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.

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.

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

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

Frameworks vs Rules

Getting the job done is no excuse for not following the rules. Corollary: Following the rules will not get the job done,” said Somebody I Don’t Know.

When I was developing software under the draconian rules of CMMI there was a very clear message from the handlers (as we called them) to follow the rules or there will be consequences. So we did. Mostly. The problem was that among those of us in the trenches there wasn’t much of a feeling of actually getting work done. There was a lot of rework due to features being designed without our input. The design team would send us a design, we’d make noise that the design had problems but we’d have to build it anyway, we’d build the unworkable thing, demonstrate a flawed product to the design team, they’d redesign (without our input), re-document, and send us a new design.

And so we lurched forward. We followed the rules and weren’t getting the job done from the customer’s perspective. I’m sure the CMMI gods were happy, though.

This was before “Agile” was a thing. There were plenty of rapid application development ideas in the industry and in loose fashion we ended up implementing what we thought we could get away with. And that worked.

Our impromptu “water cooler” conversations in the mornings where we mostly complained but frequently suggested solutions for each other’s techno-pain would be easily recognized by any scrum master as a daily scrum. The way we cut up (literally) copies of the official documentation and re-arranged the work to better match how we thought the work needed to be done looked a lot like a sprint backlog.

We were getting the job done, but not following the rules. As far as I know, none of us ever suffered adverse consequences. It’s hard to argue with success no matter the path taken to get there.

Imposing elaborate sets of rules to a fundamentally creative process will pretty much guarantee a slow boat to success. In the late 80’s and early 90’s that seemed to work well enough. But those days are long gone. It’s why the framework approach to many of the Agile methodologies are more successful in software and similarly creativity dependent projects. Frameworks leave room to adjust, adapt, experiment, and act.

And…

Rules are important. Frameworks aren’t devoid of rules. Far from it. Tossing out bits and pieces of a framework shouldn’t be done just to get the job done. The rules that are part of a framework should be considered a minimal set essential to success. None of them should be discarded without careful deliberation. Unlike the rules to something like CMMI that are meant to control as many aspects of the project as possible and squeeze out any trace of uncertainty and risk, the rules in an Agile framework are meant to serve as important guides. Operating outside a framework for extended periods is likely to put a project at significant risk.

Well-established and proven frameworks, such as scrum, have extracted the essential rules from previous methodologies and experiences and organized them in useful ways. They don’t reject all the previous rules in a quest to re-invent the wheel. They build on what has been learned to improve the wheel. This is reflected in the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca:

Won’t you be walking in your predecessors’ footsteps? I surely will use the older path, but if I find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized.Seneca, Moral Letters, 33.11

The Stoics recognize that our predecessors weren’t entirely wrong. But they are very likely incomplete. It is incumbent on us to improve upon and extend their work.

This illuminates the importance and value of a good scrum master. Like a good cowboy or cowgirl, part of their job is to ride the fences, looking for breaches to the framework. If found, either repair the fence with coaching or decide if the fence line needs to move to accommodate a need dictated by circumstances and conditions.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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

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 Perfect System in an Imperfect World

With apologies to Winston Churchill,

Many forms of project management have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that Scrum is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that Scrum is the worst form of project management except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Agile in general, and scrum in particular, has suffered their share of hard yet deserved knocks. But many of these complaints come from people who are expecting perfection, some panacea or magic remedy to what ails their project management world. Often they want this perfection out of the box and miss the hard work needed to implement a relatively simple set of rules and guidelines while shifting from the “old ways” of getting work done.

Consider a flock of geese.

Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years they have worked out an efficient way to migrate. Not perfect, but well adapted to the world in which they live. At the heart of this behavior are several important principles: Shared responsibility, clear communication, and coordinated effort.

Consider Agile similarly. It is a perfect system for an imperfect world. The principles found in the formation of a flock of geese can be found within the Agile Manifesto. Its foundation of assuming the need for experimentation, learning, and adaptation is central to it’s enduring success. If these values are absent from or poorly represented in an organization’s culture, the chances for sustainable success using any methodology are diminished.

Photo by Josh Massey on Unsplash