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.

Estimating Effort – An Explicitly Implicit Approach

It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.Unknown

Sage advice.

So why bother estimating the amount of work needed to complete a product backlog item? After all, since estimates are about the future the probability is high that they will be wrong. Actually, they may very well be guaranteed to be wrong. It’s just that some of the guesses happened to match what the effort ended up to be and just look like they were “right.”

I’ve written in the past expressing my thoughts about estimating the effort needed to complete product backlog items, particularly with respect to story points. I believe working to find a relative gauge to how well teams are estimating work is important. Without them, cognitive biases such as the optimism bias and planning fallacy can significantly distort a project delivery timeline. However, the phrase “story point” is burdened with a lot of baggage. It has been abused and misused such that invoking the phrase often causes more harm than good.

I’ve been experimenting recently with a different approach to estimating effort. The method I’ll describe in this post got a bit of a boost after listening to a recent interview with Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. In this interview, Kahneman describes an experience he had while serving in the Israeli army some sixty years ago. He was assigned the job of setting up an interview process that would determine how well a recruit would do as a combat soldier. For this process, he selected six traits and instructed the interviewers to ask questions designed to evaluate each trait independently and score them. The interviewers were not happy with this approach. As a compromise, Kahneman instructed the interviewers, when they were finished asking about the six traits, to close their eyes and just jot down a number they felt matched how good a soldier the recruit might be. What he discovered:

When we validated the results of the interview, it was a big improvement on what had gone on before. But the other surprise was that the final intuitive judgments added, it was good. It was as good as the average of the six traits, and not the same. It added information, so actually we ended up with a score that was half determined by the specific ratings, and the intuition got half the weight. That, by the way, stayed in the Israeli army for well over 50 years.Daniel Kahneman

This intuitive evaluation made by the interviewers is similar to what Agile methods ask of development teams when determining a value for “story points.” T-shirt sizes, planning poker, dot voting, affinity mapping and many similar techniques are all designed to elicit an intuitive sense of the effort involved. If there is a dependency between team members, than a dialog follows to understand what that discrepancy is all about. This continues until there is alignment on what the team believes the effort to be. When it works, it works well.

So on to the details of the approach I’ve been experimenting with. (It doesn’t have a name yet.) The result of this approach is a number I call the “effort value.” The word “value” is a reference to the actual elementary mathematics value being derived. Much like the answer to the question “What value results from adding 2 and 2?” Answer: 4. The word “value” also suggests an intrinsic worth, something beyond a hard number. My theory is that this will help teams think beyond the mere number and think also about the value they are delivering to stakeholders. The word “point” correlates to a hard number and lacks any association to intrinsic worth or value.

Changing the words introduces a simple and small shift that nonetheless has a significant impact. With the change, teams are more open to considering a different approach to determining estimates.

So how is the effort value derived?

I begin by having the team define 4-5 characteristics or attributes that, to them, describe what they mean by “effort.” It is important for the team to define these attributes. By doing so, they own the definition and it becomes much harder for them to dismiss the attributes as “someone else’s” and thereby object to their use in deriving an effort value. These attributes can be anything that is meaningful to the team. Examples:

  • Complexity – Is the work straightforward (e.g. code a bubble sort function) or does it involve interrelated systems (e.g. code a predictive inventory control algorithm)?
  • Dependencies – How dependent is the product backlog item on other backlog items or other teams?
  • Familiarity – Is this work very similar to work the team has done in the past or something quite new?
  • Information – Is the detail in the product backlog item complete? Are the acceptance criteria and definition of done clear?
  • Technical Debt Risk – Does the PBI require any refactoring of related code? Is any technical debt being incurred with the PBI?
  • Design Stability – Is there a lot of discovery and exploration needed to complete the PBI?
  • Confidence for Completing PBI within the Sprint – This category may roll up several categories.

