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The Words We Use

Violence is so endemic in our society and workplaces that we rarely notice it. Nor notice its effects.

Why does it matter? Well, we humans generally feel less happy when victims of violence – however minor or unremarked. But setting aside that general point, anything that negatively impacts our state of mind has similarly negative implications for knowledge workers’ productivity and the quality of that work.

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

~ Peter Drucker

And one wildly underreported source of such difficulty is the unwitting violence that happens every day in our relationships at work.

To illustrate how unaware we can be about the violence we do to ourselves and others, you might like to consider some examples. Examples of some commonly used words which not only seem innocuous, but even carry imagined positive connotations. Even these oft-lauded words can harbour implicit violence:

Discipline (verb)

Most folks take this to mean e.g. self-discipline = forcing, compelling or otherwise obliging ourselves to do things we feel we should be doing. And disciplining others = forcing them, mainly through fear, obligation guilt, shame (FOGS), or the threat of punishment, to do the things we feel they should be doing.

Professionalism

Many folks take “professionalism” to mean “constrained by expectations about how something should be done”. Here again, if we but reflect a moment, we may see the violence inherent in this idea. For example, the fear of e.g. a sanction such as ridicule or shame, when one’s behaviour does not conform to that expected of a “professional”.

Responsibility

This notion often translates to an expectation of obligation. If we are responsible for something, then we (or others) expect us to act in certain ways. Once more, we may choose to see this as raising issues of self-violence (where we take a responsibility upon ourselves) or violence done to us (where the responsibility is conferred – explicitly or implicitly – by other people, or even by rules, policy, social mores, etc.).

We Can Choose Our Words

There are, of course, hundreds if not thousands of other words, in many languages, which carry an implication of violence. How often are we aware of those implications when choosing words, and of the consequences of such choices?

Would you be willing to share some words which you find violent, in effect?

- Bob

Further Reading

Domination Systems – Duen Hsi Yen

Can You Use A Scrum Master?

A giant tied down by little people

I don’t mean “do you have an opening for a Scrum Master right now?”. I mean, “if you hired a Scrum Master today, would you, your development teams and your organisation be able to get any real value out of him or her?”.

There’s a whole bunch of pathologies I see time and again in Agile adoptions. One set of such pathologies is around the role of Scrum Master. These pathologies, unchecked, result in situations which demoralise the new hires and the development teams alike, and rob the organisation of any value from having a Scrum Master, and even from the Agile adoption itself.

Fools Rush In…

The line of so-called reasoning which leads to this particular group of pathologies generally runs like this:

“I’ve just heard about this thing called Agile. Could we use it?”

“We need to do something about our software development around here. It costs too much / takes too long / is not predictable enough / produces low quality resulting in a poor customer experience / insert your gripe here.”

“I know, this new-fangled Agile thing looks like it solves all our problem. I read as much in an inflight magazine last week. Let’s get our tech folks to adopt agile.”

“What flavour of Agile?”

“Um. There are flavours? I’ve heard of something called Scrum. Seems quite common. Let’s go for that.”

“Right! The development teams will start using Scrum next Monday.”

“But they don’t know anything about Scrum. It’s quite different to how they’re working now, I guess. They’ll need someone to show them the ropes and train them in the whole thing. The Scrum book says so. That person is called the Scrum Master.”

“Ok. We’ll hire one of those, then. Now they can jolly well get on with it. It’ll be great. Problem solved – at last. Golf this afternoon?”

And so the scene is set for another train-wreck. Here’s an explanation of some of the pathologies implicit in this dialogue:

Scrum is a Thing

It’s not. It’s an entry point, an on-ramp, a way to get started. The sooner a team becomes comfortable with the basic principles of Agile, the sooner Scrum-By-The-Book can fall away, and the team can continue its journey in whatever directions it deems best, according to the unfolding and evolving situation.

Scrum Can be Mandated

It can’t. If the development teams have no choice but to adopt Scrum, are not involved in the decision, they will likely resent it from the very outset. And resentment breeds opposition.

