What I Learned from My Family about Team Building

August 29, 2018


As part of a dispersed team of coaches I’ve been puzzling over how we can become more of a team. It’s not easy. First of all, unlike a traditional team, we don’t share much work in common. We all work for different clients. It’s similar work, but on any given week, we are all working on dramatically different coaching activities. Second, the client always comes first, so we often miss team activities like meetings and stand-ups. Third, anytime we get together, it’s always virtual. We only get a chance to see each other once a year. It’s really hard to feel like you are part of a team under those circumstances. Some might argue that you simply can’t do it. There are days where I might agree.

Recently I had some experiences that have given me some hints to how we might be able to come together as a team. I was at my youngest daughter’s gymnastics competition the other day. As I watched the competitors I heard people screaming their support and whistling as they did their routines. As this was taking place, I had this crazy thought, “I wish someone would scream that kind of support for my daughter. I bet she would feel awesome.”

Let’s pause for a moment to stop and appreciate my truly mind-bending level of clueless on display in that last sentence.

It was at that point that I realized, “Hey dummy, that’s your job!” Not just me either, it was my whole family’s job. We needed to scream all of our heads off. That’s what having a team in your corner does. Here’s the funny bit – you do it regardless of the level of performance. It’s in the job description for a family. After all, no one else is likely to do it. Knowing what that kind of unrestrained support can do for a person, why would any sane person hold back? It would be a shame to do so.

So when it was my daughter’s turn, that’s what I did. My family thought I had lost my mind. And frankly, I wasn’t very good at it, but she didn’t care. Apparently this cheerleading thing takes practice. It wasn’t until a little bit later that I realized that one of the key jobs of being on a team is cheering on your teammates with every fibre of your being. You have to holler your head off no matter how they perform. If they are great, you blow a vein screaming. If they struggle, you scream louder. Why? Because you care. You want them to feel part of a team, whether a family or a workgroup.

But what if they are not competing? Let’s face it, a lot of our time is stuck in the day to day preparation for some event that may not come for a while. That’s pretty much the reality of what we face whether we are a family or a team. Of course in a family, the thing to do is to take an interest. Inquire about progress. Help solve problems. Help remind them of what it takes to be great. Keep them on track. Encourage them to keep moving forward. Talk about progress. Celebrate the little wins. Of course all of that support applies to teams as well as families. Ask about what people are working on. Celebrate little wins. Help keep them encouraged. Help keep them on track to the big win.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that my kids absolutely love it when I take any interest in what they are doing. For instance, I don’t know anything about Taekwondo, but I can offer to hold the punching bag. I can do the warmups alongside them (which they inevitably find hilarious). I can do the stretches (well…more or less). The point is, I can participate. In a work setting you might describe it as pairing, but that’s not really required. It’s enough just to help out in some small way. We can even do these things when we are remote. We can help with setting up documentation. We can help with prep and coordination (of which there is usually plenty). We can consult with each other during good times and bad. We can offer ideas for improvement. We can do all of this from afar, and I’m pretty sure it will be welcome.

So there are two things that I think are essential behavior for successful dispersed teams:

  1. Full throated encouragement for everything they do, from everyone – let them know they are awesome, because if you won’t, who will?
  2. Do the small stuff. Just hold the punching bag. Do something, anything, to help. Set up a document template, book a flight, recommend a resource. There is no such thing as too small when it comes to this.

The Thermodynamics of Emotion

August 27, 2018


“This is my answer to the gap between ideas and action – I will write it out.”

-Hortense Calisher


Last year I went to a conference with a provocative title called “The Thermodynamics of Emotion“. It was an intimate three day seminar style conference held at the Kennedy School in Portland, coordinated by Willem Larsen. It was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended.

The thermodynamics of emotion is somewhat loosely based on the intersection of two theories. It takes the laws of thermodynamics as explained by Adrian Bejan and applies them to the theories of emotion as it applies to dogs as described by Kevin Behar. At this point, if you are thinking this is kind of esoteric stuff, you wouldn’t be wrong.

