Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

Ellen Fishbein asks, “Why NOT be an information sponge?” In the Age of Information, I think her answer is a good one: “I currently believe that each of us must move away from the ‘information sponge’ mindset and try to develop a more nuanced relationship with information.”

I’d have to characterize myself as more of an information amoeba – (IIRC, the amoeba is, by weight, the most vicious life form on earth) – on the hunt for information and after internalizing it, going into rest mode while I decompose and reassemble it into something of use to my understanding of the world. Yum.

More generally, to be an effective and successful consumer of information these days, the Way of the Sponge (WotS, passive, information washes through them and they absorb everything) is no longer tenable and the Way of the Amoeba (WotA, active, information washes over them and they hunt down what they need) is likely to be the more successful strategy. The WotA requires considerable energy but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. WotS…well, there’s your obsessive processed food eating TV binge-watcher right there. Mr. Square Bob Sponge Pants.

What’s implied by the WotA vs the WotS is that the former has a more active role in optimizing the informational signal to noise ratio than the latter. So a few thoughts to begin with on signals and noise.

Depending on the moment and the context, one person’s signal is another person’s noise. Across the moments that make up a lifetime, one person’s noise may become the same person’s signal and vice versa. When I was in high school, I found Frank Sinatra’s voice annoying and not something to be mingled with my collection of Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Today…well, to disparage the Chairman of the Board is fightin’ words in my house. Over time, at least, noise can become signal and signal become noise.

But I’m speaking here of the signal quality and not it’s quantity (i.e. volume)

Some years ago I came across Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible:

It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

This has been interpreted in a variety of ways. I carry this around in my head as a distillation from several of the more faithful versions: Expand the edge of what I know by studying the things that are close by. Over time, there is an accumulation of loosely coupled ideas and facts that begin to coalesce into a deeper meaning, a signal, if you will, relevant to my life.

With this insight, I’ve been able to be more deliberate and directed about what I want or need to know. I’ve learned to be a good custodian of the edge and what I allow to occupy space on that edge. These are my “internal gating mechanisms.” It isn’t an easy task, but there are some easy wins. For starters, learning to unplug completely. Especially from social media and what tragically passes for “news reporting” or “journalism”these days.

The task is largely one of filtering. I very rarely directly visit information sources. Rather, I leverage RSS feeds and employ filtering rules. I pull information of interest rather than have it pushed at me by “news” web sites, cable or TV channels, or newspapers. While this means I will occasionally miss some cool stuff, it’s more than compensated by the boost in signal quality achieved by excluding all the sludge from the edge. I suspect I still get the cool stuff, just in a slightly different form or revealed by a different source that makes it through the filter. In this way, it’s a matter of modulating the quantity such that the signal is easier to find.

There is a caution to consider while optimizing a signal-to-noise ratio, something reflected in Kauffman’s comments around the rate of exploration for new ideas: “If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization…”

Before the Internet, before PCs were a commodity, before television was popular it was much, much easier to find time to think. In fact, it was never something that had to be looked for or sought out. I think that’s what is different today. It takes WORK to find a quiet space and time to think. While my humble little RSS filters do a great job of keeping a high signal-to-noise ratio with all things Internet, accomplishing the same thing in the physical world is becoming more and more difficult.

The “attention economy,” or whatever it’s being called today, is reaching a truly disturbing level of invasion. It seems I’ve used more electrician’s tape to cover up camera lenses and microphones in the past year than I’ve used on actual electrical wires. The number of appliances and gadgets in the home with glowing screens crying out for bluetooth or wifi access like leaches seeking blood are their own source of noise. This is my current battleground for finding the signal within the noise.

Enough about filtering. What about boundaries. Fences make for good neighbors, said someone wise and experienced. And there’s a good chance that applies to information organization, too. Keeping the spiritual information in my head separate from my shopping list probably helps me stop short of forming some sort of cult around Costco. ( “All praise ‘Bulk,’ the God of Stuff!)

An amoeba has a much more develop boundary between self and other than a sponge and that’s probably a net gain even with the drawback of extra energy required to fuel that arrangement. Intellectually, we have our beliefs and values that mark where those edges between self and other are defined.

