CMMI and Agile Blog

June 9, 2019

Scaling “Essence in stealth mode” and why you should care

Filed under: Software Engineering Method & Theory (SEMAT) — pemcmahon @ 12:57 pm
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In this blog I would like to address one of the comments I received on my last video-blog, titled, Using Essence in “stealth mode” to help solve a Cybersecurity Challenge.  

Following is the comment in italics:

“I think it is a great approach for a lone consultant. ‘Stealth mode’ seems to me by definition to be ‘not a scalable model’, since what you are making visible and selling is very specifically ‘the consultant’ and very specifically not Essence (which remains completely invisible to the customer).

 One might ask of this example, ‘Which really comes first here, and plays the primary and critical role throughout?’: the knowledge, experience and analysis skills (“wisdom”, if you will) of the consultant OR the Alpha State checklists. Realistically, the critical success factor in this scenario are consultancy skills and knowledge like:

         Listen first – listen deeply and seek to understand

         Start by trying to understand the problem

         Do root cause analysis

         The critical importance of the big initial “buy, build, reuse” decisions

         The critical importance of dependencies on external organizations

         The need to control key risks relating to competitors and IP

         Adopting “need to know” principles in such circumstances as this one

         Knowing the true meaning and role of good leadership 


Put another way – one gets the feeling in this case that Paul would probably have been basically successful here even if he didn’t know Essence, and likewise a less “wise” consultant would not have been so successful even if armed with a pack of Alpha state cards …”

I think this is a great comment which is why I am devoting an entire blog responding to it.   There are four points I want to make in response.

First, it is a misunderstanding to think that Essence remains completely invisible to the customer when used in “stealth mode”.   Let me give a concrete example.

When I use stealth Essence as in the referenced video-blog I don’t tell the client about it upfront because what they care most about is getting their problem solved.  Once we have accomplished this, then they are much more likely to listen and be interested in learning about Essence because it has proven itself.

In the Cybersecurity video-blog reference about nine minutes and thirty seconds into it on slide 10 when my client says,

“I like this approach and I am starting to see how our team can now meet this challenge.” 

This is where I might reply to the client with,

“I was able to help you partly because of my experience. But that is not the only reason.  If you are interested in learning about a framework that I use and could teach your team members to use so they could solve similar challenges themselves in the future we can discuss this further.” 

Often, at this point, my client is interested and this is where I discuss Essence with them more explicitly.  The right time to make a customer aware of Essence and how to use it, is after it has proven its value, not before.

Second, let’s address the issue of the “knowledge, experience, and analysis skills” of the consultant versus the value of the Essence checklists. It is certainly true that when I help my clients I am relying on my experience that I have gained over many years.   But when we developed the Essence checklists many experts from around the world came together and shared their own experiences.  Through numerous discussions over a period of two years (often held weekly) we arrived at what was agreed to be the “essence” of our common experiences which were captured succinctly in the Essence checklists.

Now, when I conduct training and when I work with my clients on specific challenges, such as the referenced Cybersecurity challenge, I utilize more than just my own experiences.  When I use Essence, as I say “in the back of my head”, it isn’t just my experiences anymore, but rather I am accessing the broader community of experiences that were captured in the Essence standard.

Third, let’s address the point of “stealth Essence” not being a scalable model.  Just as the Essence checklists strengthened my own base of experiences that I draw from in helping my clients so can each practitioner use it the same way to broaden their base of experiences they draw from to help make better decisions, regardless of their own level of experience.

Today, I don’t just use Essence to help clients by giving them recommendations based on my own stealth Essence approach.   I use it to coach practitioners in how they can access this same base of experiences in making their own decisions.

I have often said that my primary job as a coach is to “work myself out of a job,” by teaching my clients to solve their own problems so they don’t need me anymore.  This is what I believe all coaches and consultants should be doing.  Our goal should be to teach practitioners how to make their own decisions and how to help their less experienced teammates.  Teach your practitioners how to use Essence as a thinking framework to help solve their own problems and watch how fast it scales almost by itself across your organization.

Fourth, with regard to the final point about my being successful even if I didn’t know Essence, and a “less wise” consultant being less successful even if “armed with a pack of Alpha state cards”.   I do not disagree with this point, but by providing concrete examples, such as the Cybersecurity example, demonstrating how experienced consultants and coaches use Essence to solve problems we can teach others how to do the same thereby raising the competency level of our less experienced team members faster.  And isn’t that the real goal we are all searching for?

As always, feedback is encouraged.


May 16, 2019

Using Essence in “stealth mode” to help solve a Cybersecurity Challenge

March 23, 2019

Critical thinking and Essence: Why every engineer and consultant should care

I work with a number of consulting companies.  Recently I was in a meeting with a member of one of those companies who was trying to explain a problem he was facing and was unsure how to solve.   He had attended a Milestone B review on a major US Department of Defense (DoD) program and was concerned with how his team was assessing the progress of the prime contractor.  For those unfamiliar, Milestone B is a key DoD decision point for approval to move forward with detailed engineering development.

He said that his team was using 150 checklists as the basis for assessing the contractor’s progress and because the contractor met 140 of the checklist-items they were declaring the review to be a success.  The problem was that one of the 10 checklist-items that wasn’t met was having a sound architecture that would solve the customer’s problem.

This person went on to explain that what made this situation even more troublesome was that all of the people on his review team were senior experienced consultants who should have known that NOT having a sound architecture at a Milestone B review was sufficient criteria in itself, regardless of how many other checklist-items they may have met,  to give the contractor a failing grade at the review.   He added that while his review team members were all experts in their specific engineering discipline, they all seemed to lack the ability to think critically.

