Making a full commitment
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Making a full commitment

I ran across a guest post at Smart Football this morning when I was trawling around looking for more takes on UH’s ridiculous last second 46-45 win over Tulsa last night that I think applies to just about any field as well as it applies to football coaching. The piece is a provocative argument about how to implement offensive schemes in football, but it could just as easily apply to adopting agile development practices on a software development team. Here’s the part that really resonated with me:

Before discussing the technical benefits, let me first say that operating exclusively out of a four-wide environment is the first step a coach makes towards acculturating his program to the offense. To run the run and shoot effectively, it is necessary to commit to it entirely. Coaches that retain the ability to use tight ends, h-backs, and multiple-back sets create a crutch upon which they can fall back on when things don’t go as well as they’d like in the early going. Inevitably, what happens then is that the team becomes a multiple-set team that uses some run and shoot packages on passing downs. What never happens, however, is that the team converts to the run and shoot culture. And without that, the coaches and the players never become fully comfortable in the system, and then when the team struggles more, they blame the system.

When you decide to run this offense you need to burn your bridges with the past. You have to declare, “This is what we will sink or swim with. We are a run and shoot team.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in those two paragraphs, in that they describe the difference between a plan on paper and what happens when actual humans try to implement a plan. As a coach (or software development manager), the temptation is always to try to keep your options open so that you can adapt to any situation that arises, but what often happens in those cases is that it can leave the team confused. The more branches you have in your logic, the easier it is for team members to make poor decisions and to second guess the decisions other people are making.

Let’s take test-driven development for example. I don’t believe it can work without a full commitment. Either you demand that tests are written in all cases, in the manner prescribed, or you can watch your TDD regime wither away as competing pressures give people a reason not to write tests. In some cases, applying TDD may not make the most sense, but using it anyway creates a culture that practices TDD. This doesn’t answer the question of whether TDD is the right or wrong practice for a particular team, but once the decision has been made that it is, only a full commitment will lead to its successful application.

You can apply this logic to any practice a team wishes to adopt, whether it’s as small as always writing a descriptive comment when checking in code or as big as using pair programming.

Just as team members must have the discipline to implement the philosophy that the team leader prescribes, so too must the team leader have the discipline to choose a philosophy and make a full commitment to it. Or at least that’s the argument that the poster makes.

How to lay people off
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How to lay people off

Just a quick note on two companies that recently had layoffs. I respect this a lot more than this. Honestly I have no idea what O’Reilly is doing in terms of outplacement, so it would be wrong to pass any kind of judgement on how they’re treating the people who were laid off. The lack of transparency is a bit unsettling.

These are tough economic times and layoffs are happening all over the place, but I still think employers ought to take Tim’s advice and make sure they’re creating more value than they capture in their relationship with their employees.

Update: Never mind what I said (about O’Reilly). Here’s Tim’s blog post on the layoffs.

Leadership means confronting reality
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Leadership means confronting reality

The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein calls out Wall Street executives for failing to lead in the years when the entire economy shackled itself to the unsustainable rise in housing prices. In this case, leadership means accepting reality and helping other people see and accept that reality as well.

Throughout the expansion of the real estate bubble, there were plenty of people out there who were saying that the bigger the bubble got, the more damaging the collapse was going to be. Unfortunately, none of them were in a position to do much about it.

Here’s Pearlstein:

One thing we know about leadership is that it rarely involves using excuses such as “All the other kids were doing it.” That’s only a slight oversimplification of what we’ve heard from the masters of the financial universe in explaining how things could have gone so wrong. The more elaborate explanation goes something like this:

“Yes, we saw that there was a deterioration in underwriting standards for loans, and yes, we understood we were taking on additional risks to our company and to the system by making lots of those loans and putting them on our books. But you have to remember that this was where the big growth in the industry was coming from. If we had refused to go along, we would have effectively put ourselves out of the game. We would have lost market share. Our profitability would have been significantly lower. Our stock price would have been hammered. We would have been crucified by analysts and the financial press, short-sellers would have begun to circle, and before long some hedge fund masquerading as an ‘activist investor’ would have bought a stake and begun to agitate for a change in management.”

Pearlstein then goes on to describe what real leadership looks like. And what I like is that he makes the most important point — leadership is more than telling the truth. Anyone can explain what’s wrong and hope people listen to them — leadership is about bringing about needed change. None of the many economists, journalists, bloggers, or innocent bystanders who saw this coming were able to prevent the subsequent unraveling. But the CEO of one major investment bank could have. One highly placed cabinet official could have. One committee chair in Congress probably could have. The head of the Federal Reserve could have. The President certainly could have. They all declined because it was easier to try to blend in with the herd.

It’s not as though I, a programmer who blogs about whatever shiny idea captures his interest, is any smarter than the CEO of Lehman Brothers or wiser than the Secretary of the Treasury. I just don’t have any vested interests or any influence over what actually happens. The risks are much greater for people who are in a position of leadership, but they’re the ones who asked to be put in these positions in the first place. The fact that they opted into the shared delusion rather than facing reality is the most damning indictment of their leadership that can be made, and none of the excuses they’re making should be accepted.

Winning process
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Winning process

Paul DePodesta is a baseball guy who was made famous in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball. At the time of the writing he was the assistant to A’s general manager Billy Beane, and then went on to serve as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now he works in the front office for the San Diego Padres. On his blog, he writes about the basics of building a successful team. The key is to focus on process rather than outcome:

We all want to be in the upper left box – deserved success resulting from a good process. This is generally where the casino lives. I’d like to think that this is where the Oakland A’s and San Diego Padres have been during the regular seasons. The box in the upper right, however, is the tough reality we all face in industries that are dominated by uncertainty. A good process can lead to a bad outcome in the real world. In fact, it happens all the time. This is what happened to the casino when a player hit on 17 and won. I’d like to think this is what happened to the A’s and Padres during the post-seasons. :-)

As tough as a good process/bad outcome combination is, nothing compares to the bottom left: bad process/good outcome. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing that allows for one-time success but almost always cripples any chance of sustained success – the player hitting on 17 and getting a four. Here’s the rub: it’s incredibly difficult to look in the mirror after a victory, any victory, and admit that you were lucky.

The whole article is well worth reading.

A couple of Obama items
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A couple of Obama items

I saw two interesting Barack Obama-related items over the past few days. (This isn’t a “vote for Obama” post, it’s more about process.) The first is this spreadsheet of internal predictions from the Obama campaign that was leaked on February 7. In it, his campaign predicts how the popular vote and delegate allocations will turn out in each state, and the thing about it is that it’s amazingly accurate. He underestimates his margin in some states he won, but his predictions aren’t far off until late in the primary season.

Well ahead of time, his campaign predicted that it would lose Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Given that they had a plan for victory, it’s clear that the plan accounted for not winning those states. I think his late season underperformance has to more to do with the fact that he didn’t have to try very hard late in the season. He was going to win the nomination with or without Kentucky or West Virginia, and so he put less money and face time into those races than he would have had he needed to do better there to secure the nomination.

As someone who’s asked every day to predict how long it will take to fix bugs and add features to software, I’m impressed with this degree of accuracy in projecting the future. I’d love to read a post-mortem after the election that explains how the campaign came up with its forecast.

The other thing I found interesting was Obama’s June 6 speech to campaign staff. It answers the question, “How do you explain to employees that they don’t get any days off for the next five months?” I think he does a pretty good job.