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How To Be Mediocre Without Even Trying

16 Apr

INTRODUCTION

Have you ever been on a team of aces – the best of the best – and failed? Have you ever been on a team that consisted of average people, found your rhythm and exceeded expectations? Have you ever been on a highly successful agile team and then later used the exact same practices with another group of people, but failed to get the desired results? Why do the same practices work really well with one team and not another? What is behind this?

There is a frequently self-fulfilled stereotype among technical professionals that we are not good at interpersonal skills, that such are traits of one’s personality, and consequently un-learnable. Many of us feel uncomfortable with the topic so we tend to underplay its importance, which is evidenced by our characterizing such skills as touchy-feely. We focus on our work – the real work – of writing code, coming up with and maintaining designs, and architecture. The touchy-feely things are unimportant and frequently get in the way. The technical practices are the important thing.

Hereʼs the [hidden] truth: we are wrong. Agile methods constantly bring up problems and upsets. Agile methods do not ensure success alone. Our ability to respond to problems effectively as individuals, teams, and organizations is the real key to success. The answer to success is therefore not in the technical practices but in the human dynamics beneath our methods. Human dynamics are the difference between a failed team, a team that gets by, and a hyper-productive team. Unfortunately, many are unaware of these practices, and therefore using different agile methods alone becomes a hit-or-miss gamble.

The good news is that these human dynamics are learnable. In this article I will explain why this skill set is so important to highly productive software development and give you a simple model to better understand what these skills are, and when they should be used. But before we dig into the skills, letʼs take a look at software development in general.

LEARNING IS THE MOST COSTLY PART OF SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT

Here is a hypothetical situation that I have presented to many of my students:

Suppose I was your client and I asked you and your team to build a software system for me.Your team proceeds to build the software system. It takes you a full year – 12 months – to deliver working, tested software.

I then thank you and your team and take the software and throw it out. I then ask you to rebuild the system. You have the same team. The same requirements. The same tools and software. Basically – nothing has changed – it is exactly the same environment.

How long will it take you and your team to rebuild the system again?

When I present this hypothetical situation to my students – many of them with 20+ years experience in building software – they typically respond with estimates that are anywhere between 20% to 70% of the time. That is, rebuilding a system that originally takes one year to build would take only 2.5 to 8.5 months to build the second time around. This is a huge difference! Do you know any one factor that can affect software development that much?

So, what was the problem? What was different? The difference was that the team had learned. They learned about each other as a team and have gelled over the year. They learned about the true requirements – not just those written down. They also learned to use the toolset, the idiosyncrasies that come up during all software development. Basically they worked through all the unknowns until they built and delivered a successful software system. Learning is THE most costly part of software development.

Thatʼs the main reason that agile practices (sometimes) work so well – they are all about recognizing and responding to change. Agile practices from test-driven development and continuous integration, to iterations and retrospectives are all accelerating feedback to enable the team to learn faster. By cycling at every possible instance, agile teams have the opportunity to accelerate learning and address the most costly portion of software development.

But learning is not automatic and it does not come for free. Anything that impedes our ability to learn will take us down the road to mediocrity. That is where human dynamics come in. If we donʼt know how to leverage problems individually and as a team and organization, then we cannot benefit fully from agile practices – no matter what those practices are.

WHY ARE HUMAN DYNAMICS IMPORTANT?

Software development is a team sport; we either all win together by producing great software, or we all lose together by not achieving our goals no matter how well we execute individually. For software teams, there is no such thing as “it is not my problem”. Believing that a problem belongs to only one member of a software team is as invalid as for people on a plane to say “it is not my wing on fire”.

These skills are important for everyone, even purely technical roles such as developers and architects. Consider the following scenario as an illustration:

I am a developer on a team who gets the architecture and/ or design handed down from above. I just got out of a meeting with our architect where he explained the reasons behind why things were set the way they were. He was very polite and said all the right words; but I did not feel listened to.

I brought up what seemed like important issues of things that are infeasible given the current libraries we use. I was unsatisfied with the architect’s answer. He just explained the issues away as though brushing them aside. On the surface I can’t really argue, but I feel frustrated because his ‘words’ are right but I still have a sinking suspicion that things are not right. I am also a little annoyed that my architect didn’t take me seriously and I have started thinking of him as disconnected and an ivory tower architect.

This has several effects on our productivity:

• I may not do my best at solving the problem his way and will be glad if it fails and say ‘I told you so’.

• I may ignore the architect, because of my new perception of him, and that will cause an inconsistency in the code. If I am right, people coming to work on the code after me will have a harder time understanding it in a larger perspective. If I am wrong, then I’m wasting my time on a solution that will not work and impact the architect’s perception of me.This, in turn, will make me more resentful.

• I work much more effectively when I’m bought in and excited. When I’m doing things out of obligation I do what’s necessary to get by. It is also more difficult and stressful on me, which directly affects my productivity.

• The architect will not trust me no matter what choice I make. If I do what he says slowly (because I’m coming from obligation) he’ll think I’m slow. If I don’t do what he says he won’t trust me at best and will consider me an obstacle at worst.

