Monday, March 26, 2007

Focus and Innovation

In my experience, a major impediment to innovation is lack of focus. If your organization isn't clear on what it is trying to accomplish and why, you are likely to consume your resources on a myriad of time consuming projects that contribute little to the effectiveness of the current product, and leave no room for innovation.

So if you want to innovate, get control of your portfolio. It will take time for this to trickle through the organization so that engineers feel comfortable saying "no" to things they used to agree to. It is hardest when those things are also things they enjoyed doing. I've seen a dysfunction where there seemed to be a gleeful satisfaction in avoiding accountability because the system wouldn't let engineers work on what they know they are supposed to work on. You have to observe this and stop it. But in order to do that, you need a clear mechanism for establishing and communicating focus.

Steven C. Wheelwright and Kim B. Clark advocate for an "Aggregate Project Plan" which decides on the fate of projects before they begin:

Simply adding projects to the active list—a common practice at many companies—endangers the long-term health of the development process. Management needs to create a set of projects that is consistent with the company’s development strategies rather than selecting individual projects from a long list of ad hoc proposals.

Wheelwright and Clark used change in product and change in (manufacturing) process as a means to define different types of developments: Derivative (little change in either), Breakthrough (change in product and process) and Platform (the middle). They also added a bucket for R&D and another for Alliances. They then plotted circles in the boxes to represent the resources required for various projects - larger diameter circles represent more resources. Using this system they were able to get management to remove projects that weren't clearly aligned with the company strategy, and in just a few years improved productivity at a particular company by a factor of three. The graphs started as a mess and ended up being clear and compelling.

Fewer projects meant more work got done.

Bottom line: don't let the busywork prevent you from doing the important work. We all know this is good advice, but it can be hard to make it happen. Wheelwright and Clark provide a tool to help you manage up and out to hold capacity back for what it is needed for.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Acid test for secure development

The March 1, 2007 issue of CIO magazine lays out questions for customers to ask you about your software development environment, and how to evaluate the answers. The first 5 questions are in print:
  1. Do you review security at each phase of the software development life cycle?
  2. What methodologies do you use for security testing your products?
  3. Do third parties conduct security assessments on your products?
  4. Do you have security squads that attack your products prior to release?
  5. Do you use automated tools for security testing or code review?
and they have another ten questions in the full online article here. I can tell you that most of the places I have worked would provide really poor answers to these questions even today.

For those of you out there with products products which have access to your customer's networks and data: get yourself a roadmap for developing the skills in your organization so that you can credibly answer these questions well. Educate your management to get the funding and time required. We've gotten away with some amazingly casual attitudes towards protecting our customers, but those days are rapidly vanishing.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Innovation Test

I'm not sure if this is ridiculous or interesting, but I stumbled over a tool, put together by IBM Global Services, which portends to assess your organization's innovation strategy and benchmark it against 750 other companies. I rated a former employer and ... surprise... we didn't score really well. The assessment tool raises more questions than it answers, in my mind; and no doubt this is a tool to get you to hire IBM consultants to help raise your innovation. Well... let me rephrase that... to create an innovation strategy.

The tool is here:

but I'm going to make a broad claim here and see if it sticks. Innovation is less about a strategy and more about a culture. You have to look beyond the short term, make sure people are not overwhelmed with the day-to-day things, so they have enough time to think about making long term things better. And of course reward the behaviors that support innovating. Now that I've said that, maybe I'm doing the same thing as the survey. I'm just as trite... and I didn't have to survey 750 CEOs to get there.