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Agility Commitment Foundational Values Scrum

Stop Using Scrum as a Weapon

Do we ruin Scrum by overthinking it?

I played clarinet from fourth through twelfth grade. The manner in which I was taught was, to me, extremely disagreeable — a ruthlessly judgmental and competitive environment, with overly serious and intense teachers, brought about to weed out anyone who wasn’t 100% serious about playing as perfectly as possible in an overpopulated New York Metropolitan Area student music scene.

I was very good, but I was unhappy. Mistakes were frowned upon at an early age. The training was intense, intellectual, demanding, and even demeaning. Music should bring joy, but performing it was decidedly joyless by the time I left high school. I haven’t picked up the instrument since.

I still adore music, but not as a performer. Today, I enjoy it as a listener. There are many musicians I admire, both alive and deceased, but one who has long caught my ears and my mind — and who I have had the fortune to see in person many, many times is the great bass player Victor Wooten.

Please take five minutes to watch Victor share something that, upon its debut in 2012, made me cry with both disappointment and joy:

This is such a profound point. How I wish I had learned music that way!

But Scrum — ah, Scrum. Can we learn it that way? Why do we tend to treat Scrum as having essential rules that can never be separated or broken, even while learning it? Plenty of otherwise fine Scrum practitioners will let people have fun in the classroom, but once students proceed to apply Scrum in the real world, things change. This is just wrong.

If we can practice personal point kaizen via “One Small Step Can Change Your Life,” then we certainly can practice Scrum sloppily and joyfully as we learn it. I think we would all be better off if we made an effort to introduce Scrum in the form of something I’d like to call Relaxed Scrum.

Here’s an interesting way to introduce Scrum to a group of the uninitiated. I’m describing an in-person exercise, but you can easily translate it to a virtual world. At the very top of your teaching:

Ask your class to write down the missing word in the following sentence:

Initiatives that have _______________ are the ones that are best suited to being managed with agile practices like Scrum.

Have them write their answers and pass them to you.

Once you have them in-hand, read each answer aloud.

Next, ask the class to have a discussion about these answers, to pick one, and have them elect one individual to deliver the final answer at the conclusion of their deliberations, much like a jury.

With work and maybe a little luck, they will arrive at the answer: uncertainty.

You will have just demonstrated Scrum in the most elemental way possible: an uncertain start; an iterative trial-and-error exercise in the middle; and a completed sentence at the end. Your audience will have applied transparency, inspection, and adaptation. And, they will develop a first-hand appreciation for the significance of the very sentence they worked to complete. Scrum — Relaxed Scrum — doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

A colleague of mine recently responded to his early Scrum training by noting that Scrum is really all about psychology…it’s about finding a way to unshackle the mind when it is paralyzed about the uncertainty of a task that lies ahead. A truer observation could not have been made. It’s really that simple, and if you make it more complex than that to the uninitiated, you will be as happy practicing Scrum as I was practicing clarinet.

When was the last time you read the Scrum Guide? In its fully-documented form, with a cover, a full-page table of contents, very wide margins, generous 12-point type, large repetitive footers, and a full-page end note and acknowledgements, it’s only 19 pages. You can read the bulk of it in about 20 minutes.

One of the most overlooked sentences in that guide is “Scrum is not a process, technique, or definitive method. Rather, it is a framework within which you can employ various processes and techniques.”

Isn’t this an invitation to play?

As you read the Scrum Guide, you will read the core values (commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect). If you were to create a Venn diagram of Scrum values with Progressive CIO values, there would be one overlap: commitment.

In my experience with Scrum (both Formal and Relaxed), commitment is the single most important value to focus on. You can do just about anything you want, so long as you make and keep commitments.

Relaxed Scrum is playful, and encourages learning by applying rules conveniently and selectively:

  • We can have a single Sprint where we commit to do some research (one or more Spikes), without having to have a real Product Owner. Such a Sprint might not have a formal backlog — it might just consist of one thing to do. This Sprint might not even have Daily Scrums, and yet it might even wind up resulting in a final release.
  • We can have a Sprint with no Daily Scrum at all. If a team is communicating well and communicating regularly, the intellectual exercise of a quality Daily Scrum might get in their way of feeling the liberation that Scrum should provide, especially early on.
  • We can have a Sprint with no Retrospective, most especially if things are already flowing well.
  • We can have a Sprint with no monolithic Sprint Review at the end, if people have mini-reviews as they roll along.

I am sure you can think of your own rules! The only things you really need to implement Relaxed Scrum are: 1) a problem you commit to work on; 2) time to do the work; and 3) a commitment to review the work at the end of a period of time. If you are able to find a subsequent problem to work on at the end, then you are cooking with gas!

(For a real-world example of what this can look like, refer back to the two-part post: There Are Two Sides… / …To Every Commitment.)

As we grow to appreciate Scrum more — and as we jam with professionals — we will slowly get better and learn the value of its finer points and common practices. But we should not take ourselves so seriously en route! As Victor Wooten pointed out, we can laugh at mistakes, and even embrace them.

The point here is —

If your organization is not working to apply an agile practice like Scrum — Relaxed or otherwise — in some form, one of two things is happening:

  1. You have no uncertainty in your business
  2. You are missing something very powerful

In the case of item number two, if you are avoiding the power of doing something like Scrum because you are intimidated by it, then do everything in your power to think this way rather than this way.

