I remember years ago, Microsoft was considered the benchmark of all things leading edge when it came to software development. They seemed to be the “poster child” for how to build software organizations and software products.
For example, they had a multi-tiered strategy for a code freeze model and everyone seemed to be copying it. And today their Software Developer in Test (SDET) model is also incredibly popular. There were many books written about their strategies and approaches, and everyone seemed to want to “be like Microsoft”.
What’s interesting to me is my perspective. If you’ve been in technology long enough, you see recursive themes unfolding. What today is a benchmark company with everyone jumping on the bandwagon to copy them, in ten years becomes a passing thought. Microsoft is clearly an example of this curve—first being the “darling” of what to do – to falling into a category of status quo or even an anti-pattern. Sure, Microsoft is still a viable company and sometime role model, but it’s no longer seen as the one to emulate.
Google is going through a similar transition. At one point, their 20% time was the talk of every agile team. And their product innovation and creativity seemed to be boundless. Sure, they are still way cool and successful. But now, they’ve rescinded the 20% notion and are slowly evolving away from being the “sexy new kid” to copy.
Some Examples for Today
Today there’s a “new crop” of companies that are becoming the new darlings. Much of the hoopla is associated with Agile and Lean Startup sorts of strategies.
What are some of the examples today?
- Netflix and their build platform – http://www.infoq.com/news/2013/06/netflix#!
o And Netflix HR and culture – http://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr/ar/1
- Clearly Facebook from an “agile” perspective – http://agilescout.com/video-agile-scrum-at-facebook/
- Would you still include Google? I do think they’re losing some of their luster.
- What about Salesforce? We don’t talk about them much, but they are a “shining light” in agile adoption at scale –
- 37Signals or Basecamp is an oldie but goodie in this space; as is Menlo Innovations. And there are now books describing the “secret sauces” for both.
- My friend Josh Anderson seems very enamored with GitHub and Valve
o Valve and their “we’ve been boss free since 1996” claim - http://www.valvesoftware.com/company/people.html
- If you’re in the UX and Design spaces, then IDEO is a role model to be sure; the 60 Minutes video is outstanding!
- Finally, how about Spotify? Surely the tribes are a new way to consider empowered teams – http://blog.crisp.se/2012/11/14/henrikkniberg/scaling-agile-at-spotify
And I could probably find many more examples, but I trust you get the idea.
But beyond the hype, youthful enthusiasm, and the excitement, are these companies’ true role models for every context? Meaning, if you simply copy their ideas, will it make your company successful?
Bandwagon Cycle Time
I’m beginning to think that companies go through a bandwagon phase when they’re really successful in their space. They’re written up in articles and are invited to share their “secrets” on news shows. Or their founders write a popular book and go on the review circuit. Everyone starts talking about their tactics and approaches, as if something magical has been discovered.
Then unfortunately, everyone it seems begins to copy their tactics—blindly, without reservation and without thinking. But I’m also convinced that it doesn’t last. There are two critical points that happen:
- Some new company with some innovative and sexy new ideas surges on the scene and replaces older more staid companies on the bandwagon; and
- The ideas start failing often enough in other contexts that word “gets out” that the approaches aren’t the Silver Bullets everyone thought they were.
But things do move on and the approaches do change.
Now does this mean the companies fail. Hardly. In fact, and I’ll use IDEO as an example, they survive and thrive. And the ideas have great merit, but they rarely work as well as they did in the original incubator.
The real point is not around ignoring these examples. Nor is it around hoping that they quickly fail or get replaced on the bandwagon.
No the real point or question is - should we relentlessly copy them?
There’s a school of thinking in the software testing community called Context-Based. In this school, the idea is that there are NO Best Practices. In fact, practitioners often get quite rude to folks who share their tactics under the banner of a best practice.
They eschew things like document templates and checklists that organizations dutifully fill in without actually thinking about organizational, project, customer, and team context.
Their point is that there are no best practices, but only good practices that are used in a specific context. I will add the notion of “by THINKING teams” to the end of that clause.
And I think this is my point regarding folks who take the same approach with these new idea companies.
There are no silver bullet approaches or ideas coming out of today’s marvelous new crop of innovative companies. Instead, there are only ideas that may work when applied in specific contexts by thinking teams.
Let me be clear. I believe some wonderful thinking, new strategies, and approaches are coming out of the companies I mention in this article. And from many more that I didn’t. We are continuously evolving in the technology space, not only in direct technology, but also in the structures we leverage to build them. And the agile and lean approaches are truly exciting. Indeed, we’re bringing the people back into the mix.
But I do worry that jumping on the bandwagon can be incredibly dangerous in that we follow the shiny, bright objects without thinking. We do it because we consider them a silver bullet solution for every context. And that’s the rub as far as I’m concerned, they aren’t.
Every new idea has to be applied and adjusted for the context your looking to use it in. And, I would argue, that there are contexts where the approach is inappropriate or might do more harm than good. It’s these contexts where jumping on the bandwagon is most dangerous. Too bad there isn’t a warning sign on the bandwagons.
Stay agile and consider your contexts my friends,