Widget Thinking

Esther has an M.A. in Organizational Leadership, is the author of over 100 articles, and co-author of "Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great" and "Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management". She’s a founder of the AYE Conference, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Agile Alliance. www.estherderby.com.

I've been pondering how we think about our organizations and how that shapes what we see, what we do and how we get work done. Software companies bring people together to create and serve customers, design and create products (and of course, create profit). These activities involve human interactions, creativity, collaboration and innovation. Yet many people act as if their organizations should function like a well-oiled machine. Let me tell you a story to illustrate…

Some time ago, I visited a company that was having trouble shipping products. I talked to managers, designers, testers and developers to get a sense the practices and impediments in their organization. The picture that emerged was striking. At the beginning of a project, the functional managers (design, development, testing) worked together to create detailed task plans to deliver a feature. Then every Monday, each manager provided each individual in his/her group with a list of tasks for the week; technical staff were expected to work independently to complete their assigned tasks.

The managers complained that people weren't completing their prescribed tasks. The designers, developers and testers complained that they couldn't see how their work fit into the big picture. "We feel like widgets: ‘Do what you’re told, the way we tell you to do it, and don't ask …

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- Chinese Proverb