The Science of Yielding Productivity: An Interview with Mike DePaoli

Mike DePaoli sits down with us to discuss how project leaders, not unlike farmers, benefit from turning to science to give themselves the best chances at a bountiful harvest. We discuss how agile's preference for holistic approaches provides an organic opportunity for success across the enterprise.
Noel: I’ve written a lot about workplace culture and the positive and negative effects that it can have on agile's effectiveness. I was very curious when I read that you believe that "impediments stem from the organization's leaders." Can you go into why this falls on leaders' shoulders?
Mike: First let me provide a more specific frame for this question. The impediments that I’m referring to in the context of leaders are those perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs held by leaders that lead to behaviors, policies, and practices that stifle quality and team performance. The framework I’m introducing at the conference covers these areas that a leader heavily influences.
• Servant-Leadership style vs. Command and Control
• Providing a Safe-to-Learn Environment
• Appropriate Motivation and Engagement model
• Quality Focused – modeling that quality comes first
• Competent Change Management
It’s like a farmer planting high-quality seeds in a field of gravel and sand. They’re not likely to do very well. The farmer needs to provide a fertile field and maintain that state over time if they want to get a high yield.
Noel: Your session, "Building Hyper-productive Agile Teams: Leveraging What Science Knows," mentions that you use a "holistic framework" to achieve this hyper-productivity. What framework is this, and why does it work?
Mike: I haven’t officially named the framework yet. Currently I call it the ‘Flower’ framework. When you see the visuals for the framework you’ll understand. I see human beings as complex, dynamic and co-evolving biological systems, add the social component and the complexity increases. I know of no way to have a framework to assess even a component of this ‘system’ unless it is holistic.
Asking why does it works has to be an applied question just like asking does Ken Wilber’s ‘Integral’ theory work.
I have found that if you take a holistic approach to establishing and maintaining an environment conducive to an individual and a team being able to repeat a “flow state” more frequently, you have a much higher probability of achieving higher performing individuals and teams. The framework attempts to ‘frame’ the key areas to focus on and then monitor in establishing and maintaining an environment where hyper-productivity can be achieved (for a period anyway, because human beings are complex systems, ever changing and evolving with the other agents in the larger social systems in which they participate.)
Noel: You teach how to reach "hyper-productivity," which sounds…well…very fast. Very productive. Is there any risk of increasing productivity so greatly, that quality is risked?
Mike: First let me say that I kind of regret using the word “hyper-productivity” but it sounded sexy. You really have to ask “hyper” compared to what. But to the main point of your questions. Quality Focus is one of the ‘pedals’ of the Flower Framework. For high performance beyond the short term really has to have quality as job one. Quality is of course a business decision and there are different levels of quality expected and needed in different solution domains. For instance, a social media site misspelling a word is a bit different than an aerospace company having bugs in avionics software.
That said, this is where leadership plays such a key role. If leaders demonstrate that they don’t care about quality by unbalancing a product development system by constantly putting more demand on the system than it has demonstrated capacity and or competency to produce, the system will react. You see this all the time where leaders talk quality but then force feed scope and due dates on teams. Teams react by shirking quality, lowering the bar so more of the features in a product requirements document can get out the door.
Noel: How does science in particular play a role in this process?
Mike: Merriam-Webster in its definition of ‘science’ lists the following: “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method."
When I refer to science I am using that term in a cross-discipline sense to include social sciences, biological sciences and even physical sciences and the system of knowledge that has been amassed in those fields. My talk will focus mostly on what science knows and has known for the last 40 years in the social science arena that still is not widely applied today in either business or our educational system.
While the system that is a human being and the systems that are made up of networks of human beings, teams, organizations, and societies are open systems, still much is learned by taking isolated portions of these open systems and applying the scientific method to learn about the human system.
Noel: And lastly, what are some strategies or tips for when teams are expanding this hyper-productivity to the enterprise, through lean?
Mike: Actually, the framework is even more applicable at scale. The tip I would give those that are working to scale an environment that can foster high performing teams is to assemble a group that models the framework petals. Each petal is really a perspective into the complex system so when a change is being planned all the perspectives can be weighed to craft the change.
The second tip is don’t fight our neurophysiology, we react better to small changes that don’t awaken the fear response out of our limbic system so plan accordingly. Many small changes can quickly snowball into big change.
Third, don’t take away people’s autonomy, especially in respect to change. Include them in solving the problem and they will own the change and the improvement of it.
A contributor to the IT community for twenty-seven years, Michael DePaoli has been practicing agile and lean approaches to software development since 1996. Michael gained his experience working in roles from programmer to product manager to CTO in companies including Adobe Systems, American Express, Sprint, and VersionOne. His area of expertise is helping organizations craft agile transformation approaches that establish agile and lean values, principles, and practices to begin an agile/lean transformation while crafting a strategy for the change needed to successfully scale and integrate agile within an organization. Michael has a keen interest in applying systematic thinking with an interdisciplinary studies approach to his work.

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