Trust Is A Must

December 23, 2016

We all know that Agile is as buzzword-ridden as anything else that helps people generate an income. There are a lot of gems among the buzzwords associated with agile ways of working though but a lot of the time we tend to take them at face value and not look at where and how they fit in. I’ve been looking at some agile practices and tried to reason around the relationships between them and one of the things I realized was how essential Trust is in order for most of the other practices to work. You can fake a lot of things but if Trust is not truly there so many of the other things we try to do will not only fail, they might also make things worse.

trust-is-a-must-iiOne practice that has always been at the essence of agile is Transparency; we want everyone involved to have current and correct information. Adding a window to a solid brick wall won’t offer any Transparency though. We can’t buy Transparency in the form of a whiteboard. Worst case scenario, the whiteboard only serves as giving credibility to lies, useless data and wishful thinking. Transparency needs to be combined with, among other things, Trust and Autonomy to provide value. The “Transparency” offered when Trust is lacking will never be true Transparency. It will be a display of what the team believes that people around them want to see. It will be fidgeted numbers such as story point inflation, velocity boosting with “almost-done” stories and smokescreens hiding work performed under the radar. In short, any “Transparency” offered when we don’t have Trust or we suspect that we’re not Trusted will be a pile of lies.

So if we add Trust, will that transform Transparency to a valuable practice? I’d say no. Not unless we also add Autonomy to the equation. A team that is not Autonomous will always have dependencies to people and teams outside the own team in order to deliver any business value. When all a team can deliver are small parts without intrinsic value, the data that come out is mostly worthless. No true progress can be shown, only task completion. In any cases but the truly basic ones, task completion won’t give us much information regarding how close we are to realizing any true value. The complexity of what we do will hide a plethora of new challenges behind every completed task. Challenges that only surface towards what we thought would be the end, when we put everything together. In a similar way if we have an Autonomous team that lack Trust and/or Transparency, they are potentially a true danger to the organization. If they act without Trust, it will be a high stakes lottery ticket where there might be a brilliant idea in the jackpot but more likely the team will be a liability that acts without any information sharing with the rest of the company. Adding Trust could be a way to better the odds of something good coming out but without Transparency it will not be aligned with the rest of the company and its strategies.

Before adopting the next good practice, see where it fits in your context. Look for the untold prerequisites for the practice and consider if you fulfill them. Do you have the necessary mutual trust in your organization? And remember that trust ISN’T earned; it has to be offered in advance because people WILL act according to the expectations that are offered to them.

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If you set deadlines for other people, you better have very good and thought through reasons for doing so. You will not get many chances to blow this until it starts to backfire and you get caught in a vicious circle where you’ll have to set your deadlines farther and farther into the future and they’ll get less and less respect.

If you hand me a task with a deadline I will assume that this is important to you and prioritize the task. But if you don’t start using the result of my work until a week after the deadline, then we have a problem. I can see three reasons for this happening and none of them makes me any happier.

1. You didn’t trust me to get the work done on time and you built in some slack. Well, from now on I don’t trust you to trust me so I will be using this slack whether it’s there or not.

2. You just put an arbitrary deadline on the task in order to get it off your desk. This would mean that you value your own time much higher than mine. I’m sorry but I’ll have to disagree with you on this one, I find my own time quite valuable and I won’t be spending it on your arbitrary deadlines in the future.

3. Your priorities changed since you gave me the task and you didn’t tell me about it. Well, if you hand me low prioritized tasks I’m sure not going to give your items high priority in the future. As with #2 this is a problem of you not valuing my time.

You see how this behaviour drives me to not meet your deadlines in the future and how my behaviour will drive you to set even higher priority and more arbitrary deadlines far off into the future on even the most mundane tasks in order to get my attention. So don’t be afraid to hand me work with deadlines as long as I see you working on my output the minute after I’ve handed it to you. If you intend to shove my output at the bottom of your own TODO-pile, then you SHOULD be afraid. Be VERY afraid, because the Reinforcing Loop is out to bite you in the stern.

Can you deliver it?

April 22, 2010

– According to your specifications? Absolutely!
– The way you need it? That question should not be directed to me.

The first question is usually irrelevant. I could probably build you the Great Wall of China given the time and resources, but if your reason for building the wall is to keep your budgie in place, then I can’t help you until you’re willing to cooperate around the specifications.

The second question is one that you mainly need to ask yourself. Are you willing to jump into the unknown? Are you prepared to express your innermost needs? Do you really know what problem it is that you want to dissolve and are you prepared to handle the consequences of dissolving it? Unless your answer to these questions is Yes, then I won’t be able to help you with what you need.

To dissolve a problem, you first need to acknowledge the root cause of your problem. This often means confessing to have implemented a less than optimal solution before, a confession that hurts. You were wrong the first time around when you tried to guess a solution so we can pretty much assume that you’ll be at least a little bit off this time as well. This means that we’ll have to explore new ways. To try new and uncomfortable solutions that haven’t yet crossed your mind. Are you willing to do that?