The team can define any attribute they wish. However, there are a few criteria to consider:

  • Keep the list limited to 4-6 attributes. More than that risks turning the derivation of an effort value into the equivalent of a product backlog item navel-gazing exercise.
  • Time cannot be one of the attributes.
  • The attributes should be reasonable. Assessing a product backlog item’s effort value by evaluating it’s “aura” or the current position of the stars are generally not useful attributes. On the other hand, I’ve listened to arguments against evaluating estimates in terms of “complexity” as being similarly useless. I see the point of those arguments, but my view is that the attributes must first and foremost be meaningful to the entire team. In the end, it’s an educated guess and arguments about the definition of terms like “complexity” are counterproductive to the overall intent of deriving an effort value.

Each of these attributes is then given a scale, the same scale for each attribute – 1 to 10, 1 to 15 – whatever the team feels is most appropriate. The team then goes through each of these attributes and evaluates the product backlog item attribute on the scale. The low number on the scale represents very little impact. If dependency, for example, is one of the attributes then a 1 might mean that the product backlog item is entirely self-contained. A 10 might represent a case where the product backlog item is dependent on several other product backlog items or perhaps the output from other teams.

When this is done, ask the team where on the modified Fibonacci scale they think this particular product backlog item’s effort value should be. If they’re struggling you can do the math: find the average for all the attributes and match that number in the modified Fibonacci scale. If the average is a decimal, for example 3.1, match the value to the next highest modified Fibonacci scale number. In this case the value would be 5. Then ask the team if they feel that number it’s a good representation of the effort value for the product backlog item.

This may seem like a lot of unnecessary gyrations, but for technical people it’s a simple process they can understand. The bonus is a number they can calculate. The number isn’t what’s important here. What’s important is the conversation that happens around the attributes and what the team feels about the number that results from the conversation. This exercise is meant to develop their intuitive muscles for considering multiple aspects and dimensions behind the “effort” needed for them to get the work done.

Use this process enough times and eventually calculating the average can be dropped from the process. Continue using this process and eventually calculating the numbers for the individual attributes can be dropped from the process. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to drop the use of the attributes for generating the needed conversation around the effort needed, but it will certainly be valuable to reconsider the list of attributes from time to time so as to fine tune the list to match what the team feels is important.

With this approach I’m turning the estimation process on its head (or back on its feet, if Kahneman is right.) Rather than seek the intuitive response first (e.g. t-shirt size) and elicit details later if there is a mismatch between team members, this method seeks to better prime and develop the team’s intuition about the effort value by having them explicitly consider a list of self-selected attributes (or traits) for effort first and then include an intuitive evaluation for effort.

Don’t try to form an intuition quickly, which was what we normally do. Focus on the separate points, and then when you have the whole profile, then you can have an intuition and it’s going to be better. Because people form intuitions too quickly, and the rapid intuitions are not particularly good. If you delay intuition until you have more information, it’s going to be better.Daniel Kahneman

How to Frame Team Development Challenges

When working with teams or organizations new to Agile and scrum, it’s common for scrum masters to face varying degrees of resistance to the new methods and processes. The resistance can take many forms ranging from passive-aggressive behaviors to overt aggression and even sabotage.

There are two things to consider when looking for ways to resolve this type of resistance.

  1. The specific issues are typically not Agile problems in the sense they won’t be solved by any specific Agile techniques, methods, or frameworks. Rather, they are people problems; issues with how people’s behavior is driven by their values and beliefs. We have to resolve the people problems in concert with implementing Agile or Agile will never be successfully implemented. We also have to be sure not to confuse the two.
  2. We need to look at these challenges as opportunities.

It’s the second point I want to focus on in this post.

To simply paint the often unpleasant experiences we have with coaching our teams in the ways of Agile and scrum as “opportunities” isn’t much of a solution. It’s weak tea and about as useful as “Let’s all just think positive thoughts and eventually it’ll get better.” Nor do I suggest we sugar coat the unpleasantness by sprinkling “It’s an opportunity!” language on our conversations. Losing your job or breaking your leg may be one of those “wonderful opportunities” born from adversity, but only after you’ve found that next better job or your leg has healed. Hustling for new work or sitting idle while in pain and healing is decidedly unpleasant.

