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Psychology

Cognitive Function

How often do you get pissed off by interruptions and distractions? You know, when you’re zoned in on something, in a state of flow, and something happens to break the flow? Personally, when I’m writing code, I have to be in a quiet place, by myself or with my pair or mob, else I can’t get anything done for the continual distractions.

This is but one example of how easily cognitive function can be impaired.

Common sources of cognitive impairment:

  • Distractions and interruptions
  • Stress (specifically, negative stress a.k.a. distress) Cf Amygdala Hijack
  • Tiredness, fatigue, lack of sleep.
  • Multitasking
  • Poverty
  • Diet
  • Shift patterns
  • Noise and other forms of environmental stressors (lighting, odours, vibrations, exposure to particulates, elevated carbon dioxide, etc.)
  • Physiological issues (such as colds and flu, hypoglycemia, aphasia, depression, dehydration, hypertension, obesity, trauma, diabetes, Parkinson’s, POTS, dementia, hypoxia, atrial fibrillation)
  • Substance abuse (drink, drugs, etc. – short and long term effects, chronic and acute)

Wow. That’s quite a list. Seems like almost anything can impair cognitive function.

Why Does this Matter?

So why does cognitive function matter. What’s the connection with knowledge work? I’ll spell it out in case it’s not clear:

Knowledge work – such as software development – by definition involves working with our brains. If our brains are performing well (i.e. effective or relatively high cognitive functioning) then we can expect our work to go well, things to get done quicker, with fewer errors, and so on.

Conversely, when our cognitive function is impaired, our brains will take longer to accomplish tasks, come up with less effective solutions, commit more errors, and generally perform more ineffectively.

It’s also likely that with impaired cognitive function we’ll be less reflective, with less energy or capacity to spend on thinking about our work, our relationships, our behaviours, our practices, our customers, possible innovations, our needs and the needs of others, etc..

Does it sound to you like non-impaired cognitive function is something worth having? Something worth paying attention to?

Paying Attention?

So how many folks – managers, workers, organisations – pay any attention AT ALL to folks’ cognitive functioning in the workplace or whilst working? I’d suggest the answer is none, or as near none as makes no difference.

Which seems strange to me, if we truly seek our collaborative knowledge work (and workers) to be as effective as possible. Of course, that objective may be a false assumption. Maybe blissful ignorance and indifference is preferable to paying attention and taking action? Given the reluctance I’ve encountered when broaching this subject, I suspect blissful ignorance and/or indifference holds sway.

How does it go in your organisation?

– Bob

Testbash Dublin

I’m just back from presenting an interactive session at Testbash Dublin. I enjoyed conversations on the topic of the session – Organisational Psychotherapy – as well as conversations around e.g. #NoTesting. Indeed, I noted a common theme running through many of the sessions from the more seasoned testers presenting: a grumbling low-key disaffection with the notion of testing as a path to quality.

No Testing

A number of folks engaged me in trying to better understand what I might mean by #NoTesting. Such conversations generally start out with “What do you mean by ‘testing’?”. My time in Dublin has allowed me to see through my discomfort in avoiding this question (yes, I generally choose to avoid it). I’m loath to get into semantic arguments from the get-go. I find they rarely lead to productive mutual exploration of such topics.

The bottom-line, is: It doesn’t matter one iota what I mean by “testing”. Whatever YOU mean by “testing”, that’s what I’m talking about when I mention #NoTesting. It’s an invitation for YOU to pause awhile to consider how life would be different if you stopped doing “testing” (whatever YOU choose to understand by that term) and did something else to address the same ends.

Ends Over Means

There’s an idea from therapy which might help you understand this perspective. In eg Nonviolent Communication (and some other therapies), human motivation is assumed to stem from attempts to get our needs met. That is, our behaviours and actions result from the strategies (means) we choose in order to meet our needs (ends). Any particular strategy affords us a limited palette of behaviours and actions. Aside: Often, we have little or no conscious awareness of either our ends or our chosen means.

“Testing” (whatever YOU choose to understand by that term) is a strategy you (or someone else) has chosen – almost always, implicitly –  for getting your or their needs met. And other folks’ needs, too, in the general case.

There are always other strategies (means, options) for meeting folks’ needs. Yet rarely do these other strategies receive any consideration. Maybe some of these other options offer a way to better meet folks’ needs. How would we ever discover that, without considering them, becoming aware of them, exploring them?

