and we are always experimenting. The terrain is always in flux even when the technology is temporarily stable. Now, it is those who are doing the work who are best positioned to plan and manage as we move into new territories and terrain.

Scrum comes into play when we are moving into territory where there are no roads and are no maps. If you are moving into new territory you can only plan as far ahead as you can see. There are no maps to follow. Sutherland puts it thus:

Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a structure around the learning process, enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created and, just as important, how they created it. The Scrum framework harnesses how teams actually work and gives them the tools to self-organize and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.

There’s a terminology and a set of techniques that make up Scrum. Sutherland covers the basics of such notions as scrum masters, product owners, backlog, sprints, retrospectives, communication saturation, continuous improvement, and stand up meetings. But he’s no fan of turning these into dogma.

Scrum runs the risk of being viewed as no more than the latest management fad. Sutherland is a true believer and has evidence to support his belief. There are lots of true believers but only a few are willing to bring substantive evidence to back up that belief. That earns Sutherland the right to offer his own closing argument:

What Scrum does is alter the very way you think about time. After engaging for a while in Sprints and Stand-ups, you stop seeing time as a linear arrow into the future but, rather, as something that is fundamentally cyclical. Each Sprint is an opportunity to do something totally new; each day, a chance to improve. Scrum encourages a holistic worldview. The person who commits to it will value each moment as a returning cycle of breath and life.

The heart of Scrum is rhythm. Rhythm is deeply important to human beings. Its beat is heard in the thrumming of our blood and rooted in some of the deepest recesses of our brains. We’re pattern seekers, driven to seek out rhythm in all aspects of our lives.

What Scrum does is create a different kind of pattern. It accepts that we’re habit-driven creatures, seekers of rhythm, somewhat predictable, but also somewhat magical and capable of greatness.

When I created Scrum, I thought, What if I can take human patterns and make them positive rather than negative? What if I can design a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle that encourages the best parts of ourselves and diminishes the worst? In giving Scrum a daily and weekly rhythm, I guess what I was striving for was to offer people the chance to like the person they see in the mirror.

The Siren Call of Proven Systems

Seductive SirensOur admiration for the assembly line is so deep that we are suckers for the promise of “proven systems” regardless of their feasibility. We so treasure predictability and control that the promise seduces no matter how many times it is broken.

I started my career at what ultimately morphed into Accenture. That tenure coincided with the development of one of the early systems development methodologies—Method/1. The methodology was an attempt to make the process of understanding, designing, and implementing a technology solution to an organization’s business problem something that was manageable and repeatable. Method/1 made Accenture a lot of money and can be seen as a distant ancestor of a host of systems for building systems; agile, scrum, rational unified, waterfall, extreme programming—the ingenuity of marketers in packaging and labeling ideas is endless.

All are variations on a theme. They embody a desire for control in a turbulent world. If Ford could manufacture identical cars and McDonald’s could guarantee the consistency of fries and shakes from coast to coast, then we ought to be able to turn out information systems with similar confidence in quality and predictability.

There seems to be an uptick in promises of proven systems in multiple settings; not simply in the arena of design and development. Given their appeal, it’s critical to recognize the limits of these promises.

The first limit is the dangerously thin data from which these proven systems are built. One of the first ideas pounded into your head when you are compelled to study statistics and research methods is that “data” is not the plural form of “anecdote.” Yet most proven systems are based on a handful of prior examples that happened to work.

Look at the history of Method/1. The late accounting firm Arthur Andersen & Co.—which birthed Accenture—automated the payroll department of a GE manufacturing plant in the 1960s. That first project failed and Andersen rebuilt the system at a loss to make good. Andersen’s sales pitch to their second client boiled down to we’ve learned what mistakes to avoid while our competitors have yet to make them. Several projects later, Andersen consultants documented what they had done and packaged their ad hoc approach into a standard project plan for internal use called the “client binders.” As an accounting firm, Andersen was accustomed to protecting client identities and to thinking of audit processes as something common and repeatable for all clients. Consequently, the client binders were devoid of client specifics and mirrored the look and feel of standardized, repeatable audit processes.

