Daring to Teach

What if someone is wonderfully talented, easy to get along with, but just wired in a way that is at odds with the way Agile teams work? What can you do about it? What should you do about it?

Over my working career, I have labored with some success to change my habits (i.e., rewire myself).  So, I fully believe that rewiring is an option, even if it is difficult work. For example, I have always been prone to falling right down a rabbit hole and losing track of my goal. Looking back, I would always curse my lack of focus, that I did things that I didn’t really choose to do. Sure, I chose them in a sense, but it was the choice of not making a choice, of ignoring the fact that I was going off the rails. The various mechanisms in Scrum and other Agile methods that repeatedly refocus one’s attention therefore make sense to me. This is but one aspect of working in an Agile way that has not only increased my value to the company, but more importantly made me a happier person: less stressed, more focused, able to react to change without so much angst.

I did all this voluntarily, because I was continually frustrated by my old working habits. But is pushing folks to rewire a good idea? I’m of two minds on this. The idea of forcing someone else to change puts a bad taste in my mouth. On the other hand, I am thankful to all the role models who taught me how to work better. To the extent that they intentionally chose to teach me–to encourage me to rewire–I am without reservation glad that they did. Now that I am in the position to teach others, is it fair for me to assume that those I influence will in the future be grateful that I encouraged them to rewire now, and therefore to ignore the bad taste in my mouth?

The easy out is to say that I will not be putting a gun to anyone’s head. If someone chooses to adopt things I teach, that is their choice. Indeed, I predicate my coaching on the idea that it is impossible to force someone to learn something. You can only expose people to ideas, to ways of working, and see what comes of it. The problem with this answer is that most of these instances take place in a company that pays people to create products that yield a profit. Benign an approach as I may take, that environment may be the gun.

I believe that the better ways of working that the Snowbird Seventeen and others uncovered are better because they reflect basic truths about humans. In other words, humans become better value (or profit) producers when you align the way you produce profit with the very way that humans are. That brings me to the edge of an ocean of moral and ethical questions that I simply don’t feel capable of swimming. My simplistic view, standing with the waves lapping my knees, is that you can either cynically regard this as mercenary thinking, or you can see Agile as bringing production in line with what is more fulfilling, enjoyable, and sustainable for us all.

Bringing this back to how I will go forward, I’ll cast aside the rationalizations and take a stand that I’ve been squeamish about taking: I have something worthwhile to teach. There.  I said it. I have learned greatly in my twenty-plus years of working in public, private, and academic organizations ranging in size from two people to over 100,000. I have seen basic human principles hold true in fields as disparate as software development, construction, and theater. Most importantly, I have seen with regularity people throwing their hands up in pained frustration, railing at the world, when many of the knots they bemoan are within their own power to untie.

I cringe a bit writing that. It makes me sound like I think myself some guru that has arrived in the promised land. I’m not. I’ll keep making mistakes, and I’ll keep learning more. Nonetheless, I believe that I have learned things that I want to pass on to others. Further, I believe that every one of us can teach each other at every stage. If we go forward in earnest, open to the ideas of others, living the example we want to see in the world, I think we can make our way without wringing our hands too much over the moral implications of it all.

(Inspired by a question on Quora.)