Needle and Thread

August 26, 2011

“The teacher is the needle and the disciple is the thread. One must practice ceaselessly”

–  Miyamoto Musashi
The Book of Five Rings

This is a lovely metaphor for coaching and consulting. The master guides the disciple, setting direction, helping to weave them into the fabric of the organization, helping them to become part of something beautiful, part of an emergent whole that is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. However just as the needle is not part of the finished product, so too the
master is not necessarily part of the organization that the disciple is now inseparable from. Eventually the master moves on. The needle finds a new thread.

As coaches, as consultants, we may become part of many organizations, but nevertheless we remain outsiders. We provide our coaching, our guidance, our direction, adapting to the organizational culture and trying to help create something great. If we are successful, we have provided the kind of guidance that helps to create the kind of great and lasting social fabric that holds great organizations together. And then we move on.

Moving Too Fast

August 23, 2011

Sometimes I move too fast. Maybe my attention span has been eroded by all of that tweeting and the never ending Facebook updates. I caught myself skimming through a book the other day just so that I could catch “the good parts” or find something that caught my eye. I realized that the book looked pretty good and I would probably enjoy sitting down and reading it. But I put it aside atop my ever growing pile of books I don’t have enough time to read. I’m just too busy right now. I’m sure I’m not alone. Everybody has too many things demanding their attention these days. Children, house, work, friends…and the list goes on. We are cursed with over-rich and over-stimulating lives.

Obviously this has been on my mind of late as I rush about pell-mell from one meeting to the next. I’m starting to get this nagging
feeling that If I could just find a way to slow down a bit, I might be a much more effective person. Well, that begs the question, “What would slowing down look like?” Are there some constructive things I could do to more effectively manage the pace of change in my admittedly all-too-agile life? You see, sometimes I’d rather be really good at just a few things than mediocre at a lot of things.

So what can we do? Here are a few ideas:

  • Meditation: (Reflect) Take the time to reflect on what you are doing and how you are living
  • Journaling: (Make it Visible) Start to capture the frantic pace. This is the first step toward bringing it under control
  • Share it with others: (Transparency, Feedback) Share your experience with others and compare notes.
  • Apply time management practices: (Prioritize) Adopt David Allen’s GTD, Personal Kanban, or perhaps the 7 Habits. Whatever works best for you.
  • Measure: (Value) Use apps like Mercury App to rate your performance as you work to simplify and focus.
  • Stop blogging…Hey! Where did that come from?

Or maybe we should just go over to zenhabits. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Punctuated Disequilibrium

August 22, 2011

I’ve heard people talk about the gradual gains that agile teams make over time as they engage with continuous improvement, but I’m here to tell you that isn’t what I see in the real world. I guess the expectation (perhaps my own included) is that when teams start to improve they will make many small changes over time and reap corresponding gains in performance. You know, a little change here, a little gain there. I guess I envision it looking a little like this:

However, I see something different. What I’m witnessing with the teams that I work with appears nothing like that. Instead the teams seem go for long periods with no evident change in performance or productivity. They just seem to trundle right along and then BANG! You see a dramatic improvement. It sort of looks like this:

The team is trying out different things the whole time. They’re failing at some things and succeeding at others. They are continuously playing with the chemistry set we call Agile Development. From the outside you don’t see much happening. Sometimes for long stretches of time – we’re talking years here. The point is that my experience is that often, it’s a combination of many things that leads to significant performance gains by a team. Finding that combination of what works can take a while. But when it does happen, it is reflected in a rather dramatic improvement in performance. It’s not a slow gradual change.

Of course there is a flip side to this change. Here’s another example:

Some teams that I’ve worked with have made great gains and then “jumped off the cliff.” What goes up can come down. I call this “Tom’s First Law of Team Performance”. Just as there is sudden improvement, there can be an equally sudden decrease in performance. Team’s can make a change that kills performance just as easily as they make a change that improves it. I’ve seen it work both ways. Sometimes it is change outside the team, within the corporate culture at large that causes these radical swings in performance. Software teams work in a complex ecosystem. When change happens, I think it tends to either be suppressed by the system or, when the conditions are just right, lead to dramatic changes in performance.