In spite of their limitations and the thin data they were built on, the client binders gave Andersen’s consultants a better starting point for new projects and helped Andersen extend and consolidate their lead in the market. They worked best in the hands of experienced consultants who could use these materials to organize and support productive conversations with clients and prospects about how to structure and manage new efforts.

Then the methodology zealots took over. The experts took the crib notes that were valuable to experts and rewrote them into recipes for reasonably smart people with limited experience to follow. Repeatable, industrial, processes promise good economics to those who invent them and acceptable quality to those who seek the outputs.

The fundamental problem is that today’s knowledge work doesn’t consist of repeatable, industrial, processes no matter how much we wish they did or how often we claim they do. I’ve written before about the problems this strategy presents (Repeatable Processes and Magic Boxes).

Where does that leave us?

Be suspicious of claims about proven systems. Look for the demands for creative leaps and flashes of insight hiding within seemingly innocuous steps. Look for potentially endless cycles of analysis with no stopping rule. Find the magic box. Be wary of maps that don’t show where the roads end and the dragons hide.

Effective Executives Are Design Thinkers

DruckerEffectiveExecThe Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (Harperbusiness Essentials) (Peter F. Drucker and Jim Collins)

There are certain smart, articulate, thinkers that provide anchors for my thinking; Peter Drucker is high on that list. Somewhere around the time I was figuring out that organizations caught and held my attention, I also stumbled upon Drucker.

Not too long ago, I added a copy of The Effective Executive to my Kindle and chose to revisit Drucker’s observations about effectiveness. I’ve been uncomfortable about the surge in attention around efficiency and productivity of knowledge workers and thought Drucker might have relevant insight.

He does.

Drucker was credited with coining the term knowledge worker and the bulk of his work focused on why they mattered and what to do about it. The Effective Executive was originally published in 1966 and was reissued in a 50th anniversary edition. It’s a bit scary to contemplate the level of insight available for the taking.

Organizations consist of two kinds of people; those who follow scripts and those who write them. For a long time—and certainly in 1966—the overwhelming majority of headcount fell into the first category. Drucker’s attention was always drawn to those who wrote the scripts—executives. What’s changed since then is that scripts have become the responsibility of software. Organizations are gradually—and not so gradually—eliminating people who follow scripts.

That makes Drucker’s observations and advice about the script writers orders of magnitude more important than it was then. Drucker argued that “working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective.” Doing the right thing is more important than doing things right, regardless of how much of the visible activity in organizations seems to be about doing things right. The Effective Executive is Drucker’s extended examination of how to systematically go about doing the right thing.

Drucker’s worldview was not tainted by today’s slavish devotion to shareholder value. In Drucker’s world, organizations exist to create and serve customers; there is no possibility of value creation, much less maximization, until a customer exists. And customers exist outside the organization. This creates a fundamental challenge for executives, which Drucker characterizes as follows:

Every executive, whether his organization is a business or a research laboratory, a government agency, a large university, or the air force, sees the inside—the organization—as close and immediate reality. He sees the outside only through thick and distorting lenses, if at all. What goes on outside is usually not even known firsthand. It is received through an organizational filter of reports, that is, in an already predigested and highly abstract form that imposes organizational criteria of relevance on the outside reality.

He goes on to say that

The fundamental problem is the reality around the executive. Unless he changes it by deliberate action, the flow of events will determine what he is concerned with and what he does.

Regardless of the changing dynamics of organization and environment, executive effectiveness consists of judgments whether a particular situation fits within the parameters of existing organizational scripts, will yield to one-time improvisation, or calls for developing a new script.

