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Hammers, Drills, and Screwdrivers, oh my!

How systems thinking and emotional intelligence are more powerful than tool sets.

Andrew Grapsas, Blogger

May 13, 2011

5 Min Read

I often, almost haphazardly, throw around the words Scrum, Agile, and Lean. Along with these, I talk about sprints, backlogs, check lists, standardized work, right fit, sprint artifacts, and so many other details. But, in essence, what are these beyond mere tools for our use?

It’s relatively common knowledge that a nail calls for a hammer and a screw a screwdriver, not the other way around. Yet, our world, as developers, isn’t as black and white, is it? Our problems are less apparent, less well understood, and do not directly lend themselves to an explicit, self-illuminated one-to-one relationship, right?


Tools for tools' sake
Wrong. The same tools built for manufacturing can be applied to all walks of life and all types of employments, just as the same systems of thought found in mathematics can be applied to art, music, and software engineering. But, that’s not really what I want to talk about today. I want to focus on the “how” of application, not the “why”.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, says “Practicing a discipline is different from emulating a model.” This is key to the proper application of the aforementioned development methodologies and production philosophies. In applying agile to a company, we must not simply look at the components of agile and say, “Yes, we can have this.” Rather, we must truly understand our organization, how it currently operates, what weaknesses exist, and we must fully and truthfully embrace the core beliefs of the system we plan on implementing.

The philosophy is champion
“Woah! Woah, wait a minute, Andrew, what the hell are you talking about? Philosophy? Beliefs? This isn’t some hocus pocus hokum. This is business! I don’t want your dogma in here!”

To apply a toolset without experiencing a mental transformation first is like hiking without loving the forest. It’s just walking without purpose. To love the forest is to bring purpose to the walking, to bring meaning and balance.

Rollo May’s The Courage to Create states that the artist must have an encounter to find creativity, to find the wellspring that will fill her palette with colors. This encounter is the catalyst, the source of fire that transforms technique and talent into passion and results. Without passion, without the encounter, there is no inspiration.

This same affirmation and vigor must be used in the business and production disciplines to shape and mold a self learning, inner looking organization with emotional intelligence. Like the Olympic torch, these flames must be preserved and passed from employee to employee. Whereas the artist is solely concerned with her own inspiration, the company does not have this luxury.

The company’s corpse
Corpus is the root of the word corporation. The company is the body. Yet, mayhap this is a misnomer. Ultimately, it is the people, their emotions, abilities, and minds that form the true “stuff” of the company. They provide value, meaning, and direction. As with an individual, when portions of the corporate-mind are repressed, the whole suffers.

“Stop, Andrew! That’s psycho-babble!”

Companies are composed of people. People have minds, personalities, and emotions. They are composed of experiences and genetics, a mix of nature and nurture. Indeed, the relationships we see within an organization are familial and can have the same level of dysfunction as one would expect to have between father, mother, brother, sister, and so forth. The actions of the company and its culture affect the individuals the company is composed of.

Bottoms up
It’s far easier to apply a set of rules to a company and expect change than to actually engage in change. Typically, mandates come from above that indicate which development methodologies are to be employed. At most companies I’ve worked for, some subset of developers--usually producers--are provided with cursory training in the new systems and then expected to magically alter their teams and the environment they work within.

This expectation of change from a simple injection of a new, often ephemeral idea can do more damage than one would imagine. Barely grasping an idea can cause damage to the team if one is not careful (empathetic, respectful), delay products, and hinder quality of life and quality of product.

A radical proposition: let the people doing the work learn the ins and outs of the new process. Bring them to a local company that does agile, lean, or scrum well. Have them encounter the result.

The cost of change
To embrace change, to instill a movement of ideas from one tried and true methodology to another that has yet to be tested, to fully take wings, is a costly event. Yet, to not move, to remain the same, is death, the ultimate cost.

The game industry, like all industries, has progressively moved faster and faster as technology has charged onward. To not change, to not adapt is to become extinct.

We humans are grand creatures capable of morphing our surroundings and using our most powerful asset--our brain--to alter the conditions we find ourselves in for our survival.

Death is a driving force. We all know our days are numbered. We all feel the marching rhythm to the grave. This is a prime cause of anxiety, indirectly or directly. Fear is a large factor in many decisions we, as humans, make.

Is the company any different? We cannot and must not make decisions out of fear. We must apply systems thinking, we must find our passion and inspiration, and must step above and beyond the fear. Only in doing so, only by empowering our precious resources (our employees) can we avoid extinction.

In summary
Companies are human. Employees are human. We must all use our emotional intelligence to not just apply blanket policies or blindly utilize tool sets. Rather, we must use our critical minds to observe the existing system, how it interacts with our worlds, and to create future methodologies that engage our employees in the process of process.



About the Author

Andrew Andreas Grapsas is a game programmer at Arkadium, Inc. developing facebook games. Previously, he was a gameplay and animations programmer at Kaos Studios|THQ, and intern systems programmer on Medal of Honor.

Andrew is actively writing and programming for various projects. You can read more at his blog aagrapsas.com. He promises to update it soon.

Follow Andrew on twitter!

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