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

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.

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.

Intuition and Effort Estimates

In his book, “Blink,” Malcom Gladwell describes an interview between Gary Klein and a fire department commander. A lieutenant at the time, the firemen were attempting to put out a kitchen fire that didn’t “behave” like a kitchen fire should. The lieutenant ordered his men out of the house moments before the floor collapsed due to the fire being in the basement, not the kitchen. Klein later deconstructed the event with the commander and revealed a surprisingly rich set of experienced-based characteristics about that event the commander used to quickly evaluate the situation and respond. The lieutenant’s quick and well-calibrated-to-the-situation intuition undoubtedly saved them from serious injury or worse.

Intuition, however, is domain-specific. This same experienced-based intuition most probably wouldn’t have served the commander well if he suddenly found himself in a different situation – at the helm of a sailboat in rough water, for example, assuming the commander had never been on a sailboat before.

In the context of a software development environment, a highly experienced individual may have very good intuition on the amount of work needed to complete a specific piece of work assigned to them. But that intuition breaks down when the work effort necessarily includes several people or an entire team. So while intuition can serve a useful role in estimating work effort, that value is generally over-estimated, particularly when it needs to be a team estimate.

Consider work effort estimates when framed by Danial Kahneman’s work with System One and System Two thinking. System One is fast, based on experiences, and automatic. However, it isn’t very flexible and it’s difficult to train. This is the source of intuition. System Two, however, is analytical, methodical, intentional, deliberate, and slower. Also, it’s more trainable. It’s when the things that are trained in System Two sink into System One that new behaviors become automatic. With work effort estimates, we must first deliberately train our System Two using a method that is more deliberate about estimating before we can comfortably rely on our System One abilities.

Once calibrated, any number of changes could signal the need to re-calibrate by employing the deliberate process. Change the team composition and the team will need some measure of re-training of System One via System Two. Change a team’s project and the same re-training will need to occur.

The trained intuition approach to estimating effort develops what Kahneman called “disciplined intuition.” Begin with a deliberate, statistical approach to thinking about work effort. Establish a base rate using the value ranges for the effort characteristics. With experience, the team can begin to integrate their intuition later in the project process. If teams lead with their intuition (as is the case with planning poker and t-shirt sizes), they will filter for things that confirm their System One evaluation. With experience and a track record of success from training their intuition, teams can eventually lead with an intuitive approach. But it isn’t a very effective way to begin.

This method also leverages the work of Anders Ericsson and deliberate practice. The key here is the notion of increasing feedback into the process of estimating work effort. The deliberate action of working through a conversation that evaluates each of the work effort characteristics introduces more and better feedback loops that help the team evaluate the quality of their decision. Over time, they get better and better at correcting course and internalizing the lessons.

It’s like learning to drive a car. A new driver will leverage System Two heavily before they can comfortably rely on System One while driving. This is good enough for most driving situations. However, it wouldn’t be good enough if that same driver who is competent at driving in city traffic was suddenly placed on a NASCAR track in a powerful machine going 200 miles per hour.

A NASCAR track might be where we would go look for expert drivers but not where we would look for competent delivery truck drivers. For work estimates on software projects, we’re looking for a level of good enough that’s a reasonable match for the project work at hand. And we’re looking for better than untrained intuitive guesses.

Determining Effort Value – Tactics

While the concept and practice is straightforward, shifting a team from intuitive guesses about story points to a more deliberate approach for determining effort value (a.k.a. story points) can be a challenge at first. The following approach may help start the process.

  1. Begin by focusing on product backlog items (PBIs) that the team has estimated using their previous approach that are at a 5 or greater. There isn’t much to be gained by applying this approach to PBIs estimated at 1 or 2. PBIs that the team knows are a bigger effort but may not be able to articulate why that is the case are good candidates for learning how to apply this technique.
  2. Ask the team how much time it may take to complete a PBI. While I have written before about the importance of excluding time criteria when determining effort values, this can be a good place to start. It is what teams are most familiar with – for better or worse. Teams usually have not problem throwing out a time: 8 hours, 16 hours, etc.
  3. With the time estimate in hand ask the team:

“If you sit in front of your computer and start the clock, will the PBI be done if you do nothing and the estimated time elapses?”

I would hope the team would answer “No.”

  1. With the answer to the first question in hand, ask the following question:

If the passage of time alone won’t get the PBI work completed, what will you be doing (actions and behaviors) to complete the work?

The conversation that follows from this questions is the basis for determining the effort criteria the team needs to better describe what they will be doing on their way to completing the PBI. The techniques around establishing effort criteria are described in an earlier post.

