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.

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One thought on “You Don’t Have to Know What Your Observations Mean

  1. Ha! Re-reading a section of “Coaching Agile Teams” and realized I could have gotten to the above a lot faster through more careful reading. Adkins writes: “…offer your observations without being attached to whether they are ‘right’ or not.”

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