We Need a Map

February 12, 2017

map

“I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it.”

-Steven Wright

I happened to be in a cabin one evening after a long day of hunting. The wood stove was blazing and we were all chilling after dinner. The guides were off to one side hanging out together sharing their experiences from the day. It was fun to watch them as they described where they had been and what they had seen. The dialog would go something like this:

“We were down trail X off of the old logging road Y near the fork in the road and we didn’t see anything”
“You mean down past road Z near the bridge, right?”
“No, no, no. We were down logging road Y.”

Around and around they went.

At this point in the conversation they usually resort to hand gestures to further supplement the conversation. This goes on for a while and pretty soon it’s hard to tell whether you are looking at guides trying to tell each other where they were, or perhaps you are looking at a pair of fighter pilots describing their latest dogfight. There are hands waving wildly in the air. It’s Top Gun in the hunting cabin. Voices are raised, and expressions are animated.

And still they can’t seem to simply tell each other where they were. I’m watching all of this and I’m thinking, “These guys need a map.”

I’d laugh, but I see it all the time in software teams. If I’m honest, I catch myself doing it all the time. It seems that even with all the software that we have today, visualizing what we do and sharing it with each other is still a significant problem for us. How often do you find teams working together and trying to describe something – hands waving in the air and all. I guess we’re all future fighter pilots.

Like I said, I think sometimes what we really need is a map. I challenge you to go take a look at the walls in a second grade classroom. You’ll see nothing but maps. Maps of the US. Maps of the parts of a sentence. Maps of numbers. Everywhere there are maps of the knowledge that second graders consider important. What you see on those walls is the cartography of the eight year old mind.

Now go back to your office and look at the walls. What do you see? I’m betting that the walls are completely bare. Maybe you have some of those crappy motivational posters. If you are really lucky there is a map to the fire escape. There are no maps in the office of the typical knowledge worker. Why is that?

All too often we are like the guides in the cabin. We’re struggling to communicate simple concepts with each other – playing Top Gun. Maybe it’s time for a map.


How Does That Feel?

November 7, 2016

sailing

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
-Bertha Calloway

I was out racing for the first time in a long time this weekend. I was rusty and sailing on a boat that I was unfamiliar with. Furthermore, I didn’t know anyone on the crew. So I started doing what I like to see others do when racing: I just started talking about what I was seeing happening around me.

“Do you see that boat over there?”

“Hey, look, there’s a puff of wind over there.”

“It looks like the breeze might be filling in from over there.”

I kept that little monologue up, not constantly, but on a fairly regular basis. Just letting others know what I think I’m seeing. At some point during the race, one of the guys looks at me and says, “Tom, I hear you talking about pressure over here, and puffs over there, and I’m not really sure what you are talking about. How do you know there’s really wind over there?”

That’s a great question. And there are a couple of answers. The first answer is that I simply don’t know. I’m really just guessing. It’s the wind that we are talking about after all, and I have no more special insight than the next guy when it comes to divining the nature of the winds. However, I do have a few years of experience, and it turns out that more often than not I tend to get it right. That’s because I’m looking for certain signs on the water that indicate what might be the presence of wind. Something like a telltale pattern of ripples on the surface can indicate a small downdraft…or it could indicate a small school of fish ruffling the water. Now I usually know the difference, but I could be wrong. Trust me, it happens all the time. But I don’t worry about that when I’m racing. I think there is value in sharing all observations about the race course that help to give my team a tactical advantage.

People tend to assume that the person driving the boat, usually a very experienced and capable individual, knows what is best and has a good grip on the situation on the water. Nothing could be further from the truth. It turns out that when you are the skipper, you often have your head stuck in the boat. It’s not the skipper’s fault – it comes with the job. You are trying to steer to the telltales on the sails. You are reacting to pressure on the tiller. You are worried about the next mark rounding. But you can’t look at everything at once. That’s where a crew that can be feeding you that information is very valuable. It also helps if they can be sharing the information with each other. After all, they are no more likely to get it right than anyone else. That’s OK if there are more than one set of eyes looking at the issue. So if I think I see a puff and I call it out, another team member may disagree and point out the school of fish just beneath the surface of the water that I missed. The dialog is self correcting. It’s a constant patter of conversation where we share our impressions, some false, some true, that help us to confirm or deny our race strategy.