The conference was composed of a very small, eclectic, group of people who shared a common interest in a little known principle of Physics called the Constructal Law. I want to begin by saying that eclectic doesn’t even begin to properly describe the diversity of that small cohort of people. There was a physicist, dog trainers, a horse trainer, specialists in wilderness tracking, Chinese herbal medicine, software developers, and a few agile consultants. It was perhaps the most diverse set of roles and careers I have ever had the good fortune to share ideas with. As I mentioned, it was a small group of people who were passionate about their respective disciplines. This lead to an intense exchange of ideas and most importantly metaphors that were intensely valuable as we explored the Constructal Law together.

Basically, the idea is to take the models of thermodynamic theory (Bejan’s Constructal law) and apply them to other domains, like those of emotions (psychology). Before I go any further, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this kind of mixing of models can lead us into risky territory. To arbitrarily try to apply models from physics to topics like human emotion can lead to the worst kind of pop culture theory. Especially when it’s not based on any experimental evidence. From time to time, I found myself somewhat uncomfortable in some of the discussions. Often, I wasn’t able to paint a clear line between domains or subjects. For a consultant like me, who is accustomed to being one of the smart guys in the room, that’s kind of scary.

So, is it wrong to take theories and models from one domain and try to apply them to another? No, I don’t believe so. Is it risky? You bet! Does it feel uncomfortable? Absolutely! There we were, wrestling with ideas for which we had no common language, sharing them with domains that had no obvious overlap (wilderness trackers? Really?) What is a software process geek to do?

We were mixing metaphors with reckless abandon. For example, Do the concepts of the flow of Chi through the body, as described by Chinese medicine, reveal anything about how work flows through organizations? Sometimes these sorts of conversations could lead to what sounded like tantalizing hints of new ways of thinking. We were all on very uncertain ground with these ideas.

It was like panning for gold, we would scoop up a pan full of concepts, stir them around, and try to make some sense of them. All the while looking for the sparkle of a bright idea. I tried to manage the uncertainty by describing what I thought I saw in terms of what I knew – software organizations. For example, I would rephrase what I thought I heard the animal trackers say in terms of doing discovery when beginning a consulting engagement. After all, I’m also trying to find things when I start work with a new customer. As I talk, I find myself struggling for terms to map between tracking and consulting. Sometimes the words come easily, and other times they refuse to come at all.

Mixing ideas like this can be frustrating, awkward, and occasionally exhilarating work. It’s like having a word on the tip of your tongue. You know it’s right there waiting for you…if only you can just find it. It can be maddening. I went back recently and looked at the notes from that weekend. Each day there were periods where my notes randomly tracked from topic to topic, unable to draw any meaning or conclusions. Then, at three different points you can tell I’m having that “Eureka!” Moment. The ideas align, concepts click, and I have found something new that opens up a new way of thinking about the world of work.

I don’t think this is the kind of conference/seminar for everyone – it takes a very open mind, and a willingness to work to find a new idea. You have to bring your own ideas to the table too. It’s not like your typical mainstream conference with it’s predictable themes and topics. However, for some daring souls who don’t need the path laid down before them, this just may be where new ideas are born.

Straight Life

August 25, 2018


“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.”

-George Gershwin

One of my favorite jazz tunes of all time is Freddy Hubbard’s “Straight Life”. It is a marvelous piece of experimental jazz that drifts and wanders down different musical avenues and somehow always returns to a coherent theme. I’m no music critic, nevertheless, I love it because I get lost every time I listen to it.

I lose track of the rhythm and flow and find myself unable to track where the music is going. The music sounds to me like it has descended into chaos without rhyme or reason. Then, just as I realize I’m lost, I’m rescued by a few notes that form a recognizable signature and I’m drawn back into the familiar themes of the overall tune. I also love it because it feels like there is a full throated joy expressed in all that exploration. As the music drifts into chaos and back to order again, there is a feeling of boundless enthusiasm and playfulness. I feel like the trumpet says, “follow me!” And you follow, not really sure where the music will go. And then there is that moment of panic when you realize you’ve lost the rhythm…and it’s just that moment when the sly trumpet steps in to rescue you by re-establishing a rhythm. I hear the trumpet say, “I got you!” And off we go again.

