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A holiday card to the industry, 2023

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Years ago, I asked my dad to review a piece of promotional copy I was hoping to use to sell my company’s services. He flagged a sentence that presented what I thought was a compelling benefit. It began, “You will learn to …”

“Don’t ever use “learn” if your goal is to attract customers,” he told me. “’Learn’” means you’ll make them work.” Nobody wants you to make them work.”

“What should I use instead?”

“’Discover’! ‘Discover sounds interesting and enjoyable.”

I’ve been publishing Keep the Joint Running and its predecessors once every week since the ball dropped in Times Square signaling the beginning of 1996. In that time I’ve … discovered … a few insights into How Things Work I’ve shared with the KJR community.

I discovered that process optimization is both simpler, more difficult, and harder than it usually gets credit for. It’s simpler because few processes are so complicated that they can’t be cleaned up through a Theory of Constraints loop – find a bottleneck, fix the bottleneck, find the next bottleneck, rinse and repeat.

It’s more complicated because while most process diagrams look like box-to-box-to-box flows of work, they’re really queue-to-queue-to-queue flows.

It’s harder because processes fail if all of those responsible for process steps don’t trust each other. If they don’t the result is massive amounts of rework.

I discovered that leadership is hard. Not hard the way neurosurgery is hard. Hard the way digging a ditch is hard. When I’ve led leadership seminars, after explaining the eight tasks of leadership the question that stymied participants the most has been finding the time to undertake even a few of them.

I discovered that, Adam Smith notwithstanding, money is a lousy motivator. Used well, though, it’s a highly effective communication channel.

Tell employees you value something they did and you’ll be likely to get an eye roll in reply. Give them an Amazon gift certificate and explain that it’s your way of thanking them for going above and beyond and they’ll conclude your expression of appreciation is sincere.

Another discovery: IT focuses so much time and attention making sure its solutions will scale that we fail to notice when our solutions won’t scale down.

Project management is a fine example. The official disciplines truly will help your teams build skyscrapers and nuclear submarines. Use them to build a house for your dog and they’ll choke you in paperwork.

Helping those responsible for small projects scale their methodologies down is what I wrote Bare Bones Project Management for. Based on my correspondence at least, the world needs scaled down project management far more often than it needs the scaled-up version.

Something else I discovered: Things that are fun succeed. Those that require sweat and gruntwork are more uncertain.

In the PC’s early days they were fun. GUIs were prettier, but the early PCs, for which a broad assortment of hobbyist-grade customization tools were readily available, were more fun.

PCs succeeded. So did the world wide web. In its early days, putting together web pages was fun. Now? Fun isn’t part of the job description.

Except, perhaps, for some of Agile’s variants. As I dug into Agile … an approach anticipated in these pages two years before the Agile Manifesto was published … it was clear that the early versions of Agile tried to restore fun to application development.

It worked and worked well.

Then scaling happened, Agile became heavily proceduralized, and the fun is draining out.

Perhaps the most important KJR discovery was that, at the risk of looking like I’m trying to sell books, there’s no such thing as an IT project. I came by this insight honestly – by ridiculing Larry Ellison and his 2001 assertion that Oracle could deliver global CRM in ninety days.

Sure, it might be possible to install and maybe integrate Oracle’s CRM solution in 90 days. But managing customer relationships better? That would require everyone who touches a customer to change how they go about it. In 90 days? Not a chance.

What else have I discovered over the past 28 years? That in the end it’s always about the people – those pesky human beings who, as it turns out, have a greater impact on organizational success than all the process designs, technical and business architectures, and so-called “best practices” that seem to have dehumanizing the business as their central operating principle.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be turning over the reins to my friend and colleague Greg Mader. I’ll give him a more formal introduction as part of that process.

It’s been fun. And more than fun, it’s been a privilege.

Comments (18)

  • Thanks, Bob. It was great reading your stuff. I will miss that.

  • Thanks for all the advice through the years, Bob. I’ve learned so much from reading your column. Have a great retirement!

  • After watching and helping modify multiple large, complex, multi-binder software development processes get cut down to handle the more common smaller IT projects, the one thing I admired was your Bare Bones Project Management.

