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).


Cooperation vs. Collaboration

February 19, 2019

I was working for a small company that was acquired a few years ago. Soon after the acquisition was finalized, our senior VP invited his new boss to come visit us and meet with some of the leaders of our organization. I was invited to that meeting and introduced as someone who had been leading the agile transformation within our group. I remember shaking this guys hand and thinking he was probably some sort of ex-college football player. He was enormous, sporting a giant smile, and he did what he could to set us all at ease. He exuded confidence and power. After all, he was an exec with a fortune 10 company.

We were all given a chance to ask him questions. I wasn’t feeling very smart at all that day. In fact I was a little intimidated if the truth be told. So I asked what I thought was a pretty lame, if harmless question, “How can you help to promote collaboration between our two groups?” Like I said, weak stuff. His answer was priceless,”Collaboration? Isn’t that what they shot people for in World War II?”

Right then, I knew I was in for a rough ride.

I’ve been reading a book by Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman called “Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated.” Yves Morieux first caught my attention in Ted Talk that he gave a few years ago. In that talk he made a compelling case for the over-complexity of today’s large organizations. His argument was that you needed fewer rules and constraints, not more, in order to improve. It turns out, he is speaking from experience. He has tried his approach out with multiple European organizations with some success apparently.

One of the things that he emphasizes early on is the importance of establishing and reinforcing cooperation rather than collaboration. Collaboration is good, he argues, but it’s too limited in scope. It can mean a little as we talked together, but perhaps didn’t actually do much. Cooperation, he argues, implies that at least one side had to give up something, and actually accomplish some work together. So he sees cooperation as a stronger statement than collaboration. Perhaps it is.

Do they shoot people for cooperation?


Trapped in Amber

February 17, 2019

Have you ever seen those blobs of amber with some hapless insect trapped inside? There it is, frozen in time, forever locked in a golden prison in whatever position it happened to be in at the fatal moment. That really must suck.

Seriously though, I think that in some metaphorical way I have some idea how that insect must have felt. One minute able to move freely, even to fly, and the next, unable to move a muscle or flex a wing. Often times I join organizations as an outsider. I’m there to provide help in some small way. On my good days I might even be able to help bring about meaningful change. It’s on those days that I feel like I can fly. I’m able to move through the organizational matrix freely, perhaps even dance a little along the way. 

So, with the usual qualifications, I consider myself to be reasonably adept at moving through the organization. However, I recently found myself in a very different situation. It was in a simulation. An exercise as part of a recent training. I was supposed to be an executive in a large company. I work with these guys all the time. I knew the rules of the game before it even started. I was going to crush this.

So, we started the simulation and I dove into it with enthusiasm.  I played by the rules and tried to do the right thing. As I was doing this, I could hear a little voice in my head saying, “OK, big guy, start dancing.” But for some reason I couldn’t. I was working within the system. I was stuck. Frozen.

It really did suck. 

I think this happens in a lot of organizations to a lot of people. You’re bright, creative, and motivated. Yet, somehow the rules of the system are configured such that you don’t feel like you have the power or ability to make any big moves. Everything feels constrained. Trapped in amber. There are many things that can contribute to this. Perhaps a rigid organizational hierarchy. Maybe a risk averse culture that doesn’t support new ideas. Or even explicit processes and rules that make any sort of change difficult. It might even be work overload. It could be one or many of these factors that come into play. All of them can lead to a state of ineffectiveness. An inability to move.

So how do you get out of this trap? Assuming you don’t want to end up some fossilized specimen, how do you escape these constraints?

Here are a few thoughts:

Wait– That’s right, just wait. Sometimes when we face something new, when the pressure is really high, we tend to short circuit a bit as we come to understand the new challenge. Once we have oriented ourselves, we find our confidence and our ability to move returns. This is what happened to me in that simulation. Once I had a little time to absorb the new stimuli, I found I was able to move again with confidence.

Pause and Take a Break – Sometimes we get so absorbed in the day-to-day that we just need a break. Removing yourself for just a bit from the pressure can give you the break you need to start thinking clearly again and see a way to move forward.

Leave– You may find that you simply have yourself in a situation where there is no winning. There is no meaningful solution. In which case, it may be time to move on. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.

Peer Support– It’s very likely that if you feel unable to move, your peers probably feel the same way. If so, perhaps it’s time to talk to each other. Maybe working together, providing support to one another, you can help each other out.

Mentor or Coach– Sometimes an outside perspective is what you need. Someone who has been there and understands what it’s like but isn’t living under that pressure in the moment. Someone who can provide guidance to help you get moving again.