It’s probably not for everybody, but I absolutely love it. Maybe that’s because it’s a feeling I get a lot. I work with lots of different companies. These companies are places with complicated and subtle rhythms and timing. It’s easy to get lost in organizations like these. You have to be willing to listen to the chaos and wait for a recognizable rhythm to emerge. That can be scary, because you’re never quite sure if a rhythm will materialize or not. But it can also be playful, where you say, “Follow me!” And you ask them to find a different rhythm. At first there is chaos, then, slowly, a new rhythm emerges. And throughout it all, like the trumpet, I’m there to say, “I got you!” And off we go again.

When Does Sustainable Become Unsustainable?

August 24, 2018


“Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality.”

-George Santayana

I was talking to some folks on a team today. They had been put under  lot of pressure in the last few months. You could tell they were pretty burnt out right away. If you started to ask questions, you got defensive behavior almost immediately. They were exhausted and had no patience for anything other than getting out of the office.

This happens to a lot of teams, regardless of whether or not they are agile. You push super hard and then maybe a little harder…until you’ve got nothing left. Then you need some recovery time.  How do we measure when we cross into unsustainable territory?

That’s not an uncommon story in the athletic world either. People overwork themselves while training all the time. Overtraining is a well recognized phenomena and athletes and their coaches have come up with a variety of ways to manage the problem. When looking at the amount of work, typically they measure the volume of work, the intensity of the effort,  and some relative estimate of the overall exertion.

When it comes to the work that software teams do, these measures are also useful. Volume is easy, it can be an overall measure of the size of the work. The sum of the hours or story points for example. However, when it comes to intensity, we have no such measure for software teams. All work is not uniformly easy to accomplish. Some work is quite simple and other work is quite a strain (mentally, emotionally, or otherwise). I’m thinking specifically of work that you may have never done before. Doing something for the first time can be very challenging. We can measure intensity in terms of a simple percentage from 0 to 100% (or more). So we have two quite different dimensions for measuring the work that we do. The volume of the work and the intensity of the work are orthogonal to each other.

There is one more element that is worth taking into consideration, what is referred to in the sports world as the Ratio of Perceived Effort. This is a measure that is taken after the fact. It is a rating of how much you have left in the tank after performing the work. Was it easy? Great perhaps you could do 5 more stories just like that. Was it challenging? Perhaps you could only do one more. Did it take everything you had in you? Maybe you’re done for the day.

In the agile community we have eschewed any sort of measure of effort beyond relative sizing. The common advice has been to use story points and you have all you need. I’m starting to wonder if we shouldn’t broaden our horizons a bit and try adopting some of these measures that we see others using in other disciplines (like sports). After all, they’ve been paying close attention to the amount of work they do and how to manage it for a lot longer than we in the agile world have. So maybe it’s time to give some thought to measuring additional dimensions like volume, intensity, and maybe even the Ratio of Perceived Effort.

Stop Looking Up

August 22, 2018


“I can’t work in an environment where it’s a stiff hierarchy; that’s not my kind of way.”

-Steven Rodney McQueen

Sometimes there seem to be at least three ways of seeing the working world in a hierarchical organization: up, down, and sideways. If we are on top we look down. If we are in the middle we look up to our managers, down to our reports and sideways to our peers. If you work on the bottom layer then you look up. If you work someplace awesome, then there is trust in any direction you look. However, if you happen to live in the same world as the rest of use, then things are probably different. Most common, is a lack of trust.

What a weird way of looking at the world. Do people really think like this? Can we represent a model of a corporate hierarchy using the 9 cubes from the Brady Bunch?

Back to my question: do people really see the hierarchy that rigidly? Part of me wants to say “No.” People aren’t that constrained in their thinking. If you look at their behavior, you do see a lot of people looking up the hierarchy for direction. I guess that’s what hierarchy’s are there for – to direct the actions of those below.

