My Greatest Weakness

One of the stock interview questions trotted out on many occasions is “what is your greatest weakness?” If you’re lucky, the interviewer might take the time to rephrase it as some variation on the theme – “What am I going to wish I’d known about you in six months time?”; “What area do you most need to develop?”; “What part of the job do you find hardest?”.

These can be genuine variations – and may elicit slightly different responses from me depending on what crosses my mind at the time. The stock, safe answer is to provide a weakness and to explain how you’ve offset it, worked despite it, or to otherwise cheat the question.

I’ve been thinking recently about my weaknesses, and I’ve identified something key – something which explains a lot about me. I know how it works, I know what its implications are, and I know how to overcome it – I can even demonstrate how it’s a plus in the right circumstances, but the rest of the time it really is a pain in the neck.

I don’t establish routines. Lots of normal, and not so normal, people find that when they do something often enough it becomes a routine. Every Wednesday morning there’s a team meeting at 10am. You always wash your left hand first. Your status report is due with the board every first Thursday of the month at 0900, and you never miss it. Your train leaves at 1809, so you know you need to get out of the office by 1748 at the latest to make it. Risks are always recorded in a particular way, and issues are always separate.

My mind doesn’t work that way. It’s caused me a great deal of pain over the years. I have to consciously decide to do things which other people seem to find automatic. I’ve missed a whole load of deadlines for submitting expenses. I’ve used documents based on the instructions in the document (or forms based on the instructions on the screen) instead of remembering “the way we always do it”, and discovered I’m the only one reading those instructions. I’ve failed to buy my wife flowers for our anniversary because I was thinking about a gift, and just didn’t think of the flowers. That last one is probably the most painful.

It took me years – decades – to realise this was something about me which was different, and that this was hurting me. I have a variety of coping mechanisms (but if you’re not like me you’d be surprised how many coping mechanisms really need you to establish a routine of using them…). It was the realisation that my mind worked this way, and that it wasn’t how other people worked, which made me realise that it was my greatest weakness. Any number of ordinary administration tasks require far more consideration – more focus – than they ought to as a result.

The impetus to think about this weakness – or difference – differently, which led to the insight and understanding I finally reached, was a set of conversations with a great friend of mine about autism, and the things that need to be done in the workplace to enable people on the autistic spectrum to contribute alongside their neuronormative colleagues. It was a discussion which included points about making best use of people’s differences to provide better value to the business, and the agreement that businesses which can’t recognise and capitalise on differences will be outperformed, inevitably, by those which can.

It isn’t the fastest, or strongest, or most resilient organism which survives in an evolutionary context: it’s the most adaptive to change. For the effective constitution of a large organisation, that means celebrating, embracing, and capitalising on difference, because difference is a great source of adaptability – even when the individual components – the people – are not themselves particularly adept at change (as is often the case for autistic people). They may be just what you need in a changing world because they may already be just right for the new situation.

My own weakness offers me one benefit in my work: I don’t assume “the way it is” is the “the way it ought to be” or “the way it has to be.” I don’t have to train myself to constantly question processes, practices, or approaches, because that’s the way my mind works every day, all the time, in work and out. If that sounds exhausting, I can imagine that it is, if you’re not used to it. For me, it’s just … routine.

How diversity is its own reward

Let me start with this: Diversity is the morally right thing to do. Nothing I say in this article should be interpreted as suggesting anything else, overtly, subtly, by inference, or in code.

Moral imperatives and regulatory compliance aside, I have seen in the past that the strongest motivation to engage with diversity issues was the avoidance of the PR disaster which the converse would generate. This attitude misses so many of the benefits of having a diverse workforce; happily in recent years the recognition has grown that diversity has inherent value. An organisation acting entirely in its own self-interest has a reason to value diversity.

Instant and ongoing benefits

Here are some of the simple, inherent benefits to team and organisation diversity. My focus is on Change Leadership, so I’ve made some specific references to that as well.

Recruiting with prejudice restricts your pool of possible hires to a limited subset of those available. This runs a strong risk that you will remove from your possible outcomes hiring a very effective member of the team, gifting that competitive advantage to another organisation. For pushing a change into an organisation you need to be able to draw on all the talents you can muster. Having a blinkered set of views about what the people with those talents will look like (talk like, who they are intimately engaged with, what they believe in, or any other thing that is nothing to do with their job) can jeopardise your ability to deliver the Change you are tasked with bringing about.

A striation of different levels of experience and maturity can make the most of available experience without the cost and difficulty of obtaining only already-experienced people. Giving people opportunities for knowledge transfer can help to crystalise knowledge and change the way the more experienced staff think about what they do; offer a chance to render explicit knowledge which is otherwise tacit; and transform a lower-cost individual to be more effective than their cost would indicate, without having to go through the expensive and time consuming process of making the mistakes themselves. In addition, in a change environment, it can be especially useful to have access to both people who have learned, and who have taught, particular aspects of the work undergoing change; this improves stakeholder communication, knowledge transfer planning, and clarity around what processes or activities need to be changed.

