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?
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.
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?
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!
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:
You have no uncertainty in your business
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.
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?
Those differences are telling. Two years ago, post-election, with our cold civil war a-brewing, politics was our fascination. Today, we are weary for just about anything other than entertainment. Our brains and our souls need a rest and a reset.
Interest in work-related topics is also in an ebb cycle. People are not in the mood to read books, columns, or blogs that consist of generalized advice aimed at improving their work lives. I suspect people realize that questions about what’s truly going on right now in the workforce have no easy answers. What’s truly going on is that our cold civil war has bled into our work life.
The Progressive CIO was borne out of my epiphanies in the wake of COVID-19 — a long and turbulent wake that we are still navigating. My writings have reflected my work and encounters along the way. In recent months, however, I’ve slowed. I have nothing to offer that I think can address our cold civil war, and writing more about the eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO seems tone-deaf at the moment. While those values are — and always will be — important, getting back to considering them will require navigating out of our current wake, which requires addressing politics.
We’re not supposed to have politics in our workplaces, though, right? As it turns out, it’s too late for that. As we attempt to return to offices, COVID has brought politics into the workplace as never before, for a simple reason: the semiotics of the face covering.
I cannot think of any symbol in the workplace — or in everyday life — that has communicated a political stance so overtly in my lifetime as the manner in which face coverings are (or are not) worn. This is not to say that wearing a face covering or not is, unto itself, a form of political expression. As with a tree falling in the forest, it’s the junction of the act and the audience where meaning takes shape.
Take a look at these four different face-covering scenarios, and reflect on what they say to you:
At least one of those will strike a nerve within you, wherever you sit on the political spectrum.
Semiotics are a part of everyday communication and everyday life. Face coverings fall into the non-language communication subset of semiotics, which are distinct from the more-commonly-encountered non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication involves a language; that is to say, a system of communication with a learned form and structure. Music is a language, for instance. Non-language communication, on the other hand, lacks any system or learned form and structure. Lines on our roads are non-verbal communication; a driver swerving around those lines is non-language communication.
Non-language communication isn’t discussed much outside of academic circles. If it were, I suppose we might have a better public dialog about face covering techniques. I suspect, however, that it wouldn’t have an impact on our current cold civil war at work. Whether we like it or not, masks have become a form of wearing one’s politics on one’s face. The bigger issue is that non-language communication, through its very nature, makes verbal analysis more challenging.
At the present, only fully-distributed workforces are in a position to avoid face covering controversies in daily work life. We know, however, that not all workforces can be fully-distributed.
Proposed vaccination and testing rules are about to increase the magnitude of the COVID-19 wake, before the current tide has finished going out. How a company reacts to and addresses these rules puts politics on a company’s face as well.
When we are in a place where we know the solution is: “Take politics out of the workplace” and those politics are now a way of life as a matter of public health, then where does that leave us?
It leaves us doing our jobs and trying not to think about them when we don’t have to. It leaves us tired of politics, even if we are energized by them. (Which leaves me to ponder: If one is energized by politics, then what does that say about that person and their priorities?) It leaves us retreating to our homes, our families, entertainment, and the things that truly matter in life. That’s not all a bad thing. But if our lives require us to work, we’re all in a pickle for the time being.
Vulnerability: Are we willing to be honest and open with one another about how our current world is affecting us? This will include senior leaders acknowledging that these vulnerable voices need to be heard.
Humility: Are we willing to recognize that this situation is bigger than all of us, and that it is a comedy of errors, of sorts, if not a true human tragedy? It’s difficult to laugh at, but I believe we have to if we are to collectively solve it.
Empathy: No matter your politics or attitude, will you try as hard as you can to see the validity in the other side’s point of view? This doesn’t mean that you agree that the other side is right; it merely means that you work hard enough to try to understand and not summarily dismiss.
Compassion: Do we genuinely care about each other, to the extent we are willing to go out of our way to bring comfort to others?
Curiosity: Are we willing to explore the new and unseen options that we have not yet explored to get us past where we are today?
Commitment: Are we willing to make true commitments to one another, and follow through on those commitments?
Willingness: Do we have genuine willingness to do all of the hard work above?
Given how tired we all remain, who can we expect to initiate this sort of effort on a meaningful scale?
Only those who govern us.
I’m not talking about legislation; I’m talking about leading by example, living those eight values. If that sounds like a tall order, it most certainly is. That’s because there is a chasm between politics and governance.The government I am alluding to does not exist today, and has probably not existed in our lifetimes. Until we can pack up our politics, no governing will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, no leadership will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, our workplaces will not flourish. Until we can pack up our politics, the world will not be the place we want it to be. The good news? Packing up our politics starts, apparently, with the books we buy.
A friend shared the following response:
I loved your start – the comparison of the top books is quite telling, and I would not have thought to make that comparison. I am right there with you throughout your article until the end. Who should or will initiate these changes? For me it’s all of us, it’s the workers, it’s the everyday people in the workplace, it’s you and it’s me. I think we can be sure right now our leaders are quite absent, especially those who govern.
One of my favorite quotes I encountered along the way of my doctoral studies comes from Ralph Stacey, “Change can only happen in many, many local interactions.” For me, this means it is in the small conversations that spark other conversations and so on that we begin to change culture, that we begin to change each other. I is in those times of making space and being vulnerable that we listen to others and that we speak our truth. In those moments one or the other or both are truly changed, and that sparks a change in the next conversation that we have. For me, it is in this process that true change happens. Not in the top down, governed-inspired or directed change.