The Scrum Master is a Management Appointee

They’re not. Or rather, all too often they are – which only compounds the issue of the involvement of the development team in key decisions. Lack of autonomy is not a good foot upon which to get started with e.g. Scrum. Giving a development team little or no say in who gets to be their Scrum Master will again exacerbate their sense of learned helplessness, and breed dissatisfaction and disengagement.

The Scrum Master Is a Trainer

They’re not. Maybe they have some Scrum knowledge, maybe not. (And no, certification will not provide you with any assurances about that, one way or the other). The Scrum Master is no policeman, either, despite some opinions to the contrary. Primarily, the Scrum Master is someone who speaks for the “improvement” of the way the work works, offering some counter-balance to the daily pressure to get stuff shipped. (See also: Two Masters). If they do bring some Scrum expertise to the party, that can afford some short-term acceleration for the team, but often at the cost of longer-term progress – delaying the onset of a team’s confidence in itself and in its ability to learn.

Change is Bounded to the Dev Teams

It’s not. Most of the issues impacting development teams will lie outside the control of the development teams themselves. The Scrum Master will act as a catalyst for the team to bring these issues to the attention of senior management – the only folks in typical organisations that have the scope of authority to get these issues sorted out. This means that the Scrum Master and/or Team will be a regular – and demanding – visitor to the executive suite. Have you space in your schedule for this?

The Problems are Known Beforehand

They’re not. Scrum was created to shine a light on each dysfunction in the organisation. Many of these dysfunctions will have been around for years, if not decades, hiding in plain sight. Managers may think they know what the problems are, Scrum will say something different. Are you prepared to revisit your fondest assumptions?

Hire and Forget

Many folks hiring Scrum Masters assume they can just hire and then leave the Scrum Master to just get on with “fixing the team”. Any Scrum Master worth their salt will demand much time from the senior managers outside the development function. Do you have the time to commit?

All Scrum Masters Are Much of Muchness

Certification can make it seem that all Scrum Masters offer much the same level of skill, experience, and ability to contribute. Not so. Scrum Masters, being human beings, are just as variable as other humans. Do you know the kind of person that will best suit where you want the organisation to be in three, six, twelve months from now?

The Individual Can Trump the System

Many organisations look to the Scrum Master hire to come in and “fix” the dev team, with little understanding of how the existing assumptions, policies, structures, etc., of the organisation can cripple even the best Scrum Master. Deming’s 95% applies here as much as elsewhere. Are you ready to change such things, to enable the Scrum Master to add real value?

The Scrum Master is an Interim Hire

If you believe that the Scrum Master is there to “kick-start” the team, then you’ll miss the key value-add of any Scrum Master (or Agile Coach, or Organisational Therapist, for that matter). Every dev team can improve faster, feel better, and produce better software with the full-time, long-term availability of a competent coach. If it works for e.g. sports teams, why not for dev teams?

The Scrum Master is a Management Patsy, Stooge or Dupe

There are undoubtedly some Scrum Masters out there that are just doing it for the money, willingly toeing the management line, caring little for real improvement or the well-being of their teams. Most, however, will push against the status quo. Which kind do you want to hire?

Scrum Masters Are Selfless

They’re not. They’re just human beings too. They have needs. Most often, the need to make a difference is strong in them. Stronger than the need to conform. Or the need to make money. Making a difference is what you’re hiring them for? But they’re not super-men and -women, able to wave a magic wand to make things happen. So are you prepared to see the changes the teams propose regularly get actioned? Or is their morale and continued engagement not so important to you?

Summary

Most times, those appointing a Scrum Master find themselves in a Market for Lemons – being unable to discern a good candidate from the rest. Making a “good hire” then becomes largely a matter of pot-luck. (See also: Make Bad Hires).

And once a hire IS made, the challenges, far from being over, are only just beginning. Are you creating the kind of conditions in which your new hire can thrive and add real value to your development efforts, or are you just tossing them into a maelstrom and letting them sink or swim unaided?

Good luck!

- Bob

Further Reading

The Perfect Scrum Master ~ Agile Scout

Wolf Magic

Wolves chilling

In a recent blog post I thanked @davenicolette for drawing my attention to an article by Eric Barker, and more specifically to the concept of the Omega Wolf. Setting aside the question of whether the behaviour in wolves is natural or forced, I share Dave’s view that the notion of Omega Wolf makes for a fine metaphor for a particular role in our organisations.