So that’s what I’m talking about with #NoTesting (amongst a raft of #No hashtags) – an invitation and reminder to actively consider whether your default means (strategy) are best serving your ends (needs), whether your first and automatic choice of strategy is the most effective way to attend to your – and other folks’ – needs.

– Bob

Beyond the Pale

Digital transformations, Agile adoptions, shifts in collective mindset, Marshall Model transitions and the like general proceed slowly, if at all. Why might this be? What slows or blocks the implementation of more effective ways working, more effective ways of meeting folks needs?

I have found that one of the biggest drags on implementing more effective strategies for getting folks’ needs met is the sheer inconceivability of the new strategies. Literally. unthinkable. And not only are these prospective, more effective ways of doing things inconceivable, they’re often also unmentionable, undiscussable and taboo, too.

Some Examples

Here’s a list of some of the kinds of new strategies I’m talking about:

  • Using throughput accounting rather than cost accounting
  • Delivering value as defined by the customer, rather than the supplier
  • Defect prevention as a preferred alternative to testing
  • Favouring slack and flow over utilisation and busywork
  • Recruiting with humanity (conversations) rather than relying on CVs
  • Funding new product initiatives incrementally rather than with a one-off budget allocation
  • Incrementally trialling new product ideas in the market rather than one time “big launch”
  • Attending to folks’ needs rather than acting as if we know what’s best for others
  • Self-managing and self-organising teams
  • Having teams “own” the product they’re working on, rather than a separate Product Owner
  • Reducing or eliminating the command & control aspects of middle management roles
  • Theory Y over theory X
  • Adopting team-wide measures rather than measuring individuals
  • Seeing people as emotional and social rather than logical and rational
  • Eliminating extrinsic motivators in favour of cultivating intrinsic motivations
  • Adopting whole systems measures rather than local measures
  • Managing and optimising the whole business rather than managing and optimising each part
  • Having folks set their own salaries and bonuses, rather than have remuneration decided by others

And so on…

Promise Unrealised

Each of the above strategies promises to contribute to a more effective business, yet each of them is in itself often inconceivable, unacceptable, unthinkable and even undiscussable. In short, such new strategies are, at a given point in time, considered as beyond the pale.

The First Challenge

When considering Digital transformations, Agile adoptions, Marshall Model transitions and the like, our collective challenge, then, is to progressively broaden and deepen our tolerance and enthusiasm for discussing and embracing these new strategies.To move ourselves to a point where one, some or all of these new strategies is conceivable, discussable and acceptable. Only then can we begin to think about build a true consensus on a specific way forward.

And maybe organisational psychotherapy has a role to play in helping the organisation open itself up and start thinking and then talking about these “tough topics”.

– Bob

Further Reading

Discussing the Undiscussable ~ Bill Noonan
Crucial Conversations ~ Kerry Patterson et al.
Six Ways To Open Up and Talk in Therapy ~ John M. Grohol Psy.D. (article)

Three Things That Do Change Thinking

Changing our behaviours is very difficult, particularly if we rely on thinking our way into new ways of behaving. Changing other folks’ behaviours and thinking, even more so.

We do not usually stop to analyse what we do. Instead our past experiences create predetermined neurologic pathways for behaviours that we repeat, even when those behaviours may not be in our best interests, nor effective in getting our needs met. Kahneman has written a whole book on this phenomenon (Thinking, Fast and Slow). Edward de Bono also explains it at length.

If we want to change behaviour, we need more than data, incentives and disincentives, and rational arguments. Our behaviours are driven by our beliefs. To change behaviours, we must first change beliefs. Change our thinking. So what kinds of thing DO change thinking?

  1. Environment
    Specifically, a changing environment. As our environment changes, we may change our behaviours, and this may lead to changes in thinking.
  2. Experiences
    Change is a normative process. Which is to say, we are more likely to change our thinking if we experience things contrary to our current assumptions and beliefs. This is the realm of Cognitive Dissonance. And there’s a sweet spot: too shallow an experience may not trigger an appreciation of any difference, too deep an experience may cause trauma and rejection of the possible new ideas. To change behaviour we can first use experience to change beliefs; we must act. Experience generates feelings that inform future experience. The more positive the feelings and the more direct the link to experience, the more likely beliefs are to change. When beliefs change, behavior changes.
  3. Intentionality
    On rare occasions, we may come to suspect that our current thoughts, assumptions and beliefs are not serving us well, and intentionally decide to do something about that. One avenue for action may be to seek therapy.