Having a varied range of people available for any given task makes it more likely that there is someone with both skill and inclination for a given task; working in the Change Leadership space means that while many things are predictable, repeated tasks (even if in a variegated context), there will always be new things cropping up which need to be handled, and having a range of people to call on to handle any given problem grants the best chance of finding someone whose natural inclination (and therefore motivation) match a particular task well.

Understanding the perspective of the customer is a critical business insight – needed whether your customers are external, internal, or any other variation – and unless you can restrict your customer pool, the best chance of having that insight is to reflect the diversity of your customer base – not to mirror it completely necessarily; that’s both impossible in terms of size/scale for most organisations, and needlessly slavish – but from a risk management perspective, reducing the probability of the risk that you fail to address an important customer is an effective mitigation. Certainly you miss key insights into what is required if you have no relevant experience on which to draw. This doesn’t mean you can’t have insight into someone who is different from you, but it’s a whole lot easier when similar. A substantial part of making a success of many changes is to foster adoption. There are different ways of communicating with different target audiences, and one of the ways that can be made more effective is in the selection of the right person to carry the message. More diversity in your team gives you more options about the messenger, more insights to draw on for crafting the message, and importantly: more credibility.

Diversity in the workforce also encourages people to try doing things a different way – a natural consequence of all the different attitudes. This can result in discoveries of a radical improvement, but more often just incremental improvements. A little incremental improvement goes a long way, if repeated often enough. The richest ground for sowing any kind of process improvement project is a workforce which has practice in doing these kinds of things on a small scale, benefitting organised changes by making it easier to land the changes.

The risk of monoculture

In my view, the greatest benefit of diversity in the workforce is the same as diversity in any system (organisation, ecosystem or organism). A diverse workforce has a strength inherent in its diversity just as a diverse investment portfolio does, a diverse breeding population within a species on the edge of extinction does, rotation of plants in a field does, or even something as simple a break from a long concentration task to think about something different. This strength is above, beyond, and different from the specific and predictable results referred to above.

“… diversity will always be more resilient than monoculture …” – Jonathan Watts, Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

Without diversity we have monoculture. Monocultures are brittle. Even if each individual is very resilient to some of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, if all individuals are the same (or very similar), they all have the same vulnerabilities. This applies to thought processes, organisations, decision making bodies (commercial or political), populations, the cells in our body, and more. If all individuals are very resilient, but in the same way, a single unexpected threat may arrive which will in one fell swoop incapacitate all of them. This applies equally to commercial organisations as it does to biological ones.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, Feb 2002 US Department of Defense briefing.

Our Daily Bread

Every organisation faces the daily tasks which it needs to complete to keep running. The Bread-and-butter – the known knowns. We provision our technology resources to keep up with what we expect to do on a daily basis. We have enough people to do the daily jobs in the roles that do the daily jobs (or we try to). We have an office more-or-less big enough, if that’s the kind of work we do. Preparing for these is operational management in its most ordinary, basic form. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, only that it is a relatively ubiquitous activity. Even in Change, we have these routine tasks – status reporting being the most ubiquitous example.

What lurks in the shadows

Every organisation also faces risks which, while uncertain, are at least identified. In technology, we build physical servers for resilience (dual power supplies, dual network cards); we float software servers across multiple physical servers within a single data centre; we have geographic resilience with a variety of distributed computing options and non-geographical master data. In team resources, for key functions, we engineer out single points of failure by having an excess of capacity or multiskilled people who can drop lower-priority tasks to pick up higher-priority tasks. We also avoid the risk of waste by predicting that only 80% of the team will be in the office on a given day, and use flexible desk strategies to avoid having too many empty (wasted) desks. Business Continuity planning finds ways to deal with rarer but significant risks to our ability to do business, sometimes with useful spinoffs – the extensive capability in some organisations to work remotely, often directly linked to resilience actions in organisational risk management, also allows greater choice in where to be when working, and often therefore also when to work. In these ways we plan for the known unknowns – we don’t know when there will be a challenge to face, but we know what the challenge looks like. This is routine organisational risk management, and the stimulus for a very large proportion of Changes in a technology provision within a commercial organisation.

Hidden gems of knowledge

There’s a whole discipline, still seemingly in its early days, which addresses the “unknown knowns”, which Mr Rumsfeld did not mention. Time permitting, I’ll write another article about this as it’s a fascinating area of research and a useful risk mitigation approach. As a teaser, I’ll mention a potentially familiar concept from a different domain: passive vocabulary.

The Great Unknown

The final category is “unknown unknowns”. Sometimes referred to as “black swan” events, these are the things which happen which “no one could have predicted”. How can we prepare for them? Logically, if we don’t know what may come, it is impossible to prepare a targeted response. This sometimes translates into a belief that it is impossible to prepare any response – but this is not the case. This is where inherent diversity in the work place has unexpected benefits.

The question is sometimes asked “what is the value of pure research?” Things which are researched but which have no current obvious value or use are dismissed by some in business as a waste of time, effort, resources, and money. While we cannot always define what the use of pure research will be, the only way we can act against a future problem we cannot even describe is by exploring things for which we cannot currently see a use. That costs resources and time, and is a dilution of focus, so it’s unpopular, and often disregarded.

