Thanks to pandemic-induced economic chaos, you’ve been forced to take a job on the quality assurance line at a factory that produces things.
The machine creates all kinds of random things, but your employer only sells a very specific subset of those things. All the things that don’t fit the profile have to be rejected, and melted down and fed back into the machine to make more things.
On your first day, you get training. (Oh, would that were true in software development!)
They stand you at the quality gate and start up the machine. All kinds of things come down the line at you. Your line manager tells you “Only let the green things through”. You grab all the things that aren’t green and throw them into the recycle bin. So far, so good.
“Only let the green round things through!” shouts your line manager. Okay, you think. Bit harder now. All non-green, non-round things go in the bin.
“Only let the green round small things through!” Now you’re really having to concentrate, a few green round small things end up in the bin, and a few non-green, non-round, non-small things get through.
“Only let the green round small things with Japanese writing on them through!” That’s a lot to process at the same time. Now your brain is struggling to cope. A bunch of blue and red things with Japanese writing on them get through. A bunch of square things get through. Your score has gone from 100% accurate to just 90%. Either someone will have to go through the boxes that have been packed and pick out all the rejects, or they’ll have to deal with 10% customer returns after they’ve been shipped.
“Only let the green round small things with Japanese writing on them that have beveled edges and a USB charging port on the opposite side to the writing and a power button in the middle of the writing and a picture of a horse – not a donkey, mind, reject those ones! – and that glow in the dark through!”
Now it’s chaos. Almost every box shipped contains things that should have been thrown in the recycle bin. Almost every order gets returned. That’s just too much to process. Too many criteria.
We have several choices here:
- Slow down the line so we can methodically examine every thing against our checklist, one criteria at a time.
- Hire a whole bunch of people and give them one check each to do.
- Reset customer expectations about the quality of the things they’re buying.
- Automate the checking using cameras and robots and lasers and super-advanced A.I. so all those checks can be made at production speed to a high enough accuracy.
Number 4 is the option that potentially gives us the win-win of customer satisfaction and high productivity without the bigger payroll. It’s been the driving force behind the manufacturing revolutions in East Asia for the last 70 years: automate, automate, automate.
But it doesn’t come for free. High levels of automation require considerable ongoing investment in time, technology and training. In the UK, we’ve under-invested, becoming more and more inefficient and expensive while the quality of our output has declined. Shareholders want their return now. There’s no appetite for making improvements for the future.
There are obvious parallels in software development. Businesses want their software now. Most software organisations have little inclination to invest the time, technology and training required to reach the high levels of automation needed to achieve the coveted continuous delivery that would allow them to satisfy customer needs sooner, cheaper, and for longer.
The inescapable reality is that frictionless delivery demands an investment of 20-25% of your total software development budget. To put it more bluntly, everyone should be spending 1 day a week not on immediate customer requirements, but on making improvements in the delivery process that would mean meeting future customer requirements will be easier.
And so, for most teams, it never gets easier. The software just gets buggier, later and more expensive year after year.
What distinguishes those software teams who are getting it right from the rest? From observation, I’ve seen the same factor every time: autonomy. Teams will invest that 20-25% when it’s their choice. They’re tasked with delivering value, and allowed to figure out how best to do that. Nobody’s telling them how to do their jobs.
How did this blissful state come about? Again, from observation, those teams have autonomy because they took it. Freedom is rarely willingly given.
Now, I appreciate this is a whole can of worms. To take their autonomy, teams need to earn trust. The more trust a team has earned, the more likely they’ll be left alone. And this can be a chicken and egg kind of situation. To earn trust, the team has to reliably deliver. To reliably deliver, the team needs autonomy. This whole process must begin with a leap of faith on the business’s part. In other words, they have to give teams the benefit of the doubt long enough to see the results.
And here come the worms… Teams have to win over their customer from the start, before anything’s been delivered – before the customer’s had a chance to taste our pudding. This means that developers need to inspire enough confidence with their non-technical stakeholders – remember, this is a big money game – to reassure everyone that they’re in good hands. And we’re really, really bad at this.
The temptation is to over-promise, and set unrealistic expectations. This pretty much guarantees disappointment. The best way to inspire confidence is to have a good track record. No lawyer can guarantee to win your case. But a lawyer who won 9 of their last 10 cases is going to inspire more confidence than a lawyer who’s taking this as their first case promising you a win.
And we’re really, really bad at this, too – chiefly because software development teams are newly formed for that specific piece of work and don’t have a track record to speak of. Sure, individual developers may be known quantities, but in software, the unit of delivery is the team. I’ve watched teams of individually very strong developers fall flat on their collective arse.
And this is why I believe that this picture won’t change until organisations start to view teams as assets, and invest in them for a long-term pay-off as well as short-term delivery, 20/80. And, again, I don’t think this will be willingly given. So maybe we – as a profession – need to take the decision out of their hands.
It could all start with one big act of collective autonomy.