What this implies, and what Drucker argues, is that

effective decision is always a judgment based on “dissenting opinions” rather than on “consensus on the facts.” And [effective executives] know that to make many decisions fast means to make the wrong decisions. What is needed are few, but fundamental, decisions. What is needed is the right strategy rather than razzle-dazzle tactics.

Several things flow from that. Most importantly, effective decisions require meaningful chunks of time. Here, Drucker’s thinking connects closely with Cal Newport’s more recent discussion of deep work.

As is so often the case with Drucker, his insights get picked up and repackaged. Drucker’s analysis of effectiveness means that executives are engaged in design thinking. More importantly, it is design thinking that strives to synthesize the analysis and insights of multiple specialized perspectives.

There is much more in this short book. It bears close reading and regular re-reading if you aspire to do meaningful executive work. To wrap this up, I want to examine one aspect of this design thinking perspective that appears to run counter to rhetoric of many strategy efforts and many consulting proposals and reports. Let’s look at Drucker’s own words once again,

To get the facts first is impossible. There are no facts unless one has a criterion of relevance. Events by themselves are not facts.

The only rigorous method, the only one that enables us to test an opinion against reality, is based on the clear recognition that opinions come first—and that this is the way it should be. Then no one can fail to see that we start out with untested hypotheses—in decision-making as in science the only starting point. We know what to do with hypotheses—one does not argue them; one tests them. One finds out which hypotheses are tenable, and therefore worthy of serious consideration, and which are eliminated by the first test against observable experience.

The effective decision-maker, therefore, organizes disagreement. This protects him against being taken in by the plausible but false or incomplete. It gives him the alternatives so that he can choose and make a decision, but also so that he is not lost in the fog when his decision proves deficient or wrong in execution. And it forces the imagination

If finding the time and the money to pursue an MBA is currently difficult, consider adding The Effective Executive to your reading stack and put it near the top.

Don’t connect the dots; solve for pattern

Last time, we looked at the limits of a rhetorical strategy (”connecting the dots”) as a tool for planning. There are too many dots forming too many possible pictures, yet we want to take advantage of what we know has gone before to set a way forward. There is a better way that resides in “solving for pattern” a phrase I first encountered in an essay by Wendell Berry.

During my first weeks of business school, marketing mystified me. I had a decent background in accounting and project management; those classes I could make sense of. In marketing, I was lost during the discussion. When the professor laid out the analysis at the end I was no more enlightened than I had been eighty minutes earlier.

I concluded that the fatal flaw of the case method was its failure to provide neat pictures I could lay over the dots scattered throughout the case. Shortly before the midterm exam, a second-year student offered a review session with a roadmap for how to make sense of any marketing problem. I now had the picture that I could lay over the dots and connect them myself. The faculty was very distressed by this review session. We thought it was because their secrets had been revealed.


I still made a mess of the midterm.

It was much later, after I worked as a case writer, when I began to grasp that the faculty was pursuing a deeper agenda. The case method is not about learning how to connect the dots; it’s about learning how to solve for pattern. That second-year student’s crib sheet was no help for dealing with a supply chain problem masquerading as a marketing problem.

Elements of Solving for Pattern

Organizations are stuffed with people ready to solve problems once they’ve been labeled. What is rare—and more valued—is the ability to frame and structure problems so that they can be solved. There are no simple pictures hiding in the environment waiting to be revealed and pointing to pre-determined responses. The proliferation of dots are signals in the environment worth attending to; ignoring them is not wise. If we’re not looking for dots to connect and trigger responses, what are we to do? Solving for pattern is a problem framing and response design process that better fits the world we occupy.

Wendell Berry introduced the term in an effort to contrast industrial farming strategies with family farming strategies. The strength of the strategies Berry advocated came not from swapping corporate managers for family ownership but from treating farms as complex systems rather than faux factories. As a trivial example, Berry points to replacing chemical fertilizers on crops with the manure produced by the milk cows feeding off those same crops. Connecting those two isolated systems into a larger dynamic system produces better outputs, reduces costs, and has other positive effects that ripple through other components of the overall farm system.

