“This team is always having problems”

Have you ever been in a company where everybody keeps working harder and harder, and yet everything is getting slower and more congested? And there’s always one team that seems to be the problem!

If so, you might be experiencing the Theory of Constraints in action.

I’ll never forget my talk with a tech CEO where I worked. When we started talking, I thought he got it. He talked about how much time they spent working on their process bottlenecks.

So I continued…

Me: “So if you’re producing more at a non-bottleneck, it slows down the bottleneck because they end up doing work that isn’t producing value.”

CEO: “Absolutely, I get it, I get it.”

Me: “So if we want to go faster, we actually want some people to do less work.”

CEO: “Yeah, that doesn’t work for me, I want everybody putting in 100%.”

Me: “But that… will make the overall production of the company slower and more expensive, right?”

CEO: “Yeah, but having people sitting around… that just doesn’t work for me.”

This implication of the theory of constraints go against our intuition, and sometimes our values.

But let’s investigate what happens when everyone is cranking at 100%.

What happens when everyone is working 100%?

Overproducing in non-bottlenecks does not simply create a backlog for the bottleneck, but slows down performance at the bottleneck.

What happens if I am doing exactly as much work as I can do, and the amount of work I can do is coming to me at the pace I can do it?

I am simply doing the work as it shows up. I take the work and I do it, and then it’s done. I don’t have to think too hard, I just do the work. There’s very little work management.

Mediocre stick drawings courtesy of Dall-E

But what happens if I am getting a bit more work than I can do?

Suddenly I need a system to organize the inventory of work (parts that I’ll use, work orders, etc).

The extra work, by simply being extra, has just created the need for a management system.

Hey this art is still better than what I draw…

Now I’m doing the work AND managing the work to be done.

I am already slower!

The mere fact of having too much work causes a problem.

As one bottleneck piles up, other parts of the system also get backed up! Now we need sophisticated management!

In physical space, this amounts to warehouses. That makes the problem easy to detect, and therefore avoid (if one is conscious it’s a problem).

In virtual space, it amounts to confusion and reprocessing things that have been processed to see if they’re now ready for work, or should be prioritized.

Warehouses need increasing sophistication to manage more inventory, just like knowledge work. And if that system is not in place, things get dropped. People lose track of what’s important.

When a team seems to be constantly drowning in designs and explorations and questions and requests that never gets turned into implementation, this is likely what’s happening.

Upstream teams are overproducing. Work piles up. Increasingly sophisticated management is required, which inevitably pulls team resources away from delivering work.

The entire situation would be dramatically improved by having half the company sit on their hands and do nothing.

But hey, we don’t want people just sitting around! We’re paid too much to sit around!

Usually, the source of the problem is missed, and instead of looking at systems, people look at people, and typical unproductive patterns emerge. Finger-pointing, scapegoating, etc.

All the extra work creating work to be done (that can’t be finished) is likely money gone forever. It’s knowledge work and knowledge work requires someone’s headspace to stay relevant. So it dies on the vine, and continues to exist as clutter.

This clutter overshadows the core problems, as the clutter itself becomes a problem.

This in turn, exacerbates a lack of focus.

Then you get a morale problem, and some in-fighting, and people start to get burnt out when it’s hard to see how they can possibly win.

The Team at the Bottleneck

In our warehouse example, if the person making the tables was asked, he’d say he had way too much work to do. Things are backing up.

The teams making table tops and table legs, on the other hand, have plenty of capacity. They have so much time and space they even have time to improve the efficiency of their production processes.

“We’ve increased our output by 100% over the last year, and reduced costs! We’re making more table legs and tops than ever!”

A naive management, unaware of the Theory of Constraints, might even reward them for creating so many extra parts.

This same management may even identify a problem, that not enough tables are being assembled by the Assembly team.

They may then try to figure out why, and might look at the people making the tables. Maybe the problem is the people making the tables. They’re the ones getting more and more behind, after all. Not getting further and further ahead, like our Legs and Tops teams.

The narrative that the Assembly team is having trouble, or doesn’t know what it’s doing, or isn’t prioritizing properly, is likely to occur.

But the Assembly team, until they can stop being the bottleneck, is essentially hopeless in this situation to change the narrative.

This seems terribly silly perhaps, because it is.

But this kind of thing happens in knowledge work all the time. It is because there is no visualization of flow across complex product development. The interdependencies of work are generally not well understood. The impact of scheduling exploration meetings with team members for work that won’t ever happen is not noticed.

Essentially, all the work is invisible.

Why do we work in ways that don’t work?

People don’t do what makes sense based on the situation. They do what makes sense based on how the situation occurs to them.

The laziest analysis is usually “They’re not doing a very good job” which immediately becomes “It must be because they’re not very good” or “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

While you might think that some level of intelligence would preclude you from arriving at these conclusions, you’d be wrong.

