I’m Helping!

Super_Grover_flying_high

I used to race with a really experienced crew on a J120 (a flippin’ nice sailboat). We were all very hardcore about our racing. Many on the crew had been racing sailboats since their childhood. These guys were good – really good. We pushed each other hard and we expected a lot of ourselves and each other when we were out on the race course. So there was plenty of pressure.

I came to sailing relatively late in life compared to some, so I was very self-conscious. I didn’t want to make mistakes. In sailboat racing, there are a million little mistakes you can make that will slow the boat down. However, since it’s a team sport, you can cover for each other too. Not only are you trying to perform well yourself, ideally you are trying to help your teammates perform well too (at least on the successful teams). In sailboat racing you are always trying to anticipate what needs to happen next: clear the deck of loose sheets, make sure the spinnaker is prepped for the next rounding, re-run fouled lines, and Lord knows what other details. I always feel a bit like a bobble head doll when I’m racing – always trying to look in every direction at once.

I remember there was one guy on the boat who was really talented. He’d been sailing since he was in diapers. Things just seemed to come naturally for him. He was always where the help was needed most. He was easygoing and relaxed, learning was easy around him. But even he made mistakes from time to time – just like the rest of us. He’d pull the wrong string, blow the wrong halyard, grab the wrong winch. Whenever he screwed up he would yell,

“I’m helping!”

He would do it in an uncanny imitation of the Sesame Street muppet Grover. Super Grover to the rescue! We’d round a mark on the course and he would miss grabbing a sheet (in all the chaos and madness that we call making a left hand turn in sailing…).

“I’m helping!”

Usually everyone on the boat would bust up at this point. It broke up the tension we all felt when we failed a maneuver. It got us past the “Oh shit!” moment and allowed us to shrug it off and keep focused on our goal. I’ve been on other boats where someone made a mistake that cost the team on the race course without the help of ‘Grover’. Generally, on those boats we experienced something that felt like blame and recrimination. Perhaps we were less experienced, less able to forgive each other our mistakes, less able to cover for each other. Less able to allow for normal human nature to express itself. The problem was, we would struggle to recover our equilibrium for far too long after the event occurred.

A couple years later I was on another boat in a long distance race. It was early evening and the sun was setting over the Olympics on Puget Sound. As is often the case at that time of the evening, the wind died and we were left trying to race in the barest breath of wind. The water was flat and the sunlight was turning a deep shade of orange as it hit the mountains and reflected off the flat water around us. In fickle conditions like this, even the smallest mistake can cost you the race. As we all tacked into the shore to get relief from the current, I watched a nearby boat fail to release a sheet and blow the tack. They came to a stop and as we drifted past I heard,

“I’m helping!”

In the unmistakeable voice of Super Grover.

I remember feeling two things at the time:

  1. Damn, that’s funny
  2. We’re going to get our asses handed to us

Frankly I wish I saw more of Super Grover in the Agile software development community. All too often I see teams that are under tremendous pressure to deliver (is there any other kind?). When someone makes a mistake, it can all too easily turn into a situation where blame and recrimination slow the team down. There is no one there to help them shrug the mistake off. Someone with experience and the respect of the team. Someone who can look at his/her own mistakes and laugh,

“I’m helping!”

Sometimes I think that a team needs someone who can see that even though their efforts were well intended, even skilled – they were mistaken.  It is easier when someone you respect and admire can completely blow it and laugh about it. Suddenly the job doesn’t seem quite so serious. The task doesn’t seem quite so critical and we allow ourselves to get back to doing what we really enjoy.

Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Maybe this kind of thing doesn’t really apply to software teams. Maybe there is a better explanation for this kind of behavior. If so, that’s OK,

“I’m helping!”

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