Much of solving for pattern is a change of perspective. It starts by viewing the current situation as a dynamic equilibrium producing outcomes that are a mix of desirable and undesirable results. The goal is not to fix a component in a bigger machine but to push the system into a new stable equilibrium with a better balance of desirable and undesirable outcomes.

This strategy of solving for pattern melds pattern recognition, systems thinking, design skill, and change management practices to effect these rebalancing efforts. Pattern recognition and systems thinking are the tools we need to understand where we are and the trajectory we are on. That understanding feeds into the design and change management efforts needed to envision and shift from the pattern we have to the pattern we want.

In his essay, Berry was exploring the complexities of managing the miniature ecosystem of a working farm. Whether you call them problems, opportunities, or messes, the situations that arise on farms —and organizations—never come with labels or instructions attached. Nor are they neatly isolated from whatever else may be going on. Tackling those situations effectively starts with choosing a better point of view.

The limits on connecting the dots

connect the dots exampleI was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and various other fictional detectives growing up; I’m still drawn to the form when I want to relax. There’s a basic pleasure in trying to match wits with Sherlock and figure our who the killer is before the final reveal. Connecting the dots is a rewarding game but it’s a flawed strategy.

The picture is always clear after the fact. But to jump from that fact to the assumption that you can recognize the dots earlier and connect them into one single, compelling, inarguable picture that triggers right action is a leap too far. Detective stories have an advantage that truth lacks; the writer knows where they intend to go.

The problem is that connecting the dots is such a well worn story telling and story organizing technique. The key to using this as a story telling technique is to manage the ratio of story dots and noise dots. Looking backward to make sense of the outcome that came to pass, the storyteller emphasizes the dots that reveal the picture and shares just enough other dots to suggest the work our hero had to do to see the hidden picture. As a good storyteller you might add a clever twist or put our hero in just the right spot to see what others have missed.

Suppose, however, that in the real world our potential hero was looking in the wrong direction or trying to separate the relevant dot from a thousand irrelevant but similar dots. Now our hero might be portrayed as a fool or an incompetent. Our hero’s reputation and future hangs on the objectives of the storyteller, not on the events in the field.

The appeal of the connecting the dots rhetorical strategy obscures its flaws as a thinking strategy. There are two principal flaws from a problem-solving perspective. One, it suggests there is a single, correct, picture of what is going on waiting to be discovered as soon as someone draws the correct thread through the data points that otherwise appear to be noise. Two, it presumes that recognizing the picture offers sufficient, timely, insight into appropriate action steps.

There are always too many dots; in a big data world we seek more dots in the hope that the picture will emerge. All the analytical tools will do, however, is add more possible pictures that might be hiding in the dots. Any collection of dots might form multiple pictures; more dots simply suggest more pictures.
Which brings us to the second problem; how does recognizing a picture connect to effective response? In our detective stories, our goal is to bring the killer to justice, perhaps to intervene before the killer strikes again.

In the world of more dots than time, our goal is to devise a response soon enough to make a difference. We wish to create a new story to be told. The dots behind us are only useful in suggesting where to place the dots that are not yet part of the picture we are in the act of creating.

Practical Action, Volatile World

HBS classI’ve lost the certificate but I was once honored by my classmates for the “best bluff when called on unprepared” in a managerial decision analysis class during my first year in business school. I’m fuzzy about what had happened the night before as were most of my classmates so some celebration had taken precedence over opening the day’s case, much less actually reading it. Anyway, it’s now 8:30 and Professor F opens by saying “Mr. McGee, could you please take the role of John Smith for today.” Professor F then proceeded to name two other victims and paired each of us with classmates who were lawyers. We were dispatched to the hallway, while Professor F briefed the rest of the class on what what going to happen next. Out in the hall, I turned to my new partner, Jay, and asked him the key question on my mind. “Who is John Smith?” Jay’s response was “you’re the CEO of Acme—keep your mouth shut and don’t do or say anything unless I tell you to.” This was advice I was qualified to handle.