As we proceed on our journey together, you will come to see that I am very fond of agile methods, and of Relaxed Scrum in particular. Relaxed Scrum happens almost organically in a culture that shares the foundational values we discuss on The Progressive CIO:

  • Vulnerability: An ability to admit something you did that was wrong, turning the shame into learning.
  • Humility: Remembering that we are human and learn from mistakes.
  • Empathy: When we seek to understand other viewpoints, we get the best of all possible worlds.
  • Patience: We are willing to put the time in to get to whatever is right even if we are unsure how long it will take.
  • Compassion: We understand that helping others on an uncertain journey requires us to be active in how we reach out to help them.
  • Curiosity: We are eager to learn new things.
  • Commitment: We know that doing something is hard, but doing nothing achieves nothing and actually prolongs our difficulties.
  • Willingness: We want to push ourselves forward to do something to effect change.

The three pillars of Scrum are underpinned by these values:

  • Transparency: A combination of vulnerability, humility, commitment, and willingness
  • Inspection: A combination of vulnerability, humility, empathy, curiosity, commitment, and willingness
  • Adaptation: A combination of empathy, patience, compassion, commitment, and willingness

If you create an environment with our eight values, you will have the essence of Relaxed Scrum without any other rules! Most critically, you will invent your own way to apply the principles of Scrum across a wider variety of initiatives. So why not find your own way of getting there…and do it with a playful spirit, with as few rules as possible?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Icq0LlvtEy0.

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Compassion Current Events: 2020 Empathy

Guess Who’s Coming to Phish?

By now, I’m sure you have all read about what Tribune Publishing did to its employees.

Does your organization perform internal phishing tests?

If so, do you feel you do it “better” than Tribune Publishing did?

In what way?

Is it necessary to perform phishing tests?

Why do you think so?

If you know me by now, you might have an idea where I’m going. I think it’s a good idea for your organization to consider reasons why it’s not good to do these sorts of tests at all.

Phishing, by its very nature, will get evermore convincing. That is its entire point.

You do not need to test people to discover this.

What you will discover when you test is that a select group of individuals will fall victim to it.

You will be surprised at some, and not at others.

You will “educate” them about what they did to fall victim.

You will do it again, and you will get different results.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

If you get really “good” at administering phishing tests, you will lose satisfaction with the results. You will realize that the phishers up their games all the time, and that you need to, too. And you might, in fact, wind up doing something similar to what Tribune Publishing did in order to “really show those users” how at-risk they are.

Where does that get you in the end? It puts you squarely into the “us versus them” — “IT versus users” (and I use that horrible term with purpose, here) — position that gives IT a bad name. This is the very reason why I sometimes claim that “IT is a two-letter four letter word.”

Is that what you want?

What would it look like if you were to suggest to your IT leadership and teams that the time for phishing tests is over? What do you think they would say?

“The only way for people to really know how vulnerable they are is to do an objective empirical test that allows us to show them!”

“Those phishers are a moving target, and we need people to see how vulnerable they really are to the newest techniques!”

I am going to get vulnerable with you, in two ways.

First off, several years ago, I, too, thought these tests were novel and useful. In particular, I was interested in creating a dialog with senior leaders about their own vulnerability to phishing. It is a fairly commonly-accepted fact that senior executives are the most successfully-targeted people for phishing initiatives, because phishers have the most to gain, and executives are generally under greater-than-average pressure to quickly plow through their emails.

But I also know that, over the years, I have come very, very close to falling for some very sophisticated phishing myself — to the point where I once performed an action that I had doubts about, and had to quickly employ technical processes to mitigate what I had done. I was very lucky.

If I were a betting man, I would bet that your IT teams feel that they would not fall for phishing as easily as the rest of your organization.

And therein lies the inflection point for your cultural conversation with your IT teams.

Let’s assume that your IT team could educate your workforce to be as “good” at avoiding phishing as they feel they are. Ask your IT teams, “Are you 100% immune to phishing?”

If they tell you, “yes,” then I think you know the work you have to do with them.

If they tell you, “no,” then ask them, what are the best ways to protect you from that fact? Should the executive team do a phishing test on you?

If someone says, “Yeah, that would be kind of cool!” then I suggest that you warn them it would have to be pretty compelling in order to have the desired impact. Show them what happened at Tribune Publishing. Ask them how they would feel if you did that to them.

I suspect that you and I both know where that conversation will lead.


Language of the following sort nauseates me:

“We have to educate the users so that they learn to protect themselves.”

(There it is again…isn’t the term “users” disgusting?)

Do organizations perform phishing tests to primarily benefit their employees, or to primarily benefit the organization? If a victimized employee came to you after being phished, do you suppose that their initial response would be: “Gee, I wish you had tested me so that this wouldn’t have happened!”

It is our very industry that has created the holes that attackers use to take advantage of people. With more thought, our industry could have created operating systems and protocols that presaged human nature and mitigated the need for humans to worry so much when engaging with our creations. Back in the 1970s, some significant work was done to anticipate the need for more secure operating systems that might have fundamentally changed the direction of personal computing, but these ideas never took off once the computer wars of the 1980s ensued.

Given that it is our industry that created the mess that we are in, is it fair to so effortlessly thrust the results of our laziness on our customers?

