Be Vewy, Vewy, Quiet…

December 10, 2019

As a young man my father would take me deer hunting from time to time. Both of us tend to be walkers. We cover a lot of ground when we are hunting. It means walking for miles and miles every day in hopes of catching a glimpse of a deer. Usually it’s a glimpse of the animal’s hind end as it was running away. The funny thing is, my dad used to share an observation, “Some of the best hunters I ever met would find a stump, sit down next to it, and take a nap.”

To an energetic young man like myself, while I could understand the point of this observation intellectually, it did nothing to dissuade me from walking every hill, valley and river in a 10 mile radius. Call it a restless personality, or perhaps a compelling drive, but regardless I was out there walking.

Of course as I traipsed along, gun on one shoulder, I couldn’t help but notice that I made quite a racket as I crashed through the brush. It’s hard to be sneaky when you are wearing a big fat pair of vibram-soled hiking boots. Add to that the many layers of clothing to protect from the winter weather, and I loudly swished my way through forest like an industrial street sweeper.

In hindsight, it was no wonder that as I moved through the forest, everything around me would cry out in alarm and go silent. I really should have been wearing a sandwich board that read, “Predator” as I blundered haplessly through the undergrowth. It would have been honest, if not helping me any.

So it should come as no surprise at this point in the story if I reveal that I didn’t see deer very often while on these long hikes. I was telegraphing my presence five miles out, so any deer that might have been around were long gone by the time that I got there. I was scaring them off a long time before I ever had a chance to see them.

To put it in the terms of my friend Willem Larsen, my zone of disruption was much larger than my zone of perception. As I stumbled, tripped, crunched and sometimes stank my way across the outdoor landscape I was creating a zone of disruption that was traveling around me in a bubble. The diameter of that bubble was probably the distance that a typical sound would carry in the woods – perhaps a couple hundred yards or more. Unfortunately, my zone of perception is quite a bit smaller. In the woods, and depending on the cover, I’m likely to only be able to see things that are 25 to 50 yards away – on a good day. And let’s forget about other perceptions like hearing, because I’m already making such a racket myself that I can’t hear a damn thing.

Now I’m making fun of myself a little bit. But try tiptoeing through that fall pile of leaves in the front yard and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. It’s nearly impossible to do quietly – at least for most of us. So there is some real wisdom in that idea of sitting down next to a stump for a little snooze.

Now if you spend some time outdoors violating the personal space of animals like I do, then you might begin to see some patterns. There is the solo town crier who announces your appearance on the scene (Usually a Blue Jay in my case – they hate me). There might be a whole family of quail that starts to chatter off to one side in a semi-circle, peering at me like gophers from the brush. I think I’ve seen them all. They’ve certainly seen me – that much is for certain.

It may surprise you to learn that I’ve seen many of the same patterns in the office as a consultant. When I show up at the office for the first time, the flock often starts tweeting. As the new guy, the agile consultant, I initially cast quite a large zone of disruption. I also tend to walk a lot when consulting – meeting new people and getting the lay of the land. I see many of the predatory patterns that you might find in the wild, also present in the corporate office.

Just watch what happens when an executive travels through the cubicle farm. Often there is a noticeable tunnel of silence that surrounds them as they move through the cubes. The manager is the predator, and the subordinates are the prey – trying to avoid notice.

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone you are talking to suddenly goes silent and looks over your shoulder in alarm? Unfortunately I have (I really should have shut up). That’s the collective group reacting to the zone of disruption that is cast by a significant stakeholder. The CEO is in the building. The alerts have been raised. Cover up that ESPN hi-light reel, quick!

If I were just mocking executives and managers, this would be fun, but the implications are broader than that. Far broader. One of the founding principles of the lean movement has been to “Go to the Gemba” or “Go and See.” All too often managers end up being relatively isolated in their offices and lose sight of the actual work going on the shop floor (where ever that may be). The cure for that problem is to get them out of their offices and take them to see the action on the shop floor. The problem of course is that pesky zone of disruption.

You see, we would like to observe the worker in their native environment as if we weren’t there. We are looking for an honest view of how the work is going. Unfortunately, as soon as they perceive you, the gig is up and their behavior will change. Call it the zone of disruption, or observation bias, the end result is the same – your presence distorts the work being done.

