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12 years, 12 lessons working at ThoughtWorks

I’ve been at ThoughtWorks for 12 years. Who would have imagined? Instead of writing about my reflections on the past year, I thought I would do something different and post twelve key learnings and observations looking back over my career. I have chosen twelve, not because there are only twelve, but because it fits well with the theme of twelve years.

1. Tools don’t replace thinking

In my years of consulting and working with many organisations and managers I have seen a common approach to fixing problems, where a manager believes a tool will “solve” the given problem. This can be successful where a problem area is very well understood, unlikely to have many exceptions and everyone acts in the same manner. Unfortunately this doesn’t reflect many real-world problems.

Too many times I have witnessed managers implement an organisational-wide tool that is locked down to a specific way of working. The tool fails to solve the problem, and actually blocks real work from getting done. Tools should be there to aid, to help prevent known errors and to help us remember repeated tasks, not to replace thinking.

2. Agile “transformations” rarely work unless the management group understand its values

Many managers make the mistake that only the people close to the work need to “adopt agile” when other parts of the organisation need to change at the same time. Co-ordinating this in enterprises takes a lot of time and skill with a focus on synchronising change at different levels of the organisation.

Organisations who adopt agile in only one part of their organisation face a real threat. As the old saying goes, “Change your organisation , or change your organisation.”

3. Safety is required for learning

Learning necessitates the making of mistakes. In the Dreyfus model , this means that particularly people in an Advanced Beginner stage, need to make mistakes in order to learn. People won’t risk making mistakes if they feel they will do a bad job, lose respect from their colleagues or potentially hurt other people in that process.

As a person passionate about teaching and learning, I find ways to create a safe space for people to fail, and in doing so, make the essential mistakes they need to properly learn.

4. Everyone can be a leader

I have written aboutthis topic before, but it is such an important observation. I see a common mental model trap where people feel the need to be given the role of a leader, in order to act like a leader. People can demonstrate acts of leadership regardless of their title and can do so in many different ways, simply by taking action on something without the explicit expectation or request for it.

5. Architects make the best decisions when they code

In theTech Lead courses I run, I advocate for Tech Leads to spend at least 30% of their time coding. Spending time with the code helps build trust, respect and a current understanding of the system. Making architectural decisions without regard for the constraints of the current system are often bad decisions.

6. Courage is required for change

I miss people talking about the XP values , one of which includes Courage . Courage is required for acts of leadership, taking on the risk to fail and the risk/reward of attempting something new. Where there is no risk, there is often little reward.

7. Congruence is essential for building trust

Beware of the old age maxim, “Do as I say, not as a I do.” In reality, regardless of what you say, people will remember how you act, first and foremost. Acting congruently is making sure that your actions follow your words. Acting incongruently destroys trust. Saying “no” or “not now” is better than promising to do something by a certain time, only to not deliver it.

8. Successful pair programming correlates with good collaboration

Although not all pair programming environments are healthy, I do believe that when it works well, teams tend to have better collaborative cultures. Many developers prefer the anti-pattern of (long lived) branch-based development because it defers feedback and sources of potential conflict.

I consider (navigable) conflict a healthy sign of collaborative teams. Deferring feedback, such as is the case with code reviews on long-lived branches tends to lead to more resentment because it is delivered so late.

9. Multi model thinking leads to more powerful outcomes

One of my favourite subjects at University , was Introduction to Philosophy where we spent each week in the semester studying a different philosopher. Over the course of my career, I have come to appreciate the value of diversity, and to see a problem through multiple lenses. Systems thinking also recognises that facts can be interpreted in different ways, leading to newer ideas or solutions which may be combined for greater effect.

10. Appreciate that everyone has different strengths

Everyone is unique, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Although we tend to seek like-minded people, teams are better off with a broader set of strengths. A strength in one area may be a weakness in a certain context, and teams are stronger when they have a broader set of strengths. Differences in strengths can lead to conflict but healthy teams appreciate the differences that people bring, rather than resent people for them.

11. Learning is a lifelong skill

The world constantly changes around us and there are always opportunities to learn some new skill, technique or tool. We can even learn to get better at learning and there are many books like Apprenticeship Patterns and The First 20 Hours which can give you techniques to get better at this.

12. Happiness occurs through positive impact

The well known book, Drive, talks about how people develop happiness through working towards a certain purpose. In my experience, this is often about helping people find ways to have a positive impact on others, which is why our Pillar 2 (Champion software excellence and revolutionize the IT industry) and Pillar 3 (Advocate passionately for social and economic justice) values are really important for us.

Conclusion

The twelve points above are not the only lessons I have learned in my time at ThoughtWorks but they are some of the more key learnings that help me help our clients.

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