Culture, Collaboration & Capabilities vs People, Process & Technology

[TL;DR The term ‘people, process and technology’ has been widely understood to represent the main dimensions impacting how organisations can differentiate themselves in a fast-changing technology-enabled world. This article argues that this expression may be misinterpreted with the best of intentions, leading to undesirable/unintended outcomes. The alternative, ‘culture, collaboration and capability’ is proposed.]

People, process & technology

When teams, functions or organisations are under-performing, the underlying issues can usually be narrowed down to one or more of the dimensions of people, process and technology.

Unfortunately, these terms can lead to an incorrect focus. Specifically,

  • ‘People’ can be understood to mean individuals who are under-performing or somehow disruptive to overall performance
  • ‘Process’ can be understood to mean formal business processes, leading to a focus on business process design
  • ‘Technology’ can be understood to mean engineering or legacy technology challenges which are resolvable only by replacing or updating existing technology

In many cases, this may in fact be the approach needed: fire the disruptive individual, redesign business processes using Six Sigma experts, or find another vendor selling technology that will solve all your engineering challenges.

In general, however, these approaches are neither practical nor desirable. Removing people can be fraught with challenges, and should only be used as a last resort. Firms using this as a way to solve problems will rapidly build up a culture of distrust and self-preservation.

Redesigning business processes using Six Sigma or other techniques may work well in very mature, well understood, highly automatable situations. However, in most dynamic business situations, no sooner has the process been optimised than it requires changing again. In addition, highly optimised processes may cause the so-called ‘local optimisation’ problem, where the sum of the optimised parts yields something far from an optimised whole.

Technology is generally not easy to replace: some technologies are significantly embedded in an organisation, with a large investment in people and skills to support the technology. But technologies change faster than people can adapt, and business environments change even quicker than technology changes. So replacing technologies come at a massive cost (and risk) of replacing functionally rich existing systems with relatively immature new technology, and replacing existing people with people who may be familiar with the technology, but less so with your organisation. And what to do with the folks who have invested so much of their careers in the ‘old’ technology? (Back to the ‘people’ problem.)

A new meme

In order to effect change within a team, department or organisation, the focus on ‘people, process and technology’ needs to be adapted to ‘culture, collaboration and capabilities’. The following sections lays out what the subtle difference is and how it could change how one approaches solving certain types of performance challenges.

Culture

When we talk about ‘people’, we are really not talking about individuals, but about cultures. The culture of a team, department or organisation has a more significant impact on how people collectively perform than anything else.

Changing culture is hard: for a ‘bad’ culture caught early enough, it may be possible to simply replace the most senior person who is (consciously or not) leading the creation of the undesirable cultural characteristics. But once a culture is established, even replacing senior leadership does not guarantee it will change.

Changing culture requires the willing participation of most of the people involved. For this to happen, people need to realise that there is a problem, and they need to be open to new cultural leadership. Then, it is mainly a case of finding the right leadership to establish the new norms and carry them forward – something which can be difficult for some senior managers to do, particularly when they have an arms-length approach to management.

Typical ‘bad’ cultures in a (technology) organisation include poor practices such as lack of testing discipline, poor collaboration with other groups focused on different concerns (such as stability, infrastructure, etc), a lack of transparency into how work is done, or even a lack of collaboration within members of the same team (i.e., a ‘hero’ based approach to development).

Changing these can be notoriously difficult, especially if the firm is highly dependent on this team and what it does.

Collaboration

Processes are, ultimately, a way to formalise how different people collaborate at different times. Processes formalise collaborations, but often collaborations happen before the process is formalised – especially in high-performance teams who are aware of their environment and are open to collaboration.

Many challenges in teams, departments or organisations can be boiled down to collaboration challenges. People not understanding how (or even if) they should be collaborating, how often, how closely, etc.

In most organisations, ‘cooperation’ is a necessity: there are many different functions, most of which depend on each other. So there is a minimum level of cooperation in order to get certain things done. But this cooperation does not necessarily extend to collaboration, which is cooperation based on trust and a deeper understanding of the reasons why a collaboration is important.

Collaboration ultimately serves to strengthen relationships and improve the overall performance of the team, department or organisation.

Collaborations can be captured formally using business process design notation (such as BPMN) but often these treat roles as machines, not people, and can lead to forgetting the underlying goal: people need to collaborate in order to meet the goals of the organisation. Process design often aims to define people’s roles so narrowly that the individuals may as well be a machine – and as technology advances, this is exactly what is happening in many cases.

People will naturally resist this; defining processes in terms of collaborations will change the perspective and result in a more sustainable and productive outcome.

Capabilities

Much has been written here about ‘capabilities’, particularly when it comes to architecture. In this article, I am narrowing my definition to anything that allows an individual (or group of individuals) to perform better than they otherwise would.