Our perceptions are informed by theory, and most of us have a theory that People produce results through their effort and dedication.

This is true, but when you have everyone in a system, that is no longer strictly true.

In systems, people produce results through the correct application in the right place of their efforts and dedication.

Not all work increases the output of the system.

Local optimizations are system-wide degradations, unless it’s optimizing the bottleneck.

If we misidentify the problem, we will waste even more effort on things that make no difference.

Rather than increased efforts, we need measurements and clarity, so that we can identify and focus on what will make the difference.

Until you can measure or at least observe results, you can’t get away from the typical dynamics of needing to look like you’re working hard.

If you could ask one question that would make the difference: How do we know when things are working?

Value Pipelines

Value is not created in business until work is completed, and work is not completed until the finished product has been sold.

A table that is not ready for sale is work in progress, and is not really valuable. It represents the inputs, but no outputs.

If you have tables that are ready to sell, but nobody is buying them, they are still inventory, which is to say, value that has been put into making tables, but cannot be extracted. It still only represents potential, but it is actually an accumulation of costs, both in work, as well as in inventory carrying costs.

How do you reduce inventory and production costs, while maximizing throughput (which is sales)?

An analogy, by way of a story, helps to illustrate.

In The Goal, at one point, the hero is leading a boy scout troop on a hike.

He keeps noticing gaps in the line of boy scouts, as parts of the troop are going faster and pulling ahead.

He notices that the trail isn’t “hiked” until the last scout passes over, and he realizes it is just like his factory. The part is not “done” until it’s sold. And he realizes that the fastest walkers have the illusion of getting a lot done, but overall, they are just creating inventory, or work in progress, which in this case is the distance between the first and last scout.

But how to fix it?

His solution is somewhat surprising. He first starts by pausing the line, keeping it in order, and then reorganizes it with the slowest in front, and fastest behind.

The line, predictably, moves at the same pace in terms of how much trail has been “hiked” because the end of the line is moving at the same pace.

One might conclude this was a pointless exercise, but in fact, the capital required for the business to create the same throughput has gone down! Work in progress, represented by the distance from front to back, is much lower, which means there is less money invested in things that can’t be sold.

The financial risk of the business is lower.

The rest of the workers are spending less energy, which also could represent the opportunity reduce labor and materials costs.

But his next realization is that the slow guy is slow because he’s carrying a lot. He’s got 60 pounds of gear in his bag.

By making it clear what the bottleneck is, he was able to put his attention on the slowest part of the process, which made a real improvement in flow, which is the amount of trail the troop could hike.

In a real business, this would translate to being able to produce more with the same amount invested as inventory.

Once he unburdened the slowest kid, the whole troop marched faster. It kept its formation tight and quickly converted trail started into trail finished.

Anytime there are multiple steps in a process, the important thing is the speed of the slowest or last finished, not the speed of the first.

Paying Down Your Technical Debts

Tech debt is probably the most common complaints of software developers when feature delivery starts to slow down.

It doesn’t really come up until someone starts noticing things aren’t going fast anymore.

We usually scratch the itch to go fast by taking shortcuts instead of addressing the problems as they occur, but eventually we run out of shortcuts, and things break down.

Eventually, doing anything at all requires “yak shaving”.

Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do. “I want to wax the car today.”

“Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I’ll need to buy a new one at Home Depot.”

“But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls.”

“But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor’s EZPass…”

“Bob won’t lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though.”

“And we haven’t returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it.”

And the next thing you know, you’re at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

Mindset -> Practices -> Results

Technical debt is not strictly-speaking bad. Like anything else, it is a decision we can make.

When it is used consciously and strategically, it can capitalize on opportunities in the rest of the business.

However, sloppy thinking leads to tech debt being the norm. We don’t think in second-order effects, or pay the cost of deferred decisions or deferred work (i.e. by following up with integrity).

Teams love being firefighters and heroes. This means they are eager to say yes, and get things done as quickly as possible. The problem is that this often comes at the cost of neglecting the conditions that allow for work to be done quickly, which leads to clutter and entanglements, and eventually no shortcuts are left.

At that point, people start complaining about “tech debt” like it’s something that wasn’t present until just now and wasn’t a result of what they’ve been doing for the last 6 month.

Relentless high-quality delivery at a sustainable pace is attainable, even at an accelerating pace.

But instead of that, we rush from one thing to the next, and let errors accumulate.

To be clear, I am not talking about going fast, or being focused, but rushing – the stress-fueled urgency that creates bad decisions that take more time to sort out later. Bad decisions lead to more rushing.

Slow it down. Break it into pieces. Continuously make progress on improving things. Look for insights gained through a deeper engagement. That’s where you get breakthroughs in productivity.

