Not Even Wrong – More on levels of abstraction 4

November 2014
Stockholm @ Pappas Deli

In a previous text I talked about involving the delivery team in all levels of abstraction. Today, I thought I’d elaborate a tad on that subject.

If, at the point when any idea reaches the team, the level of abstraction is low, the inevitable result will be a few frustrating rounds of the team questioning the idea, the desired outcome, the position of the idea in the bigger picture, and so on.

In order to be efficient, you thought you’d have some other fine folks (not the team) do some heavy thinking on this matter that concerns you. And to be fair, you hade all the right intentions when proceeding this way. Your idea was to have some work done in parallell, as the team in question was not yet ready to dig into this as they were busy working on current work in progress. You thought you’d save some time. Unfortunately, the time you thought you were to save was eaten up by frustration, confusion and dejection. Was that at all foreseeable?

In some sectors, concepts are dreamed up by the “idea people” and then “built” by the people who know how to actually build stuff. In such environments, being an “idea person” is “better” or more prestigious than being a grunt developer or designer. As the two worlds of advertising and product development slowly becomes indistinguishable from each other, we will be facing issues such as these more frequently.

So it seems that we find ourselves at a cross road: Do you want people who “do as they’re told” or do you want people who invest all their intellectual and emotional capacities in the pursuit of the goals of the organization? The difference is one between facilitating a journey towards a shared understanding and commitment to the desired outcome, and working against the natural flow of things. Against how humans function. I’ve heard arguments against my line of reasoning in the shape of “sometime you have to just buck down and do the work. It can’t be fun all the time”, or “other people (than the product developers) must also be allowed to create concepts”.

These are, in my opinion, somewhat misguided objections, as they serve only to defend a suboptimal approach to work, and they are uttered when sub-optimal approaches blow up in someone’s face. The approach is flawed, because they work against, not with, how people actually think and feel. Moved up the chain to higher order thinking, what you’re saying is “I have a desire for people not to function the way they do, as it would suit my purposes better if they didn’t, and what I expect to happen next is that these people, in this situation, will somehow react differently than humans normally do, because I pay them to”.

Okay, moving on: another problem with this is that when too low abstraction ideas end up at team level, you will have no other choice but to add one player to the team that is “in charge” of vision. This person will need to be “the voice of the sponsor”, or even be the very sponsor herself. Simply stated, when not including a team in higher level of abstraction work, there will inevitably emerge a need for someone who can stand up for this thing that is to happen. And if we’re at a low level of abstraction, it has to happen in a certain way, as described by the level of detail that is the result of someone other than the team pushing the idea through the creative funnel, a funnel that consist basically of progressively reduced levels of abstraction and increased number of constraints. On this journey, the available number of options are reduced prematurely and there will be a hand-off that you will have to pay rather dearly for.

Now, this hand-off places an interesting amount of pressure on this someone who is “in charge of vision”, as this someone not only have to be able to explain to the team why the chosen thing to do is the most important or prudent thing we can do, this someone also has to be able to explain why doing this important thing this way, is our best idea on how to proceed.

Basically, this person has to take the team on a journey through the levels of abstraction that the idea has already travelled and this person, no matter how skilled he or she is, will not be able to recreate the learning conditions that are optimal for understanding and learning. This is educational psychology 101, well expressed in the old proverb:

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand

Now, in Scrum, our most wide spread Agile framework, the Product Owner runs about collecting stakeholder needs and wants. In this framework, the PO is that “someone” as described above.

As you may know, I think that the Product Owner role is severely broken, and I argue for a world where the ownership of products and work rests firmly within the team. One of my core arguments for this is that the PO role separates thinking from doing, and as we know, knowledge workers think for a living. Stripping that away from them is not only a waste of talent and creativity, it’s demotivating and a clear breach of Demings 12th point: “remove barriers to pride of workmanship”.

The PO run the risk of becoming such a barrier for everyone involved in a scrum team. Provided of course that you have reached such team heights that holistic product thinking has become “the way work works”, where the source of the “pride of workmanship” can be found in the holistic product, not in particulars of the code or the design. One of the reasons why some people are taken by surprise by this is that they didn’t pay attention to the ongoing development, where those that were once code- or design monkey’s have now evolved into product developers. And these people are quite capable of understanding the business aspects of the products that they are creating.

This is why the business side could benefit from focusing their strengths towards finding those high abstraction questions that are in dire need of answers, questions that if answered could make a difference for the organization as a whole. Strategy could be about observing the way things unfold and asking the right questions to the right people. Speed and capacity could be measured by the number of questions that the organizations can explore, and how fast the exploration yields insight and effect.

Everything could be about finding answers to these questions, by way of experiments, involving the teams and making use of their collective capacity for creativity, problem solving and passion.

With a balanced, mature and capable team in place, the old adage “take it to the team” has never been sounder advice.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

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