We returned to the class and played out the scenario laid out in the case I hadn’t opened. I followed Jay’s advice and we escaped unscathed until the debrief. Bruce, one of our classmates who had been at the same celebration and knew my level of non-preparation, asked Professor F how he had selected his victims for the day. His answer was, “picking the lawyers was obvious, of course; I then chose Mr. McGee since I knew he would have already cracked the case and, therefore, would follow the correct course of action.” This provoked the reaction you might expect and I was forced to confess.

The obvious lesson is do your homework and surround yourself with people you can rely on. For many years that was all I took away and it wasn’t bad advice. But it’s proven to be incomplete and the second order lessons have become more important. What’s interesting is the changing relationship between the lessons of experience and the challenges thrown up from an environment that is more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA if you are in to trendy shorthand) than what was contemplated in that classroom several decades back.

A manager’s job is to use of what Tom Peters calls “a bias for action,” and move in some direction. Analysis and experience influence the direction chosen. Movement generates new signals about how the environment is reacting and you keep moving, possibly in a slightly different direction. I’ve written before about Donald Schon and the role of “reflective practice.” In Schon’s formulation, effective managers engage in a continuing process of formulating hypotheses, acting, and adjusting actions based on outcomes. The value of cumulative experience lies in making better choices about the direction of movement.

In familiar territory and established markets, action choices are clear. You only need or want enough analysis to distinguish between available action choices. In new markets and developing territory, action choices are less clear and possibly opaque. Action and understanding have to coevolve. There is never enough time to prepare; the world happens at its own rate and managers must act ready or not.

The value of experience changes in this world. Experience gave managers an inventory of familiar situations and responses that worked once upon a time. In this environment, situations don’t map to those we’ve seen before. Managers can’t simply select from a menu of responses that are known to work; they must design new responses fit to new realities.

Learning is harder in the digital world

Snowboard lesson Most of us have crappy theories of learning. The better you were at school the more likely your theories about learning are distorted. I ran into this phenomenon while I was the Chief Learning Officer at Diamond Technology Partners in the 1990s. My partners were full of well intentioned advice about how they thought I should do my job based on their school experiences years or decades earlier in their lives. I had my own, somewhat less ill-informed, theories based on my more recent school experiences convincing my thesis committee to let me loose on the world.

Fortunately, I also made the smart decision to go find several people smarter than I was and hung around with them long enough to soak up some useful insight. Two in particular, Alan Kay and Roger Schank, were instrumental in shaking me free from my poor theories. Very different in temperament, they did agree on fundamental insights about how learning worked.

Learning is what happens when our expectations about the world collide with experience. As we adjust our expectations to be better aligned with reality we learn.

Schools are dangerous places for learning because they are too isolated from the real world. On the other hand, the real world can be straight up dangerous if we haven’t learned how to behave correctly in the situation at hand. All learning is learning by doing, whether we’re learning to turn on a snowboard or solve a differential equation. If we had unlimited time and were invulnerable, we could figure anything out on our own. As it is, it helps to have someone who knows more than we do to arrange the experiences we can learn from in a reasonable and safe sequence.

The name for this strategy is “apprenticeship” and remains the most effective from a learner-centered perspective. All other approaches are compromises to make the economics work or to solve scale mismatches between the number of those needing to learn and those with mastery to pass along. Anthropologist Lucy Suchman showed how to extend this notion of apprenticeship to all kinds of learning beyond the trade/craft connotations we attach to the word. She talked of learning and apprenticeship as a process of “legitimate peripheral participation.” You learned how to repair copiers by handing tools to the senior repair technician and carrying their bags. You learned how to handle the cash register by watching someone who already had it figured out. You learned how to put a budget together by doing the junior-level scut work of helping your boss transform a handwritten budget into a typewritten one.

