Essence and Problem Solving Blog

November 27, 2014

Using Essence to Help Your Team Stay Fit, and Your Organization Find its Right Level of Governance

Some have raised the question:

Is the Essence Kernel ( ) just the essentials for all software endeavors? 

At a recent Essence user guide meeting this subject was discussed when Barry Myburgh raised the issue that some of the alpha state checklists might never be achieved by some teams.

He gave an example of a team with about ten developers he had been working with that never committed to when they would get the work done.  They had goals, but the team members had no idea if their goals were achievable.  He said they were incentivized to achieve the goals so as the deadline drew near the team worked hard, often late into the night, to get the job done.  When I listened to Barry describe his experience it resonated with my own experiences with many of my clients.

Examples of alpha state checklists teams might never achieve include:

Work Alpha, Under Control state:

  • Tasks are consistently completed on time and within estimates
  • Estimates are revised to reflect the team’s performance

Team Alpha, Performing state:

  • The team consistently meets its commitments
  • Wasted work, and the potential for wasted work are continuously eliminated

Some teams may never get to certain states such as Work Under Control because they don’t revise their estimates to reflect team performance. Rather they keep striving for goals that may be beyond their reach.   Ian Spence pointed out in our user guide meeting that some alpha state checklists are aspirational and are getting more at the health of an endeavor.  But when some people hear aspirational it can raise concerns.

Winifred Menezes, another Essence volunteer, pointed out one concern by asking—

What if a team is discussing their health and status and realize that they haven’t met a checklist item, wouldn’t there be a temptation to say, ”Oh, that item is only aspirational so we’re good and on track.”

Winifred raises a good point.  By calling some of the checklists aspirational are we making it easy for teams to decide these checklists are not essential and therefore require little attention?  Will this in fact dilute the value of the Essence framework as a guide to what is essential on all software endeavors? Will it cause organizations that are considering the adoption of Essence to lose confidence in Essence as an aid to help them find their right level of governance?

Toward the end of our user guide meeting Barry Myburgh after listening to the discussion said he had previously thought that on every software endeavor you needed to get through all of the alpha states because they were all essential to all software endeavors, but he now realized that was not the case.  Barry went on to draw an analogy.  He said when you use Essence it is like putting your team on a fitness program.  When a team uses Essence it brings an awareness of areas where they may have gotten out of shape, and can help motivate their team to improve in the future.

I personally like this analogy.  It reminds me of one of my Scrum clients who recently used a similar analogy by saying their team had gotten out of shape and they needed to go back to the gym.   They were doing this by giving the team some remedial training in best Scrum practices, and some additional coaching.  We heard a similar message from Cecile Peraire, another Essence volunteer, and a professor at Carnegie Mellon West where they have been conducting field studies using Essence with students.   In one of those studies a student indicated that using Essence Reflection Meetings reminded the team to think about points that otherwise would have been missed (  Similarly, when I was writing my latest book ( I thought what I was describing were fundamentals that most teams followed, but then I realized what I was actually describing was what it means to develop a high performance capability.

The concern that some teams may dismiss checklists that are viewed as aspirational is a valid one.  A simple way to answer this concern is to point out that we all need coaches at times to help remind us of our responsibilities—and to remind us when it’s time to head back to gym– if we want to stay fit.  But this simple answer may sound too glib to some, and this reaction is understandable.

At a deeper level this subject is dealing with the more fundamental issues related to trust in a team to self-manage itself versus the need for organizational governance to ensure required practices are adhered to.  Part of what the SEMAT initiative is trying to address through the Essence framework relates to helping organizations find the right balance between these two critical needs, while also helping teams stay focused on the real goal.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this subject.


  1. It would be useful to understand whether the 10 person team referred to in the beginning of this article actually was considered successful and as good as it could be in its particular environment, even though it was not operating optimally according to all alpha checklists ? I assume this can be the case if the work done the team is very creative and open ended, so it may not be practical or relevant to strive to get the Work Under Control?
    Or, whether an Essence “fitness program” would have been reasonable and applicable to this team, thereby resulting in a much better team?

    Comment by Stefan Bylund — November 28, 2014 @ 7:44 am | Reply

    • Thanks Stefan. This is a very good question and maybe Barry will also respond. In our discussion I believe Barry indicated that the team was viewed as successful, but the user guide group felt that by discussing the “aspirational” checklists it would help the team understand where their performance might even be better in the future. It was pointed out that the team’s current behavior (often working late into the night) might not be sustainable and by discussing this issue the team could decide if they needed to put improvements in place.

      In my own experience I have observed similar team behavior where organizations are trying to increase agility, but the organization is using a traditional command and control governance style. This has led to teams getting the job done in the sense of completing artifacts (code, design documents, etc.), but not always getting the job done with the quality the customer wants— so it eventually came back to hurt the organization with dissatisfied customers. By getting the team to discuss these issues Essence can help the team make better decisions and put improvements in place to reduce the risk of dissatisfied customers and improve their future performance.

      Comment by pemcmahon — November 28, 2014 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

    • The team was certainly seen as successful – major release deadlines were met and thousands of users downloaded and use the app. However, the success took its toll. After the first major release, the team was all but burned up, requiring time and coaching to become re-energised. But the lure of potentially valuable stock options kept them going.

      Comment by barrym820 — November 29, 2014 @ 3:45 am | Reply

  2. .It’s clear that Essence is causing people to think about what and how they are doing things. I believe this allows individuals to develop heuristic thinking which is always the source of solving complex problems.

    Comment by Bob Epps — November 28, 2014 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

    • Bob– I think you hit on a really good point that too often gets missed. Essence can help a team’s performance by stimulating the team’s collaborative thinking which is essential to solving complex problems. You can’t govern your way to innovative solutions, but this doesn’t mean organizations don’t need governance. When using Essence organizations can put appropriate constraints in place to guide the team keeping them focused on the goal, while also empowering them to continually improve their way of working. This is part of the point I was trying to convey in this blog related to finding the right “balance” between team trust and organizational governance.

      Comment by pemcmahon — November 28, 2014 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  3. Hello Paul,

    I read the introduction to the SEMAT theory and it seemed very attractive, util and interesting. SEMAT allows to see the state of a project to all the people who belong to this project in a amusing and easy way.

    People feel as owner and leader of their project, where they can control and participate on all the stages. I’m sure that all the points of view will help to run the best direction of the project.

    Best Regards,

    Comment by Isidro — November 29, 2014 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

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