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

 

Is it safe to dance?

Have you ever found yourself alone listening to music and you take a look around wondering if it is safe to dance?  Safe because your dancing is so bad it is unfit for other eyes, in fact it is so bad you are not sure you should look.  Perhaps your car is a little safer, it is a capsule of invulnerability, so when you are alone you can sing at the top of your voice and no one can see, or not until you stop at the lights and notice the person in the car next to you looking at you.

Feeling safe enough to be vulnerable is not easy even when you are alone, but it gets progressively harder when there are other people around. Now I’d never sing or dance in front of others, but the other day I found myself at lunch with four of my closest friends at work – if asked I would say I trusted the four of them a lot, I consider them really great friends, so I felt able to be a little bit vulnerable and I told a slightly inappropriate joke.This may not seem a big deal but I immediately became embarrassed I glowed red and went quiet for a while, I found vulnerability is tough even among such good friends.

Vulnerability is tough even among close friends

We all want to be liked and accepted, to be included in a group, and so it can be hard to be vulnerable, and yet the irony is that taking the step to show vulnerability may well be the step needed to make those friendships and your team stronger.

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Trust in a team

In a team environment it is so important that you can feel enough trust with ALL of your team mates that you can truly feel able to say things like:

  • I need help
  • I don’t understand
  • I disagree
  • I made a mistake
  • I find those tasks difficult
  • Show me how to do that again
  • I feel uncomfortable when you do that
  • I wanted to do the task you took
  • I am unhappy with this decision

But if I struggle to trust even my best friends, how can I possibly trust co-workers that I know much less, after all the same rules apply. I want to be liked and accepted, I definitely don’t want to look stupid or uncooperative, I don’t want to discourage others or waste time, I have a burning need to feel valued and part of the team. I need to show my worth to my boss, etc.

Is it safe to dance?

Essentially when you are part of a team you are asking yourself “is it safe to dance?”
If you keep that in mind it gets easier, what would make it safe to dance for you. For me it would take a lot!

I’d need others to dance first, probably all the others, but certainly the leaders, the people the others respect. I’d need to see that some were as bad as me, I’d need to see that no one was laughing at them (only laughing with them) and that everyone was encouraging and supportive, then and only then might I feel able to be vulnerable and join in, and frankly it would take a few repeats before I would truly feel comfortable.

We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind
Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance
Well they’re no friends of mine…

dance

 

How does that relate to work?

You may think that dancing is not like working in a team and that the humiliation of dancing is far worse that simply doing your day job, but I think this is one of the reasons teams suffer from an absence of trust so often.  We dismiss both the importance and underestimate the difficulty of building trust in a team.

In a team environment you are sharing your ideas which are deeply personal, your knowledge and judgment which may be closely associated with your sense of self. Doing something wrong could affect your job, maybe even your career. Sure you may not look and feel like a buffoon but the stakes are much higher. And even if you get past the work related barriers you still have to contend with our inherent desire to be socially accepted, to be liked and valued.

So how do you build trust on a team?

Actually this is not that complicated it is not really any different to building friendships.

  • Spend time to get to know each other, take a few minutes during meetings to get to know each other, this is not waste, a few minutes spent building relationships could well be the most productive aspect of the meeting in the long term.
  • Chat over coffee and as you work – about personal stuff
  • Have lunch together as a team – this works best if the whole team is together.
  • Play games! One of the best ways to build relationships is to play a game something simple like a card game is great, it is inclusive and leveling, the most junior member of a team can challenge the most senior in the safe confines of the rules of a game this makes it much easier to discuss work ideas on a level playing field later.
  • Time, trust and relationships take time, do not underestimate it.

For all of these it works best if everyone is there to avoid creating pockets of trust which could undermine the team later.

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The last one was time, and warrants an extra note. Building relationships is a slow process you can’t simply flick a switch, allow teams the time and space to grow the relationships will build and grow stronger and stronger, and once the team is stable changes can be made so long as a core remains to keep the identity and trust that has formed.

Trust takes time

dysfunctions

If I had to recommend one book that would help your team become the best Agile Software Development team, it would be The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, the book does not even mention agility.  But in my opinion the vast majority of questions I’m asked or problems I see can be traced back to something covered in this book.

You cannot uncover better ways to deliver software without first uncovering better ways to work as a team. And the basis for an effective team is Trust.

Building trust should be your top priority, spend the time, make the time, it is an investment in the future of the team. Without trust anything else you do will suffer.

Without trust anything else you do will suffer.

Take the time to build trust on your team, make it safe to dance.