Review of: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

“[…] vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.”

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

The Fifth Discipline is pretty much on the required reading list for Systems Thinkers. It proposes a vision of a organisation as a group of people who are continually enhancing their capabilities to create what they want to create to the benefit of all.

In the book, Peter Senge provides his description of Systems Thinking, and the disciplines he believes are required to support a Learning Organisation approach.

  • Personal mastery; looking at reality objectively, and acknowledging our personal vision.
  • Building shared vision; ensuring the organisation has one shared goal that was created by the people; deals with the difference between commitment and compliance.
  • Mental models; the epistemological constructs created by our experiences and understanding..
  • Team learning; adoption of open dialogue over discussion or being told what to do.  Letting the team decide the best way forward as a entity and through suspension of assumptions.
  • Systems thinking; the concept of looking at the entire picture and how behaviors and actions feed back into the system and cause effects.

I particularly liked the description of the MIT Beer Game. This game brings into sharp focus the ‘What You See Is All There Is’ notion described in a previous post. 

This book is a classic – used and referenced by management studies the world over. Having listened to it now on Audible I fully understand why.

It is vital that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble. This is challenging because it is much harder to integrate new tools than simply apply them separately. But the payoffs are immense.

This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline. It is the discipline that integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. It keeps them from being separate gimmicks or the latest organization change fads. Without a systemic orientation, there is no motivation to look at how the disciplines interrelate. By enhancing each of the other disciplines, it continually reminds us that the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

Review of: The Phoenix Project 

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The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

Author

Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford

It is not often that you hear of a novel which is part of some ethereal ‘required reading’ list for IT professionals. This is apparently one of those rare beasts. I was dubious. I mean who reads a NOVEL about DevOps and software?! Putting aside my cynicism, I downloaded it onto my Audible.

While obviously a somewhat caricatured scenario (well… in most cases…) this book does a remarkable job of putting the software delivery life-cycle under the spotlight while actually remaining readable, engaging and entertaining.

The story revolves around a newly promoted Operations Manager, a failing company, and its flagship ‘super-project’ all set against the familiar backdrop of a highly competitive market. Hampered by disassociated business, project and IT teams, single points of failure, a chronic blame culture, and significant technical debt, the ‘heroic’ Operations Manager and his team embark upon a journey of Agile and DevOps self discovery under the (slightly bizarre) tutelage of a ‘IT whizz’ who seems a strange cross between ‘Master Shifu’ and a rich, aging hipster.

It turns out I enjoyed this book. I found I was identifying with the protagonist; cringing at the situations I recognised (countless!), laughing at the jokes and nodding sagely at the thought processes (and occasional absolute confusion) of the main character. Everyone who has ever worked in or alongside IT Delivery would recognise these characters; everyone knows someone a bit like Brent, or Sarah or John.

If you can suspend your disbelief at the apparent ease of new process adoption in this company (only ONE team actively trying to get around the rules?… yeah right!), the astonishing lack of panicked attempts to backtrack on the new processes when the going gets tough, and a somewhat exaggerated ‘mentor’ – this is valuable book. It takes the idea of ‘telling a story’ to its ultimate endpoint – a full novel. Instead of a pseudo-rule-book of buzzwords tied together with dry examples of a finished product, this book takes you on a journey to show how you could get there… and even more importantly, WHY you should.

As someone whose entire role revolves around one of those ‘bottleneck workstations’ so accurately described in the book, I found the authors managed to succinctly put their fingers right onto about 80% of my daily challenges. I also found myself giving mental high-fives when I identified initiatives that I have introduced or been part of in my own career, and rubbing my chin thoughtfully over possible future opportunities.

This book touches on most of the main challenges and drivers of modern day software life-cycle management, alongside practical descriptions of various Agile, Lean, Devops, Continuous Delivery, Kanban, Continuous Improvement, and a whole host of other practices in between. It identifies the common misconceptions between IT and the business, and it demonstrates -albeit in a somewhat exaggerated way – the benefits to the whole business if everyone starts working as part of a cohesive system.

I thoroughly recommend this book for anyone that works as part of – or relies upon – business IT as part of their job. Ir might explain a lot and it could have some useful ideas for your own practice.

Take-away thoughts for DevOps / Agile practices

I attended the Computing DevOps Summit last Wednesday in London. It was a rather polished affair at the Grosvenor Square Marriott in Mayfair; well attended, well presented and with a broad lineup of Keynotes all roundly advocating DevOps.

It was a valuable day overall, but one speaker in particular resonated with me, as his choice of topic – ‘Unicorns and Elephants’ – is something quite familiar. The speaker, Rick Allan, Head of Delivery Capability at Zurich Insurance, spent his time waxing lyrical on the myriad challenges encountered by complex, multi-faceted organisations that have gone through significant organic growth. and the unexpected barriers this can create when adopting agile practices.

This is a scenario that I have seen in several organisations over the years – where do you even start when you have a estate that is riddled with legacy infrastructure and applications that have, over time, been ‘bolted’ onto each other, integrated with third parties and heavily customised. Automation in this landscape is a veritable minefield of problems.

