The Need to be Needed

January 10, 2014

“A bee is never as busy as it seems; it’s just that it can’t buzz any slower.” – Kin Hubbard

A while back I was coaching a project that was to a large extent staffed by people being experts in narrow fields of expertise that also had other commitments outside of the project preventing them from having any slack time what-so-ever. This constituted quite a big challenge because they all took turns to act as bottlenecks in the process so I decided to run a retrospective focused entirely on how we could free up more of their time in order to improve the flow of work.

The initial reaction I got was almost enough to give up on the idea entirely. Almost everyone started moaning about management and the organization being the problem.
“Tell them to not dump all this work on us.”
“As long as we have to do projects as well as maintenance this will always be a problem.”
“I have to support so many projects that I’ll never be able to set aside any slack time.”

With the support of the project manager though, I decided to run the retrospective despite the chorus of geese shaking off the water. The setup was quite simple; we divided into groups of three and I asked each group to work according to the Iroquois “Rule of Six” to come up with at least six plausible reasons for why key people in the project were constantly overloaded with work. I asked them to specifically look for reasons that were in our reach to act upon. The result was amazing. All groups managed to present at least a handful of reasons showing how we all were responsible of creating this problem.
“I say yes to almost anything.”
“I don’t trust other people to do a good job.”
“I ask other people to help me with stuff without checking if it’s prioritized.”
“I don’t prioritize the work that comes in.”
“I create work that has not been asked for.”
etc.

I was overwhelmed with the candidness and maturity in the answers. This was great; we had found so many things that we would be able to act on in order to ease up on our own as well as our peer’s workloads. With this smörgåsbord of possible actions I didn’t want to do a prioritization to select one or two to implement during the upcoming sprint. Instead I asked if we could take as homework to do a daily act of kindness to ourselves and someone else. Could we at least once a day stop to think if we were about to act according to one of the patterns that we had found and instead take another road?

This is where things started to get interesting again. Amidst the nods and yesses I detected some hesitation as well. The hesitation wasn’t spoken out loud in any way but it was in the air so I asked for a fist of five. Could everyone on the count of three please raise a hand showing their commitment to this homework by showing any number of fingers between one and five?

  • Five fingers being “YES! I’m really committed to this, count on me.”
  • One finger might as well be the middle one; “There’s no way in hell that I’m doing this.”

All people raised four or five fingers except the three persons being the most overburdened, they only held up one or two fingers.

When I asked what made them hesitant about doing this daily act of saying no to another task or not handing unprioritized work over to a fellow project member, they all fell back to the initial reaction of pointing outside their own sphere of control: “It’s not possible to say no.”
“If there’s a production problem it has to be done.”
“We have to do this even if it’s not prioritized.”
“Quality will suffer if we don’t do this.”

I’m not entirely sure if the conclusion I came to after this meeting was correct or not but I suspect that these people thrive on being busy. It could be external factors such as explicit or implicit rewards and/or threats that make people act in ways that puts them in the center of everything but having seen the same people end up in these situations time after time in different positions at different companies make me think that the problem often is self constructed. Some internal belief system or internal reward system make some people act in ways that is hazardous to not only their own health but also the productivity of the team that they work with. I don’t have a turnkey solution for this problem but I would ask everyone to consider this possibility before going about redesigning the organization or taking any other measures on the system.

The problem might not be that we force people to work too much, it could very well be that we allow them to work too much.

I love retrospectives and I love experimenting with different formats for my retrospectives. Today I tried a couple of new things that worked quite well so I thought I’d share this format with anyone interested.

The background is that I’ve just started coaching a somewhat new team that’s been going through a lot of changes lately. They had no history of doing retrospectives together so we had to start from scratch.

I almost always base my retrospectives on the setup described by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in their excellent book:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insights
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retrospective

Normally I add the step “Follow up the last retrospective” between steps 1 and 2 as well but this time there was no retrospective to follow up on so I skipped that one. Instead I added another item; “Set a challenge”. I’ll get back to that though.

Set the stage

I explained why we do retrospectives and went through the agenda. Then we took a look at Norm Kerth’s Retrospective Prime Directive and I made sure that everyone was committed to follow it. Finally we did a check in. Today’s check in was to answer the question: “If I was a weather, what weather would I be right now?”

  • “I’m sunny.”
  • “I’m sunny with some wind, because I’ve had some trouble with my computer today.”
  • “I’m a big dark cloud.”
  • etc

Since we had one big dark cloud in the group, I asked everyone who had something on their mind that bothered them to write this down on a piece of paper and put it away in a pocket until after the retro. This is a symbolic action but it often helps people to mentally put their problems away for a while.