Coding Kata, Life Kata

August 21, 2011

Kata: a sequence of formalized and codified movements arising from a state of mind that is oriented toward the realization of the way.

Kenji Tokitsu, The Katas: The Meaning behind the Movements

Perhaps you have seen a kata, maybe even performed kata. I first encountered kata when I was taking karate lessons in 6th grade. I would learn the movements of the kata at the dojo and then go home and practice them over and over in my back yard. There was lots of kicking and punching and yelling (Ki-YAH!). Bruce Lee would have been proud. The neighbors thought I was cute. The dogs thought I was nuts.

I thought kata were cool because you could do them over and over again and see improvement. You could slow them down or speed them up. You could express yourself with grace or with violence. You could add subtle movements that would add expression and uniqueness to each move. Perhaps most importantly, I felt competent – which was a feeling that was honestly hard to come by as a 12 year old boy.

After a while, my fancy moved on to other things. There were plenty of distractions at that age: science fiction, Dungeons and Dragons, piano lessons, girls, all the usual geekery. But the Kata still left an impression on me. Years later I studied the things that make up deliberate practice. In examining what made up good practice I saw many things that reminded me of kata:

  • It’s designed specifically to improve performance
  • It can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback on results is continuously available
  • It’s highly demanding mentally
  • It isn’t much fun

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

All of these criteria can be true of kata. I was seeking discipline at the time. I was looking for ways to practice the things that I do professionally, so that I could become the very best at what I do. It’s a journey I’m still on today.

Kata was re-introduced to me a few years ago by folks who were forming the Software Craftsmanship movement. People like Bob Martin and Andy Hunt who were experimenting with something that they called the Coding Kata. Simply put, the coding kata is a way of practicing our programming skills with exercises that can be repeated over and over. If you are interested in some examples, you can find a few here:

So it became evident to me that the notion of the kata might be applicable beyond just the martial arts. In fact, the Japanese have known this for centuries. It turns out that within Japanese culture, the kata is applicable to a whole range of different activities. Here are just a few examples:

  • Tea Ceremony
  • Flower Arrangement
  • Miniature Gardens
  • Martial Arts
  • Painting
  • Calligraphy
  • Poetry
  • Archery

And I’m quite sure that this is only the shortest list. It got me to start thinking…Are there katas in my life? What might those katas be? How would I tell if the things I do are katas or not? Here’s a potential list I slapped together of things that might be katas for me:

  • Competitive Weightlifting
  • Coding
  • Sailing (racing)
  • Public Speaking
  • Writing

Are these the kinds of things that one practices? Yes. Are these the kinds of things where there is a desirable pinnacle of excellence, a goal that is relevant and meaningful to me? Yes. These are the things that I practice nearly every day in some form or another. Some examples:

Weightlifting: every competitive lift has a specific “form” that you need to maintain in order to successfully perform the lift without injury. Furthermore, extensive planning goes into the training for each lift. Nothing is too detailed: the number of breaths you take before the lift, where you place your feet, where your eyes rest, where your hands are placed on the bar – no detail is too small. No consideration is insignificant – not when your goal is to be the best.

Coding: Like any craftsman, I need to become an expert at using my tools. I need to practice using my IDE/editor to generate code as efficiently as possible. I focus on different aspects of writing the code: speed, form, elegance are all dimensions of coding that can be explored in practice.

Sailboat racing: Each position on the boat depends on a specific skillset that needs to be developed. As a driver, you need intense concentration, as a  grinder, you need brute strength and an awareness of the sail trim, as a bowman, you need to be part gymnast and part cowboy.

So as you can see, kata can be applied not only to solo activities, but also to team activities. The point is that excellence can be achieved with disciplined and deliberate practice.

“Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is neverending.”

