Friends, Guides, Coaches, and Mentors

The “conscious competence” model for learning is fairly well known. If not explicitly, than at least implicitly. Most people can recognize when someone is operating at a level of unconscious incompetence even if they can’t quite put their finger on why it is such a person makes the decisions they do. Recognizing when we ourselves are at the level of unconscious incompetence is a bit more problematic.

A robust suite of cognitive biases that normally help us navigate an increasingly complex world seem to conspire against us and keep us in the dark about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. Confirmation bias, selective perception, the observer bias, the availability heuristic, the Ostrich effect, the spotlight effect and many others all help us zero in on the shiny objects that confirm and support our existing memories and beliefs. Each of these tissue-thin cognitive biases layer up to form a dense curtain, perhaps even an impenetrable wall, between the feedback the world is sending and our ability to receive the information.

There is a direct relationship between the density of the barrier and the amount of energy needed to drive the feedback through the barrier. People who are introspective as well as receptive to external feedback generally do quite well when seeking to improve their competencies. For those with a dense barrier it may require an intense experience to deliver the message that there are things about themselves that need to change. For some a poorly received business presentation may be enough to send them on their way to finding out how to do better next time. For others it may take being passed over for a promotion. Still others may not get the message until they’ve been fired from their job.

However it happens, if you’ve received the message that there are some changes you’d like to make in your life and it’s time to do the work, an important question to ask yourself is “Am I searching for something or am I lost?”

If you are searching for something, the answer may be found in a conversation over coffee with a friend or peer who has demonstrated they know what you want to know. It maybe that what you’re looking for – improve your presentation skills, for example – requires a deeper dive into a set of skills and it makes sense to find a guide to help you. Perhaps this involves taking a class or hiring a tutor.

If you are lost you’ll want to find someone with a much deeper set of skills, experience, and wisdom. A first time promotion into a management position is a frequent event that either exposes someone’s unconscious incompetence (i.e. the Peter Principle) or challenges someone to double their efforts at acquiring the skills to successfully manage people. Finding a coach or a mentor is the better approach to developing the necessary competencies for success when the stakes are higher and the consequences when failing are greater.

A couple of examples may help.

When I was first learning to program PCs I read many programming books cover to cover. It was a new world for me and I had very little sense of the terrain or what I was really interested in doing. So I studied everything. Over time I became more selective of the books I bought or read. Eventually, I stopped buying books altogether because there was often just a single chapter of interest. Today, I can’t remember the last time I picked up a software development book. This was a progression from being lost at the start – when I needed coaches and mentors in the form of books and experienced software developers – to needing simple guidance from articles and peers and eventually to needing little more than a hint or two toward the end of my software development career.

A more recent example is an emergent need to learn photography – something I don’t particular enjoy. Yet for pragmatic reasons, it’s become worth my time to learn how to take a particular kind of photograph. I need a coach or a mentor because this is entirely new territory for me. So I hired a professional photographer with an established reputation for taking this type of photograph I’m interesting in. My photography coach is teaching me what I need to know. (He is teaching me how to fish, in other words, rather then me paying him for a fish every time I need one.)

Unlike the experience of learning how to program – where I really didn’t know what I wanted to do – my goal with photography is very specific. The difference has a significant influence on who I choose for guides and mentors. For software development, I sought out everyone and anyone who knew more than I. For photography, I sought a very specific set of skills. I didn’t want to sit through hours of classes learning how to take pictures of barn owls 1,000 meters away in the dark. I didn’t want to suffer through a droning lecture on the history of camera shutters. Except in a very roundabout way, none of this serves my goal for learning how to use a camera for a very specific purpose.

Depending on what type of learner you are, working with a mentor who really, really knows their craft about a specific subject you want to learn can be immensely more satisfying and enjoyable. Also, less expensive and time consuming. If it expands into something more, than great. With this approach you will have the opportunity to discover a greater interest without a lot of upfront investment in time and money.

Time Out!

In Estimating Effort – An Explicitly Implicit Approach I stated that time cannot be one of the attributes the team uses to describe what they mean by “effort.” The importance of this warrants the need for a deeper dive into the rationale behind this rule and how excluding time can lead to better predictability for team performance.

