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Principles over processes - Issue #7

Thoughts Unravelled by Hugo Froes
Thoughts Unravelled by Hugo Froes
Implementing change is often associated with changes in processes and practices, but how much change can/should we implement? How do we avoid complexity and uncertainty? How do avoid removing autonomy?

Principles over practices
Many a change agent, whether change managers, operations roles, agile coaches, leadership etc. have the responsibility of helping organisations get “organised”. (There’s a reason I put “organised” in quotation marks, is because that’s a very subjective term and I’ll dig into that further down.)
It’s easy to look at the Ways of Working (WoW) and quickly realise there are a few things that aren’t working well or missing completely. I’ve constantly heard phrases such as:
  • “We’re not agile enough.”
  • “Our teams aren’t user/customer centered.”
  • “Our roadmapping/planning is terrible.”
  • “We don’t have any notion of what we have capacity/capability to build”
  • etc.
The list can be huge, but these are the basics of what I’ve seen at almost every product organisation I’ve worked at.
The first instinct may be to start organising the processes, laying down every step in the process and what to do. You may create documentation to support all of this.
Some start implementing daily stand ups, retros, planning, critiques etc. because, hey, we need to be agile. You may implement a new software to help organise ideas, work and connect everything. In order to be more customer centric, you may make the team focus on more strategic work, but forget to account for the fact we’re still maintaining and building a product day-to-day.
These approaches are often implemented simultaneously, which if you look closely, has created conflicting practices.
Teams are now scrambling between what was old and what is new. Even with the most well laid out plan of change, things can quickly get out of hand. Even if we don’t touch on the point that often the changes are implemented without a way of measuring their impact and effectiveness or how to roll back if needed.
Committing and over-investing in the changes usually means that you’re now stuck with them. The logic being that if we invest enough time in making them work, we’ll eventually get to the tipping point where it starts working.
Reality check
The reality is that those improvements tend to become cumbersome in the long run and have the inverse effect we wanted. They become blockers for agility and innovation. They create uncertainty and insecurity for the teams. The vision and strategy become less clear or more disconnected from the day to day work.
Every step of the process seems laborious and complex. The rotation of talent increases, leadership loses confidence in our ability to deliver. We get pressured to deliver more, because we now take much longer than before.
Unconsciously, we’ve broken the product organisation. New competitors with a tiny amount of market share catch up to us and over take us. How did we reach this point with our change mindset?
The domino affect can start with a single well intentioned change and easily escalate to a point that’s hard to move back from.
The question is how do we implement changes and avoid the complexity of too much process?
Focus on principles
In recent months, my thoughts keep coming back to the concepts of maintaining simplicity while creating impact and making changes.
This thinking is broken into various parts.
First principles thinking:
Much like first principles thinking, I believe we need to focus on the original need we are trying to solve and not on the processe or change we want to implement.
These means focusing on the people who will be impacted by the change and the purpose of the product organisation.
Uncovering a hybrid solution for WoW rather than assuming that Agile, Lean, Scrum, Kanban etc. are the way to go.
It’s about being able to easily roll back when we see something isn’t working or having a negative impact. In some cases, it’s about literally breaking existing practices.
Principles are key:
When we say principles, we can’t think of a set of rules that everyone has to follow blindly, but rather setting done some guidelines that give the connectivity and purpose to the WoW. However, they are adaptable to each team or individuals context and preferences.
By focusing on principles, we give them a purpose and objective rather than strict rules. We want them to feel inspired when doing their work and in how they connect/collaborate with the wider team.
They thus maintain autonomy, but have a connectivity to the central strategy and vision of the organisation.
But what does that actually mean?
The reason it does sound vague, is because these are still initial thoughts, but also because the the focus on principles also means a highly adaptable approach geared towards specific context or situation.
Does it mean that we should stop focusing or learning the various methodologies because they’re pointless or don’t work?
That is definitely not what I’m saying. Knowing those methodologies and practices is key to having a tool kit of concepts to pull from. I’m saying that using the baseline principles of those practices is much more powerful than looking out how to implement specific rituals or practices.
I’m saying we get to lost and invested in the rituals and practices, losing touch with the principles behind them and their original objective.
I’m still looking to build up real case studies for clearer examples, but I suggest reading the book “Working Backwards” by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr listed in the suggested links below as it confirms some of these thoughts in the way Amazon approaches their practices.
Have anything to add or want to discuss these thoughts in more detail?
Please reach out to me on Twitter, Linkedin or Email
Recommended Reading
Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon: Bryar, Colin, Carr, Bill: 9781250267597: Amazon.com: Books
Amazon.com: Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters eBook : Rumelt, Richard: Kindle Store
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Thoughts Unravelled by Hugo Froes
Thoughts Unravelled by Hugo Froes @thehugofroes

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