First, do no harm.

Medical students are taught early to carefully consider the possible impact of their actions, this often translates to a bias towards inaction. A paradox when many of us consider them as being ‘fixers’.

“Given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”
This reminds physicians to consider the possible harm that any intervention might do.

The rationale behind this is that the human body is a marvelous piece of engineering and has an astonishing capacity for self-healing. A staggeringly high proportion of injuries, ailments and afflictions will simply fix themselves if we do nothing, and almost all remedies come with some risk of side-effects or unknown complications.

Which is why a doctor will often advise rest of some description, or suggest that you monitor and come back in a week. Or they will prescribe a low dose of a low risk remedy to buy time for you to heal, this gives you confidence they have acted and the time for you to heal.

Physicians are therefore faced with the certain knowledge that doing nothing will in most cases result in the problem resolving itself and the certain knowledge that any remedy bears some risk of harm. And yet their chosen profession is to help, they chose the profession because they are motivated to ‘act’ to help people. Helping by inaction is excruciatingly difficult for people with a desire or bias to act, their desire to act very often overrides their desire to help. This is compounded by patients that expect action even when no action would be better.

For a physician the real skill is the ability to evaluate which situations from the multitude presented truly require intervention and then diagnosing the correct intervention.

Management

A similar phenomenon occurs in management. As an organisation typically we structure teams to be largely autonomous (or have delegated authority), we hire individuals who are capable of getting the job done without regular interference from management.

The rationale behind this is that a human body self-organizing team is a marvelous piece of engineering and has an astonishing capacity for self-healing improvement. A staggeringly high proportion of injuries, ailments and afflictions problems the team will simply fix themselves if we do nothing, and almost all remedies interventions come with some risk of side-effects or unknown complications.

So our starting position should be non-interference, if you hired the right people and they are structured effectively they should be able to resolve most situations themselves. Intervention should be an abnormal action not your go to response.

The problem is that we are humans: managers generally become managers because they have a bias for action and because they care (either about the people or the work or both). They also suffer the most horrible of curses, they are curious.

When an employee comes to you with a problem or you observe something that sparks an interest we as curious fixers have an overwhelming urge to jump in. We want the details, we want to help, whilst the person is describing the problem we are evaluating and preparing a response, an intervention of some kind. We are so interested in a situation we forget to ask whether it is in the interest of the individual or team for us to be involved.
We forget that we lack the same level of information, or context or situational awareness. We substitute this for our experience and opinion. Don’t get me wrong we hire managers for their experience and opinion, but like any tool it must be used judiciously.

I see this happen over and over, especially in a matrix organisation, a variety of managers become aware of a problem, often trivial and want to ‘help’ but the reality is that the responsible party – either the team or the responsible leader is already capable of resolving the issue and is already acting, but now they must also to respond to your advice, they must keep you informed and as the situation escalates the number of people to inform and respond to grow and becomes a problem of it’s own. The lack of context may often result in bad advice that the team feels compelled to follow because of the assumed authority of the manager giving the advice.

Æthelred the Unræd
This chap is Ethelred the Unready, king of the English (Not England), the poor man has gone through history with this title. But in this context Unready is somewhat unfair pseudonym for him. The Anglo-Saxon noun unræd means "bad advice" or possibly "evil-council" it is not a reflection of him being unprepared. He was badly advised, he came to the throne at 12 and suffered from interference from his political advisers.   The bad advice he received has led to a reputation for over 1000 years.   

The true gift of a leader/manager is the ability to listen and evaluate when it is beneficial to act and when it is better to let the situation resolve itself in an acceptable fashion. And that there is the stumbling block suffered by many inexperienced managers, they see a situation and possibly even a potential solution and they ‘know’ they could handle the situation better. They would handle it differently and want to step in. This inability to delegate and to trust others is the hardest part of management and the part where most fail.

Just like physicians, the true skill of a manger is knowing when to intervene and the strength of character to sit on the sidelines and watch when your intervention would be unnecessary.

Agile and self organized/self managed teams

So what does this have to do with Agile Coaching? First you could very easily replace the word Manager with Coach in the last section and heed that advice. Teams in most situations could and should be able to resolve situations themselves. However, I am going to take a slightly controversial stance on this and suggest that in Agile communities we have taken that advice a little too far.

