Top of Mind

November 14, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Process, Quality 

A few months ago, I posted some data that suggests that when we compare performance against different approaches to developing software, no particular brand stands out. Each approach appears to provide some net value in some area of performance, but there is no clear winner in the broad-based “this is the best way to develop our products” competition. There might be a couple of well known effects at play here.

Quite often, the Hawthorne effect is cited as an influencer in how we do what we do. First observed almost a century ago, it is pretty clear that subjects of a study can change their behaviour simply because they are aware they are being observed. This can be seen when there is an increased focus on estimates, certainly appears when a manager sits in on a peer review. As Robert D. Austin explains in Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations, we will all tend to adjust our behaviour based on what we know we will be measured against. We’ll all tend to sit up straighter when the camera’s on, we’ll stop throwing spitballs in class when the teacher is looking.

Throw on top of that another effect that isn’t associated with organizations all that often: the placebo effect. Usually discussed with medical treatments, we can often see a beneficial effect from a treatment, even though the medication used can’t have contributed to those benefits. Whether a saline injection or a sugar pill that may appear to be the real thing, if a drug doesn’t perform significantly better in trials than that placebo, we would wonder if the drug is worth the effort (particularly as many drugs also carry some potentially nasty side-effects).

The placebo effect suggests that the mind is more powerful than we often give it credit for. Henry Ford once said “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.” For a long time, everyone believe that the 4-minute mile was an unbreakable barrier. Can’t be done. Once someone did it, though, plenty of others achieved the same thing in the next year. They didn’t improve that much physically, but their mind told them that running faster than they had ever run before was now possible. You could say that it was all in their head. Similarly, those that believe in the medication they are taking, even if it can’t make a difference, often see improvement, sometimes dramatically.

Indeed, I have seen instances where the new approach to be used, the prescribed medication, if you will, would not appear to be beneficial to the project at hand. Many of the practices that form the core of the new approach don’t appear to be reasonable given the culture, domain, degree of uncertainty and other factors, yet the team seems to do better. Is it reasonable to believe that if we do anything different, as long as we believe it will make us better, has the potential to do so?

Hawthorne layers on top of this the notion that when we are conscious of changes to our behaviour, we can also see some net benefit. The original study showed that worker productivity improved when lighting was increased, but also improved when lighting levels were decreased. Most of the time, with technology teams, focus is on getting product on the door, not on the approach used to do so. Bring in a consultant, make an overt change to the approach being used, and the team recognizes that they are under the lights. Just sitting up straighter can improve many aspects of your well-being.

Both of these effects, together, are in play whenever we focus on getting better. We bring the approach used to develop our products to top of mind, and we often sell the approach so that people believe there will be improvement. Combined, almost anything we do can be seen as beneficial.

I would suggest that it is these effects that allow some consultants to perceive that their one-screwdriver approach is useful in any situation. It is not unreasonable to believe that the benefits of Hawthorne and placebo can outweigh the damage that their irrelevant or even counter-productive changes bring to an organization. On the positive side, this will tend to increase the evangelism and the potential placebo effects, but it can also lead to less than optimal application of new practices in some instances.

Unfortunately, most organizations are pretty messy places to perform controlled experiments, so this is unlikely to be statistically measured anytime soon. Indeed, I have yet to see a team that has a completely consistent understanding (or belief) of what they do, and certainly there is always a wide expression of pain amongst team members. One thing that I have found, though, is that the mere collection of the team into a room to talk about what they do and how it impacts their work can be a powerful tool.

This makes their approach top of mind, and in doing so enables the collective minds to influence their outcomes. Add to this a carefully considered application of a small change or two, identified and embraced by the team, based on what would be most relevant to their situation, and the lasting value will kick the snot out of any packaged solution. Guaranteed. – JB

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