So I’ll stop for now with the question, “What are the strategies and mental models that promote permeability for desired or needed information while keeping, as much as possible, the garbage ‘out there?’”


Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Innovation and Limits to Growth

In a basic growth model, some finite resource is consumed at a rate such that the resource is eventually depleted. When that happens the growth that was dependent on that resource stops and the system begins to collapse. If it happens that the resource is renewable eventually the rate of consumption matches the rate of renewal and the system enters into a state of equilibrium (no growth). This is illustrated by the black line in Figure 1. In this second scenario if the rate of consumption exceeds the rate of renewal the system will again collapse.

In the Solow model of growth (neoclassical growth model) a new element is introduced: the effect of technology or innovation on the growth curve. Without innovation, in systems where technology stays fixed, growth will eventually stop. The introduction of innovative solutions to resource problems, however, has the effect of raising the upper bound to growth limits. This is illustrated by the red line in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - Innovation Boost
Figure 1 – Innovation Boost

A prevailing assumption with innovation is that it is necessarily synonymous with invention. To be innovative is to create something that has not previously existed. This is an erroneous assumption. History is filled with accounts of dominant societies furthering their success by adopting innovative discoveries made by smaller societies. The adoption of Arabic numerals by countries that had previously used Roman numerals is a striking example of a dominant society integrating an innovation from a smaller society.

The challenge for an organization, then, isn’t so much how to be innovative, rather, how to better recognize and adopt innovations discovered elsewhere. More succinctly, how to better seek out and distinguish innovative solutions aligned with the organization’s strategy from those that simply rate high on the coolness scale.

False Barriers to Implementing Scrum – II

In a previous post, I described several barriers to implementing scrum. Recently, an additional example came to light similar to the mistake of elevating scrum or Agile to a philosophy.

In a conversation with a colleague, we were exploring ways on how we might drive interest for browsing the growing wealth of Agile related information being added to the company wiki.  It’s an impressive collection of experiences of how other teams have solved a wide array of interesting problems using Agile principles and practices. Knowing that we cannot personally attend to every need on every project team, we were talking through various ways to develop the capacity for exploration and self-education. I think I must have used the phrase “the information is out there and readily available” a couple of times to many because my colleague reacted to where I put the bar by comparing learning Agile to surgery.

Using the surgery metaphor, she pressed the comparison that all the information she needs about surgery is “out there and readily available” but even if she knew all that information she likely wouldn’t be a good surgeon. Fair point that experience and practice are important. And if that is the case, then everyone should be taking every opportunity they can to practice good agile rather than regressing to old habits.

More importantly, perhaps, is the misapplied metaphor. Practicing agile isn’t as complicated as surgery or rocket science or any other such endeavor that requires years of deep study and practice. Comparing it to something like that places the prospects of doing well in a short amount of time mentally beyond the reach of any potential practitioners.

Perhaps a better metaphor is the opening of a new rail line in the city. A good measure of effort needs to be expended to educate the public on the line’s availability, the schedules, how to purchase fares, where the connections are, what are the safety features, etc. Having done that, having “put the information out there where it is generally available,” it is a reasonable expectation that the public will make the effort to find it when they need it. It is unreasonable, and unscaleable, to build such a system and then expect that every passenger will be personally escorted from their front door to their seat on the train.

It is also interesting to consider what this does to the “empathy scale” when such an overextended metaphor is applied to efforts such as learning to practice Agile. If we frame learning Agile as similar to surgery then as people work to implement Agile are we more inclined to have an excessive amount of empathy for their struggles and be more accepting or accommodating of their short comings?

“Not to worry that you still don’t have a well formed product backlog. This is like surgery, after all.”

Are we as an organization and each of our employees better served by the application of a more appropriate metaphor, one that matches the skill and expectations of the task?

“We’ve provided instruction as to what a product backlog is and how to create one. We’ve guided you as you’ve practiced refining a product backlog. You know where to find suggestions for improving your skills for product backlog stewardship (wiki, books, colleagues, etc). Now role up your sleeves and do the work.”

Successful coaching for developing the ability in team members for actively seeking answers requires skillfully letting them struggle and fail in recoverable ways. It is possible to hold their hand too long. To use another metaphor, provide whatever guidance and instruction you need to so they know how to fish, then let them alone to practice casting their own line.


