Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2010

During most of the year we all have to work really hard to get anything and anywhere. This being one of the few times when wishful thinking might actually get you what you want, I hope that you take the opportunity to wish for something really good.

I also want to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas! 

On a roll without a role

December 9, 2010

Like actors we all play several different roles in our lives because the roles help ourselves and others in our interactions. The roles set the expectations for how we should behave and interact.

At work we assume roles such as tester, developer, project manager etc. These roles also set the expectations for what we should do and know, with whom we should interact and how we should do it.

According to Merriam-Webster a role is “a socially expected behavior pattern usually determined by an individual’s status in a particular society.

Did you notice the word “status” in the previous paragraph? We tend to; implicitly or explicitly, associate our roles with some sort of status. Senior developers are better than their junior peers. Architects are better than developers of any rank. A test lead has to be better than a tester. A developer is either better or worse than a tester depending on if you’re a tester or a developer. A project manager outranks pretty much everyone.

For managers, these roles are a great way to put people in a box; to categorize people by the knowledge and experiences they are supposed to hold. Assigning someone a role also means that we can assign them responsibility, we know that the tester should do the testing, that the developer should do the developing and that the executive should do the executing (or whatever).

The concept of roles gives us predictability about people. And predictability is a good thing isn’t it?

Encyclopedia Britannica puts this predictability as: “… An individual may have a unique style, but this is exhibited within the boundaries of the expected behaviour.

But what if we act in a complex environment and want our teams to self-organize in order to cope with variability and complexity? Are the traits that I described above helpful in any way or would we be better off without the roles? My answer is that the traditional roles that we meet in our organizations are limiting our ability to self-organize.

Team members comfortable in a role usually won’t hesitate to assume the responsibilities associated with the role but … they also know where their responsibilities end. It is not when the problem is solved; it’s at the boundary with the next role. People who identify themselves with a role are often comfortable speaking with their peers but less so when it comes to communicating with other roles. If we have a perceived difference in status or rank it will drive the wedge even deeper.

A self-organizing team needs a number of different competencies to solve problems but it does not need these competencies to be locked inside roles. Communication among team members is the single most important factor for successful self-organization, but having preconceived expectations on who should communicate with whom is a limitation that we can do without.

Many organizations have templates for the parts needed in a project team. “We need one architect, two programmers, two testers, one test lead, a project manager and one project coordinator.” Really? Are you really sure that you need these roles? Could it be that you need a number of competencies that will ensure the structural integrity and the quality of the product. Perhaps you also need people who understand the importance of communicating with stakeholders and other teams.

I do believe that a team without assigned roles will become more fractal in the sense that each competence will be found in each of the team members (higher truck numbers). The team will be able to communicate between competencies. The team will share responsibility for delivering a high quality product without throwing work over the fence.

Doing away with roles also means that some managers will have to learn how to treat employees as individuals instead of as typecasted resources and throw away their old models for seniority and wage ladders and … and nevermind, I guess this might have been a naive daydream after all.

No one has to change. Survival is optional.” – W. E. Deming

The above was a subtle way to express the importance of change. Deming was absolutely right; if you can not change, you will not survive. Making it even more acute is the fact that we’re surrounded by change all the time. Time itself is but a measure of change. We all know that change often can be painful, but lacking the ability to change is usually even more painful.

Being that the ability to change is the single most important trait for survival and success, it surprises me that we don’t spend any time purposely practicing it. Our parents and teachers seldom or never help us learn how to cope with change. How come learning the details of photosynthesis or German prepositions are given precedence over learning how to cope with the inevitable changes that we have to face everyday?

My guess is that most parents and teachers don’t know how to cope with change themselves. Most of us have never been given the specific tools for living in a society of constant and rapid change, a society demanding that we change with it. The implications are that we bring out our defense mechanisms instead of going with the flow. Some people become submissive when facing new technologies and go into hiding instead of embracing the possibilities they offer. Some people become hateful against new cultural influences instead of enjoying all the new flavors that they bring into our lives. People grow ulcers from the stress rising from resisting changes in their environment. What is true in this for us as individuals is equally true for organizations. Most organizations will rather march slowly downward toward a predictable death than change their old habits.

The thing is that there are tools out there. Tools that can help us recognize the different stages in a change and help us move through changes with a minimum of pain. There are tools to help us anticipate changes and cope with them in a structured way. We can learn to become secure in our capabilities instead of feeling safe in what we already know.

The problem is that these tools are usually in the hands of a small number of therapists and other professionals. So why don’t we claim these tools and why don’t we demand the opportunity to learn how to use them? Why don’t we call for the teaching of them in our schools?

Change is naturally awkward, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We should all be able to embrace change and regard it as an exciting opportunity to arrive at something better than what we have today. But in order to get there we need to learn how to feel secure and comfortable with our own abilities and we can only get there through practice.

Let us all change into something more comfortable, comfortable with ourselves and our abilities to meet the unknown.

Enablers of Learning

December 3, 2010

Once again I’d like to return to one of my favorite authors, Paula Underwood. Paula wrote a lot about “enablers of learning”. This was a term that I instinctively liked from the minute I first read it but I could not put my finger on exactly what an “enabler of learning” was.

It was clear to me that the term related to “teaching” and it was also clear to me that it put the emphasis on the correct part of the process. Teachers teach. Enablers of learning enable learning. It sounds simple enough doesn’t it? What do we want to accomplish with this process, teaching or learning? The answer seems obvious to me. But the deeper meaning still eluded me.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I attended the AYE Conference in Phoenix AZ. The conference was hosted by Jerry Weinberg, Esther Derby, Johanna Rothman, Don Gray and Steve Smith. I knew and respected several of them through their writings but had never had the pleasure of meeting anyone of them in person and thus did not really know what to expect from the conference.

Today, looking back at what I experienced during this conference I can honestly say that all five of these persons were the worst teachers that I’ve ever come in contact with. During the four days I attended the conference, they didn’t teach me one single thing! … But, they did define the term “enablers of learning” to me. I have not ever learned as much during such a brief period of time as I did during these four days with the help of these five persons (and the rest of the conference attendees). The hosts offered scenarios and an environment that allowed me to open up my eyes to what mattered most to me at the time. They hosted sessions with no predetermined outcomes and no rights or wrongs. They coached us through the sessions and into whatever understandings that we found during the sessions. I’m positive that all the other attendees learned as much as I did but I’m equally positive that what they learned was completely different from what I brought home.

When you act as a teacher, you have full control over your process but no control whatsoever over the outcome. You can utter your words, you can run your exercises, you can grade your tests but you never know if anyone has learned anything.

When you act as an enabler of learning, you have very limited control over the process but you know for sure that your peer learns what matters most to him/her at this precise moment in time. As an enabler of learning you put your focus on the person and not on the process, you provide the conditions needed to learn but you do not try to judge what should be learned. As an enabler of learning you honor the principle that people can only learn what they want to learn and when they are ready to learn it.

Do you teach or do you enable learning?

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