“A really successful team needs at least one person who is not a team player. Someone who’s willing to stand up to authority, to rock the boat. To not make everybody happy. To not pat everybody on the back.”

~ Eric Barker

“Every wolf pack has an omega who bears the brunt of pack members’ frustrations. This individual functions as a sort of social glue for the pack, defusing conflict and aggression before it harms the group’s cohesion…”

~ Dave Nicolette

When I read this, I instantly recognised myself and my roles in various organisations over the years. I also saw the way in which the Omega Wolf complements the Chaos Monkey so well.

And as with Chaos Monkeys, folks in the role of Omega Wolf can easily be misunderstood – as troublemakers, lamers, losers, doormats, clowns or maybe even worse, idealist.

“Looking at the big picture and the long view, the lowest ranking wolf—the omega wolf—may actually be the ‘cornerstone wolf’ — keeping the pack together and peaceful.”

~ Robert Lindsay

Looking at human organisations – and particularly the dysfunctional ones (there are other kinds?) – I’d suggest that the people in the Omega Wolf roles are the great unsung – and often unappreciated – heroes of highly effective – and joyful – teams.

My Omega Wolf Credo

  • I aspire to help people by defusing stressful situations and bringing people together in increasingly authentic fellowship and harmony.
  • I aspire to care for the young cubs, the new hires, and the other folks who may be feeling disoriented and wondering how to become more part of “the team”.
  • I aspire to help people by being playful and encouraging others to “play” more, too.
  • I aspire to help organisations and the folks therein by championing the value of joy and humane relationships in work.
  • I aspire to improve the quality of individual and collective relationships by illustrating the value of nonviolence.
  • I aspire to improve the cohesion of the team(s) and the organisation more widely.
  • I aspire to raise awareness of the value of authentic harmony, the role of the Omega Wolf in contributing to that, and to make Omega Wolf behaviours not only acceptable but highly sought-after.

Who are the Omega Wolves in your company? How much do they contribute to the well-being of the organisational “community”? And how well-understood are they – and the value they add – in this role?

- Bob

Further Reading

Wolfpack Programming

The Antimatter Principle

Photo-realistic simulation of matter-anti-matter annihilation

Antimatter is by far the most valuable substance, by weight, known to Man (around $25 billion per gram). It’s incredibly rare, amazingly expensive and difficult to produce, and yet is by far the most powerful energy source we presently know of. It’s also the very epitome of alienness.

Seems like a good metaphor for the Antimatter Principle – the only principle we need for becoming wildly effective at collaborative knowledge work.

The Antimatter Principle

Inspired by Jim Benson’s Personal Kanban, which has just two simple “rules” – “make work visible, and limit wip” – I’ve been seeking to simplify software and product development – or, in fact, any kind of knowledge work – and reduce it to just one rule:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

The power of this simplification may not be immediately apparent, so please allow me to explain…

Attend To

Meaning, “pay attention to”. In a complicated or complex group endeavour such as developing a major piece of software, or tech product, we have the opportunity to pay attention to many things. What we pay attention to determines what gets done. Traditionally, these kinds of endeavour might pay attention to value, flow, cost, quality, customers or profits – to name just a few. But if we accept that people are central to this kind of work, then all these typical foci pale into insignificance alongside folks and their needs.

Folks’

Meaning, everyone involved. Software and product development endeavours typically involve lots of people. Not just the “doers”, but the “sponsors”, the “buyers”, and a whole host of other groups and individuals. Some folks will obviously be in the frame from the get-go, many other folks will only come into view as the endeavour unfolds. I have for many year used the term “covalence” to describe this perspective.

Needs

This reminds us that we’re working for and with people, and all people have needs, many of these tragically unmet. Needs are the universal lingua franca of the human race. Sadly, much too often overlooked or down-played. Here’s a list of needs as an example of the kind of thing I have in mind.

Expecting folks to subjugate their personal needs for the Man’s coin is not only naive, but flies in the face of decades of research.