I had something else in mind for thinking about the challenges we face as “opportunities.” It’s in the midst of the unpleasant phase where the opportunities are found that lead to success. Seth Godin speaks to this in his book “The Dip.”

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to get certified in scuba diving. The Dip is the difference between the easy “beginner” technique and the more useful “expert” approach in skiing or fashion design. The Dip is the long stretch between beginner’s luck and real accomplishment.

It’s the classic “things will get worse before they get better.” But as Zig Ziglar put it, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly–until you can learn to do it well.”

It’s important to recognize and acknowledge when you’re in The Dip. Not just as an individual scrum master on a particular team, but perhaps the entire organization as well. Solving the issues you’re encountering today is exactly what you need to do in order to be successful in the long term. The Dip is inevitable and unavoidable. Part of the scrum master’s purpose is to raise the awareness of this fact so that the underlying issues that need to be resolved can be amplified.

This is what can make serving in the scrum master role particularly unpleasant at times. It’s when you earn your pay. In general, people don’t like to look at themselves in the Agile mirror that scrum masters are charged with holding up in front of them.

The Dip is another way to describe Shalloway’s Corollary applied to teams and organizations. Unlike losing a job or breaking a leg, what we’re dealing with is actually something we most definitely should expect. The system was always going to push back. Now we’re discovering exactly how that’s going to happen. The system is showing us what needs to change in order to become a more Agile organization. No more guess work. It’s a gift. Knowing this should be cause for optimism and viewing the tasks ahead as an opportunity. The way is known. There is less ambiguity. Doesn’t mean the path ahead is easy, just better known. That alone is incredibly useful.

A final thought. “The System” that’s been in place at any organization is what it is. For better or worse, it’s been working, perhaps for decades. Anything that challenges the status quo is going to receive push back. It just happens that Agile is the current challenger. As scrum masters, we have to continually evaluate our own “system” in a way that prevents it from becoming the next version of the problem.

  • Is a particular tool, process, or method fit for purpose?
  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Are there aspects of the “old system” that actually make sense to keep in place?
  • Are the frustrations we’re experiencing due to the “old system” pushing back or are they the result of our own ossification around out dated or misapplied beliefs?

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio – Coda

In a Scientific American column delightfully named “The Artful Amoeba” there is an article on a little critter called the “fire chaser” beetle: How a Half-Inch Beetle Finds Fires 80 Miles Away – Fire chaser beetles’ ability to sense heat borders on the spooky

Why a creature would choose to enter a situation from which all other forest creatures are enthusiastically attempting to exit is a compelling question of natural history. But it turns out the beetle has a very good reason. Freshly burnt trees are fire chaser beetle baby food. Their only baby food.

Fire chaser beetles are thus so hell bent on that objective that they have been known to bite firefighters, mistaking them, perhaps, for unusually squishy and unpleasant-smelling trees.

This part is interesting:

A flying fire chaser beetle appears to be trying to give itself up to the authorities. Its second set of legs reach for the sky at what appears to be an awkward and uncomfortable angle.

But the beetle has a good reason. It’s getting its legs out of the way of its heat eyes, pits filled with infrared sensors tucked just behind its legs.

A strategy suggested by the fire beetle life cycle is if you want to maximize a signal to noise ratio, iterate through three simple things:

  1. Work to develop a super well defined signal/goal/objective.
  2. Remove every possible barrier to receiving information about that signal – mental, emotional, even physical – that you can think of or that you discover over time.
  3. Repeat

Also, the “Way of the Amoeba” is now the “Way of the Artful Amoeba.” Update your phrase books accordingly.

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio – Revisited

Additional thoughts about signals and noise that have been rattling around in my brain since first posting on this topic.

At the risk of becoming too ethereal about all this, before there is signal and before there is noise, there is data. Cold, harsh, cruelly indifferent data. It is after raw data encounters some sort of filter or boundary, something that triggers a calculation to evaluate what that data means or whether it is relevant to whomever is on the other side of the filter, that it begins to be characterized as “signal” or “noise.”