Now, I am certainly not the first person to write this sort of opinion piece about phishing tests. But I am fairly confident that I am the first person who will frame this topic in the following manner:

Did you ever watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It’s a powerful movie that portrays the emotions of an interracial couple — and the reactions of their parents about their desire to marry — during the Civil Rights Era. In a particularly powerful scene, the son, played by Sidney Poitier, reacts to his father’s assertion that he has to do what his father asks (not marry a white woman), simply because his father brought him into this world. Take a few minutes to watch this powerful scene:

Think of our industry as the father, and think of our customer as the son. We owe our customer everything. Why can’t we do a little more — no, a lot more — to pick up the slack?

In fact, there are proven tools to help us mitigate many types of phishing. The single most valuable tool is a well-implemented security risk assessment, wherein you identify the things that you think are vulnerable to phishing, and create practices that harden those areas.

What was the Tribune trying to do with its phishing exercise? From all appearances, they wanted to see if they could lead employees to share credentials for ostensibly nefarious use. But if those systems were hardened with multi-factor authentication, what would a phishing test achieve?

IT teams can spend money to embarrass people. But wouldn’t it be better to spend the same money protecting people? If it costs more to protect people than to embarrass people, then might it be worth discussing whether or not you want a culture like they have at Tribune Publishing?

I encourage all IT professionals to remember that we are like the father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. We represent an industry that made imperfect choices. Giving our customers technical responsibilities that make our lives easier is distasteful and disrespectful.

To paraphrase Sidney Poitier: We owe them everything.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sh5_NSemt0Q.

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Categories
Empathy Trust

The Invisible Propeller

[Beanie Illustration]

When you are introduced to new businesspeople as a technologist, how do these people begin to see you?

What sorts of biases might they have about what they expect from you?

Why do you think that might be the case?

It is entirely possible that you might not suspect any biases. If that is the case, I hope you find something of interest in this chapter of our journey together.

Arguably, many of us in the field of technology are coarsely viewed as “engineers” by those we interact with and serve. While “engineer” typically connotes a high degree of assumed intellect, the label has a certain amount of baggage that is unwise to ignore. People tend to assume that engineers:

  • Will talk above the heads of people around them from time to time
  • Might view others as having an inferior degree of understanding of technical issues
  • Will want to dissect details and debate minutiae
  • Will unrelentingly challenge arguments that have holes or weaknesses
  • Are more interested in things than in people

Take a moment to reflect on your past. Have you, dear technology leader, ever offered a simple observation about a business situation in non-technical terms, only to be asked to stop being technical? If you haven’t, then perhaps you haven’t lived!

Over the decades that I have nurtured the talents of young engineers in the workplace and in the classroom, I ask that, when they walk into a room of businesspeople for the first time, they develop an awareness of a certain propeller on their heads — a propeller that they themselves cannot see, but which is possibly quite visible to those who they are newly serving.

There is a simple way to identify whether or not your propeller is visible: your audience will come to you with solutions, rather than with problems. Have you ever wondered why so many businesspeople do this? Have you ever had the privilege of being a fly on the wall in the meetings leading up to the meetings with you or your teams?

Here is an abject lesson: throughout the world, businesspeople prepare thoroughly to provide as much detail as possible about what they want done before they meet with engineers, often to the point of becoming armchair engineers themselves, all in an effort to run out of the room as quickly as possible when the day finally comes.

  • If you are a salesperson, you want to meet people and sell to them.
  • If you are a CEO, you want to meet people and cultivate relationships.
  • If you are an accountant, you want to crunch numbers and make projections.
  • Think about every other position in your business, and you will see a trend.

When the time comes to meet with the software engineers and IT people in your business, the idea is: get in, get out, and get back to what you were doing. You want the software engineers and IT people to give you what you ask them for. You know the business, and they (sadly, all too often), simply do not. As much as those engineers know their stuff, your job is to convey to them things about your customers that they do not know as well as you do, and they need to listen to what you need.

All of this is a sort of horrible setup for bad things, I hope you can see. But I am sure you have seen it all before.

Businesspeople do this because engineers have a long history of being a pain in the ass. Your option, as a person with the label (whether you asked for it or not) of “engineer,” is to not be a pain in the ass. The best way to do that is to assume that you might be, in fact, a pain in the ass. Hence, the invisible propeller.

Now, it is entirely possible that people do this simply because they want to be helpful, or that they enjoy armchair engineering. Even in these cases, it is a fair indicator that there may be a lack of awareness of the engineer’s duty to develop an understanding of the problem that is there to be solved.

Before I go much further, I must acknowledge something important, lest I be an invisibleist. Developing a sense for this might be quite difficult for the fair chunk of technologists who are on the spectrum — not an insignificant portion of our population. I have an anecdotal belief that the history of engineering culture owes at least some part of its reputation to this, which is why I am happy to see companies like Auticon, Aspiritech, and even Microsoft address this with programs that cultivate these talents with special attention.

How do you transition from being a pain in the ass — a propellerhead — to a trusted human colleague? There is a small minefield that technologists must get through. The journey begins with steering the conversation to focus on the problem your customer is facing. To demonstrate this, I like to offer an exercise.

Imagine that you are having chest pains, and you run to your doctor, telling him: “Hey! Doc! I’m having a heart attack!”

What do you think the doctor is going to do?

I’ve asked this question in job interviews and classrooms for the better part of two decades, and the answers I have gotten run a wide gamut. In a future column, I hope to share an analysis of the answers I have collected from students over several years of guest lecturing at RIT and other schools.

But back to you: what do you think the doctor is going to do?

Is she going to apply a defibrillator? Is he going to give you aspirin? Is she going to rush you to the hospital? Is he going to ask you how you would know that, given that you are not a doctor? Or is the doctor going to ask you, “Tell me more about your symptoms?”