But that’s me, and perhaps I am missing some of what you are concluding or alluding to.
I agree with this in spirit—and I had wanted to end with this sentiment. But after reviewing the how the foundational values might address this, and pondering how realistic this would be, I felt this conclusion would sound trite. There is a realist at work in my brain right now. This sort of change benefits from top-down work of unimaginable magnitude. Imagine the impact our governing bodies could have if they demonstrated these values in their everyday actions!
In the “DVD bonus feature” spirit of allowing you to choose your own ending, I encourage you to do just that with this post. I would love nothing more than for everyday people—rather than government—to achieve this change.
In the end, if this post merely encourages discussion, then it will have served a purpose.
When you get to know someone, do you focus more on what’s wrong with them, or what’s right with them?
Is there a benefit to focusing on one or the other?
How do you feel about your own flaws? Do you admit them, or do you try to hide them or compensate for them?
Why do you think that’s the case?
When I was a young executive, my boss once shared the following pearl of wisdom with me…it’s explicit, but this is the way I learned it:
Every one of us has something that, once discovered, will be off-putting to others. If we look hard for these things, we are certain to eventually find them.
When we find someone else’s poop — knowing that we each have our own — why does that so often surprise us, and make us think differently about them? Perhaps because most people like to like people. When we get to know a person and we like that person, it brings us joy; it makes us feel like the world is a better place. We like the honeymoon period, before we find the poop. We like the Hallmark Channel.
When we discover flaws in people, it’s all too easy to feel let down. But it’s a terrible mistake to dismiss someone else when we discover their poop. How would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot?
If you’ve been in business long enough, you’ve undoubtedly been asked about the leaders who have inspired you on your journey. For me, the most immediate answer has long been George Martin. He’s an admittedly unusual choice. I’m a lifelong Beatles fan, and while I love the Beatles’ music, I find their group dynamic even more intriguing.
The Beatles were four young men who loved music, and who had a deep appreciation for one another. But despite a few friendly and intense years in the early half of their career, they were decidedly not in love with one another. In fact, their creative peak paralleled their social nadir. They had different values in life and in their music. They worked hard to keep themselves together in the way the world expected, and George Martin’s greatest contributions were in providing musical balance to complement their competing ideas. Watching his deft, delicate, minimalist hand at work in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary series is a powerful illustration of this. As their closest colleague in the studio, he routinely mediated compromise, helping four very different people become something much greater than they were individually.
At this point, it feels appropriate to revisit the quote from Victor Hugo on The Progressive CIO’s home page, which presaged this very post two years ago:
“But who among us is perfect? Even the greatest strategists have their eclipses, and the greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often compounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, separate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can break them one by one. You think, ‘That is all there was!’ But twist them all together and you have something tremendous.”
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
If you lead teams of talented and smart people, they will have differences with one another — sometimes significant ones. They will find things to dislike in each other’s philosophies, politics, lifestyles, or approaches. It is your ability to embrace, cultivate, coach through, and complement these differences that paves the road from disaster to brilliance. What does it take for you to develop a deft and delicate hand to manage this?
First: Never forget your own flaws. This requires humility.
Second: Get comfortable talking about those flaws, which will be reassuring to those who you serve and who you lead. This requires vulnerability.
Third: Develop an ability to not be surprised or disappointed when you find flaws in others. In conjunction, develop the ability to lock, arm-in-arm, in your shared humanity, This requires compassion.
Fourth: Understand that what you perceive as a flaw might not be perceived that way by others. Try to look at this perceived flaw from different perspectives, and consider invisibleism along the way. This requires empathy.
Fifth: Learn to take a breath and stay calm when others find flaws and react in unbecoming ways. This requires patience.
Sixth: When walking through these concepts with someone who is struggling with what they have found: stop, smile, and share Eliot’s quote.
Then, explore the dialogue that opens this post. This requires willingness.
Finally: Teach these lessons forward.
Of course, there are limits that, from time to time, you will confront in managing this dynamic. The Tyranny of Competence comes to mind. The best way to address this, should you need to, is through compassion, and not through anger, remembering that we all have our flaws. This will give you the best shot at addressing difficult interpersonal situations before someone simply has to go.
I think many workplaces understand the need to manage differences; what differentiates the best ones is the way they manage the flaws we discover in one another. There will be failures. There will be break-ups. Even George Martin’s work couldn’t keep the Beatles together. But a great team’s finest work comes only with significant attention to managing their reactions to one another’s flaws, however ugly they may be.
I once led a small, incredibly talented innovation team at a healthcare informatics business. We were a company of many firsts. Notably, we were arguably the first company in the United States to use the pubic cloud to host healthcare data, using many thoughtful and proprietary security techniques.
Our software stack was innovative, featuring many capabilities focused on ease of use and speed of operation. We had a relentless focus on security and user experience, which are not easy things to balance.
Like many agile organizations, our team sat together in a collaborative environment, and I enjoyed my first-row seat watching their daily interactions. One day, during negotiations in a sprint planning session, a thoughtful systems engineer described an upcoming feature to our software engineers that would bring significant value to our software’s audience.
“That’s hard,” said one of the software engineers.
What happened next was one of the most memorable and perfect utterances of a single word that I have ever witnessed in my entire life.
“So?” said the systems engineer.
Can you think of a better response than that?
(For those who are curious…of course they did it.)