  • You managed to suggest you were having fun writing your columns… many were quite fun to read.

    • Strange thing: There many weeks when writing the column wasn’t fun at all.

      But what was always fun was to have written them.

      • Now THIS is the gem!

        I’m old, and put on many of those miles while reading your work. We share a lot of values, and one would certainly be that “motivation,” however it may appear, isn’t injected from the outside like a shot of Covid-repeller. WE say when we’ve done a job well, and in the ninth inning that’s all that really counts.

        “I did that!”

        That’s the prize.

  • Bob, I have followed and read your column since, oh I don’t know, about 1998 when I worked for IBM. I looked forward to your perspective on what was happening in the IT world even after I left that the IT world.
    It has been fun and enlightening. OI wish you the best as you move on and transition to the next big thing in your life. Best of luck!!

  • A fine valedictory column.

    I never imagined that about 25 years after I began reading your columns, I’d be writing in occasionally to get further insight on something you said in one of your articles. Like an equal.

    It was a huge shift for me, though I’m not sure whether it was more about class or race.

    For some reason, I’m reminded of learning that UC Berkeley Nobel laureate, Saul Perlmutter, kept teaching an undergraduate class, even after he became world famous.

    His students graded him highly on his teaching.

    Thank you for your unique blend of rigor, patience, and fairness in your dialogues with us.

    It was fun for those of us who paid attention.

  • Bob,
    I am NOT an IT Industry participant; I understand IT and dabble, but I am a small business owner consulting in structural engineering. I have been a faithful reader from your very early columns, and have even bought your books to use as a text in teaching high school Robotics Teams basic Project Management. I have a deep admiration for how you think and how you communicate. I saved many of your columns to use in translation on managing my little engineering firm better. You deserve to retire, but I wish you would not, and I am going to miss your wisdom and wit…..
    I am committed to staying faithful and reading Greg’s articles. He hopefully is as helpful as you have been…..

  • “Give them an Amazon gift certificate and explain”…that it was a phishing-test email. And they will have to come in Saturday to attend the Security Awareness course.

    Your columns and books have had a profound impact on my thinking. And people think I am smart when I quote you.

    And if that was not enough, learning that your dad was the director of some wonderful cult films that were must-see on my dorm floor…what can I say.

    So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  • Thanks, Bob.

  • (1) Bon Voyage, Bob! It has been fun over the years, and I have learned so much. Thank you! May your lime daiquiris always be luscious!

    (2) “few processes are so complicated that they can’t be cleaned up through a Theory of Constraints loop – find a bottleneck, fix the bottleneck, find the next bottleneck, rinse and repeat.” That reminds me of the shocking moment in “The Goal” when the participants discover that THEIR OWN THOUGHT PROCESSES ABOUT BOTTLENECKS have now become the bottleneck that matters, while they weren’t looking.

    (3) “processes fail if all of those responsible for process steps don’t trust each other. If they don’t the result is massive amounts of rework.” It’s not just the rework. It’s the Receiving Acceptance Inspections-For-Defects. Even if the inspections reveal that there are NEVER any defects to rework, or that they are vanishingly rare, the amounts of resources spent ON INSPECTIONS can be huge if nobody TRUSTS that the Zero Defects (or Very Nearly Zero Defects) are happening FOR A REASON, and will continue. It hardly matters that it was the inspections themselves that revealed that the inspections weren’t necessary, or indeed never have been. Remember “Six Sigma”?

    (4) “we fail to notice when our solutions won’t scale down.” That’s the beauty of Excel — and before it, other spreadsheets dating back to VisiCalc. They’re solutions that scale FROM THE BOTTOM UP, and a lot of the time, they’re all that’s needed.

  • Your unique combination of wit and thoughtful wisdom hooked me back in the InfoWorld days. I’ve been reading you column ever since and often quoting you to my IT colleagues. Maybe you can contribute an occasional guest column for Greg Mader. Godspeed!

  • Bob, I’ve been with you most of the way and “discovered” much. Sorry to see you go.

  • Add me to the list of those who have taken your pragmatic advice over the years, Bob. Many thanks for the effort you put into analyzing and articulating your opinions!

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