Photo credit: langll

Friends, Guides, Coaches, and Mentors

The “conscious competence” model for learning is fairly well known. If not explicitly, than at least implicitly. Most people can recognize when someone is operating at a level of unconscious incompetence even if they can’t quite put their finger on why it is such a person makes the decisions they do. Recognizing when we ourselves are at the level of unconscious incompetence is a bit more problematic.

A robust suite of cognitive biases that normally help us navigate an increasingly complex world seem to conspire against us and keep us in the dark about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. Confirmation bias, selective perception, the observer bias, the availability heuristic, the Ostrich effect, the spotlight effect and many others all help us zero in on the shiny objects that confirm and support our existing memories and beliefs. Each of these tissue-thin cognitive biases layer up to form a dense curtain, perhaps even an impenetrable wall, between the feedback the world is sending and our ability to receive the information.

There is a direct relationship between the density of the barrier and the amount of energy needed to drive the feedback through the barrier. People who are introspective as well as receptive to external feedback generally do quite well when seeking to improve their competencies. For those with a dense barrier it may require an intense experience to deliver the message that there are things about themselves that need to change. For some a poorly received business presentation may be enough to send them on their way to finding out how to do better next time. For others it may take being passed over for a promotion. Still others may not get the message until they’ve been fired from their job.

However it happens, if you’ve received the message that there are some changes you’d like to make in your life and it’s time to do the work, an important question to ask yourself is “Am I searching for something or am I lost?”

If you are searching for something, the answer may be found in a conversation over coffee with a friend or peer who has demonstrated they know what you want to know. It may be that what you’re looking for – improve your presentation skills, for example – requires a deeper dive into a set of skills and it makes sense to find a guide to help you. Perhaps this involves taking a class or hiring a tutor.

If you are lost you’ll want to find someone with a much deeper set of skills, experience, and wisdom. A first time promotion into a management position is a frequent event that either exposes someone’s unconscious incompetence (i.e. the Peter Principle) or challenges someone to double their efforts at acquiring the skills to successfully manage people. Finding a coach or a mentor is the better approach to developing the necessary competencies for success when the stakes are higher and the consequences when failing are greater.

A couple of examples may help.

When I was first learning to program PCs I read many programming books cover to cover. It was a new world for me and I had very little sense of the terrain or what I was really interested in doing. So I studied everything. Over time I became more selective of the books I bought or read. Eventually, I stopped buying books altogether because there was often just a single chapter of interest. By the time I concluded my software development career, it had been many years since I last picked up a software development book. This was a progression from being lost at the start – when I needed coaches and mentors in the form of books and experienced software developers – to needing simple guidance from articles and peers and eventually to needing little more than a hint or two for the majority of my software development career.

A more recent example is an emergent need to learn photography – something I don’t particular enjoy. Yet for pragmatic reasons, it’s become worth my time to learn how to take a particular kind of photograph. I needed a coach or a mentor because this was entirely new territory for me. So I hired a professional photographer with an established reputation for taking the type of photograph I’m interesting in. My photography coach is teaching me what I need to know. (He is teaching me how to fish, in other words, rather then me paying him for a fish every time I need one.)

Unlike the experience of learning how to program – where I really didn’t know what I wanted to do – my goal with photography is very specific. The difference had a significant influence on who I choose as guides and mentors. For software development, I sought out everyone and anyone who knew more than I. For photography, I sought a very specific set of skills. I didn’t want to sit through hours of classes learning how to take pictures of barn owls 1,000 meters away in the dark. I didn’t want to suffer through a droning lecture on the history of camera shutters. Except in a very roundabout way, none of this serves my goal for learning how to use a camera for a very specific purpose.

Depending on what type of learner you are, working with a mentor who really, really knows their craft about a specific subject you want to learn can be immensely more satisfying and enjoyable. Also, less expensive and time consuming. If it expands into something more, than great. With this approach you will have the opportunity to discover a greater interest without a lot of upfront investment in time and money.