Rushing makes us stupid, which slows us down. Slowing down lets you go deeper, which makes you smarter, which speeds you up.

If we want an agile codebase ready for any feature you throw at it (the Result), we need teams that continuously improve things (the Practice) which means we need a mindset.

What mindset creates the practice of Continuous Improvement?

Ownership (I take responsibility for outcomes), Impeccability (I create quality at every level of work) and Presence (I am here now, not worrying about what might happen) are some mindsets that help.

A team that owns the outcomes, sees nothing as worth doing poorly (while nonetheless knowing when a thing needs to be sacrificed for a greater good), and can calmly sit in any situation, no matter how bad it is, and create the best response given what’s happening – that’s a team that will get amazing results.

As a leader, you can give your teams this by making a request of them and holding a standard for yourself.

You can be relaxed and ready for anything, do your job well, and take responsibility for what goes wrong. You can give all the credit away, and take full responsibility. And you can do this while allowing your team to also take full responsibility.

As teams create these mindsets, they start to create more and more space for new possibilities. More gets done with less effort. Outcomes happen easily and fluidly.

When technical debt is simply handled as a matter of course because of who the team members choose to be, you don’t need a special initiative to handle it. People just take care of it. It is not negotiated. It is not cajoled out of them. They don’t have to make a special project.

When a team creates the right mindset, the practices and results naturally follow.

Who the team is determines what they do.

Breaking the Cycle: Transforming Persistent Problems into Possibility

Why do some problems persist, often getting worse when we try to fix them?

Why do diets often fail, leaving people in worse health and more discourged?

Why does fighting to pay off technical debt sometimes create even more of it, and a discouraged team?

What’s going on?

What is a problem?

A problem is something that presents itself as something you want to be different, and as an obstacle preventing things from being the way you want them to be.

If my car is almost out of gas, I don’t have a problem until there’s something keeping me from putting gas in the car. It’s simply the situation that my car is almost out of gas.

“I need gas, but stopping for gas will make me late.”

What makes this a problem is simply the “but”. “But” creates the opposition between getting gas and being on time. It assumes that both of these things have to exist at the same time. Being on time and having gas must both co-exist.

It needs to be underlined that there is no obstacle to getting gas. You can get gas. Getting gas could make you late. But you can get gas.

Being on time (assuming you must take your own car) is also not directly connected to stopping for gas. It is connected to having gas in the car, but there are maybe other ways that could happen, such as remembering you have a 2 gallon can of gas for your lawnmower and that solves your problem. It’s also possible you have just enough to get there.

And the problem, really, is we don’t like that these things are features of reality.

If you were okay being late, for example, because it was a party you weren’t keen to get to, being late might be a benefit, and it even comes with a great excuse of “I forgot I needed to stop for gas”.

Something about problems is merely arising for us in our perceptions of situations. When we want something to be other than what it is and we see an obstacle, we have a problem.

Why Some Problems Are Hard To Remove

Some problems go away easily. If you found the above mentioned gas can, you suddenly have no problem. If you called and let them know you’ll be 5 minutes late, you have no problem.

But some problems even seem to resist being changed.

“Our team needs to pay off tech debt but we keep getting urgent requests” is such a problem.

We try to make an effort to get our tech debt paid off, but in comes another urgent request, and we have to pause again.

We try to carve out extra time, put in extra hours, but no matter what we do, the urgent requests keep pushing us off track.

We try talking to management to solve the problem of all these urgent requests. They’re really causing us some trouble.

We try adding in buffers and other prioritization queues to reduce urgent requests.

Nothing seems to work. There are still urgent requests keeping us from dealing with our tech debt.

As we lose the fight against urgent requests, we also give up on paying back our tech debt. It now seems like a battle that can’t be won, and our code deteriorates at an increasing pace as everyone gives up.

The Lie in Problems

The “but” in the above problem (“Our team needs to pay off tech debt but we keep getting urgent requests”) is what creates the opposition.

And as mentioned above in the gas example, there is not really an opposition there. And in this case, there’s even less opposition than in the example with the car that needs gas (where gas itself is maybe needed for the car to go).

It sounds like urgent requests are preventing us from paying off our tech debt. Because that’s what we have said.

But what if we simply said “Our team needs to pay off tech debt. We are getting a lot of urgent requests.”

Do those statements sound like problems?

Not really. They just sound like two aspects of the situation you’re in.

What if the problem is just the conditions of the game?

Urgent requests may just be the situation, the game you’re in.

Imagine an MLB player saying “I could hit home runs but these pitches are too hard to hit. We need slower pitches”. Ridiculous, right?

What if urgent requests is just the situation, and not something you need to fix in order to pay off tech debt?

