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Monkeys on our back

A tribute to the never ending projects.

You know those projects that seem to never end. The projects that extend well past their anticipated delivery dates. The projects that can’t catch a break or that can’t find sustained momentum. These are the projects that become the monkeys on our backs.l-Monkey-on-your-back

My experience is probably not so different from yours. There are projects throughout my professional career that I can describe with words like unlucky, doomed, slow, or unsupported. This isn’t necessarily because people dislike the project objectives. But for whatever reason, these projects stick in the portfolio and start to carry a heavier weight to the team that is involved.

Why do some projects hit their scope, timeline, and budget while others flounder?

I wrestled with this question after a discussion this week about the “monkeys on my back”. Thinking through my project experiences, several common themes were present with projects that failed to meet the original expectations of the stakeholders:

  1. Underestimating the complexity – Team members and/or stakeholders underestimate the complexity required to complete a project. Software projects are prone to this issue if the project team underestimates the complexity of business process flows impacted by the software coding. It’s one thing to change code and make systems talk to each other. It’s another thing to consume the new changes and impact process flows of people and equipment.
  2. Shifting the priorities – When a “more important” project takes team members away from an existing project then momentum is lost and work effort is delayed.
  3. Staffing with the wrong people – Sometimes the wrong people are on the team to complete the job. This could be a skills gap for what is necessary to complete the requirements. But sometimes its about cultural fit between team members. Cultural is influenced by factors such as personalities, temperaments, and ideologies.

There isn’t a one-size-fits all answer to getting the monkey(s) off our back. But knowing why the monkey is there may help us to think of ways to get him off!

What are the origins of the phrase “Monkey on my back”?

I did some brief research and could not pinpoint the origin. If you know or find anything different on this let me know.

The 1854 edition of the Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases contains this:

“MONKEY. ‘I’ve put your monkey up,’ is a phrase implying, I’ve roused your spirit, or offended you. ‘I’ve put up your back,’ is an equivalent, which see. A child is said to have the monkey on its back, when in ill humour, or out of temper.”

The 1874 edition of the The Slang Dictionary contains this:

“Monkey, spirit or ill temper; ‘to get one’s Monkey up,’ to rouse his passion. A man is said to have his Monkey up or the Monkey on his back, when he is ‘riled,’ or out of temper; this is old, and was probably in allusion originally to the evil spirit which was supposed to lie always present with a man; also under similar circumstances a man is said to have his back or hump up.”

There are other passages where the phrase is used as a reference to being in debt with a mortgage.

In more recent times the phrase is used to describe a heavy burden or even a drug addiction.

This much we do know.  We’d like to get those monkeys off our back. So take some time to think about why they are there. Then see if you can shake them loose.

Onward and upward!

Repeating software processes. To attract and repel.

Are we attracted to repetition?

Yes.  We all are. It touches every facet of our lives. As a few examples, we eat the same types of foods each week, we watch the same TV series, and we read books that belong to a series. A study and report from Alix Spiegel of NPR captures the power of repetition in music that attracts us. Spiegel reports that “90 percent of the music we listen to is music we’ve heard before. We return again and again to our favorite songs, listening over and over to the same musical riffs, which themselves repeat over and over inside the music..” She then gives the result of a study that shows how people preferred music with repetition over the same song without repetition.

Repetition in Software Development.

Software development has the same draw for repetition. Managers spend time and thought to create a software development lifecycle (SDLC) that fits their company culture and team skill sets. They want something repeatable to drive efficiencies of a process, consistency of work output, and reliability of estimates. These are the attractiven features of a SDLC.

There’s an entire business industry built on repetition in software development. Books, training, and consultants feed us new ideas and different ways to think. But the end game they seek is adoption to a standard method that works within the framework of our business culture. This is all for good reason. As a professional in the world of software development, I recognize that we must be disciplined. I recognize that we have to think and find more efficient ways to produce software so that we can stay competitive and drive results through the business.

But there is a repelling force to repetition as well.

There are two danger zones that software managers should consider with repetition in process. Both of these creep-in an organization silently. Ironically they destroy the very things that repetitive process can build.