Since we’re talking about humans in this series of posts, that filter is an amazingly complex system built from both physiological and psychological elements. The small amount of physical data that hits our senses and actually makes it to our brains is then filtered by beliefs, values, biases, attitudes, emotions, and those pesky unicorns that can’t seem to stop talking while I’m trying to think! It’s after all this processing that data has now been sorted according to “signal” (what’s relevant) and “noise” (what’s irrelevant) for any particular individual. Our individual systems of filters impart value judgments on the data such that each of us, essentially, creates “signal” and “noise” from the raw data.

That’s a long winded way to say:

data -> [filter] -> signal, noise

Now apply this to everyone on the planet.

data -> [filter 1] -> signal 1, noise 1

data -> [filter 2] -> signal 2, noise 2

data -> [filter n] -> signal n, noise n

As an example, Google, itself a filter, is a useful one. Let’s assume for a moment that Google is some naturally occurring phenomenon and not a filter created by humans with their own set of filters driving what it means to create a let’s be evil good search engine. To retrieve 1,000,000 pieces of information, my friend, Bob, entered search criteria of interest to him, i.e. “filter 1.” Maybe he searched for “healthy keto diet recipes”. Scanning those search results, I determine (using my “filter 2”) 100% of the search results are useless because my filter is “how do i force the noisy unicorns in my head to shut the hell up”. The Venn diagram of those two search results is likely to show a vanishingly small set of relationships between the two. (Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of the carbohydrate content of unicorns nor how tasty they may be when served with capers and a lemon dill sauce.)

Google may return 1,000,000 search results. But only a small subset is viewable at a time. What of the rest of the result set that I know nothing about? Is it signal? Is it noise? Is it just data that has yet to be subjected to anyone’s system of filters? Because Google found stuff, does that make it signal? Accepting all 1,000,000 search results as signal seems to require a willingness to believe that Google knows best when it comes to determining what’s important to me. This would apply to any filter not our own.

All systems for distinguishing signal from noise are imperfect and some of us on the Intertubes are seeking ways to better tune our particular systems. The system I use lets non-relevant data fall through the sieve so that the gold nuggets are easier to find. Perhaps at some future date I’ll unwittingly re-pan the same chunk of data through an experienced-refined sieve and a newly relevant gem will emerge from the dirt. But until that time, I’ll trust my filters, let the dirt go as noise, and lurch forward.

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio – In Defense of Noise

[This post follows from Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio.]

All signal all the time may not be a good thing. So I’d like to offer a defense for noise: It’s needed.

Signal is signal because there is noise. Without the presence of noise we risk living in the proverbial echo chamber. When we know what’s bad, we are better equipped to recognize what’s good. I deliberately tune into the noise on occasion for no other reason than to subject my ideas to a bit of rough and tumble. Its why I blog. Its why I participate in several select forums. “Here’s what I think, world. What say you?”

Of course, noise is noise because there is signal. Once we’ve had an experience of “better” we are then more skilled at recognizing what’s bad. I remember the food I grew up on as being good, but today I view some of it as poison (Wonder Bread anyone?) And there are subjects for which I no longer check out the noise. The exposure is too harmful.

There are subjects for which I seem to be swimming in noise and casting around for any sort of signal that suggests “better.” I’m recalling a joke about the two young fish who swim past an older fish. The older fish says to the younger fish, “The water sure is nice today.” A little further on, one of the young fish asks the other, “What’s water?” I’m hoping to catch that older fish in my net. He knows something I don’t.

To understand what I mean by noise being necessary it is important to understand the metaphor I’m using, where it applies and where it doesn’t.

Taking the metaphor literally, in the domain of electrical engineering, for example, the signal to noise ratio is indeed an established measure with clear unit definitions as to what is reflected by the ratio – decibels, for example. In this domain the goal is to push always for maximum signal and minimum noise.

In the world of biological systems, however, noise is most definitely needed. One of many examples I can think of is related to an underlying driver to evolution: mutations. In an evolving organism, anything that would potentially upset the genetic status quo is a threat to survival. Indeed, most mutations are at best benign or at worst lethal such that the organism or it’s progeny never survive and the mutation is selected against as evolutionary “noise.”