In many ways Agile has created a community that shuns medicine. We have heard that 95% of health issues resolve themselves and we have interpreted this as a belief that physicians are therefore completely unnecessary. Not only unnecessary but should be chased from the land with pitch forks. In essence we have become zealously anti-management.

I have been in a number of agile workshops where we assess the role of a manager and conclude that most of the responsibilities of a manager can and possibly should be performed by the team. #NoManagers This is a really great exercise and is very empowering for the team and will generally give them the confidence to step up and take ownership. The downside is that whilst in theory the responsibilities of managers can be delegated to the team it is not always possible to delegate big picture awareness, experience and capability. These tend to get dropped on the floor as they are only valuable when things go wrong.

Even Scrum Masters seem to be being shunned now in favour of more remote Agile Coaches or in many cases the belief that because SOME teams are capable of autonomy and have the necessary experience and understanding of Agile that they can function without support, that this somehow translates to ALL teams should function without ANY support. Companies will abandon Coaches, Scrum Masters or leaders of any kind and expect even relatively junior teams to make effective decisions.

In those 5% of cases where the team hits a situation they cannot handle they are by definition lacking the knowledge or experience or support needed to resolve it. We have moved from a situation of too much unnecessary intervention to a totally hands-off situation where teams are left to flounder, with no one willing or able to intervene. In some cases those that do step-in to assist are challenged as being anti-agile for undermining the team’s independence.

One of the key elements of a management or support role is the natural distance from the team, the ability to distance oneself and see the bigger picture, something that a team member can rarely do.

As an example I recently worked with a very capable and experienced team, they were working hard and getting the job done. The problem was they were not delivering value by the customer’s standards (not overtly articulated by the customer). Through a variety of small and seemingly insignificant events the situation had evolved. Early on there were some obstacles relating to a production environment that at the time and with the information available the team chose to postpone, choosing to remain productive(busy), later more obstacles arose and again the team didn’t want to slow down so chose a path that enabled greater utilization(rather than value delivery). The result was a very happy and busy team, they were getting a lot of work done. The team was unaware there was a problem until the customer grew frustrated at the perceived lack of value being delivered. The team would have eventually resolved this issue but the cost to the customer would have been considerable.

The Quest for Balance

This is a typical tale of a team optimizing for itself, there needs to be someone with an eye on the bigger picture and an emphasis on the entire system. It is hard to assume that every team has this, when it is a rare skill. Of all the responsibilities of a traditional manager this is the hardest for a team to replicate. The ability to see the system is the primary reason we hire managers/coaches/delivery leads/product owners/project managers, in my opinion the key skill to look for in those roles is the ability to visualise the big picture and to know when to act on this knowledge.

This is not a claim that teams cannot self organize or that managers are necessary in all cases. This is a request for balance and awareness of the bigger picture. Previously I talked about the greatest skill of a physician or a manager being the ability to discern when to act and having the strength of character to do nothing when it is unnecessary. The flip-side is true for teams, you cannot handle every situation without support, the ability to know your limitations and when to ask for help is a significant skill and highly underrated. But equally the willingness to listen to advice from those with a better view of the entire system is also crucial.

Yes the team might be able to resolve a situation eventually, but at what cost and who is footing the bill? The cost here is one of those ‘Big Picture’ areas that is often underrated by those who are abstracted from that. Self-organization is very powerful, but understanding when a problem is one that should be left for a team to resolve and when someone with a better understanding of the big picture should step in, is one of the hardest questions to answer.

Generally I like to believe inaction is best, trust that we have hired the best people and that we have set them up for success. But also being aware that self-organization is not a silver bullet and it comes with a cost that may not be appropriate to pay in all situations. Learning is costly and we do not learn from all failures. Having people prepared and skilled enough to act is crucial, knowing when to act comes with experience and not acting requires a huge amount of self-discipline.

By nature I am insatiably curious, I have an opinion on everything and I have a strong bias for action. Of all things not intervening is one of my personal challenges. This post is as much a letter to myself as anything else. It is a reminder to trust and to observe rather than prematurely act.

Are you pulling your weight?

A question I have been hearing a lot lately is how do you know whether an employee is putting in their hours, or not slacking off. This question seems to be particularly concerning for people in the context of working from home where the perception is that it is more prevalent.

The irony here of course is that being in the office is no measure of not slacking off, there have been many books written about different ways you can slack off whilst appearing to be busy.