  1. Repetition can stagnate creativity. When we follow a script, we don’t think much about the ‘why’. We don’t think about better ways to do things. We just follow the process because someone already did all that thinking. Worst of all is that we don’t see it. We think we are accomplishing our job because we followed the steps.
  2. Repetition can become the end goal. When checking the boxes on the process flow becomes more important than the final product then the process has become the master. If employees are consumed with following every detail of a process and only satisfied when they mark steps as complete then the process has become larger than the importance of the end result. You’ll recognize this in an organization when the meetings about the process outnumber the meetings about the solution, the who, and the why.

Watch for it!

Watch for it in your organization and life. It’s like two magnets with forces that attract and repel. We have to find a way to both pursue and guard against the powers of repetition in the workplace. This means constant examination. It means living with shades of gray within process. It means we need write with a pencil, allowing for a both a sharp and dull point. The eraser is nice to have also.  🙂



Attacking process waste

I don’t like process waste.

Who does? But how many of us really try to change processes to eliminate or reduce waste? In my experience this is a tough topic, and I dare say an unwelcome one, most of the time. The problem is that in an organization processes are tied to job existence and security. So the people in charge of setting the processes and administering them really don’t see the incentive to make adjustments.

I’m nearing my 20th year of software development experience, so I’ve observed and talked to many practitioners about software development process philosophies and techniques. Process waste starts to build when the people within the organizations place more importance on the process steps (requirements, estimates, and schedules) instead of the process output. The ultimate goal of software development is to make money by producing output. Waste takes away from the output.

Business case modeling and estimates are a common area for waste.

Let me start by saying that business case modeling and estimates are a necessary part of software development. The problem arises when the business case and estimates begin to consume a large percentage of the organizations time and a large percentage of the work is rejected. All of the work becomes throw-away because it has not created a return. Ironically the entire point of the business case is to prevent waste. We don’t want our organizations to produce product that does not yield a financial return.

Think about it. If the software development team is constantly estimating and scoping projects that are not approved then it reduces the amount of usable output created for the business.

The theory of constraints is a critical teaching to understand.

The Wikipedia entry for the Theory of constraints quotes Eliyahu Goldratt.

The underlying premise of theory of constraints is that organizations can be measured and controlled by variations on three measures: throughput, operational expense, and inventory. Throughput is the rate at which the system generates money through sales. Inventory is all the money that the system has invested in purchasing things which it intends to sell. Operational expense is all the money the system spends in order to turn inventory into throughput.

In a perfect world, everything the software development team touches is processed into work output that generates money. We don’t live in a perfect world, but we do want the throughput of the system to be optimized. So it should produce money making output as quickly as possible. Work that is started and later thrown out is like throwing away inventory and only increases the overall operational expense of what it takes to get good output.

You have to work the constraint.

I’m a strong advocate that software development needs to focus on features, not projects. Projects are by definition unequal in size and length. Features are smaller in size, easier to understand, quicker to estimate and assist with providing more consistent system output. Bloated projects tend to have large price tags, take weeks to estimate, and are more likely to be rejected by management.

Think about the project approach. A team may spend two weeks creating a business case to review with management. Then the development team spends another two weeks estimating umpteen features. If the project is rejected then there is four weeks of effort that creates $0 of sellable output. The exercise devolves into a discussion about a single cost to build and the the time required to do so. It’s all or nothing and the focus on the goal of making sellable output is lost.

So if we want to work this particular constraint in the system then we need to evaluate each feature on its ability to achieve the end goal. Everything else is really just noise waste.  I hate waste.

Software Release Management. It’s more than an IT thing.

This is about IT and Business alignment.
I’m fortunate enough to have worked in two different functional areas of a business: IT and Marketing. I can say with 100% confidence that business owners and stakeholders of software releases should be more concerned and involved in the IT release management process. The typical release process covers areas such as requirements specification, feature prioritization, business case modeling, and go-live deployment communication. It’s a set of tasks intended to oversee the requirements, development, testing, and deployment of software releases. Sounds very IT, but it should be a shared business process.

Release management is about adding value.
Release Management is also about how IT and business owners engage in communication that benefits the stakeholders and customers of the business. A business owner could be the CFO, CMO, product manager, finance manager, procurement agent, etc. It’s someone who champions and justifies the contents of a release. An engaged business owner has a chance to more positively influence the results of the release.

