The Novice and the Master

When coaching people in a new skill, there are several things I watch for in their development from novice to master. Insuring they have the requisite foundational knowledge can be considered a given. Tightly coupled with this is a demonstration of working from first principles. If neither of these are in place than it can be said the learner has yet to begin their journey toward mastery.

Beyond the basics, I look for signs of what’s happening behind the curtain. I watch for how they respond to challenges and conflict. And how they work through difficult decisions.

How a difficult decision is handled is an important indicator for whether an individual is a novice, a master, or somewhere in between. Where novices struggle trying to figure out what to do, masters resolve quickly. Certainly a common issue in play would be doubts about the outcome of any particular action and the probability of recovering from any associated consequences. It is also possible that the issue – either instead of or in addition to – is that the novice has become stuck at a decision node that has an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty associated with it on the front end and they are unskilled at thinking through the “disjunction,” as Eldar Shafir1 calls situations like this.

With the former issue, the tack taken by the novice is to plan out as many details as possible so as to account for every contingency and squeeze out as much doubt as possible regarding the outcome. In the later, the novice simply doesn’t have the information needed to make the decision and lacks the skill to play out n number of scenarios leading up to the decision node such that they can then evaluate subsequent paths.

An example given by Shafir has to do with a student that has just taken a rather important exam (say, for graduate school) but doesn’t yet know the results. If they’ve passed, they move forward. If they’ve failed, they have to retake the exam in a couple of months after the end-of-year holidays. On the same day, they are presented with a incredibly sweet deal for a 5-day Hawaiian vacation over the end-of-year holidays. The vacation deal is good for today and grades won’t be released until tomorrow. What does the student do?

Notice that the outcome of the exam will be known long before the vacation begins. Thus, the uncertainty characterizes the present, disjunctive situation, not the eventual vacation. Additional, related versions were presented in which subjects were to assume that they had passed the exam, or that they had failed, before they had to decide about the vacation. We discovered that many subjects who would have bought the vacation to Hawaii if they were to pass the exam and if they were to fail, chose not to buy the vacation when the exam’s outcome was not known. The data show that more than half of the students chose the vacation package when they knew that they passed the exam and an even larger percentage chose the vacation when they knew they they failed. However, when they did not know whether they had passed or failed, less than one-third of the students chose the vacation and the majority (61%) were willing to pay $5 to postpone the decision until the following day, when the results of the exam would be known.

A solution to this simple example of disjunction (Shafir provides many other examples) is for the student to ask themselves two questions:

  1. “Would I take this vacation deal if I passed?”
  2. “Would I take this vacation deal if I failed?”

If the answer is “Yes” to both or “No” to both, then the decision about the vacation deal is easy. If the answer is still mixed, then I suppose the student will have to dig a bit deeper to get at a level of leading criteria that will shake out the decision. (When I was a student, I would have had to consult my financial adviser – a.k.a. my wallet – first. The answer to everything beyond beer was “NO!”) In the experiment described above where students remained uninformed as to the outcome of the exam, they didn’t have a skill or strategy for resolving the uncertainty and were even willing to pay to make it go away!

Shafir’s work was instrumental in helping me tap into new skills for developing mastery in several areas of interest (specifically, martial arts and woodworking). Disjunction has a distinct visceral sensation for me. It gives me pause to ask questions not about potential future events, but about past events leading up to the present. I find I’m usually missing something about the history of events that either help sort out the indecision once known or cause me to think through better scenarios on emerging events that will influence the decision I’m trying to make.

References

1 Eldar Shafir’s chapter in “Cognition on Cognition” titled “Uncertainty and the difficulty of thinking through disjunctions”

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Drive for Teams

I recently re-read Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” I read it when it was first published and I was still managing technical teams. Super brief summary: The central idea of the book is that people are mostly driven by intrinsic motivation based on three aspects:

  • Autonomy — The desire to be self directed.
  • Mastery — The urge to improve skills.
  • Purpose — The desire to engage with work that has meaning and purpose.

I find this holds true for individuals. However, when applied to teams optimizing for these three aspects can be problematic. If an individual on a team seeks to maximize autonomy, they are likely to come into conflict with the objectives of the team. For example, a software team that is tasked with developing a component that is expected to interact with several other components developed by other teams. If a single developer, in the interests of maximizing their individual autonomy, has decided to develop the component according to standards, design principles, and tools that are different from those of teammates and other teams (essentially, a local optimization,) then the result is likely to be sub-optimal overall.

Some individual autonomy must necessarily be sacrificed in the interests of effective collaboration. It’s possible, even desirable, that individual pursuits of mastery and purpose can be maintained. However, it may be necessary for an individual to focus on mundane tasks and the objectives of the team for periods of time. Finding ways to maintain a healthy balance between the intrinsic motivators and the purpose of the team is no small task and, when found, requires constant attention to maintain.

