Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Category: teams

Lean versus Agile

People sometimes ask me about the structure of our internal development team, and to what extent we’re truly “agile”. My response is that we’re actually more “lean”. I happily give examples of some of the key working practices we have. I generally don’t explain the difference between “lean” and “agile”, though.

Sometimes, people use these terms interchangeably. I think this is wrong, but understandable. As a JIRA user, I’m used to it offering a Kanban board to run a scrum sprint. This can be a great choice, but it muddies the waters. Let me take this opportunity to explain my thinking then!

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Brand demolition

It was only just over a week ago that I posted about brand being the net result of action, and in the last few days United Airlines have decided to furnish me with the best example yet.

There’s nothing that speaks more volumes than how a company treats its customers, and while it’s not the case that all their customers are treated this poorly, the fact they will go this low is shocking.

Employees are not “brand ambassadors”; as the agents of your company they are the ones building your brand. Customers aren’t always right, but when they are happy and talk positively about your company, you build your brand. Marketing and advertising help build awareness of a brand, good logos and design will give people an intuition about your brand, but the rubber hits the road when your organisation does things.

Academia is apparently unmanageable

There’s a great blog post doing the rounds today, titled “Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse“. Going through a number of examples of metric-based assessment, the conclusion is that standard management practice applied to academic work results in obviously worse outcomes.

At the heart of the argument is an interesting contradiction – that it is possible to assess academic work and show that under a specific regime the results are less good, while simultaneously it is impossible to assess the results of academic work in such a way as to improve it. However, it’s possible to accept a slightly weaker form of the argument – that the practice of measuring while science is being done negatively affects the work in a way that appraising the results post-facto doesn’t. I’m not in a position to really know whether or not this is genuinely the case for academic work, but I’m seeing people apply the same argument to software development, and I truly believe it doesn’t apply.

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Brand & Culture: it’s all about Action

There are a lot of people with strong thoughts about brand and culture, and how the two relate to each other. From conversations I’ve had with others, I thought it high time to put my perspective down in writing.

I have a lot of time for this HBR article, “Brand is Culture, Culture is Brand“. It is absolutely correct to say that you cannot build a brand if your business culture does not / will not support and live that brand, and this is a fault seen so commonly. Business rebrand frequently; and it’s very common to see immediate push-back because the way the business operates doesn’t fly with the new brand at all.

However, I think things have to go deeper than this.

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A short review: The Agile Team Onion

This is a quick and pithy review of Emily Webber’s free e-book, “The Agile Team Onion“. At about 20 pages of content, it’s a concise enough work itself – I personally appreciate the laser-like focus on a single subject; in this case, it’s thinking about the various factors that affect agile team make-up, sizing and interfacing with other people and teams.

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Brexit confirms: storytelling is dead

This is not a post about Brexit; this is about conversations. Storytelling rose in the 80’s as a key marketing tool – phenomena like the Nescafe “Gold Blend” adverts demonstrated how the ability to tell a story could convincingly engage consumers en masse. Truth be told, this was nothing new – the “soap opera” is so-called because those ongoing serial dramas used to be sponsored by soap manufacturers. But, the key insight by the storytellers was that creating a story around a message you wanted to communicate (rather than simply being associated to or referenced by the story) was very powerful.

Now, Nescafe coffee had only a tangential bit-part within their famed serial adverts, and indeed broadcasting on television is a remarkably expensive way of telling a story – so in fact, the technique didn’t really start to take off until the early 2000s, with the advent of the internet. Of course, big names continued to tell stories in the way they had – Guiness being the more modern exemplar – but now smaller organisations could do it; they felt it built relationships with their consumers.

There is a lot to be said about discerning what is storytelling and what isn’t. Critically, a story ought to have an arc – a beginning, middle and end at least – but at a deeper level ought to have a structure which creates emotional engagement. Shakespeare was a master of the five-act structure, and most blockbuster movies to this day retain a very similar make-up. Advertisements alone do not lend themselves to that level of sophistication, but people started applying storytelling in many different areas of business – although seen as a marketing tool, it quickly leaked into sales, the boardroom, investment decks and beyond.

Many people get benefit from story-thinking without necessarily having a huge amount of structure. The process of thinking editorially about their message, and trying to frame that in the form of a story is difficult and restricting. In a similar way to writing a Tweet, the added restrictions make you think carefully about what you want to say, and it turns out these restrictions actually help rather than hinder – a message has to be much more focussed. However, those restrictions (while helpful) are not the power of storytelling – more the power of subediting / thinking (which, is seems, it less common than you’d think).