From a technology perspective, particular technologies provide developers with capabilities they would not have otherwise. These capabilities allow developers to offer value to other people who need software developed to help them do their job, and who in turn offer capabilities to other people who need those people to perform that job.

When a given capability is ‘broken’ (for example, where people do not understand a particular technology very well, and so it limits their capabilities rather than expands them), then it ripples up to everybody who depends directly or indirectly on that capability: systems become unstable, change takes a long time to implement, users of systems become frustrated and unable to do their jobs, the clients of those users become frustrated at  people being paid to do a job not being able to do it.

In the worst case, this can bring a firm to its knees, unable to survive in an increasingly dynamic, fast-changing world where the weakest firms do not survive long.

Technology should *always* provide a capability: the capability to deliver value in the right hands. When it is no longer able to achieve that role in the eyes of the people who depend on it (or when the ‘right hands’ simply cannot be found), then it is time to move on quickly.

Conclusion

Many of todays innovations in technology revolves around culture, collaboration and capabilities. An agile, disciplined culture, where collaboration between systems reflects collaborations between departments and vice-versa, and where technologies provide people with the capabilities they need to do their jobs, is what every firm strives for (or should be striving for).

For new startups, much of this is a given – this is, after all, how they differentiate themselves against more established players. For larger organisations that have been around for a while, the challenge has been, and continues to be, how to drive continuous improvement and change along these three axes, while remaining sensitive to the capacity of the firm to absorb disruption to the people and technologies that those firms have relied on to get them to the (presumably) successful state they are in today.

Get it wrong and firms could rapidly lose market share and become over-taken by their upstart competitors. Get it right, and those upstart competitors will be bought out by the newly agile established players.

Culture, Collaboration & Capabilities vs People, Process & Technology

Achieving Agile at Scale

[tl;dr Scaling agile at the enterprise level will need rethinking how portfolio management and enterprise architecture are done to ensure success.]

Agility,as a concept, is gaining increasing attention within large organisations. The idea that business functions – and in particular IT – can respond quickly and iteratively to business needs is an appealing one.

The reasons why agility is getting attention are easy to spot: larger firms are getting more and more obviously unagile – i.e., the ability of business functions to respond to business needs in a timely and sustainable manner is getting progressively worse, even as a rapidly evolving competitive and technology-led commercial environment is demanding more agility.

Couple that with the heavy cost of failing to meet ever increasing regulatory compliance obligations, and ‘agile’ seems a very good idea indeed.

Agile is a great idea, but when implemented at scale (in large enterprise organisations), it can actually reduce enterprise agility, rather than increase it, unless great care is taken.

This is partly because Agile’s origins come from developing web applications: in these scenarios, there is usually a clear customer, a clear goal (to the extent that the team exists in the first place), and relatively tight timelines that favour short or non-existent analysis/design phases. Agile is perfect for these scenarios.

Let’s call this scenario ‘local agile’. It is quite easy to see a situation where every team, in response to the question, ‘are you doing agile?’, for teams to say ‘Yes, we do!’. So if every team is doing ‘local agile’, does that mean your organisation is now ‘agile’?

The answer is No. Getting every team to adopt agile practices is a necessary but insufficient step towards achieving enterprise agility. In particular, two key factors needs to be addressed before true a firm can be said to be ‘agile’ at the enterprise level. These are:

  1. The process by which teams are created and funded, and
  2. Enterprise awareness

Creating & Funding (Agile) Teams

Historically, teams are usually created as a result of projects being initiated: the project passes investment justification criteria, the project is initiated and a team is put in place, led by the project manager. Also, this process was owned entirely by the IT organisation, irrespective of which other organisations were stakeholders in the project.

At this point, IT’s main consideration is, will the project be delivered on time and on budget? The business sponsor’s main consideration is, will it give us what we need when we need it? And the enterprise’s consideration (which is often ignored) is who is accountable for ensuring that the IT implementation delivers value to the enterprise. (In this sense, the ‘enterprise’ could be either a major business line with full P&L responsibility for all activities performed in support of their business, or the whole organisation, including shared enterprise functions).

Delivering ‘value’ is principally about ensuring that  on-going or operational processes, roles and responsibilities are adjusted to maximise the benefits of a new technology implementation – which could include organisational change, marketing, customer engagement, etc.

However, delivering ‘value’ is not always correlated to one IT implementation; value can be derived from leveraging multiple IT capabilities in concert. Given the complexity of large organisations, it is often neither desirable or feasible to have a single IT partner be responsible for all the IT elements that collectively deliver business value.