Within an organisation, a diversity of mental makeup (attitude, skill, experience, outlook, education, intelligence, imagination, flexibility, detail-level, and more) is an investment in resilience against the black swan events. Flexibility isn’t just enshrined in the ability of some individuals to adapt and learn, but in an organisation’s ability to do the same – and a part of that is made easier if there are some people within the organisation who already think in the new way.

A parting thought

Diversity in your organisation is a great investment. It’s an investment in the now, but it’s also a very sensible safeguard against an uncertain future. It’s a virtuous combination: the morally right thing to do is also a rewarding thing to do.

I’m a Fool

I’m a Fool

“your all-licensed fool” – Shakespeare, King Lear

There’s a commonly held belief – which I confidently shared until I went to research it in more detail for this article – that medieval fools held a political position of impugnity. “Fool’s Licence” is the term I remember for this protection. The historical accuracy of the tradition is disputed – but the value of the concept of Fool’s Licence is enormous.

Much like the monarchs of a feudal land, the C-level and their close adherents do not commonly enjoy an unvarnished view of the world. It is said that the Queen thinks that everywhere smells of new paint; a corporate CEO could get the impression that every office has working, clean, toilets, and every project will be green next week (if it isn’t already).

There are systemic ways to address this – and my area of expertise, Change Leadership, offers some specific opportunities around this – but this article isn’t about methodologies or formal structures.

The wise fool employs his licence to speak truth to power. Identifying the truth is not always easy – but often easier from the front lines of work than from the distance of seniority. For me that has usually taken the form of first establishing that this truthful relationship is desired. I prefer that honesty, but some people are not able to function in that atmosphere. This openness and honesty is tempered by a sensitivity to the context – if your key customer (or manager) is speaking in front of 200 people and get something wrong, that isn’t the right time to chime in and correct them!

In earlier days at work I would have followed the consensus on this, and let someone else be the one to do this. I long since abandoned the pretence to be one of the crowd; I consider part of my value to anyone who I am supporting – either as an explicit consultant (especially then), or as an interim Change Leader of some variety – to be the willingness, capability, and insight to speak the truth to them.

Of course I’ve never had anyone explicitly say “no, please lie to me”. While that might not be surprising, the covert culture in many organisations is exactly this. Disagree? How many status reports are ‘refined’ to ensure the ‘right message’ gets through? There may be people reading this who can honestly say they have never fudged a status report, or otherwise manipulated the information reported upwards, but I have seen enough examples to know that it’s a ubiquitous problem.

I accept that there are ways of communicating this that depend on timing, and the culture prevalent in an organisation. There are certainly cultures where the admission that a piece of work is not going perfectly is immediately and viciously punished. For someone working within a permanent position, with aspirations to a career progression or/and personal development, bucking that kind of culture can be the kiss of death. People do learn from the mistakes of others, and can become acutely alert to the difficulties in going against any corporate culture of “careful” messaging. This punitive kind of culture is destructive of long term value, and so undesirable for many shareholders, but many managers know no other way.

Honesty and openness needs to be tempered with an understanding of trust. I keep other people’s secrets – what others disclose is their decision, and they need to be answerable for, and comfortable with, that. I consider Fool’s licence to licence my own actions, not to give me a charter to snitch.

This feed of true information is important not just for bypassing the layers of message management which might otherwise interfere with making key decisions – and after all, making important decisions is what the most senior levels of management are for (that, and developing people). This is important as well – and most difficult – when what the Fool needs to say is “nuncle, you’ve got it wrong.” Even in the play King Lear, the Fool has the sense to be amusing in how he says that.

This is the moment when the foolishness of the honesty is closest to the surface: when you must tell someone senior that they are wrong. It needs to be handled with as much sympathy as for any other human – respect, and kindness, are not unnecessary. If the chance is still extant to persuade away from the wrong course of action, the wrong decision, the path is easier; if the decision is already made and communicated, and what you have to report is the consequence of a wrong decision, the path is harder. The relationship you have built before this point, and any reputation you have for telling the truth, these are your tools, and your defence. Sometimes it will go well, and not only be appreciated, but you will be able to help with planning for what to do next. It it quite likely to be a surprise to the senior person: there aren’t many Fools around.

So, to the title of my article, I’m a Fool. I thrive when I have fool’s licence. Just be careful what you wish for if you ask me to tell you the truth!

(originally posted on LinkedIn:


Assurance isn’t our conscience, it’s our coach

A lot of organisations use project or programme assurance as a means of checking people’s homework.  The stance of assurance is something like a particularly robotic teacher marking an exam.  Getting the right answer matters, and the right answer is the answer in the book.  Sometimes there’s flexibility to be interpretive, but often there isn’t; and the people who work in assurance are never going to be rewarded, recognised, or praised for being lenient.  It goes even beyond this into the realm of trap laying in some cases: the assurance function are there to catch you out, to spot the kind of inconsistencies which might be poor practice, or deliberate malpractice, and ensure punishment ensues.

The attitude of change teams towards this kind of assurance is, unsurprisingly, defensive.  If the best outcome you can have from interfacing with assurance is that they don’t give you a kicking, there’s no way the change team can gain anything, and everything assurance require of you is a pure imposition.

What if there was another way, a better way?

