Elite software development

In the Royal Marines we used to say elite performance is a state of mind. I can show you what that means for software development.

Have you built an MVP, followed the lean start up way and achieved product market fit? Are you now at the point where you are going to start scaling your business, adding more people and accelerating the execution of your mission?

What’s your strategy?

The behaviours and tactics that worked to get you out of the blocks and running are not the same as those required to achieve and maintain scaleable growth. Getting this transition right is incredibly important: do it too early and you’ll stifle your ability to iterate with a small team. Do it too late, or not at all, and you’ll be trying to layer more people into a chaotic environment and you’ll kill their ability to deliver.

I’ve been in many of these situations over the last 10 years in tech. An organisation scaling up without putting the right systems in place is a horrible place to be. No matter how strong the founder’s vision and how compelling the mission, without the right foundations the company lurches from one crisis to another and can’t deliver. It’s a stressful, frustrating experience that drives the best people out of the company.

I can help

Before I had a career in tech I was a Royal Marine Commando, and it’s there that I learned the essence of building a high performance culture. What I do now for my customers is to translate the operational excellence that’s driven the corps’ evolution for the last 3 and a half centuries to a set of systems for tech businesses.

It’s all based on a single abstraction. Understanding this one thing is what allows you to understand the 10,000 things that are required for elite performance and continuous improvement in the face of change.

The principle of strategy is having one thing, to know ten thousand things

Myamoto Musashi

Over my decade plus career in software development, I’ve experienced the feeling of being in teams using the wrong processes and not adapting to their realities fast enough. This includes everything from start ups where I was the first programmer on board, to building teams in global mega banks.

About 4 years ago my brain basically short circuited itself and banned me from learning more tech stuff until I figured out how to make the point at which the rubber meets the road work better: People and teams.

As I researched more and began to understand what makes a great development team, I started to recognise the underlying principles. They were things I had already learned, and in fact deeply ingrained, but not recognised when I was a Royal Marine in the early 2000s.

Having this moment of recognition was a breakthrough, because it showed me that once you are able to translate something from one domain to another and keep the essence of why it works, you have your hands on a fundamental principle. This is nothing new. The famous swordsman Myamoto Musashi knew this way back in the 1600s, as the quote above shows.

So what if you could understand a SINGLE PRINCIPLE and from that drive the evolution of your organisation’s operating system?

This is what I want to show you.

The single principle that’s you must understand to achieve the operational excellence that every business needs to thrive and scale.

The single principle that unites the 3 pillars of PURPOSE PEOPLE and PRACTICES

Principle

ˈprɪnsɪp(ə)l noun

  1. a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning. “the basic principles of justice”
  2. a general scientific theorem or law that has numerous special applications across a wide field.

synonyms: truth, proposition, concept, idea, theory, postulate; More

Purpose and Mission

What is your company’s reason for being? What’s its purpose? What’s the one mission that gets your people fired up for work in the morning?

It’s critical that there’s a consistent, concise message, which is shared across the whole organisation, laying out why you’re here. A company’s mission is the WHY that gets people pulling in the same direction.

Imagine a bunch of iron filings scattered onto a plate. Their orientation is random there’s no discernable pattern. As soon as you bring a magnet within range though, the filings line up with an invisible force and organise themselves to point the right direction. MISSON is magnetism for people.

Aligning Vectors

Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.

Elon Musk

People and Culture

Companies always say that “their people are their greatest asset”. But how do you ensure that’s really true? How do you build a cohesive team who support and push each other to greatness?

If mission is the direction you’re headed in and why you’re making your change in the world the culture that develops is the vessel that will take you there. Culture is WHO you are. The conditions and constraints you put in place define what that culture becomes.

You don’t build a culture it is EMERGENT based on the environment in which it grows.

Lead like a gardener

A gardener creates an environment that encourages growth. An environment full of light and nourishment. An environment with sufficient space for stretching and expanding.

Leadership – and gardening – are all about creating positive change.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Practices and Process

When you know you do something well, when you’ve really nailed it, is it repeatable? Can you teach anyone to achieve the same level of excellence you have reached?

Process can be a bit of a dirty word in software development. It conjures up images of big A agile consultants enforcing rituals and ceremonies that ultimately do nothing to improve performance and everything to destroy morale. Most professional developers will have at least one horror story of working in a place that fell for this kind of cargo culting.

That’s why I prefer to think in terms of PRACTICES

Practices are your playbooks. In the Royal Marines we would refer to these as SOPs: Standard Operating Procedures. They are constantly evolving, improving instructions that point the way to ever increasing performance.

Do nothing which is of no use.

Step by step walk the ten thousand mile road

Myamoto Musashi

So what's the single principle?

It’s the OODA loop.

The OODA loop is the unifying theory of competition from the mind of Col. John Boyd. It’s short for Observe Orient Decide Act and understanding this process is critical to understanding how organisms and organisations relate to and thrive within their environments.

Col. Boyd was a USAF officer who, despite his relatively lowly rank, cut an absolute swathe through US defence policy in the late 20th century. Not content with completely reshaping how airforces comprehend air to air combat and manoeuvrability in the 50s and 60s, Boyd spent the next 4 decades re-writing the book on military strategy and tactics. He was even instrumental in the design of the campaign that smashed the Iraqi army and led to the liberation of Kuwait in first Gulf war of the early 90s.

What came out of this period was a complete rethink on the laws and structure of conflict, condensed down to a tiny amount of published output. What Boyd was able to do was take several millennia of learning, from The Art of War to the Blitzkrieg, and refine it down to a briefing and a couple of published papers. Boyd’s particular gift lay in combining knowledge from different fields of endeavour into new conceptual frameworks. So his work on the OODA loop has proven to be very applicable to domains outside of combat in the intervening years.

It makes sense when you think about it. Conflict is a crucible that’s been running for thousands of years. Almost like forced evolution - the fittest survive and the weakest do not. What works is refined again and again and what doesn’t work is stripped away over time. Boyd’s work on the OODA loop, and some of his other contributions, take the output from that crucible and extract the essential structure that make it all work. Small wonder then that this is a theory that can be applied to pretty much everything.

The Strategic game of ? and ?

Goal:

Survive, survive on own terms, or improve our capacity for independent action.

The competition for limited resources to satisfy these desires may force one to:

Diminish adversary’s capacity for independent action, or deny him the opportunity to survive on his terms, or make it impossible for him to survive at all.

Col. John Boyd