How to Develop a Team Identity with A/B Testing

If you’ve ever been fit for prescription glasses, you’ve no doubt had the experience of the eye exam where the doctor flips between different lens strengths and asks “Is this better or worse than before?” It’s basically A/B testing.

This came to mind after reading a research paper authored by Dan Gilbert and Jane Ebert [1] and listening to Gilbert’s TED Talk, “The surprising science of happiness.” The key bit, as described by Gilbert:

Let me first show you an experimental paradigm that’s used to demonstrate the synthesis of happiness among regular old folks. This isn’t mine, it’s a 50-year-old paradigm called the “free choice paradigm.” It’s very simple. You bring in, say, six objects, and you ask a subject to rank them from the most to the least liked. In this case, because this experiment uses them, these are Monet prints. Everybody ranks these Monet prints from the one they like the most to the one they like the least. Now we give you a choice: “We happen to have some extra prints in the closet. We’re going to give you one as your prize to take home. We happen to have number three and number four,” we tell the subject. This is a bit of a difficult choice, because neither one is preferred strongly to the other, but naturally, people tend to pick number three, because they liked it a little better than number four.

Sometime later — it could be 15 minutes, it could be 15 days — the same stimuli are put before the subject, and the subject is asked to re-rank the stimuli. “Tell us how much you like them now.”

The result was that their previous #3 was ranked as #2 and their previous #4 was ranked as #5. This reflects what Gilbert calls “synthetic happiness.” Having been denied their #1 and #2 choices, experiment participants was forced to “settle” for a lesser choice. However, having made the choice they increased they preference for the lesser choice and thereby synthesized happiness with that choice. Just as interesting, the previous #4 choice was pushed further down the scale as if to put some distance between the previous #3 choice. In effect, distinguishing the decision to take home #3 as clearly the better choice.

All this gave me an idea for something to try with a team I’ve working with that needed to rehabilitate their team identity into something healthier. Typically, teams sour on the idea of going through an exercise like this. The team I was working with was no exception. They likened it to defining team goals – a largely tedious and uninspiring chore.

I wanted to know if I could present two possible team identity statements – A/B style – of which one would be clearly undesirable and another more in line with what I suspect the team may be comfortable. The A/B presentation would keep this simple (presenting a selection of six team identity statements as in the experiment with pictures described by Gilbert would be a non-starter.)

Offering a choice should compel them to chose one over the other. I’m counting on their brains to do what brains do. When faced with a choice, they make one. If I were to present them with a single identity statement and ask “How would you like to change this to be more in line with the identity you want?”, I’ve every confidence the room would be filled with silence.

The very first presentation had a blank page on the left and my intentionally lame and inaccurate team goal on the right.

The team was well aware “no goal” wasn’t an option and wouldn’t reflect well on their performance review with HR and management. My theory was that when faced with an empty goal and one that was inaccurate, they’d suggest something, however minimal, that was an improvement on the initial goal. This is what happened and the team then spent a few minutes tuning the goal into something a little less cringe-worthy. This began the process of converting the goal from the scrum master’s goal to the team’s goal.

Then I deliberately let a week or more pass.

On next presentation, the goal on the left was the goal they chose and tuned previously. The second choice was similar but contained one or two slight modifications intended to move the team’s identity in a more positive and healthy direction. Over the course of several months I tested – A/B/Eye Exam style – numerous team goals. “Which goal do you prefer, the one on the right or the one on the left?”

So we had a start. From here on out it was just a matter of improvement. Keying off of things the team said or did, I’d modify the “accepted” goal and present it as an option at the next opportunity.

The key  or driver in this approach, the hypothesis goes, is to set it up so that the team makes the decisions rather than having something foist upon them. The are virtually guaranteed to reject or strongly resist the latter. With the former, they have ownership in the decision. To reject their decision is to say, in essence, that they made a bad or wrong choice, a bad or wrong decision. In general, people don’t like to admit such a thing so they stick with a decision – for better or worse – if it’s a decision they made and are responsible for.

Update (2020.04.13)

Another important element in play with this approach is the anchoring cognitive bias, particularly early on. People are much more comfortable making comparisons between things than they are with coming up with something original. By presenting a blank goal and one that reflects a direction in which I want the team to move – from nothing to something positive – the hypothesis is that the team will assimilate toward more positive goals and that this assimilation will become self-reinforcing over time.

References

[1] D. T. Gilbert, J. E. J. Ebert (2002) Decisions and Revisions: The Affective Forecasting of Changeable Outcomes, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 82, No. 4, 503–514

 

Photo credit: Max Pixel

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.