#162: Recommendations in a downturn

As we start the new year, its not uncommon for organisations to looks at budgets and general expenditure - and given the current financial outlook, I would have expected many organisations to be taking the time to look at how best to weather the storm.

I've found that many organisations typically react with a combination of cost cutting and putting pressure on staff for "more" in such periods.

However like many "traditional" sound managerial practices, this cause dysfunctional and negative outcomes in the Age of Software & Digital - and specifically when it comes to any form of knowledge work like Software Development.

The problem we have is that these "traditional" managerial practices have become muscle memory - so ingrained with the managerial psyche that it can be a difficult thing to re-think.

In this episode, I want to ask you to re-think about 3 things in particular:

  • Training and learning
  • Doing less work
  • Take advantage

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Published: Wed, 25 Jan 2023 16:57:57 GMT



Hello and welcome back.

As we start the New Year, it's not uncommon for organisations to look at budgets and general expenditure. And given the current financial outlook, I would have expected many organisations to be taking the time to look at how to best weather the storm.

And I've found that traditionally, many organisations typically react with a combination of both cost cutting and putting pressure on staff for more in such periods.

This has traditionally been seen as sound management practice - we tighten our belts and we get our heads down.

However, like many "traditional" sound management practices, they cause dysfunction and negative outcomes in the Age of Software and Digital, and specifically when it comes to any form of knowledge work like Software Development.

The problem we have here is that the "traditional" management practices, like so many that I've covered in the podcast series to date, have become muscle memory - so ingrained within the management psyche that it can be difficult to rethink.

And in this episode, I want to ask you to rethink about three things in particular:

  • training and learning,
  • doing less work
  • and taking advantage of the downturn.

Training and learning.

Traditionally during downturns, budgets for training and time allowed for self-learning are easy candidates to be axed. We think that axing the training budget saves us expenditure, thus reduced costs. We think that axing self learning time frees up staff to concentrate on "real" work.

Both of these decisions are common traditional practices, as I say, pretty much a muscle memory response to a downturn.

They are, however, completely the wrong thing to do.

In a downturn we want to get the best productivity we can. We want to be getting the best outcomes from the investment we put into it - and training and learning are the best approaches to improving that productivity.

We need our teams to take their time to sharpen the axe between cutting down trees to make sure they can be as productive as possible. And, at the risk of stretching the analogy, we want our teams learning about these new "chainsaws" that could increase our tree, cutting productivity massively.

To go back to basic principles, Software Development is knowledge work, it is thinking work, and it is a rapidly evolving field where advancements are being made daily. We as organisations are missing out on productivity improvements if we are not allowing, and indeed encouraging, our teams to explore and exploit those advantages.

Training and learning is still one of the best methods of improving productivity - of getting more from less.

Doing less work.

Okay, having just talked about improving productivity with learning and training, getting more from less, I'm now going to tell you to do less work.

Or possibly more correctly, do less of the wrong work - do less of the "waste" as described within Lean Manufacturing.

I summarised Lean within Software Development back in episode 7. Lean advises us to look for and eliminate waste within our Software Development process.

In the book "Lean Software Development" by Mary and Tom Poppendieck, they list seven types of waste within Software Development:

  • Partially done work
  • Extra features
  • Handoffs
  • Delays
  • Tasks Switching
  • Defects
  • and Relearning.

For a description of each, listen to episode 7.

In summary though, you want to be removing any activity that is not adding value. One way of looking at this is to compare your Software Development process with how you would run a "war room" situation.

A war room situation is when you need to get something done as a critical matter of urgency. As such, you gather everybody necessary into one place - the war room. You ensure they have clear communication, knowledge sharing and rapid decision making.

A war room does not need to schedule people's time. A war room does not need hundreds of meetings and documents for handing off of work. A war room is not multitasking between multiple initiatives. A war room does not need to wait for somebody outside of the room to authorise and approve. A war room is clear on when this job is done.

A war room removes the waste that naturally gathers around organisational processes. It provides everybody in the room with alignment and engagement.

Now compare the war room model to how you are doing Software Development.

Use a technique like Value Stream Mapping to analyse your Software Development process, identify the waste and eliminate them. This is very much what modern software development methodologies like Agile, Lean, & DevOps are doing. They are removing the un-value adding parts from the Software Development process - removing the waste.

This allows you to get more from doing less - because the work you are doing is value producing.

This approach is in direct contrast to the expecting more from less by "sweating the asset" - by forcing people to work harder and longer.

Forcing people to work harder and longer has been proven time and time again to be counterproductive and to drive lower productivity.

Deming tells us:

"95% of variation in the performance of a system is caused by the system itself; only 5% is caused by the people."

Thus sweating the people is at best going to give you minimal improvement - although more likely, the negative dysfunctions will actually take you backwards - it is such a small part of what makes the overall system. Rather concentrate on the system. In our case, the Software Development process is where the win will be made.

Take advantage of the downturn.

So there is opportunities during the downturn. If everyone around you is making the same traditional mistakes, you have an opportunity to capitalise on that. In short, you have the opportunity to recruit well.

If others around you are cutting back on training & learning and attempting to improve productivity through "sweating" their staff, then imagine how much greener your grass looks to those developers.

Today, Software Development is one of the key drivers for business success, we are after all in the Age of Software and Digital, so investing more into Software Development is one of the best bets out there.

Using this as an opportunity to grow your ranks with experienced, capable developers, developers that traditionally may not have been on the market, is an excellent opportunity and one that should really be explored.

Not only will this help you grow the capabilities of your organisation, it will potentially open doors that you didn't even know existed - making it easier to pivot and take further advantages.

In this episode, I wanted to encourage you to think beyond the "traditional" muscle memory approaches that organisations generally go through in times of downturn.

I've asked you to continue, or increase, Training and Learning.

I've asked you to look at waste within your Software Development process - generally, by doing less.

I've asked you to consider making yourself more attractive to the best and brightest within the Software Development community.

Now, the astute among you may be asking "have you not said all this before?"

And yes, you're right, you've got me. I have suggested these same approaches before.

They are consistently good regardless of if you are in a downturn or not.

These approaches are for life, not just for Christmas.

These are a great way of getting better productivity - more from less - greater return on your investment.

They help to place your organisation in a strong position during this Age of Software and Digital. It helps to set up your organisation not just to survive but to thrive.

Thank you for taking your time to listen to this episode. I look forward to speaking to you again next week.