8 Key Benefits to
Practice Based Organizations (Pt. 2)

The Second of Two Articles

In the first article I briefly discussed some core factors around practice based organizations and introduced the first four key benefits of such organizations. Four other benefits are valuable, especially when considering some of the challenges seen in Organizational Design (OD) for larger organizations …

When I worked in either small product or professional services companies, teams were peer based. As such, there was very little organizational pomp and circumstance around communication, information sharing and competency. Productivity was high and success was frequent. While I could wax nostalgic to the simple values of small groups, the reality is that larger organizations exist for a variety of reasons and they, too, must find ways to be productive and effective.

One of the key challenges when managing large organizations is knowing what is happening on projects. Today’s CIO best practice is the PMO dashboard. This is the latest Exec-u-speak for the air conditioned box seat view of what’s going on in the field. This is not to say that dashboards are not useful, but the essence of this situation is simple. If 20 projects are running simultaneously there is no way a leader is going to know what is going on in 20 projects. Red, yellow and green blinking lights are insufficient. Sure one has to trust people, but still information necessary to run the organization is lacking. Metrics only reveal so much of what is happening.

Working with Tom DeMarco, he once told me, “metrics, at best, are mediocre”. Surely, the weakness of metrics comes from a desire to make the complex … simple. To take an analog world and make it fit into a digital picture. If a project is struggling or a key delivery hedges on a go no/go around a certain bug or condition (is it critical or not) … no metrics are going to provide that kind of real-time feedback. Simply, the chain of communication needs to be open, down several paths, and you need to be talking with folks on a continual basis. If one is going to have the challenges that come with a larger organization, one should leverage the benefits of a larger organization.

Specific to the comments above, in the first article I discussed Organizational Transparency through multiple communication paths of the practices. As we see in the following benefits, a less obvious but just as potent set of factors are the ability to quantify, drive and proliferate practice activities in the organization. The more one knows about the capability of their organization, the more capabilities are developed and matured, the better one can assess the potential issues and solutions. So with that said, let’s look at the other four benefits of practiced based organizations:

Key Benefits to Practiced Based Organizations continued

5. Proliferation of Best Practices

The First Rule of Productive Solutions – they are always developed as close to the actual problem as possible. Not in a vacuum in the center of an organization, where someone who use to do real work is going to fashion up a generic solution to a perceived general problem. First real problems on projects should be solved by people with skin in the game of the project. Generalization happens when one adapts a solution to the second project with a like problem, determining what is similar and what is different. Then the third and so on. This activity establishes a best practice. Anything else is a headache masquerading as a best practice. How does one know when there is a best practice? It’s not when someone is selling a solution to others; rather it is when others recognize that the way something is done works for them. Part of the practice and management role is to recognize where these opportunities lie and thusly to help nurture their development.

In a portfolio of projects, certain teams will have glaring issues that are high priority for them to solve. As a result they are willing to invest time and money to solve a problem. Their investment to an ultimate solution then allows other projects to be downstream benefactors of the legwork performed – other teams will still have a cost in adopting a solution and tailoring it to their situation, but the cost is greatly reduced from a ground start approach. This is especially the case with testing regimes, CM and Build infrastructure, deployment capabilities, and development environments.

The function of the practice is to support those in the projects developing the solutions, help maintain those solutions (and some times those solutions end up being owned by the practice, such as a test suite or continuous integration platform) and find new benefactors of these solutions in the form of other projects in the organization.

6. A Natural Path for Practice Maturity

Let’s say you are responsible for an organization with ten or fifteen projects underway (or twenty or thirty!) and someone asks, “What is your QA capability?”. With fifteen projects underway obviously there are specific answers for each project in the details, but you wouldn’t want to give fifteen different answers at a high level. Rather one would want to be able to quantify one’s QA capability for the organization – “Our QA organization is comprised of about 35 people working with fifteen projects. Test leads are heavily involved at the onset of the project, determining the nature of the system and how verification and validation will be performed. All projects have test plans which outline the critical needs and strategy for V&V. Bugs and issues are tracked to closure using JIRA. Our continuous integration platform supports NUnit and JUnit for unit testing. We are currently working with several teams to drive our unit testing to 90% coverage and hope to be there by year’s end.”

Practices have road maps with goals to improve practice capabilities and services to the teams. Those roadmaps can include formalizing a best practice, owning a platform capability in the practice, introducing new capabilities in projects which can stand significant benefit from a new approach, communication around the practice and even metrics and reporting on both project activities and practice level activities. Instead of senior management attempting to get 15 QA leads on 15 projects to perform an activity by mandate, the practice lead works with the QA leads more closely focusing on the value the projects need as activities become adopted as a whole.

7. Counteract negative attributes of stove pipes

Larger organizations tend to have challenges combating insular behavior. It is valuable for teams to be insular – they are focused on their needs (and the needs of their customers). A larger organization has needs beyond the specific customer of a project; but more importantly a larger organization can provide additional help to projects through resources and a larger community fabric.

Insular Challenges: ~ Problems can be solved (or often not solved) in a vacuum and with no more resources than what the project bears. Typically projects build walls around issues they can’t tackle. ~ Stovepipes make it difficult for individuals to grow by moving to new projects on a periodic basis. ~ Insular groups also suffer GroupThink: they often conclude they know best, when outside perspective can often challenge internal assumptions and create new and effective ways to improve or address issues.

Leveraging Standards: Complete lack of standardization not only costs the organization but also the project (if everyone had to build their own CM system and support it, how much of a pain is that versus adopting one of two standards in an organization that come with 24 hour environment deployment, standard templates and some experts in-house that can help get things going?)

Balancing Message Management: Stove pipes often manage information coming out of the pipe, as a form of protection from outside forces (read, management and customers). This is in part caused by poor experiences by team members with prior management; it is also caused by a natural tendency to not want to deliver bad news and deal with the consequences. Stove pipes can become very adept and managing the message. A part of message management is necessary – one wants to give teams a chance to work – a certain level of transparency is apropos as is a certain level of opacity. With Practices, multiple channels of communication open up, both horizontally and vertically. Anyone in a management role needs to pay careful attention to how that information is used – it is important to respect the team and give them opportunities to right courses, make mistakes and learn. At the same time, the multi-dimensional view provided by project managers and practice leads can be the difference between seeing projects in color versus black & white.

8. In-House Surge, Contraction and Augmentation Support

On a final note, practice based organizations can be critical to maintaining facets of capability both in surges and contractions. During a surge, additional resources beyond the immediate project (or upstart) can be leveraged, some times from other projects or from the practice lead directly. The practice will have a pipeline for talent outside the organization; they are well plugged into the community and expert at finding people.

During downturns, practices can help keep the best people and ensure that practice capabilities are considered when having to perform reductions. Practices can also identify opportunities for projects and the organization to accelerate standards and normalization to help increase efficiencies to take on a contraction in funding.

Finally through a practice, projects can get specialized or fractional support: the former for things such as automated test engineering or UX design. For the latter, many small projects can not support full time resources for certain activities (say CM or deployment). In these different situations, practices can help ensure an overall stability in the facet of their expertise by helping to provide or remove resources as needs change.

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