However, some mutations are a net benefit to survival and add to the evolutionary “signal.” We, as 21st Century homo sapiens, are who we are because of an uncountable number of noisy mutations that we’ll never know about because they didn’t survive. Even so, surviving mutations are not automatically “pure” signal. There are “noisy” mutations, such as that related to sickle cell anemia. Biological systems can’t recognize a mutation as “noise” or “signal” before the mutation occurs, only after, when they’ve been tested by the rough and tumble of life. This is why I speak in terms of “net benefit.”

For humans trying to find our way in the messy, sloppy world of human interactions and thought, pure signal can be just as undesirable as pure noise. I’ll defer to John Cook, who I think expresses more succinctly the idea I was clumsily trying to convey:

If you have a crackly recording, you want to remove the crackling and leave the music. If you do it well, you can remove most of the crackling effect and reveal the music, but the music signal will be slightly diminished. If you filter too aggressively, you’ll get rid of more noise, but create a dull version of the music. In the extreme, you get a single hum that’s the average of the entire recording.

This is a metaphor for life. If you only value your own opinion, you’re an idiot in the oldest sense of the word, someone in his or her own world. Your work may have a strong signal, but it also has a lot of noise. Getting even one outside opinion greatly cuts down on the noise. But it also cuts down on the signal to some extent. If you get too many opinions, the noise may be gone and the signal with it. Trying to please too many people leads to work that is offensively bland.

The goal in human systems is NOT to push always for maximum signal and minimum noise. For example, this is reflected in Justice Brandeis’s comment: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” So my amended thesis is: In the domain of human interactions and thought, noise is needed by anyone seeking to both evaluate and improve the quality of the signal they are following.

A final thought…

If we were to press for eliminating as much “noise” as possible from human systems much like the goal for electrical noise, I’m left with the question “Who decides what qualifies as noise?”

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

A question was posed, “Why not be an information sponge?”

I’d have to characterize myself as more of an information amoeba – (IIRC, the amoeba is, by weight, the most vicious life form on earth) – on the hunt for information and after internalizing it, going into rest mode while I decompose and reassemble it into something of use to my understanding of the world. Yum.

More generally, to be an effective and successful consumer of information these days, the Way of the Sponge (WotS, passive, information washes through them and they absorb everything) is no longer tenable and the Way of the Amoeba (WotA, active, information washes over them and they hunt down what they need) is likely to be the more successful strategy. The WotA requires considerable energy but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. WotS…well, there’s your obsessive processed food eating TV binge-watcher right there. Mr. Square Bob Sponge Pants.

What’s implied by the WotA vs the WotS is that the former has a more active role in optimizing the informational signal to noise ratio than the latter. So a few thoughts to begin with on signals and noise.

Depending on the moment and the context, one person’s signal is another person’s noise. Across the moments that make up a lifetime, one person’s noise may become the same person’s signal and vice versa. When I was in high school, I found Frank Sinatra’s voice annoying and not something to be mingled with my collection of Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Today…well, to disparage the Chairman of the Board is fightin’ words in my house. Over time, at least, noise can become signal and signal become noise.

But I’m speaking here of the signal quality and not it’s quantity (i.e. volume)

Some years ago I came across Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible:

It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

This has been interpreted in a variety of ways. I carry this around in my head as a distillation from several of the more faithful versions: Expand the edge of what I know by studying the things that are close by. Over time, there is an accumulation of loosely coupled ideas and facts that begin to coalesce into a deeper meaning, a signal, if you will, relevant to my life.

With this insight, I’ve been able to be more deliberate and directed about what I want or need to know. I’ve learned to be a good custodian of the edge and what I allow to occupy space on that edge. These are my “internal gating mechanisms.” It isn’t an easy task, but there are some easy wins. For starters, learning to unplug completely. Especially from social media and what tragically passes for “news reporting” or “journalism”these days.

