May 28, 2008

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Want Lasting Change? Focus On Culture & Values

Homeostatis is the nerdy term for the property of a system to maintain a state of equilibrium.

We exhibit this property when mechanisms in our body kick in to regulate body heat if it gets too hot or too cold.

Homeostatis is controlled by feedback - and that can be negative or positive feedback. Negative feedback works to bring the system back from perturbations by iteratively reducing the level of deviation/variation until it returns to normal. Take the thermostat in your home heating system, for example. When it gets too hot, the thermostat will act to turn down the amount of heat energy being pumped out by the radiators. At the end of each control cycle, the thermostat will check the temperature again to see if it that desired. If it's not, then it will regulate the energy being put out by the system for another cycle until the target temperature is reached.

Teams display homeostasis, too. If you make a change to the way they work, they will - iteratively and over time - steadily revert back to doing the things the way they used to. At least, they will if you don't continuously provide the same level of change. As a coach and consultant, I've come to realise that much of the change I help to create is temporary. Eventually - and sometimes alarmingly quickly - teams revert back to their orginal equilibrium after I stop working with them.

And there are probably regulating mechanisms - just like the thermostat - that control this. In most teams, this is the underlying culture - that set of unspoken values, attitudes, rules and habits that you won't find documented anywhere and that you'll probably never hear anyone openly acknowledge.

For example, if, under the surface, teams still value hitting deadlines over delivering software that works, then a team that is forced to adopt quality-driven practices will eventually feel their "deadline thermostat" kicking in and introducing more pressure into the system. If the timescales continue to slip, it will increase the pressure iteratively until the meeting the deadline is the only priority and any pretence at caring about the quality of what gets delivered is dropped.

If we want lasting change, then we should focus less on trying to achieve temporary perturbations and focus more on changing the homeostatic regulators that will inevitably drag things back to the way they were. Quality is a big one. There is such a thing as a quality culture. It exists. I've seen them. But they're rare. Fear has a more profound motivating effect than trust and empowerment - as Mssrs Bush, Cheny, Rumsfeld and Blair will attest. The fear of missing deadlines trumps pretty much every other concern in software development. Delivering crap is culturally preferable to delivering "late" - or later than estimated, at least.

The detail is something best left to the people doing the work to figure out. As a coach, what really matters are the motivations. Which is why I happily devote more and more of my time to intangible forms of learning and education, and it's also why I progressively favour a more hands-off, less prescriptive approach to change consulting.

I see the first stirrings of real results - tangible results - with the people I'm coaching at the moment. Some of them are changing, and they're not doing it because they've been told to do it. They're doing it because they want to do it. They want to learn. They want to improve. And they're doing a much better job of teaching themselves than I ever could.

And it's for this reason that I'm especially sensitive about anything that might happen that would dent these people's confidence and scare them back into their old comfort zone.

Posted 13 years, 1 month ago on May 28, 2008