It’s become a cliche that learning has become an ongoing requirement in all kinds of work. The problem isn’t simply that work demands more learning more often. The changing nature of work also makes learning qualitatively harder as well. This was never a problem for physical work and for much of the knowledge work of the 20th century. Nearly everything you might want to observe was in sight. You could watch how a repair technician selected and handled tools. You could see an editor’s corrections and notes in the margins of your manuscript.

As work has evolved to be more abstract and more mediated by technology, the task of learning has gotten harder. Whether we call it apprenticeship or legitimate peripheral participation it becomes difficult, if not impossible, in environments where you can’t see what others are doing. Previously, the learning called for within organizations occurred as a byproduct of doing work. It now takes conscious and deliberate effort to design work so that it is, in fact, learnable.

The danger of easy paths

easy pathBeing a quick study can get in the way of learning what you need to understand. Midway through elementary school I went on my first field trip to the Museum of Natural History in Milwaukee. The enduring memory from that trip was my first encounter with a buffet line in the museum cafeteria. My tray was loaded by the end of the line and I was mildly ill for the remainder of the day. This was merely the first in a long line of lessons about the difference between theory and practice; lessons that I continue to trip over half a century later. There was the 4th-grade teacher who sat me in the back of the classroom and challenged me to see how much of the World Book Encyclopedia I could finish by year’s end whenever my other work was done. By the time I got to college, I had been nudged by so many teachers and other supporters in the direction of thinking over other kinds of doing that I was on track to graduate in three years.

As that second year in college was drawing to an end, I realized that I had no idea what I wanted to do when graduation arrived. My parents didn’t flinch when I concluded that I wanted to take the full four years to finish school; I wasn’t insightful enough to grasp the financial hit I was imposing on them. Regardless, they bought me an extra year to work out an answer about a next step.

There’s a running debate whether competence or passion should drive your career. The passion wing cheers that heart should drive your choices; find your passion and the career will take care of itself. More recently, the counter-narrative that expertise precedes engagement has regained ground. This is the realm of the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice. Better that you should become good at something and trust competence to evolve into commitment.

We now have two false dichotomies—theory vs. practice and passion vs. competence. There are others we could add to the list. The world isn’t organized into these binary choices. It’s necessarily messy and complex. This is not a popular position; we all want to believe advice that begins with “all you need to do is…” Everyone is offering proven systems or guaranteed methodologies. Instead, we should seek to accept complexity without letting it paralyze us. We need to remember what H.L. Mencken said “there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Today, in particular, we live in a world full of bright, shiny, objects promising to address their narrow perspective on a narrow conception of the problem. We need to become adept at framing opportunities to incorporate messiness. That’s a process that benefits from traveling companions walking the same paths.

There’s always a bigger picture

Earth from spaceIt’s a given in writing circles that there are only a small number of basic plots; the miracle of human storytelling is how many unique tales have been wrought from that basic ore.

Storytelling has become a lens in better understanding the organizations that we belong to and interact with. I think we’ve construed story too narrowly in organizations. Oddly enough, we’ve done so by ignoring the social dimensions of story.

Our first images of story conjure Homer declaiming to the audience gathered by the fire. But we quickly enlisted others to bring stories to fuller life and drama arrived. Through the usual concatenation of circumstance, fortuitous moments, and basic temperament I found my way into that world. A degree of shyness and curiosity about how things—as opposed to people—worked led to a shadow career behind the scenes.

I was fortunate that my early history involved producing original works within a tradition rich environment. What that meant was that you started without a script or even a title but opening night was fixed. Some of those involved had been through the experience the year before and the year before that. Others of us had no clue. All of us knew that the institution had been pulling off the equivalent trick since 1891. There are things you can accomplish before the script is finished. On the other hand, it’s hard to build a set before you’ve designed it and you can’t design it without an inkling of what the show will be about.