Set a challenge

I had never tried this before but as a way of focusing the retrospective I wanted to try and turn it inside-out or upside-down and start with what we wanted to achieve. I asked the participants to work in groups of two and come up with a challenge for the team in three different dimensions:

  • Well-being of the team members
  • Productivity
  • Quality

The reason for having these three dimensions was to find a balance between things that could possibly be compromised if only one or two of the dimensions were considered. I asked them for small and concrete challenges that could be tried within one month. No high goals that the team would have to live by for their rest of their lives, just simple, measurable challenges to experiment with.

The groups came up with a lot of great suggestions in all three dimensions. Several groups had come up with duplicates but I thought all ideas were really good. Now we needed to narrow the field and select just one challenge in each dimension.

The vote

I’ve been using dot voting a lot in the past but for a while now I’ve had a nagging feeling that it doesn’t produce great outcomes. Small issues that are only important to a minority can easily be selected before more important issues that would benefit a larger group depending on people’s tactics. I decided to try a (for me at least) new way of voting that I came up with. I based the idea on the concept “fist of five” and decided to call it commitment voting. I asked everyone to put a vote on all alternatives. They should give each alternative a vote between 1 and 3.

1 was a disqualifier or veto. “I’m actively taking a stand against this.” If anyone put a 1 on an alternative it would mean that the group wasn’t committed to that alternative and it was taken off the board. (This is probably a sign that we need to talk more about this as well.)

2 would mean, “I’m standing behind this.”

3 would mean, “I’m highly committed to this. I could take lead on making sure it happens.”

A couple of the alternatives got 1’s but most of them were 2’s and 3’s. The positive thing about getting some 1’s was that people felt it was ok to say ‘No’. To me, this was a healthy sign. After counting the 2’s and 3’s in the rest of the alternatives, we were left with one winner in each category.

  1. Well-being: “Getting more constructive feedback.”
  2. Productivity: “Discussing requirements and design before implementation.”
  3. Quality: “Getting more stable test-environments.”

Gather data

I then asked the participants to pair up again, but in new constellations. After telling them about Jerry Weinberg’s Rule of Three and the Iroquois Rule of Six, I asked them to come up with six plausible explanations to why we hadn’t already solved the three challenges historically. I asked for six reasons because:

“for each apparent phenomenon, devise at least six plausible explanations, every one of which can indeed explain the phenomenon. There are probably 60, but if you devise six, this will sensitize you to the vast array of potential options and prevent you from locking in on the first thing that sounds “right” as The Truth. This attitude supports the mind in discovering new ways of perceiving, keeping our perceptual biases in check while allowing them their say.”

After a while someone said: “We’re on par with the old dude now but we’re still getting our asses kicked by the Indians.”

Since we were running out of time I let them get away with the reasons they had managed to come up with by then. It varied between the challenges and the groups but all of them had come up with several good explanations for each challenge.

Generate insights

After getting all possible explanations to why we hadn’t already solved the challenges in the past, up on the wall, the participants did an affinity mapping. They got a handful of different groups under each challenge; “Lack of knowledge”, “Lack of time”, “Lack of common process”, “Lack of communication” etc.

Decide what to do

Based on the challenges and the insights on what had been stopping the team in the past, we had a discussion on what we could do to meet our challenges in the near future. We agreed on two actions before we ran out of time:

  1. A weekly feedback forum at Friday coffee.
  2. Regular pre-planning meetings with representatives from all disciplines.

Closing the retrospective

I finished off by thanking everyone for their active participation and asking them for some thoughts on the retrospective and the format. The feedback was very positive and they felt that this was something that they should have done all along.

My learnings

As always, time is almost never enough. Guiding people through a process like this while at the same time giving some space for discussions takes longer time than expected.

Setting a challenge at the beginning of the retrospective and then looking back to see why we haven’t met it before worked very well. The one problem I could see with this was that we only focused on problems when looking back. I’d like to also look at strengths and positives. I might compensate this by doing an Appreciative Inquiry retrospective the next time.

My commitment voting-scheme worked better than I had expected. I’ll definitely try this more in the future instead of dot voting.

Edie

February 26, 2013

Tonight, just a month after I got the news about Charlie Seashore passing away, I read that Edie Seashore had followed him. I did not know Edie or Charlie very well, but I did have the privilege of meeting them for a week in Cape Cod last summer where they taught the course “Strategies & Skills for Consulting, Coaching, Change”. The way they shared their experience and wisdom during that week made me feel like I had known them a lot longer though.

