Blog posts January 2020 to January 2021

Summarising all the posts for 2020, (ugh what a year), and January 2021.

There was some philosophy of work, as always…

Truth, beauty, and goodness

Pre-COVID, I made this video. Underpinning Agile and all the other parts of new ways of working and managing is a social shift: new ways of thinking which have at their heart a reunification of truth, goodness, and beauty – science, ethics, and art. Here I am, pondering the future of work from one of the best places in one of the world’s best countries.

The old approximations of reality don’t work any more

There’s a deep issue with Scientific Management (Taylorism). And Lean and ToC. .

What got you here won’t get you there

What got you here won’t get you there. Watch all the old-school companies flailing: Boeing, Marks&Spencer, Rio Tinto…

Times are changing

At Teal Unicorn, we believe the purpose of a manager is to make work better: better results from the work, better lives for those doing the work, and a better society within which the work is done.

The work renaissance

As everybody is surely aware by now, big things are afoot in how we think about work and management. Agile has spilled out of IT into the enterprise. Complex systems theory is finally shifting how we think. Safety culture is revealing the value in failure. Less widely known (yet), Open culture is flipping the hierarchy.

The future is Open

The future of organisations is Open.

What’s new about new ways?

You might say nothing is ever new.  We always stand on the shoulders of others. What’s new is gathering it all together

Meet Mr Teal

Meet Mr Teal.  He’s a caravan. I don’t usually post personal stuff, but Mr Teal is relevant on several levels.

Rediscovering and restoring humanity

Two areas of fascination for executives at the moment are “Digital Transformation” and “Industry 4.0”. These ideas look at the impact of technology on product and manufacturing respectively. What is often lost in these discussions are the work changes that they cause, and the wider social advances that are happening anyway which they align with. As digital transformation gives customers direct access to our systems, and as industry 4.0 increases automation, these have direct impacts on the people using the products and the people creating them. It calls for greater humanity.

Change is the normal state.

We shouldn’t regard this disruption as an interlude before we see a return to normal. This is normal.

It’s a VUCA world

The world is increasingly VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

Revising VUCA: complicated not complex

I’ve been uncomfortable with the usage of “Complex” – the whole of VUCA describes complexity. (We discuss VUCA here). In future, I will refer to VUCA as Volatile, Uncertain, COMPLICATED, and Ambiguous.

Sailing stormy seas

I really don’t get discussions about “aftermath”, “next”, or “new normal”.  Any sort of stability is far off.  The climatic, economic, health, social, and political crises have many years to run.

How to advance in a VUCA world

In a VUCA world, how do we move forward? Stop trying to foresee the future.

Planning horizons in a VUCA world

The conventional view of planning looks at it from an assumption of a simple /obvious/ clear[1] world that is understandable and predictable. We now understand that the world is generally complex, that we are not able to understand or predicted much of it.

Nobody knows what change may come

Changing how we manage is another way of saying change the conditions of the work system. Changing a complex system is an organic process, like healing a patient. You can’t directly change it, you must treat it with stimuli and observe the effect. Nobody knows how an organisation will respond to change until they try.

We need an agile approach when dealing with any crises

As policy makers around the world are seeking ways to fight the Covid-19 pandemic that is escalating rapidly, they are responding quickly or slowly, rationally or not, leading to corresponding results. As managers, what can we learn from the way countries deal with the unprecedented challenges of the rapidly expanding crisis.

In the crisis, reflect and advance

Take time to think right now, then be agile dealing with the situation.

Standardised work

Standardised work is becoming an ever smaller part of our work. Efficiency and effectiveness are no longer the goals. Agility is.

What stakeholders?

It’s fine to say stakeholder capitalism over shareholder capitalism, but who are these stakeholders?

Teal is Real

Since Teal is part of our brand name, I feel compelled to comment on the “Teal Ain’t Real” article from the Corporate Rebels.

Work is political

It is no longer acceptable to treat work as a values-neutral place focused on the creation of value (for shareholders and incidentally customers). Customers, partners, staff, and society at large all expect organisations to reflect their values.

Information for different reasons

Many of us – including me – delight in building abstract models to organise information. Then we wonder why they aren’t universally popular. Why do only some people “get it”?

It’s not about the patterns

Work method frameworks – like for example those for Agile scaling – are just a means, not an end. On the grand scale, they really don’t matter.

The jeopardy of company values.

I repurpose the term “cognitive capture” to describe what happens to people within organisations who get swept up by the groupthink of company values which are distorted by the organisation’s need to survive, usually at all costs.

What is the one thing to change about people

What is the one thing to change within the workforce to get the most improvement?

Lizard Brain

The lizard brain is a colloquial term for the most basic parts of your brain.
We are primal animals. We dont interact with machines in the same way as we interact with humans.