As the patient, do you go to the doctor with your own pre-determined diagnosis, wishing for the doctor to implement your solution to your problem? Or do you want the doctor to listen to your problems, and determine the solution that he or she thinks is best for you?

We should expect the same in our engineering relationships. However, customers expect something from engineers, and an empathic discussion is often not one of them. As a matter of fact, for engineers to thoroughly walk to the empathic, they sometimes have to risk making their customers feel like they got into more than they bargained for.

Imagine an empathic software engineer being asked to add a new field on a screen of an application. Rather than responding with “OK” (which is tantamount to our doctor applying a defibrillator without asking about symptoms), let’s suppose the engineer replies with:

“Interesting! Help me understand what your business process is.”

What do you expect could go wrong? Our customer’s reaction very well might be:

“What? I don’t have time for this – not something I expected to have to discuss with you.”

That feeling itself is valid; it’s a result of years of avoiding bad conversations with bad engineers.

A truly thoughtful engineer — one who sees the invisible propeller — has to be prepared for that sort of response.

Let’s go back to the doctor scenario. What’s one thing you hope the doctor won’t do? You hope he won’t be, well, a pain in the ass.

“How would you know that you are having a heart attack? You are not a doctor! I will be the one to tell you that you are having a heart attack!”

Yet, how often have you heard an engineer say something like that?

“What makes you think you need that field? If I add that, it could cause all sorts of problems!”

A thoughtful engineer who can envision her invisible propeller will bring a fundamental empathy to the table, and will respond with something that honors the underlying anxiety:

“Yeah, I get that. And I know your time is very valuable! I want to make sure I take a moment to truly understand your underlying problem so that I can ensure that, together, we achieve the results you expect. I will work hard not to take too much time when I do this, and my experience tells me that you’ll be happier. If now isn’t a good time, do you want to schedule something?”

Notice how the word “but” — or words like it — doesn’t appear in her response. It takes a great deal of finesse to honor the validity of your customer’s feelings, and not diminish them. There are a variety of other perfectly good approaches as well.

The goal here is to develop a relationship with your customer — a relationship where your customer begins to trust that the time spent with you is worthwhile. Through the results that you produce, your work will get easier, because your propeller will eventually, and truly, disappear.

The journey from propellerhead to trusted advisor starts with accepting the unfortunate legacy that years of engineers created before you. Those who are able to make this journey will find their careers immeasurably rewarding when compared to those who do not. As Lisa Hermsen (the Caroline Werner Gannett Professor of Humanities at RIT) once shared with me,

“The difference between an engineer who can communicate and one who cannot…is a room with a view.”

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5vZovv8cPk.

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Categories
Foundational Values Nonviolent Communication Willingness

Do You Gotta Be a Macho?

This is where you and I will take a left turn on our journey together.

You might recognize many — if not all — of the first seven foundational values that I have discussed to date. Many of them have been written about by other people individually or in combination with other values over the years (but not, to my knowledge, in this particular package).

There is one foundational value, however, that you have not seen before, and that is this, our eighth and final value, which is willingness.

Many businesspeople I’ve met over the years are fond of scouring the New York Times and Amazon nonfiction bestseller lists to find the next great management and leadership book. It’s always illuminating to walk into an office and see these perfectly-squared tomes lined up on an executive’s bookcase, perched alongside their children’s photos, both seemingly there to evoke a powerful reminiscence of a moment of self-realization.

I do not cherish many of these books, and I don’t have a long list to recommend. There are just a small handful that I believe are worthwhile. If I had to choose one — and only one — to offer any leader, it would have to be Marshall Rosenberg’s groundbreaking book on Nonviolent Communication.

(For more information on Nonviolent Communication, aka NVC, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication.)

This is not a book that I have ever seen on any other executive’s bookshelf (well, without my prompting). And I ask myself sometimes: why is that the case? Well, here’s where our left turn comes in.

The world of business is all-too-often a macho culture, filled with macho terms. Every time I go to a conference, there is always at least one keynote speaker — sometimes a famous sports figure — using words like:

  • Courage
  • Fearless
  • Brave
  • Daring
  • Tough
  • Emboldened
  • Power

These terms make me a little sick inside. Why is that? Why should a term like “courage” — lovingly embraced by none other than Brené Brown, one of a handful of people who really appreciate the importance of vulnerability — make me feel like I am coming down with the flu?

They are macho terms, and they are positioned in our brains to displace the notion of weakness to one degree or another, as if weakness were something to be avoided. If you grew up as I did — a nerd, an outcast, a “wuss” — these terms might have been thrown at you as values you should nurture and embrace. And in that sense, these terms would have been a violent affront to your inner world, as they were to mine.

“You’ve got it wrong! You have to be strong! Just have courage! Be fearless! Win it!”

—Some person who didn’t care about my feelings

In my mind, when I would hear things like this, all I could think was, “Ah, sure, I should just go beat them up. Right. That will solve everything… Sure.”

I believe that most people who use macho language do so innocently, but I do not believe that people typically take the time to ponder how dismissive this language can be. When was the last time you heard someone say, “she had balls!”? What did you think when you heard that? Is having “balls” supposed to be a compliment to a woman? Why is that?

I believe that there is a feeling or value that many of these people want to communicate, but I do not think that they have found a non-violent word.

So, I offer willingness.

What is willingness, and how is it different from, say, courage?

