Just Go Touch the Boat

February 23, 2019

A few years ago, I set out to build a boat in my garage. It was a pretty substantial project. Frankly, it was a lot more than I think I was really prepared for. Nevertheless, I did it. It took me about three years to get done, but I finally realized that particular dream and went sailing on a boat I had built myself. Pretty cool, right?

Well, one of my biggest frustrations was this weird phenomenon that happened right before I got started on the work. I can remember it happening in a very specific place: in the garage doorway. Full of good intentions, and ready to get down to cutting some wood, I would pause at the entry to the garage. There was this moment of uncertainty. Often it wasn’t just a moment though, this could turn into a 10-minute-long, what-in-the-hell-was-I-thinking pause. Often it could completely derail me. I’d spin right on my heels and head back to the couch where a beer and Netflix (and blissful determinism) awaited me. It got so bad that I had a rule: just go touch the boat. I figured doing that much would get me close enough to the problem to create the momentum to figure out the next step.

That pause…what was that?

It was a real killer. Here’s what I think it was: it was realizing that I really didn’t know what I was going to do next. At a high level, I knew I wanted to work on the boat. But the specifics – what part of the boat was I going to work on, what did I need to do specifically? That often wasn’t fully thought out. I had an instruction manual, but that really only described the high-level activities that I had to do. The devil was in the details. I suspect that the delays came down to a few different categories of problem:

  • Setup– Are the requisite materials, tools and plans ready for the next step in the process. Are these preparations in a state where I can easily get started or is there some work I need to do before I can even touch the boat. Often this would be cleanup activities. Often, I had left my workspace a mess after the last session, so I couldn’t get started or find tools until I cleaned up the place. Or perhaps my wife had the audacity to park the car in the garage, thereby blocking my access to my precious…sorry…my boat. 
  • Comprehension– Do I really understand how to solve the problem at hand? I’ve learned that much of woodworking is a series of problems. At a macro level, the work is straightforward, but when you get right down to it, you discover that the tools you have don’t work right. Or you are missing a tool. Or you have no clue how to get the geometry of two pieces right in advance.
  • Drive– There were times when I had things set up, and I knew what to do, but…I didn’t want to. Sometimes the prospect of turning on the table saw, braving the spinning blade of death, and filling the garage with a fine layer of sawdust (over absolutely EVERYTHING) was just too much. Huh…there, I said it. There were these moments when I just couldn’t face the effort after a long day at the office or sometimes even on a Saturday.

I mention all of this because I find myself in a similar position now. I’m not building a boat. Instead, I’m building a business. Just like a boat, there are plenty of instruction manuals. The problem is, just like with the boat, the details are often different from what they describe in the books. And I find myself eager to get started. And yet I pause…

So, I’m re-using a mantra that served me well when building the boat: just go touch the boat. I’m not sure what to call this pause. This moment of uncertainty before committing. But I’m willing to bet big money I’m not alone. 


Swarming Context

September 29, 2014

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The application of Swarming as a method can be broken down into four main contexts. For each context the process of swarming is different. Allowing for different contexts makes sense, because we really can’t expect the same process to work equally well in every situation. Even the simplest animals are able to exhibit variations in behavior based on the context, so why shouldn’t our processes? We change our behavior to match the circumstances. That is, unless we are using fixed methods like Scrum or Kanban. If you are using fixed methods, the proscription is to treat the process in a fractal fashion, repeating it everywhere. Practically speaking, by having only one process these methods ignore the context.

So what are the four contexts of Swarming? Here they are in no particular order:

  • Emergencies
  • Shifting Gears
  • Innovation
  • Building

Emergencies represent the simplest context for swarming. When a crisis occurs, it’ all hands on deck. Everyone joins the conversation and brings whatever specific expertise they have to the party. The group self-organizes to enable those present to contribute to solving the problem. You see this a lot in production operations environments when a “P1” defect occurs or, heaven forbid, the production system goes down. When this happens, everyone swarms on the problem. Some are gathering information, some are listening and integrating the information, and some are taking action to try and remedy the situation. All of this is happening dynamically in the moment without central organization. All of these activities are critical to the success of the swarm. During a crisis, nobody is going to stop what they are doing for a standup meeting, and they sure as hell aren’t interested in seeing your Kanban board.

Shifting gears refers to when the system is in transition. The corporate ecosystems that we are all a part of are changing faster with every passing day. New products are coming to market and disrupting the old ones. It’s not enough to simply work within the existing system. You can’t keep up that way. These days corporations have to match their structure to the complexity of the environment. That’s hard, and that’s where swarming comes in. Like when honey bees form a swarm, the corporation reaches a critical mass where a new structure is necessary. Up until this point, the hive has been a stable and reliable structure, but with the presence of a new queen everything changes. A cascade of events takes place where the hive moves on. This can also happen with companies. When they reach a certain size, they can spin off subsidiaries, divisions, and even teams. We see this when teams reach critical mass and split into two teams (meiosis). On swarming teams, we use simple rules to enable groups to decide on their own when division should take place (Team size of 7 plus or minus 2). We use the swarming values and principles to help guide who works on each team – always leaning toward letting individuals decide based on where their own passions take them.

In swarming, Innovation is treated as foraging. We are foraging for new information and new ideas. In this context we are actively using our social networks to recruit new people and new ideas to our cause. This can be initiated as part of a special state (shifting gears) or it can be part of the ongoing activities of the team. When ants are foraging, they tend to follow the strongest pheromone trails to a food source. However this rule is not universal. There are ants who wander off the pheromone trail from time to time. These solitary explorers are the ones who have the unique opportunity to wander off the beaten path and potentially find rich new sources of food. So too, we want people on our team not to follow the team too closely. It’s best if they can wander off and explore side avenues and blind alleys. This isn’t something that is dictated, it’s a natural part of teams with rich diversity. People make these decisions on their own and either bring them back to the original team or they form a new team.

Building takes place when we are trying to strengthen our networks. As a team is growing it uses it’s social networks to strengthen bonds both within and without the team. This can be as simple as increasing the number of social “touches” on a team. Social touches are things like: greeting each other, going out to lunch together, supporting each other’s work. There are some people who are stronger at this than others. Some people tend to form many lightweight social contacts (which is very useful). On the other hand, there are those who only have a few deep, strong relationships. A good swarming team is composed of a healthy balance of both types of people.

In summary, swarming is used differently based on the context you are in. Understand the context, and you are prepared to take advantage of the power of swarming.