People have said before me that storytelling is dying – Berkowitz’s piece on becoming storymakers rather than tellers is well-cited. It’s a very marketing-oriented perspective, and there’s lots to agree with, but I think it’s dead wrong for digital-native organisations.

Politics is an awful lot like marketing and product development in some key ways; in many ways, it actually resembles the market before software-as-a-service:

  • highly transactional nature (votes instead of money)
  • very seasonal sales periods, often years between sales
  • competitive marketplace for a commodity product
  • repeat customers very valuable, but profit function dependent on making new sales on the current product line

Not just that, but crucial is the engagement of the “customer” (the voter) in an ongoing fashion, to ensure that the party is developing policies that they believe will be voted for. Interestingly, in blind tests, the Liberal Democrat and Green policies rate very highly – so we can see that while the product is important, market positioning is critical to ensure customers have a specific formed belief about your product.

Within continuous delivery thinking, the digital organisation is concerned primarily with conversations to drive the brand rather than positional or story-oriented marketing. However, what was particularly interesting with the Brexit debate: this conversational engagement was writ large across the whole leave campaign.

Things we can note about the campaign:

  • meaningful engagement on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Of course, campaigns have done this before (Corbyn would be another example), but while others have been successful at deploying their message, Leave were highly successful in modifying their conversations quickly
  • a stunningly short period of campaigning. Who knows why this happened: the Scottish referendum on independence was over a period of 18 months. The UK Brexit debate was complete in 4. There was no way a campaign could hammer home messages; each thing they said had to be well-chosen and timely
  • absolute control over the conversation. While Leave conversed freely with their own supporters, they meaningfully achieve air superiority in terms of the conversation in the debate. Their messages were the ones discussed; they created the national conversation. People are shocked by how “untrue” many of their statements were: but people can recall them readily. I doubt many could recall anything Remain said other than vague threats about the economy.

The speed of the conversation here was crucial. They adapted in a truly agile fashion, and were able to execute their OODA loop significantly more quickly. In the end, it was a tight contest, but it really should not have been.

Storytelling is a blunt instrument in comparison. It’s unresponsive, it’s broadcast, and it’s not digital native. Its time is up.

On Hiring A-Players

“Steve Jobs has a saying that A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” ― Guy Kawasaki

A few times recently I’ve bumped into what I call the “A-Player Theory”. This is a close relative of the “10x Engineer Theory”, and in its usual formulation states that only the best want to hire their equals or betters: everyone else, for whatever reason, hires down. If only you were brave enough to hire people better than you, you’d be creating great teams in no time!

Like a lot of ideas in the tech arena, it feels like this idea has come from the world of elite sports, and this is no bad thing. When I want to explore ideas about peak performance, it’s natural to look to different types of people and try to apply their ideas to my own. However, I don’t think that that this theory is actually that helpful, and it’s simple to explain why.

First, I think there is a simple problem with the formulation in that hiring is a two-way street: not only does the hirer need to want to find the best people, but the best people will need to be attracted to the hirer. I think this second effect is actually the more important: the quality of the talent available to you, as a hirer, will be directly proportional to the quality of your culture. This is a difficult statement to support in this post, and is something I will explore further in the future, but I do believe that this is the case.

But second, and more importantly, I just don’t think the theory holds in elite sports. Now granted, things are rather different in American elite team sports: for example, team-building is crucial in American Football, but processes like “the draft” are  deliberately designed to ensure that C-teams hire A-players (at least in the beginning), so that some degree of competitive parity is ensured.

I’d like to give some examples from the world of soccer, instead. I’ve chosen this sport for a few reasons – partly, I’m very familiar with it, but mainly because it’s a global sport with the requisite elite element, and sufficient money floating about that players move between teams, leagues and countries with extreme ease. If any teams were going to be calculating about hiring A-players, you’d see them in soccer.

To be fair, there are absolutely teams who do this. The most obvious example is the galáctico policy pursued by Real Madrid. However, this turns out to be pretty rare: teams will transfer players for a variety of different reasons, and rate them in different ways, and while there are large-money transfers for world-class players, these make up a small amount of activity at even the largest clubs as a rule.