I have heard tales of the productive worker that works hard all day long only later to discover they were working on a side project or even for a second employer. Long lunches, toilet breaks, extended coffee breaks, fake meetings, or just browsing the internet or discretely playing games on your mobile phone. Physical presence in an office is not an effective measure of whether you are slacking off.

The average American worker admits to wasting 2.09 hours a day, excluding lunch, according to 10,044 self-selected respondents in a survey released by America Online and Salary.com.

What does it mean to Pull your own weight?

Let’s take a little aside and explore the phrase “pulling your own weight” there are a few suggested origins of the phrase but the one I like best relates to the English Long-bowman, to be considered an ‘archer’ you had to be able to “pull your own weight” Longbows had a draw of up to 180 Lbs. You really did have to pull your own body weight.
An experienced archer could fire 12 aimed shots in a minute at ranges of 200-300 yards, although in battle they were expected to fire at a slower ‘sustainable pace’ of 6 aimed shots per minute. For context a modern bow draws at around 40 Lbs for women and 60 Lb for men.

In a modern terms we usually mean contributing proportionate to your role. We tend to think in terms of productivity and output. Despite this we often tend to focus on hours spent – hence the rise of slacking off at work, even though we can easily slack off time without being noticed, but it is far harder to slack off output or deny outcomes.

So how do you know whether your employees are working?

Personally I think that is the wrong question. When you explore deeper you discover that the employee surveys on why people slack off are far more interesting than the ways which they slack off.
Many described being bored as the primary reason, others felt that their job was easy. So it seems to be a question of engagement.

I suspect in other cases it is that you have hired the wrong people and better filtering at hiring would result in a more motivated workforce. Ironically when you have a motivated workforce getting them to take a break becomes more of a challenge.

So I guess what I am saying is that if you are a leader that is worried about whether your staff are working, then the issue is far more likely to be with you than it is with them.

  • Hire the right people. (Hungry Humble, Smart)*
  • Be clear what is expected of them.
  • Help them understand why it is important – and who benefits from their work.
  • Be interested in them as individuals.

Interestingly all of those actions fall to the leader rather than the employee.

If you follow these steps then I suspect that you won’t need to worry whether they are pulling their weight, you will be too busy trying to keep up with what they can achieve.

Where does the responsibility lay

If your employees are slacking off then it is a failure on the part of the leader not the employee. So when you hear someone ask how they can tell if an employee is doing their hours and not slacking off. Ask them if they have hired motivated people they can trust? Have they given clear objectives and set expectations? Do their employees understand the context and purpose of their role? Do you value them and do they know it?

If and when you do see someone slacking in a damaging way, take a look and see if the route cause is one of these 4 issues, you’d be surprised how often it is one of them.

What I am confident of though is that any efforts to monitor time in the office (or home) – such as time clocks, pressure sensors on seats, keystroke monitors, swipe cards on toilets, or a foreman to watch people – and of course a foreman for the foreman – obviously you need someone to watch the watchers. All will have minimal impact on people slacking but will have deeply damaging impact to productivity.

*Taken from The Ideal Team Player, by Patrick Lencioni

A tale of two engineers.

There are two ships traveling a busy shipping route, each ship has a complex engine and the engineering team has a chief engineer. Both ships are a similar age and size.

The first ship has a very busy chief engineer running this way and that, fixing any and every problem that comes up, he knows every inch of the engine and many parts of it are custom made by him. He is dirty and oily and hard working, whenever there is a problem – and there are many problems – he is on hand to fix it. He is dedicated and hard working, he works long hours and is always ready and willing to get his hands dirty. Without him the ship couldn’t function.

The second chief engineer has spent his time not fixing things, if a part is unreliable he has replaced it, if a component is troublesome it is gone. If there is a problem he ensures one of his team fixes it (with guidance initially) and will encourage them to spread the knowledge so that after a while he rarely if ever gets his hands dirty. He is rarely dirty or oily and it is a very rare situation to see him fixing anything. On many voyages he can seemingly sit there with his feet up doing very little in maintaining the ship and can use his time on other productive activities. Frankly if he missed a voyage the ship would probably run just fine without him.

Now which in your opinion is the better chief engineer?  I know which one I would rather have on my team.