The task is largely one of filtering. I very rarely directly visit information sources. Rather, I leverage RSS feeds and employ filtering rules. I pull information of interest rather than have it pushed at me by “news” web sites, cable or TV channels, or newspapers. While this means I will occasionally miss some cool stuff, it’s more than compensated by the boost in signal quality achieved by excluding all the sludge from the edge. I suspect I still get the cool stuff, just in a slightly different form or revealed by a different source that makes it through the filter. In this way, it’s a matter of modulating the quantity such that the signal is easier to find.

There is a caution to consider while optimizing a signal-to-noise ratio, something reflected in Kauffman’s comments around the rate of exploration for new ideas: “If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization…”

Before the Internet, before PCs were a commodity, before television was popular it was much, much easier to find time to think. In fact, it was never something that had to be looked for or sought out. I think that’s what is different today. It takes WORK to find a quiet space and time to think. While my humble little RSS filters do a great job of keeping a high signal-to-noise ratio with all things Internet, accomplishing the same thing in the physical world is becoming more and more difficult.

The “attention economy,” or whatever it’s being called today, is reaching a truly disturbing level of invasion. It seems I’ve used more electrician’s tape to cover up camera lenses and microphones in the past year than I’ve used on actual electrical wires. The number of appliances and gadgets in the home with glowing screens crying out for bluetooth or wifi access like leaches seeking blood are their own source of noise. This is my current battleground for finding the signal within the noise.

Enough about filtering. What about boundaries. Fences make for good neighbors, said someone wise and experienced. And there’s a good chance that applies to information organization, too. Keeping the spiritual information in my head separate from my shopping list probably helps me stop short of forming some sort of cult around Costco. ( “All praise ‘Bulk,’ the God of Stuff!)

An amoeba has a much more develop boundary between self and other than a sponge and that’s probably a net gain even with the drawback of extra energy required to fuel that arrangement. Intellectually, we have our beliefs and values that mark where those edges between self and other are defined.

So I’ll stop for now with the question, “What are the strategies and mental models that promote permeability for desired or needed information while keeping, as much as possible, the garbage ‘out there?’”

 

Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 8: Taming the Wild Horses

Over the years I have come to regard projects as a boat in the ocean and relationships as the ocean.Michael Wade

Remember the phrases from earlier in the article series? Here they are again.

  • “We’re not moving the delivery date.”
  • “We’ll just have to work harder.”
  • “The team will have to put in more time until we’re caught up.”
  • “We’ll need more people on the project.”
  • “The team will have to work faster.”
  • “We’re to the point of exhaustion.”
  • “I’m losing track of all the pieces.”
  • “There’s no time for training.”
  • “Where did those errors come from?”
  • “We’re waiting on another team.”
  • “Another person quit the company?!?!”
  • “I don’t care. I get done what I get done when I get it done.”

How much more meaningful these are to you now that you understand a little more about the system dynamics that drive projects. Choose just one of these and find where it’s reflected in the model. (Figure 1)1.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge)

Now follow the impact and consequences around the various feedback loops. Reflect for a moment an ask yourself, “What can I do to help keep the system healthy and productive in light of what I now know may be happening?” There’s a lot to consider. We’ll cover several options in this article.

Moving from the outside in, the most visible nodes in the system are also influenced the least by direct intervention. These are Morale, Fatigue, and Experience. “The beatings will continue until morale improves” is, I hope, recognized as a cynical joke. While offering free coffee, Red Bull, and unlimited M&Ms may perk up employees in the short term, the long term health consequences are grim indeed. As for Experience, well, that just takes time and a great deal of effort to fully shape and mature.

Attempting to alter these nodes directly is likely to be wasted effort at best and more probably harmful. Even if some cursory improvement can be made, the underlying systemic influences – the true drivers – will still be present and will exert a far more powerful influence. It’s Conway’s Law, pure and simple. It’s better to thinking of Morale, Fatigue, and Experience as symptoms or indicators to be recognized and tracked rather than root causes to be treated. As indicators, they are incredibility powerful sources of information on whether or not changes made to other parts of the system are being successful. They are to be used, not abused.