The Antimatter Principle asks us to remember to listen our own deeper needs – and to those of others – and to identify and clearly articulate what “is alive in us”. Through its implicit emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as others – the Antimatter Principle fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. This is oh so simple, yet powerfully transformative.

Wrap

Does the Antimatter Principle, and this explanation of it, meet *your* needs?

- Bob

Can’t Be Bothered

boredpeople

When folks appear disinterested, apathetic, bored with their work – and their involvement in it, or just happy to “settle”, what do you do?

Shrug indifferently? Sigh in despair? Tear your hair out? Shout at them? Quit?

Or do you bother looking a little deeper? Asking yourself “Why?”?
(Or even Five Whys)?

I’ve worked with many groups that, superficially, appeared indifferent, unwilling or unable to summon much – or any – enthusiasm for what they were doing. Excepting maybe feigning just enough enthusiasm to deflect the unwanted attentions of their higher-ups.

On those occasions when I’ve had the opportunity to delve deeper, I’ve always found not disinterested and bored people, but folks excruciatingly frustrated at not being able to do a good job. Demotivated by faceless corporatism, disinterested or downright obstructionist managers, demeaning policies, pointless make-work and, in general, so put-upon that I wondered why they ever stayed in post.

“If you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

~ Fredrick Herzberg

What is a Good Job?

Many organisations, managers and teams never even get to first base (cf Herzberg) on this question. Fewer yet ever tackle the question of “good”.

Personally, I define a “good job” as one which meets the present, actual needs of the person doing the job. And it seems unlikely that other people will know what those needs are without listening to the people in question, and showing some interest in their personal needs, as human beings.

How often do we see organisations and managers seek out the needs of the people doing the work? How often do we encounter the prevailing assumption that “the needs of the work, the needs of the manager or of the organisation, trump the needs of the individual”?

Of course, if you rush headlong at the work, like a bull in a china shop, then there will be breakages. Including damage to folks’ morale and motivation. Maybe a little more obliquity might pay handsome dividends?

Hardly surprising, then, that many folks “can’t be bothered”.

Some Advice

Would you be willing to consider some advice, drawn from long experience in this area?

If so, read on.

If you are actually bothered about folks being bothered (not a given, by a long chalk), then do you believe in extrinsic motivation, or in intrinsic motivation?

If the former, then the way is relatively clear: Choose some carrots and sticks and apply them enthusiastically. Good luck with that.

If the latter, however, things become much less straightforward. How can we make people feel (and not just act) less bored, more keen? Well, of course, we can’t make people feel anything. So we’re obliged to consider how to bring about a situation where folks can find and grow their own enthusiasms.

How would you go about that?

- Bob

WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter without winning the understanding and active support of your higher-ups and your peers may cause alienation, organisational cognitive dissonance, damage to your credibility, and to your career.
WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter, without first winning their trust and understanding may cause suspicion, resentment, gossip, and unforeseen consequences.

Health Warning

WarningSign

Observations

I regularly read posts and articles informing managers and the like of this or that new technique for them to apply in their work. Here’s just one example amongst many.

Many of these techniques come from Agile folks, attempting – it seems – to encourage managers to move towards a more Agile stance in their methods, and in their relationships with the people they manage.

Feelings

I always feel a little anxious and peeved when seeing this kind of advice promoted without a health warning. I have in mind something like:

“Caution! Attempting to follow this advice without winning the active support of your higher-ups and your peers may cause alienation, organisational cognitive dissonance, damage to your credibility, and to your career.”

The question of safety is just beginning to gain a wider profile in the Agile community. Is safety of managers as much of an issue as safety of developers and testers when it comes to trying things out – such as adopting certain new, Agile-ish behaviours?

Needs

Such posts fail to meet my needs for “avoiding possible negative consequences (on behalf of readers)” and for “doing no harm”. I feel that encouraging managers (or other folks) to put themselves in harm’s way fails to meet principles 1. and 2. of my Nine Principles.

Requests

If you’re someone who publishes such advices to managers, would you be willing to include a health warning of some kind in your posts?

And if you’re someone who reads such posts or articles, would you be wiling to signal the absence of such warnings to their authors – and to other readers?