From the outside, this looks like chaos. Parts of it are. Traditions and history assure you that the curtain will go up on opening night. Tradition also assures that you will lose sleep along the way. I couldn’t see it at the time but I was learning how innovation and organization worked. More specifically, I was learning about innovation as collaborative story-making and about the interplay linking technology constraints and opportunities with artistic or strategic vision.

Viewed from the audience, performance is about actors, their lines, and their interactions. Sets, lights, and costumes may be visible, may attract some fleeting attention, yet fade into the background. The massive efforts going on behind the scenes to create the context within which the performance plays out only become apparent when something malfunctions.

This creative fulcrum, where content and context are brought together, is the most interesting place to stand. Those who can learn to look in both directions—to play with both content and context—have more degrees of innovation freedom than those who limit their gaze. Learning to look both ways, however, is a very hard thing to do.

What makes it hard is that the tribes who come together to create a shared creative outcome come from very different traditions and mindsets. Pursuing excellence within any one aspect of production means settling for mediocrity in others. Working across tribes demands an ability to speak multiple languages with competence at the expense of eloquence in a single tongue.

The particular conversational bridge that draws my attention today is the contribution that changing technology can offer. Technology is a powerful creative lever . It makes things possible that weren’t before. In a stage production, for example, an automated lighting system can slowly change the look of the set over the course of many minutes, simulating the transition from dawn to full daylight. That is an artistic effect that wasn’t possible when the change depended on human operators.

But that creative effect might never be contemplated unless the artists staging and directing the performance learn about and understand what the technology has made possible. And that requires an effective conversation between artist and technologist.

It requires translators but also requires something more difficult. This level of creative collaboration demands a shared respect for all who contribute. Healthy, tradition rich institutions are better prepared to cope with new innovation opportunities than weaker organizations. Resistance to change is a marker of organizational weakness; infatuation with new technology for new technology’s sake is a marker of low trust in institutional tradition.

Managing the conversation across the performance and technology tribes depends on helping the participants see the larger picture that all are seeking to bring into existence.

Learning to think for innovation

Management Thinker Peter Drucker

“Innovation and change make inordinate time demands on the executive. All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and to do as one has always done.”
Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive

Once again, Peter Drucker offers insights for today even though this was originally written in 1967. Taken at face value it suggests that innovation in today’s organizations is a fool’s quest. A few people—Cal Newport, for example, in “Deep Work”—have begun to pick up on this, but they are distinctly in the minority. They can be nearly impossible to notice or hear in the cacophony of productivity advice, inboxes littered with offers to write your best-selling book in 90 days, and workshops to design your business model in a weekend. We have always been enamored with speed and live in an environment that raises speed to a religion. Thinking hard has rarely been popular.

There are some counterexamples. Bill Gates was famous for his “Think Weeks” where he withdrew from his day to day responsibilities to look beyond the immediate. The question for mere mortals is how to create the time and space needed to do the kind of thinking needed for innovation. Recognizing the challenge is, doubtless, the first step. Few of us have the luxury or clout of a Bill Gates to dedicate entire weeks for deep thought; we can all recognize that some kinds of thinking and reflection require bigger chunks of time and carve out those chunks where they can be found.

Another thing worth doing is to get better at stringing those chunks together in more effective ways. I’ve taken a run at this before, for example,

Distraction is the enemy of reflection. What Drucker is pointing out is that the underlying time demands for innovative thought flow from the demands of clearing your mind of the immediate and building the internal mental models necessary for deep work. I think of it as learning to meditate in a particular direction. We know a good bit about step one from the lessons of meditation. But meditation tends to stop there. The second step is to point your thinking in a particular direction and provide useful supplies for the journey. There is a process and discipline to thinking about innovation that is learnable. It is a skill that can be improved with deliberate practice.