We shouldn’t measure humans

Should we measure a person? We (Dr. Cherry Vu and I, Teal Unicorn) say no.

Proud of your work

What does it mean to be proud of your work?

Mutual benefit

Relationships are wonderfully beneficial when they are free, or somehow independently funded (E.g. we both work for the same employer). As soon as a relationship has to be paid for, people revert to a reciprocal expectation of value: will I gain more than I pay?

Don’t believe anyone who knows what to do

I don’t believe anyone who knows for sure what to do. I don’t mean “We should build an electric car”. That’s vision. I mean “We can cover the roof with solar cells”. That’s hubris. There only one way to know if that is practicable.

The dysfunctions of transformation

There are classic mistakes being made over and over as large organisations try to “do Agile”, “implement Agile”, or *shudder* “transform”. I’m getting passionate about preventing the harm.

Don’t do big-bang restructures

Don’t use structural reorgs to chase ”transformation”. Amongst the dysfunctions of transformation, restructuring is one of the worst.

Survival of the fittest

Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”, right? Actually Darwin didn’t say that nor mean it.


Perfection is important in technology. Not so much in humanity, work systems, performance, or art.  We must embrace the joy of the imperfect.

And some politics…

Better wake up.

If you think:
….people should leave their social issues at the door when they come to work …
…your profits can be weighed against somebody else’s life….
…the purpose of a company is to make money….
….society’s problem is not my organisation’s problem …

Times they are a-changing… fast

When I read work-related social media, Bob Dylan’s “Times they are a changin’” often echoes in my head. I’m amazed at the inability of so many people – most of them my cohort: middle-aged white men – to grasp the social changes under way.

Don’t follow billionaires

When looking for work role models, we should look to those whose values match our own, not those with the most swollen  wealth and the biggest swinging company. Personally, I admire those who have organised a clever life balance to enjoy family, have fun and adventure,   contribute to their community, and make a useful income.

Boeing are broken

My Boeing scrapbook.

References: what does good look like?

From time to time in the consulting business, you hear a variation on “You talk positively about Client X, but I heard it didn’t go so well for you”. Let’s talk about what good looks like in a consulting engagement.

Getting through 2020

This year is only getting started [I wrote this in June]. I had to explain to someone today that Covid-19 isn’t over, we aren’t on our way back to normal. There will be wave after wave of infection. More lockdowns.

New ways and women

It is interesting that so many of Dr. Cherry Vu’s success stories are with women. Not all by any means, but the four we have written up so far are. We have been reflecting on why this might be.

agile Family

Cherry has re-engineered our content about agile Management (small a) to talk about running a family. We have presented it several times in Vietnam at nominal cost and free online. It’s our contribution to social change.

What do [our clients] say to us?

This Corona Crisis will be one more stimulus in big shifts in how we work and manage, and think, that are already rolling through work, organisations, and society. We hope that as much as possible of it sticks.

And some discussion of ideas and techniques for new ways of working and managing…

Transformation of large organisations takes many years

At Teal Unicorn, we have assisted in some amazing transformations of smaller (dozens to hundreds of employees) organisations, but in larger ones, so far we can only get results for a year or two before the immune system gets us, even with the support of the HIPPO.

Hooray for human error

Human error is usually one or more of the at least three factors which cause a system failure.
Human error is inevitable, therefore we must design systems to be preemptive and resilient to human error: prevent it and survive it. If we don’t, it’s a fragile system.

The cause is not human error

Can we stop saying “human error”. How about “system failure”.

Flipping the strategic hierarchy

Flipping the pyramid – inverting the hierarchy – isn’t just about operational authority. It’s about strategic decision making too.

Pull decisions up to the closest level to the work

Decentralisation of authority – mission command – is an aspiration of new ways of managing.
We often hear it refered to as decisions should be “pushed down to the lowest level.”

Don’t let anyone tell you culture change is easy

Don’t let anyone tell you culture change is easy. It is hard to do. Let’s not gloss over the challenges of flipping organisational culture.


We often need to shelter a bubble of new ways within an unchanged system of work.

Start with headroom

Headroom. Start there. Nothing is ever going to improve until staff have time to improve. If they are flat out, nothing will get better.

Create headroom

Our number one priority in remedial situations – i.e. nearly every org we’ve ever been into – is usually Create Headroom.

One step back and two forward: the J-curve

Whenever we make a change to how we work (or manage), there is the J-curve. Understanding it and managing it is a great aid to minimising risk and advancing well in a VUCA world.

Manager vs Leader

At TU, we are careful to distinguish between leader and managers.

Developing managers

It seems to be a global universal, with a few stellar exceptions like Japan, that we suck at developing managers.