There’s a Common Theme Here

Instead of thinking our way into new ways of acting, we must act our way into new ways of thinking. Of course, for most of us, that’s a new way of acting, so thinking ourselves into it isn’t likely to turn out well. How about just giving it a go?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Power of Positive Deviance ~ Jerry Sternin et al.
19 things that don’t change thinking – Rethinking Services blog post
Curiosity – a first step to changing thinking – Rethinking Services blog post

The One Perfect Way to Develop Software

[Tl;Dr: Being a Master of the perfect way to develop software is more of a handicap than an asset.]

Let’s imagine you’ve received a Matrix-style download of all the knowledge and skills necessary for Mastery of the perfect way to develop software. And you’ve applied this knowledge, and honed the skills, in several or many software development endeavours. And have the results to prove it.

Then you join a new-to-you organisation, and a new-to-you team, where of course you want to share your profound, highly valuable insights, capabilities, knowledge and skills with your peers, with a view to you all basking in the sweet success of the One Perfect Way.

Setting aside secondary issues such as the probability that there is no ONE perfect way, and that software development per se is maybe not what our customers are really interested in, what could possibly go wrong?

I’ll leave this question hanging. If I receive some expressions of interest, I propose to return to it in a future post.

– Bob

Further Reading

Characterizing people as non-linear, first-order components in software development ~ Alistair Cockburn

 

Tasks – or Deliverables

In most every development shop I’ve seen, folks’ planning vocabulary has been founded on the task as the unit of work. Long ago, at Familiar, we discovered that a different vocabulary offers some key advantages. Ever since then I’ve found that a planning vocabulary when deliverables are the default unit of work suit me much better.

Some Key Advantages

  • Planning in tasks encourages (subconsciously for the most part) busywork (a focus on activity).
  • Planning in deliverables encourages a focus on outputs (ands thus, closer to outcomes).
  • Deliverables are closer to what stakeholders seek (i.e. having their needs attend-to, or even met).
  • Tasks are generally one stage further removed from needs than are deliverables.
  • Deliverables are, to a degree, ends in themselves – tasks are means to ends (and hence more disconnected from outcomes).
  • I find it easier and more useful to quantify aspects of deliverables than aspects of tasks. YMMV.

Mayhap a focus on outcomes directly would be a further step in the right direction, but for most of the development groups I’ve seen, a single leap from tasks to outcomes might have proven infeasible.

May I invite you to trial a change of vocabulary, and of focus, next time you have the opportunity?

– Bob

 

Nonjudgmental Feedback

People are not dogs

People are not like dogs. How often have you seen someone recommending the giving of praise as a way of raising morale, increasing engagement, making folks happier, and so on? The thing is, giving praise has a significant downside.

Eschew Praise and Compliments

“Compliments are often judgements – however positive – of others.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Rosenberg regards compliment and expressions of appreciation and praise as life-alienating communication. I share that viewpoint. Instead, he suggests we include three components in the expression of appreciation:

  • The actions that have contributed to our well-being
  • The particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  • The pleasureful feelings (joy, delight, togetherness, w.h.y) engendered by the fulfilment of those needs

In other words, providing nonjudgmental feedback (in the positive case) consists of sharing:

  • This is what you did
  • This is how I feel about it
  • This is the need of mine that was met

And in the negative case, sharing:

  • This is what you did
  • This is how I feel about it
  • This is the need of mine that was NOT met
  • (Optional) a refusable request seeking to get the unmet need met.

Judgment

I’ve written previously about What’s Wrong With Judgment. This applies just as much to the judgments implicit in praise, and in other forms of judgmental feedback.

“the most salient feature of a positive judgment [e.g. praise] is not that it’s positive but that it’s a judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging. Moreover, praise communicates that our acceptance…comes with strings attached: Our approval is conditional.”

~ Alfie Kohn

Even warm and fulsome praise is likely to be received, albeit subliminally, as controlling and conditional. More useful then, might be non-evaluative (i.e. nonjudgmental) feedback. Researchers have found that just such a response – information about how someone has done, without any judgment attached – is preferable to any sort of praise.

– Bob

Further Reading

Punished By Rewards ~ Alfie Kohn
Feedback Without Criticism ~ Miki Kashtan (Online article)
NVC Feedback – The Executive Advisory
Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
The Core Protocols ~ Jim and Michele McCarthy

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