The key is to find constructive ways for us to extend the zone of our perception beyond the zone of our disturbance. This is where I go back to what my father suggested, “Some of the best hunters I ever met would find a stump and sit down next to it and take a nap.”

I’ve noticed a phenomenon that happens to me when whenever I go on a hunting trip (or anyplace in the wild). When I leave my home in suburbia and adventure out into the wilderness, I have a hard time seeing animals. That’s probably because at least initially, I’m finely attuned to the threats and elements in my environment. In my “city boy” case, I recognize cars, pedestrians, and stop signs quite adeptly. I’m highly tuned to see such things every day. It’s part of surviving in my city environment. So I guess it should come as no surprise that I struggle to see new patterns (animals on a hillside) during my first few days on a trip into the wilderness. The good news is that I adapt very quickly. I’ve noticed by about the third day out, it’s like the animals suddenly pop out of the landscape. They were always there of course, I just needed to adjust my patterns to see them. I don’t really do anything, but my brain adapts in way or another.

This pattern matching that I’m describing is a means of effectively expanding my zone of perception. As I adapt, I can see and hear more. One important conclusion here is that we may have to allow some time to elapse when we go into a new environment. We need to give ourselves the time to begin seeing the new patterns. Once again, my father’s wisdom comes into play. A couple of days sitting next to a stump does remarkable things to improve my perspicacity.

If we take this back to the office, what we find is a similar set of patterns at play. Whenever I come into a new office environment as a consultant I’m often bombarded with unfamiliar acronyms and phrases. Initially, most of them go right over my head. Until I become familiar with the language I’m lost in a sea of unfamiliar terminology. Movement patterns are alien to me because I don’t know where people are coming from or going to. I don’t know the terrain. I’m operating with a set of patterns that don’t fit in my new environment.

So how do I adapt to this new environment. First, as I mentioned before, it takes time. I can’t rush it. I need to learn the acronyms and start to get the “lay of the land.” I also have to focus on fostering a lot of curiosity within myself. What is that word? What did they just say? Did what that person just said make any sense? It takes a strong sense of peripheral awareness to absorb all of these inputs and filter through them. I find it exhausting.

Did I mention naps? Maybe I’m getting old, but I think I’m serious. Worst case, you get a little much needed rest. Best case, they forget you are there and continue with their work. Truly worst case scenario: you wake up with a sharpie mustache painted on your face. The point is, you minimize your zone of disruption so that your zone of perception can extend beyond it. So just sit there and don’t move. Relax, it’s going to take a while. And wait for something to happen. This is how you can see how things really work on the floor.

Show up for your nap a couple of days in a row and you really might start to get a real sense for how things work. This is a rich source of information about how things really work in your organization, and it can serve as the starting point for meaningful improvement based on how things really are. The Japanese have a phrase for it: they call it going to the Gemba.


Building Up and Tearing Down

May 27, 2019

Recently I put on a public Leading SAFe training. This wasn’t your typical training, however. In collaboration with Ron Quartel, we tacked on an extra day to discuss FAST Agile. Now if SAFe is an example of a scaling framework, FAST Agile is perhaps a good example of what you might call a de-scaling framework. FAST uses an open space style of organization to provide only the most bare bones structure and guidance. It’s really quite elegant in its simplicity. 

Ron and I had both been inspired by the ideas of mix-ins – processes and practices that we can mix and match together. So, it was with that in mind that we thought putting on a combined training class would be interesting. First teach SAFe, then turn around and teach a competing framework. Then compare and contrast. Well, as it turns out, the combination was quite brilliant.

As I taught the two days of Leading SAFe training, the class built up the framework from teams, to programs, to solutions, to portfolios. Learning the roles and processes of each. By the end of the second day, I was exhausted but happy (as usual). Then Ron stepped in and proceeded to teach FAST Agile on day 3. In essence, he took everything I had taught them and tore it all down. The focus was on simplicity and self-organization. The class was totally into it – questions flew fast and furious. Everyone was fully engaged. 

The contrast between the two frameworks was stark, and it raised many questions for both Ron and I. You see, I wasn’t there to sell anyone on SAFe. Don’t get me wrong, I like the framework, and I enjoy the training a lot, but I don’t give a damn whether or not you decide to adopt it. What I really care about is that you make an informed decision based on what I hope is the deepest possible understanding of the options. If you understand the values, principles and practices deeply, then you will choose to implement what is best for you and your organization. There is a tremendous amount of nuance and subtlety to the art of organizational change (that’s probably why I like it so much), so I believe that the ability to not only adopt ideas, but also to be critical of them is important. 

The act of building up the framework and subsequently tearing it down again felt like a very powerful learning experience. It went beyond rote learning. Not only do we ask, “Why would you adopt this?” We also ask, “Why wouldn’t you adopt this?” That requires us to understand the ideas from different perspectives. People stayed after class each day debating the ideas for over an hour each evening. That’s when you know you’ve really got them thinking. I’m looking forward to doing it again.


My Personal Andon Cord

April 29, 2019

Have you heard of an Andon Cord? On the assembly line it’s that cord you yank on to stop the entire line when a problem is found. The idea is to stop everything until the problem you encountered is fully understood and fixed. That way we take the time to improve the function of the assembly line so that those sorts of problems never slow us down again. It’s a little example of that “slowing down to go faster” that those crusty old software curmudgeons blather on about.

But who listens to those old cranks anyway?

I was thinking about a recent Product Owner training I was running where I was told that the product owners didn’t actually sit anywhere near the team (that was assuming they had a product owner to begin with, but I digress). It turns out that the product owner for a given team was very likely located in another building or even perhaps another state or country altogether! This kind of colocation issue is fundamental to improving a teams performance. Address it and you will see meaningful improvement quite quickly. Fail to address it and you will be wrestling with the side effects and consequences forever without dealing with the underlying problem. 

So what did I do? Well, this was just the start of a two day training, so I had at least a day and a half more of training that I was expected to deliver. So I tossed that issue on the mountain of other issues that I was uncovering and moved on. Trainers gotta train, kids gotta eat. I raised concerns, told the right people, and moved on. Everyone kept moving.

Now in hindsight, I’m not sure if I should be proud of dismissing something that important. However, I know it happens all the time. But it makes me wonder, is there an issue sufficiently important that I would call the whole class to a stop in order to address it? What would cause me to stop the line as a trainer? Where is my trainer Andon cord?

If a fist fight broke out in class, I’d certainly stop the class. So there’s that. But what else? If someone was crying, I’d stop the class. If I found out someone was being hurt, I’d stop the class. But if I found out they were doing something stupid…I wouldn’t necessarily stop the class. I might pause long enough to mention that I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Maybe I’d hand them a Darwin Award (oh, now there’s an idea…). But stop the class? No.

Let’s look at that example of the product owners in a different location than the team. Colocation of product owners or customers is pretty fundamental. You would stop the line if you found out that the car’s tires are missing. If someone told you,”It’s OK, we keep them in another building.” You would probably be well justified in insisting that the tires get brought in pronto. There’s not much point in leaving silliness like that alone. So I’m asking myself, if the customer has paid me a few thousand dollars for the training, but instead of delivering the training, I stop the training to focus on that one problem…what would happen? Fixing that problem could probably mean a huge return on investment for them. Something far beyond the paltry amount they have spent on the training. It’s food for thought. 

On the other hand, typically these types of organizations are not in a place where they are accepting or tolerant of radical change. Usually few if any folks in the room are actually empowered to do anything to change the situation. Furthermore, even the folks who hired me may not have that power. You have to have a lot of credibility in an organization before you can even start talking about that sort of change. Credibility takes time, and that’s something that most trainers don’t have. You’re in, you do the training, and you’re gone. Poof of smoke. Vanished.

So in the big picture it probably depends on your context. If you are just in for a quick one-time training, then you really don’t have the credibility to stop and attack problems like this. On the other hand, if this is part of a long term engagement, then there is the real possibility of being able to deal with problems like this in real time. To be able to pull your Andon cord and stop the line. What a marvelous thought.


One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

April 15, 2019

I was confronted with a bit of a dilemma the other day. I was working out and reaching the limits of what I could lift. I could tell, because as I prepared for each lift, I was a little bit scared. I didn’t really know if I could do it or not. Then I would perform the lift, and barely, just barely, make it. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it. Afterward, as I lay on the floor hyperventilating, I had a lot of conflicting thoughts running through my mind. I’ve been working toward a lifting goal for a long time now. I’m getting tantalizingly close. I can’t stop now. I’m not getting any younger. Time is short. If I keep this up I’m going to seriously injure myself. This is really painful. It’s no fun being terrified of the weight. I can’t stop now. I don’t know if I can do it again. Dear God, I hurt.