The primary objective for coaching teams to think about effort independent of time constraints is so that they can improve their skills for thinking about the actual work involved. Certainly they will spend time completing the work. But the simple passage of time won’t get the work done. Someone has to actually DO something. That something is the effort.

For example, maybe someone on the team says the product backlog item requires a lot of documentation. It isn’t complex and there aren’t any dependencies, it’s just going to take a lot of time – 7 days, maybe. So they want to give that PBI an effort value of 5 or 8 (or 5 or 8 story points, if that’s what you’re using) because it’s going to take a lot of time.

Remember, the purpose of these criteria is to generate a conversation around what the actual effort is. The criteria are just a set of guideposts that help the team hold a meaningful conversation about the effort.  So when someone on a team insists that they estimate using time, I ask them “What are you doing as the time you’ve estimated is passing? Are you just sitting there, watching the seconds tick away?” Of course they aren’t just sitting there. I’m asking the questions to elicit a comment about the actual work they are doing. Maybe they answer with something a little less vague, like “typing words.” That’s good. “What’s the difference between typing those words in a word processor and typing code in Vim?”

Continuing down this line of inquiry usually leads to the realization that typing documentation has many similar traits to coding. It can be complex. It may have dependencies.  It may require research for accuracy and it certainly will need a lot of debugging (professional writers call this “editing.”) Coders typically don’t like writing documentation. To them it’s just about the tedium of banging something out that’s not as fun as code. Sussing out the effort like this will lead to better acceptance criteria and definition of done associated with the PBI.

The downside of time estimates is that they hide all manner of sins and rabbit holes. The planning fallacy, precision bias, availability heuristic, and survivorship bias are just a few of the mental obstacles guaranteed to reduce the accuracy of time estimates. Or you may have to deal with a team member who wants to estimate using time because they know full well it offers the opportunity to hide slow work. (Gamers gotta game.) When teams have run the gauntlet of effort criteria, they are more likely to end up with a better picture of how much work they are being asked to do when time is excluded from the conversation. Effort criteria force the team to be more explicit about the activities they are engaged with as the clock ticks.

The investment in identifying time-independent effort criteria yields further benefits in the retrospective. Was the team unable to complete a PBI in the sprint? Was all the work finished two days early? Have a look at the effort criteria and ask which of them were a factor in making the PBIs a bigger or smaller effort than initially estimated. This is how teams learn and improve their skill at estimating. The better they are at estimating the more predictable their productivity.

OK, so let’s say you have a team doing a great job of determining the effort needed to complete a PBI and they do so without including time. No doubt, management will be unimpressed. They want time estimates. Good news! We can give them time estimates…in two week increments.

With the team focused on figuring out time independent effort values for every PBI in the backlog and an ongoing experience of how much effort they can reliably complete in two week increments, product owners can provide a reasonable forecast for when the release or project will be complete. The team focuses on accurate time independent effort estimates. The scrum master and product owner worry about the performance metrics and time projections.

It’s surprising how hard of a sell this can be for teams. They are hard wired to think in terms of time because that’s what traditional project management has hounded them for since before coding was a thing. I tell teams, “With Agile and scrum, you no longer have to worry about time. That’s the product owner’s job. But you do have to develop very good skills at estimating effort.” It’s common for them to have a hard time adjusting to the new paradigm.

Goals, Mission, and Purpose

Whenever you have trouble getting up in the morning, remind yourself that you’ve been made by nature for the purpose of working with others, whereas even unthinking animals share sleeping. And it’s our own natural purpose that is more fitting and more satisfying.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.12

When I was much younger I had an obsession with defining and achieving goals. I’d codified my approach into an unpublished workbook titled “The Goal Mapping Process.” There was nothing particularly unique about this process. All it really accomplished was laying out a method for breaking goals down into achievable tasks and then reassembling them in to the larger goal. It was very tactical and it worked. At least it did for me and perhaps that’s why I never published it. Working out the method within a frame of something that others might see forced a level of rigor that I might not have otherwise applied. In the end, it was just another way of getting things done.