This scenario shows how sincerity (the architectʼs and later mine) affects ownership. I abdicated ownership in the scenario when I did work out of obligation. My perception of the architectʼs insincerity reduced my trust in him, and my actions will reduce his trust in me. All of this happened because I perceived a problem but did nothing to confront the issue or correct it. All of this happened in an environment where ʻarchitectsʼ hand down the law to ʻdevelopersʼ – an environment that leaders in the organization have created and maintained.

My part in it, even if I am a lowly developer, is that I have chosen to join such an organization, and I let my upset affect my work and did nothing to resolve it.

In all of these scenarios I have impeded my ability to learn and the ability of others to learn by not confronting the upset and working it out. The odds are good that if my architect reacts negatively and does not address my upset that the problem will fester and grow and continue to affect our ability to learn and thus our productivity.

AGILE METHODS EXACERBATE UPSETS

Now, as I said before, agile practices are especially good at bringing problems to the forefront because of the numerous inspect and adapt cycles. How we react to those problems, both individually and as a team, makes the difference between hyper-productivity and mediocrity. To that end, when we encounter a problem there are several fundamental, learnable skills that deeply affect our effectiveness as technical professionals in a team environment because they equally affect our ability to learn.

If the scenario above was on an agile project, my code would be quickly used by others and the problem would be brought up again and again no matter which route I took. This would have been likely to increase the animosity between the architect and myself. We might very well have ended up in a difficult confrontation that would have entrenched us in our positions because we saw each other as obstacles.

Or it may have been solved – if either of us were skilled in the human dynamics of regularly solving these types of problems. The teams that are successful with agile methods are the ones that have members who are adept at leveraging such problems for their benefit and that of their peers.

IMMEDIATE AND LASTING RESULTS BY PUTTING HUMAN DYNAMICS FIRST

Iʼve shown a typical scenario in which an upset impedes learning. However it does not have to be that way. Every upset is an opportunity to grow and learn, both individually and as a team. If I could solve the upset and take ownership of the problem I would keep from impeding my learning and that of the team. And if I could find a way of doing this myself – without having to rely on anyone else to change then it becomes feasible. Those are two pretty big IFs, but those are the skills that we must master to succeed. Those are the skills that will turn our losses into wins and make every problem an opportunity for success. Those are the skills that are more important than the technical agile practices.

Furthermore, it is not only the skills that matter, but when we use those skills. For example, I put the blame on my architect before asking how I had a hand in creating this upset. I put the solution to my upset squarely on the architectʼs shoulders since he is at fault for my problem. Now the only way to solve the upset is to change the architect and since I see him as incompetent anyway then Iʼll have an extremely hard time of doing so. So the first category of skills that we must address, before anything else, is working on ourselves. Can we take ownership of our own problems? Below are five categories of human dynamics skills that we must address in the proper order to reliably and repeatedly leverage our upsets for improvement:

  • SELF. By far, the easiest person to change is ourself. This is our greatest point of leverage in solving a problem. Instead of blaming the architect and starting down the road of either working out of obligation or doing my own thing, I should look at myself first. If I take ownership of the problem and see the architect as a team member and not stereotype him as an ivory tower architect I can prevent a vicious cycle.
  • CLARITY. When facing a problem we are often very aware of what we donʼt like about it. We are aware of the problem. But are we aware of what we want? I was very aware of what I did not want – I did not want the architect dismissing my ideas or looking down at me. But what did I want? It was clearly more than just presenting my solution. Feeling disrespected and undervalued had a large part in my upset and my actions moving forward.
  • ASKING. Once we are clear on what we want, chances are we havenʼt asked for it. The next step is to ask for what we want from others explicitly. I did not ask the architect for respect I just assumed he did not respect or value me and subsequently I lost respect for him.
  • AGREEMENT. Asking for something does not mean you will get it. Have we reached explicit agreement? If we let problems be, the best we can expect is that they will linger and many times they will fester and grow as they may with the example above.
  • CONFRONTING. Once we have asked and agreed upon something then it is appropriate to call someone on a missed agreement. Many of us are extremely uncomfortable with confrontation and are not skilled in doing so in a constructive manner.
    This means that many of us either shy away from confronting others or are so uncomfortable with confrontation that when we finally get the courage to do something we do so under great pressure.

The above categorization is an umbrella for a large set of human dynamics skills that are learnable and applicable to our day-to-day work. There are many models and discrete practices that fit under each of these categories that help us implement these actions. I would like you to remember that order matters. Before you call someone on something you believe they did wrong, go through steps 1 through 4 before executing step 5. How did you help create the problem? Are you clear on what you want? Have you asked for it? Did you get explicit agreement? Only then is it fair and proper to call someone on a missed agreement.

MEDIOCRITY HAPPENS ONE SMALL STEP AT A TIME

Beware that small upsets that go unaddressed build up. Agile methods can be painful and counter-productive if we donʼt address the upsets that come up frequently because of the cyclic nature of many of the agile practices. That in turn, impedes our learning little by little, which can slowly bring our progress down to a halt and put us in a situation worse than before we started adopting our agile method of choice. Since learning is the largest part of software development, we need to figure out how to learn from every upset instead of allowing upsets to slowly bring our productivity to a near halt.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions

 

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One response to “How To Be Mediocre Without Even Trying

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