I know liberated folks who seem able to work in an organization without looking up. To them, the entire organization is tipped on it’s side. They can go anywhere they want a do whatever needs to be done. When I was a consultant I often felt this way because I was an outsider and not part of the hierarchy. However I live in a hierarchy now, and I’ve noticed that I behave differently over time. The effect is subtle. Occasionally I catch myself waiting for a decision, deferring to the boss. I catch myself looking up.

That’s how I think of it anyway. When I’m waiting for that decision, unable act without permission, then I’m looking up.

Passion and Discipline

August 21, 2018


The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.

-Alfred Lord Tennyson


I think discipline may start with things we are passionate about and carry over into other areas of our life. That’s probably why it’s hard to find in places where we are not passionate, but perhaps need it the most. When we are passionate about something, it feels relatively natural to find ways to improve and do more of whatever it is we love. There is an intrinsic motivation to push on and excel. Adding further discipline only adds fuel to the fire.

The funny thing is, the more that you push on that passion, the more it begins to carry over into your daily life. For example, my passion is Powerlifting. There is something about being able to move massive amounts of iron that I love. It’s part physical, part problem solving, part discipline. And as I push harder at it, I find that I need to do things like changing my diet in order to excel at the thing that I love. While it is no mystery how eating might affect strength, eating is nevertheless a peripheral activity to my training. It’s something that is integral to the rest of my life as well. So the added discipline of changing my eating habits is driven by my lifting, but it carries over into other activities that are not directly related to lifting.

Now, if you had asked me to change my eating habits outside the context of lifting there would be a very different result. While I might agree with you that improving my dietary habits would be healthy, frankly summing up some sort of real passion for the idea would be a strain at best. You see, like many people, I’ve been down the diet road before. And it never really works out because I really have no passion for eating well by itself. Don’t get me wrong, eating well makes you feel good, but I have no passion for that. Let’s face it, eating cheesecake feels darn good too. So as a result, diet for diet’s sake has never worked out for me.

On the other hand, if I need to lose weight for conditioning, that is a different matter. If, for example, I have to lose weight in order to qualify for a weight class at a competition, then all of a sudden I’m powerfully motivated to eat differently (or not at all). Suddenly I find the dietary discipline that I never had before. Why? Because it’s tied to something that I’m passionate about.

It strikes me that if we follow our passions we may find that the more they bleed into the rest of our lives, the more we can take advantage of their benefits: discipline, creativity, improvement, and so on. So where is your passion?

Transforming Without Agility

August 20, 2018


“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”

– Albert Einstein


So, what if you think of yourself as a change agent, but you also believe that you can’t really change people? If that is the case, what can you do to help organizations to change? The way I see it, there are two things we can effectively do:

  1. Help people articulate what they would like to do
  2. Help create the context where change can flourish

We can’t make people change. However we can help them voice what they want. Simply helping them to describe the outcomes that they want to achieve enables them to start down the path to meaningful change.

There are some relatively innocuous techniques like retrospectives that we can use to help people articulate their vision for what they would like to do. Introducing them is low effort and there is usually low resistance. You can even disguise a retrospective and call it a Post Mortem. Same thing, different name. Of course the real power in the retrospective is the action we take afterwards. This is our entry point to learning truly what matters to people and being there as a friend to help them achieve it. This enables us to further build trust within the group. Since we are frequently outsiders trying to influence change in an organization, beginning with retrospectives is a good place to start.

Often the way that we behave is a product of our own beliefs and the context or environment that we find ourselves in. Behavior tends to change when the context or the backdrop for that behavior changes. So if we want enable change, we can change their environment.

There are lots of ways to change the environment in subtle ways that help to introduce transparency and visibility. Putting architecture diagrams on the wall. Displaying schedules prominently. The simple act of displaying information – and doing it well, can start to enable a virtuous cycle of feedback.

At no point in this process do we need to use the word “agile” or concern ourselves with agility. We are simply taking the agile collaborative practices that we have learned to be effective and put them quietly and subtly to work for us on waterfall projects.

Over time, with a sustained and judicious use of these methods, we can help improve communication, create healthier environments and improve flow through the organization. All without ever once breathing the word, “Agile.”