On this basis, it is evident that how businesses plan and structure their portfolio of IT investments needs to change dramatically. In particular,

  1. The business value agenda is outcome focused and explicit about which IT capabilities are required to enable it, and
  2. IT investment is focused around the capability investment lifecycle that IT is responsible for stewarding.

In particular ‘capabilities’ (or IT products or services) have a lifecycle: this affects the investment and expectations around those capabilities. And some capabilities need to be more ‘agile’ than others – some must be agile to be useful, whereas for others, stability may be the over-riding priority, and therefore their lack of agility must be made explicit – so agile teams can plan around that.

Enterprise Awareness

‘Locally’ agile teams are a step in the right direction – particularly if the business stakeholders all agree they are seeing the value from that agility. But often this comes at the expense of enterprise awareness. In short, agility in the strict business sense can often only deliver results by ignoring some stakeholders interests. So ‘locally’ agile teams may feel they must minimise their interactions with other teams – particularly if those teams are not themselves agile.

If we assume that teams have been created through a process as described in the previous section, it becomes more obvious where the team sits in relation to its obligations to other teams. Teams can then make appropriate compromises to their architecture, planning and agile SDLC to allow for those obligations.

If the team was created through ‘traditional’ planning processes, then it becomes a lot harder to figure out what ‘enterprise awareness’ is appropriate (except perhaps or IT-imposed standards or gates, which only contributes indirectly to business value).

Most public agile success stories describe very well how they achieved success up to  – but not including – the point at which architecture becomes an issue. Architecture, in this sense, refers to either parts of the solution architecture which can no longer be delivered via one or two members of an agile team, or those parts of the business value chain that cannot be entirely delivered via the agile team on its own.

However, there are success stores (e.g., Spotify) that show how ‘enterprise awareness’ can be achieved without limiting agility. For many organisations, transitioning from existing organisation structures to new ‘agile-ready’ structures will be a major challenge, and far harder than simply having teams ‘adopt agile’.

Conclusions

With the increased attention on Agile, there is fortunately increased attention on scaling agile. Methodologies like Disciplined Agile Development (DaD) and LargE Scale Scrum (LeSS), coupled with portfolio concepts like Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) propose ways in which Agile can scale beyond the team and up to enterprise level, without losing the key benefits of the agile approach.

All scaled agile methodologies call for changes in how Portfolio Management and Enterprise Architecture are typically done within an organisation, as doing these activities right are key to the success of adopting Agile at scale.

Achieving Agile at Scale

Strategic Theme #1/5: The Lean Enterprise

[tl;dr Agile and lean concepts are core to any enterprise cultural transformational efforts, but need to extend beyond the realm of the IT function to ensure the desired strategic outcomes from a business perspective are achieved.]

Cultural and process transformation is high on the agenda for many large businesses, as this is (correctly) seen to be necessary to innovate and maintain agility.

However, such transformation is not limited to IT – it needs to extend to financial management, and risk, governance and compliance in order for IT to realise it’s full potential.

A lot of the thinking here is very well captured in the book ‘The Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organisations Innovate at Scale’ by Humble, Moleskin & O’Reilly.

It covers key ideas such as:

  • extending agile/systems thinking and kaizen (continuous improvement) beyond the realms of IT into financial management, risk, governance and compliance;
  • differentiating exploration from exploitation from a project portfolio perspective (applying real-option theory to portfolio selection and project execution);
  • recognising and transforming the dominant corporate culture (pathological, bureaucratic or generative);
  • starting small and tolerating failure.

This material dovetails nicely with other thought-leading publications such as ‘The Phoenix Project’ (Kim et al) and ‘Continuous Delivery’ by Humble & Farley.

Other ‘lean’ best practices, such as Scaled Agile or LeSS (Large-scale scrum) also address these themes, although these do not attempt to bring the thinking into the non-IT domains of financial management and governance, etc, which (in my view) ignores a key driver for why IT processes in many large organisations are as broken as they are. Never-the-less, they all bring useful insights to the table and any one of them should be part of any transformational agenda.

Addressing complexity is something implicit in this topic: on its own, doing lots of experiments does nothing but create more complexity (even if they do temporarily add value). Systems thinking requires understanding what is no longer needed as much as what is needed (or, alternatively, what is strategic and what is commodity), and is key to preventing complexity from impeding innovation.

For now, I’m not convinced the topic of complexity management has been adequately addressed, but more on this as I dive deeper into this area.

The topic of ‘Lean Enterprise’ is more directly relevant to change management than it is to architecture. However, since architectures invariably follow Conway’s Law (which states that system designs follow the communication structures of organisations), how projects are run, and the level of collaboration established at the outset, can materially impact architectural outcomes, and this must be the starting point for major architectural change,

Strategic Theme #1/5: The Lean Enterprise