Later in life the realization that completing goals had an element of dissatisfaction came into focus. Achieving goals, even big goals, wasn’t enough. The question of “What next?” frequently presented a blank slate. Figuring out how to achieve the goal kept me busy, but there was rarely any thought about what was after the goal. Or more importantly, what the underlying purpose of the goal was in the first place. What I learned was that a goal in and of itself, while often necessary, wasn’t as important to my overall satisfaction with life than the purpose or mission behind the goal. Goals are destinations. Mission and purpose are journeys.

This realization is perhaps twenty five or more years old. It turns out, defining goals and breaking them down into their tactical pieces is relatively easy. Defining an underlying purpose that makes identifying the associated goals is harder. After twenty five years I believe I have worked out a purpose and mission that has been fairly stable for the past five years.

My mission and purpose was influenced by the story of a woman named Janet. She died in 2005 at the age of 51. For ten years preceding her death she had been fighting breast cancer. For most of that time, her diagnosis was “terminal.” The battle statistics are staggering: 55 chemotherapy treatments, many of them high dose; 33 radiation treatments; 4 major surgeries; and uncounted doctor’s appointments. This and so much more is what it took to stretch a two year survival prognosis into ten.

I know Janet’s story because I was with her for every one of her chemotherapy treatments, the recovery after, and for each of her surgeries.

I know Janet’s story because she died in my arms.

I know Janet’s story because she was my wife.

I taught her how to search for and read research articles using Usenet and the nascent World Wide Web. While I was working two jobs Janet was searching these and many other resources for anything that might suggest viable treatment options. This effort is worthy of it’s own post, but does not factor so prominently in my purpose and mission. What does is something we experienced during this process of research.

Due to our heightened interest, news stories that claimed to have some angle on a “cure for cancer” caught our attention. Whenever we heard such news bites, we’d eagerly take note and then work to chase down the details. Invariably, they would end in disappointment. The news had hyper-inflated the claims of the researchers, often to the chagrin of the researchers themselves. We learned to tune out these news stories (eventually, the news altogether.)

I can recall many times during Janet’s cancer battle when I thought of these researchers. Indeed, of all the people working to solve the cancer conundrum. While Janet slept, I’d watch the milliliters slowly drip from the IV bag during the hours it would take for her chemotherapy treatments to run their course. I’d imagine dedicated individuals working long hours to solve chemical problem or design devices that would eventually replace the barbaric “suicide/salvage” strategy of contemporary chemotherapy. These were often moments of despair and feelings of extreme isolation. We were on the dark side of the moon, hoping for signals that would show the way across the cancer cure threshold and bring us home.

In the end, they never came and Janet lost the battle.

I’ve haven’t stopped thinking about the people who work to find a cure. Fifteen years later I find myself on the sunny side of Earth and in a position to help those working to solve the cancer conundrum. And I have to say, it isn’t how I imagined it would be.

There are certainly those who work long hours with a dedication that is both inspiring and humbling. But for the most part, there are people doing what people do – complaining, fighting for turf, lashing out over imagined offenses, scratching for more pay, finding ways to game the system, sinking to the lowest expected level of effort, defensive and afraid to correct bad behavior, perpetuating bad habits, blissfully unaware of cognitive biases that adversely affect their work, unaware yet aggressively protective their own limitations. It’s a lengthy list.

It is, as they say, a target rich environment for applying Agile principles and practices. The room for improvement pretty much matches the amount of space between here and the dark side of the moon.

One of the primary motivation devices in this environment are the success stories. And as well it should be. They are VERY moving and it’s impossible for me to see and hear the success stories of someone making it across the cancer cure threshold and not shed tears. For myself, there are also many untold stories which are similarly motivating and bring me to tears. These are the stories of those who did not make it across the cancer cure threshold but fought, like Janet, with everything they had while hoping a cure would be found before they lost the battle. The stories of the people who were fortunate to have been cured are examples of what we are trying to achieve. The stories of people who were not so fortunate are examples of why we need to find the most effective way possible for working together.

This is my purpose and my mission: Build teams that are communicating clearly and effectively, teams that understand both the value and limitations of diversity and inclusion, teams that are capable of uniting on well-reasoned goals, teams composed of compassionate individuals who are tirelessly seeking to understand themselves within the wider context and the longer view. Today, Agile principles and practices offer the greatest promise for fulfilling this purpose and achieving this mission. When something more effective emerges, I shall adapt accordingly.

Here’s to moving into 2020 with mind and eyes wide open.