The other thing that I frequently do is ask questions like, “how does that feel?” Again, I have lots of experience sailing, but I’ve never sailed on this boat before. So I make changes to the sail trim and then I ask, “Did that help?” Maybe it does, or maybe not.

So not only am I talking about the physical nature of the race course, but I’m also checking in with my crew mates. Now I don’t do this out of any overabundance of concern about their well being. It’s much more practical than that. My actions are impacting their performance. Now maybe they will tell me how they are impacted or maybe they won’t. In fact, it’s often the case that people won’t tell you unless you ask. So I ask a lot. I change the sail trim and I check back with the skipper, “How’s does that feel now? Better? Worse?” I check with the guy trimming the main, “How about you?” Sometimes the answer is just a shrug. That’s fine, that’s good feedback too.

I’ve noticed a curious thing that seems to happen. As you model this behavior, others start to pick it up and do it too. At the start of the race, maybe I’m the only guy who’s talking. Two hours later as we cross the finish line, people are calling out puffs and asking for feedback from each other. People seem to pick up on it pretty quick if it’s useful. And if not, well, then maybe you don’t get invited back. Like I said, I don’t always get it right.

I wonder if the same sort of communication is useful for our development teams? What sort of things should we be talking about? What kind of observations are useful? Where are the ripples on the water for a software development team? I know they are racing – that much is for sure. Is the boss’s door closed? Is Joe late getting into the office? Does that meeting have an agenda? I don’t know, I’m guessing that some of that is water cooler conversation that probably isn’t worth a whole lot. On the other hand, what if I come into the office and mention that one of our biggest competitors just made a key acquisition. That’s going to send a few ripples through the water. What if there is an issue in production? More ripples. Maybe even some waves.

So there may indeed be some utility in sharing your observations about the business, the technology, the current state of the production system. It’s all wind on the water. It’s tactical information that may or may not be useful. But you are definitely better off talking about it.

So What about asking questions? You know like, “How does that feel?” Boy, there’s a question that software guys just absolutely love to get asked. How often are we checking in to get feedback on how our actions have affected those around us. Once a sprint? Of course I can’t wait that long in sailing, because the race is long over by then. The feedback would hardly even be relevant if I waited that long. In order for us to fine tune our performance and work together as a team, we need to be constantly engaging in a dialog that tests our assumptions about the value of the changes we are making. Did that help? How does that feel? It’s a fuzzy sort of qualitative conversation that I’m sure makes some folks uncomfortable. But maybe that’s because we’re using it wrong.

You see, when I ask the helmsman how a change feels, he knows what I’m asking about. He knows I don’t give a damn about his emotional state. I want to know if the boat just got easier to steer. Did the boat speed up? Did it slow down? Perhaps the same should apply to software teams. We need to make sure that we understand how the conversation is intended. When I ask how things feel, it’s not necessarily the touchy feely question you might think. Rather, I might really be interested in how fast you think you are going.

So, how does that feel?


Lost

October 23, 2016

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Last week I was out on a hunt deep in the Canadian Rockies. It was remote – really remote. There was no cell service, no wi-fi, no cable TV, no Facebook. On this hunt, I was using the services of a guide. He was a guy in his early twenties – much younger than me. Despite his age, he was very accomplished and seemed to know the area pretty well. We had the usual agreement that you typically make with hunting guides – I pay you in advance for a great hunt, and the assumption is you bag the game you are after, or at least greatly increase the likelyhood of that happening by working with a guide. Implicit in that agreement is that there are no guarantees. Hunting is an unpredictable business (at least the good hunts are) and there is no way to know if you will get your quarry or not. These things aren’t cheap though, so there is a lot of money on the line.