Assurance can be a very different experience indeed.  If you provide Assurance functions and activities with a clear, simple goal: improve the outcomes of our projects/programmes; and staff them with experienced operators in the field they are assuring; if you give them a direct link to feed back to update the methodology when new things are found, and ensure they liberally share the good things they find, there’s a completely different dynamic available.

You can go to assurance, and come out with suggestions on how to fix things; a fresh perspective on problems you’ve been tackling alone; even a public pat on the back for finding a different way of doing things which isn’t the standard process (yet) but works better.  “Works better” could mean “takes less effort input for the same result output” or maybe “gets to the same result faster” but if you’re really lucky it’s “takes less input, gets better output and faster too”.

At the very least, you’ve made sure that whatever problems you are facing are transparently visible.  This can help to overcome the still-common cultural problem of burying bad news.  Everyone has access to assurance, and that means there’s a route to getting problems aired which doesn’t get blocked by, for instance, an incompetent sponsor.

This depends on what the reason for assurance is.  If you are putting assurance in place because you want to improve project outcomes, or the ratio between inputs and outcomes (cost, effort, time versus benefits), a well constructed and appropriately targeted assurance function is just the thing.

If you’re putting in assurance because a lot of projects are going wrong, and your processes aren’t being followed, well that can help too – but it needs to be backing up and supporting a review of the clarity of your processes, and almost certainly some additional training.

If you’re responding to the discovery – possibly by an audit – that you haven’t got good control over your projects, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Adding assurance isn’t how you get better control; reinforcing control is how you get better control, and while there are many different ways to achieve that, simply forcing people to get better at covering up their mistakes – which is the result of adversarial assurance (as described at the start of this piece) – isn’t going to get you better control; it might well make things worse.

Choose better. Choose improvement over bludgeoning




Servant Leadership

This is a topic I stumbled across long after I’d established what my values and intentions were in leadership, and I found myself feeling immediately at home with the concept.  Over time, I’ve found this term creeping into sufficiently common use that I can offer it as a description of what kind of leader I choose to, and aspire to be, and I find it is sometimes understood – and often looked up, and then understood.

It’s possible that it’s obvious from my other posts that this is how I prefer to be and act, but it’s also possible that this is a new term to someone reading this blog.

Before I provide a link or two to learned articles on the subject, I’m going to explain what it means for me.

I value myself at least partly based on what I can do for other people.  It makes me happy to help others, and it makes me happy to see others do well.  This doesn’t mean I lack the ability or desire to be competitive – play me at board games and you’ll see some competitiveness – but it does mean that I get a kick out of seeing my team do well, whoever I perceive my team to be.  That sometimes – often, hopefully – includes the leadership of that team above me on an engagement.  I call this heart.

It doesn’t mean that I’m a soft touch.  I want the team to do well; if that means that the best thing for the bulk of the team is that someone within the team leaves, that is what I will attempt to achieve.  I usually try to find a way to turn that person around, repurpose them, or otherwise get a result which is good for them as well, but in the final analysis, I can fire people, and I have.  It’s the hardest thing to do, but leadership isn’t about doing only the easy things.  I call this character.  This is also what I would rely on if someone in my team acted out a prejudiced *-ist attack on anyone to my knowledge.  A team needs a conscience, with sufficient teeth to matter.

Sometimes I have to protect my team.  A leader should shower the praise on their team that he receives from outside, but criticism should stop with the leader.  This does not mean that the team members are immune from criticism, or feedback, but it means that the leader should be the one to pass on that message, in the way which will give most benefit to the individual, and which will cause least avoidable damage; and the leader should be shielding his team from direct attack from outside.  I call this courage.  I’d like a better name for it, but when I want to mentally tick off the list, that’ll do.

I want my team to do well, so when I’m leading a team, I want to find out what things are getting in the way of them doing well, and get them out of the way.  Enabling people at a basic level is a key attribute of any manager: giving people the tools they need to get on with the job, always remembering that tools can be physical, software, intellectual and emotional.  Helping a socially awkward computer programmer (stereotype warning!) find some emotional intelligence and insight into the people around them can improve not just their productivity (as much as getting them a faster computer for compiling code), but it can improve far more that can’t be measured with numbers. Coaching and cajoling people, offering feedback and providing opportunities to learn and grow: these are the ways a leader can transform the effectiveness of their team. What’s getting in their way might be their ability to make decisions within the scope of their job.  Like many other things, making the right decision gets easier with practice and examples.  Empowering people isn’t about giving all of them unlimited sign off authority instantly, but empowering them to make the decisions they need to for a productive and happy working life – *and* – is a great way to get engaged and committed, enthusiastic contributors.  This can take the form of permitting them to flex their start times to something which works better for them.  It can be permitting them to choose to work remotely.  It can be keeping the organisation at arms length while a self-forming Agile team goes through the stages before “performing”.  All of this is still enabling to me, although somewhere in the middle for some people that switches to empowering.  I just view the whole thing as “removing barriers that stop people doing their best”.