- Bob

Warning

WarningSign Caution! Including a health warning in a blog post or article may cause some folks to think twice about following your advice.

Further Reading

The Hippocratic Oath (Never do harm) ~ Wikipedia
Organisational Cognitive Dissonance ~ FlowChainSensei (blog post)

From Here to Eternity

Eternity

 

What Do You Want?

“Finding deficiencies and getting rid of them is not a way of improving the performance of the system. An improvement program must be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want. And, determining what you do want requires redesigning the system, not for the future, but for right now, and asking yourself what would you do right now if you could do whatever you wanted to. If you don’t know what you would do if you could do what you wanted to do how could you ever know what you would do under constraints?”

~ Russell L. Ackoff

I work a lot with new folks. That is, teams and organisations that I have not worked with before, or for long.

One regular question I put to these folks is something like “where are you going?” As in, where would they like to be, what kind of future do they have in mind.

I have ceased to be surprised by the lack of coherent answers which ensue.

Most folks have no ides of what a “better future state” might look like, either in general, or specifically for them and their fellows.

I have found several reasons for this, including:

  • Too busy on delivery stuff to think ahead
  • Lack of motivation – no personal stake in the future
  • Absence of support and encouragement from the wider organisation
  • Lack of awareness of the possibilities inherent in a “better future”
  • A disconnect between folks’ needs and their assumptions about possible futures

Does your troupe discuss your common future? Do you have any kind of picture – fuzzy or coherent – about the kind of development shop you’d like your shop to become? How broad is your picture? Does it stretch beyond your own personal future to encompass your team, your shop, your whole organisation? And how far ahead do you look – today, a month, a year, eternity?

- Bob

The Management Violence Inherent In The Golden Rule

GoodyTwoShoes

I’ve never had much time for compassion. For me, the concept seems too violent, too manipulative to embrace it. I’m all for “connecting with others in meaningful ways”, and for generosity, and kindness, (although, niceness, not so much). And for a life of meaning and purpose, too.

com·pas·sion 

noun
1. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

I just don’t find it useful to lump all these ideas together under the banner of “compassion”.

Of course, compassion, especially compassion in the workplace, is going to be better than a lack of compassion. I just feel we can, if we but think about it for a moment, do so much better.

The Golden Rule is a great example of what I’m talking about.

It’s the sheer, brazen unilateralism of the Golden Rule that bugs me. At least, as it is most often, simplistically, perceived. Oh, and the violence inherent in the very notion of “rules”, too.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

George Bernard Shaw spotted the flaw:

“Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different.”

~ G. B. Shaw

So To The Platinum Question

And thus the Platinum Rule (or here, the Platinum Question) comes into sight:

“How about treating others the way they want to be treated?”

Of course, this means finding out how others might actually want to be treated. Which opens a whole new can of worms regarding dialogue, enquiry, empathy and, yes, humane relationships.

So how about we eschew compassion in favour of empathy and non-violence? How about we consider other folks’ tastes in relating to us, and others? How about we embrace not the Golden Rule, but the Platinum Question?

Would you be willing to give this a go in your workplace, with your colleagues, peers and (God forbid you have any) higher-ups?

- Bob

Further Reading

The Rise of Compassionate Management (Finally) ~ Bronwyn Fryer
The Compassionate Mind ~ Emma Seppia

Coaching and Deming

Photo of Dr. W E Deming

I regularly lament the relative obscurity of Bill Deming and his work. I’m not the only one. God only knows why he’s not better known. Just about everyone who knows of him – and in particular his System of Profound Knowledge – is a fan. How could it be otherwise?

Even just one aspect of his work – his so-called 95/5 rule – has so many implications for businesses everywhere.

I’m not going to get into that today, nor into all his many insights and contributions. Except for the seeming contradiction the 95/5 rule raises in the whole field of personal and team coaching (and, incidentally, training, as well as my immediate specialism these days, therapy).

Aside: By ‘personal coaching’ I’m thinking of things like agile coaching, life coaching, executive coaching and so on.

Here’s the thing: if we believe the system is responsible for 95% of an individual’s performance (in a job or task), why “work on the five percent”? Is that not rather… incongruous?