It is often said that the goal of a good Scrum Master is to make themselves redundant, I take exception to this a little I think as in the tale above it is possible to create a situation where you are not necessarily needed all the time. But I wonder how long a team would last as a top-performing team if the Scrum Master was taken away, perhaps in the short term no one would notice, but growing and shaping and coaching a team takes time and effort, but slipping back into bad habits can happen quickly. Creating a situation where the Scrum Master has time to do other things is a good thing and a reflection of success not a sign he is not needed. A Scrum Master that is essential to a team is one that has failed, in fact if ever you feel you have an employee you are overly dependent on you have a serious issue.

How many top athletes would say “I’ve reached me peak I no longer need my coach”? My guess is that if they feel they have reached their peak they will seek out a new coach that can push those limits further.

A good coach or Scrum Master guides the team to independence, and then pushes their limits further.  They may be more useful elsewhere but that is very different from becoming redundant.

Never talk about politics!

I grew up in the UK but I have lived in the USA for a little over 6 years in total, which equates to around a quarter of my working life, so whilst I still feel very British there is an element of the mid-Atlantic creeping in. That is to say I feel like I have grown a level of understanding for some of the quirks of American culture and am a little more sympathetic to the perception of the UK culture from the American side of the pond.

us-uk-flags-union-english-18622380

However being so overtly British I get to hear the same questions repeatedly and some of the misinformation is a little troubling at times.  Especially when it can be fact checked so easily.  Since this is my soapbox I’ll indulge a little before I get on to the topic at hand.

First the USA did not win the war of 1812 please take 5 minutes to read wikipedia.  Second, the UK NHS: I have been in the USA for 6 years and in that time I have worked for two employers both of whom tell me that the health insurance they provide is the best there is. My colleagues tell me it is better than anywhere else they have ever worked. I have no reason to doubt that this is great Health Insurance, and apparently it costs around $27,000 per year – mostly paid by my employer and that is in addition to the social security deductions which are approximately 8% of my paycheque.

In my experience the quality of service offered by the ‘best‘ Health Insurance is approximately identical in quality of healthcare to that received from the NHS. Yep you heard me, I find no discernible difference in quality of care.  There are certainly differences, I have to pay a co-pay to see my Doctor here in the US which is free in the UK.  Doctors in the USA want to push you to take every test under the sun so they can bill the insurance, where in the UK they assess if there is a need first. In the USA if there is a referral it is on you, whereas in the UK your doctor would follow-up. The Doctors’ surgeries here seem to be a bit more lavish and they need an army of staff to administer the insurance bureaucracy but as far as wait times, quality of medical treatment and accessibility of treatment I see no difference.

So I do get a little upset when I say people describing the UK medical system as having poor treatment and long wait times and something to generally be afraid of.  Think of it as having the best medical insurance you can buy, and then imagine that it is free to you, I can see why that is so incomprehensible when you are used to spending nearly $30,000 per year on that service. I am sorry to say it so bluntly, but the USA spends on average 4 times as much for what is very much an inferior system for most people.

Okay I’m off-my NHS soap box now.

Capitalism or Socialism concept

But the third and most troubling perception that I am regularly confronted with is the notion that the UK is a ‘Socialist‘ country and the USA is a ‘Capitalist‘ country.  This notion troubled me a lot and got me thinking, but first let’s clarify the definitions:

Socialism:   political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.     

Capitalism:  an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.

Essentially the extent to which you are a capitalist or socialist country is determined by the extent to which the government interferes with the free market, either through spending or through legislation.

Measuring Capitalism

Spending is pretty easy to assess as we can see what proportion of GDP comes from government spending and how much from ‘the free market’  However, legislation is much harder to measure and by definition any intervention in the market is ‘socialist’.  E.g. Defence, immigration, policing, taxation, tariffs, subsidies, etc.

I think most people realize that pure socialism is fatally flawed and equally flawed is pure capitalism, so it is really a question of how little or how much government is needed and how much can the market provide on it’s own. We all have a reasonable expectation that infrastructure, defense, police, jails etc cannot be provided by the market and that the whole country benefits from education and healthcare for the poor as the benefits are far reaching to the economy but how much of the rest is open to debate.

Let’s take the USA, the US spends a staggering 35% of it’s GDP on socialist activities, that is more than a third, and is incredibly socialist in it’s government policies and legislation, just recently there have been some very high profile trade tariffs, a trade tariff is direct manipulation of the free market by the government – it is the very definition of socialism. Lobby groups regularly persuade the government to invest in particular parts of the country or legislate for the benefit of certain industries.  Both the UK and the USA bailed out banks and the USA bailed out the car industry and corn farmers.