Moving Past “I Don’t Know”

In 2015 I attended the Mile High Agile conference in Denver where Mike Cohn delivered the morning keynote address: “Let Go of Knowing: How Holding onto Views May Be Holding You Back.” As you might expect from a seasoned professional, it was an excellent presentation and very well received. A collection of 250+ scrum masters, product owners, and agile coaches is no stranger to mistakes, failures, and terrifying moments of doubt.

As valuable as the ideas in Cohn’s presentation are, I want to take them further. Not further into the value of keeping our sense of sureness somewhat relaxed, rather onto some thoughts about what’s next. After we’ve reached a place of acknowledging we don’t know something and are less sure then we were just a moment before, where do we go from there? It’s an important question, because if you don’t have an answer, you’re open to trouble.

The “I Don’t Know” Vacuum

Humans are wired to find meaning in almost every pattern they experience. The cognitive vacuum created by doubt and uncertainty is so strong it will cause seemingly rational people to grasp at the most untenable of straws. It’s a difficult path, but developing the skill for being comfortable with moments of doubt and uncertainty can lead to new insights and deeper understanding if we give our brains a little time to search and explore. Hanging out in a space of doubt and uncertainty may be fine for a little while, but it isn’t a wise place to build a home.

After acknowledging we don’t know something or that we’ve  been wrong in our thinking, it’s important to make sure the question “What’s next?” doesn’t go begging. I’d wager we’ve all had the dubious pleasure of discovering what we don’t know in full view of others and in those situations the answer to this question becomes critical. It may not need an immediate answer, but it does need an answer. If you don’t work to fill the vacuum left by “I don’t know” or “I was wrong,” someone else surely will and it may not move the conversation in the direction you intended.

The phenomenon works like this. Bob, a capable scrum master, ends up in a situation that reveals a lack of experience or understanding with the scrum framework and doesn’t know what to do. Alice, maybe immediately or maybe later, moves into the ambiguity, assumes control, and tells the team what should be done. If Alice is wise in the ways of agile, this could end well. If command-and-control is her modus operandi in the defence of silos and waterfall, it probably won’t.

So how can an agile practitioner prepare themselves to respond effectively in situations of doubt and uncertainty? Here are a few things that have worked for me.

Feynman-ize the Conversation

In his book “Surely You’re Joking , Mr. Feynman!,” Nobel physicist Richard Feynman tells a story from his early career where several building engineers started reviewing blueprints with him, thinking he knew how to read them. He didn’t. Having been surprised by being placed in a position of assumed expertise, Feynman improvised by pointing at a mysterious but ubiquitous symbol on the blueprint and asking, “What if that sticks?” The engineers studied the blueprint in light of Feynman’s question and realized the plans had a critical flaw in a system of safety valves.

That’s how to Feynman-ize a conversation. Start asking questions about things you don’t understand in a manner that challenges those around you to seek the answer you need. In essence, it expands the sphere of doubt and uncertainty to include others in the situation. This tactic is particularly effective in situations where corporate politics are strong. Bringing the whole team into the uncertainty space helps neutralize unhelpful behaviors and increase the probability the best answer for the moment will be found. It is no longer just you who doesn’t know. It’s us that that don’t know. That’s a bigger vacuum in search of an answer. In short order, it’s likely one will be pulled in.

The Solution Menu

Thinking of the agile practitioners in my professional circle, they are all adept at generating possibilities and searching their experience reservoir for answers based on similar circumstances. When the creative juices or flow of answers from the past are somewhat parched by the current challenge, it is natural to project the appearance of not knowing. Unless you’ve drawn a complete blank, you can still use the less-than-ideal options that came to mind.

“I can think of several possible solutions,” you might say. “But I’m not yet sure how they can be adapted to this challenge.” Then offer your short list of items for consideration. One of those menu choices might be the spark that inspires a team members to think of a better idea. Someone else may find an innovative combination of menu choices that gets to the heart of the issue. I’ve even had someone mishear one of my menu choices such that what they thought they heard turned out to be the more viable solution. This is just another way to leverage the power of everyone’s innate drive for finding meaning.