What if you simply need to accept “urgent requests” and still pay off tech debt?

You then no longer need to solve “urgent requests”. It is no longer an obstacle, but rather just the condition of the game you’re playing.

This opens up some new options. It allows our focus to take in more of the landscape. We now have more space to generate opportunities because the focus is no longer on urgent requests. It’s up a level into a higher context, where we can think more creatively.

(And for the record, this truly is possible. I’ve been on teams on fire where we both paid off tech debt and put out the fire at the same time.)

When you’re fighting the problem, you’re keeping your attention on it. If I’m pushing something, I’m connected to it. It can move me around if I need to push it. Where it goes, I go. That’s where my energy is directed.

When you stop pushing, you can open up your thinking.

What’s possible in this situation, taken as a situation that does not necessarily need to change?

When we fight something in the situation, we stay stuck to it, because we are pushing on it.

When you just let it be, and then step back and ask “What do I want to do, given all this?” it opens up more room for possibility. It changes your goal, which allows you to see differently.

And that gives you possibilities.

Given your situation, what possibilities can you give yourself?

Problems in Language

Often times we get stuck in our thinking, seeing an impenetrable wall in front of us, and not seeing any way to get around it.

We see the wall as “The Obstacle” and we are stuck. It’s in front of us and you can’t get around it, so you’re stuck.

What is “stuck” though? It’s when you are pushing on something, and that thing pushes back just as hard.

If you could go through the wall, the wall would not be an obstacle.

But there the obstacle sits, in your way? And you’re stuck, and all of your efforts go right at the obstacle. How do I move it? How do I fix this thing?

What if there was another level of thinking to be applied?

An Example Scenario

A business owner needs revenue to increase but his systems aren’t yet ready to scale up to the level of production he needs.

Previously, efforts to increase revenue worked, but there were some customers who had bad experiences because of some of the edges.

Now we have a problem such as “We want to scale up, but customers will have a bad experience.”

To compound this, in his industry, bad experiences usually mean you don’t get a second chance.

As a result of this, before he can scale, he has to fix all the things that might contribute to customers having a bad experience.

If you pay attention, you will notice that “Scaling” has been conflated with “Customer Acquisition” has been conflated with “Solid Processes”. All of these are related, but they are not the same thing.

They’ve been placed on a single line, where the path towards getting more customers is the same as the path towards stable processes is the same as the path towards “scaling the business”.

And to be fair, there are overlaps.

But now stable processes are an obstacle to getting new customers.

Opening Up the Thinking

The first part of the process is to move from generalities to particulars. “How many customers had a bad experience?”


Because we are working with abstractions, and abstractions are things that we create from particulars.

The first step in any investigation is to get past the abstractions (i.e. conclusions drawn) to something closer to the facts of the situation.

Then, we can go deeper. “What kind of bad experience?”

Perhaps there are people who weren’t super impressed but otherwise weren’t angry, and they will simply not be customers with no further harm.

It turns out, in this particular scenario, about 50% of the new customers were retained, and the other relationships were managed well enough to not leave permanent damage.

The reality of the situation is that you can retain 50% of the customers you get to try you, and that’s something that can be improved.

But it can only be improved if someone works on it, and that only happens if you have money to hire.

Stable processes are not an actual obstacle to growth. It was simply set up that way.

Deeper Still

Why do we create these obstacles for ourselves?

Because there are things we all want in life. We want to look good, we want to feel good, we want to be right, and we want to be in control.

It can be legitimately dangerous to lose reputation, or to be wrong about how things are. Being out of control feels risky. We try to set our worlds up in ways that give us agency, and we often do that by constricting possibilities for ourselves so that we have manageable sets of things to deal with.

Have you noticed how much harder it is to be “maybe going to be fired” than it is to “be fired”? One is a state of uncertainty. It’s complex.

The truth is that we all develop sophisticated ways of dealing with what we perceive as threats to ourselves, and they often stop serving us at some point. We want certainty and manageability more than we want the best outcomes when those outcomes are on the other side of real uncertainty.

We create sets of beliefs for ourselves throughout our life that help keep the rails on life, but they constrain our perceptions of the sets of possibilities that are around us.

Pulling those beliefs up to the surface and seeing how we live out of them gives us access to change them, which can shift your world.

Reframing Problems as Situations

The truth of things is this. You don’t have a problem. You have a situation. And perhaps you don’t quite have “a situation”. You have many situations you could be in, all while the same reality persists.

A problem and a situation is in part something we create for ourselves by the way we speak about things.

Problems arise from “but”. It’s not a problem if you say “I need more revenue and I’m not ready to scale up production”. That’s just description.

As soon as you say “I need more revenue but I’m not ready to scale up production”, you have placed one thing in front of you like an obstacle.