With the word willingness, we can have a discussion about doing something to move forward that honors, rather than diminishes, the value of your fear or your lack of courage. Willingness is a quiet value. It is understated. It is not showy, and it does not pretend to diminish the marianismo that is in us.

It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to lack courage. It’s OK not to have balls, or to not desire power. There is actually potential value in each of those positions. For example, if you lack courage, it might be because there is a real risk to you in doing something, and by honoring that risk, you stand to broaden your palette of choices in approaching your problem.

Instead of macho language, we can ask ourselves:

Are we willing to change ourselves?
Are we willing to throw out what we have done in favor of a new approach?
Are we willing to have a difficult conversation?
Are we willing to slow down?
Are we willing to stop?
Are we willing to wait?
Are we willing to go?
Are we willing to care about others?
Are we willing to be vulnerable?
Are we willing to admit what we don’t know?
Are we willing to commit?

All of this feels decisively less macho — ultimately, less violent — than we are used to feeling in business culture. I suggest that this approach has great utility, because if we can talk in a way that does not put people on edge about their valid feelings of weakness, we create a vastly larger opportunity to bring about the progress we so often seek.

In the end, it is important to me that the values we discuss in The Progressive CIO are nonviolent.

What macho — what violent — words do you find yourself using from day to day?

Most importantly, are you willing to review how you speak, and to identify friendlier alternatives?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZ1glxX1BiQ.

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Categories
Commitment Foundational Values

…To Every Commitment

What two commitments were made the morning that Stuart and Al got into their little argument?

Most people are able to see that Al made a commitment (albeit reluctantly) to Stuart to put some numbers together. This is the type of tangible commitment that we are used to talking about, and the type we criticize when it doesn’t occur. That’s the easy part of this little exercise.

But in my experience, comparatively fewer people are able to see that Stuart also made an important commitment that morning: the commitment to review what Al did.

Why do you suppose this is so often overlooked?

While Al did something that was very obviously active, what Stuart did in return was comparatively passive. It doesn’t require any obvious action other than to listen or receive the active work of others, so it’s nearly invisible. Yet, Al would have been unable to meaningfully follow through on his commitment if Stuart didn’t follow through on his.

This might remind you of the old thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” If nobody is there to review your active commitment, does it even matter that you did it?

It’s actually quite hard to think of any commitments that are not dual-sided in nature. Even a successful surprise party involves a passive commitment on the honoree to be at a given place at a given time. The party would fall apart if he or she didn’t show up. I hope you are beginning to see how easily overlooked these passive commitments can be.

Did you ever do a difficult chore or errand that went unnoticed? How did you feel? I suspect that you probably felt a little like Al would have if Stuart had cancelled the 1:00 meeting.

Have you ever worked in an environment where people perform their assigned commitment, but at the agreed-upon review time, the customers who committed to review the outcome change their minds and try to reschedule? There is no reliable path to progress if this pattern prevails.

Yet, this happens all the time…and the fact that people are familiar with the feelings associated with the dismissal of passive commitments can actually make it easier to discuss. Whenever you make a commitment to do something and are unsure about people being around to review it, get vulnerable and discuss the anxiety that you have about the possibility that there will be nobody there at the end to “listen for the tree.” Ask everyone in your group to discuss the variety of things that could get in the way of a review of the outcomes, and ask what their anxieties are about their own ability to watch and listen to the results.

If you wish, simply share the Stuart and Al story to illustrate the point. Have everyone identify both the active and the passive commitments that are required for success for the initiative at hand.

Just as importantly, recognize and discuss the difference between a commitment-driven culture, and a promise-driven culture.

When we promise something, what do we expect to happen if that promise is broken? Surely, some form of flagellation (perhaps even self-flagellation) will take place, with an attendant apology and other consequences. Promises merely set us up for failure mode. This is typically counter-productive.

A commitment means we will do everything in our power to do what we say we plan to do.

In a commitment-driven culture, if we fail in our commitments, we do not beat ourselves up! Instead, we follow another commitment: the commitment look at why we failed. We then consider what we can change as we move forward.

Promise-driven cultures quickly grow tiresome because they are essentially fear-based. Commitment-driven cultures are sustainable, because they embrace the idea of continuous improvement.

As a leader, you already know that nothing moves forward without commitments. What will you do to boost your awareness of their dual-sided nature?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbn6a0AFfnM.

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Commitment Foundational Values

There Are Two Sides…

Would you agree that it seems hard for people to keep their commitments?

(Based upon the fact that Alex Sheen’s “Because I Said I Would” is a worthy organization with a passionate message that truly resonates around the globe, I certainly hope you agree that this is a very real issue for us all.)

Why do you suppose that is the case?

Humans make commitments with good intent. We seem to have a hard time, though, grasping what it’s going to take to follow through on that commitment. Unexpected things happen. Conditions change. We discover things we didn’t consider. The list goes on.

And we all know this sort of stuff happens. So why do we make commitments?

To be nice, and to express good will. It’s nicer to say yes than it is to say no, and we generally do not aim to displease.

I’d like to ask you to explore something that many people probably haven’t: Think about how you feel at the rare times when you resolutely commit to not doing something. “I am not going to go skydiving on this trip.” “I am not going to go out drinking on Saturday nights anymore.”

Why do you suppose that it feels at least a little bit (if not a lot) good to make that sort of commitment?

As with so many things, it’s all about control.