Interested in Learning More?

I provide innovative agile coaching, training, and facilitation to help organizations transform to deliver breakthrough products and performance. I do this by achieving a deep understanding of the business and by enabling the emergence of self-organizing teams and unleashing individual passion.

To learn more about the services that I offer or to arrange for an initial consultation, please see thomasperryllc.com


Painting The Spots

February 16, 2019

If you do a little reading about Scrum one of the first things that you learn are the 5 basic values of Scrum:

  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Respect
  • Committment
  • Openness

I’d like to examine one of those values that I watched a team wrestle with recently: commitment. These were really great folks. They were bright, energetic, friendly and passionate about the work they were doing. Within the team they took a lot of pride in their ability to “be agile.” They seemed to be doing a lot of good stuff.

However, I was hearing some disconcerting things from other parts of the organization. Other teams characterized this team as flakey. Managers expressed frustration that they didn’t deliver. I wasn’t sure what the story really was. Was it a cultural thing? Was it petty jealousy at work? I really had no idea.

An opportunity came along to do a little coaching with the team in question, so I was eager to find out more. Here’s what I found:

  • Optimism at the start: So the team said that they were prone to overcommitting to the amount of work they could handle in a sprint. During sprint planning, they would realize the balance of the work was unequal and that there would be team members left idle. So they would take on more “overflow” work to make sure that everyone on the team has something to do during the sprint. It’s great that they were aware of this problem. This pattern of behavior was leading the team to consistently overload their sprints with more work than they could achieve. The team told me that their typical velocity was 27-29 points per sprint. When I asked them what they had committed to in the last sprint, the answer was: 44 points. When I pointed out the obvious discrepancy, they admitted that they had overflow work from the previous sprint that they felt they had to get done. So then I asked them if they were going to deliver on all 44 points. And the survey says: No.
    The good news? This injury was self-inflicted. The bad news? It didn’t sound like they were entirely convinced they had a serious problem. A pattern of failing to reliably deliver sprint objectives can lead to a crisis of trust with a team’s stakeholders. The stakeholders start to doubt whether or not you will deliver on your sprint commitments. This can be a corrosive influence on the relationship with the very people who are signing the team’s paychecks. The solution? Stop overcommitting. This means that the team has to face some awkward issues about how to manage balancing work within their ranks. These are issues they were able to hide from by overloading the team with work. I got some grudging buy-in at this point, but I could tell that there was still work to be done.
  • Carry over matter: Since they are overloading the sprint, they are almost guaranteed to have items that are not completed and those get carried into the next sprint. I took the time to point out that this sort of issue is a problem, but you can skate by when you are simply going from sprint to sprint. However, when you are trying to work to a release plan with multiple teams and multiple sprints, then carry over is a total deal breaker. If you are working with other teams and you have a pattern of failing to deliver stories, the other teams are very quickly going to learn that you are not a good partner to work with.
  • Transparency: So I asked about this because I wasn’t sure what the problem was. Apparently they were concerned that they were being asked to track their time and their tasks in a time tracking tool to a level of detail that was making them uncomfortable. As we talked about it someone said, “I don’t think they trust us…” I could tell that this person was a bit upset by this perceived lack of trust. Of course I put on my Mr. Sensitivity hat and replied…Of course they don’t trust you! You don’t deliver committed work on time!

Well, I don’t think I said it exactly like that, but it was some polite variation on that theme. Now people were upset, and finally my message was getting through. The product owner for the team, gave me loud and vigorous support at this point. You could tell that we had stumbled on a fundamental assumption that people on the team were realizing was dead wrong. The scrum master articulated the invalid assumption for me: The whole purpose of having a sprint goal means that you can achieve the goal without having to deliver specific stories. You focus on the goal rather than the stories. That is an interesting, but completely incorrect interpretation of how commitment works. Apparently much of the team was operating with this model in mind. Once I pointed out that other people were depending on those specific stories being delivered, not some abstract goal, then you could feel the resistance immediately start to evaporate.

The other thing that was a little disturbing about this situation is the blind spot that the team had when working with other teams. They had explained away their inability to deliver as due to their own superior understanding of what it means to ‘be agile.’ No one else understood how awesome they were because the other teams weren’t as agile as they were. Now there is no doubt that they were doing a lot of things right. Like I mentioned in the beginning, they had a lot of good things going on. However, they had managed to paint over the ugly bits of their process without examining them and addressing them. Their ‘agility’ was their excuse for not delivering commitments. This sort of failure is not unusual – I’ve seen it happen in plenty of other teams. Dealing with these sorts of issues is hard for a team to do. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see them and point them out. So be careful about declaring your own agility. Doing so can sometimes hide some ugly spots.