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

I imagine that each of us may have a different set of katas if we take the time to look for them. I think of them as the things that we are the most passionate about – the things that we really want to practice, need to practice. They are the things that we have some burning desire to be good at. For some, this combination of practices would be our life kata. The life kata is the sum of the practices that we pursue to give our lives meaning.

Facilitating An Open Space Conference (A Handy Guide For The Neurotic)

August 20, 2011

Recently we were putting together an offsite meeting for our program management team. This was our first ever offsite, so expectations were high. The idea was to get everyone together, share our ideas/experiences, and make plans for the coming year. Prior to the event, we solicited the group for presentations. What the response was lukewarm at best: a few tentative ideas for presentations that no one was volunteering to give themselves.

With the offsite date swiftly approaching, we were in the uncomfortable position of not having a full agenda, and no budget to fill it with outside speakers. That is when we shifted gears and decided to use an Open Space format instead of the traditional fixed format, presentation-driven approach.

I was nervous the night before, having never facilitated an Open Space before. I did a search on the internet for suggestions/templates for how to run an Open Space session. I found a lot of different resources were available. Here are a few that I used:

And I’m sure there are many more. A quick review of the guides gave me a pretty good idea of what to do and what to avoid as I facilitated the session the next day.

The preparation for the event was pretty low key. I didn’t have to worry about setting up a lot of high tech equipment. All I had to do was make sure that there were plenty of flip charts, post-it notes, and sharpies.

I had three fears going into the day:

  1. I’d open up the Open Space Market Place and nobody would volunteer to give sessions.
  2. The sessions would not be compelling and the group would feel cheated.
  3. People wouldn’t follow up after the event and continue to pursue their passions.

The trick with an open space, the magic if you will, is that moment when you ask the audience to step forward and make their own sessions. I know it sounds crazy, but what if they don’t? What if they just sit there and stare at me? That’s enough neurosis for any facilitator. I’ve got more, but they mostly involve my mother.

As if that’s not enough, what if the sessions suck? I like to give conference talks and I have a certain skill for it, but that’s not true for most people. Most people are terrified of talking in front of their peers! And here I’m going to ask them to do just that!

Finally, even if fear 1 and fear 2 don’t come to fruition, what about afterwards? How many times have you gone to a great conference, learned something fantastic and compelling, and then proceeded to go back to your day to day job without carrying any of that learning forward? Getting the organization to agree to get a bunch of us together in an offsite location to pow wow requires some promise of return benefit for the company. How am I going to follow up on that assurance?

Alright, well that’s enough neurosis for one day. So, how did it actually play out? Well, when the time came to ask people to announce their own sessions, every single person in the room stepped forward. Not only that, the ideas were great! These were compelling ideas, the kinds of sessions that you can’t find at the big conferences, but perhaps you wish you could. We had more sessions that we had open slots to fill. In short, it was fantastic.

Now, having a bunch of great ideas is a long ways from actually having high quality presentations. However, the beauty of the open space format is that you really don’t need to be the world’s best presenter. You just need to be passionate about the topic. Everyone who attends can help contribute to the conversation. As a result, we don’t have the typical teacher/student kind of relationship. It’s much more of a collaboration. The energy that it can generate is really amazing.

The sessions were intense and well attended. Everybody was focused and contributed to the sessions in a variety of ways. Debate was fast and furious. Here are some of the topics that the group came up with:

  • Empowering the Team
  • Team Motivation
  • Requirements Analysis & Story Creation
  • Release Planning – How Do We Execute This in each centre?
  • Breaking the Mini-Waterfall
  • Minimum Viable Product
  • Working With Distributed Teams
  • Rally- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
  • Working with non-Agile Teams
  • Role of Scrum Master
  • Retrospectives
  • Transforming a Product Owner to be Communicative, Understanding, & in Tune with the Team
  • Eliminating Waste, Value Stream Mapping
  • Balanced Score Card
  • How can Kanban Help my team?
  • Agile Database Design

These topics are the sorts of things that you would find at many of the big conferences around the country. In this case though, they were being given by people who were part of the company, had a shared business domain, and knew each other. That’s a powerful synthesis.


