Thursday, 21 November 2013

What’s common about my tennis skills, developing software and building organisations

A friend of mine sent me a message last week. It was a polite message asking if we can play tennis some time, but what I found interesting was that he added an explanation of his skill level which he probably found to be a reasonable thing to do since we’ve never played before. That short description of his skills got me thinking about how would I describe my skill level in tennis. How about how I achieved it? Or how would I go about improving it?

I started playing tennis when I was in high school because I liked it. I never took any lessons from an experienced player or coach. I read a little bit about how it’s played in a book and then  I just played and learned by my mistakes. This got me to a skill level that I think is good enough to play with my friends of a similar skill level and enjoy the game. At the same time however when I look at the 10 or 11 year olds play at the tennis training ground where I take my daughter every Saturday I am convinced that most of them will get bored playing with me within just a few minutes.

If I want to improve my tennis skills I am faced with a significant constraint - I only have 1-2 hours per week available to play and I fear that if I continue learning by mistakes it will eventually take me many years and I might just lose interest.  There’s an easy and affordable solution to my tennis problem – coaching is available and is proven to get results. But the point of this post of course is not so much about my tennis skills.

I think that some organisations I’ve worked with have taken my approach to learning tennis and applied it to building software and the entire organisation. From my day to day experience with these companies they appeared to have read a book and then they learned by their mistakes. This is not to say that we should not be learning by mistakes but rather to recognise when a major shift in our approach might be required. So it does not surprise me that as a result such organisations managed to develop fairly average (and in some cases awful) software that in most cases costs a lot to develop and run. I judge by the number of defects I’ve seen reported by customers and the time these companies required to take a product to market. When you build software of similar quality then the costs of supporting and enhancing it grow exponentially and it is soon being declared too expensive to maintain or make money. And while as a tennis player I get more than one chance to fail and learn, it also appeared to me that these organisations had been set-up to limit the learning opportunities, punish failure severely and therefore not surprisingly to me many of these companies no longer exist . Using my tennis learning approach is not something I would recommend in all cases however it seems to me that it is widely and explicitly used coupled with complete disapproval of failure and limited ability to learn.

Ok, How do I know all this?

Check the the saddest statistic in the world (in an article by Steve Denning).

What’s the percentage of people who truly love what they are currently doing at work? It's a  6% meaning that 94% of the people are miserable at work.

This is how I know.

Organisations can and should be built better.

And when they are stuck they need to get appropriate coaching (which is what I am doing to improve my tennis skills Winking smile )