Dissolving one problem will usually put the spotlight on another one. If you can guess where your new itch arises, are you prepared to show it to the world?

So you want a software tool for your employees to punch data into. Sure, I can build that.

But don’t build a software that’s supposed to support your employees if your true reason for building it is to control your employees. Build a software that controls your employees instead.

But whatever you do, don’t build a software to control your employees if your true reason is to get quality and predictability in your business. Build a system in which your employees can deliver with quality and predictability instead. (BTW, I’m pretty sure that this system has nothing to do with software at all.)

So if we design a system in which your employees can deliver with quality and predictability, where do you think the spotlight will land next? Are you prepared to stand in the limelight for the next improvement effort? Yes? Well, in that case I just might be able to help you with what you actually need.

Okay, this has been said so many times by so many people before me but I still have to get it off my chest so please bear with me.

You HAVE to be consistent between what you say and what you do. What you do matters. It does. It’s okay to think otherwise but then you’re wrong.

If you tell your spouse that he/she looks good and shake your head from side to side while saying it, you’re not sending the correct signals.

If you tell your kids to only cross the road when they have a green light but you jaywalk yourself because you don’t see any cars, you’re not sending the correct signals.

If you tell people to work toghether to achieve the best possible result and you still post top 10 lists of individual results, then Mr. T will most certainly pity you.

If you want people to cooperate and work as a team, you can not measure and reward individual performance. Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this up, it’s the freakin’ law.

A couple of days ago I went to donate blood. I consider it an easy and cheap way to assuage my conscience. It’s also my only way of enacting my life as it might have been in the 50’s.
NL = Nice lady at blood bank aka my 50’s wife

NL – Do you want something to eat before we begin?
Me – Thanks but I’ve already had lunch.
NL – Can I get you something to drink?
Me – Thank you I’m fine.
NL – Are you comfortable like this?
Me – Definitely.
NL – Are you sure I can’t get you something to drink?
Me – No, I’m fine thank you.(A whisky wouldn’t hurt but I could only see pitchers with juice in them)
NL – Ok, this is just going to hurt a little. (I’m not sure where this last comment fits into my 50’s fantasy though)

Anyway. When I walked into the clinic there was a whiteboard by the entrance. I’m not sure if it was new or if I only noticed it now since I’m reading Deming’s “Out of the crisis”. The board looked somewhat like my poor drawing below.


Curiously I asked the nice lady, while she stabbed me with the needle, about the goal figures on the board.

Me – Where do you get your goals from? How do you set them?
NL – Uhm … goals? Hmm. Don’t know really. I guess that’s how much blood we need. … But we need more so it’s probably not that.
Me – Ok, so you don’t know why you’re supposed to get that many donors each day?
NL – No.

Problema número dos: (The first problem being the actual existence of the board)
Someone has set a goal for someone else without even letting the person know why. Where does the goal come from? Why is it important to reach?

Me – So how do you make sure that you reach your goals?
NL – Well we have commercials and we have booths at fairs and such.
Me – But that’s done on a central level right?
NL – Yes.
Me – So how do YOU make sure that you reach your goals? Can YOU affect how many people walk through that door in any way?
NL – Well, no. But we have commercials etc etc.

Problema número tres:
Someone has set a goal for someone else that the person has no way to affect the outcome of in any positive way.

NL – Maybe the board is there for you as a customer?
Me –
But I’m not interested in those numbers in any way. I would like to know how long I’m likely to have to wait though.But I don’t see any numbers for that.

Problema número cuatro:
The person who’s work results are exposed does not know why her result is being exposed on a big sign.

NL – Oh, and we also text our clients when we really need their blood type.
Me – From this clinic?
NL – Yes.
Me – Do you control that decision in any way or is it done automatically when your stocks reach a certain level?
NL – It’s done automatically.

Problem number five:
The worker only has an illusion of being able to affect the outcome of she’s being measured on.

Me – Does it ever happen that people walk out of here before they’ve donated their blood because the line is too long?
NL – Oh yes. That happens almost every time we put out a commercial or text people for their blood.
Me – That’s about the worst that can happen to you isn’t it? That a sure customer leaves before the deal is closed because you don’t have the time for him?
NL – Yes that’s a real pain. But we can’t do anything about that.

Problem number 4711:
One thing that really needs improvement and can be improved isn’t measured and the worker does not feel she can affect the outcome of it.

Machine – BEEEEEEEEP!
NL – Here’s a band aid. Thank you very much!
Me – No, thank you!

Not only did the nice lady act like my 50’s wife but this whiteboard made the whole organization look lika a factory from the 50’s where workers have production quotas posted on the walls. I don’t know. Maybe I misread the entire situation and interpreted way too much into our short conversation, but would you want your production results posted on the wall for everyone to see? Especially if you didn’t feel that you could affect the outcome in a positive way?

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