Layoffs

I’ve never been fired, but have been laid off three times over the course of four distinct careers. I’m also three-for-three for having landed in a much better place after having been laid off. So with three data points, maybe there is some truth to the street wisdom that a little adversity is a good thing.

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent- no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca, On Providence, 4.3

I have also survived 17 layoffs. And I remember them all.

Paradoxically, many of the layoffs I survived were more painful than the layoffs in which I was included. I have clear memories of people I enjoyed working with that one day were simply gone from the place I was spending more than one third of my life. The resulting crash of morale at the workplace simply added to the sense of dread and “why bother” attitude. Their absence became a reminder that we were all living under someone else’s Sword of Damocles, that we would pay the price of poor decisions made by someone else. In some instances, the nauseatingly smug expression of schadenfreude by a few well-connected corporate parasites and toxic individuals cruising the corridors just added to the sting. It doesn’t seem this is easier to deal with by those that remain after a layoff in a distributed work environment.

To say I’ve “survived” all the layoffs that occurred throughout my multiple careers, whether I was culled or not, is more than a little melodramatic. I have truly survived much, much greater losses. Layoffs are not lethal events and living according to several key Stoic principles has helped me to persevere and gain strength from the brief storms of finding work.

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” – Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus, 231232

Reflecting on work transition experiences, I wondered what is it about having been laid off that made the next place so much better.

I have always worked hard to add value to my employer’s business. If that value was either not appreciated or the business shifted away from needing the value I was capable and willing to provide, it was a clear sign that it’s time to move on. By making this a choice, I could leave with no hard feelings and no burned bridges. Psychologically, this is more intimidating but much healthier.

Seeing the positive side of being laid off can be a little more difficult, particularly if one has been blind to the signs that every company and manager broadcasts when a layoff is eminent and is surprised when they happen. For starters, layoffs erased all the baggage I was carrying that belonged to the employer and made it much easier to strike out in a direction that suited my interests, skills, talents, and goals. Each of the three layoffs launched new, more lucrative and rewarding careers.

“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.13

Switching employers, even careers, more frequently than previous generations is a good career development strategy. In the dot com era, it was the only effective way to find meaningful raises and career advancement. Why toil away for a decade under Management-by-Taylorism to scratch out incremental pay increases when a salary could be increased by 10%-20% just by switching employers? Twenty-five years on, staying with the same employer for more than five years actually looks odd to many recruiters I’ve been talking to.

A friend of mine has a personal policy to commit to an employer for 1,000 days. At that point, she decides if the workplace it meeting her goals and expectations. Doesn’t matter if it’s a shortcoming of her employer or if her goals and interests have changed – a mismatch is a mismatch so it’s time to leave. I think it’s a good policy, particularly in the Age of Information and Knowledge and distributed workforces.

A policy like this builds resilience in several ways.

1. It’s important to know what it takes to persevere with the crap work that goes with just about any job. Flitting from job to job doesn’t develop this. A 1,000 day commitment is enough to show that you made it past the “honeymoon” period every job has, have worked more than a few significant problems into solutions, and generally paid your dues and demonstrated – if only to yourself – you have the chops to do the work.
2. Deciding to leave a job and doing so multiple times throughout your life builds confidence in your abilities to create your future.
3. It adds a valuable layer to your talent stack, as Scott Adams has described it.

If it was generally known that employees had this policy, employers might expand their efforts to foster cultures that allow employees who are creative and collaborative to thrive and grow. Instead of what’s more common: Cube farms propped up by career leaches that brag about having worked at the company for 25 years when in fact all they’ve done is worked one mediocre year and repeated it 24 times.

I’m done with that. Forever.