We’ll begin by working backward from the disaster that was built up over the last several articles in the series. Let’s imagine we have a demoralized team (or teams) that are exhausted and burdened with an impossible delivery schedule. As it stands, it’s unfixable.  A sprinter has a better chance of breaking the three minute mile than this team has in delivering their project by the stated delivery date.

Let’s also assume the choice is to continue the project. The two major actions for management at the is point are to move the Deadline and reduce the amount of Work to Do in the system. These aren’t choices, they’re actions that need to be engaged thoughtfully.

Simply moving the date to some point in the future that seems “doable” is yet another gamble. Neither will moving the date instantly resolve the other systemic issues. There is a considerable amount of recovery and rebuilding to be completed. It takes time to hire the people needed to rebuild the workforce. It takes time to rebuild trust and morale among the employees that remain. Moving the deadline out will begin to relieve pressure, but it will take time for the inflamed system to cool down and find an optimal working temperature.

The challenge for this first step is: How can you go about finding what is a reasonable date for the deadline? Answering this question is dependent on what is learned by looking to other parts of the system model for data.

  • How depleted is the Workforce and how long will it take to build it back up?
  • How much of the critical talent has remained with the organization (Experience)?
  • Is any compensation (time or money) going to be offered to offset the Overtime put in on the project?
  • How much time will it take to refactor and refine the product backlogs such that work streams can are brought into alignment and Overlap and Concurrence and Task Switching minimized?
  • What tool and process changes need to be made to reduce the Congestion and Communication Difficulties?
  • What’s the Total Known Remaining Work in the system?

Probably, the best thing to do is to declare that for some time boxed period, there will be no deadline date while these and many other questions are explored. This will have a side benefit of signaling to the development teams that management is serious about finding a realistic date. This will help to start rebuilding trust between management and the development teams.

One of the factors to consider in determining whether a new deadline can reliably be set is the Total Known Remaining Work in the system. As has been discussed previously, increasing the Total Known Remaining Work puts pressure on the completion date. Similarly, decreasing the
Total Known Remaining Work by some means will increase the likelihood that the completion date can be met. Actions to take that will allow management to regain control of the work flow include:

  • Revisit the release schedule and take a phased approach with clearly defined minimum viable/valuable product deliverables.
  • Complete a detailed review of the work done to date to get a clear picture of the amount of technical and dark debt in the system.
  • Reassess the sales and marketing strategies so they are in clear alignment with the capabilities of the development and delivery system. What can be eliminated? What can be pushed to future releases? Eliminate “nice to have’s” from this list. Either the feature can be completed in a particular release or it can’t. Those that can’t are bumped to a future release.

It’s been shown that changes in one part of the system will affect other parts of the system, whether by design or not. In this article we’ve discussed how adjusting the Deadline and Total Known Remaining Work can affect each other and the entire system. When adjusted in a way that considers system-wide effects, they can help restore balance and predictability to the overall system.

Previous article in the series: Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 7: “Abandon All Hope,…”

References

1The core of the model I use to assess team and organization health is based on the work of James Lyneis and David Ford: System Dynamics Applied to Project Management, System Dynamics Review Volume 23 Number 2/3 Summer/Fall 2007

Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 7: “Abandon All Hope,…”

“…ye who enter here.” So reads the inscription to the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, “Divine Comedy.” Who among us hasn’t felt on occasion that stepping across the threshold to our place of employment is like passing through the gates of Dante’s Inferno? But as the poets have told us, the way to peace is to find the path through our troubles. In this article, we’ll look into just how deeply project system dynamics can adversely affect progress and even whether or not the project is successful.

But I do want to arm the reader with a couple of rays of hope. The concluding article in this series will focus on how this system model1 can be used to good effect, how it can be used to identify problems before they grow out of control. Therein lies the path to peace. Before we get there, we need to understand several more influential feedback loops.

As the Delay to Completion becomes critical, management begins to panic. Not wanting to push the deadline out they work to influence the other three options focused on modifying the behavior of the delivery team. The end result is a team that is caught in the Work Faster, Work More, and Add People loops along with all the other associated downstream loops. The effect is compounded by the emergence of other feedback loops if teams are placed in this position for an extended period of time.