Wikipedia refers to critical thinking as the analysis of facts to form a judgement.  It requires logical reasoning, research, curiosity and the ability to analyze and synthesize information gathered from observation and experience.

One effort that has been tackling the problem of helping people think critically is the Software Engineering Method and Theory (SEMAT) initiative through its Essence standard.  Essence provides a kernel of essentials common to all successful software engineering endeavors. Essence includes a set of essential checklists that can be used to support critical thinking.

While facts and checklists are important, as Wikipedia points out critical thinking requires more.  A colleague who works for a different consulting company told me, when I relayed this story to him, that the trouble he sees with too many consulting organizations is they assume they know the answer before they take the time to listen to and understand the problem the client would like solved.

To be an effective critical thinker you first need to be a good listener. You need to be curious enough to listen to and understand your client’s situation and to know where they need help.  Effective critical thinkers know how to use facts and checklists–not in a “check-the-box” mentality—but rather to guide a conversation and, when necessary, to expose poor reasoning by using experience.

When I coach teams in how to use Essence in a thinking capacity I emphasize the fact that while all the Essence checklists are essential, they don’t all have equal value and must be applied appropriately given the specific project context.  I also let the participants know that to use Essence in a thinking capacity requires an understanding of how to use it as a root cause analysis tool because if you don’t first understand the root of the problem you have little chance of finding a lasting solution that meets your client’s need.

All software practitioners should learn the essentials of software engineering, and all consultants should learn the essentials of listening to fully understand the circumstances before guiding.  This is fundamental to effective consulting and coaching.

A recent attendee at my Essence-In-Use training course commented that he felt the course should have been called “Consulting 101”.   I prefer to refer to it as “Coaching 101”, but regardless of whether you are a consultant, coach, or team member most of the essentials to project success never change.   You need facts, but facts aren’t enough for project success. We need to teach our next generation engineers the essentials of good engineering, but we also need to teach them the essentials of effective critical thinking and root cause analysis.

Essence is today being used increasingly in universities to teach our next generation software engineers the essentials of successful software engineering.  There is also an effort underway to explore modifying the Essence framework to support all engineering endeavors.

The next step is to teach all engineers and consultants how to use the Essence framework in a critical thinking and problem-solving capacity.   This will help consultants ensure they are solving the right problem for their clients, and it will help engineers ensure they are making the best decisions given their project context.

If you are interested in learning more about using the Essence framework in a critical thinking and problem-solving capacity refer to

December 27, 2018

What does Essence and science fiction have in common?

One of the things I like most about Essence is how the alphas help you look at what is going on from multiple perspectives.  Often the root cause of a problem only becomes evident when you step back and look at the problem differently.

A few years ago I learned that Larry Constantine writes science fiction under the pen name Lior Samson.  I first met Larry at the SEMAT (  kickoff meeting in Zurich in 2010.   Learning about this other side of Larry intrigued me and I investigated his work further and found he doesn’t write fantasy science fiction, but science fiction that makes you think about a common problem we all face a little differently.

I had started writing science fiction myself over twenty years ago,  but let it go when I started my own consulting business.  Larry’s story motivated me to revive my science fiction writing as I approached my retirement years.  Please note here that I am NOT planning on retiring, only taking up once again an old interest that I let go as I move into what some people might refer to as my “retirement years”.

I have just released my first science fiction book, and like Larry (or Lior) I now too have a pen name (Fred E. McMichaels), and my science fiction writing, like Larry’s, isn’t fantasy either.

Like Essence, my intent is to encourage my reader to look at common problems we all face a little differently.   I have, in fact, discovered that science fiction writing can be an avenue to problem-solving as it encourages people to open their minds to possibilities they might otherwise miss.

If you are interested in learning more about my new venture you can check out my new blog at and you can learn more about my first science fiction book below.

September 12, 2018

Cybersecure Software: New twists to well-known questions every developer should be asking

In this short video new cybersecurity twists to well-known questions every software developer should be asking are explored.

Alternatively, the video could have been titled:

What do we really mean when we say Essence checklists are not “check-the-box” checklists, and you will understand why as you get into the video.

As always, feedback is encouraged.

April 6, 2018

Making the Heart of Agile concrete: Essence

Did you ever pick up a book, expecting to learn a new approach to software development and you get about 50 pages into it, and you stop and think, “What the heck is new here?”

If this resonates with you, then you might be interested in a talk I am giving at the Heart of Agile conference in Pittsburgh in just a few weeks on April 26.

In this talk I explain how the software engineering community can solve this frustrating problem we all face.  And I will share concrete examples and success stories demonstrating how your coaches and developers can use Essence today in what I call “stealth mode” to strengthen your teams implementation of the Heart of Agile, regardless of your agile implementation approach.

Hope to see you in Pittsburgh!


February 21, 2018

Making software development as simple as possible, but not simpler

This short video blog explores a recent claim by Alistair Cockburn that agile has gotten too complicated and it does so in the context of what Albert Einstein once said about simplicity.

February 10, 2018

The essence of how Essence makes practitioners better for life

February 4, 2018

How Essence Makes Practitioners Better Software Estimators for a Lifetime

This is the fourth short video-blog (roughly 9 minutes) in my 2018 series on Essence and Software Engineering. As always feedback is encouraged.


January 27, 2018

How Essence Makes Practitioners Better Software Modelers for a Lifetime

This is the third short video-blog (roughly 8 minutes) in my 2018 series on Essence and Software Engineering. As always feedback is encouraged.


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