It’s been a couple of weeks since my return from LSSC11 in Long Beach, California. My congratulations to David Anderson and the team for putting on a great conference. I was particularly impressed by the diversity of content and choice of keynote speakers. I’m sure the continued adoption of such an outward-looking perspective will keep the lean community a fertile breeding ground for new ideas. For me, personal highlights of the week included an enthusiastic and illuminating conversation about risk management with Robert Charette, meeting Masa Maeda who is obviously both very highly intelligent and a top bloke (thanks a lot for the blues recommendation btw!), a discussion about risk with Don Reinertsen after his excellent Cost of Delay talk (more on this in another post) and catching up with a number of people I haven’t seen for too long.

I think the talk I found most thought-provoking was given by David Snowden. I’d read a couple of articles about the Cynefin framework following a pointer from Steve Freeman and Suren Samarchyan a couple of years ago, but I’d never heard him speak before and the prospect of complexity science and evolutionary theory making it into the keynote of a major IT conference had me excited to say the least. Overall he presented lots of great content, but by the end – and to my surprise – I was left with a slight niggling ‘code smell’ type feeling, something I’d also experienced in couple of the Systems Engineering talks on the previous day. Reflecting on this during his presentation, I realised the cause was essentially two concerns:

1.) The lack of acknowledgment that often we have little or no control over the constraints in a complex adaptive system
2.) The extent to which it’s meaningful to think about lean product development as being ‘natural science’

The first of these will be the subject of the rest of this post. The second I will discuss in my next post.

Constraints in Complex Adaptive Systems

For any agent acting within a complex system – for example, an organisation developing software products and competing in a marketplace – the constraints of that system can be divided into the following core categories:

a.) Constraints they can control. These include software design, development and release practices, financial reward structures, staff development policies, amongst others.
b.) Constraints they can influence. These include how a customer perceives your product compared to the products of your competitors, and the trends and fashions which drive product consumption.
c.) Constraints they can do nothing about and must accept. These include competitor activities, legal constraints, economic climate, and more typical market risks such as exchange rates, interest rates and commodity prices.

Each type of constraint then requires a specific management approach, as follows.

a.) ‘Control’ constraints: this is the domain of organisational and capability maturity models.
b.) ‘Influence’ constraints: this is the domain of marketing and lobbying (both internal/political and external/advertising): for example, one of the most effective growth strategies is to promote ideas which cast the market-differentiating characteristics of your competitors in a negative rather than positive light. However such techniques are only reliable to the extent that no-one else is using them. They also create risk because in such circumstances they create an illusion of control. Once competitors adopt similar techniques then that illusion is revealed, and influence is lost until more sophisticated strategies are devised.
c.) ‘Accept’ constraints: this is the domain of risk management and resilient program management practices.

If an organisation mis-categorises the constraints within which it operates, it can have consequences which are terminal. Almost always this happens because of the illusion of or desire for control, where constraints are mistakenly identified as the first category. The illusion of control is commonly created when complex adaptive systems are in temporal equilibrium states, and so behave predictably for limited (and unpredictable) periods of time. Applying control management techniques in such situations is worse than doing nothing at all, as it creates the illusion of due diligence and hides the real levels of risk exposure. Thinking about the recent financial crisis in these terms, it can be seen as the misapplication of the mathematics of natural science (e.g. Brownian motion in pricing models) in an attempt to manage capital market systems constraints that were actually outside the domain of full human control.

A key to this is something I have blogged about previously: failure handling. Snowden discussed a strategy employed by a number of large organisations where they preferentially select delivery teams from previous failed projects, as the lessons learnt they bring to the new project increase its chance of success. He likened this approach to treating exception handling as an integral part of software design. This idea was a recurring theme across the conference, to the point where a number of people were tweeting suggestions for a ‘Failure’ track at the next LSSC. However I don’t buy this argument, and in his closing remarks I was pleased to hear David Anderson announce that it won’t be happening. The reason I don’t buy it goes back to the software design metaphor. If your application was brought down by a exception, then clearly failure handling was not treated as a first order concern in the design process. Similarly, if resilient failure handling had been designed into your program management process, then rather than your project failing you should have conducted the necessary risk mitigation or performed a product pivot.

In terms of the categories described above, failure related to the first type of constraint generally indicates an immature delivery capability: it is failure that was avoidable. On the other hand, failure due to the third type of constraint indicates a lack of understanding of resilience and the principles that Eric Ries and others have been promoting for a number of years now. It is failure that was absolutely inevitable. Neither of these are characteristics I would want to bring to a new project. Failures due to the second type of constraint are arguably more interesting, but for me they quickly descend into subject areas that ethically I find questionable. Finally and of most interest, are failures due to constraints unique to the particular business context. The uniqueness of the constraint means that the failure is necessary, and not just an attempt to find a solution to an already solved problem. In this case, the failure becomes part of the organisation’s learning cycle and a source of highly valuable insight going forwards. However, even here it could be argued that such lessons should be possible via effective risk management processes rather than requiring full-blown project failure.

I had a brief chat to David Snowden after his talk, and regarding the extent to which systems constraints can be controlled he had the slightly disappointing answer that ‘C-level people get what I’m talking about, it’s only middle managers who don’t understand it.’ Whilst that may or may not be true, afterwards it put me in mind of Benjamin Mitchell’s excellent presentation about Kanban and management fads. I think a large part of the history of management fads reduces down to the exploitation of CxO denial regarding a.) the actual limitations of their control and b.) the difficulty and cost of high quality product development. I think a key task this community can perform to help prevent Kanban going the same way is to stay faithful to ‘brutal reality’, to borrow Chet Richards fantastic phrase, by remaining transparent and honest about the true limits of achievable control.