By contrast the UK spends 41% of it’s GDP on socialist activities, and also heavily regulates the free-market with employment laws, they provide tax-breaks for entrepreneurs and subsidies for ‘green’ businesses to name a few, but notably didn’t bail out the car industry or steel industry or mining industry.

51c8d01b2deda.image

In my anecdotal experience and to be clear this is opinion based on only very limited education in Economics and Politics, neither the UK nor the USA has any claim on being capitalist countries,  both may claim to be slightly right of center but are both squarely ‘Mixed economies’ and have found a balance that is slightly further from Socialism than Capitalism but not by much. And whilst the UK spends more, my observance is that the USA regulates more and is far more interventionist in investing, bailing-out, propping up and otherwise supporting USA based industries.

TL:DR Summary: 

The UK and USA are broadly similar in terms of the degree to which they are Socialist or Capitalist in practical terms, but in my observation the UK is more willing to intervene for the benefit of the people – especially the poorer and the USA is more likely to intervene for the benefit of business.

What has this to do with Agile?

So what does that have to do with Agile?  Well it strikes me that there are a great many parallels.  If we equate Socialism – a planning heavy form of governance, where plans are made by a few experts:- with ‘Waterfall’  and  Capitalism – a responsive form of governance where the market leads and the many respond independently of governance:- with Agile,  then maybe you can see where I am headed.

download (2)

In small scale both Waterfall and Agile succeed, but as we scale both suffer in different ways.  In Waterfall as in Socialism the planners become further removed from the market they are serving and are less responsive to particular needs and more and more out of touch.  a great deal of overhead is needed to align the vision from the top and unsurprisingly they are often so far removed they get it wrong, corruption sets in and effectiveness (the true productivity) plummets.

By contrast in Agile as in Capitalism works very well in small scale but as we grow the decision makers are not able to see the big picture and whilst they are responsive to what they can see, they fail to see the larger system and optimize for themselves rather than the larger organization and problems set in with misalignment. There are some aspects of a business that simply don’t work by being responsive and need to be planned and organized.

Governance

So where does that leave us?  Well at heart I am both a capitalist and an Agilist so I am biased, but the way I see it as we scale with Agile and in business in general we discover that we need governance, some degree of consistency, infrastructure and support and most of all a clear direction.  But I believe we should keep that governance as small as practical and only govern that which we cannot govern ourselves.

In the case of big government I believe that includes socialised healthcare because normal market forces do not apply when it comes to our health and so the market cannot effectively provide what we need, I also believe that we should invest heavily in socialised education as better educated workers make everyone wealthier.

When it comes to Agile teams I don’t think the teams should do the hiring or decide pay and they don’t generally want or need to be bothered with administration or infrastructure, I feel that is governance that they should be spared, similarly I think ‘health care’ such as vacation, benefits, and support (HR) is governance. Start-ups will need to deal with all of this but at scale we shouldn’t have to.  Nothing controversial so far, but where we may start to see differences of opinion is the level of governance needed for teams.

In my opinion we achieve the best results from small teams, that are given clear direction and are empowered and enabled, that means direction not a director, so team leaders, project managers or any other similar role is bad for teams, it is unnecessary governance and is in my opinion fundamentally anti-agile.

Build projects around motivated individuals. 
Give them the environment and support they need, 
and trust them to get the job done.

The best architectures, requirements, and designs 
emerge from self-organizing teams.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need managers or leaders, but we don’t need them involved in the work.  In Scrum we empower Product Owners to set direction and priorities but they stay out of the HOW, we empower Scrum Masters to coach us on process and guide us on improving flow, we even empower them to remove impediments on our behalf but we do not empower them to tell us HOW to do the job.  In my opinion Project Managers (when they are deemed necessary) should respond to information provided by the team and not the other way round, they are a consumer of information only! They should convey no authority.

12625104-no-managers

Where we need managers is NOT for doing the work, a suitably cross-functional team should be able to do that without an anointed leader.  What we need managers for is the ability to create those cross functional teams, and do this by listening to what is needed, hiring and enabling the forming of those teams.  We need leadership to provide clarity of direction, clarity of culture and clarity of values. We need managers to help us by enabling us grow as individuals in our individual careers in parallel to our goals for the team. We need managers for ensuring that we as an organisation are planning for the future so we can focus on delivering in the present.