“There are those too who suffer not from moral steadfastness but from inertia, and so lack the fickleness to live as they wish, and just live as they have begun.” – Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind


Photo by Benmar Schmidhuber on Unsplash

Show Your Work

A presentation I gave last week sparked the need to reach back into personal history and ask when I first programmed a computer. That would be high school. On an HP 9320 using HP Educational Basic and an optical card reader. The cards looked like this:

(Click to enlarge)

What occurred to me was that in the early days – before persistent storage like cassette tapes, floppy disks, and hard drives – a software developer could actually hold a program in their hands. Much like a woodworker or a glass blower or a baker or a candlestick maker, we could actually show something to friends and family! Woe to the student who literally dropped their program in the hallway.

Then that went away. Keyboards soaked up our coding thoughts and stored them in places impossible to see. We could only tell people about what we had created, often using lots of hand waving and so much jargon that it undoubtedly must have seemed as if we were speaking a foreign language or retelling a fish-that-got-away story. “I had to parse a data file THIIIIIIIIIS BIG using nothing but Python as an ETL tool!”

Yawn.

This is at the heart of what burned me out on writing code as a profession. There was no longer anything satisfying about it. At least, not in the way one gets satisfaction from working with wood or clay or fabric or cooking ingredients. The first time I created a predictive inventory control algorithm was a lot of fun and satisfying. But there were only 4-5 people on the planet who could appreciate what I’d done and since it was proprietary, I couldn’t share it. And just how many JavaScript-based menu systems can you write before the challenge becomes a task and eventually a tedious chore.

Way bigger yawn.

I’ve since found my way back into coding. A little. Python, several JavaScript libraries, and SQL are where I spend most of my time. What I code is what serves me. Tools for my use only. Tools that free up my time or help me achieve greater things in other areas of my life.

I can compare this to woodworking. (Something I very much enjoy and from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction.) If I’m making something for someone else, I put in extra effort to make it beautiful and functional. To do that, I may need to make a number of tools to support the effort – saw fences, jigs, and clamps. These hand-made tools certainly don’t look very pretty. They may not even be distinguishable from scrap wood to anybody but myself. But they do a great job of helping me achieve greater things. Things I can actually show and touch. And if the power goes down in the neighborhood, they’ll still be there when the lights come back on.

Busting Assumptions

The video in this post is one I show when talking about the need to question assumptions while working to integrate Agile principles and practices into an organization. It was taken with the dash camera in my car. The drama seems to make it easier for people to see the different points of view and associated assumptions in play. (The embedded video is a lower resolution, adapted for the web, but it still shows most of what I wish to point out.)

First off, no one was injured in this event beyond a few sets of rattled nerves, including mine. Even though this happened fast, there were signals that immediately preceded the event which suggested something strange was about to happen. The key moment is replayed at the end of the video at 1/4 speed for a second chance to notice what happened.

  1. The truck ahead of me was slowing down. Unusual behavior when the expectation is that traffic would be flowing.
  2. The driver in the truck was signaling that they intended to move to the left, either to switch lanes or turn left.
  3. This activity was happening as we approached an intersection.

Something didn’t seem right to me so I had started to slow down. That’s why it looks like the driver of the Jeep appears to be speeding up.

So what are some of the assumptions that were probably in play?

An important piece of information is that the road in the video is a two lane one way street. The driver of the Jeep clearly understood this and assumed everyone else on the road would be following the rules of the road. The driver of the truck appears to be assuming he is driving on a two lane two way street and so prepared to turn left onto a side street. His signaling and subsequent behavior suggest this. So the driver of the truck was assuming everyone else on the road was operating under this incorrect understanding. So when he began his left hand turn he wasn’t expecting the need to check the left hand lane for cars coming up from behind him. One second difference, literally, in the timing and this could have ended badly for several people.

Assumptions are unconscious and everyone has them. By design they never represent the full picture. Yet we almost always act as if they do and, more importantly, that they are shared by everyone around us. Events like those in the video clearly demonstrate that is not the case. If it was, there would be far fewer road accidents.

Organizations that are seeking to implement Agile principles and practices are guaranteed to be operating under a mountain of assumptions for how work can or “should” be done. They’re easy to spot based on how strongly people react when someone fails to follow the rules. It’s important to examine these assumptions so they can be either validated, updated, or retired. If we don’t do the work to identify and understand the assumptions driving our work processes we will usually be made aware of them when some crisis occurs. Where’s the fun in that?


Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Good Intentions, Bad Results

In The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dörner makes the following observation:

In our political environment, it would seem, we are surrounded on all sides with good intentions. But the nurturing of good intentions is an utterly undemanding mental exercise, while drafting plans to realize those worthy goals is another matter. Moreover, it is far from clear whether “good intentions plus stupidity” or “evil intentions plus intelligence” have wrought more harm in the world. People with good intentions usually have few qualms about pursuing their goals. As a result, incompetence that would otherwise have remained harmless often becomes dangerous, especially as incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the qualms of conscience that sometimes inhibit the doings of competent people with bad intentions. The conviction that our intentions are unquestionably good may sanctify the most questionable means. (emphasis added, Kindle location 133)

That sounds about right. To this I would add that incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the consequences of imposing their good intentions on others.

The distinguishing feature of a competent individual with good intentions and an incompetent individual with good intentions is the ability to predict and understand the consequences of their actions. Not just the immediate consequences, but the long term consequences as well. The really competent individuals with good intentions will also have a grasp of the systemic effects of acting on their intentions. People with a systemic view of the situation are deliberate in their actions and less likely to act or react emotionally to circumstances. Doesn’t mean they will always get it right, but when they fall short they are also more likely to learn from the experience in useful ways.


Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Mindfulness? There’s an app for that! (Revisited)

Three years ago, I published the following article:

It appears mindfulness is…well…on a lot of people’s minds lately. I’ve seen this wave come and go twice before. This go around, however, will be propelled and amplified by the Internet. Will it come and go faster? Will there be a lasting and deeper revelation around mindfulness? I predict the former.

Mindfulness is simple and it’s hard. As the saying goes, mindfulness is not what you think.  It was difficult when I first began practicing Rinzai Zen meditation and Aikido many years ago. It’s even more difficult in today’s instant information, instant gratification, and short attention span culture. The uninitiated are ill equipped for the journey.

With this latest mindfulness resurgence expect an amplified parasite wave of meditation teachers and mindfulness coaches. A Japanese Zen Master (Roshi, or “teacher”) I studied with years ago called them “popcorn roshis” – they pop up everywhere and have little substance. No surprise that this wave includes a plethora of mindfulness “popcorn apps.”

Spoiler alert: There are no apps for mindfulness. Attempting to develop mindfulness by using an app on a device that is arguably the single greatest disruptor of mindfulness is much like taking a pill to counteract the side effects of another pill in your quest for health. At a certain point, the pills are the problem. They’ve become the barrier to health.

The “mindfulness” apps that can be found look to be no different than thousands of other non-mindfulness apps offering timers, journaling, topical text, and progress tracking. What they all have in common is that they place your mindfulness practice in the same space as all the other mindfulness killing apps competing for your attention – email, phone, texts, social media, meeting reminders, battery low alarms, and all the other widgets that beep, ring, and buzz.

The way to practicing mindfulness is by the deliberate subtraction of distractions, not the addition of another collection of e-pills. The “killer app” for mindfulness is to kill the app. The act of powering off your smart phone for 30 minutes a day is in itself a powerful practice toward mindfulness. No timer needed. No reminder required. Let it be a random act. Be free! At least for 30 minutes or so.

Mental states like mindfulness, focus, and awareness are choices and don’t arise out of some serendipitous environmental convergence of whatever. They are uniquely human states. Relying on a device or machine to develop mindfulness is decidedly antithetical to the very state of mindfulness. Choosing to develop such mental states requires high quality mentors (I’ve had many) and deliberate practice – a practice that involves subtracting the things from your daily life that work against them.

“For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.12

Looking at the past three Internet years I’d have to say the prospects for the latest mindfulness wave amounting to anything substantial are bleak. There probably aren’t enough words to describe how far off the rails this fad has gone. But there is a number! 2020.