When we make a commitment to not do something, we typically have taken complete control over the situation. Only we can change the outcome (by changing our mind). On the other hand, when we make a commitment to do something, other people start to have control, and that is when things get sticky. At a minimum, we become beholden to the others with whom we have made the commitment, and that can induce…anxiety.

I once consulted for a small company that had a President (Stuart) and an Engineer (Al) who weren’t getting along.

One morning, Stuart informed Al that he had a call at 2:30 PM with a client to review the financial results of the work the company had done, and Stuart needed Al to put numbers together for the call.

Mind you, Al was a little like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: intellectually high-caliber, but socially awkward. Al could not contemplate doing anything without all things literally and logically discussed and considered.

Al: “That isn’t possible. I need at least two weeks to get those numbers together. I need more information.”

Stuart: “Well I know you can calculate the numbers well enough given the information that we have.”

Al: “I cannot be sure of that. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”

Stuart: “I think you have enough information to do what I need for this afternoon.”

Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”

Stuart: “Al, please. You have enough to do what I am asking for. I don’t need this to be as perfect as you think. I need these numbers for this afternoon.”

Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which…”

There were a few more back-and-forth motions like this; the very sort of thing the phrase ad nauseam was made for. At this point, I stepped in:

Me: “Al, what can you have by this afternoon?”

Al (pointing to Stuart): “Not that!”

Me: “Al, why don’t you put together whatever you can by 1:00 PM, and let’s all get together at that time to review it. OK?”

Stuart: “Sounds good to me.”

Al: “OK, but it’s not gonna be what he is asking for.”

Me: “Just try.”

A few hours went by. Lunchtime passed, and we got together at 1:00.

Al shared the numbers with us. He explained that he had to make a whole series of compromises, and began uttering a litany of disclaimers.

Stuart looked over the numbers. What do you think he said?

Stuart: “Perfect!”

What do think Al said in return?

Al: “But that’s not really what you were asking for this morning. I cannot be sure those numbers are totally accurate…”

Many of you reading this blog might recognize this story as a powerful lesson in Agility. Indeed, I have shared this story countless times in teaching how Scrum or Agile practices look, even without formal methods. The lesson of Agility is to try to figure out something small enough to do to help us get better control over our ability to deliver. But this dialog is especially useful in illustrating how Agile approaches require commitment in order to be successful.

In doing this, I like to ask my audiences the following question, which I now ask you:

What two commitments were made the morning that Stuart and Al got into their argument?

Ponder that for a few days. I’ll reveal the answer in my next post.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx6_0Do0qGQ.

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Curiosity Foundational Values

What Exactly Happened to the Cat?

What does your childhood home look like now on Google Street View?

What is the most interesting piece of IMDB trivia for your favorite movie?

On what website can you find the inventor’s original intent for the Ruffles potato chip?

What piece of sports trivia would you share that would stump your friends? (For instance, why is a marathon 26.2 miles?) Are you 100% sure that you’re right about it?

When was the first electric car made? When was the first internal combustion engine car made?

Is your favorite teacher still alive?

How the heck is white pretzel salt actually made?

How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

Did you care to look into at least one of the above questions before you reached this paragraph?

I implore you to share your most surprising findings on either the LinkedIn or Twitter threads relating to this post.

Now, I can’t tell from here how curious you are. But you can. It’s a pretty safe bet that you are reading this on a device that has access to the Internet, and if you didn’t take the time to look into at least one of the above things, what got in your way? Are you, perhaps, on a schedule to finish reading this page? Or are you, perhaps, light on curiosity?

There are eight foundational values at the root of The Progressive CIO, yet there is only one that is shared by just about all of the hundreds of senior managers I have consulted for or worked with over the years, and that is curiosity. I suppose this means that, despite some of the dysfunction I have witnessed in my professional encounters, there is at least one thread that ties most leaders together.

Why do you suppose that is the case?

To be curious is to be fully invested in one’s personal growth. Why would anyone want to hire a person who wasn’t interested in that? Even if you are hiring someone for a rote task, a non-curious individual would be a bore to work with. Yet, we have all worked with people who lack curiosity. Perhaps it’s hard to smoke out this attribute in a standard interview. One has to be curious about the curiosity of others in order to get to the starting gate. Therein lies the rub! What will you do to nurture this in your own life?

I once knew a vice president named Joe who proudly fathered the most richly rewarding line of manipulative interview questioning that I’ve ever encountered. This is how it went:

Joe: “Do you have any regrets?”

Interviewee: “Hmmm, yes. I wish I had {studied violin; finished college; traveled to Europe}.”

Joe: “Why didn’t you?”

Interviewee: “I didn’t have the time.”

Answers of that last sort occurred more often than Joe would have liked. The crux, for him, was that we all have time to do the things we want to do; we merely make choices about what we do with our time. He was most interested in hiring candidates who understood this.

Now, I have to say, I have shared this story probably a hundred times over the years, and I have gotten into some interesting disagreements. I remember one individual saying, “I have children. I don’t have the choices about what to do with my time that you think I do.” To which I replied, “I appreciate that, but it is still a choice. You are just choosing not to be a miscreant. Plenty of people do make the choice to be a miscreant. You, too, could make the choice to be a miscreant. I want you to realize that it is a choice, albeit one a fine person like you has made with integrity.”

We went on a bit, and I followed up by making the point that, beyond this sort of thing, we (typically) do make choices to have children, and there are consequences to that. These sorts of things are delicate, mind you. But they are healthy to take the time to consider. And, of course, beyond even that delicate point, we are all free to make a choice about whether or not we even live. For what it’s worth, I hope that you, dear reader, continue to make the choice to live!

