People are better in the unknown

We are currently discussing about adding a team in another country to our product (single collocated team in Paris). This is the kind of discussion we’re having:

Program Manager: “We need to deliver Feature A in 6 months, and I don’t want to allocate more than 40% of our throughput to it. 40% need to remain for the expedite, and 20% for the support. Feature A alone would take about 80% of your current throughput, so we need a plan to double your throughput.”

Dev Director: “We have issues hiring here. And even if we can, it takes about 6 months from opening the job offer to having the dev in the office in Paris. So we think we’d rather open the job offers in Romania where it takes about 2 months instead of 6.”

The first thing that strikes me in this kind of conversations is that we consider people as resources (I didn’t coin the term in the discussion to avoid offending these virtual personas). When I say resource, I mean a linear resource, with a predictable and somehow linear behavior. I’m not offended being compared to a keyboard or a chair when I’m referred to as a resource. I’m just always surprised argumenting with someone with experience and responsibility, who never realized that 1+1 is not 2 when talking about people’s throughput. 1+1 might be 1, it might be 3, or 5, or sometimes 2, it depends.

A team has a complex behavior, and it’s very hard to predict it. If you add X% people to a team, you won’t add X% throughput. In general, you’ll even lose Y% (Y not being necessarily <100) for a given time. Even if you consider interactions, you won’t be able to come up with an equation that can predict a team’s output.

While I was thinking about it, I bumped into two awesome [series of] articles: people are resilience creators not resources by Johanna Rothman, and the principles not rules series, by Iain McCowatt. They helped me put words on my point of view.

People don’t have a linear behavior. They learn, they socialize, they create bounds, interact, and create together. We are not predictable. Let’s just realize it and deal with it. And you know what? That’s what we are great at! We are great in the unknown, at adapting collectively.

We won’t be more predictable or efficient by following a process or a precise plan. Or at least not very often. Actually only in cynefin’s simple quadrant. And when we’re adapted to bound processes and predictability, we’re a good candidate for being replaced by a machine, which would do better than us. Think about automated tests being great, for example, but mostly for known knowns. The organization’s interest is not to get predictable behaviors out of people. At best, you may get somehow predictable throughputs out of stable teams, but you don’t want to have more.

Back to our original discussion. Whatever the plan, we don’t know what will happen. Given the time frame, the business context, and the code base we’re working on, we are quite sure creating a team in a different country, in a different language, will have a negative effect for the release. But we’re not sure about it. We think creating a team in Romania will have a more negative impact than growing the team in Paris, but we don’t know about it. We think it might have a positive effect on throughput after some ramp up period… I could go on for pages.

The thing is, the system doesn’t want to be sure about any of these assumptions. It’s not the system’s interest. If the system could predict these assumptions, then people would have predictable behaviors, and it would be a bad thing for the organization.

So let’s start with a belief (e.g. “we can’t hire in Paris”), a value (e.g. “face to face collaboration”), a hypothesis (e.g. “a remote team could improve the throughput of this project”), a strategy (e.g. “scale that team”), and experiment/iterate on it.


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