Bonus: There’s a study! “Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construals.” (Preprint) There was a concept in this study that was new to me: “self-construal.” According to the APA dictionary:

self-construal
n. any specific belief about the self. The term is used particularly in connection with the distinction between independent self-construals and interdependent self-construals.

Well, that definition sorta has itself as the definition. So…

independent self-construal
a view of the self (self-construal) that emphasizes one’s separateness and unique traits and accomplishments and that downplays one’s embeddedness in a network of social relationships. Compare interdependent self-construal.

And

interdependent self-construal
a view of the self (self-construal) that emphasizes one’s embeddedness in a network of social relationships and that downplays one’s separateness and unique traits or accomplishments. Compare independent self-construal.

Clear on terms, on to the abstract:

Mindfulness appears to promote individual well-being, but its interpersonal effects are less clear. Two studies in adult populations tested whether the effects of mindfulness on prosocial behavior differ by self-construals. In Study 1 (N = 366), a brief mindfulness induction, compared to a meditation control, led to decreased prosocial behavior among people with relatively independent self-construals, but had the opposite effect among those with relatively interdependent self-construals. In Study 2 (N = 325), a mindfulness induction led to decreased prosocial behavior among those primed with independence, but had the opposite effect among those primed with interdependence. The effects of mindfulness on prosocial behavior appear to depend on individuals’ broader social goals. This may have implications for the increasing popularity of mindfulness training around the world.

TL;DR: Mindfulness “training” makes selfish people more selfish and narcissistic people more narcissistic. On the other hand, it makes altruistic people more altruistic and compassionate people more compassionate. So there’s that.

I think it’s fair to say the last several years in particular have revealed an awe inspiring explosion in selfishness and narcissism. Evidenced by the extreme polarization manifest in identity politics and all it’s dubious offspring. The thought of all these people pulling on a mindfulness mask like some fashion accessory is less than comforting.

Three years on, it looks to be certain that “mindfulness” has been co-opted and applied as a temporary bandage in a world lacking resilience, flexibility, and genuine tolerance. Another mindfulness wave that has failed to crash onto the shores of civilization with a cleansing thunder, instead mindlessly trickled up to the edge and done little more than rearrange the garbage floating at the shoreline.

I really wanted it to succeed. Maybe next time.

References

Poulin, M., Ministero, L., Gabriel, S., Morrison, C., & Naidu, E. (2021, April 9). Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construals. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/xhyua

 

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

False Barriers to Implementing Scrum

When my experience with scrum began to transition from developer to scrum master and on to mentor and coach, early frustrations could have been summed up in the phrase, “Why can’t people just follow a simple framework?” The passage of time and considerable experience has greatly informed my understanding of what may inhibit or prevent intelligent and capable people from picking up and applying a straightforward framework like scrum.

At the top of this list of insights has to be the tendency of practitioners to place elaborate decorations around their understanding of scrum. In doing so, they make scrum practices less accessible. The framework itself can make this a challenge. Early on, while serving in the role of mentor, I would introduce scrum with an almost clinical textbook approach: define the terms, describe the process, and show the obligatory recursive work flow diagrams. In short order, I’d be treading water (barely) in recursive debates on topics like the differences between epics and stories. I wrote about this phenomenon in a previous post as it relates to story points. So how can we avoid being captured by Parkinson’s law of triviality and other cognitive traps?

Words Matter

I discovered that the word “epic” brought forth fatigue inducing memories of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Shakespeare. Instant block. Solution out of reach. It was like putting a priceless, gold-plated, antique picture frame around the picture postcard of a jackalope your cousin sent on his way through Wyoming. Supertanker loads of precious time were wasted in endless debates about whether or not something was an epic or a story. So, no more talk of epics. I started calling them “story categories.” Or “chapters.” Or “story bundles.” Whatever it took to get teams onto the idea that “epics” are just one of the dimensions to a story map or product backlog that helps the product owner and agile delivery team keep a sense of overall project scope. Story writing progress accelerated and teams were doing a decent job of creating “epics” without knowing they had done so. Fine tuning their understanding and use of formal scrum epics came later and with much greater ease.