So there is some very real pressure to perform in a situation like this. Expectations are quite high. We were three days into the hunt with no luck yet. That’s not a long time by any means, but the game wasn’t dropping in our lap either. We weren’t seeing much, and the doubts were starting to creep in.

So we set off early in the morning on day four, driving off into the darkness. We pulled over on a nondescript logging road and I followed my guide into the bush. We followed a trail for a while that meandered through meadows and around beaver ponds. We wove in and out of dense thickets of alder and spruce, pausing every once and a while to listen to the wildlife awakening around us. At some point my guide pointed off the trail and said that we should go check out a lake deep in the brush off to one side. I shrugged and followed. After all, he’s the guide. That’s what I was paying him to do. So into the thickets we went.

As we scrambled through the brush, climbing over logs and stumbling through willow thickets, I tried to focus on just keeping up. This young guide was having no difficulty at all moving through these obstacles with relative grace. Meanwhile, this particular middle aged guy seemed to be falling down as often as he was standing back up. I finally caught up with my guide, albeit wheezing mightily.

As we paused and looked around I realized that I had been so intently focused on keeping up with the guide that I had completely lost track of where I was. He had lead me on a merry little journey and I was now totally turned around and completely dependent on him. No problem, that’s why I hired a guide in the first place. He looked around, scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot, and we proceeded onward. Another round of scrambling, more spills and recoveries and 20 minutes later we stop again.

Still no lake.

Huh. This lake was proving to be elusive. With an abashed grin my guide looked at me and said, “We might be a little bit turned around.”

I nodded and told him I certainly couldn’t tell where we were. The sky was a perfectly even overcast grey that eliminated any clue regarding the direction the sun might be in. The nearby mountains, impressive as they were, were actually blocked from view by the thick press of small trees that surrounded us on all sides. So there were actually no major landmarks available to work from. Every direction offered the same information: more trees. My guide headed off again, and I followed.

Now I was starting to wonder, just what does, “We might be a little turned around” really mean? Is my guide lost? He doesn’t look lost. He seems like he knows what he’s doing. What about me? What if he is lost? Can I be of any help? After all, I’m a middle aged hunter who has spent more than a little time in the woods. I’ve been lost before. I know a practical thing or two about survival. I’ve watched the discovery channel. I’m no Bear Grylls, but I should be able to help out, right? So now I’m starting to pay attention to my surroundings. Now I’m starting to ask myself questions like: would I go this direction or is there a better route? Why are we taking this approach? What strategy should we be using to get oriented again.

We reach a clearing and my guide pauses once more. He looks at me with that grin again and says rather apologetically, “I got us completely turned around. I don’t know where the trail is. Or the lake.”

Whoops.

Well there it was. My guide had gotten us lost. My reply, “Yes, I’m afraid I’m lost too. I have no idea which direction the trail is in.” My guide checked in with me – asking if I had been lost in the woods before. I had been, so I wasn’t too freaked out. My mind was racing, I was definitely fully engaged now, but I was not too concerned. If anything I was worried that our little side hike was about to become a big adventure if we couldn’t find our way back to that that trail again.

I found myself in what I think of as “information gathering mode” at this point. What landmarks do I have? Well, we were standing in this little clearing. That’s a landmark, I could establish ordinal directions from the clearing (front, behind, left, right) and I could see a little rise nearby. That’s really all we could see. All other landmarks or clues regarding direction were completely absent. So the first thing that we did was go over and climb the small rise to see if we could see anything from the top.

Nope.

More trees. So we back tracked in the direction that we had entered the meadow from. We encountered another small open spot in the trees. Now we had a little bit of a map in our heads with the meadow as our basis point. We continued to expand outward from the meadow, and soon, much to our mutual relief, we stumbled upon our original trail that we had begun from. Phew!

