Why Methods Will Not Save You

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Talks and case studies don’t mention that Methods will not save you

I’m not a nihilist. Neither am I against methods. At all.

A few days ago, I made this observation:


What I observe a lot is that people explain success stories. Teams get from zero to super great, companies go from stalling to incredible success, speed, velocity, quality, customer satisfaction. Every relevant vector goes up. And the reason is: Method X.

The same is true and worse for case studies. Success “happened” because organisation or (even less probable: a part of the organisation) utilized Method X.

I know it’s not true. I’ve been there. There are quite some case studies out there on teams and contexts I know. Cases that worked out really great and ones that did not work out too well.

It’s not that only I know it. You know as well. We all know mostly partial applications of method, we all now limits of the utilisation of Method X:

  • Management is not participating,
  • we get it, but the other teams are not getting it,
  • middle management is blocking us,
  • department XYZ is not getting it,
  • we do it in principle, but aspect Z can never work around here,
  • we don’t know why we’re doing this,
  • we do this half hearted …

But although we know that Methods alone never bring success. We know that case studies reverse and mingle to a simple message. We know methodologists do it. They have to – it’s their job to spread word. The intent of methodologists is to make the method the reason plus universally applicable.

How case studies see the world

This has a dangerous effect.

How success and progress really works.

Eager persons wake up every day and think of the 500 things they know they don’t manage yet that they actually would like to manage. And they have nightmares about the gazillion things that they don’t even know that are beyond my capabilities. There is a constant memento mori that keeps them going.

Great organisations are like this. And more:

In fact, where I observe success and excellence, the main reason is that there is team or a team of teams that want success and most of all they want to learn and question themselves day by day.

It is that, paired with staying hungry, never being satisfied (in a fine balance with never being desperate or pathologically driven). It is: clear purpose and strategy, a clear understanding of the client, your capabilities, knowing how to treat your employees and many more things that make teams successful.

Smart people want to make progress. At a certain point in time they either develop (Toyota, Spotify) a method and / or vocabulary as scaffolding to speed up their collaborative, common learning and progress.

They carefully develop the „methods“ together will all the purpose, strategy and what they want to accomplish to the teams that will do the work but that also articulated in doing up with purpose, strategy, goals, and all that.

How great companies really work

Oh, wow, the picture of what’s actually going on is much more complex, intertwined and thus harder to copy.

I saw it, I observed it. I am glad you don’t have to believe me. Read Jeff Bezos’ letter to Amazon’s shareholders „On why it’s always day 1“ to get an impression. Nothing he mentions in the letter can simply be copied. That’s also why Toyota was totally open to be visited by its competition: simply looking at and copying practices did not help the competition. What makes Toyota Toyota is not visible and can’t simply be copied by applying the same methods.

Standardization and marketing

What happens later, when established vocabularies and methods exist, is that smart people read interesting things that suggest that Method X was the reason for a companies’ success (see Figure 1). With that knowledge, the believe starts to exist that by applying Method X you become successful. Now being excellent in Method X becomes the goal and success is a side effect people hope for. Unfortunately all that there is now is internal focus on becoming good at method X. And it sounds really tempting: A ToDo-list to success. The picture now is further simplified and dumbed down and we end up with simply chasing this:

How Method X is applied by the third wave

Oops, now we’re missing a lot. Especially, where once was the outcome success, we now have „Method X“. We turned it all upside down. Except: We could still be great in Method X. But everything that drove the original combine is now missing:

  • Will to learn
  • Desire to improve
  • Urge to succeed
  • Questioning ourselves
  • Vison
  • Purpose

And finally we are left without intent.

A petty, small example that shows how we can kill the right intent by prioritising Method X: In one of my projects that started a transformation, we were good on purpose. We exactly knew wat we tried to accomplish. To get it done, we knew we would need „Agile“. Bad enough, we also knew exactly what the boards should look like. We had a great product guy who came along with what he called a post it project plan. Of course, it didn’t look like the board we had in mind at all. Stupid us, we made him turn it into what we thought would be a good board and explained it all to him. Fortunately the product guy was really patient with us and stayed on. But we were so full of ourselves and Method X that we nearly ruined everything that was so well intended by the product guy. We nearly made the goal of the project disappear behind what our current Method X suggested (which is just one possible solution.)

To make things clear: I totally love methods and we need them. We just have to take care that they don’t get to be the leading factor. The leading factor always needs to be what we try to accomplish: Purpose, vision, intent, empathy. The hard part about this is that I am talking about blind spots here, of course – as we are always well intended in our enthusiasm.

Let’s keep in mind that methods are neither the way nor the goal but just means to an end and not mix things up. Methods are just scaffolding, something to hold onto on a fascinating, wild journey.

In the article on “Elements on of intentful companies“, I try to explain aspects that companies need in a way that leaves out specific methods. Maybe, you just jump over and try to catch that as well.

Picture: Wikipedia, Anna Frodesiak

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