If you feel you need a manager to manage the team doing the work then in my opinion you have failed elsewhere, it is a sticking plaster to a bigger problem, all you are doing by instilling team leaders/Project managers or team managers on a delivery team is masking a bigger problem elsewhere, possibly in hiring, training, education or communication.

The prime role of leadership is ensuring clarity, they have the big picture, making sure their employees see it too should be their number one goal, any other governance in the day to day job is an unnecessary overhead and a smell that there are problems elsewhere. The corruption inherent in larger systems needs to be cut out at the source not covered up with a layer of management. If you are hiring the wrong people then fix your hiring process, don’t hire people to manage problem staff. If you are struggling with consistency or maintaining values then it is an issue for education and clarity, putting a manager on as team is not the solution: enforcing values is not the same as instilling values.

90ee2b65615c3fda2b2c4190697c34d4

In Agile, like Capitalism, we want government to be as small as possible and only get involved in things that we either can’t do ourselves or are necessary but unrelated to our day to day work. Unnecessary bureaucracy and governance are well, unnecessary.

Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Hire the right people and let us do our job, educate don’t regulate, enable don’t enforce,  but most of all trust us, don’t try to control us. Set a direction, then get out of our way.

 

 

The Enemy of Agility is Ego

dunning-kruger-effect

Over the years I have discovered that the more I learn on any subject the more I come to realize that I know very little, it doesn’t seem to matter how much I study or how much I learn, the awareness of scope of my ignorance grows far faster.  Does that make me wise or just aware that I know very little?   I suspect that I’m slowly fighting my way out of the valley of despair.

No need to improve

One of the most challenging aspects of being an Agile Coach and working with teams is that to improve you first need to accept that there is room to improve. There are a some teams and team members that believe there is nothing more that they need to learn, they are so supremely confident in their own capability and knowledge that they refuse to consider that there could be a better way to do things than the way they have always done things.
On the other-hand I can’t be confident that there is a better way, only that we won’t find a better way unless we look. I don’t like the notion there is a ‘best practice’ as this limits our thinking. But this puts unwavering certainty that this is the ‘best practice’ against encouragement to explore the possibility of a better way, certainty is very powerful.

Sometimes this ‘certainty’ is founded in fear, especially when dealing with transformations where former roles are called into question, I find this an understandable reaction, but the situations I struggle with most are the team members that become blinkered to opportunities, they have found one way that works (even poorly) and simply are unwilling to try anything different. Their Ego, prevents them considering anything else.

As a coach I have no desire to force processes or ideas on people, only to open their minds that there could be opportunities and alternatives.  So it can be heartbreaking when people refuse to even consider alternatives, or worse impose their views on others through sheer force of will.

Perhaps I am mistaken and maybe the right answer is that if something isn’t broke don’t fix it, but that notion doesn’t sit well with me.

kruger calvin

So how do we persuade people to open themselves up to learning new things?

I recently had an experiences that I found tough, there was a QA who refused to ‘leave his column’ on the board, he would not do anything that was not ‘testing’ and resisted anyone working with him in ‘his column‘ thankfully it is not often I see that level of obstinance. But this situation was further compounded by the rest of the team enabling his behavior. The developers were all too happy not to be involved with the QA aspect and were seemingly unmoved by his unwillingness to cross boundaries.

The QA column was regularly a bottleneck but rather than addressing this the team wanted to mask the issue by pushing cards through and raising new cards for rework. What was tough was that the team saw no need to experiment with alternative ways of working: suggestions included either helping the QA, or even getting the QA involved earlier, and despite raising QA as a bottleneck repeatedly in retrospectives the team didn’t want to change behavior even in the form of an experiment.

As a coach you can shine a light but not force a change.  I felt the team was capable of far more but the team were getting things done and were seemingly content with the status quo. For me this is the dark side of coaching, where you must watch a team not reach their potential, out of respect for their independence.  Ultimately it is a trust issue as things so often are.

Ownership of Columns

In general I dislike explicit roles when there is a shared responsibility, and I dislike the notion that a column on a board is in anyway related to a person or a specific role, the board should reflect the progress of the work (stories) not ownership of the work and when the two become muddled people become defensive and territorial.

When there becomes an association between a column and a person the focus moves from getting a story done as a team, to moving a story on to the next column, we switch our context of efficiency to a narrower view.

