In our change-harvesting take, we have human, local, oriented, taken, and iterative as our attributes of successful change strategy.
Let’s take up oriented: How do we reconcile our emphasis on locality against the far-away target that is our goal?
Before we begin, I want to reiterate my support for those folks out in the world who are working so hard for peaceful change in the US.
Black lives matter to me, and I greatly appreciate your effort and risk.
Stay safe. Stay strong. Stay angry. Stay kind.
(We’ve already discussed human and local. Both will be up on the blog any minute, but you can work backwards here:
Locality drives us to steps that are nearby, within our ready grasp, & therefore inherently small. But our vision isn’t small, our program isn’t, it’s quite large. We can’t get to it in one local step. How do we reconcile this? Oriented, taken, & iterative, each have an angle.
Oriented is as simple as this: After every local step, we take a second and simply turn our selves back towards our distant target before we choose or take the next step.
Humans are actually quite good at this. You do it when you cross a busy road. There, it happens so quickly you hardly notice it. More consciously, you do it when you navigate to your vacation or tourism spot. Take a step, face the landmark, take a step, face the landmark.
Orientation is about awareness of the target. We can oppose it to precision aiming, constructing a detailed and intricate description or specification of that target.
The key landmark of the US National Mall is the Washington Monument, which anchors and centers it. It’s 13 stories tall, and you can see it rather easily from a distance. When we go to the Mall, we do it by noticing where we are w.r.t that landmark, and choosing & taking a step.
What we don’t do: we don’t describe in meticulous detail the shape of the monument, the number of blocks making it up, the elevator shaft that takes you to the top, the surrounding grassy field pierced by pathways.
And another really important thing we don’t do: we don’t move in a straight line. A great many, even most of the steps we take are not directly and precisely aimed at the monument.
DC’s no NY, but it’s no Great Plains either. Going in a straight line towards the monument, we’d be plowing into buildings, across hazardous highways, and, depending, over rivers that are well over our heads.
It would be, to put it very mildly, inefficient to go straight.
That is why, after each step, we turn once again and face the monument. We’re putting it in our awareness, but we’re not letting that awareness dominate our step-taking.
Orientation calls for a kind of "fish-eye lens" approach to the world. We succeed with locality by paying very close attention to our immediate surroundings. We succeed in combining local steps into a global target by being aware of that target while we step.
We can’t ignore the target, certainly not, but our greatest zoom, our greatest attention to detail, to planning, to responsiveness, is not the far-away target, it’s the shaping of the next step.
A negative case: Virtually all old-school development efforts are thoroughly based in precision aiming.
They combine this with "finish-line efficiency", never taking steps that aren’t on that straight line to the fully described distant landmark.
The idea is to specify the City on the Hill in intricate and perfect detail, then send a team or teams off to implement it in its final form.
By and large, this doesn’t work very well. There are a number of factors to account for why it doesn’t work that well, so let’s take a look at some of them.
- Getting that detailed target specification right is preternaturally difficult in the first place. It’s made harder, too, by the heavy politics that typically attend such decision-making. Every decision will drive the next six months or a year of work, so it’s very high stakes.
- The approach assumes that there are no intervening buildings, highways, or rivers, so all that matters is the landmark, not any detours, workarounds, or intermediate difficulties.
- The model assumes that neither the target itself nor the landscape between here and there will change. In fact, both change quite frequently.
- The model assumes that nothing valuable exists between here and the target. On your way to the DC Mall, you’ll see lots of little art shops, excellent food stands, and even some buskers. But they won’t be on the perfect straight line to the target, you’ll have to jiggle.
- When things do go south, even a little, the result is lawyerly and contract-centric, characterized by defensiveness, finger-pointing, and a kind of pilpul around the explicit meaning of words in the specification. Collaboration is slowed and halted.
The upshot? It’s been a few years, but McConnell’s data said that 2/3rd of all large projects, and these were all precision-aimed projects, ran over budget or over schedule or more usually, both.
A positive case: Working by stories in the modern synthesis, we move towards our vision, harvesting value as we go, attending closely to the next step while holding the eventual target vision in our awareness.
Each story is a local step: our mission is to get stories that fit in a scope of under two days of team effort. Some of the stories snatch at partial value. Some of the stories cash in on discovered partial value. Some of the stories forward us directly towards the target.
This works surprisingly well. The factors in its success are multiple, so let’s take a look at a few of them.
- The scope of an individual story is such that we can hold it in our heads all at once. It is effectively "local", and it leans heavily into the sweet spot of human mental bandwidth. Steps taken like this have the paramount advantage that, simply put, they actually get done.
- If a given story achieves partial value, that value is now in a stream of value, easing our budgetary constraints, and fueling our next step.
- Though precision aiming doesn’t conceive of work outside the rush to the target, the market demands it quite often. Working by stories lets us pause our big project, knock out a side project, then return.
- The changing landscape and the changing target itself present no particular problem to us when working by stories. Each story is self-contained, and most of them do not depend on future stories for value. We are not committed past the current story.
- When things go south, we correct by adjusting our next story accordingly. No need for angry fraught emergency meetings. No cage death-matches up in the C-suite, just orient and take the next swing. (Arguably, entertainment value is lowered. But it’s worth it for productivity.)
Working by stories is an incredibly powerful technique, and the better we get at it, the more we succeed. It’s based on an idea of orientation. Choose a step, take it, face the distant target, repeat.
Now. We still don’t quite have all the pieces. We need to talk about "taken" and we need to talk about "iterative". Coming soon, to a muse near you.
Change-harvesters use an oriented style for making changes, whether they be changes in code or changes in process: we take local steps, then turn to face our faraway target, over and over again.
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