“Sprint” is another unfortunate word in formal scrum. With few exceptions, the people that have been on my numerous scrum teams haven’t sprinted anywhere in decades. Sprinting is something one watches televised from some far away place every four years. Maybe. Given its fundamental tenets and principles, who’s to say a team can’t find a word for the concept of a “sprint” that makes sense to them. The salient rule, it would seem, is that whatever word they choose, the team fully understand that “it” is a time-boxed commitment for completing a defined set of work tasks. And if “tide,” “phase,” or “iteration” gets the team successfully through a project using scrum then who am I to wear a the badge of “Language Police?”

A good coach meets the novice at their level and then builds their expertise over time, structured in a way that matches and challenges the learner’s capacity to learn. I recall from my early Aikido practice the marked difference between instructors who stressed using the correct Japanese name for a technique over those that focused more on learning the physical techniques and described them in a language I could understand. Once I’d learned the physical patterns the verbal names came much more easily.

Full disclosure: this is not as easy when there are multiple scrum teams in the same organization that eventually rotate team members. Similarly, integrating new hires with scrum experience is much easier when the language is shared. But to start, if the block to familiarization with the scrum process revolves around semantic debates it makes sense to adapt the words so that the team can adopt the process then evolve the words to match more closely those reflected in the scrum framework.

Philosophy, System, Mindset, or Process

A similar fate awaited team members that had latched onto the idea that scrum or agile in general is a philosophy. I watched something similar happen in the late 1980’s when the tools and techniques of total quality management evolved into monolithic world views and corporate religions. More recently, I’ve attended meet-ups where conversations about “What is Agile?” include describing the scrum master as “therapist” or “spiritual guide.” Yikes! That’s some pretty significant mission creep.

I’m certain fields like philosophy and psychotherapy could benefit from many of the principles and practices found in agile. But it would be a significant category error to place agile at the same level as those fields of study. If you think tasking an agile novice with writing an “epic” is daunting, try telling them they will need to study and fully understand the “philosophy of agile” before they become good agile practitioners.

The issue is that it puts the idea of practicing agile essentially out of reach for the new practitioner or business leader thinking about adopting agile. The furthest up this scale I’m willing to push agile is that it is a mindset. An adaptive way of thinking about how work gets done. From this frame I can leverage a wide variety of common, real-life experiences that will help those new to agile understand how it can help them succeed in their work life.

Out in the wild, best to work with the system as much as possible if you want meaningful work to actually get done.

Tools for Practice

Building the tools you need to develop a skill will also deepen your understanding of that skill.

The pandemic has offered unprecedented opportunity for reflection and self-improvement. Unsurprisingly, most people don’t see it this way and therefore have failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Upsetting the status quo and the familiar – however slight – leads to a disproportionate amount of stress and anxiety for many people. The prospect of getting to know their families or themselves better proves uncomfortable enough to drive people toward bing-watching TV, over-eating, alcohol, or any number of other distractions. Anything to avoid introspection. My theory is that this happens because most people have either lost or never had the skills for self-reflection. External validation is the way of the 21st century. That usually ends up with them expending exorbitant amounts of effort justifying their shortcomings or assigning blame to the nearest face they can put on their problems – an “annoying” partner, an “uncooperative” co-worker, etc.

I also believe it takes very little effort to begin the work of reflection, introspection, and self-improvement. Start simple.

When it was clear the pandemic lock-downs were going to go on longer then the “experts” kept saying – evidenced by the weekly movement of the goal posts – I began to wonder how I might use this newfound flexibility for how I organize time. No longer confined to the hours during which I would normally be in the physical office, I could now complete my 8 hours of work – broken into pieces – at almost at any time during my waking hours. Plus the distance I had to commute back and forth from home and work shrank to an incredibly small fraction of what it used to be. This, too, opened up more time. This change didn’t just occur in my world, but globally. And since everyone else still needed to stay employed, many creative people found ways to continue their professions in a virtual environment. Suddenly, engaging in things of interest but were unattainable because of time and space requirements became available.