And that obstacle focuses your attention on it. You have to solve that problem to get where you’re going.

When it’s just a situation, you can do something else with it. Maybe it’s fine. Maybe it can just be what it is. Maybe there’s something else you can do with that situation.

But when you create a problem, you can’t just be with all the parts and see what’s there. They can’t open up for you in any other way than to relate to them as a problem that needs to be solved.

And that gets you stuck. You stand in one place, only seeing one path forward.

But when you have a situation, and you let the situation just be what it is, you can maybe look around, and see there’s something you just can’t see with that lens.

It’s almost like opening up another dimension. The below video offers a powerful visual analogy for this.

Accessing Performance

In my last article, I discussed the model of performance being the way that our actions correlate with how the world occurs to us, and that the way it occurs to us in some way is constructed in or arises in language. 1

But how can you use this knowledge to change performance, or to access performance?

To briefly recap. If you saw someone crawling around on the floor in a normal situation you might think they’re crazy. But if that person just heard a gunshot, you’d think they were doing a perfectly sensible thing.

When we see people doing things that don’t make sense, it’s often useful to ask them what they’re experiencing. They might be flummoxed by this question, due to the assumption we all have that reality is “obvious”. Can’t you see what’s right there? Are you blind?

The illusion that reality shows up for us all in the same way creates any number of disagreements. If you don’t realize that the “basic facts” are different for each of us, then you’re going to run into some intractable problems with people. Most of what we all consider facts are actually interpretation.

If your performance efforts do not take into account the differences in how things show up to different people, you will not be able to manage change effectively. People naturally revert to acting in accord with the way things show up. They keep a strong relationship with how they think things are, especially when they’re trying to change them.

Even the best intentions for “change” don’t work, even when people are rowing in the same direction, because all of the efforts are about “not being the way we were”, and that creates a frame of reference where the best we can do is “not that”. Eventually, something goes wrong, and people start sliding into “that”.

A new set of possibilities is needed to get out of this cycle. A new way of standing in relation to the situation.

Creating a new way of seeing is the primary task of leadership.

Reality Distortion Fields, or Reality Creation Fields

Steve Jobs has often been described as having a Reality Distortion Field around him, able to make people see things in a way that wasn’t how they actually were.

What many people miss, however, is that by doing that, he created the reality.

What do I mean by that?

It is not that reality is what we perceive, but rather, by changing how people perceived, he changed the normal course of the actions they were going to take.

When people take different actions, they get a different result.

He created a different understanding of the present by projecting a different future. It literally shaped the way the present showed up to people.

If where you come from is “We are building an amazing future no matter what happens”, then the situation is a lot different than “This is challenging and I wonder if it’s going to work”.

A place of commitment creates resources for you that would be inaccessible from a place of “wait and see”.

Jobs’ genius was to tell a different story about the future and to see it as not only possible, but as almost an accomplished fact, and to know that people can get there. He helped people clear away what’s in their way, and see the path.

Changing Stories

How do you change what occurs to you?

Change the story that you see the world through.

But this is typically what people try. They try to tell a new story, and then they try to put it on, like a shirt, and walk around with it and pretend. And after all that pretending, generally, they see the world the same way.

And that means that your options for the world are A or not A.

Let’s say your team shows up to the team as unmotivated. Now we start trying to motivate everybody. It works for a while, then the team falls back into their old way of operating.

Until you can get the team to own its own motivation and tell a new story about itself, even one that accepts its current level of motivation, you’re not going to see the team be motivated. You will be trying to add motivation to an unmotivated team.

But what if you show up differently? What if you try “Hey, it looks like morale is low. We’re not feeling motivated. That doesn’t seem fun. What do we want to do together?”

That conversation, if they believe that you care, could start to open a few doors into a story about the future that gets people up in the morning.

They might discover things they want, and thus discover new sources of motivation.

Or what if you were to show the team that they can, themselves, create their own motivation and have more fun at work if they do? Now they have something other than unmotivated that they can say about themselves, which gives them a new realm of possibility.

They are now inhabiting a new space where motivated / unmotivated is not the set of possibilities. Maybe it’s “Find something exciting” or “Control our own future”. Those are different sets of possibilities for people.

Getting people into a place where they are capable of seeing a new set of possibilities for outcomes naturally shifts the way they show up.

If you can lead your people to a new way of seeing possibility, everything can naturally start falling into place.

These conversations often require a lot of safety for team members to really share what’s in their way, and how they’re seeing things.

It is for that reason that the organizations that have the hardest time changing are the organizations where people feel they have to hide the most.

But if you can create some safety to listen and hear where people are, there can be an opening to see the place they’re coming from and invite them to look at the world from a new place.