As we strolled back to the car I couldn’t help but reflect on the similarity of this experience with some of my recent consulting engagements. In many, hopefully obvious, ways a professional guide is very much like a paid coach or consultant. You have contracted with him to achieve a certain objective: transform your development organization, reach a performance goal, hit a financial target, or shoot a moose. It’s usually something pretty specific. It’s something that you might be able to do on your own, but hopefully by hiring the guide you reduce the risk of failure and bring some assurance of success. That’s what you hire them for. They don’t come with a crystal ball, so they can’t guarantee you success (transformations can fail for many good reasons, moose are fickle creatures that may or may not appear), but nevertheless, you hired them on the explicit premise that indeed they can deliver – make no mistake about that. In fact there is usually significant amounts of money on the line – enough money that you feel some urgency to see success, and the guide feels some urgency to deliver. So the contract we take is very similar.

[Lesson: make sure you know exactly what you are being paid to hunt (protip: “being agile” ain’t it)]

The curious thing for me was the experience from the client point of view. I realized that I gave up any of my own competence and ownership for the outcome to the guide the minute he started to do his job. I was a modestly experienced hunter and outdoorsman, and yet as soon as I hired a guide, I stopped paying attention to the landmarks around me and just started following in the footsteps of the guide in front of me. I’ve experienced this phenomena from the reverse perspective as a consultant in the boardroom too. I’ve had clients look at me and say (almost verbatim), “Tom, you’re the expert. You’ve done this many times before. How should we do X?” These are very capable and quite experienced managers who are putting aside their own expertise and asking for mine. Well, perhaps not putting aside their own experience, but let me put it like this: these are smart, experienced people who are treating me as if I have more experience than they do. Perhaps I do. Maybe I don’t. My guide on that hunt was literally half my age. Yet I was expecting him to lead me on a hunt and achieve a better outcome than someone with twice his age and experience. Admittedly, I didn’t have his experience in the local area, but nevertheless, I was deferring years of expertise to a guide who may or may not have had years of experience in this particular area. In fact, for all I know, I could have been his first client.

[Lesson: your guide may not know more than you do – don’t give up your expertise and competence and follow in their footsteps blindly. As the client, it’s important to keep your wits about you so that you can help assure a successful outcome.]

I’ve found that one of the harder things to do when getting lost is admitting that you are really lost. I remember clearly that feeling of denial as I was following my guide. “Really? We’re lost? Seriously? Are you kidding me? I left my compass in the car? AAaargh!” It’s hard for the client to admit they are lost to begin with, because it’s a threat to their perceived competence – you feel stupid and nobody likes that.

And what about the guide? When you are the guide, admitting that you are lost is crazy hard. Getting lost is probably the one thing the customer is paying you NOT to do. So there is a lot of pressure on a guide to never admit they are lost. But here’s the thing, as a guide you ARE being paid to find something. When the going gets tough you take chances. You look in obscure corners. You go places you haven’t gone before. You experiment. You take risks. You might get a little lost.

So I expect that of my guide. If we are not getting results, I want them to push the envelope a bit. I think many of us do. And with that comes some risk of getting lost. Similarly, organizational transformation can be very disorienting too. As a consultant, it’s terribly easy to get lost in the bewildering forest of people, politics, and technology that you typically find in any given organization of even modest complexity. Let’s face it: there are days when I’m lucky if I can find the restroom.

So I really appreciated the guides honesty with me when he realized that he was lost. That only increased my trust in his ability. As a result, I didn’t get frustrated or upset. I just wanted to get back on track as quickly as possible.

[Lesson: if your guide admits he is lost, it’s a positive reflection of character. Help them get back on track so that you can both be successful again quickly]

The other thing that I noticed was that my guide was pacing himself according to my own abilities. This kid was a veritable mountain goat. He was easily capable of climbing a ridge covered in dense thickets and downed logs without even breaking a sweat. Following him, I felt like I was following an obstacle course designed for American Ninja. He’d be there at the top of the ridge, waiting patiently every time. He was capable of doing much more, but he paced himself according to my own capabilities.