This is often seen as a subtle and unimportant distinction. But when the team loses a cohesive sense of ownership for getting to done and can hand off responsibility to another sub section of the team, bad habits emerge. At it’s worst I have seen teams (thankfully not one I coached) where at stand-up one part of the team will brag about how many stories they are ahead of an other part (be it front and back end or Dev and QA). In one extreme case I saw a team decouple testing from development by splitting stories and I overheard one standup where the developers were gleeful that they were now 3 sprints ahead of testing (the sprints were 3-week sprints). It is 9 weeks before they will see value from their work or even know if their work had value, and yet they were so proud.

Dunning Kruger Effect

Adjusting your mindset to one of learning rather than certainty can be tough, especially for those that grew up in a culture that rewards confidence and certainty, but accepting that you don’t know everything and being aware that there is always the potential to improve can enable you to become far more capable, the only thing stopping you is your ego.

 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.
Bertrand Russell

 

Feedback: victim or beneficiary?

Feedback takes many forms, some is explicit and some can be inferred, even the absence of interaction is a form of feedback. Some if obviously well-intentioned, and some less so, some is invited and some is thrust upon us.

When you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, the feedback they give may be in the form of a horn and a hand gesture.  There is no question this is feedback, it may even be useful when you have stripped away the anger and your defensive response – I did after all miss something, they are helping me see something I didn’t see myself and now I will at least have the option of improving my behavior in similar situations in the future.

boston-road-rage-1024x683

Improvement is MY choice

Please note the word ‘option’,  the decision to change my behavior is mine, I can choose whether I respond or how I respond, giving a peer feedback does not compel them to change the way you want them to, regardless of how forcefully you may give the feedback.

Many times you will receive conflicting feedback, or sometimes you just disagree with it. When someone gives you feedback and they are asking you to change behavior remember it is you that needs to change and there is no one Youer than You.  It is up to you, you can choose what or whether to change.

you-have-brains-in-your-head-you-have-feet-in-your-shoes-you-can-steer-yourself-any-direction-you-choose

A Feedback Culture

I work in an organization where there is a very strong culture of self-improvement and professional development, but there is also a distinct absence of management, we therefore rely heavily on feedback from our peers. Our internal processes encourage formal and informal peer feedback.

In an Agile community we rely heavily on feedback loops for improving our processes, stand-ups, demos retrospectives, not to mention the metrics we encourage in our development practices. These are all opportunities to respond to the feedback as a team to help us improve.

Peer Feedback

However, individual feedback from peers is much less structured and much less objective so it becomes much harder for the giver or receiver to be objective in the way they give or receive the feedback. Peer feedback is by nature personal and when things get personal the stakes get higher. We give feedback in a subjective way, and we receive and we respond to feedback in a subjective way, both are cursed with perspective.

Ostensibly the goal of feedback from the perspective of the giver is to affirm behavior we approve of (e.g. clapping and cheering) and to discourage behavior we dislike or disapprove of (booing).  Context is also a factor we may be motivated personally or professionally.

For the receiver of feedback it is ostensibly to aid us in seeing things we are unable to see, to gain another person’s perspective on something. We may get to see things we can’t or don’t see for ourselves e.g. Am I speaking too quietly.

Whether the feedback is invited (“Can you hear me?”) or not (“Speak up!”) we are benefiting from another’s perspective on a situation.

Attitude

Sound’s great! But the attitude of the giver and receiver play a much more significant role in peer to peer feedback, and in how effective or valuable that feedback is, and what the consequences on the relationship are.

Let’s go back to the person I accidentally cut-off in traffic. Whilst there is benefit in being reminded that I need to pay more attention to my blind-spots I doubt very much the person cut-off and is giving me hand-gestures was overly concerned with my personal development or in helping me become a better driver.  The reality is that their goal was not to help me improve, it was to vent their frustration, to express anger and to feel better in themselves by ranting at me, my welfare was not even remotely the concern.

And so it is with peer feedback, there are times when I really want to express my opinion, I don’t care whether the person improves, what matters to me is that I get my say and I can express MY feelings.  This can come off as spiteful rather than supportive. and leave the person feeling a victim.

