Good Intentions, Bad Results

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

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

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

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


Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

False Barriers to Implementing Scrum

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

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

Words Matter

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

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

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

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

Philosophy, System, Mindset, or Process

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

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

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

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

Broken Windows and Broken Scrum

Recently, I was in a conversation with a scrum master that was of the opinion that correcting teams on all the small details of practicing scrum was the best way to develop them into a high performing team. They compared this to the Broken Windows Theory of crime reduction. For example, if someone is a minute late to the daily scrum, call them out. Or the daily scrum must not deviate from the “Yesterday, today, and in the way” script regardless how well the team is communicating.

I can see the merits of developing discipline. However, without explanation or coaching that includes the rational for practicing scrum in such a way, there is a real possibility for negative unintended consequences.

  • The broken windows theory was meant to be applied in situations where the goal was to reduce crime. To apply this approach to scrum practices is to imply that any deviation from the scrum framework is criminal.
  • Similar to how the broken windows theory resulted in the emergence of “zero tolerance” laws, applying such an approach to scrum teams and strictly enforcing how they may or may not follow the scrum framework will result in a lot of command-and-control zero tolerance practices. The guides will become rules and, in turn, inflexible laws.

The approach I’ve found to be more effective is to hunt down the root causes to issues, for which being late to daily scrums or poor communication are symptoms. It’s more like being a big game hunger. Seek out the root of the problem, solve that problem, and many of the lesser issues will resolve themselves.


Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

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

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.

Parkinson’s Law of Perfection

C. Northcote Parkinson is best known for, not surprisingly, Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

But there are many more gems in “Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration.” The value of re-reading classics is that what was missed on a prior read becomes apparent given the accumulation of a little more experience and the current context. On a re-read this past week, I discovered this:

It is now  known  that  a  perfection  of  planned  layout  is  achieved  only  by institutions  on  the   point  of  collapse.  This   apparently  paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the  more esoteric details of  which we need not concern  ourselves. In general  principle, however, the method pursued has been to  select and date the buildings  which  appear to have been perfectly  designed for  their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a  period of exciting discovery or progress there is  no time  to  plan the perfect headquarters.  The time for that comes  later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

Several years back my focus for the better part of a year was on mapping out software design processes for a group of largely non-technical instructional designers. If managing software developers is akin to herding cats, finding a way to shepherd non-technical creative types such as instructional designers (particularly old school designers) can be likened to herding a flock of canaries – all over the place in three dimensions.

What made this effort successful was framing the design process as a set of guidelines that were easy to track and monitor. The design standards and common practices, for example, consisted of five bullet points. Building just enough fence to keep everyone in the same area while limiting free range behaviors to specific places was important. These were far from perfect, but they allowed for the dynamic vitality suggested by Parkinson. If the design standards and common practices document ever grew past something that could fit on one page, it would suggest the company was moving toward over specialization and providing services to a narrow slice of the potential client pie. In the rapidly changing world of adult education, this level of perfection would most certainly suggest decay and risk collapse as client needs change.

Image by EWAR from Pixabay

Best Practices or Common Practices

I’m using the phrase “best practices” less and less when working to establish good agile practices. In fact, I’ve stopped using it at all. The primary reason is that it implies there is a set of practices that apply to all circumstances. And in the case of “industry best practices,” they are externally established criteria – they are the best practices and all others have been fully vetted and found wanting. I have found that to be untrue. I’ve also found that people have a hard time letting go of things that are classified as “best.” When your practices are the “best,” there’s little incentive to change even when the evidence strongly suggests there are better alternatives. Moreover, peer pressure works against the introduction of innovative practices. Deviating from a “best” practice risks harsh judgment, retribution, and the dreaded “unprofessional” label.

If an organization is exploring a new area of business or bringing in-house a set of expertise that was previously outsourced, adopting “best” practices may be the smart way to go until some measure of stability has been established. But to keep the initial set of practices and change only as the external definition of “best” changes ends up dis-empowering the organization’s employees. It sends the message, “You aren’t smart enough to figure this out and improve on your own.” When denied the opportunity to excel and improve, employees that need that quality in their work will move on. Over time, the organization is left with just the sort of people who indeed are not inclined to improve – the type of individuals who need well defined job responsibilities and actively resist change of any sort. The friction builds until change and adaptation grind along at glacial speeds or stop altogether.

The inertia endemic to “best” practices often goes unnoticed. When one group reaches a level of success by implementing a particular practice, it is touted as one of the keys to its success. And so other groups or organizations adopt the practice. Since everyone wants success, these practices are faithfully implemented according to tradition and change little even as the world around them changes dramatically. Classic cargo cult thinking.

In his Harvard Business Review article “Which Best Practice Is Ruining Your Business?”, Freek Vermeulen observes that “when managers don’t see [a] practice as the root cause of their eroding competitive position, the practice persists — and may even spread further to other organizations in the same line of business.” Consequently, business leaders “never connect the problems of today with [a] practice launched years ago.” Common practices, on the other hand, suggest there is room for improvement. They are common because a collection of people have accepted them as generally valuable, not because they are presumed universally true or anointed as “best.” They are derived internally, not imposed externally. As a result, letting go of a “common” practice for a better practice is easier and carries less stigma. With enough adoption throughout the organization, the better practice often becomes the common practice. When we use practices that build upon the collected wisdom from an organization’s experiences we are more likely to take ownership of the process and adapt in ways that naturally lead to improvement.

There are long term benefits to framing prevailing practices as “common.” It reverses the “you are not smart enough” message and encourages practitioners to take more control and ownership in the quality of their practices. Cal Newport argues that “[g]iving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.” This message is at the heart of Dan Pink’s book, “Drive,” in which he makes the case that more control leads to better grades, better sports performance, better productivity, and more happiness. Pink cites research from Cornell that followed over three hundred small businesses. Half of the businesses deliberately gave substantial control and autonomy to their employees. Over time, these businesses grew at four times the rate of their counterparts.

When you are considering the adoption or pursuit of any best practice, ask yourself, “best” according to whom? It may help avoid some unintended consequences down the line where someone else’s “best” practice yields the worst results for you, your team, or your organization.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

References

Newport, C. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Pink, D.H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead

Vermeulen, F. (2012). Which Best Practice Is Ruining Your Business? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/12/which-best-practice-is-ruining