Design an Experiment

If there is a glove that fits the “I don’t know” hand, it’s experimentation. I suppose you could work to stretch the guessing glove over “I don’t know.” But if your team is aware that you don’t know something, it’s worse if they know you’re pretending that you do. Challenges and problems are the situation’s way of asking you questions. If the answers aren’t apparent, form a solution hypothesis, set up a simple test, and evaluate the results. And as the shampoo bottle says: lather, rinse, repeat until the problem is washed away. It’s another way to expand the sphere of uncertainty to include the whole team and increase the creative power brought to bear on the problem. If your shampoo bottle is this agile, I’ve every confidence you can be, too.

Now I’m curious. What has helped you move past “I don’t know?”

 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Deliberate Practice and Coding

Deliberate practice applied to coding offers some unique opportunities. Unlike other skills, like learning to play the cello (to pick one that I have some experience with), you can go very far without a personal mentor. The feedback from the computer is about as objective as it gets. It will let you know exactly how good your code is.

This also helps remove the emotional component – positive and negative – that can sometimes impede progress with an in-person mentor. This doesn’t remove all emotion, however. Just about everyone who’s worked in a professional coding shop has witnessed the rare occurrence of a coder cursing at or even physically attacking their computer because their code isn’t working as expected. Those are surreal moments when an avalanche of cognitive biases and unconscious behavior become visible to all but the coder. That’s a topic for for a different post. Suffice it to say, learning how to control your emotions, channel frustration, and ignite curiosity is part of what distinguishes good coders from great coders.

Which gets met to finding quality feedback. While I’ve made a good living writing mountains of proprietary code for various business and corporations, I earned my coding chops by working on or authoring open source projects. This was the best source I found for getting feedback on my code. It also taught me another important lesson: Do not attach your identity to the code you write. Like any noob, I had a lot of pride in my early code that was pretty much untested outside my little work environment. In the open source world, the feedback was often swift and harsh. Or, at least is was when my identity was attached to it. Learning to separate work product from identity revealed just how much emotional spin I was putting on what was in hindsight reasonable feedback. I have concerns that the current climate in the coding world is opting for soft feedback and good feelings over legitimate and reasonable feedback. This, too, is for another post.

It’s worth giving some thought about the the pros and cons of working with an actual person for mentorship. Along with good instruction, a single mentor will pass along their own limitations and biases. Not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of. So multiple mentors are better than just one, which starts to move down the path of actively participating in open source projects. By “actively” I mean not just contributing code, but studying the code (and it’s history) of existing successful projects. There are usually many ways to solve a problem with software. Work to understand why one approach is better than another. Insights like this are best gained, in my experience, by studying good code.

Somewhat related, if you are working from a book or a training program, actually type in the examples – character by character. Don’t cheat yourself by copy-pasting code examples. This is the muscle memory component to coding that you will find when learning other more physical skills (like playing the cello.) If you really want to experience the gnarly edge, ditch the IDE and code with at text editor. I still do all my coding in vim and this keyboard.

Another approach to deliberate practice is the idea of coding “katas.” This never clicked with me. I attribute this to having studied martial arts for 25 years, most of that time at the black belt level. Mapping the human psycho/physical world and the purpose of katas in the dojo to the machine world is too much of a mis-match. Much is lost in the translation, in my experience. The katas in the dojo, regardless the art form, translated easily to other styles and practices. The coding “katas” are more tightly coupled to the coding language in which they are written. In my view, it’s yet another example of swiping a cool sounding word and concept and force-fitting it to another domain. A software version of cargo cults – expecting form to create function. “Black belt” or “Ninja” coder are other force-fits. Yet again, something for another post.

But those are my limitations. Your experience will no doubt be different. As learning exercises and proficiency tracks, many of the coding “katas” look to be very good.

(For related thoughts on how building your own tools can deepen your understanding of a skill, see “Tools for Practice.” The examples in the article combine software development and cello practice.)

 

Image by Robert Pastryk from Pixabay

The Sword of Peritus

[This story was inspired by the expression “double edged sword” and the “Sword of Damocles,” an ancient parable popularized by the Roman philosopher Cicero in his 45 B.C. book “Tusculan Disputations.”]

A brash young man named Tenaci strode into the courtyard of a famous swordsman named Peritus and proclaimed, “You are old and have not yet designated an heir to your school! You will teach me how to wield a sword and become a powerful warrior. It will not take long as I am already an expert swordsman. I will be the heir to your school!”

