Monday, January 25, 2016

The Two Olive Paradox

Beware the Two Olive Paradox
I have worked in the business world for over twenty-five years.  When I left college my hope was that I would work with grown-ups who would do the right thing.  Experience has crushed those hopes like peanut shells on the floor of a baseball stadium.  This week, I wanted to write about one of the pathologies I have noticed in business world and how it is effecting the implementation of agile and scrum.

This week news broke widely about the poisoning of water in the city of Flint Michigan.  If you are interested in understanding the details of the situation, I strongly recommend this article from Vox.com.  Suffice to say this is the failure of government on a local, state and federal level.  This failure has a root cause and it is what I like to call the two olive paradox.  Politicians, technocrats, and business people want to save money to look like they are being fiscally responsible and instead create situations which cost significantly more money.

I use the phrase two olive because it is based on a true story from the world of air travel.  Robert Crandall, was the president and chairman of American Airlines.  He was able to figure out that if he removed an olive from an in-flight salad leaving two olives, he would save $100,000 a year and that passengers would not mind.  It has become legendary among business school students, professionals, and journalists.  Crandall didn’t really address the falling market share of the airline in the 1980’s or improve customer service but he was able to save the company and the shareholders money.

Since that time in the 1980’s business people have done everything they could to emulate Crandall.  In my career alone, I have seen toilet paper rationed, office supplies cut back, and training and development cut back all for the sake of saving a few thousands of dollars in corporate budgets in the millions and billions.  For the scrum master, this means technical debt festers, mission critical technology becomes obsolete, and quality developers quit because they are not being compensated correctly.  This is the two olive paradox creating petty solutions because we cannot or will not solve the real problems in the organization.

How does this tie into Flint Michigan?  The state appointed administrator after cutting police service and renegotiating the contracts of every municipal employee, and cutting pension commitments still needed to save money so he attempted to do it by finding an inexpensive source of tap water.  Thus, he went to Flint river instead of water from Lake Huron or Detroit.  Concerns about pollution were ignored and in the end water from the Flint river started flowing through the taps.  When activist started to complain the un-elected authority did the usual thing and attempted to protect itself without fixing problem they caused.  It would take the attention of national media in order to get people to pay serious attention to poison flowing through the tap water.

In many respects, a scrum master must be like those community activists from Flint.  They have to raise awareness, point out problems, and work within the system to try and make change.  It is not a very good way to advance your career because most managers that I have encountered want people who go along and get along being likable rather than trying to solve problems in the organization.  It is frustrating.  I struggle with this in many of the organizations I work with.

So be on the lookout for the two olive paradox, because if you see business leaders thinking this way your life as a scrum master is going to get very complicated.

Until next time.