I think I’m not a fan of best practices. For me, best practices are limiting us to be only as good as the practice. Admittedly, that can be pretty good - but I’m looking to become better than I ever thought possible.
Also, as I’m a guy that make my living trying to teach people (often) practices, I have to make another disclaimer; best practices can be inspirations for us to build upon. However, I often see companies and teams instead of focusing on implementing the practice.
Nowadays, what I’m looking for is the principle that led to that practice. And even better; what are the values that pushed us to those principles.
In this post, I wanted to mention a couple of good examples of when values can move teams, organizations, and complete communities forward to a place that no one would have imagined or reached should we had followed some best practices.
I work for a consultancy called Aptitud. We are about 30 people right now and the reason I like work there is that we are founded on some simple values and we are sticking to them.
The whole idea of Aptitud is founded on the value of trust and transparency. There’s much to be said about what we have done around that but here are a few things that come out of those values.
- Anyone is free to buy what they need to be able to their work without asking anyone for permission. We trust everyone to be sensible and not buy something that you cannot according to the law (if you don’t know - ask a colleague). Then the receipt is sent to the entire company. This well known for everyone and works great.
- If I want to hire someone that I think is great I get that person to meet one or two other Aptifolks. If they agree with me and we all think it’s a great addition we just draw up the contract (help is available if needed) and it happens. Should we not be in agreement we involve a few more. Easy - trust and transparency.
- We have a model for how your salary is calculated that is well known. For awhile we had it published on our website, in a blog post. The salary is based off your hourly rate, with deductions for time for our slack time (Aptitud-days, conferences and other activities that is not billable hours) and conferences. In a shared folder, we can easily see all other employees salary statements per month. Heck - we even do time reporting as an email to a common address, that everyone in the company can read. This means that everyone else in the company knows (could know) your salary. Together we work, on the same side of the table, to increase your value and hourly rate (if you want to). Transparent and easy.
While that is pretty awesome, it’s just a background. What I wanted to talk about specifically in this post is what happens when you let the values guide you. We could have had a crises as two of our founders decided to leave for other adventerus, but this was the time when our values shone bright.
For different reasons, our values were not fully reflected in the ownership structure. We decided (together) to take the opportunity to do something about that. Now all employees are shareholders and associates in the company.
How important are these values for us, you ask:
- People have given up (diluted) their shareholder positions in the company to make sure that the entire company is represented
- Extensive work has been made with legal experts to find ways to structure the company as we want - about a year in the making.
- The shareholder in the original structure has all chipped in money to be able to structure the company as we wanted.
But now we are in a position where the ownership structure is supporting the way that we want to function.
And it feels great to work for a place that stands up for the values it is founded on. This was what the values were for - to find ways of becoming better when we faced great challenges. The values guided us to a place closer to what we wanted to be - not circumstances, rules or third parties.
I’ve just started to re-read the seminal Kent Beck book Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. While XP comes out as one of the more prescriptive agile methods around, it now fascinates me a lot that Mr. Beck spends a good third of the book describing the values and principles that these practices stem from.
Indeed he probably inspired me with the following quote:
XP is a style of software development focusing on excellent application of programming techniques, clear communication, and teamwork which allows us to accomplish things we previously could not even imagine (chapter 1, page 2)
This is what I mean with that values and principles helps us to find new practices. Practices that will make us better than we originally thought possible. If we let them guide us.
I also like this quote from chapter 3
Value bring purpose to practices (chapter 3, page 12)
The practices are just the manifestation of the principles we are following. These principles are in turn rooted in the values we adhere to.
If you speak with people that have been doing XP they all have a similar value-based stance in (work)life. They value communication, courage, and respect. They talk a lot about simplicity and (fast) feedback. You can see it in the way they behave; they would not think about writing code without a pairing partner, they see the product owner as an integral part of the team, they talk frequently about how their code can be made simpler.
Over time practices evolve of course and they challenge their current ways - but the values are always the foundation of what they are and do. I admire that community a lot for these traits - and I keep learning from them more than 10 years after the first time I came into contact with the XP methodology.
One of the best examples of where values found ways that ~would be~ is frowned upon by people not sharing the values (and experiences) is mob programming and #NoEstimates. Both of these ideas stem from Woody Zuill and people around him. No wonder that I mention him here since he is a man whose values really shines through him.
I will now only talk about Mob Programming, but the reasoning is the same for how #NoEstimates was … discovered.
Because that’s how Woody describes how his team at Hunter started to do Mob Programming. They followed some principles and values rooted in agile generally and XP specifically. Through a strong focus on learning and iterating, they started to experiment with having learning hours together in a whole-team setting.
From there the step was not too far fetched to try it on regular programming too. I’m sure that his team felt a bit awkward at first. And I’m equally sure that there were a few raised eyebrows around the Hunter IT-department when the team worked with only one guy typing approach.
But they persevered. They followed their values and principles. Through this, they turned up the good and eventually found a practice that many people now finds great use of.
Stop and think for awhile about the fact that no-one in that team actually sat down and thought up a great plan. Not Woody and no one else in the team either. It was discovered in a pursuit of their values.
They totally change the way it was normally done, to something that was better than they could even imagine. Guided by their values.
Let the values transform us into something that is better than we thought possible, over letting our values stand back for the way the reality is around us.
Best practices are good as inspiration and examples, but they are just best in a context. Look beyond the practice to the principles and values that it’s built on, discovered from. This will give you a deeper understanding of the purpose of the practices and you can use this knowledge to adjust the practice to your situation, context, and need.
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