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

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

Concave, Convex, and Nonlinear Fragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “Antifragile,” is a wealth of information. I’ve returned to it often since first reading it several years ago. My latest revisit has been to better understand his ideas about representing the nonlinear and asymmetric aspects of fragile/antifragile in terms of “concave” and “convex.” My first read of this left me a bit confused, but I got the gist of it and moved on. Taleb is a very smart guy so I need to understand this.

The first thing I needed to sort out on this revisit was Taleb’s use of language. The fragile/antifragile comparison is variously described in his book as:

  • Concave/Convex
  • Slumped solicitor/Humped solicitor
  • Curves inward/Curves outward
  • Frown/Smile
  • Negative convexity effects/Positive convexity effects
  • Pain more than gain/Gain more than pain
  • Doesn’t “like” volatility (presumable)/”Likes” volatility

Tracking his descriptions is made a little more challenging by reversals in reference when writing of both together (concave and convex then convex and concave) and mis-matches between the text and illustrations. For example:

Nonlinearity comes in two kinds: concave (curves inward), as in the case of the king and the stone, or its opposite, convex (curves outward). And of course, mixed, with concave and convex sections. (note the order: concave / convex) Figures 10 and 11 show the following simplifications of nonlinearity: the convex and the concave resemble a smile and a frown, respectively. (note the order: convex / concave)

Figure 10 shows:

So, “convex, curves outward” is illustrated as an upward curve and “concave, curves inward” is illustrated as a downward curve. Outward is upward and inward is downward. It reads like a yoga pose instruction or a play-by-play call for a game of a Twister.

After this presentation, Taleb simplifies the ideas:

I use the term “convexity effect” for both, in order to simplify the vocabulary, saying “positive convexity effects” and “negative convexity effects.”

This was helpful. The big gain is when Taleb gets to the math and graphs what he’s talking about. Maybe the presentation to this point is helpful to non-math thinkers, but for me it was more obfuscating than illuminating. My adaptation of the graphs presented by Taleb:

With this picture, it’s easier for me to understand the non-linear relationship between a variable’s volatility and fragility vs antifragility. The rest of the chapter is easier to understand with this picture of the relationships in mind.

That Isn’t What I Expected

Adverse surprises during a team driven project are about as welcome as whooping cough at a glassblowers convention. Minimizing the opportunity for surprises comes down to how well expectations are defined at the very beginning and how well they are managed during the course of the project. Unidentified expectations are like landmines in the project path. When they explode, it’s bad and the course of the project WILL change. Product owners can’t elucidate all the expectations a stakeholder may have, but with experience they can define the major ones. With practice and attention, experienced product owners can tease out all but the minor expectations that are often dependant on discovery within the project’s sprints.

Key to this skill is knowing the questions to ask at the beginning. In my experience, stakeholders rarely deliberately hold back their expectations. They just don’t know what they don’t know and it is the product owner’s responsibility to establish clarity around expectations. Intuitively obvious expectations rarely play out as such.

A few questions for stakeholders that I’ve found helpful:

  • What business problems do you intend to solve with this project?
  • What do you need to see to know the project is progressing?
  • What will you see when the project is done?
  • What is your availability commitment for the duration of the project?
  • How often to you expect to meet to review progress?
  • How long do YOU think it will take to complete the project?
  • To what extent are your functional groups integrated?
  • Describe your process from design to development to implementation?
  • Are there other stakeholders we need to know about and include?
  • What factors have helped and hurt success with past projects?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions. And they may even seem obvious. The answers, however, are almost never obvious.

I also find it effective to challenge stakeholders with scenarios.

  • What happens if we discover this project will take two months longer than expected?
  • What happens if we discover a desired solution is technically unfeasible?
  • How will you support us if we encounter significant delays from client deliverables?

Product owners need to keep pursuing clarity around expectations until they are satisfied they have a good understanding of how the people side of the project will unfold. This will go a long way to helping the development team handle the technical side of the project.

While stakeholders answer these questions, product owners need to pay attention not just the words stakeholders use, but how they answer as well. They need to be scanning for underlying assumptions that drive the answers. These often reflect relevant cultural drivers which can signal significant expectations seemingly unrelated to the project at hand.

For example, perhaps the product owner has established the expectation of a three business day turnaround for feedback from the stakeholder when asked to review periodic project deliverables. “We can complete our reviews within three business days and work to get them to you as fast as possible,” says the stakeholder somewhat hesitantly as he looks off into the distance. Where the pain begins is when the inattentive product owner discovers that, while the feedback may be ready, the client organization has a thick layer of compliance and the feedback is hung up in legal for an additional one to two weeks…every time. If the stakeholder’s responses reflect something less than 100% commitment, keep asking questions designed to surface underlying assumptions.

As each sprint concludes, and eventually the project as well, the savvy product owner knows their work with expectations isn’t complete. Retrospectives for each sprint, each release, and the project conclusion should make note of the expectations that were missed and consider questions that could have been asked that would have helped surface the surprise expectations sooner.

This is also an excellent time to consider if any of the existing expectations have changed or if it appears there may be new expectations emerging. Internal forces, such as changes in team composition, and external forces, such as shifting market demands, can significantly impact the set of expectations a product owner is tasked with managing.