This is What I Do

I provide innovative agile coaching, training, and facilitation to help organizations transform to deliver breakthrough products and performance. I do this by achieving a deep understanding of the business and by enabling the emergence of self-organizing teams and unleashing individual passion.

To learn more about the services that I offer or to arrange for an initial consultation, please see thomasperryllc.com


Maxims and Manifestos

February 13, 2019

My Dad has always been a passionate outdoorsman. For him, when it comes to spending some quality time, nothing beats hunting and fishing. So as a kid I spent a lot of time on the banks of rivers and streams with a fishing rod in hand or marching through fields of tall grass with a dog and a 12 gauge. It’s just how I spent many of my weekends growing up.

Hunting and fishing are complex activities. First, there is knowing where to find the fish or birds. Then there is selecting the right gear. Then there is an element of skill in using the gear to actually catch what you are after. That is actually a very broad set of skills and tools required to be a successful hunter or fisherman, and I’m not even getting into some of the woodcraft required to simply survive in the outdoors, let alone catch food.

I hope I’ve made a reasonable argument for hunting and fishing as a complex activity. After all, if it was easy, they probably wouldn’t call it hunting. That’s actually a little maxim that Dad used to share with me when I got frustrated. 

He had a bunch of maxims: 

  • “If it was easy, they wouldn’t call it hunting”
  • “You won’t catch a fish unless you have your hook in the water”
  • “Always use enough gun”
  • “Never wear red in a duck blind”
  • “Shoot it ’til it’s dead”
  • “Never pee on an electric fence”

OK, admittedly some of that advice was perhaps less useful than it could have been, but that’s how maxims work. It’s kind of left up to the reader to decide how to use them and whether or not they are worthwhile.

When the Agile Manifesto was created, there were 12 principles that were part of it. Each of these twelve principles expressed a key way of thinking about or viewing the world from what we would think of as an agile mindset or agile philosophy. At their simplest the agile principles form a set of reminders or guideposts on our journey through a complex environment that help us find agility or perhaps just remember where it was. You could think of each of those principles as really just a set of useful maxims – just like those maxims that my Dad used to share.

A manifesto can also be beneficial to teams. Of course, you can just point at the Agile Manifesto and use that, but I’ve actually found that teams can benefit from writing their own manifesto. Writing manifestos is actually good fun. There are a variety of them out on the Internet that you can look to for inspiration and examples. Aside from the Agile Manifesto, there is the Declaration of Interdependence, the Craftsmanship Manifesto, and more. If you want to have some geeky fun, check out the communist manifesto. There are hundreds of manifestos out there! Most manifestos are an attempt to declare a shared set of values. They are also usually expressing those values as a break from the past. If you look at them closely, most manifestos are usually a statement of values perhaps with some guiding maxims. That’s perfect for a team. 

My experience has been that teams have a lot of fun writing their own manifestos. It helps them to discover where they are empowered and where they have some autonomy. Being able to describe their own unifying vision goes a long way toward accomplishing that. However, you will find teams that struggle with this exercise too. From a coaching perspective, that struggle also represents an opportunity. There can be a lot of reasons that folks might struggle to write a manifesto. For example:

  • Not everyone is equally good with writing. Text based exercises like manifesto writing tend to fall flat for people who are very visual or physically oriented. Providing some visual tools, like a stack of magazines along with scissors and glue would be a good way to offer folks an alternative medium for expressing themselves if words aren’t their thing.
  • If there is significant dysfunction within the team. For instance, if they are being driven by a micromanager, then you typically don’t see a lot of independence and free thinking from groups like this. They might struggle with a creative exercise like this. These teams are often afraid to act without permission. There’s no quick fix for this, short of identifying the manager and starting to work with them.
  • Sometimes the team isn’t really a team. The reason they are struggling to come up with a common manifesto is…they have nothing in common. A team that is really just a group of independent actors will struggle to come up with a manifesto. They may manage to do it, but what they end up with is usually a watered-down mess that doesn’t feel like it’s very useful.

A good manifesto makes you feel something. A good manifesto smells like rebellion. It often feels a bit joyous too. Like something was unleashed. And when a team’s manifesto includes the customer, you know you have hit pure gold! If you read a team’s manifesto and the hair on your arms stands straight up, you’re on to something good. 

Running manifesto writing workshops is one of my favorite things to do. I’m always surprised at the outcomes. When people find the words that describe themselves as a team, they feel differently. Declaring that unifying theme to the world has power. Who doesn’t love that?