Over time, the shortcuts, hacks, and quick fixes put in place to keep the pace of progress as high as possible settle in as technical debt. They work – for now – so they don’t surface as errors for quality assurance to discover. Down the road, however, solutions hastily put in place as stop-gaps fail when later solutions require existing solutions to be more robust then they are. For example, a software method that doesn’t take advantage of multi-threading may break when a later solution needs that method to scale beyond it’s single thread capacity. The shortcut is now a defect.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge)

If the technical debt remains in place for an extended period of time, it may be covered by several release layers. When it does flip to defect status due to some later stress, it can be much more time consuming and expensive to uncover. The original developer of the code may not be available or even if she is, it could take her quite a bit of time to become reacquainted with the code. This can be thought of as a form of dark debt and is reflected in the Errors Build Errors Loop (Figure 1, J).

As the teams struggle to keep up the pace of progress and reduce the Delay to Completion, work streams start to become out of sequence. One team has an easier time at crafting their solution while another, to which they are dependent on the output, hits a significant snag and is delayed several weeks. In order to stay busy, the first team starts work on something else while the second team finishes their work. When the second team delivers, the first team is not prepared to immediately shift back to their original work stream and so their deliverable is delayed even further. Meanwhile, a third team, that was dependent on the first team’s deliverable has now been delayed by the cumulative delay of the first two teams. Teams and individuals begin to take shortcuts as delivery of interim work products become out of sync with each other. The diminished focus and desynchronization of work streams leads to an increase in the Error Fraction, which in turn leads to a further Delay to Completion. This is the Haste Makes Out-of-Sequence Work Loop (Figure 1, K).

Figure 2 (click to enlarge)

As the effects of the Haste Makes Out-of-Sequence Work Loop build,  team begin switching back-and-forth between work streams depending on who is making the most noise for the completion of any particular deliverable. This is the Thrash and Churn Loop (Figure 2, L). Switching from stream to stream or, in worst cases, task to task, places a tremendous burden on development teams and can do more to slow progress than almost anything else I’ve encountered in team management. Not covered in this model is the type of churn that occurs when parts of the project undergo redesign after work has begun on the existing design. Long term projects are particularly susceptible to adverse impacts from redesign as the changes are often farther reaching. The drivers behind a redesign can range from trivial (a new CTO has a personal dislike for a platform vendor) to critical (a security flaw uncovered in a core technical component.)

If all the loops described to this point in the article series are allowed to run uncorrected the system is likely to crash as the project becomes one massive firefighting effort. A key indicator for when this is happening is employee morale.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge)

The increased Fatigue, the growing burden of Work/Rework to Do, the unsatisfying Task Switching between work assignments all combine to causes a decrease in team Morale. This is the Hopelessness Loop (Figure 3, M). Teams are left with a powerless feeling of being caught on a never ending treadmill. And so, stepping across the threshold to the office is like passing through the gates of Dante’s Inferno.

The ripple effect from a decrease in Morale leads to a decrease in the Workforce as employees leave the organization in search of less stressful, more satisfying work. This is the Turnover Loop (Figure 3, N). The remaining demoralized employees are even less productive and unhappy employees make more mistakes, thus increasing the Error Fraction in the system. The downstream result is that the Delay to Completion increases yet again.

If corrective action isn’t taken the law of diminishing returns becomes evident and the system collapses. The cost overruns become prohibitive and the project is cancelled. Worst case, the organization runs out of resources (money, time, or both) and goes out of business. Those are bad things. In the concluding article to this series, we look at how this model can be used to read the current state of a project’s system dynamics and explore some ways we can intervene such that the system doesn’t run out of control.

Previous article in the series: Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 6: It Lives! But it’s Out of Control!

Next article in the series: Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 8: Taming the Wild Horses

References

1The core of the model I use to assess team and organization health is based on the work of James Lyneis and David Ford: System Dynamics Applied to Project Management, System Dynamics Review Volume 23 Number 2/3 Summer/Fall 2007