Edie and Charlie’s signature combination of wisdom with humor and a love for each other and what they taught made them seem inseparable. Both of them were strong individual personalities that made deep impressions on me but when they spoke in front of us it was clear that they weren’t only Edie and Charlie; they were Edie AND Charlie, a union so much more than its parts. As sad as I am to hear that Edie is no longer among us, it seems natural that the bond between them was this strong.

I am not a religious person, but I have no difficulty imagining Edie and Charlie still being together in a good place. I am so happy that I got the chance to learn from such wonderful persons. Thank you!

Edie & Charlie at Cape Cod 2012

Edie & Charlie at Cape Cod 2012

High-fiving the office

February 21, 2013

This morning it took me fifteen minutes to walk past my team and get to my desk…

But that was this morning, let’s back up one month. Middle of January my team had a team building activity. Now, I know that teams aren’t built during an activity but there were reasons behind us having this activity. Anyway, as a final exercise we all got to close our eyes, relax and try to visualize what it would be like if everything in the workplace was going as we wanted. We then got to draw our internal images and present them to each other.

My drawing had two parts to it. One part showing a kanban board where work was flowing smoothly, representing how we worked well together as a team. The second part pictured me high-fiving my co-workers on my way to my desk, representing us having a great time together.

High-fiving

What I saw before me was how it would take me fifteen minutes every morning to move from the entrance to my desk because I high-fived everyone along the way, stopping to ask how they were doing and generally enjoy being with awesome people.

Some background might be in place here. My desk is at the opposite end of the building from the entrance, which means that I have to walk by the entire team every morning as I walk to my place. The thing is, that I’m an MBTI introvert. I enjoy people and company like most other people but it’s exhausting for me. Having a good time with other people makes me physically and mentally tired. Because of this I’ve been taking a detour every morning in order to get to my desk without having to pass anyone I know, that way I could save my energy for “more important stuff”.

As I looked at my drawings I realized that the first part was what we’re struggling with together as a team, but that the only thing standing between me and my vision in the second drawing was myself.

The day after the exercise I stopped for a minute after entering our floor. I took three deep breaths and began the walk to my desk. Only a few team members were at their desks so I walked up to the one colleague who I knew would understand the idea. I raised my hand and immediately got a slap. It felt good and we discussed the exercise for a while. The day after I repeated the ceremony but stopped by two of my colleagues on my way to my desk.

Since then I’ve been adding people to my daily routine and this morning I walked around high-fiving everyone at their desks, stopping to chat for a while; both personal stuff as well as job-related. I timed the walk and it took me fifteen minutes to get to my desk.

What I’ve noticed is that most people’s faces light up as I walk by for the daily slap. The guy next to me was a bit upset though, he didn’t want to always be the last one to get a high five.

I believe in the idea that we are our feelings. If I act happy, then I will be happy and I will feel happy. If I start the day with a smile and a high five, I will get a better day. Fake it till you make it so to speak. The bonus is that people around have to start their mornings with a smile and a high five as well.

So as an introvert, does this procedure consume energy? You bet it does, I have to brace myself every morning before I walk into the room.
Is it worth it? You bet it is!

Disclaimer: Not everyone enjoys a high five in the morning, especially if they’re in the middle of something and that’s okay too.

Let’s pretend for just a second that we need estimates in order to perform our business. Some of you will say that we do and some will probably say that estimates are a big waste. But for the moment, let’s at least pretend that they have a place.

dice

Usually we do estimation in order to provide some kind of predictability in our deliveries. It’s just that an estimate is not enough on its own. Knowing that something will take 6 man weeks to implement has no value unless we know that we have 6 man weeks at our disposal. We need to combine our estimate with some kind of capacity measure in order to get predictability. There’s a big difference if our team can give the task 6 man weeks worth of attention within the next two week iteration or if they’re overloaded with other work and need 4 calendar months to finish the requested 6 man weeks.

So we need an estimate AND a capacity in order for the estimate to have any value. The thing is that it’s not enough either. When we estimate, we also need to agree on what we’re estimating. We need to have the same view on the expected quality; both external and internal quality. Everyone involved needs to know how the solution is supposed to behave; if the customer expects a Lexus but a developer is about to build a go-cart, the estimate will have no value. Everyone involved needs to have the same view on the level of confidence for the internal quality; if the developer is ok with Windows 95 quality but the tester is expecting a pacemaker level of confidence, the estimate will have no value.