So, to say that we don’t have time to do something is a lazy way of overlooking some of the tougher choices we have to make.

Curiosity is a choice. Because of that, curiosity will sometimes feel like it is slowing you down (see: Patience). The single most useful curiosity-based tool that I use regularly is the exercise of the “Five whys.” There is no question that it will slow you down, but if you’ve never used it before, give it a try sometime. I am willing to bet that you will continue to find that sort of slowdown to be immeasurably healthy.

Were you aware that there are a host of curiosity tests online?

(You’d be correct in thinking that I hoped you searched for that before I mentioned it.)

Take — no, make — the time to take some of these test. Curiosity is a choice. More pertinently, I suggest that you make the time to look for it in others.

Carve out the time to look into the things you need in order to grow, and you will grow. Plodding forward without a care in the world about what else might be possible is not a terribly strategic way of getting things done. If you do not value curiosity in yourself, it will be difficult to nurture that in your teams.

Should you encounter someone who argues: “But curiosity killed the cat!,” simply smile and offer: “If the cat steadfastly practiced the alternative, there would be no kittens to follow.”

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyZf0mKXZr8.

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Categories
Compassion Foundational Values

A Special Threshold

What is the primary emotion you feel when you watch Martin Gugino fall to the ground and bleed?

If your answer is not related to the idea of “compassion,” I accept that, and I am willing to admit that the approaches discussed among these pages might not be your thing.

I am fairly certain that “compassionate” is not at the top of the list of adjectives that are used to describe technologists. Nurses? Sure. But not us.

Why is that?

Could it have to do with the fact that we have come to be associated with soulless machines rather than people? That we are purveyors of things that are designed to supplant human beings in one way or another? That we have not found ways to accommodate and codify the irrational portions of life?

What does it mean for us to genuinely care about the people we are serving with our solutions?

It might mean that we would do well to appreciate that technology — and technologists — can elicit fear or anxiety in people in oh-so-many ways. We all can remember the first time we had to teach computer skills to a beginner. And certainly, if you are in a position to help someone solve problems by applying technology, the anxiety that accompanies the unknown future is part of the journey.

If you are your family’s technology “guru,” how many times have you been asked “What did I do wrong?” How does that question make you feel? Whenever I am asked that, before I open my mouth, I find it helpful to take a step back and ask myself, “What did we do wrong?” Typically, I can find a better answer to that. I feel so much better when I can say: “It’s not you.” And I have to tell you, the older I get, the more I find that answer to be the case.

Over the years, I cannot count the number of times I have overheard technologists uttering, while teaching, “Don’t worry. This will be easy.” How very easy it is to say that — it is the textbook definition of “dismissive.” Technology can be an affront to the senses. It is not natural or organic by any means. When we can develop an appreciation for that, we are in a better position to be responsive to the emotions that it can elicit in those we serve.

Compassion, like empathy, is hard. Compassion denotes a special threshold between doing what is easy and doing what is right. It involves more than just noticing a problem; it demands that you act on the problem. When we exhibit compassion, we make it a priority to stop to see what is wrong, and to exercise vulnerability, empathy, patience, and all of the other values we talk about on these pages. We slow ourselves down to accommodate the travails, anxieties, and fears of others, so that we can pick them up and walk with them, work with them, and guide them to a place where they can feel more comfortable.

Are you comfortable merely watching those who are afraid or hurt? Or will you get up and help them?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieQH6X_XBJo

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Foundational Values Patience

Planetary Patience

How would you feel if someone asked you to slow down?

(Would you welcome it? Would it give you anxiety?)

What lasting things have you achieved by rushing?

(Would you list those things as your proudest accomplishments?)

In my mid career, I had the distinct pleasure of working for, and alongside, one of the most driven people I have ever known in my life — a man named Raman Padmanabhan. Raman moved from Mumbai to the United States in 1997; received his Master’s degree in 1999; worked as a software development contractor through 2005, and by 2012 became a divisional CIO for Xerox Corporation. He started working for Highmark Health in 2014, and by 2016 he had moved back to India as founding CEO of Thryve Digital Health (a division of Highmark), which hit 1,000 employees in 2018.

I’m out of breath just thinking about it. From an individual contributor — to a CEO of 1,000 employees — in just thirteen years.

I say that Raman was driven. At times, I would say that it seemed he was impatient.

But one thing that distinguishes good leaders is that, somewhere on their journey, they realize that patience is what really wins the day. I recently reached out to Raman, presuming that he — like I — had discovered the value of patience. Because of what he had achieved, I was fairly sure he had come to discover what I had discovered.

“Drew, I laughed when you reached out to me,” Raman shared. “When we met, I was 27 years old. You and I were so much younger. We were in a culture where we couldn’t get anywhere unless we were aggressive. But just last year, I participated in a 360° review, and the feedback from the people I work with revealed that they could not understand why I was so extremely patient. They expected me to be impatient — that I should just ‘make a decision’ quickly about so many things.

“When I moved to the United States, my father told me: ‘Impatience is driven by fear and ambition.’ That fear and ambition is what made me impatient. You don’t want to become a poster child of failure. You want to feel like you ‘made it.’ But I lacked the experience to know any differently. Every time I look back, I know it was those two things (fear and ambition) that led to my impatience.”