I had been wanting to rekindle my interesting in playing cello for years. I hadn’t had a lesson in over 10 years and practice had fallen by the wayside. Now, connecting with an instructor was not only possible, but the number of options had exploded. There are now many on-line videos and instructors available. After a little research, I connected with an instructor in New York City and have been taking weekly lessons for the past three months.

The re-introduction of live music – particularly music that I’m playing – has had a surprisingly positive impact on my disposition. As a card carrying introvert, I thought I’d been handling the pandemic lock down pretty well, especially when compared to many of my peers. Yet this small change, focused on personal development, brought warmth and light to mid-winter days.

So that’s the back story. Now that I’m in the groove again with playing cello, I can describe several things about this experience that I’ve learned with respect to practice, particularly deliberate practice.

Along with playing cello, I wanted to deepen my understanding of music theory and learn how to sight read music. During one of my lessons, the instructor and I kicked around the idea of using flash cards. The card would show a single note and the student would play that note. Searching later for such an application was unsuccessful. It probably exists, but it wasn’t something I wanted to spend more than 30 minutes trying to find.

All the flash card programs I looked at are designed to teach things in a question – answer format. They work well for subjects like history or learning a new language. But nothing that would simply show a new card after a time delay. So I wrote my own program to accomplish this. In the process, I developed my understanding of the cello’s range of notes and music keys in general. Here’s a screen capture of the first iteration’s MVP:

At an adjustable interval, a new note within the cello’s range is displayed in the selected key. For my skill level, this is immensely challenging. And I can tell it is developing my skills for sight reading and quickly finding a particular note on the instrument.

Developing tools like this is second nature to me and the result of many years of experience working with wood and solving business problems with software. Each of these activities has a tenet that if you can’t find a tool you need, you build what you need from scratch. This tenet is all the more powerful by having stewed in the mindsets associated with hand tools and open source software. In a very real sense, creating tools that support acquiring a new skill are part of the practice. To build an effective tool, you must fully understand the problem it is intended to solve. An effective tool is the result of having asked and answered many good questions. And, of course, all this is driven by an Agile mindset (iterations, tests, experiments, redesign, retest, etc.) design thinking, and understanding the context in which the tool will be used (systems thinking.)

 

Image by endri yana yana from Pixabay

The Path to Mastery: Begin with the Fundamentals

Somewhere along the path of studying Aikido for 25  years I found a useful perspective on the art that applies to a lot of skills in life.  Aikido is easy to understand. It’s a way of living that leaves behind it a trail of techniques. What’s hard is overcoming the unending stream of little frustrations and often self-imposed limitations. What’s hard is learning how to make getting up part of falling down. What’s hard is healing after getting hurt. What’s hard is learning the importance of recognizing when a white belt is more of a master than you are. In short, what’s hard is mastering the art.

The same can be said about practicing Agile. Agile is easy to understand. It is four fundamental values and twelve principles. The rest is just a trail of techniques and supporting tools – rapid application development, XP, scrum, Kanban, Lean, SAFe, TDD, BDD, stories, sprints, stand-ups – all just variations from a very simple foundation and adapted to meet the prevailing circumstances. Learning how to apply the best technique for a given situation is learned by walking the path toward mastery – working through the endless stream of frustrations and limitations, learning how to make failing part of succeeding, recognizing when you’re not the smartest person in the room, and learning how to heal after getting hurt.

If an Aikidoka is attempting to apply a particular technique to an opponent  and it isn’t working, their choices are to change how they’re performing the technique, change the technique, or invent a new technique based on the fundamentals. Expecting the world to adapt to how you think it should go is a fool’s path. Opponents in life – whether real people, ideas, or situations – are notoriously uncompromising in this regard.  The laws of physics, as they say, don’t much care about what’s going on inside your skull. They stubbornly refuse to accommodate your beliefs about how things “should” go.

