Mental models in action

Hello everyone,

As you might have spotted, I didn’t have much inspiration to write something new to my blog last year. It was partially caused by a high workload and another spin of an “impostor syndrome wheel” in my head. However, I am happy to share the new article with you and hope you’ll find it useful. Enjoy!

Some time ago, I finally watched the video of Anton Zotin’s talk on “Magellan framework” he gave back in 2015. There he describes an outstanding engineering and product culture they had at Here Technologies, a Nokia company back then.

According to Anton, there were around 100 engineers working on one product in customer value-focused teams without Product Owners and/or Product Backlogs. The goal-setting was based on the product mission, and every engineer was more like an entrepreneur.

I want to highlight the disclaimer Anton gives at the end of his talk. The setup and process he describes in his talk are just a blueprint of their state back in 2015 and were an outcome of evolutionary development. People, company and company culture have come to this state in several years, so you can’t just copy-paste (hiya, “Spotify model”) and apply it for yourself.

I have no doubt that any company that feels the need for adaptability and agility should strive towards such condition. But my article today won’t be about that. Or, at least, not only about that.

System development always goes hand-in-hand with the development of people who form it. And by the system here I mean the structure of a company, not the product it produces. The engineering culture of a company gets more mature as its talents become better developers. As your Scrum gets more “mature”, the level of its acceptance and understanding within the Scrum Team also gets higher (in case the team is stable and long-living), etc.. Or vice versa.

People gain maturity and develop new expertise as they work within an advanced culture. Their internal development process, which can be assessed through the Spiral Dynamics model, goes through certain stages. Jumping over the certain stages is impossible or at least very very difficult.

Being part of an advanced culture leaves a mark on a person. Like any other previous life experience, it becomes a natural part of their Mental Model.

And here we face the problem of the irrelevance of the previous experience. That sounds counterintuitive — you are coming from a company where everything works perfectly. The engineering culture there was highly developed, the level of self-organization and motivation were incredible, results were inspiring. You did not read about that on the Internet or heard at the conference. You’ve been a part of it and seen this system from within with your own eyes. It may seem that all you have to do is to reproduce the system conditions, educate people and you are done. But it’s not that easy.

I had a chance to work with a person from Here Technologies who joined our company to occupy one of the leading management roles. Let’s call him Michael.

At the very first meeting with the Agile Coaches team, Michael introduced his vision of a new organisational structure for the company. He described the structure, its benefits and mentioned new roles and responsibilities. Being an open person, I couldn’t resist to challenge some parts of it that seemed risky or inefficient to me based on my previous experience and experience of the agile community.

In my opinion, such behaviour should be welcomed in mature organisations since it helps to get the best of the talents of a company and usually brings to the most efficient management decisions. In that case, it led to the following discussion:

Michael: — I’ve been thinking through this structure for a long time and find it most suitable for the needs of the company. Your claims are unreasonable, Denis.

Denis: — I am not expressing any claims. I just want to make sure that all important nuances have been taken into account and we didn’t miss anything that can lead to a serious blowback. This is part of my job as an Agile Coach.

Michael: — Maybe such fairytale creatures as “Agile Coaches” and “Scrum Masters” were needed 10–15 years ago, but nowadays everyone is already agile and understand what it is. There is no need to educate people about it — we need to provide them with conditions and empower them. That’s what we want to achieve with this structure.

My attempt to learn about the reasoning of such opinion was unsuccessful and the meeting was over. The new organisational structure has been applied several months later, while I decided to part ways with the company and look for a new professional challenge.

Only now, after watching the three-years-old recording of Anton’s conference talk, I understood where Michael’s belief was coming from. Years of work in such a developed environment and culture made it “new normal” to him. And he took this sincere belief as a foundation for his first steps at the new place. Such behaviour is often called wishful thinking.

Nowadays, I am still in touch with people who are part of that company. Unfortunately, I know from them that the expected growth of engineering and product culture has not happened. Since the company keeps continuously growing, lack of attention to the culture has led to a decline of both the product’s quality and talents retention. That exactly corresponds to two laws of Systems Thinking:

“Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.”

“Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.”

Staying humble, being open to questions from the outside and ability to admit mistakes are vital skills for any successful leader.

Many of them also stress the importance of “Go See” principle or gemba walks”. Those approaches declare that the most efficient management decisions can be made only after attending the actual “place of work”, such as a factory floor at a plant.

Unfortunately, Michael was too resistant to the first one and didn’t dedicate enough time to the second.

To make it clear, I didn’t have a goal to criticize anyone or give my evaluation to other people behaviour and leadership skills. I just wanted to share with you my sudden insight and some tools & theories that might be useful in your personal and professional activity.

Feel free to “clap” or share your thoughts in the comments. Your feedback is my primary motivation.

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Agile Expat by Denis Salnikov

Agile Expat by Denis Salnikov

Org Design consultant, Trainer & LeSS Coach @ Agile Expat | Head of Agile Practices @ PandaDoc | Professional Scrum Master | CMI Team Coach | Kanban Coach