Fragile cultures — doing more, achieving less
Have you ever seen it…?
…those working 80-hour weeks as standard?
The analyst that’s on every project in the department but only officially costed and resourced for one; the project manager overseeing a programme of work; the designer, the architect, the front-end, the back-end, all breaking their backs trying to bring the project in on time and within budget and delivering all of the requirements?
We’ve all seen it.
Hell, most of us have been there.
Unfortunately, these people aren’t always heroes, more often than not they’re victims.
Going back to basics — because sometimes it’s the simplest, most foundational principles and lessons that we so easily forget — you can only control three things on any project: time, quality, cost.
Increasing the quality usually means more time, though you could decrease time with more resource, but this will cost more, and vice versa.
Close-to-pure “agile”, and all the various wagile / fragile variants found in most large-scale implementations, isn’t an elixir and doesn’t mean you can control everything — to the dismay of middle and upper management who ask questions like, “…but we’re agile now, how come we’re so far behind?”
Waterfall attempts to control for all three, but due to scale and length of projects, and the challenge of change, you could end up with a useless product.
Agile attempts to control quality only — time and cost are essentially scope decisions. We can deliver a by June but we could deliver a + b + c by September.
Continuously reacting to user input, market conditions, business requirements, and pressures of resource and budget are what make you agile, it’s not as simple as promoting a PM to Scrum Master, having ceremonies, and calling it done. (More about Agile v. agility in another story.)
Your project sponsor, your programme manager, your director, your business SME, whomever it is, it is their responsibility to understand the priorities of the project and adjust timelines, scope, or resource appropriately, then communicating out to manage expectations.
The problem is we get this wrong, all the time.
Whether it’s unclear roles and responsibilities, not appropriately setting expectations, lack of ongoing communication, or pressure from the top, we turn our heroes on the ground into victims by not understanding the limits of our projects’ or organisations’ abilities to control (or react to) one or more of time, quality, cost.
The analyst who used to manage a few dozen requirements is now managing a few hundred — the quality of each requirement goes down, and the time taken to get them done goes up.
The developer who used to have velocity of a couple dozen points per sprint is now pushing into the 40s, but the quality of code is dropping, the number of bugs increasing, and the amount of technical debt has the potential to cripple the system.
The rest of your colleagues, your employees, they go from the contract-hours whiz-kids who go the extra mile whenever they can and wherever they recognise an opportunity, to becoming victims of success — bruised and broken by fragile but brutal cultures that press upon them.
Working late on a Friday night once in a while to make sure the release goes without a hitch before the weekend? That’s them.
Coming in super early Monday morning to make last-minute preparations for the big planning meeting and board presentation? That’s them.
Constantly doing and delivering, just getting-shit-done across the board? That used to be them.
Staying late every Friday because we’re trying to cram too much in and timelines are going to pot? That’s them now.
Coming in early every morning because of the raft of meetings with no actions or valuable outcomes plague their diary every day and the 6am-9am shift is the only time they get-shit-done? That’s them.
Skipping lunch every day because it’s the only time they can check their emails and reply to messages? That’s them.
Staying late every night because they spent all day working around technical debt and production bugs, and at night is the only time they get to actually work on new features? That’s them.
We’ve all been them. They’re all of us.
There’s definitely such a thing as good pressure, and there are times when you can perform superbly well under pressure, and yes, some people even thrive on it — I know I do, sometimes.
But the thing is, not everyone is the same, and not everyone can perform in the same way, and not everyone wants to perform in the same way — but that doesn’t mean that their work and their contributions are not valuable!
And culture is crucial in driving that.
The reason culture is so important is it’s impact is the difference between those who want to go the extra mile and those who feel they have to do it.
If you strike the right balance, understand priorities and believe in the people with whom you work, then a contract working day is plenty enough to get shit done — and those who see additional opportunity or want to do more, can do so.
But if you don’t understand your business, your priorities, or trust your people, then it turns into cramming a six-month project into two, or working across eight projects because we won’t hire additional resource but expect them all to come in under budget and time and with the same quality.
Recognise that we don’t always have the luxury of being able to do everything we want and that we need to react to our environments, consider priorities, and, at times, make concessions.
We must do this, because if we don’t, we risk turning our stars, our key players, our heroes, into victims.