Indeed, Raman had discovered the value of patience.

In our conversation, Raman shared that there is a special Hindi word that is used to describe patience that has no direct English translation: Saburi, which is strongly associated with the teachings of an Indian spiritual master known as Sai Baba of Shirdi. In this context, Saburi finds itself strongly associated with the concept of Shraddha, which is essentially what we might call faith. In order to have patience, one has to have belief that there is a possibility for change.

I suggest that the most vital manifestation of patience in any organization is a culture that values coaching. If you are lucky enough to witness a culture that values coaching, you will be in awe. Why? Because you will quickly see how difficult it is to copy. It requires an immense amount of patience.

If we coarsely break down three types of issues we encounter in life into the following categories, we can illustrate a point:

  1. Issues whose lifecycle is measured in hours or days (problems and small conflicts)
  2. Issues whose lifecycle is measured in weeks, months or years (projects, which have a start and an end)
  3. Issues whose lifecycle is measured in years or decades (personal growth and development)

We can envision these as concentric planetary orbits around the Sun, from Mercury to Venus to Earth:

[Three orbits]
Planetary patience.
  1. Mercury’s orbit, which is the innermost, is the most eccentric (let’s just call it “spastic”). One orbit around the Sun: three Earth months.
  2. Venus’ orbit, which is predictable and nearly perfectly circular. One orbit around the Sun: seven Earth months.
  3. Earth’s orbit, where we live.

There are three different sorts of tools we use to accommodate those three orbits of our life and work:

  1. Problems: Advice or ideas
  2. Projects: Collaboration and discussion
  3. People: Coaching

Advice, which is offered quickly, frequently, and easily, is the cheapest of the three, and is nearly disposable in nature. It’s the inner, most spastic orbit. It’s as hot and fast as Mercury itself. That is not to say that it is useless. It just doesn’t find purchase for lasting impact. It gets you through the now. By its very nature, it comes from without, and not from within, so it requires others to be there. You would be very hard pressed to provide your own new advice to yourself on a regular basis.

Collaboration and discussion get you through an initiative. It is people working together over a long haul on things that need to have a definitive end. It works like the clockwork that is Venus’ picture-perfect orbit. This is where the self and the other come together to accomplish a greater goal.

Coaching, however, is something that takes time. Coaching is all about asking questions and changing the ways that people think. It is as deep and complex as the Earth itself. No coincidence!

People don’t move at the speed of advice; people move at the speed of coaching, and making the decision to invest in this sort of work takes…well…Saburi and Shraddha. Organizations that embrace a coaching culture at all levels — where every employee is encouraged to help others think, and not just to dole out answers, from the bottom to the top — are the ones whose orbits are the most difficult to disrupt.

So why don’t we do that so easily, or so often?

What did Raman’s father tell him?

What exactly are we afraid of?

Of not knowing what might happen. Of not being able to develop the skills. These are valid things. But the willingness to overcome these things…to devote the time and afford the patience to invest in the humans you collaborate with…will reap rewards that will be difficult for those you call your competitors to replicate unless they choose the same path.

It is within your reach, and within your control. Will you be satisfied merely giving advice and collaborating? Or will you have the patience to coach, and ask others to follow?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: http://www.thewildernessdowntown.com/. If you are on mobile, you will have to settle for https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJ7osdJ4H_8.

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Categories
Empathy Foundational Values

Oh No, Not Again!

As a leader, there is no doubt you’ve been saturated with writing and lessons in empathy. Since empathy was at the center of my life studies, there was a time when I was going to write a book about it. As some folks might say: “But Amazon.

Given all that, what could I offer you in regard to empathy that you might not have already read?

You and I likely agree that, in order for you to do a world-class job at eliciting requirements in any discipline, your ability to hone your empathy skills is of utmost importance.

But one thing that I will share with you that many other writers might not is: no matter what your experience with empathy, if you are to get somewhere great, the work is very, very difficult. After all, if it were that easy, why would there be so many books to try to teach you how to make it easy? Empathy is a lot like running, biking, swimming, or weightlifting. It takes regular exercise and practice to keep you at the top of your game.

When I teach software engineers about empathy, nothing I have found illustrates how hard it is to empathize well better than the following exercise:

The next time PowerBall or MegaMillions begins to ramp up to an insane value, have everyone in your team buy a ticket. Not in the shared office sense, mind you…no, have every single person buy his or her own ticket.

(In order to really do this exercise well, it’s important for each person to have actually bought a ticket. Disclaimer: please don’t do this if you have a gambling addiction. I do care for you.)

Knowing that each person has an actual chance at winning (while simultaneously acknowledging the old adage that the lottery is a tax on people who failed math), have each person ponder:

“What will life be like if I won?”

You will find your teammates saying all sorts of interesting things. But here’s the rub: If you don’t get at least a little scared of a few things, you’re not thinking hard enough.

I’m not going to try to explain why in this post — I can follow up on that at a later time. But the point is: if you cannot empathize with a future version of yourself, how can you empathize with somebody else?

The answer: because empathizing is hard.

Almost all work is a requirements elicitation exercise. From coal mining to neuroscience, from taking orders for tacos to sending people to Mars, we all spend much of our time at work understanding other people’s problems so that we can formulate solutions.

The key to successful requirements elicitation is in understanding the people we are serving, and empathy is the key.

But it is hard. Work on it. Every. Single. Day.

More to come.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gV-kTMGUwI. And you thought it was going to be https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nH_xiZZheg4.

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