The last attribute is foresight.  Some people find this easy, but I tend to the view that the ones who are superb at this don’t do a lot of the other things you need to do.  Nevertheless it is a necessary task.  All the enablement you can offer is not going to bring about the changes you need to deliver unless the direction is clear, and that’s especially hard to find in operational teams; when you’re leading change it’s usually a bit easier.  You can do this poorly and the change can still be delivered, but when you do it well you supercharge the team’s ability to deliver.  The larger the change, the bigger the focus on this attribute.  If you have this, but can’t communicate it, you’re going to at least make some good decisions.  If you have this and can communicate it, you can provide people with a vision of the future that can invigorate and even inspire them.

It’s a tall order, and it needs to be worked on every day.


Some links to useful articles:’s take on what servant leadership is

A really good book by an examplar on the topic

Wikipedia’s definition of Servant Leadership



JFDI, or the illusion of fast delivery

Every now and then a change is issued as a JFDI.  Blanket exemption from everything, throw resources at it, just get it done.  (If you don’t know what JFDI stands for, ask someone old enough to vote).

In an organisation which has a good level of control over its change, JFDI is the exception.  In a badly run change organisation, JFDI is the norm.  In an organisation which is too rigid, nothing is ever done by JFDI.

Did I just say that no JFDI is a bad sign?  I did, and it can be. For two reasons.  First the less contentious JFDI learnings.

Organisations need to be cautious about doing change via JFDI routes because JFDI destroys value before it delivers anything.

As soon as you do something by a JFDI route, stampeding through process gates and ignoring boundaries of responsibility, you show that the organisation can ignore all those safeguards you’ve been putting in place with the assurance, training, communications, and best practice processes.  That’s a bad precedent to establish.

JFDI tramples on other people’s work.  If you aren’t on the JFDI train, don’t get in its way.  This discourages people from working on anything else, destroys teams already in place (by robbing resources), weakening committment, morale, and initiative, and harming the long-term retention of those thrown under said train.

JFDI ignores strategic considerations – in a software change organisation, it often ignores architecture and design patterns, testing best-practice and planning, stop-to-think time – whether it’s a good idea to continue or not; in a manufacturing organisation (where it’s very rare indeed) JFDI represents shipping a prototype without testing.  In some organisations it’s simply unthinkable.

The aftermath of a JFDI delivery can be wide and long.

Wide: across the organisation which has been afflicted, many projects will have been disrupted.  The cultural impact can also extend beyond the boundaries of those obviously involved – not just the team who delivered the JFDI change, nor even only those who were the recipients of the change, but also the supporting teams – the Finance team, the HR team, the trainers; the PMO or assurance teams; often the testers; IT support (both internal and for external customers).  The negative impact on individuals can, and often does, lead to staff turnover or at least burnout.

Long: change debt.  That whole class of things which are the consequence of having done things the fast way, rather than the right way – technical debt, architectural debt, training debt or process debt, organisational debt.  Technical debt and architectural debt often take years to recover from, and sometimes last the lifetime of the platform which has incurred them – with a knock on effect on many or all changes to that platform.  Training debt results in people being ill-equipped to support the change which has been rushed through, and that in turn demotivates people who are good, provides excuses for failure to all, and reduces the positive impact of whatever change was rushed through.  Process debt is like training debt, but represents the impact of not having designed the right processes in the first place, and no amount of training can fix this if the process people are learning is a bad process.  Organisational debt is a surprisingly common problem which goes unnoticed: when the organisational design has not been updated to allow for the changes which have been brought about, there are gaps in accountabilities and responsibilities – or these have been aligned to a group which doesn’t have a good, organic reason to care about the thing they’ve been given to look at.  I’ve seen an organisation which had absolutely no one accountable for shipping the product to the customer (it was a digital product, but there was still no one, and no organisational unit, which was held accountable for the customer getting the product – the IT department had taken care of it).  Changes cause creeping drift, and every now and then it’s important to realign design and reality (one way or another) and see there aren’t any gaps.

So JFDI comes at a price.

Sometimes organisations make the choice to sacrifice some of the good things that fall by the wayside during a JFDI delivery to achieve something of great value – a takeover (in either direction); hitting a particular deadline for a tremendous opportunity, or to avoid a hideous regulatory hurdle; the sort of disaster or emergency which, for instance, 9/11 represented, and what some organisations did in the aftermath of that.  If they do it conscious of the consequences, and with a recognition of the mess they’ll have to clear up afterwards, they can not only plan for that, but genuinely reduce the impact of these bad things – especially the ones which impact people.  Morale, commitment, initiative, the culture – these all rebound if they recognise that this JFDI thing is an exception, a response to something that happens only rarely, and not the normal way of doing things.

If organisations do JFDI delivery too often, the debts mount up calamitously, much like the stables of Augeas, and it is a labour of Herakles to clear it up.


If there’s no ability to overturn the fences from time to time; if there’s never a situation where you throw caution to the wind and just go for it in a JFDI manner, the organisation you’re looking at may well be suffering from being too hidebound and too cautious.  That doesn’t bode well for the future, and for fending off competitors.  I know there are business domain exceptions – I do not want to be the first to fly on an airliner that’s never been tested, or even which runs software which was produced JFDI; other than in these business domains, the total lack of JFDI can even indicate that the organisation has reached the kind of steady state without change which is the last rattle of a business dying, peacefully, in its sleep.  While a business can rarely recover from this sleep of death, it is typically only with an injection of a very different senior leadership team, and that often comes at this point by aquisition.