Perhaps it is possible to attach the team’s or organization’s purpose to the interests of the individual. Or sort for hiring people who have a personal purpose that is in-line with the organization’s purpose.

The Changeability Decision Matrix

Responding to change over following a planThe Agile Manifesto

That’s one of the four values to the Agile Manifesto. It’s also one of the values that is commonly plucked from the context of three other values and twelve principles. Once isolated, it’s exaggerated and inflated to some form of “We can’t define scope before we start work! There’s too much discovery work to be done first! We don’t know what we don’t know! Scope (and requirements) are emergent!” That bends the intent of the Manifesto and disregards the context from which a single value has been extracted.

I don’t believe Agile practices ever meant for software development to be a free-for-all, a never ending saga of finding and implementing better and better ways to code something before a product can be released. Projects run like this never see the light of day, let alone a shelf to languish on waiting for a long since departed market opportunity.

What isn’t in the Agile Manifesto, but is implicit in the Agile methodologies I’ve worked with is the notion of decision points. These are the points around which change, to a small or large degree, is not allowed. At least not for a while. Decision points bring stability to the development process from which Agile teams can move forward with a stable set of assumptions. If subsequent discoveries inform the team that they need to revisit a decision, than they must do so. The key element is that the work subsequent to the decision is what generates the need to revisit the decision. It isn’t done arbitrary, on a hunch, or with minimal information.

There are numerous decision points that exist within Scrum and SAFe, for example. Stories are decisions. “We need to create this thing.” Acceptance criteria, definitions of ready and done, sprint duration, feature and epic definitions, milestones, minimum viable/valuable products are also examples of decisions. Some of these can be quite changeable. Stories, for example, can be refined many times prior to and during sprint planning. The description, acceptance criteria, definition of done, and effort estimation can change many times before a story is committed to a sprint. And there’s the decision point. When the team agrees that a story can be brought into a sprint and they commit to completing it before the sprint is over, they have made a decision and the story shouldn’t change on its way to being completed by the team. (As noted previously, the work on the story may reveal a need to change something about the story – maybe even indicate that work on the story should stop – but that should be an edge case and not part of common practice.)

To help teams understand these distinctions, I’ve developed a 2X2 matrix called the Changeability Decision Matrix. Its purpose is to help teams evaluate the effects of changing work in the queue. The horizontal axis goes from “Small Impact” to “Big Impact.” The vertical axis goes from “Few Changes” to “Many Changes.”

The two questions the team needs to ask when thinking about changing a decision they’ve made (acceptance criteria, story description, MVP, etc.) are:

  • Will this change have a small or big impact? They may consider any number of variables: cost, time, productivity, effort, etc.
  • Will this change require a few or many changes (lines of code, documentation updates, other components that consume the code, budgets, release dates, etc.)

Where the proposed change resides on the grid may be dependent on where the team is on the project timeline. Consider the Epic, feature, and story hierarchy: Early in the project – during the design phase, for example – there may be little more than features in the backlog. As placeholders for ideas, they may be quite volatile as new marketing information enters the conversation or obvious technical issues become apparent. So changing an epic or a feature may have a relatively small impact on the project and involve few changes. Most probably there won’t be any code involved at this point.

As the project progress and backlog refinement continues, epics and features will be broken up into large stories. More detail is added to the backlog and more time and money has been invested in the design so the epics and features are less changeable. If any changes are needed, it is probably that the impact of those changes and the number of things that need to change will be greater than it would have been during the design phase.

Eventually, as the project moves into high gear, the backlog will become populated with more and more smaller stories that can be easily estimated and planned into sprints and increments.

For the duration of the project, it’s likely most of the stories in the backlog can and should be responsive to multiple changes…right up to the point the decision is made to drop the story into a sprint.

The Changeability Decision Matrix is an easy way to evaluate whether or not an Agile team is pondering undoing a small or large decision by forcing the conversation around the consequences of making the change. If either of these two axis are not a good fit for your organization or what you consider important to consider, then change them to something that makes more sense to your project.

See also:

Update 2020.11.07

Here is a representation of these phases on a hypothetical project timeline.

The Emotional Bumblebee

I finished Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” this past week. It’s the latest exploration in my decades-long journey to better understand myself and others. There’s a lot in this book and it’s been a paradigm shift for me personally. I expect the effects from the insights gained from Dr. Barrett’s work in my professional life will be equally seismic.

As part of this exploration and effort to understand what Dr. Barrett and others are discovering, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to organize and assimilate information. For years I’ve used mind mapping and its served me well. I continue to use this approach almost daily. Ah, but the relentless advancement of technology has resulted in new tools. My current favorite (meaning the one that so far matches how my brain seems to work) is a tool called Obsidian. It’s new and is evolving quickly. I’ve been using Obsidian to organize and study cognitive biases in a way similar to Buster Benson’s work. This past weekend I began a similar process with emotions based on Dr. Barrett’s work.

