Systems Thinking, The Vanguard Method and Software Development

I’ve recently read John Seddon’s “Freedom from Command and Control“, which introduces his approach to Systems Thinking – the Vanguard Method. A few key points really struck home with me and helped clarify my thoughts on some of the challenges I’ve come across recently.

First is the following simple diagram, which shows that Management is responsible for defining the System, which is ultimately what defines Performance. Management’s role should be to analyse Performance, and change the System to improve it.

Agile initiatives are usually begun in order to improve performance. Seddon says that in order to analyse Performance, we first need to understand the Purpose of the System. Then we should create Measures to provide knowledge of how well we are meeting that Purpose, before finally applying a Method which meets that Purpose, using the Measures to help refine the Method.

Finally, Seddon says that understanding Purpose involves understanding Demand, and in particular, Seddon introduces the concepts of Value Demand and Failure Demand. Value Demand is what do our customers ask us to do because it add value, and Failure Demand is what our customers ask us to do because we failed to something, or do something right in the first place.

I’m increasingly aware of Lean and Agile methods being used for the sake of it. While Scrum, XP and Kanban will generally serve common software delivery Purposes, such as delivering real benefits and in short timescales, using them without recognising the Purpose will often result in no real improvement in Performance. Lean and Agile methods are often used just as alternative delivery approaches within an existing System, rather than as means to change the System itself. These organisations can be thought of as “wall-dwellers”, using a method within existing boundaries, rather than “wall-movers”, moving the boundaries to help create a System which helps meet the Purpose. To quote (or paraphrase) Russell Ackoff, this is “doing the wrong thing righter, rather than doing the right thing”.

Do you know what the Purpose of your software development process is? Do you have Measures about capability against that Purpose? Do you know what your Value and Failure Demand is?

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