Agile vs Institutional Bureaucracy

If you happened to be listening to NPR this morning, you may have caught a segment on a video satirizing stifling institutional culture and bureaucracy at NASA, showing how a NASA engineer with fresh ideas gets shut down by bureaucrats afraid of change and clinging to documents and project plans like security blankets.

This video is must-see for anyone who works at (or contracts for) a large institution:

Now, while Agile is not specifically mentioned in this video or in the NPR segment, I see a lot of parallels between the themes and dynamics on display in this video and what many of the  designers and developers I talk to, especially some I recently met with at the NY Agile Finance Meetup, are suffering through.  Despite their best efforts, and despite clear signs of dysfunction and inefficiency pervading the organization, managers still just can’t let go of the old ways of working.  Just another reminder of how incredibly hard it can be to bring  the Agile message to large institutions entrenched in archaic processes.

But there is also another equally important message at the very end of the video, showing the same engineer now at Google (for better or worse, an archetypal Agile organization),  where it is as if she is an another planet,  and her manager displays Servant Leadership – a  powerful image, and one that to me resonates strongly of agile thinking.  At Google, her new thinking is invited with open arms and management extends her trust and autonomy to share her ideas far and wide.

This video was shown to top managers at NASA, and was supposedly a wakeup call for them.  I hope it gets shown to managers at similar organizations – or, better yet, leads to engineers and designers at those organization to make their own videos.

The Curious Case of the Gmail Buttons

Earlier this week, when checking my email, I noticed that our friends over at Google had made a couple changes to the buttons above the inbox.

New Gmail Buttons

For reference, this is what the buttons looked like before the change (and without my custom theme):

Old Gmail Buttons

The first change, adding the Move To and Labels controls, are welcome changes.  The other change, redesigning and removing the spacing between the buttons, not so much.  The reason for placing the buttons flush against one another is likely the result of, after having added more buttons, deciding that this increased quantity of buttons warrants the need for grouping them.  While that’s all good and well, the decision to actually have the buttons completely flush against one another was a bad decision indeed.  Unwittingly, the geniuses at Google have not so much created a group of buttons but really instead created what visually is–particularly for the rapidly scanning and hunting Steve Krug archetypal web user–one big honking button.  This means that every time I want to take the very very common action of deleting something, I can’t just target the delete button, I have to scan the Gigantor-button to find the part within it that contains the delete section. And after having used this redesigned version for a few days now, I am still finding myself scanning for the delete portion.

This type of UI flubber, a bad design choice that on one hand really only leads to a fraction of a second’s delay, is what I call a micro-annoyance.  Now, let’s say this micro-annoyance appeared on some registration form.  That wouldn’t really matter too much since I would only have to deal with it once.  But when it appears on something that I use every day, all day, all the time, that changes everything.  Suddenly it is significant.

What’s truly annoying, though, is how easy it would be to fix this issue.  Just add a couple pixels of spacing between each of the buttons.  Something like this:

Gmail buttons with spacing added between buttons

You basically get the best of both worlds – you keep your button grouping, while also removing the micro annoyance of making me scan for the Delete button every time.