Experiment in Management (Part 3)

So the first complete round of our little experiment is now over. The division was divided up into 12 groups. Each group was given a topic and told to come up with a list of quick wins for product development as well as a bit of a longer term goal.

I personally was a member of 3 groups. Issues with the process started when people began to question the scope of each group. Since the groups didn’t have central meetings and there really wasn’t anyone centrally positioned, it was difficult to answer these questions. I actually found out that two groups had each assumed that the other would cover the scope of one of the products, so the result was that no one covered it. Oh well, the joys of decentralized processes.

After a month of intesive meetings and planning each group had to give a 5min presentation on it’s quick wins. Once this was done a governing body would go through the list and sort all of the proposed items for both customer impact and engineering difficulty. The resulting grid allowed management to pick the items that were in the corner of highest impact and easiest to do.

So, a month of meetings involving the entire division and extensive planning resulted in a list of about a dozen todos for product development that was ~90% the same as lists generated prior to the process. We still do not have actual product specs to develop the products. That process needs to start now and we’ll have another month or more of meetings to get those done. I’m concerned that since the scope of these quick wins isn’t really nailed down that during the product spec phase they could dramatically increase in scope and no longer be a quick win. The one good thing is that the number of groups has been dropped down to 4 to manage the next round of the process and i’m only involved in one of those groups.

I’d have to say that so far the decentralized product development process has not lived up to the hype. It’s allowed everyone to get involved, but when it came down to it the final call had to be made by a group of managers. This resulted in people getting upset that their quick wins had been cut from the list. There was one possible idea that I know of that came up in this process that wasn’t already proposed prior. So you could point at that as a sign that we had a richer source of ideas that would had not previously tapped, but had we just remained open to including new ideas as they’re brought up couldn’t we have achieved the same result in much less time.

The final result is that the company is having a tough time handling the level of data in our day to day business. What is protrayed to the end user is our inability to develop new features for them. In each review that comes out comparing the entire field, we seem to fall further and further behind. We need to get this turned around fast or there will be serious consequences.

3 comments on “Experiment in Management (Part 3)

  • Howdy Bryan. Good to see you have a blog!

    There is another possible explanation why the post-experiment list was 99% the same as the pre-experiment list: upper management wasn’t really as receptive to the anarchy as they thought, and therefore, did not design a process that could produce effective results.

    In our particular case, consider what we were asked to provide for each proposal at the beginning of the experiment: specific feature proposals, competitive analysis, estimates of resources required, educated estimates of impact, measures of success, prototypes if possible, and so on. All the things that you need to make an informed decision, and foster an innovative environment. (All the things we learned in our product development training.)

    By the end of the process, those requirements were all widdled away to (basically) a one-line summary, and rather than having a meeting where everybody (or every group leader) could ask questions, make trade-offs, send a proposal back to the team for further refinement/consideration in the face of alternate proposals, and so on, we got a meeting where team leaders read their one-line summaries. No questions. No hard discussion. No follow-ups with the teams.

    Under these circumstances, how can we blame our leadership team for not giving thorough consideration to new, bold ideas? If I’d been given that list, I probably would have selected the items I’d already thought about too. (Even the good ideas from other teams didn’t impress me during the initial proposal presentations, because they were not well developed.)

    In subsequent experiments of this nature, we need to ensure that product/tech teams are given the responsibility for producing real proposals, and the ability to engage the leadership team in assessing tradeoffs.

    In spite of this, I think this experiment was mostly a success. Did it produce the overarching results we’d hoped for? No, but it was an excellent start. It’s only a failure if we give up now, or do the same thing again with no tweaks to the process.

  • Hey mj, wasn’t really expecting anyone to read this. It was more for my own venting than anything else.

    In the end I feel the experiment failed because it was difficult to confront the reality of working in a business where there are scarce time and people resources. I think there was a passionate team, but I don’t think it was nearly large enough to get done what was asked of it and the time frame was way to short.

    I believe that in situations like this you see teams with strong visionary leaders rise to the top. With this setup, it’s easier to maintain a cohesive vision and decisions can be made much more quickly. These people are often glorified in both the business and military worlds. The difficult question is what to do when you don’t have someone that fills that role. In the military, the position is assigned to someone and they’re asked to step up, this can often be a painful jump. Maybe that’s the right thing to do, maybe not.

    I definitely agree that getting everyone’s buyin and listening to everyone’s opinion is important. A diverse set of ideas is a very good thing to have, even if they’re not realistic ideas. This can work very similarly to mutation, most the time they’re a waste but every so often they’ll give you a leap forward. This is not mutually exclusive with having a strong leader. I just feel that intentially not having a leader is dangerous, which is what the experiment seemed designed to do. I know I feel very passionately about certain ideas that are in direct conflict with ideas that others feel very passionately about, we have to have a way to resolve this or we just flounder.

  • Well, you DID have it up on your laptop… so don’t blame me for reading. 😉

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. I see this process more as a way of:

    a) fostering a creative, if not innovative environment
    b) providing an outlet for employees to explore different roles, and acquire more confidence
    c) identifying the leaders and visionaries among us

    I think what you’re perceiving as failure is that the process has been unintentionally cut off at its knees, and therefore, hasn’t really fulfilled any of the above promises.

    I completely agree with you about the need for strong visionaries, and coherent visions. I think this process could have, and should have, produced those visions, and identified at least a couple of visionaries in our team. In some ways, I think it’s because it came at a bad time, and it tried to do too much in too short of a time. For example, I know you have some outstanding visions, but with everything else going on and all of your other responsibilities, you didn’t have enough time and energy to contribute to the process. Others were in the same boat. I think that’s being corrected, although maybe too much has been cut in the process.

    In the generic case, what kind of team structure do you think is best at both producing innovations and meeting/exceeding business requirements? It needs to be a team that is good at retaining intelligent, creative people–so it has to involve them in an authentic way, or they’ll go somewhere else. It also needs to be a team that gets its foundation shaken every now and then, so new ideas must have a way of getting not only heard, but demonstrated. And it needs to be a team that works well together, so competition between coworkers can’t be the overriding force.

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