I don’t want to make too much out of it, but suffice it to say that I was seriously conflicted. I’ve literally invested years in getting my lifts to where they are today. It’s hard to step back with that kind of investment behind me. On the other hand, that’s a lot of investment to waste by injuring myself. So it’s a real dilemma, especially when I feel like I’m so tantalizingly close to my goals. Part of me is screaming, you’re almost there! And the other part is begging, pleading to back off.

Where else do we see this kind of goal oriented struggle? Developing and releasing a product? Getting a promotion? Saving up for something big like a new house? We see it anywhere there is a large investment over time toward a meaningful goal. The danger is that if we over reach, we may lose the opportunity entirely.

In my case, I decided that the prudent thing to do would be to take a few steps back. So I rolled back the weights and the intensity a few notches and started over again. I was back to lifting weights that I had been lifting nearly 3 months earlier. Three months is a lot of time to lose! However, I noticed a few things:

  1. It was so easy! I felt my confidence come roaring back.
  2. I was so much stronger than I had been. Where before it had been a challenge, now it was second nature.
  3. I was performing cleanly and confidently, not scrabbling to survive the experience.
  4. I no longer feared injury.

The road has gotten a little longer, but now each step I take feels more confident and certain. This is where having a coach can make a really big difference. They can act as that voice of reason that will help to steer you through these decision points. They act as a relatively unbiased party that is invested in your success. They need to know the domain really well – I would never take a coach who didn’t know about weightlifting. They need to have an experimental mindset: everybody is different, things that work for one customer won’t work for another. And they need to be able to firmly give constructive advice for change, even when the customer really, really, really, doesn’t want to hear it. Perhaps then most of all.

I don’t have a coach right now (perhaps I should take my own advice). I know that if a coach had told me that I needed to go backward three months in my training, I would have resisted. That would be crazy talk. And yet here I am. I think I now appreciate it a little bit more when I work with managers. I often recommend that they do things that would appear to be backward steps. For example, I might recommend pair programming for their teams. I often get the horrified reaction, “You mean twice the number of people doing half the work?” Uh, yes. That’s a giant step backward. Especially when you feel as though your teams are performing at what may be the best they have ever done. I think I get it now. That’s not an easy sell.

But a good coach knows that a few steps backward can lead to later leaps forward. A good coach is invested in getting you there. A good coach knows you will build confidence and capability, and that has value too. And a good coach won’t back down when they know it will help you reach your goals.

Oh, and if you are looking for a good coach, I’m available.


The Trial of Empathy

March 3, 2019

I’ve been working with some managers lately who struggle with a variety of challenges. Like many folks, when faced with a challenge they tend to dig in their heels rather than seek change. Trying to advocate change to folks in this situation is hard. Nobody wants to hear about creative alternatives. They have big problems to solve and are feeling tremendous pressure. The existing processes are often making their lives even worse. People aren’t collaborating, work is constantly in progress and never done. It really sucks. You’d think that if you walked in the door and offered a viable way to relieve the pain, you’d be treated like a hero.

But that’s just not the case.

It’s much more likely that you will be summarily kicked out of the office. Why is that? There you are with the answer to their problems, why won’t anybody listen? First, they want help. The best way to accomplish that is to dive right in and pick up a shovel. Of course that’s really unpleasant. But they need to understand that you grasp the current state of affairs deeply, and the only way I know of to do that is to ride the dragon with them. It’s terrifying, but you need to earn their trust first. Once you have that, you can begin to show them the alternatives in small ways. You model the behavior that you want to bring. And then you can both evaluate the results – as equals. You both look at what you have done and ask the question, “Is this good enough?” If the answer is yes, then you can bet that they are in.

But there is a catch – You have to join them in the soup. And that is not very much fun. You have to share the burden and experience the same sort of pain that they do. Perhaps this is why I often find myself shying away from these situations. I really don’t want to feel the pain (if I’m honest anyhow). I’m not really interested in feeling that kind of pressure. It sucks and everyone knows it. But sometimes it’s necessary. I see coaches sometimes who are playing the sidelines but not getting into the game. They are content to play a prescriptive role – why? Because getting in the game hurts.

Sometimes that’s why empathy is hard.