And a total absence of JFDI can mean that the organisation has given into the illusion that it controls its market entirely, and can predict everything; and that is also dangerous.  It means that sticking to the plan is more important than pursuing an unexpected turn, which is an environment in which very little (if any) innovation can flourish.  It can happen to organisations at the very peak of their arrogance, and topples large and healthy organisations from their commanding position.


Flushing the Matrix

Finishing off the exploitation of this particular line of thought – and the film reference that goes with it (sorry) with some of the slurry at the end.

Bad things come to those who wait.

The worst challenges of Matrix Management are logical progressions of the concept, and probably inadvertent, but they are common enough to be something to watch out for.


In the kind of change Wolf Bear are involved with, the primary activity of most of the individual contributors on a given project or programme is one requiring focus, attention, and thought.  It might be cabling a server rack well, or it might be writing code, or identifying what felt wrong about a particular functional test, or making a good consistent set of icons for navigation around an app, or a dozen other things that require attention.

Matrix management is sometimes used to slice people’s time too thinly to properly concentrate on what they are delivering.

The focus required can take quite a lot of time to muster, to reach full effect. This is often referred to as “getting in the zone”.  For a lot of coders (for example) it’s a necessity to have a long run up at solving particularly challenging problems, and that doesn’t make them a bad coder – often quite the opposite.  Understanding and getting into the context of a particular project or activity isn’t something that just happens, at least for most people.  Context shifting comes at an intellectual, energetic, and motivational cost, and it harms the concentration and reduces output.

With matrix management, some organisations think they can spread people out ever more thinly, and receive the same results.  A cariacature of a project manager often repeated is: “A project manager is someone who thinks that if producing a baby takes a woman nine months, putting 8 extra women on the job should produce the baby in a single month.”  Many organisations behave as if they believe that they can equally split a person across 4, 6, or even (the worst I’ve seen) 16 different projects and still receive the same attention, quality, and output.

I notice that in every large organisation I’ve seen adopt this kind of approach they have been careful to avoid doing it to flagship projects (programmes, etc.).  Any time you see a behaviour consciously avoided for flagship projects, you know that the organisation knows it harms delivery, and they choose that compromise for the less important things either because it’s how it’s always done (intellectual apathy), or because it’s a compromise they are willing to make.

The results at the negative end of the spectrum include some that are pretty obvious – slower completion, lower quality, increased rework – but they also include some less obvious results: the consequences of forcing people to work in a way which they know they are less good at destroys motivation, lines them up for the kind of performance review which drives them to leave (and sometimes leave permanent employment entirely), and even if their performance review doesn’t suffer, the constant drudgery of producing something less good than what you know you could if you were just given the chance is debilitating.  This is the illusion of efficiency – it feels cheaper to split people across projects – over effectiveness.  It is often better to focus on doing a few things well and quickly than doing many things at the same time, but taking longer to finish anything.  There are scholarly articles in the canon of psychology exploding the myth of multitasking on an individual level, but organisations as well only have so much focus too – but that’s for another article.  True efficiency is a result of comparing the total inputs with the total outputs, but the perception of efficiency is not always as well thought out.

In short: careful with focus; it is fragile, and if it’s too dilute, it harms progress dramatically.

Matrix Dumps

There’s a consequence from matrix management on the (leadership of the) team from whom the matrix resource is drawn.  Very few people become leaders of teams because they are thrilled by utilisation spreadsheets.  (I would like to think it is none, but a variation on Rule 34 probably applies).  If you take their team away on a regular basis and largely divorce them from what the team are doing, what do you expect their response will be?

The team leader might stay.  All organisations have a degree of turnover in staff, but the fastest to leave are seldom the ones you want to leave.  A team leader who knows he has little to do with the way his team work may not take the care and attention a motivated one would in recruitment of replacements.  This snowballs rapidly: if people work in a team where they know the manager no longer cares, they also lose their interest.  That fuels a drop in engagement, which in turn often increases staff turnover, and the problem accelerates.

As a change leader, this can rob you of the tools you need to deliver change – effective, engaged contributors.  The short term solution is to bypass the more irritating consequences of matrix management and, especially on large, demanding changes, adopt resources wholesale.  Longer term, the changes needed to resolve this issue are more pervasive, and harder to achieve.


This is the disconnect is what lies at the heart of my problem with matrix management: the disconnect between the host organisation and the change vehicle. It is the underlying cause of most of the problems I’ve laid out here, and it is hard to resolve systemically.  Recognising the organisation’s true priorities and focusing on those is an organisational approach with a lot of merit; but it’s hard to get the different competing areas within a big organisation to be patient while other areas get their changes carried out.

This is mostly a problem with waterfall organisations.  Agile’s resourcing is for another time.


Deeper into the Matrix

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Continuing on the theme of Matrix Management … and hoping this sequel doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Developing the Matrix

When your organisation is working hard, and trying to get the most change done there’s a common casualty: Personal development.  Some line managers try to align their resources to the projects which will provide them inherent opportunities to develop, but a lot seem to either lack the time, or are not permitted the chance to flex resources to reflect their hopes, aspirations, and interests.