  1. Language said loosely (many different things can be language other than verbal language, such as tone of voice, body language, clothing choices, etc). ↩︎

A Model of Performance

Upgrading performance1, as in the successful accomplishment of something, can be elusive. In some cases, it can seem downright impossible to meaningfully shift what people do, and in the case of teams, it can be head-scratching or hair-pulling levels of frustration to get changes to stick.

“We all agreed, why now are we slipping back into the old way of doing things?”

Often, we spend a tremendous amount of energy pushing, bribing, or giving pep talks, but still not really making a permanent change in what we’re doing. Somehow, it just makes more sense to do something in the old way.

All this pushing and self-cajoling can lead to burnout, and a lot of beating yourself up: “I’m not good enough, I am a procrastinator, I’m lazy, it’s no wonder this is hard for me.”

And all of that is besides the point when it comes to the only question that matters:

Did I or did I not take the necessary action?

When you do not, you seek an explanation, and you assess.

But how do you get access to change, to transforming the way you act?

What is Performance?

Performance, for the purpose of this consideration, is simply the completion of the necessary actions that lead to a result.

If something is performed (or you performed) it means that you did what’s needed to get the result you wanted.

Action is what matters.

Why then do some people seem to do the same actions as others, but get different results?

This is where things get more nuanced.

The Doer is in the Deed

Action has the effect. But the action has something of who’s doing it in the action.

The way that Michael Jordan plays basketball comes from being Michael Jordan. If someone else could be exactly like Michael Jordan, he would play basketball like the same way.

What exactly does it mean to be Michael Jordan? Outside of the physical, it would be to be present in the game in the way he is present, it would mean that the games present themselves in the same way to his perception, and the same options therefore present themselves, and are similarly chosen.

One kind of readily intelligible example of this is intention. My intention changes something about how I do what I do, and the nature of the action itself.

Throwing a ball to someone as a playful gesture in good fun is different from throwing it in a playful gesture meant to embarrass someone. It is simply not the same action.

We intuitively sense this when working with an honest versus dishonest salesperson. When working with the honest one, we answer their questions to give them information to serve our needs and help us find what we want. In the latter, we avoid answering the same questions because we do not trust they’ll use them in the same way. The intention comes through.

A lever you can press

Why do actions happen?

Actions happen because a person wants something to happen. Therefore, they map out what they think will get them there, and take those actions.

The key to knowing what a person will do is to know what they want and what their map to that outcome looks like.

If you can give a person a new map, they will have a new way of getting to their destination, and thus entirely new actions at their disposal.

If you want to change the actions, you have to do one of three things. Change the goal, change the map to the goal, or change the doer.

It turns out that all three of these are accessible through language.

Our goals are things we choose with words. Learning a distinction that helps us clarify what we want often opens up slightly different goals (and thus paths) to us.

The situation is also described with words. Our description of it helps filter what shows up for us, and when we play around with other descriptions, sometimes new possibilities for action emerge.

And the same is true of ourselves. We have perceptual filters, which can be thought of as embodied stories, which we think about ourselves, but these are the things that live in our subconscious, and in ourselves physically as habits of perceiving and feeling. When you start to become aware of these stories, you start to get access to changing them with language.

What’s in a word?

It turns out that how things occur to us happens in language. It happens in the way we talk about things, and then the talking ends up in our subconscious in ways that are surprising. Language alters perception. Reevaluating experiences can alter patterns in our brain to change responses.

Lera Boroditsky (also discovered from the above talk) set out to prove that language does not affect our perception. She found the opposite. One powerful example is a tribe that uses ordinal directions exclusively to denote their orientation and the orientation of objects (i.e. not right and left, but North, South, East, West). They always knew where they were (in a way previously thought not possible) and they also interestingly arranged imagined sequences of time not right to left or left to right, but East to West (regardless of what direction they were facing).

The habits of describing changed the way that their situations occurred to them, and also changed the way their mind perceived more abstract things.

The words used to describe things affect our patterns of seeing. You pay attention to different things based on the words you use to describe them. The language you habitually use changes how things show up to you and how you show up to yourself, because your filters shift.

If this is true, then the question that next shows up is “How do I access that?” which I will cover in my next post.

  1. A lot of the thoughts in this article about performance come from ideas taken from this talk by Werner Erhard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwQr_BJrHJ8. I do not believe his model is a complete or appropriate anthropology, and has some particular psychological and moral dangers of applying radically, but it is certainly powerful and useful and appears to be true on some level. ↩︎

The Costs of Creating Constant Crises — and an alternative

I’ve been on teams that are constantly in crisis mode.

At first, it’s exhilarating! There’s urgency, clarity, challenge – a chance to shine!

But what happens when the crisis is over?

People lull about. Nothing much happens. This is of course the natural comedown from a stressful big push. You have some dopamine withdrawal, and you need some quiet activity to recharge.