Granted, folks sometimes hire their own e.g. life or fitness coaches for their own personal reasons. Let’s set aside these cases and focus on those rather more common cases where organisations hire the coaches for one or more people in the organisation. Agile Coaching seems a common example of this.

The aim of such coaching appointments is often to get the people being coached to “perform better”. And most often, the implicit assumption is that it’s the performance of said individuals that should be the focus of the coaching efforts.

How many folks who seek coaches for their teams actually consider the 95/5 rule? How many coaches see their role as much more working on the system than working on the individuals concerned?

“If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

~ Frederick Herzberg

I can personally attest to the endless frustrations arising from coaching situations where it’s been the system that needed to change, not the fine folks already doing their best in badly designed, badly organised jobs.

- Bob

Further Reading

Herzberg’s Motivation Hygiene Theory 

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

comfortzone

[TL;DR: How most folks stick to their comfort zones, and what that means for the businesses they work in.]

“No matter how comfortable we are, we always have to take the next step.”

~ Steve Jobs, re: the creation and naming of NeXT and NeXTStep

I like getting outside my comfort zone. Well, not like, exactly. It’s more that I feel compelled to do so, and quite often. I seem to have some voice inside my head saying “This is not good enough. Break out of your comfort zone – and push the envelope, again.” I guess I like the feeling that psychologists call “eustress“.

“Everyone needs a little bit of [positive] stress in their life in order to continue to be happy, motivated, challenged and productive. It is when this stress is no longer tolerable and/or manageable that distress comes in.”

A Mentor Can Help

In “Great Boss, Dead Boss” the author Ray Immelman expresses his view that a leader has to have the psychological courage to take each next step on the company’s journey. To have the urge to transcend their own emotional discomfort, and make leaps into the unknown, nevertheless. He also talks about the value of leaders having mentors with the psychological strength to help them grow even further.

Business Partnerships

In my working partnerships, over the years, I have often felt a sense of frustration with said partners and their reluctance to step outside their own comfort zones. We have lost opportunities, and compromised progress towards the (shared, common) purpose of the business because of the mismatch between our different levels of tolerance for discomfort.

Aside: By “opportunities”, I mean opportunities for personal growth, joy, success, enlightenment, fellowships, etc., and not so much just commercial opportunities.

And when talking with potential clients, etc., I regularly see the same kind of dynamic; folks who are “settling”, comfy in their warm, cozy and safe comfort zones. History tells me these are folks I cannot work with for long – or at all.

I’ve often found myself introspecting:

“What’s more important? Harmonious relationships, loyalty, friendship, etc. – or progress, taking the next step?”

Somehow, finding an acceptable balance over the longer term has eluded me. Maybe this, too, has something to do with needing to take the next step, make progress, move on.

Consequences

Working in e.g. an organisation, team or partnership where there’s a mismatch in folks’ tolerance levels for discomfort; where some folks want to take the next step and others are comfortable in their comfort zones, can lead to:

  • Frustration.
  • Distress.
  • Demotivation – for the comfort-seeking and the discomfort-seeking folks, both.
  • Distraction.
  • Anxiety.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Maladaptive and depressive behaviours.
  • Dysfunctional social interactions.
  • Impaired cognitive function.

I see a tolerance for discomfort, an impulse to step outside one’s comfort zone, as closely correlated to organisational effectiveness (a.a. Rightshifting Index). And another reason to seek to match folks with similar tolerance levels.

Solutions?

I’m not sure even now, having experienced many instances of seeing folks stuck in their comfort zones, and the doldrums that result, that I have any answers or advice on how to deal with this, except perhaps Immelman’s:

“Strong tribal leaders have capable mentors whose psychological limits exceed their own.”

~ Ray Immelman

Oh, and talking about the topic. Maybe this post can serve your team or company as an entry point into that kind of discussion?

How about you? Are you inured to your comfort zone? Have you a story about some time when you stepped beyond that zone and found something wondrous?

- Bob

Further Reading

A Closer Look at Intrinsic Motivation ~ Kendra Cherry
The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone ~ Alan Hendry

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