Victim or Beneficiary

The “feedback culture” has created an opportunity for some people to express a desire to ask to “give feedback” when really they are taking an opportunity to give someone a piece of their mind in a situation where the ‘victim’ feels they cannot respond. By calling it feedback we get a free punch and if they react badly or refuse to be verbally punched we can claim they are not acting in the spirit of feedback.  I worry this is damaging our culture and is a misappropriation of feedback, the result is the artificial harmony we were trying to get away from. Dressing an attack up as feedback does not change it.

bully

Before giving another person ‘feedback’ we need to reflect on it ourselves and consider whether our true desire is to help the person improve. Do we truly desire the subject to be the beneficiary of our feedback or is the act of giving feedback more about satisfying your own need for satisfaction and they are just the victim of your feedback.

Spirit of improvement

Please understand that I am not saying that the horn and the hand gesture are not feedback – clearly they are. Nor that I can’t respond to the feedback and improve. It is a question of the spirit of the feedback as much as the  message itself.  If I feel the feedback is given in the spirit of helping me I am far more likely to respond favorably, if I see the feedback as a veiled attack I am as likely to resent the message and in some extreme cases I may retaliate – I am less likely to see it as an opportunity for improvement.

Is your true desire is to help the person improve or do you want to make them feel bad? Do you want a good relationship in future? Then perhaps be more considerate of your approach.  We all make mistakes, and we can all improve so let’s make the effort to be kinder in our delivery of the message – not necessarily the subject. Feedback needs to be clear and should not shy from difficult issues but the delivery can make all the difference.

TRUNK Test

When we rely so heavily on relationships and on feedback it is important to apply the TRUNK test for offering feedback:

Is what you are about to say TRue, Useful, Necessary, and Kind?

 

 

 

Feedback is not a passive activity

In Lean manufacturing setting up feedback loops is considered a critical part of the operation, so much so there is a term for this – Andon – a system to notify management, maintenance, and other workers of a quality or process problem.

download (1)

The principle is that it gives the worker the ability, and moreover the empowerment, to stop production when a defect is found, and immediately call for assistance.  Workers are encouraged to use this feedback mechanism freely. Common reasons for manual activation of the Andon are part shortage (dependency), defect created or found, stoppage, or the existence of a safety problem. Work is generally stopped until a solution has been found.

Loosely translated an Andon is a Paper Lantern – To shine a light on a problem.

andon

Sounds great in principle, any worker is empowered to give feedback to management if they have concerns over safety quality or even a weakness in a process, but for it to become culture it needs to be adopted in a no-blame manner and used frequently, lack of utilization of an Andon is a serious problem and is addressed in Lean.

If a feedback mechanism is not triggered regularly then the settings are considered too loose.  The threshold for triggering an Andon would continually be made tighter and tighter, quality is expected to be higher, time for a task is squeezed and so on until there is an increase in frequency of Andon being used.

The aim is to get a regular feedback of actionable information, too little and the feedback loop has failed, too much and you cannot see the problem so it needs tuning and adjusting slowly.

What does that mean to us in a non-manufacturing environment?

We have got pretty good at retrospectives and giving feedback locally, but feedback to management is largely absent.

devops

The difficulty in many organizations is that senior management hide behind an open door policy.  “Employees can talk to me any time, my door is always open”. It is very easy to pretend you are open to feedback but much harder to actually be open.

“Employees can talk to me at any time, my door is always open”

– the unapproachable manager

In many cases the open door is actually an invisible barricade: fear of retribution, fear of not being supported, fear of being ignored, fear of the messenger being shot.  In many cases the fear is justified,  but even when it isn’t, it doesn’t make the fear any less real to those with genuine feedback to share.

Creating Feedback Loops

Just like with Andon, this is feedback that should be sought and encouraged and your measure should be how frequently you are given constructive feedback from your employees, if you are challenged regularly and respond to it regularly then it is working, but if you are not getting regular feedback (from those outside your inner circle) then it is likely your “open door”  is not that open.

opendoor

Has someone in the last week given you critical feedback without being asked?

If on the occasions you do explicitly ask for feedback are you bombarded with hostile questions? Do the questions catch you by surprise? Do people seem dis-satisfied with your responses? Do you only ask for feedback when people quit? If yes then perhaps you are not asking for feedback often enough, or are not responding to the feedback you are getting.

Feedback is not passive

Feedback is generally not passive, you need to invite it, create forums where feedback is invited and expected, be open to the feedback and when you are not willing to change be prepared to explain yourself, and be prepared to repeat yourself.

It really comes down to whether you truly are a feedback culture, if you are you have to work for it.