Given his youth and individual capability, he might actually have been able to deliver on the hunt much faster on his own. But when he’s bringing along some middle-aged desk jockey, things are just going to have to go at a slower pace. That’s what a good guide does – he moves at the client’s pace. Maybe he urges them on a bit, but there is a limit. The client may even have unreasonable expectations. For instance, I might like to finish the hunt in a single day, but I’m probably not capable of the physical demands necessary to do that.

In a similar fashion, as a consultant there have been some clients I’ve had who’ve expressed a desire to speed up their transformation. That’s fine unless I’m looking at an organization that is the equivalent of a 80 year old: with slow, brittle processes, a staff resistant to change, riddled with dysfunction. If you try and get them to change too quickly, you risk an organizational heart attack. So you pace things accordingly, because you want them a little winded, not wiped out and gasping for air.

[Lesson: a good guide paces themselves according to the clients capabilities. That implies that the abilities of the client – not the guide, play a large role, perhaps the most important one, in the speed of achieving the objective. A good guide recognizes those limitations and sets expectations accordingly.]

All things considered, it all ended up working out very well. Experiences like this always leave me with a great deal of respect for guides, whether they work in the woods or the silicon jungle. They work extraordinarily hard to try and deliver success for their clients. This guide was putting in nearly 16 hour days with work that was both physically and intellectually demanding. That’s got to be comparable to the amount of time your average millennial in silicon valley puts in behind a desk. OK, I take that back. Maybe it’s not comparable – this guy was working a LOT harder than that. And he had to keep a geek like me entertained. I was really impressed at the kind of dedication he had to the work he was doing. You really have to love it to work that hard. The hunt was a success, and afterward I left feeling like I had a really great guide who had taught me a valuable lesson about being a much better guide for my clients.


Going Viral

August 15, 2016

thermometer-temperature-fever-flu-large

“An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.” -James Lovelock

I was talking with a friend the other day about that magical time you experience when you first start with a company. You know, it’s that honeymoon period where you feel like everything you do is effective. People are nice to you, things are easy, the company feels like someplace you can make a difference. You are on top of the world. Things just work.

Of course it doesn’t last. After a while, for some reason it gets harder and harder to create change – to do something new. People don’t think those ideas sound all that novel anymore. Getting things done starts to feel slow and laborious. Soon you are just another one of the gang. Part of the status quo.

If you are a consultant, perhaps it’s time to declare victory and move on. After all, the average consulting contract isn’t that long. Perhaps only 6 months. You introduce some change and then leave before things get too tough. That’s a good thing too, because before long, they’re on to you.

So what is happening here? I have a theory. It’s a little whacky, but hear me out: I think that a workplace is a living system and that when a new person joins it’s kind of like introducing a virus. The system, the corporate entity, doesn’t know how to handle it. It doesn’t recognize it. It doesn’t know how to react. So the virus…er…person, simply by their very existence, provokes a reaction in the system. Of course living systems adapt. Slowly sometimes, but they do adapt. After six months or so, you are no longer an unknown virus. The antibodies in the system have learned to react to your novel behavior. You are no longer novel to the system. You are part of the system. That is good and bad. It’s not all bad being part of the system. But you may find that its now really hard to get the same level of response to ideas for change. After all, they’ve heard it before. You are now a known quantity.

So what do you do? Move on? What if you aren’t a consultant? Well we know the system reacts to a novel inputs. You are no longer novel, so…you have to make yourself into something novel if you expect to create a similar impact to when you first joined. You must make yourself into something new and different that the system doesn’t expect.

You must change.

If you want to change the system you need to change yourself. Otherwise the system will recognize you and will fail to react. You need to change your behavior, so that the system has to adapt to your new behavior. You don’t ask others to change. You change yourself and the system will change to adapt to you.

Maybe its time to give the organization a virus.