Two months later and we continue to have follow up meetings where we update each other on our progress on things we started at our first open space. It all adds up to about a handful of pet projects that we are all involved in to some small degree or another.


Getting from “Us and Them” to “You and Me”

August 19, 2011

I’ve been reading about category-based models of group contact in a paper by Gaertner and Dovidio (Reducing Intergroup Conflict: From Superordinate Goals to Decategorization, Recategorization, and Mutual Differentiation). It’s good stuff if you are interested in strategies for breaking down the barriers between silos. As they lay out in the title, there are three principle models for resolving group conflict:

  • decategorization
  • recategorization
  • mutual differentiation

Decategorization involves getting people in groups focused on group membership and their common attributes as members of a group, to move their focus someplace else. It could be that they pay more attention to their own individual needs, or perhaps they focus on a different set of attributes that cuts across the group they are a member of and the “other” group. For instance, if I’m in a political rally (Democrats and Republicans, whatever…) and someone makes an appeal to me to, “Ask not what my country can do for me, but for what I can do for my country.” The emphasis of that speech focuses on my own contribution as an individual. With that change in focus, perhaps I think of myself along the lines of an individual with something to contribute and perhaps less as a member of a group with a specific agenda.

Another example of decategorization might be to start with a pair of opposed groups (Scrum Masters, and PMPs?) and ask them to identify things they have in common. Find out how many in the group are sailors. Ask them to share their sailing stories. Create bonds across a dimension that is orthogonal to the dimension of conflict between the two groups. If it’s a political conflict, find out if there are folks who love golf, or movies, or baseball – anything the groups have in common.

According to Gaertner and Dovidio, to insure that decategorization takes place, there are a few prerequisites:

  • Equal status between the groups
  • Some level of cooperative intergroup interaction
  • Opportunities for “self revealing personal acquaintance”

So it’s probably reasonable to assume that decategorization as it is outlined here won’t work well for entrenched groups in severe conflict. I guess that means I can’t use it with my relatives…

So what about recategorization? Recategorization is similar to decategorization in that we are once again going to appeal to people to find cross cutting similarities in their group memberships. However unlike decategorization, which tends to focus on the small things we may share in common, recategorization focuses on higher order group membership. If we are members of different departments in conflict (oh, say Dev and Ops) then we can appeal to the fact that we all work for the same company. We all share the same customers, and so on. To quote Gaertner and Dovidio,

“…the idea [is] that a person’s potential in-groups can vary hierarchically in inclusiveness (e.g. from one’s family to one’s neighborhood, to one’s city, to one’s nation, to all of humankind)”

-p. 102

So what if neither decategorization or recategorization ring your particular bell? Fortunately we have one more categorization tool at our disposal and that is mutual differentiation. The idea with mutual differentiation is that rather than trying to reduce the differences between two groups, we instead emphasize their differences and their cooperative interdependence. Rather than de-emphasize differences, we celebrate them. We talk with honesty and integrity about the strengths of the two groups and we also make sure that we are keeping a focus on the fact that they groups still need each other. It sort of feels like an appreciative inquiry approach for working with inter group conflict.

So there you have it: three models for managing group conflict. I’d recommend the Gaertner and Dovidio paper highly, there are lots of good ideas in it. They actually go further in the paper and suggest that not only are these three models useful on their own, but you can also combine them and use them in sequence! Perhaps more on that later…

Social Mobility vs. Social Change

August 16, 2011

In my further research into the nature of organizational silos I’ve been reading some interesting academic studies on intergroup conflict (Thank you Julian Simpson!) and I came across description of two different core belief systems about how we relate as individuals to the groups we belong to. The two belief systems are called “social mobility” and “social change” (from Henri Tajfel, Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict). Like much academic literature the ideas are good, but the writing is downright awful!