Work, people, results, pick one.

A person can do managing people, managing work (results), or doing work. Generally, combinations of those roles overload one person.

Personnel management vs work management

It is increasingly important to separate management of work from management of people.

Who needs managers when we are agile?

There are many functions for managers in an agile workplace.

In defence of managers

I’ve been posting and commenting a lot in defence of the much maligned manager.

We don’t need another hero

“Hero” is a perilous word.  Do we want heroes?  It depends what we mean.

Performance reviews

Individual performance reviews from managers don’t work, whether daily or annual. We have to find better ways to encourage performance.

The only good recruiting technique is a 90 day trial

Tech bros love to ask a job candidate to demonstrate skills under pressure of a job interview.

Diversity at work

Diversity is an essential for creative thought, innovation, and – especially important right now – adaptability for survival.

Firing people is always a last resort

Firing people should always be a last resort, not an instrument of culture change.

And more practical stuff…

Where is Agile going?

There is a lot of energy being expended on discussing the future of Agile (and lamenting it’s current state ).

Embrace failure of Agile

Agile teaches us to embrace failure as a learning opportunity. That doesn’t seem to be what the Agile elite leader community do when people fail at Agile.

Standardising work in Agile

Standardised work is a dirty word in the Agile world, but some work can indeed be standardised.

Even SAFe

There’s as much heat as light generated by conversations about SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework).  I want to share my views, for whatever they’re worth. They can be summed up in one sentence: the best day using SAFe is the day you agree you don’t need it any more.

Setting WIP limits

Reduce WIP (Work In Progress). The only condition under which further limiting WIP will not increase throughput is where WIP is currently below the optimal capacity of the team. I dont think I’ve ever seen that in the real world.

Slack in the system.

DeMarco wrote the definitive book, Slack, in 2000. Yet 20 years later, managers are still driving people and systems beyond 100% utilisation in the deluded belief that it will get more work done.

Going to the gemba

Perhaps the most important management practice of all is going to the gemba (the place where the value is created). Some thoughts.

Maker schedule

One way for managers to get out of the way and to respect knowledge workers is the concept of maker schedules.

Gut instinct

When should we go with our gut response, and when should we think about it?

There is too much secrecy at work

There is no reason for most secrecy at work.

How can remote working be as good as co-location?

We don’t think it can.

Management by Objectives.

We see MBO making a comeback. Quite right, it’s Drucker. We would modify it slightly in five ways for 2020.

Why do we still need a project?

If we achieve agility, why would we still need to organise work in a project? Here are a few scenarios.

A project is a wave in a product structure

If you build your organisation out of projects you are building out of blocks that evaporate. A project is a transitory phenomenon, not a structural component. You probably know of one or more organisations whose BAU is whatever was left when the projects vanished. Building a business out of projects’ droppings is a bad idea. We should build our organisation out of products, with standing product teams which are a permanent function for the lifetime of the product. Our New Ways operating model is based on product not project.

We don’t need a test function any more

Once we have cross-functional teams, we don’t need a QA/test group any more, right? Wrong.

Virtual vs real

I’m still sure that consulting, coaching, and training are better in person. Virtual is adequate for most things. That’s not the same as optimal. Virtual is good for some things and better only for very few things.

Limitations of the industrial manufacturing paradigm, including Lean and ToC

On a car, a bolt and an emission sensor are the same size and shape. Package, deliver, and install are the same. But design, build, and test are very different. This is why we need to be careful of manufacturing paradigms like Lean and ToC (Theory of Constraints).

In praise of virtual whiteboards and stickies

I prefered the physicality of a wall and post-its, until I had to work virtually. I changed my mind.

Some notes on online training

We have been running a lot of online training.  Here are a few things we learned.

Two kanban boards

Here is an idea that makes Kanban boards more satisfying, more flexible, and easier to assign value.

And some IT-related posts:

Crossing the Streams: ITSM and DevOps (an IT post)

One of the great sticking points for DevOps in large organisations is finding a reconciliation between IT Service Management practitioners and the DevOps community. The hot zone for conflicting world-views is usually between Continuous Delivery on the one hand, and Change and/or Release Management on the other. If you don’t immediately know what I mean, then you probably don’t have this problem. There are recent developments that are opening up this issue, making it possible to find common ground and effective ways forward.

Conventional IT project management culture is toxic.

The culture of PM in IT is toxic.

And for fun…

Instant Agility Remote Virtual WFH Barbeque Event

Teal Unicorn are excited to announce the latest of our Instant Agility productsthe Instant Agility Remote Virtual WFH Barbeque

Instant Agility Switch – turn it on!

Fresh from the Teal Unicorn’s Instant Agility product labs comes our latest product: the Instant Agility Switch.