It’s early but it has already yielded many important insights and benefits. I began by collecting as many words I could find (currently, 514) that are used to describe emotional states or patterns. I then entered them into Obsidian, each connected to a single node, “Words that express emotion.” Here’s a partial screen capture of the Obsidian graph:

The graph is too big to fit on a single screen and have the words show. And Obsidian does not yet have an export feature for graphs into a standard image file. So I’m limited by screen real estate. Where I take this next…I’m not sure, actually. Probably a cycle of refinement and deep dive into definitions and descriptions. I can foresee the creation of a real-time tool for assessing emotional states using a circumplex. Lots of experimentation ahead.

There is a dynamic quality to the graphs in Obsidian that is part of the fun and path-to-insights with the information. I’ve created a video to show the effect and set it to Nikolai Riminsky-Korsakov’s orchestral interlude “Flight of Bumblebee.” If/when you read Dr. Barrett’s book, you will understand why I selected the bee theme. It’s a virtual emotional bee hive inside our heads and bodies. Be sure to expand the video to full screen for maximum effect. Enjoy!

Baseballs and Hockey Pucks

“Keep your eye on the ball!” I was always coached when learning how to play baseball. Seemed like reasonable advice while standing at the plate, facing down the pitcher for the opposing team. Certainly wouldn’t want to be daydreaming or casting my gaze to the horizon. It didn’t seem to help, though. I excelled at striking out.

Later…much later…I came across Wayne Gretzky’s quote: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” I wonder if I had learned to figure out where the baseball was going to be and made sure my bat was there to meet it if I might have spent more time on bases. Keeping my eye on the ball didn’t tell me much about when to start my swing.

No regrets. I still love the game (as it was, not as it currently is.)

I think of this Gretzky quote when I watch product owners struggle with organizing their backlog. (I also think how tragic it is that the business world has beat this quote into an intolerable pulpy platitude.)

Ask a product owner what their team is working on today, they should be able to give a succinct answer. Ask them what their team is going to be working on in three months and watch the clock. The longer they can go on about what their team is going to be working on, the healthier their backlog is likely to be. Struggling product owners scramble to keep their teams busy sprint-to-sprint. Good product owners can see where their teams are going to be in several months. Great product owners see to the end of the game.

Teaching Product Owners How To Fish

Product owners are responsible for defining WHAT the Agile team needs to create. The team is responsible for deciding HOW to build WHAT the product owner needs.

I don’t think any Agilist would fundamentally disagree with that statement. Where there is inevitably a great deal of discussion and disagreement is describing the boundary between “WHAT” and “HOW.” Is it thin or thick? How much overlap is there? Does this depend on the nature of the work or is there a fixed standard? Does it have to be determined for every story? These are often not easy questions to answer.

While reading some neuroscience material yesterday regarding how our brains construct “concepts,” the topic lead into the notion of “goal-based concepts.” Since I’m not a neuroscientist but an Agilist looking for ways neuroscientific discoveries can be applied to the implementation of Agile principles and practices, the material had me thinking about how product owners might learn from the idea of “goal-based concepts.” How can I teach them about the “WHAT” such that they better understand the type and amount of detail the team needs in order to figure out the “HOW?”

I came up with a series of short dialogs:

Product Owner (to team): I need a fish.

Team: OK.

(Team goes off to work on “fish” and returns the next day with a catfish.)

PO: That’s not what I wanted! I need a fish!

(Team goes off to work on “fish” and returns the next day with a nurse shark.)

PO: That’s not what I wanted either!

What if the PO had been more clear about not just WHAT she wanted, but the goal for that WHAT. That is, a description of the problem that the WHAT was intended to solve.

PO: I’m opening a fish store. I need a fish.

(Team goes off to work on “fish for fish store” and returns the next day with a goldfish.)

PO: That’s good. But it’s not enough. I need more fish. Different kinds of fish.

(The team goes off to work on “variety of fish for fish store” and returns the next day with guppies, mollies, swordtails, and angelfish.)

PO: Cool!

Or version two:

PO: I’m opening a restaurant. I need a fish.

(Team goes off to work on “fish for restaurant” and returns the next day with Poached Salmon in Dill Sauce.)

PO: That’s good. But it’s not enough. I need more fish. Different kinds of fish.

(The team goes off to work on “variety of fish for restaurant” and returns the next day with Miso-Glazed Chilean Sea Bass, Mediterranean Stuffed Swordfish, and Pan Seared Lemon Tilapia.)

PO: Yum!

Hopefully, you can see that by providing a little of the “WHY” for the “WHAT” has helped the team do a better job of delivering WHAT the product owner wanted.