Open Agile Management 2016

August 12, 2016

Axis

This September 16th we are going to hold a brand new conference in Seattle. It’s a conference dedicated to Agile Management. It’s for managers, executives, coaches, consultants and leaders (lots of folks!) who use agile practices and techniques to help organizations find a better way of working. If you read this blog, that’s probably you. This conference is intended to create a place to have conversations with leading agile practitioners, share stories, and explore new ideas.

The Vision

When you arrive, the first thing that strikes you is the sense of history in the building. The next thing that stands out is the circle of chairs. They’re right in the middle of the space and they seem to draw you in.

People start to filter in, some grabbing a cup of coffee and a pastry. Some chatting and exploring the space. Soon, everyone gathers at the chairs and grabs a seat. Things get kicked off with a short keynote from Ray Arell. It’s really just a story. A fireside chat. Sharing an experience – sharing the theme for the day.

Shortly afterward, the open space bulletin board opens and people add their topics. The marketplace opens and the conference starts in earnest.

The marketplace wall is the focal point for a series of conversations. It starts off in the morning being completely blank. They started off with a set of proposed ideas – each idea written on a colored thought bubble. The thought bubbles were taped to the wall. Throughout the day, people connect the bubbles using yarn. Or they add new bubbles. Runners keep the wall up to date, moving back and forth from ongoing conversations.

At the end of the day there is a synthesis. The participants use a single sheet of flip chart paper to summarize their favorite ideas. Working groups form, emails are shared, agendas proposed, and meeting times set.

In the evening, there is a closing, a retrospective, and appetizers and drinks.

That’s not a bad vision, but all of that just captures the superficial stuff. The stuff that we can control. The rest? Well, that’s the “open” part of open space. I don’t know what people will bring. What I do know is it works. I never fail to be surprised.

Event Overview

When is it?

Friday September 16th, 2016 8:30 AM to 7:00 PM

Where is it?

AXIS Pioneer Square, Seattle

Where Can I Find Out More?

The Open Agile Management Website

 


Agile2016 is Coming!

July 9, 2016

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“This is where the Agile tribes meet.”

Agile2016 is swiftly approaching. I’ll be there in Atlanta doing a couple of talks this year. If you are going to be there you should definitely come check them out:

The Self-experimentation workshop is something that I originally developed a few years ago for XP2013. It is very hands-on, each attendee contributing their own experience to the workshop. To date it has been very popular. Some attendees have described it as one of the most invigorating talks they have ever attended. That’s pretty high praise – it’s probably my all-time favorite workshop.

If you are interested in getting a bit of a sneak preview of what this self experimentation stuff is all about, you can check out the experiments that I have run on the onestandardman blog. There is also background material here and here.

On the impediments front, there is a lot of material that you will find right here in this blog. For example there is this, and this and this. And then of course there is The Little Book of Impediments. There will be copies of the book at the bookstore for purchase at the conference. Catch me and I’ll be happy to sign one.

There will also be an Agile Management Conference meetup that will be held in the Open Jam area (time & date at the conference is TBD – check the Open Jam Board) so please join us for that if you are interested.


Testing the Agile MBA

March 27, 2016

man-person-hand-lens

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

-Zora Neale Hurston

So as I thought about my earlier post on the idea of an Agile MBA, I realized that there is a whole lot that goes into putting together something like that. So before heading down that path, a guy might be well advised to check and see if there is any real interest in the idea before wasting a lot of energy on pursuing it further. So with that thought in mind, I created openagilemba.com.

The idea is simple, taken from the lean startup world. If you have an idea, put it out there and test whether or not there is a market for it. So I’m doing exactly that. Go check it out. I named it the “Open” Agile MBA because I’m not trying to sell anyone anything. What I have in mind is more of an open source MBA model. If we can assemble the resources, then anyone can use them. That’s kind of an exciting idea. It’s not new, there’s a NoPay MBA out there that is really cool and does something similar for a standard MBA.

So I’m starting with small, agile steps. Simply put up a web page and ask people if they are interested. If I get a few responses (feedback!), then I pursue it further, if it’s just crickets, then perhaps I tweak the idea and try again. I can’t wait to find out!