But what happens when you add another crisis? Or the crisis extends?

People get fatigued. And they get tired.

And then something worse happens.

When they do get a break, they’re so broken down that they don’t get much done on their own. They start to occur to themselves as ineffective and powerless, which leads to a lot of ineffective powerless actions (or lack of action).

“What difference does it make anyway? Even if we start owning our work again, there will just be another crisis.”

Recreating Ownership

The truth is, there will always be crises. Out there.

Someone else will always be panicking and freaking out.

But what about your team? How does your team respond? Does your team create a crisis?

Or does your team accept the situation as it is, evaluate it, and take calm and deliberate action?

The team needs to find a way to still make progress even when crises are happening everywhere else. To use the pressure to build systems to keep things under control even when it’s hard, and to focus on the outcomes not just for the organization, but for the team itself.

The team is building not just the software, but the team’s own capacity as individuals, as a team, as part of a delivery pipeline. And the team should build something it loves being a part of.

If you want amazing results, you have to stop creating crises all the time, and create ownership instead.

If a crisis doesn’t result in increased ownership, and a stronger team on the other side of the crisis. you have misused the crisis you have created.

Every crisis should result in a team that needs fewer crises to perform, and therefore does not create them for itself, but instead grows and improves in a way that doesn’t lead to disempowering stories for itself.

If you are able to use the crisis you create for your team to make a team that doesn’t need the crisis, then you can create a team that drives instead of being driven.

“I always work on more than one thing so I’m never blocked”

I have seen engineers, with some pride, tell me about how many things they like to work on in parallel so that they’re never blocked. “Oh don’t you work on more than one thing? You like being blocked?”

I’ve even seen managers suggest that team members do this.

On the surface, this makes perfect sense. Keep yourself busy, don’t waste time, stay optimally productive.

But being blocked is usually caused by a problem. When you treat that problem as something to ignore, or work around, what happens?

Naturally, the problem looks like something less important, and it gets less attention, and it continues to block you.

And this means that you’ll be blocked again. Or delayed. Or need a fancy work around.

If you keep yourself busy with 10 things at a time because you can’t easily get a single one done quickly, you are never dealing with the problem that keeps you from getting one thing done quickly.

You are hiding the real work that needs to be done.

The (Negative) Value Work of in Progress

Work in progress is undelivered work. It is work that is not yet ready to be shipped. This is incomplete features, bug fixes, half-baked designs, or anything else that cannot be delivered to the customer.

Work in progress is when time and money has been invested into creating something but the time and money cannot yet be extracted. It is unrecovered investment.

The longer work is in progress, the larger the overall payoff of the project must be in order to justify the investment.

If I spend 1 month of engineer work (let’s say it costs me ~$16k fully burdened for an engineer) for a feature, then that feature needs to be worth at least $1.6k/year in addition to the original investment just to meet the risk-adjusted rate of return (i.e. to break even with doing relatively boring things with your money).

A major function of money in a business is to create action. It creates action that allows more action to be taken. If a business fails, it’s because the actions taken are not sensible enough to create conditions for more action to be taken. This is what it looks like when you go bankrupt.

If your delivered feature is going to create 20k of sales immediately and it costs 16k to develop and one month to deliver, you’re getting a phenomenal return, and you immediately have 20k to invest into another project. If we assume we have projects that all have 20% rates of return in short time frames, then we could in theory simply grow by delivering project after project.

Let’s assume our company resources are exactly 16k, and it takes 16k to deliver, and we get 20k when we deliver which we can feed back into our next project. That project delivers 24k, and the next project delivers 28.8k. After 3 months, we have captured 12.8k additional dollars, simply by finishing things when they need to be finished.

If we wait for 3 months to deliver the first project, at the end of the 3 months, we have 20k. That’s 4k additional.

Why? The money in the system (as inventory) was not available to create more action, which would deliver more value. The same work was done, but because it was not finished, it did not deliver any value, and therefore amounted to less impact in the end.

Money that is not recovered at the end of a process cannot do more work. But work is where value is created. Therefore WIP is the enemy of value creation.

But it gets worse for WIP!

Often inventory becomes out of date. A great feature this month becomes outdated in a year as other competitors release better features. If it takes a year to complete, it’s worse than capturing the value late. The value is lost forever.

And the longer it takes to capture the value, the longer the team is not available to switch gears without taking the risk of losing the value forever. Which means that the burden on new opportunities is higher, as it not only must take into account the expected value of the new opportunity, but the value represented by completing the current work based on how much work is left to finish.

How Constraining WIP helps

By simply constraining how much WIP is allowed, you are forced to deal with the problems that actually block delivery.

This means you can now deliver smaller batches of work with less delay.