I’m not saying they need to know all the details of the software development cycle. I am saying they need to help with defining the process such that it maximizes the potential of the organization. One of the key traits of a successful leader is making success achievable by others. They can do this in the software development cycle by making sure that the process is free of unnecessary work and is efficient in how often work is output.

Mike Sutton and Tym Moore provide a great list of practical ways to improve software release management for CIO.com One key point of Sutton and Moore is that establishing a regular release cycle is vital because:

  • It creates a predictable timetable for when stakeholders can expect to receive functionality. This creates confidence and allows the team to focus more on the content of the release.
  • It creates a routine for all functional teams to align their efforts.
  • It gives clients confidence that your business is regularly delivering new value to the marketplace.

Think features, not projects.
Here’s the rub. To get to regular release cycles (such as every six weeks), your software development process needs to focus on delivering features of work rather than projects of work. Projects by definition have a variable level of scope which means that delivery dates will also be variable. Content for regulatory requirements, compliance issues, new features, or defect fixes are easier to deliver when they split into several smaller units of work effort. It’s a similar the concept of memorizing larger lists by “chunking” the list into smaller groups.

That’s a paradigm shift for many traditional project organizations. But it’s a way to encourage lightweight processes and focus more on delivering value to the client quicker. Salesforce.com discusses release cycles that were becoming longer and delivering less before they turned to a process focused on smaller and regular releases. They saw an immediate increase in the number of features delivered per team and a reduction in the days between releases. Amazon.com, the largest online retailer, also uses regular release cycles.

At then end of the day it’s about efficiency and work output.
Automated machinery is installed on plant production floors for this very reason. The machines produce units of output at predefined intervals. This maximizes value to the business and clients. Our software release output should aim to be the same way. It’s definitely more than an IT thing. It’s just good business.

Urgency is a two-face

What’s the goal of your organization?
Do this. Ask executives in your business what the goal of the business is. Is it to make market leading products and services? Is it to make and serve customers? Or is it really to make money?

Eliyahu M. Goldratt writes in his book “The Goal” that the goal of the organization “is to increase net profit, while simultaneously increasing both ROI and cash flow, and that’s the equivalent of saying the goal is to make money.”

The business may be about making a particular product or service. But the root goal is to supply money to its stakeholders and employees.

Is there an urgency within the organization to make money?
The farther you go up in the organizational chart the more you’ll find an urgency for making money. It’s sensible, because the higher the position the more responsibility it has for delivering results. Delivering financial results is directly correlated to keeping a job.

Yet you won’t find this same urgency in the lowest ranking levels of the organization. Those at the bottom of the organization are tasked with following procedures, gaining approvals, and struggling against organizational entropy. The processes we make, though well intentioned, often become the focus and goal of the rank-and-file. Getting through the day is not about making money, but about getting an approval and checking a box.

Urgency and bloated processes clash.
Let’s face it. Processes, by nature, grow with the aim of filling something that is missing. When something goes wrong human nature is to insert a new step so it doesn’t happen again. The process grows to try to cover it’s own inadequacies. Before long processes become filled with redundant and unnecessary steps. The irony is the process grows to account for exceptions and errors, but not to achieve the original goal.

Workers are rewarded for following all the steps and they soon find comfort and protection in the process. So it makes sense that the focus of the workers is on the process, not making money for the organization.

There should be an urgency to streamlining processes.
I’m not saying to abandon process and created an unstructured environment of work output. All organizations need some type of process to help create consistent work output at regular time intervals. Process is necessary. But leaders all the way up to the C-suite need to develop an urgency in keeping processes lean and focused on the goal. Help workers deliver more consistent work by making sure they are empowered and enabled to do the work efficiently.

Urgency comes from the top.
If an organization is to change it’s mindset about processes, it needs to come from the top. Management expectations do cascade downward. But if upper management is only concerned about the urgency of making money and not looking at how the organization can make it through operations, then inevitably the organization won’t make the money fast enough.

So spend some time thinking about current processes. Remove steps that don’t directly move work towards output. Remove redundant steps. Identify system bottlenecks, whether people or process, and determine how to alleviate it.

Am I missing something here? I just see big business has a big appetite for making money. But it can’t move fast enough because it trips over itself. So where is the urgency in that?