My main take-aways from the event were:

  • Know what you actually have got, what it does, and what it communicates with.
  • Agree a vision with the business – implementing the changes needed to achieve that vision could have some serious cost and usability implications and so their buy-in and support is critical.
  • Pick off simpler applications first. Chipping small, tactical chunks from the monolith is going to be easier at first than trying to brute force it. Prove your method works.
  • Move away from project and start thinking by product and value stream (again – something the business really needs to get on-board with to enable this to work as this has budgeting implications.) This helps to break down velocity-sapping silos and move away from a transaction based culture.
  • Stand firm in the face of large, expensive programmes of change – they need to follow the rules too.
  • Implement a default tool-bench – a set of approved tools that are authorised and licensed for use. Migrate services over to them and shut off unauthorised tools behind you. Make sure your developers and engineers actually know about them, know what they are for and how to use them.
  • Use metrics to understand and prove where bottlenecks exist. This information can then be leveraged to determine a strategy to overcome the problem. Whatever the final option, the business case will need to be proven, and those metrics can help to establish that mandate.

In order to enable true continuous delivery, the ultimate goal needs to be consistent, converged and scalable architectures, ideally managed by smart software – and that is a long, and probably quite expensive, path for organisations with significant amounts of legacy applications and architecture. This type of change requires buy-in from the very top, and the investment, time and willpower to carry it through. Good intentions can only go so far.

Thoughts on Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

I have recently been listening to a new book on Audible – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, a MIT computer science professor and popular blogger.

I will admit this isn’t my usual reading material, but I stumbled upon mention of it on this blog and this blog, gave it a bit of research, read some really positive reviews of the book (New York Times, Associates Mind),  and given the impending start of my Masters degree, I thought it might be worth a quick look.

It would be a fair assessment to say that I have found it to be a fascinating book with some really strong concepts and a clear narrative style

The authors primary argument is that today’s knowledge-worker has a lifestyle that is so disrupted and fractured it becomes almost impossible to be able to focus on anything particularly complex. It’s easy to confuse ‘busyness’ with ‘productivity’ and if we don’t watch ourselves, we end up filling our days with shallow tasks instead of the mentally-intensive stuff it takes to truly get ahead.

The ‘Deep Work’ method advocates taking time away from interruption and actively blocking off potential sources of distraction; no phones (gasp), no social media (bigger gasp) and no email (…faint!).  The concept is explained more succinctly in the following equation:

High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

The author proposes several ways to achieve a personal ‘Deep Work’ approach ranging from completely locking yourself away, to setting up a schedule, to simply getting the most out of short bursts of available time, and he provides insight into what you need to do to be able to focus intensively on complex topics.

From experience, deliberately leaving your phone behind, or turning off your email is psychologically a pretty big deal. In today’s hyper-connected world choosing to disconnect can almost feel like sacrilege and that’s something you need to train yourself out of in order to embark on’Deep Work.’

I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is great food for thought. All too often I have found myself being amazingly busy, but not feeling like I have achieved anything meaningful – and this book really gives voice to why I feel like that. I will certainly be training myself towards aspects of this approach when I start my impending Masters study sessions and, as far as possible, to get more productive hours out of my time at work.

Review of: Agile Project Management for Dummies

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Title

Agile Project Management for Dummies

Author

Mark C. Layton, MBA, CST, PMP, SCPM,

Format I read it in

Audible on Amazon. Narrated by Sean Pratt

What is this book for? 

While there are many companies out there that have a well-trodden Agile path, there are even more that have not made the plunge yet and are still solidly trudging along the Waterfall route to delivery. Sometimes that is the right thing to do – but in many cases there is plenty of evidence to indicate that a well-thought out and business-supported Agile approach will improve speed of delivery.

Like most ‘for Dummies’ books there is a implicit suggestion that the reader may not know a lot about the subject and is looking to expand their actionable knowledge on the topic.

What did I like?

The book covers all the stages of Agile delivery in a methodical way; lots of bullet points and lists and reminders of what to do. There is a good explanation of the Agile manifesto at the start and the author goes to some effort to provide background on the origins of Agile as a framework.

The final chapter has some really good pointers for finding other Agile resources and communities on the web.

I also liked the fact that this book has been converted to Audible. I find it easier to listen to technical information from these types of books as opposed to read them page by page. Generally I tend to listen to these on my morning commute as I find it fires my braincells up and the new information is more likely to stick than at any other time of the day.

What did I dislike?

This book should be renamed ‘Mostly SCRUM with a brief mention of other frameworks for Dummies.’ Given that there is a SCRUM for Dummies written by the same author I would have hoped to see a more rounded approach; more detail about LEAN and XP would have been nice.

The book is extremely rote (which I find a slight irony given the subject matter). There is a lot of slightly evangelistic preaching which strongly comes across as  ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ commandments  – this turns me off somewhat as I do not think that delivery frameworks  can be absolute in this manner.. Additionally I found the content to be extremely repetitive if read from cover-to-cover – but if used as reference material then this approach is far more logical as it will serve as more of a aide memoire to dip into from time to time.

As a Environment Manager I was a little disappointed that there was next to no mention of management practices in this area – beyond the standard ethos of ‘automate it and your problems go away.’

Overall impression

As someone who is unfamiliar with SCRUM, this book provided some solid indication of how work flows through Delivery and the roles vital for the job. I do wonder if the actual SCRUM for Dummies book would have been a better read if that was what I was specifically interested in however.

I would have liked to see a LOT more case studies and real word examples as I think this would have lent weight to the ‘rules’ and given a more nuanced view of how different businesses have interpreted and applied the methods.

I probably wouldn’t choose to buy this book as I do not find this method (rote bullet points and lists) the easiest to get to grips with – but I would borrow it if it was in a work library. If you prefer to work within a very structured set of guidelines then this is a good book for a starter. It would also be a useful resource for teams moving to SCRUM as the lists and bullet points can be easily pulled out and used as visual reminders for best practice