This isn’t a responsibility you’ll find in any project brief, but remembering that the intent of all projects is either to build, or to protect, the value in the business, and recognising that the combination of motivating and directing your team is not always easy in a matrix environment, it is in your interests and the project/programme’s interest to get involved.  Approach the team members you’ve been assigned and who you can get around to (that’s not going to be everyone in a 200+ person, 2 year, 3 continent programme), but as a minimum those you directly manage within the change organisation, and find out what they want to learn next.  See if you can angle a way for that to be baked into their role on your project.  If they want cross-training into another skill, see if you can facilitate an introduction to someone within the project who can help them out.  This isn’t your main activity; this isn’t the purpose of the project or their engagement with it – but it’s a way of giving them something which in many cases they aren’t getting any other way, and it pays you back greatly.

Considering the time they spend working on your project, you’ll be seeing more of them than their line manager does.  Invest time in them and how you can help them, and you’ll find a team who do give a lot more of their best for you.

Matrix: Because I choose to

Which brings me to the question of motivation.  Matrix management doesn’t inherently provide good motivation to the members of your team to do their best, or even their second-best, for you.  With the combination of the remote performance punishment reward cycle (often annual; as discussed above usually by a line manager who knows very little about the project contribution); the lack of personal investment in the outcome of most changes for the individuals in this environment; and particularly if there’s the salami-slicing of splitting people across multiple things at once (more of that anon), the motivation of those who work under a matrix manager can be very thin.

If you need the best out of the people on your change, and that’s the case if it’s demanding for them or you as a change leader, you need to motivate them.  When they are working for your change all day, every day, if you’re not taking care of their motivation, ask yourself: who is?  Self starters are great, but not everyone is one, and if your team is going to produce something excellent, you need the best out of a lot of them, not just a few.

For a large proportion of their working day, those individual project contributors, or for larger projects or programmes, even those managers, are going to be your vehicle for carrying out your job, so spend some of your focus on them.  One of the best ways is to engineer opportunities for some personal development for them. Another, simple one, is feedback – again, already discussed.  Offering them some flexibility that they don’t otherwise have – like a later start in the morning, provided that doesn’t harm the needs of the team and the delivery – it’s often surprising what will make a difference.  Remembering always that for a lot of people: motivation isn’t money.

If they are getting all they need from their existing management, you’re not trying to take over, so leave well enough alone.  If they are the kind of self starter who doesn’t need any help like that, again, leave them in peace.  For the others, remember that while they are working on your change, they are your team.



The Matrix? Do you want to know what it is?

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Another movie quote, from The Matrix (1999).

Matrix management is a common affliction.  It is adopted as a way of managing multiple people across an organisation into different temporary organisations (i.e. projects or programmes) without formally transferring them out of their original organisations.  That’s the simple version.  The more intricate version, often adopted in larger organisations in the hope it creates efficiencies (cost savings), is where people are not only loaned out to projects/programmes, but to multiple such temporary organisations at one time.

I’ve given away my position on this in the first line of the previous paragraph.  It’s not that the idea is utterly terrible – in fact it can be done well, and have some really surprisingly good results – but the execution is usually so dreadful that I use the term “affliction” deliberately.  Let’s look at some of the worst sins.

Matrix Performance Desserts

Within the world of work we all get managed towards better performance, at least in theory.  The fact that some contractors (freelancers for those across the sea) cite annual appraisals as the strongest motivator for going that route – rather than the increased financial rewards – speaks volumes about how well that entire process is handled in many organisations.  Nevertheless, in theory we receive coaching on how to improve our performance from our line manager, who has pastoral care responsibilities for us; and in theory in many organisations they are also supposed to support our career development.

So what if all the work we do as individuals, or the vast majority of it, is done for projects via matrix management?

Time and time again line managers are divorced from the quality of their staff’s work.  Matrices are a very good place for poor performers to hide.  It makes me question the point of having any line management in the traditional sense when people within that line are spending all their productive time working in projects away from the perception of the person.

I didn’t say simply “how bad their staff’s work is”.  The lack of visibility cuts both ways. It’s demoralising to work hard for a project/programme, make a real contribution, and then discover that in your end of year review your performance has been marked as mediocre.

Some organisations have the good sense to put in place a means of recognising and rewarding good performance in a more tactical way.  I have yet to encounter an organisation which has a good way of giving just desserts to non-performers in a similar manner – if there’s anybody out there with suggestions, please pass them on!  Neither of these two are a substitute for the performance review goodies – in typical organisations your individual, performance related pay does not necessarily reflect tactical rewards at all, and permanent pay rises are more a question of the line manager’s perception than the value delivered to the company.

I have an odd habit.  I like to collect ways of saying thank you (in different languages for instance).  Last time I counted, I got to around 50 different languages I could communicate thank you in, including some very peculiar ones.  This – albeit not in different languages – is a habit I strongly commend to anyone who has to deal with Matrix Management as part of their role.  Certainly not every week for every contributor, and there will be times when it’s a lot less often, or only a subset, but cultivate a habit of feeding back about good performance to both the contributor and their line manager as a regular part of what you do as a matrix manager.

When it comes to poor performance, the same principle applies.  You don’t have to write a foul-mouthed rant about someone’s unlikely parentage and personal habits, but you should feedback, again to both the contributor and their line manager, if you can see development areas that the person needs to focus on improving.