Peritus looked long and hard at Tenaci, sizing him up, but the expression on his face revealed he was not impressed by what he saw in the noisy youth before him.

“Expert, are you?” queried Peritus. “Very well, let’s see your metal.” Gesturing across the courtyard to a table that displayed an impressive array of many types of swords, Peritus instructed Tenaci, “Chose one to your liking and teach me a lesson.”

Tenaci strode confidently to the table and scanned the choices like a hungry gladiator at an Emperor’s feast. In short order, he selected a hefty broadsword. Examining it closely, he marveled at the craftsmanship that must have gone into it’s creation. Holding the sword in the ready position, Tenaci approach Peritus.

“Ah, you have chosen a powerful sword, indeed. That is ‘Vindicta,’ the sword of revenge!'”

The two faced each other for a tense moment, Tenaci in full battle posture and Peritus standing as if he were waiting for foot traffic to pass before crossing a road. Like a bolt of lightning, Tenaci made his move. As he lifted Vindicta above his head and prepared for a mighty blow, Tenaci cried out in surprise and pain and let the sword drop from his grasp. What strange magic had switched the sword end-for-end in his hands? No longer was he tightly griping the hilt, but the blade!

“Perhaps not the blade for you. Please, chose another,” offered Peritus.

Tenaci walked over the the table and examined his choices more closely. Peering back at Peritus with a suspicious eye, Tenaci chose a much lighter sword. The hilt looked the same as his previous choice, but the blade was thinner and flexible. Again, he marveled at the craftsmanship. The balance in this blade was remarkable.

“Interesting choice,” said Peritus. “That is ‘Invidia,’ the sword of envy.'”

Again, the two faced each other as before, Tenaci in full battle posture and Peritus casually waiting. Maneuvering into position, Tenaci prepared for a whip strike across Peritus’ face. Faster than an eye can blink, he made his move. But again, before he scarcely began to swing Invidia, Tenaci cried out in pain and released his grip on the sword which sailed harmlessly across the courtyard, clattering to rest at the main gate. As with Vindicta, Invidia had switched end-for-end while in his grasp.

“Chose another?”, suggested Peritus.

Looking down at his bleeding hands, “I think not,” replied Tenaci. “Your table full of tricky swords.”

“Here, then, is your first lesson. You know much less than you think you do,” stated Peritus. “And for your second, look at the table once again and tell me what you see in this collection of swords that is common to all of them.”

Tenaci stood before the table for many hours. Scrutinizing every detail, but the blades were all different – length, thickness, weight, edge, shape. He could discern no common element. As the sun set, the waning rays of light struck the table in a way that illuminated a simple inlay of gold and silver on the hilt of each sword. Only then did Tenaci see that every hilt was identical.

“I see the common element!”, exclaimed Tenaci.

“That handle goes by many names,” explained Peritus. “‘Misericordia’, ‘Gratia’, ‘Remissio’, to name a few. Compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness. It isn’t the blade you hold. You hold the handle and the handle holds the blade. Unlike all the other swords in the world, these are honest and virtuous. If your heart if filled with revenge or anger or hate, then the weapon transforms so that you are holding the end that matches your wishes.”

“I don’t see the sense in that,” snorted Tenaci. “What good is such a weapon? If I am angry or vengeful or afraid or feel the need to deliver justice, then those blades should serve me! If the blade turns on me than I’m the only one hurt! If I can only use a sword with forgiveness or compassion in my heart, why would I ever draw such a sword?”

As he turned to leave, Peritus nodded to Tenaci and said, “Lesson three.”


Image credit: Richard Westall – own photograph of painting, Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3437614

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

Waste

What comes to mind when you think of the word “waste?” I’d wager a ten spot it wasn’t something pleasant. Rather, something to be pushed to the curb, rinsed down the drain, or thrown into a hole in the ground and buried. Even the sterile waste from technology projects has a high “ick” factor. If Josef Oehmen and Eric Rebentisch of MIT’s Lean Advancement Institute put the amount of time, money, and resource waste in corporate product development at 77%, how can there be anything good about waste?

Now think of something you value quite highly – a piece of fine jewelry, mastery of a sport or musical instrument, or your home. Have you considered how many resources may have been “wasted” to bring those highly valued things into existence? Shiny diamonds get that way by cutting and throwing away pieces of the original, mastering a sport or a musical instrument involves years filled with bad moves or cringe worthy sounds, and a significant amount of material was used and discarded while building your home.