The same applies to Agile practices. If something doesn’t seem to be working, it’s time to step in front of the Agile mirror and ask yourself a few questions. What is it about the fundamentals you’re not paying attention to? Which of the values are out of balance? What technique is being misapplied? What different technique will better serve? If your team or organization needs to practice Lean ScrumXPban SAFe-ly than do that. Be bold in your quest to find what works best for your team. The hue and cry you hear won’t be from the gods, only those who think they are – mere mortals more intent on ossifying Agile as policy, preserving their status, or preventing the perceived corruption of their legacy.

But I’m getting ahead of things. Before you can competently discern which practices a situation needs and how to best structure them you must know the fundamentals.

There are no shortcuts.

In this series of posts I hope to open a dialog about mastering Agile practices. We’ll begin by studying several maps that have been created over time that describe the path toward mastery, discuss the benefits and shortcomings of each of these maps, and explore the reasons why many people have a difficult time following these maps. From there we’ll move into the fundamentals of Agile practices and see how a solid understanding of these fundamentals can be used to respond to a wide variety of situations and contexts. Along the way we’ll discover how to develop an Agile mindset.

Photo by simon sun on Unsplash

The Wonder of the Early Web Returns to My Intranet

Once Upon a Time on the World Wide Web, before Google arrived and established a self-fulfilling prophecy as their motto, “Don’t be Evil,” you could ask a question of the Internet and it would reflect what was known about the world’s thinking on the subject. I used to do this quite frequently. I don’t do it so much anymore because all I get back are advertisements or an algorithmic regurgitation based on partially digested bits from my search history and bottom dwelling sludge from who knows what data mining expedition.

I recall one example. Fifteen years ago or so, the phrase “shallow tasking” came to mind as a description of what’s really going on inside people’s heads when they claim to be “multi-tasking.” I wondered if it had been used. It hadn’t. It didn’t show up in any of the searches. It’s still a pretty lonely search result page, I see.

The internet now, thanks to Google, is garbage for this type of purpose. I can’t trust that what comes back is any kind of impartial reflection of what might be happening in the world. That seems to be changing in my own little world since organizing my disparate bits of knowledge and wisdom in Obsidian.

As I add more and more bits and pieces from things I read here and there and couple them with my thoughts – Zettelkasten style – I’m seeing interesting patterns emerge. I’m seeing what I’m most interested in. I’m seeing what I’m obsessing with. I’m seeing how this connects to that which connects to those which connects to these. And I have enough references now that I can search for a word or phrase and see what my little knowledge base has been collecting. I can do this for ideas I didn’t know I was collecting. And once again I have the emerging feeling of interesting curiosity that I used to get when I would query the Internet on Altavista or Yahoo or the pre-Hell-Yeah-We’re-Evil Google.

Of course, there is a significant risk of building little more than a private echo chamber. To counter this, there are a number of safeguards built in to my little microcosm. This blog is part of that system of safeguards. I expose my ideas back to the cruel crucible of the World Wide Web. What, if anything, comes back by way of feedback informs my internal knowledge-base. And it grows stronger, more robust, more valuable.

Building Mastery One Day At A Time

Old joke: A young couple visiting New York City for the first time has lost their way. They spot a street musician, just the person to help them get reoriented. “Excuse us, but can you tell us how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The musician stopped playing and thought for a moment before replying: “Practice.”

The prevailing wisdom is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the level of mastery in any particular field of endeavor. Turns out, this is true for fields with well-defined measures for excellence like chess and music. In each of these areas, the rules are relatively simple, but mastering them isn’t easy. It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is playing an instrument out of tune or off-beat. And yet, a pawn shop guitar in the hands of Joe Satriani or Liona Boyd will likely result in that instrument expressing a voice no one knew it had. As for chess masters, they’re the ones who win against all challengers regardless the time or place of the match.

For areas of human endeavor where the edges are less well defined, like business or coaching, there may be no marker for how much practice it takes to reach a stable mastery. Having successfully started and built one business does not guarantee the next venture will be equally successful. A coach with a winning system for one team may end up at the bottom of the ranks when the same system is used with a different team.