Basically, the theories work like this: if you believe in “social mobility”, then you are the kind of person who believes that social status is dynamic and that through discipline, dedication, and good old-fashioned hard work, you can change your status within a given hierarchy. You believe that you can leave your current social group and join a higher status group. This belief system is described by Tajfel as being very much the American ideal of success. It’s very oriented to the success of the individual and not the group. In fact, the group gets left behind.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to the theory of “social change”, then you tend to believe that social groups are quite fixed and one can’t leave or dissociate oneself from the group you are a part of. Tajfel ascribes this belief system to those who are in highly stratified, “underprivileged or stigmatized groups.” Think of the unemployed, caste systems and other such examples. The theory is that people in this fixed hierarchy tend to behave more as groups than as individuals when confronted with intergroup conflict.

Tajfel then goes on to argue that it is harder for those who subscribe to the stratified “social change” model to deal with intergroup conflict – simply because they have no way out. They are trapped. They have no escape, no safety valve to allow for the creative reorganization of the group dynamic. The folks who subscribe to the “social mobility” model are less likely to be threatened by intergroup conflict, because they can always leave, reorganize, or otherwise change their situation.

So, what does this theory of “social mobility” vs. “social change” tell us about silos? I think it suggests a few interesting things to look out for:

  1. Are there differences in the status of the two silos? Are people more highly paid in one silo than the other? Are they more educated in one silo than the other? Or are they similar?
  2. Are the silos cross cultural? Do those in one silo deal with social strata that do not exist at all for the other silo?

Understanding the answers to these questions can help you to potentially recognize the mindset of the group(s) that you are working with. Their mindset will determine how they approach conflict with another group – what they consider to be possible or impossible.

As a postscript, this all reminds me of Linda Rising’s keynote at Agile2011 where she contrasted the “fixed” and the “flexible” attitudes toward talent. I read echos of that wonderful comparison in the “social mobility” vs. “social change” theories. Do agile teams lean toward one theory over the other?

Leadership Is A Weak Social Force

August 15, 2011

In the “Robbers Cave Experiment” Sherif speculates that focusing on leadership to reconcile the differences between two groups is insufficient. I would even go so far as to characterize it as a “weak” type of social interaction that is not enough to counteract the “strong” social dynamics at play when there is conflict between two groups.

“Likewise, the alternative that exclusively emphasizes the role of leaders in charge misses the mark, because the effectiveness of leaders, even though weighty, is not unlimited. Leaders are not immune to influences coming from the rank and file, once a group trend gets rolling, even though initially the leaders might have been largely responsible for starting the trend.”

(Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, The Robbers Cave Experiment, 1988 p.151)

Simply put, exhortations by leaders to “get along” or to aspire to some higher social imperative like “cooperation” just can’t compete with the hatreds and biases (both I would argue are “strong” forces) that arise from inter group conflict.

This implies that if we are going to resolve a conflict between two groups, reconciling the leaders of the two groups with each other is not sufficient to resolve the conflict. This presumes that there is already a significant level of conflict. There has to be something more than just leadership: in Sherif’s case he recommends the creation of multiple overlapping superordinate goals.

In fact, the Robber’s Cave Experiment flips the whole equation on its head and implies, if not outright asks, the reverse question: can we reconcile two groups if the leaders of those groups do not cooperate with each other at all? Is it enough to simply put the superordinate goals in place without obtaining the cooperation of the team leadership? This is what Sherif is actually able to successfully accomplish in his experiment (which makes it all the more astonishing in my opinion).

All of this poses interesting questions about the role of leadership in reconciling inter group conflict. Can leaders actually control the tiger they hold by the tail? Sherif suggests they can’t. Keep that in mind the next time you are dealing with organizational silos. Don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking that if the leadership could just get along, that the situation would resolve itself. It very likely would not. Once two groups really polarize – when they really start to hate each other, then leadership isn’t enough. Just look at our recent debt ceiling fiasco in congress.

I rest my case.