So now we need an estimate AND a capacity AND an understanding of quality in order for the estimate to have any value. The thing is that if we make an estimate and it’s wrong, the effects will fade over time (unless we’re dealing with systematic estimation errors). If a requirement was estimated to take 5 days but actually took 10 days (a 100% estimation error), the effect on a six-month project will be less than 4%. An error in capacity on the other hand will multiply if left to itself. If a team is working in two-week sprints and plans are made with a 10% error in capacity, this error will multiply for each sprint and for a six-month project, we’ll have to add another two sprints to the end in order to finish what we had initially planned. But even worse is the cost of poor quality. These costs tend to rise exponentially with time. The longer time a poor assumption or a bug goes unnoticed, the more code will get built on top of that error and either multiplying the instances of the actual error or at least building dependencies to the error.

In short:
Error in estimate – impact decreasing linearly with time
Error in capacity – impact increasing linearly with time
Error in quality – impact increasing exponentially with time

But where do people put their attention when plans fail? They usually address the estimate and way too often put blame on the teams for not doing good enough estimates. Apart from being unethical since estimates are nothing but guesses, it’s also a waste of time since any deviations from the plan are much more likely to come from errors in capacity measurements (or worse; capacity estimates) or a mismatch in the understanding of what quality (or functionality) was being estimated.

So if predictability is what you’re looking for, don’t invest much in your estimates, instead you should make sure that your capacity is known and that quality (internal as well as external) is well understood. And that’s why your estimates don’t really matter.

I was recently asked by a colleague to help with the format for a brainstorming exercise. The purpose of the exercise was to find new ways to reach an audience for the content our organization was developing. Both of us wanted to try something new and we really wanted the participants to start thinking outside of the so called box. What we came up with was a two part workshop that I’d like to share.

The first part was a traditional Post-it-exercise run for three different themes. First we asked the participants to list as many aspects as possible of the content we developed. They were asked to write it down on a certain color of Post-its using just one or two words. We then asked them to do the same thing on another color of Post-its but this time to list different cross sections of possible audiences; whom to reach out to. The target audiences could be sliced according to roles, geographical belonging, age or any other grouping. Finally the participants got to write down different channels for reaching out on a third color of Post-its. We got all kinds of fun suggestions; competitions, courses, lunch walks, blind dates, printed t-shirts etc.

Colonel Mustard

Colonel Mustard

For the second part we wanted to use an element of randomness to get the participants imagination going. Inspired by the game Clue; you know the detective game were you have a bunch of suspects, different murder weapons and a number possible crime sites. In the game, the players randomly combine a suspect with a murder weapon and a crime site by pulling one card from each pile. They then try to deduct which cards have been selected by questioning each other. Finally someone realizes that it was Coloner Mustard in the library with the candlestick.

In our workshop we now had three big piles of Post-its containing What, For Whom and Channels. We divided the participants into groups of two and asked them to randomly pick one note from each pile and try to concretize the mix of cards into an actual event. So if a group picked the cards Content A, redheads and blind dates; they then had to come up with an idea for how to sell Content A to redheaded people by arranging blind dates. The combinations that came up brought out a lot of laughter but it also generated tons of new ideas for how to market our stuff to different audiences. Surprisingly few combinations had to be completely discarded and people came up with really imaginative events from the random combinations they were dealt.

From this experience, I can really recommend trying an element of randomness when you need fresh ideas and have a problem that can be sliced in different dimensions like this.

Charlie

January 23, 2013

I just learned tonight that Charlie Seashore passed away this Sunday. The news saddens me incredibly while I’m happy at the same time that I got the chance to meet Charlie and learn from him. For a week last summer, I attended the course “Strategies & Skills for Consulting, Coaching, Change” with Charlie and Edie. That week was one of the greatest learning experiences for me this far.

Charlie and Edie helped me look into myself as well as getting an outside perspective on how I and others interact. The insight and humor that Charlie brought to this week still astonishes me and I could only hope for having a fraction of his wisdom and mischievousness on my best day.

Several of the things I learned during my week in Cape Cod with the Seashores (and all the great sharing participants), are already a part of my work. Other parts are still being processed. One of the things that Charlie taught us about at the course was re-framing. To me, he seemed like a master of re-framing as he shared a number of his life experiences, but all of them in a positive light, and all of them as opportunities for learning. I’m fumbling right now as how to reframe today’s sad news and I would love to have had Charlie giving his view on this.

When I left Cape Cod and said good bye to Charlie and Edie after the course, I was wondering if I would ever get the opportunity to meet with them and to learn from them again. Now I know that I won’t get another chance to meet with Charlie. It saddens me incredibly while I’m happy at the same time that I got a chance to meet this great man and to learn from him.

My thoughts are with everyone close to Charlie, and especially with Edie. Thank you for sharing your time and wisdom with us. And Charlie, I don’t wanna grow up either.

Image

Charlie at Cape Cod 2012

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