Developing expertise with scrum is a blend of both of these. The rules are simple, but they are not easy to master. At the same time the territory isn’t well defined and frequently changes. A new client, a new team, or a new project and the edges for what is possible change. Misunderstanding this has been at the root of much of the frustration I’ve observed among people new to agile. They come from a world with well-defined edges – traditional project management practices filled with Gantt charts, milestones, functional specifications, use cases, deployment requirements, and a plethora of other artifacts that “must” be in place before work can begin. As many unknowns as possible must be made known, risks pounded down to trivial annoyances, and all traces of ambiguity squeezed out of the project plan. Learning how to let go of deeply rooted practices like this is no small thing. We like the comfort of well-defined rules. And when there’s work to be done with scarce resources to make it happen, we reach for the rules most familiar to us.

So how can we update the tried-and-true, super comfy confines of past practices and rule sets?

Practice, of the deliberate variety. As Emperor Hadrian might have put it, “Brick by brick, my fellow citizens, brick by brick.”

Research following on the “10,000 hours of practice” generalization has shown that it isn’t just that someone has completed 10,000 hours of practice. The critical factor was how they practiced. Was each hour spent completing the same motions and behaviors from the previous hour or were they spent building on successive experiences, seeking greater challenges, and developing a deeper understanding of their craft? Following the latter path leads to the incremental improvements required to build mastery. And once obtained, the same attitude toward practice helps sustain a level of mastery. There will always be something more to learn, a fresh perspective to experience, or a more satisfying way to experience success.

There is a great deal of neuroscience at the foundation of practice and few would dispute the value of learning how to learn. And yet as our experience grows and we master a particular field, it’s deceptively easy to fall into a complacency of thought whereby we convince ourselves there isn’t anything else to learn. That is until some seismic paradigm shift makes it clear the rules have changed and we’d let our mastery go stale. The consequences of this are captured by Greene (2012) in his book, Mastery:

“We prefer to live with familiar ideas and habits of thinking, but we pay a steep price for this: our minds go dead from the lack of challenge and novelty; we reach a limit in our field and lose control over our fate because we become replaceable.” (pg. 176)

If this happens, learning how to learn may not be enough. Learning how to unlearn may be equally valuable for regaining mastery.

In classic hacker culture, you aren’t a hacker until other recognized hackers call you a hacker. It’s a title to be earned, not claimed. The unfortunate title of “scrum master” aside, it is useful to take this credentialing tradition to heart with scrum as well. Consider yourself an apprentice scrum practitioner until other recognized scrum masters recognize your mastery. Holding such a frame keeps us humble, curious, and open to constant and never ending improvement.

I’ve been practicing, leading, or coaching scrum in one capacity or another for over 10 years and based on my billable hours over the past several years, I’m quite confident I’ve passed the 10,000 hour mark for practicing scrum. Even so, I’m not a master scrum master…yet. The reason is simple and is expressed by the great cellist Pablo Casals’ response to filmmaker Robert Snyder’s query as to why Casals continues to practice five hours a day at 80 years of age, “Because I think I am making progress.” I keep building upon my practice because each day I discover new ways to enhance team performance and improve my skills. Perhaps more telling, any time I think I’ve heard every excuse for not following the scrum framework, someone on one of my teams surprises me.

If you’re interested in staying on the path toward scrum mastery, you need to get out of the books and into the world. There are a variety of ready opportunities to mark and gauge your progress.

  • Frequently review the framework for scrum and compare what’s there with your current projects. If there are mismatches, find out why. Is there really a good reason for straying from the framework? If so, open a dialog about these differences during your retrospectives.
  • If possible, ask your fellow agile practitioners when they are holding their next review, backlog refinement, or sprint planning session and get yourself invited as an observer.
  • There are probably a number of excellent agile related meet-ups in your area. Speaking from personal experience, these are incredibly valuable communities of support and new ideas.

Image by sarfarazis from Pixabay

References

Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York, NY: Viking Penguin