Pernicious Escalation

February 21, 2019

I found this lovely pairing of words in Yves Morieux’s book, Six Simple Rules. He was talking about the corrosive effect that problem escalation can have on teams and management. I’ve seen this before and I know how hard it can be to deal with. On the one hand, as a manager you are there to help and you may feel somewhat flattered when the team comes to you with a problem. On the other hand, as Morieux suggests, an escalation represents a failure of the teams to find a way to arrive at a solution themselves.

First, an escalation often reflects an inability to cooperate on the part of the parties involved. The problem with cooperation is that one group or another usually has to give something up in order for the problem to be successfully resolved. And the thing they are being asked to give up or forego is usually something that they really want. I see this all the time in product management decisions. Two teams are working on features that have been stressed as of the highest importance to the organization. One of the teams falls behind and asks the other for help. It is clear that a choice has to be made. There are three options, Feature A, Feature B, or both (we’ll just leave neither out of the picture for now). One team or the other has to either work extra hard, or drop a key feature. All too often, both teams throw up their hands in frustration and escalate the problem. Why? Because they can’t find a way to solve the problem together.

Second, escalation defeats attempts to empower people and teams. If you give teams the power to make their own decisions, what you have really done is give them the power to make their own compromises. Compromise is hard and my observation is that it’s just human nature to try and avoid it if we can. Of course escalations’s just putting the power back in the manager’s hands. So it defeats the very purpose of pushing decision making power down in the organization – to move the decision closer to the people doing the work.

That brings us to our third and final reason that escalation is harmful. Escalation removes or distances decision making from the source of the problem. This is based on the premise that the best informed people to make a decision are the people who are closest to the problem. The further that you remove someone from the work or the source of the problem, the less likely the decision is to be well informed and useful.

So Morieux recommends that the first thing a manager should do when they receive an escalation request is to lock the two parties in a room and explain that they have to work it out together. They need to learn that the correct answer is some form of cooperation. If they can’t cooperate, then the manager should let them know that cooperation is essential to their performance and as such she/he will keep this in mind when reviews come around. That’s pretty tough…but I like it.


Eliminate Fear, Create Safety

February 20, 2019

Often silos within an organization are based on fear. There can be many different justifications for such fear. For example, the fear is expressed as territoriality, “This is my turf, no outsiders allowed.” You see this with teams who will not allow others access to whatever it is that they control. They use all sorts of justifications to support this (compliance, regulations, etc.), those reasons are often just smoke screens for the fact that they are afraid of opening up and letting others in. Outsiders are a threat. If you let someone in they get to see how you work, and maybe they will recognize areas of weakness (change, improvement). Sometimes they do not fear the outsiders as much as they fear their own management. This is typically manifested as a pattern of C.Y.A. (Cover Your A**) behavior. When this happens, you find resistance to letting others in because it may expose them to criticism by others.

How does fear manifest itself? If you are trying to talk to someone in another group and they start whispering to you so they can’t be overheard by others, that should be considered to be a strong indicator of a culture of fear. This is someone who feels that they cannot say certain things without some sort of punishment. On the other hand, the fact that they are willing to take a risk and share with you at all is a sign of trust on their part – trust in you.

What can we do about it?

First, we need to acknowledge that there probably is not much we can change in their environment. Whatever is causing the issues with fear hopefully has little to do with you. That means that all you can do is make sure that you do not aggravate the situation further when you are in their domain. The last thing they need to do is fear you too. That means that you have to be willing to deal with them in a fashion where they do not feel threatened. If they think you are going to escalate issues to their management, then you are not going to have a chance to build any trust with them. On the other hand, if they believe that they can bring difficult issues to you and that you will do everything you can to help them out, and then you have a shot to build a better relationship.

How can we create safety?

Ultimately, what we are after is the kind of relationship with the other group that can be open an honest. That does not mean everybody is happy all the time. Quite to the contrary, a healthy relationship, a safe relationship is one where the two groups can get upset with each other and express grievances. Signs of safety?

  • Disagreement
  • Emotion
  • Reassurance
  • Laughter
  • Good-natured teasing

Some of these things may seem contradictory. Emotion, especially strong emotion can seem very threatening. Disagreement and conflict can also be seen as a threat. However, in an environment where people feel safe, these things are part of healthy interaction. You need someplace where people can feel passionate (strong emotions). You need someplace where people can take a contrary position and debate alternatives (disagreement).