A bit of coaching to the contributor is useful here too: encourage them to set aside that feedback, from any such matrix engagements, and use it with their line manager during the review process if such a thing happens.  (And since you’re going to be constructive if you’re giving “please improve” feedback – always – you can encourage them to consider for themselves how they can act on that feedback.).

This approach could be shocking for the line manager, so it’s worth letting them know that you will be doing this.  Make sure that they understand that if you’re going to them for an escalation, or for them to take action, you will explicitly say so to them in your communication.  Otherwise every time you do this you may be getting more and more demoralised resources.

I will be jacking back into the Matrix again soon…

A beginning is a very delicate time

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care…” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

The title of this is taken from the 1984 film version of a book I enjoy tremendously, and both quotes are good observations, particularly reflecting the natural world.  New born creatures are delicate, and vulnerable.

With changes, you could be forgiven for thinking the same is true.  Certainly the behaviour around them in many large organisations would lead you to believe that.  The start of projects is often the time when bad news and negative thoughts are hidden, or manipulated.  Risks, downsides, recognised areas of doubt or uncertainty: these are not shared with the decision makers who decide which projects get to continue, and which need to wait.  People treat new projects, programmes, workstreams, unbuilt products as if they were newborn babies, gently, quietly, and with care.

The result is that far more projects (etc.) get attempted than should be; and both the inputs and outcomes of those projects are sometimes very different from what was expected.

The beginning of an endeavour like a project is not a time to be delicate.  It is a time to blow the bloody doors off.  It is a time to thrash around with the idea and see whether it really will hold water.  It’s a time to examine, to question, to try different ideas.  In a healthy, mature change organisation, a lot of changes will stumble at this hurdle.  Some will fall entirely, others will take time to be rethought and approached differently.  Some are already just right, and will go ahead with a confident step knowing that they have already been through a testing time and stood their ground.

Aside from the well known adages about the proportion of effort spent in design versus build, there are other important effects of getting things a bit more right early on, and its opposite.  Right: better-set expectations, the right support early on, well identified stakeholders and supporters.  Wrong: constant political firefighting, distracting detractors, the wrong stakeholders (see earlier comments about Decision Weakness).  Right: A good proportion of the right people in the team to start with.  Wrong: Hammers, where you needed screwdrivers.  Right: time to fight the battles that really need fighting.  Wrong: doing things you know are wrong for the business because a deadline is approaching but you can’t take the time to fix it.

This speaks to the culture of an organisation in general.  If there is a good culture of openness and transparency, the decision makers will know whether ideas are being presented to them having been through a challenging filter, and be better able to trust them; they will also know that a rejection now is not a rejection automatically forever.  If there is a culture of spin and misdirection, projects (and sometimes even programmes) will be started with the gatekeepers having one idea of what will be the outcome, when, and how, and the people in the change vehicle being launched either having a different idea or no idea at all.  “No idea at all” is absolutely fine when the people signing the cheque know that they are backing something entirely exploratory.  Indeed they should be reserving a portion of their change budget (organisation-wide) for just that sort of investment because that’s where the unexpectedly good returns and innovation come from.  It is never fine, however, when they have been sold a different expectation, and it will cause trouble for everyone involved, often particularly those least to blame for it.

One real world example I can think of involves a programme which was started with a very open idea within the culture of that programme – a “let’s see what we can achieve” kind of idea; however the parent organisation was under a much more concrete impression.  If there was a tacit agreement that it would be presented as concrete but continue as blue sky, that tacit agreement fell by the wayside when there was a change of executive management.  Suddenly the open money pit became far less open.  Expectations morphed into demands.  Before very long after the executive change, in my judgement after a generous period of time nonetheless, this programme was stopped.

In the process, the careers of the individual contributors at that institution were blighted.  They had spent a year, or several, working in a culture which was at odds with the parent company culture, acquiring a way of working alien to the parent company.  Their old positions were filled, permanently.  They were looked at, on returning, with a bit of suspicion.  By the end they had been directly disadvantaged financially – as they were deprived of performance bonuses because their programme had (abjectly) failed to achieve the targets it had been set.  If they were completely honest on their CVs when they left that organisation – many did, shortly after – they couldn’t point to the thing they’d worked really hard on being any kind of success, so perhaps even their post-company careers were blighted also.  I can think of dozens of people caught in this particular situation who had nothing to do with the failure of this particular programme.  Most of those I could see being to blame seem to be doing very well for themselves now, although I do know they too had to endure some tough days when things were evidently going badly while the programme was still being run.

Imagine instead a known, arm’s length more risk-oriented investment vehicle, created to attack innovation directly, with a properly understood acceptance of failure, and a deliberate attempt to bring things to a head appropriately quickly… no tarnishing of careers, no great surprise when it isn’t a raging success for any particular line of development, and everyone knows what they are getting into at the start.  (Incidentally, that’s what that company have now set up).

So, in summary: at the beginning, don’t handle the idea with kid gloves, beat the snot out of it.  If it’s still risky, make that really clear to the decision makers.  Changes are best beaten up early, if they are to avoid being beaten up often.