Doing Things Right vs. Doing the Right Thing
A distinction needs to be made in the software world, one that can generate much more effective use of our valuable time and resources.
Often, improvement initiatives are based on the desire to become more technically efficient. This is the "silver-bullet" solution and is often tools based in nature. If effectively managed, these approaches can indeed generate productivity gains or higher predictability in getting the project completed as expected. This approach is the doing things right method. We ensure that, given a task, we do it in the most expedient manner at our disposal. Doing things right is always apparently urgent, but rarely critical. This approach generates relatively easy solutions with relatively small gains.
However, to truly maximize the value of improvement initiatives, you need to do the right things. This means working on the root issues that result in the greatest benefit.
At the business level, it is important to ensure that you meet the client needs, not just get the current project done. It has to be the right project. There has to be a strong business case for proceeding with any project; and as the shape of the project changes over time, the case driving that project needs to be revisited, too. To stop a project that no longer has a viable business case is not failure. It makes good business sense to divert those resources elsewhere.
At the development level, there are an overwhelming number of tasks that you could do right. If you try to do them all with your limited resources, you are sure to fail on both time and cost factors. A key part of managing development activities is the appropriate selection of the right activities that will most likely lead to overall success. Focus must be placed on the work that provides the best value for reducing uncertainty or generating part of the final product.
When we talk about sustainability for software businesses, everyone brings a very different perspective to the table.
There are those who would be happy to make it through the day without significant grief and disruption. These individuals often work in an environment where each new day brings a different set of surprises and challenges, often negative. For these people, sustainability means reactive survival, and there's no point even looking at a more distant horizon.
Others can see past the daily grind. Sustainability for them is measured by project completion, which may be weeks or months out, and drives daily activities. This longer context brings greater meaning to their daily work.
We start thinking strategically when we consider the parade of projects that will sustain the organization over a longer term, but even here there are shades of gray. There are times when what has to be cut from the current release drives projects, a tactical rather than strategic approach. For companies accountable to shareholders, strategy might mean only planning as far out as the next quarter, or planning for the anticipated IPO or acquisition.
None of these appear to be sustainable models. With new companies sprouting up whose objective is to be acquired as soon as possible (ruthlessly driving for higher sales figures rather than sound financials), with CEOs specializing in quick turnarounds that reflect positively on the current quarter at the expense of downstream results, with VCs focusing on their own IRR and liquidity events, identifying the companies that truly emphasize long-term sustainability becomes even more difficult.
At the executive level, it is rare to see an appreciation for true sustainability that goes beyond fiscal reward. Success is measured primarily in the packages negotiated and the toys accumulated, driven almost exclusively by tactical approaches. Indeed, those driving a sustainable business (insert your truly visionary executive here) stand out because they are so rare in today's world. It is difficult to focus past the tactical milestones. It requires a concerted effort from a well-coordinated team. Unfortunately, single-mindedness is often interpreted as "it's my way or the highway."
Below the executive level, most people aren't normally expected to consider long-term sustainability. They're the worker bees who get the job done. Although many at this level appear to be comfortable with such an Orwellian approach (at least initially in their careers), there is significant value and reward in contemplating and focusing on the bigger picture. Indeed, many of us need to understand the role we play in the larger context to become a true stakeholder in the shared success with the company. As we grow, we gain an appreciation for alignment with the overall vision. Those who are unable to gain that perspective in their current organization will eventually move on, and in doing so, impact the sustainability of the organization they are leaving.
At all levels, the key ingredient for sustainability is active involvement from the people who make up the organization. Although participation does not necessarily mean consensus (this appears to work only with a relatively small group), it does mean that there is honest and open engagement at all levels within the organization. There needs to be an appreciation that this investment in human capital is essential, rather than perceiving human resources as a manageable expense. With a truly long-term vision of what the business intends to provide to its clients, the entire group can align themselves and work miracles.
The funny thing is, a focus on building a truly sustainable business is not necessarily at odds with any of the more tactical goals driving many of today's companies, even if it may be perceived that way. This might be more difficult, but it is also much more rewarding, especially if success is measured in terms beyond a paycheck.