Of course, these are simplified examples. There are many additional details the product owner could have supplied that would have helped the team dial in on exactly WHAT she needed. In the first dialog, the team had to make guesses about what the product owner meant by the rather broad concept of “fish.” In the subsequent dialogs, the team at least had the benefit of the context that was of interest to the product owner. In these cases, the team had a better understanding of the goal the product owner had in mind.

In Agile-speak, this context or goal information would be provided in the “As a…” and “…so that…” part of the story. “As a restaurant owner I want fish so that patrons can enjoy a variety of menu options.”

The less clear the product owner is on these elements, the longer it’s going to take for the team to guess what she really wants.

Concave, Convex, and Nonlinear Fragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “Antifragile,” is a wealth of information. I’ve returned to it often since first reading it several years ago. My latest revisit has been to better understand his ideas about representing the nonlinear and asymmetric aspects of fragile/antifragile in terms of “concave” and “convex.” My first read of this left me a bit confused, but I got the gist of it and moved on. Taleb is a very smart guy so I need to understand this.

The first thing I needed to sort out on this revisit was Taleb’s use of language. The fragile/antifragile comparison is variously described in his book as:

  • Concave/Convex
  • Slumped solicitor/Humped solicitor
  • Curves inward/Curves outward
  • Frown/Smile
  • Negative convexity effects/Positive convexity effects
  • Pain more than gain/Gain more than pain
  • Doesn’t “like” volatility (presumable)/”Likes” volatility

Tracking his descriptions is made a little more challenging by reversals in reference when writing of both together (concave and convex then convex and concave) and mis-matches between the text and illustrations. For example:

Nonlinearity comes in two kinds: concave (curves inward), as in the case of the king and the stone, or its opposite, convex (curves outward). And of course, mixed, with concave and convex sections. (note the order: concave / convex) Figures 10 and 11 show the following simplifications of nonlinearity: the convex and the concave resemble a smile and a frown, respectively. (note the order: convex / concave)

Figure 10 shows:

So, “convex, curves outward” is illustrated as an upward curve and “concave, curves inward” is illustrated as a downward curve. Outward is upward and inward is downward. It reads like a yoga pose instruction or a play-by-play call for a game of a Twister.

After this presentation, Taleb simplifies the ideas:

I use the term “convexity effect” for both, in order to simplify the vocabulary, saying “positive convexity effects” and “negative convexity effects.”

This was helpful. The big gain is when Taleb gets to the math and graphs what he’s talking about. Maybe the presentation to this point is helpful to non-math thinkers, but for me it was more obfuscating than illuminating. My adaptation of the graphs presented by Taleb:

With this picture, it’s easier for me to understand the non-linear relationship between a variable’s volatility and fragility vs antifragility. The rest of the chapter is easier to understand with this picture of the relationships in mind.

Team Composition

When a potter begins to throw a pot, she picks up a lump of clay, shapes it into a rough sphere, and throws it onto the spinning potter’s wheel. It may land off-center, and she must carefully begin to shape it until, it is a smooth cylinder. Then she works the clay, stretching and compressing it as it turns. First it is a tower, then it is like a squat mushroom. Only after bringing it up and down several times does she slowly squeeze the revolving clay until its walls rise from the wheel. She cannot go on too long, for the clay will begin to “tire” and then sag. She gives it the form she imagines, then sets it aside. The next day, the clay will be leather hard, and she can turn it over to shape the foot. Some decoration may be scratched into the surface. Eventually, the bowl will be fired, and then the only options are the colors applied to it; its shape cannot be changed.

This is how we shape all the situations in our lives. We must give them rough shape and then throw them down into the center of our lives. We must stretch and compress, testing the nature of things. As we shape the situation, we must be aware of what form we want things to take. The closer something comes to completion, the harder and more definite it becomes. Our options become fewer, until the full impact of our creation is all that there is. Beauty or ugliness, utility or failure, comes from the process of shaping.Deng Ming-Dao, '365 Tao - Daily Meditations'

Building a high-performance team from scratch is just as difficult as turning a low-performing team into a high-performing team. However, there are very different reasons why each of these scenarios are difficult.

Like the potter beginning with a lump of clay, when forming a new team we must understand what we have to work with and have a clear idea of the outcomes we want. As we shape the team, we have to be mindful of how the individuals on the team are changing – or not – and whether those changes are moving toward the outcome. If not, we either need to change the desired outcome or alter the material we have to work with, that is, change out one or more people so that the shape of the team is better suited to reaching the desired outcome. It is also important to monitor the speed at which the team is formed or shaped. Too fast, and the team may not coalesce in a way that is healthy or productive. Too slow and they may not coalesce at all, they may “tire” of the slow pace and disengage.

With existing teams, we may have a limited range of options to change the roster. This is more like the an existing piece of pottery that has been fully set.