When organizations consider implementing one of Agile’s many formalized methodologies or frameworks, the idea of eliminating waste is a prominent promise that helps close the sale. Cutting out waste means saving money and saving money means increasing profits. Unfortunately, this promise is frequently delivered to the agile teams as: “All waste is bad. Get it right the first time.” This message doesn’t support exploration and discovery. It doesn’t allow teams the space they need to find innovative solutions in what Stuart Kauffman called the “adjacent possible.” And it certainly doesn’t encourage the iterative development of numerous minimum viable products that build upon each other and lead the way toward the delivery of quality products.

The message I work to reinforce is: “Expect to throw stuff away, especially early on.” By itself, this isn’t enough to overcome the many negative connotations around waste. What is needed is a fundamental re-framing around the activities that have resulted in something one expects to throw away. A couple of questions are worth asking. What value is anticipated from the activity? What are the potential positive effects of having engaged in an effort at risk for ending as waste? Pursuing a goal of zero wasted effort is a fool’s errand. What we want to reduce is any effort that doesn’t add value. If 40 hours were spent exploring a technical option “only” to find out that it wasn’t a viable option in the long term, that throw-away 40 hour effort may just have saved 400 hours of developer time spent trying to make it work. And had the less-than-optimal long term option gone to market, the expense of supporting the early wrong decision could make or break the product, perhaps even the business.

Skilled agile practitioners have a strategy for monitoring the value of any project related efforts:

  • Establish definitions of activities that create value. By identifying the intent behind the effort and acknowledging the value, the team is better positioned for focusing on the goals and objectives of the activity. Discovery, exploration, risk assessment, even fun can be worthwhile justifications if it is clear they add value to the overall effort and end goal success.
  • Identify efforts that are wasteful, but nonetheless necessary, and work to minimize the effects of these efforts. Transitioning from a design sprint to actual production work often results in a lull in activity as the design team works to communicate to the production team what needs to be done. Similarly, when production work is handed off to deployment, support, and maintenance teams.
  • Identify clear signs of waste. Gold-plating (over-engineering), lack of a product vision or road map that causes the agile team to “make it up as they go along” and react to the customer’s reaction, infrequent opportunities for feedback (both inter-team and with the client), or time-tracker cards that attract dozens of hours of nondescript time.

From a lean product development perspective, Oehmen and Rebentisch describe eight types of waste. I’ve included my additions and comments in parenthesis.

  • Overproduction of information
    • Two different groups creating the same deliverable
    • Delivering information too early
  • Over-processing of information
    • Over-engineering of components and systems (Often referred to as Gold-platting.)
    • Working on different IT systems, converting data back and forth (The use of one-off tools rather than leveraging the capabilities within the organization’s suite of tools.)
  • Miscommunication of information
    • Large and long meetings, excessive email distribution lists
    • Unnecessary hand-offs instead of continuous responsibility
    • (Unacknowledged project dependencies, such as the effect of re-architecting system components, on client projects.)
  • Stockpiling of information
    • Saving information due to frequent interruptions
    • Creating large information repositories due to large batch sizes
    • (Withholding opportunities to review work and solicit feedback.)
  • Generating defective information
    • Making errors in component and architecture design
    • Delivering obsolete information to down-stream tasks (Insufficient feedback opportunities, delays in communication due to competing project responsibilities.)
  • Correcting information
    • Optimization iterations (Rework)
    • Reworking deliverables due to changing targets (Design ambiguity, client decision instability)
  • Waiting of people
    • Waiting for long lead time activities to finish
    • Waiting due to unrealistic schedules
  • Unnecessary movement of people
    • Obtaining information by walking up and down the hallway
    • Traveling to meetings

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

References

Kauffman, S.A. (2003). The Adjacent Possible, A Talk with Stuart A. Kauffman. Retrieved from https://www.edge.org/conversation/stuart_a_kauffman-the-adjacent-possible

Oehmen, J., Rebentisch, E. (2010). Waste in Lean Product Development. Lean Advancement Initiative. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/79838

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