Put on Your Lab Coats!

One of the most effective things I’ve done with my teams so far is urging them to simply try things out. Late last year, we heard many variations on trendy phrases like “celebrate your failures”, and I sent a Happy New Year message to my teams reflecting on the great sanity behind the fashion. I suggested that celebrating failures is not about reveling in the failure itself, but about encouraging learning and daring. The former comes from reflecting on the vast amount of data that a failure generates, but we already knew about that from the inspect-and-adapt loops built in to Agile frameworks. What I find really exciting about the notion of celebrating failure comes one step earlier: if it’s okay to fail, then that means it’s okay to try things. Even crazy things.

There is too much pressure in a business environment to be sure that you’re right. We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to predict the future of proposed initiatives based on supposedly rigorous but frequently inaccurate cost-benefit analyses.  Weighing the pros and cons of a proposal is perfectly rational, but taken too far, it creates an environment hostile to new ideas. This is especially true at a fine-grained level, where the ROI on time spent debating the future success of an idea is minimal.

So, I sent that email. No one responded. Email is a terrible way to spread ideas. But later, usually in retros, I called attention to the idea.  I used the metaphor of a scientific experiment. “You see a problem,” I told the team, “and you have a hypothesis that taking a certain action will at least partially solve that problem.  Taking that action is testing your hypothesis, and to test it, you need some level of control in your environment and some sort of measuring stick.  How will you evaluate whether the hypothesis was correct?  How do you avoid muddying results by, for example, failing to really embrace this approach across the team?”

This metaphor landed well with the teams.  They have shown hints of defining actions and measurements more crisply.  They are more likely to give proposed actions their all, rather than half-trying and thereby undermining the experiments.  They are trying things they are not completely sure will work.  It also undid a strange, surprising knot in which the teams repeatedly tied themselves.  In one example, the team wanted to implement a procedure to solve a near-term problem, but worried that it would become overhead in the long-term. They really got stuck there.  It truly wasn’t occurring to them that the very tool they were using to put the procedure in place (the retro) could be used to remove the procedure once its value was gone.  This idea of intentionally temporary changes was a big insight for me.

I’ve since discussed this with fellow coaches, and we’ve nearly all had the same experience: get your teams to stop worrying and start trying stuff, and magic happens.

You Don’t Have to Know What Your Observations Mean

As noted in an earlier post, I carry a notebook to every team event and jot down notes about what I observe.  It helps me record impressions, clear them from my mind, and return my focus to the next moment.  I started by bulleting each observation with a simple dash, but my compulsion for organization soon changed that to a plus sign for “good” things I noticed and a minus sign for things needing attention.

Occasionally, I would struggle to capture an observation.  I would ramble a bit, then cross out the note and forget it.  At first, I thought this meant I was reaching to observe something that wasn’t really there or making too much out of a minor moment.  Eventually, though, I noticed that the problem seemed related to the plus/minus sign.  While writing down an observation next to a plus sign, I would think, “Is that really a positive?”  Unsatisfied that my observation was conclusively positive or negative, I’d discard it.

After noticing this a few times over the following week, it finally clicked: what is the value of assigning a plus or a minus?  Why do I have to know what the observation means at all?  Sure, there are times that my experience helps me pick out a potential problem, but often I do not know what the seed of an observation will grow into when reflected to the team. By trying to force an inconclusive note into the box of a binary conclusion, I was creating that struggle for myself.  I dropped the plus/minus notation and went back to the bullets.

In some scrum event a few days later, I thought how relieved I was to have dropped the categorization prefixes and the pressure to draw snap conclusions.  But then the next click came: while I wasn’t recording things that way, I was still observing them that way.  I was watching for “problems I could address” and “good moments to encourage”.   I saw how limiting this was, and started making a habit of simply keeping myself open to the team.  Open to what they were saying, to the way they were saying it, to the way they were acting when others were talking, to what wasn’t said.  Open to anything and everything.

The observations might suggest a place to dig further.  They might develop into a pattern that point to a clear problem.  They might evaporate into nothingness.  Regardless, forcing them into any mold at the time you make them closes you down to at least some part of them, risking lost opportunities to gather information.

It’s very hard.  It reminds me of the action movie cliche where the one guy says “Wait for my signal”, and the other guy says, “What’s the signal?”, and the first guy says, “You’ll know when you see it.”  I always think, “Really? You can’t just tell him?” I find that my brain is wired such that looking for something without knowing what it is makes my ears smoke a bit, but it’s worth it.  It’s already allowed me to unearth some things I’d have completely missed otherwise.

Two Train Rides: The Pain of Coaching

On the train to work this morning, I thought about yesterday’s coaching successes.  My teams were leaping into solving their own problems with just a touch of guidance.  I had successfully threaded a needle: intervening as they struggled and then stepping back quickly enough to put ownership right back in their hands.  The team’s very positive response to the particulars of the day made me happy, but I was happier still because they took the reins and began spinning out ideas for how to tweak the approach for the next time around.

As I thought about it all, it struck me as funny how quickly it had become habit for me to avoid being the problem-solver.  My entire life, I had loved nothing more than being the hero, diving in to do what no one else had figured out, turning a drudgery into an efficient couple of clicks, breaking out of the run-of-the-mill options to come up with a creative solution.  But here I was, less than two months into full-time focus on coaching, and what thrilled me was thinking about those moments that the team dove into problem-solving without me.

Sitting on the train thinking about this, I remembered an uncle of mine once saying that the trick to success was making yourself indispensable to the world and then demanding your due.  I thought about the less blackmaily versions of this lesson I had learned from others through promotion and praise over my professional career.  I figured they would say I was making a big mistake by lowering my “hero value”.  But my gut told me helping others find their way was the more effective (not to mention healthier and happier) option.  I might go unsung, but I would actually be making a more valuable contribution to the company.

The train ride home was a different story.  An hour before starting home, I met with cross-departmental peers to make various decisions about our group.  They unanimously recommended cutting the coaching budget for our group by 50%.  This meant I would be stretched impossibly thin, barely able to pay the sort of patient attention to my teams that good coaching requires.  This came just two months after the company had made this brave, exciting decision to invest in coaching in the first place.  It came just a week after a group that had been notorious for years as death march central had released products months ahead of schedule.  It came just a few days after a team outing at a bar had been shockingly peppered with spontaneous mentions of how good times were at work these days.

Reading Coaching Agile Teams or searching online, you learn it is extremely difficult to evaluate agile coaches.  Based on this, I was expecting the transition from regimented, clear goals and metrics to a much more subjective world.  What I was not expecting was the painful contradiction of my two train rides: the one during which I was proudly headed toward an approach in part because of its clear advantage for the company; the other during which I wondered about my job security in the wake of my colleagues so materially questioning the worth of that approach.