Being There – Geek Style

I’m getting another lesson in “being present” with people. Specifically my 3 year old daughter. When I’m playing with her, she demands my absolute, complete and undivided attention. Any distraction on my part is a punishable offense – usually by a rather irritated, “HELLO Daddy!” As a part time geek and full time father, I find this requirement to be completely “present and in the moment” often hard to satisfy. You see I’m really the typical introvert – often imagining I’m somewhere else, ruminating on a problem, running some absurd internal monologue, or otherwise just drifting about with my head in the clouds. Apparently children don’t tolerate that sort of behavior particularly well, and in my opinion, neither do teams.

I don’t know much about kids in general, but from what I’ve seen from mine so far they are *extremely* highly interactive creatures. They are avidly absorbing everything in their environments like manic little sponges. They’re asking questions and gosh darn it, they expect the answers pronto! They’re looking for a good partner, someone who is going to attend to their every need. And as a good partner, they are watching you to see where you might be going next. They repay any attention you give them with vigor, enthusiasm and affection. Not a bad dividend really.

Teams are a tougher nut to crack. They are also highly interactive beasts to work with. They are doing a lot of learning, typically trying to understand a complicated domain or design challenge. They’re asking questions and gosh darn it, they expect the answers pronto! I hope you see where this is going by now…

Recently I attended the XP2010 conference. One of the sessions that I attended was on using improv theater techniques to learn to be a better team member (this was facilitated by Mike Sutton – a really fantastic guy). A lot of improv is about being “in the moment.” It was all about making yourself a good partner to interact with. I found it to be a very powerful experience and I felt like I got a lot out of it. For instance, like many geeks, I place a high value on cleverness. But it turns out that “clever” behavior is very hard to anticipate (and even harder to produce with any consistency). So being too clever can make you hard to work with when you are doing improv work – it’s hard to know what you are going to do next. Now, I imagine there are a lot of parallels between improvisation and collaborative, problem solving work. In fact that was really a theme of the conference.

The conference reception was kicked off with a presentation by two jazz musicians. They did a fantastic job of demonstrating improvisational musical technique for us in an entertaining and thought provoking way. Part of the message was about making yourself a good partner, but for them, an equally significant message was that in order to express ourselves truly, we need to learn how to be “in the present”. They ended their presentation with the  following quote:

Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  And today?  Today is a gift.  That’s why we call it the present.  ~Babatunde Olatunji

So what does all of this have to do with teams? Look, let’s get one thing straight – so much of the “process” that we use on software development teams is all about planning or history. Very little of the process focuses on the work actually being done in the moment. I consider the work in the moment, the collaboration that takes place as we are writing code, as the hardest part of the development process. We have techniques that lead us toward this mode of collaboration like pair programming, but often I find teams resist them. Teams that aren’t able to work in the moment, in the present with each other, are going to be handicapped in the speed with which they can deliver innovative solutions. If you are looking for the place with the greatest opportunity for improvement for your team, try steering away from the process – the planning and the history – and try spending more time in the moment. Focus on the actual work you and the team are doing right now. Give your team a gift – the present.

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