You can capture the value, and free up the money to do more work in your business.

Dealing with these constraints means you are increasing the possible flow of work through the system, which means the system is overall more profitable. (Because there is less delay between dollars to do work and dollars captured as value).

Additionally, morale improves because people are able to build an environment where work is done well, and they understand the context of their work and how to deliver. Seeing the fruits of one’s labor is an edifying and motivating experience.

Surfacing the problems leads to solving the problems, which leads to faster throughput and higher rates of return.

Can your team perform at a high level? Not without this one thing

If I ask you “How do you make a project happen?”, you might tell me a number of things.

You might say “I just get started and keep going until it’s done”, or “I plan it all out on paper and then break it down into parts”, or “I carry it around in my head and make progress when I can”, or “I keep track of my next actions in a system, and make sure I keep doing them”.

These are all valid answers, but they all presuppose something about you.

These answers all presuppose that you are someone who can maintain an intention for long enough to finish a project. That you have a way of remembering what you’re doing, and continuing to do it, beyond the present moment.

The critical point is carrying an intention through time, and continuing to hold it, at least insofar as you complete the actions the original intention takes.

What would you call it to carry an intention through time?

One way of describing this is: Integrity, or being complete with your word.1

How do you “be complete with your word”? You either do what you say, or you acknowledge when you don’t and clean up the mess.

In that way, you have “completed” what you said, and now it no longer carries forward with you into the future.

When we do not act with integrity, we cannot make our word generate beyond the moment. Performance deteriorates into whatever we feel like doing right now.

There is a hidden problem, called by Jensen as a “Veil of Invisibility” about Integrity, which is “Not having your word in existence when it comes time to keep your word”.

If you can’t remember what you said, and nobody else can, then there is no way to honor your word. You simply cannot be complete with it.

Being Complete With Your Word Requires Tools

Have you ever noticed a great kid excuse for why they didn’t do a chore is “Oh, I forgot”?

It’s because it’s a great excuse. You simply cannot honor your word if you don’t remember.

As you become older, you perhaps make more of an effort to remember what you said you’ll do.

But then, sometimes you still forget, because all the things you’ve said, and all the complexity of those obligations starts to become more than you can handle.

Which leads to the necessity of writing things down.

And when simply writing things down becomes unwieldy, we increasingly need tools to keep track of things we said, the dates we gave, etc, simply to be complete with our word.

The Essence of Integrity

The essential characteristic of Integrity is carrying your word forward in time so that you can honor it.

Now is the only time you can act. Any action requiring more than the barest now requires some form of integrity.

Any sizable undertaking will require tools, internal or external, to truly make it happen over time.

And that requires a commitment to being someone who honors their word.

If you are unable to make and keep commitments, you will simply be ineffective, unless someone else has made a system to manage your actions.

If you want to generate a new reality, you need to commit to doing what you say, and continuing to build on this capability.

High Performing Teams Need Integrity

For any team to perform at a high level, they need to have integrity.

Every team member needs a way of knowing what the intention is from the beginning, where they are in the process, what’s left, what the other team members are doing at a high level, and what their personal commitment is.

There needs to be a way of keeping track of the intention so that I know when I should drop my current task to assist another team member, or when I can make the request to interrupt someone because what I am doing is on the critical path and is blocking progress.

The intention and the plan must all be carried forward, and they must be carried forward in a way that truly facilitates action.

When language on a team breaks down, and people individually are not complete with their word, the whole team cannot reliably be complete with its word unless some team members commit in a special way to carrying the slack.

For a team to create a new reality, the team must honor its word, and make space for accountability.

If a team routinely does not honor its word, the use of language loses its power, and the ability of the team to create disappears.

It is only when a team’s word means something that the team can even have a meaningful discussion where they can plan.

How do you create space for accountability? How can you challenge your team to own this for themselves, so that they can create something they’re proud of?

Integrity Requires Owning The Vision

It all starts with a vision from the team. If they know what they want, they will want to hold themselves accountable to that vision. If instead, it’s happening to them, they may want to hide non-performance, as there’s “nothing in it for them”.

Ultimately, for the team to want integrity with their word, they’ll have to want the word to create the reality. That means they have to be bought into the vision.

Which means that for a team to embrace integrity, they have to embrace the vision. The team has to speak the vision themselves, and make it their own.

Until they own the vision as their own word, they are not going to want to be integrity with it.

Creating integrity, therefore, requires leadership. It requires listening for the future of the team, and building it with them.

If you want to create a high-performing team, help the team write a new future, a future they love and will fight for. And then be ready to fight for it with them, even harder than they will.

At that point, everything will start to work on your team.

  1. See “Integrity: Without it, Nothing Works” for a lot more about this. I have read it multiple times, and keep coming away with new insights. ↩︎