If  you expected to read these kinds of things about surfacing stakeholder expectations, then you’re probably an experienced product owner.

 

Image by S K from Pixabay

Drive for Teams

I recently re-read Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” I read it when it was first published and I was still managing technical teams. Super brief summary: The central idea of the book is that people are mostly driven by intrinsic motivation based on three aspects:

  • Autonomy — The desire to be self directed.
  • Mastery — The urge to improve skills.
  • Purpose — The desire to engage with work that has meaning and purpose.

I find this holds true for individuals. However, when applied to teams optimizing for these three aspects can be problematic. If an individual on a team seeks to maximize autonomy, they are likely to come into conflict with the objectives of the team. For example, a software team that is tasked with developing a component that is expected to interact with several other components developed by other teams. If a single developer, in the interests of maximizing their individual autonomy, has decided to develop the component according to standards, design principles, and tools that are different from those of teammates and other teams (essentially, a local optimization,) then the result is likely to be sub-optimal overall.

Some individual autonomy must necessarily be sacrificed in the interests of effective collaboration. It’s possible, even desirable, that individual pursuits of mastery and purpose can be maintained. However, it may be necessary for an individual to focus on mundane tasks and the objectives of the team for periods of time. Finding ways to maintain a healthy balance between the intrinsic motivators and the purpose of the team is no small task and, when found, requires constant attention to maintain.

Perhaps it is possible to attach the team’s or organization’s purpose to the interests of the individual. Or sort for hiring people who have a personal purpose that is in-line with the organization’s purpose.

Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay

The Novice and the Master

When coaching people in a new skill, there are several things I watch for in their development from novice to master. Insuring they have the requisite foundational knowledge can be considered a given. Tightly coupled with this is a demonstration of working from first principles. If neither of these are in place than it can be said the learner has yet to begin their journey toward mastery.

Beyond the basics, I look for signs of what’s happening behind the curtain. I watch for how they respond to challenges and conflict. And how they work through difficult decisions.

How a difficult decision is handled is an important indicator for whether an individual is a novice, a master, or somewhere in between. Where novices struggle trying to figure out what to do, masters resolve quickly. Certainly a common issue in play would be doubts about the outcome of any particular action and the probability of recovering from any associated consequences. It is also possible that the issue – either instead of or in addition to – is that the novice has become stuck at a decision node that has an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty associated with it on the front end and they are unskilled at thinking through the “disjunction,” as Eldar Shafir1 calls situations like this.

With the former issue, the tack taken by the novice is to plan out as many details as possible so as to account for every contingency and squeeze out as much doubt as possible regarding the outcome. In the later, the novice simply doesn’t have the information needed to make the decision and lacks the skill to play out n number of scenarios leading up to the decision node such that they can then evaluate subsequent paths.

An example given by Shafir has to do with a student that has just taken a rather important exam (say, for graduate school) but doesn’t yet know the results. If they’ve passed, they move forward. If they’ve failed, they have to retake the exam in a couple of months after the end-of-year holidays. On the same day, they are presented with a incredibly sweet deal for a 5-day Hawaiian vacation over the end-of-year holidays. The vacation deal is good for today and grades won’t be released until tomorrow. What does the student do?

Notice that the outcome of the exam will be known long before the vacation begins. Thus, the uncertainty characterizes the present, disjunctive situation, not the eventual vacation. Additional, related versions were presented in which subjects were to assume that they had passed the exam, or that they had failed, before they had to decide about the vacation. We discovered that many subjects who would have bought the vacation to Hawaii if they were to pass the exam and if they were to fail, chose not to buy the vacation when the exam’s outcome was not known. The data show that more than half of the students chose the vacation package when they knew that they passed the exam and an even larger percentage chose the vacation when they knew they they failed. However, when they did not know whether they had passed or failed, less than one-third of the students chose the vacation and the majority (61%) were willing to pay $5 to postpone the decision until the following day, when the results of the exam would be known.

A solution to this simple example of disjunction (Shafir provides many other examples) is for the student to ask themselves two questions:

  1. “Would I take this vacation deal if I passed?”
  2. “Would I take this vacation deal if I failed?”

If the answer is “Yes” to both or “No” to both, then the decision about the vacation deal is easy. If the answer is still mixed, then I suppose the student will have to dig a bit deeper to get at a level of leading criteria that will shake out the decision. (When I was a student, I would have had to consult my financial adviser – a.k.a. my wallet – first. The answer to everything beyond beer was “NO!”) In the experiment described above where students remained uninformed as to the outcome of the exam, they didn’t have a skill or strategy for resolving the uncertainty and were even willing to pay to make it go away!

Shafir’s work was instrumental in helping me tap into new skills for developing mastery in several areas of interest (specifically, martial arts and woodworking). Disjunction has a distinct visceral sensation for me. It gives me pause to ask questions not about potential future events, but about past events leading up to the present. I find I’m usually missing something about the history of events that either help sort out the indecision once known or cause me to think through better scenarios on emerging events that will influence the decision I’m trying to make.

References

1 Eldar Shafir’s chapter in “Cognition on Cognition” titled “Uncertainty and the difficulty of thinking through disjunctions”

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash