Heroic Efforts

One bright summer day in 1999 I was visiting Richard Sheridan, a favorite client of mine working hard to reinvent his software delivery organization.  Richard told me he wanted to create “A software development team that rocked.” I told him that if he actually followed our advice he would become “world famous[1]” just like a rock star.

On day Richard pulled me into an impromptu client meeting. He was telling his customer about the new process we were following and how it was delivering results faster, better, and less expensively.

Unfortunately, Richard’s customer was not impressed. Perhaps it was the strange look of the giant collaborative development space we were in; an abandoned warehouse with painted concrete floors we affectionately nicknamed “The Java Factory.”

Trying to help, I noted that we were making the solution delivery process a formal engineering discipline. I described how we created innovative high-quality software products in a predictable manner without relying on heroic efforts.

The visiting executive was not impressed. He replied that all of their software projects were delivered as the result of heroic efforts. He proudly proclaimed that their engineers often had to work long hours all of the way up to the last minute to ship a new release. Their process demanded heroic efforts. He was actually bragging about it.

I was appalled.

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate heroics. I’m still moved when I think about firefighters and police running toward the Twin Towers on 9/11.  Firefighters may be heroic, police may be heroic, and soldiers may be heroic. Their jobs sometimes demand it. They also suffer post traumatic stress because of it.

Your employees, however, should not have to suffer post traumatic stress.

Even real heroes don’t usually want their jobs to be heroic. Heroics imply risk, danger and a high likelihood of failure and disaster. That is why the actions are heroic.  I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to build process with risk, danger and a high likelihood of failure and disaster.

I told the executive why we don’t let our software developers be heroic. We don’t want programmers working long hours developing software because it is a clear violation of the best research on human cognition. The mistakes they make cost us too much. It is not good for business.

Is heroic software user friendly?

Is heroic software properly tested?

Is heroic software going to work? How often? For how long?

If I am flying in a plane, I don’t want to hear that the navigation software was built with heroic efforts. If I am buying a car, I don’t want to hear that the anti-lock breaking software was built with heroic efforts.

I don’t want nurses fighting Ebola epidemics to be heroic. I want them so properly equipped, so properly mentored, and in a process that is so safe they never get Ebola.

Heroics should not be how you describe our business processes.  Intelligent, disciplined, careful, and predictable are words that should be used, along with inventive, resilient, and creative, but not heroic.

Hard working, yes.

Successful, yes.

Heroic, no.

The manager who proudly described his software process as heroic produced payroll software. I  suggest you carefully check your pay stubs.

Hero is not unique to our payroll company. For very good reasons, it is actually the most commonly used organizational process in the world.

Get-er-Done

Virtually every organization initially leverages the same process to get off the ground. The process is simple:  Find people with passion, motivation, years of experience, and strong intuitive insights and give them the autonomy and the resources to succeed.

We call this process Hero.

Hero frequently is the only process small organizations ever use and its
rallying cry is “Get-Er-Done!”

The leader’s role in Hero is primarily to provide the funding and goals and get out of the way.

Heroes are iconic in the United States.  We love heroes.

Heroes are willing to make snap decisions and judgments; they aren’t constrained by rules or red tape. They are mavericks—independent, principled, brilliant, courageous, and tenacious. Driven by their own internal moral compasses and their own force of will, they are deeply celebrated when they succeed.

Who do you want to rescue you if the bad guys are holding you hostage?   Batman, Bond, or Buffy.  Not some House committee on hostage rescue! These heroes win, and they are willing to bend a few rules along the way. Success matters most. Rules are, at best, secondary.

What does the Hero process usually look like?  A group of experts works collaboratively in a small space with the autonomy and resources needed for their success. They are co-located, dedicated, and focused. Ford and Apple started in garages, Facebook and Google in dorm rooms.

Lest you think otherwise, large organizations do this nearly as frequently as startups. When an urgent need arises, like new regulations requiring rapid changes to large IT systems, big companies pull their best people off of whatever they were working on and put them in a locked room to solve the pressing problem. The lock is not to keep them in, but rather to keep the bureaucrats out. Constraints are removed and the team is made significantly more autonomous.

Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program famously calls this type of process “Skunk Works.” Your organization may call it “Tiger Teams”.

The Hero process requires picking heroic people and then committing them to heroic efforts. Hiring is difficult. The Hero process demands heroic staff and it can be tricky to find time. Work is challenging. Long hours and overtime are de rigeur. Mere mortals need not apply.  In exchange for their commitment and expertise, the heroes are given special consideration and the latitude to succeed or fail on their own terms. They are excused from many corporate standards and controls. They sacrifice greatly, but may not even recognize it as sacrifice because they are so driven by purpose. The reward for their sacrifice is frequently creating the worlds most innovative products and services.

Hero Process Summary
Why do we work this way?  We need it yesterday.
How do we get better decisions?  Get better experts.
Who makes the decisions?  The heroes.
What reduces risk?  Experienced heroes.

TL;DR: The Hero process is simple:  Find people with passion, years of experience, or strong intuitive insights and give them the autonomy and the resources to “get -er-done.” Hope for the best.

[1] Richard Sheridan reminded me of my “world famous” statement after receiving a personal invitation to meet Sir Richard Branson.  I had forgotten that bit of hyperbole on my part, but he hadn’t.   He achieved the recognition he deserves after writing the book “Joy Inc.: How we created a workplace people love.” Get a copy, you are in for a real treat.

Humble
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Virtually every organization initially leverages the same process to get off the ground. The process is simple: "Get-er-Done" Find people with passion, motivation, years of experience, and strong intuitive insights and give them the autonomy and the resources to succeed. We call this process Hero. Hero frequently is the only…

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