The absolute best teams in soccer are not associated with world-class A-players; they’re actually a function of the manager. My favourite example right now is Leicester City: not least as I grew up in Leicester, but (correct at the time of writing this) because they’re flying high at the top of the Premiership with one of my favourite managers, Claudio Ranieri. Their leading scorers, with 36 goals between them, are those huge names “Jamie Vardy” and “Riyad Mahrez” (you will be forgiven if you don’t follow soccer for having never heard of the pair of them).

Vardy at least was a record signing: Leicester paid £1 million for him from a non-league club (and reportedly, the deal could even be worth more). Let’s be clear about this, though: for a premier league player, that sum is an absolute pittance. Mahrez came from a league club to be sure – Ligue 2 AAS Sarcelles – for an undisclosed fee, which again will be small in the scheme of the league (and in fact, both players joined before the team were promoted to the Premiership). Both players now absolutely have a market value in tens of millions.

Leicester did not sign A-players; in fact, they signed a bunch of low-league and non-league players in order to rise out of the Championship, and then made the very sensible decision not to attempt to parachute in Premiership stars, and instead stick with the team they had built. This work is largely attributable to their previous manager, Nigel Pearson, and does not particularly break the mold in many ways – this is a well-trodden path that has seen many clubs rise through the leagues at the hands of an excellent manager (e.g. Nottingham Forest in the Clough era, before which they were largely forgettable and underachieving, or Leeds United under Revie, who started as an awful side that struggled to attract youth players let alone professionals).

If anything, in fact, the record of teams within this league that have gone out to buy the best has been pretty awful – Chelsea have done well but at an absolutely enormous cost, and many teams inflated by A-players have quickly fallen once the money ran out (Newcastle, West Ham, as examples).

The manager with the most enviable record for team-building, of course, must be Alex Ferguson. While his best Manchester United teams were full of world-class players, many of whom had been bought in at some cost, his career was partly defined by the number of A-players he allowed to leave the club. Paul Ince was a huge loss to the club, as was Hughes and Kanchelskis, and (not for the first time in his career) Ferguson came under significant pressure to resign. Instead, he opted (having failed to sign some names) to bring in members of the youth team – names who are now instantly recognisable, like the Nevilles, Beckham, Scholes. Commentator Alan Hansen characterized their opening loss with the immortal words, “You can’t win anything with kids”. He also let go Cantona, and Ronaldo (who left at the height of his powers) brought an almost £70 million profit to the club upon sale. Sure, Ferguson also spent money (and brought in players who didn’t perform – Taibi, Djemba-Djemba, Tosic, Zaha, Bebe, to name but a few – some of them real A-players, like Andersen), but Manchester United were one of the most sustainably successful clubs for a long period of time under his leadership.

All of this brings me back to my central point. It’s not the player that is important; it’s the team – and the decision about who to bring into a team, when, and how, is the responsibility of the manager. It’s very easy to say “I’m going to go and hire only A-players!”, but actually, it’s probably one of the worst things you can do for a team. In football terms, you need balance in a side – people with different strengths, abilities and points of view. Football is notorious for great players who leave one club for another, and become totally anonymous shadows of their former selves: this is not because they’re B- or C-players in disguise, but because if a team doesn’t have a A-player shaped hole, that player will not be able to perform like an A-player.

It is incumbent on the best team leaders to develop the team first and foremost; the aim is that based on the performance of the team others will look back and say, “That is a team of A-players”. It’s easy to state how to do this, but remarkably difficult in practice:

  1. set the right culture for the team, right from the off. This is a whole topic in and of itself, and the culture creates the environment for performance but importantly does not trigger performance itself
  2. where an existing team is in place, plan out how to adapt and grow the people within the team, guided by the culture
  3. for each new member being added to the team, think hard about the gap they’re filling and whether or not they are the right “shape” to fill the gap.

Think about the levers in the team that are used to create and maintain performance. Most managers will automatically turn to metrics and reports; these are amongst the least powerful tools. The crucial factors here are ensuring clarity of purpose, adequacy of tools and resources, autonomy to perform and passion for the work. Passion burns most fiercely when fuelled by success, and as a team leader that is your end goal. Hiring is important, it’s best to start in the best place possible, but I don’t believe it’s anything more than a good start.

“The quality of a person’s life is most often a direct reflection of the expectations of their peer group.” ― Tony Robbins