image: Nirmal Purja Project Possible Ltd.

A bold statement…. so let me share my thinking with you. I am curious how this lines up with how you may be seeing things and how our differences could further shape the how of achieving exceptional agile performance.

  • <Everest Bass Camp to climbers >….. ” Hey guys. Morning to you. Have a good night ?”
  • <Climbers>  (slightly more breathy than usual) …..“Cold up here base camp but all good. Spirits are high!”
  • <Base camp> …. “How are things going ?”
  • “<Climbers>….. “Well we are at Base Camp 4, so 80% of the way there. Our RAG status is green. Based in our performance to date and looking at how other teams have made it, we should easily make it to the summit today! After all we aced the glacier! ”  
  • Base camp puts down the radio and proudly announces a summit to the world. Sponsors immediately spend the expected rewards.

The next day….

  • <Base camp> … “Morning team. We didn’t get the pics of everyone on the summit, what happened ?”
  • <Climbers > … “Well we didn’t realize the effect of the altitude, its taken a real toll on us and we all had to turn back, especially as our request for oxygen was rejected as being an unnecessary expense. We barely made it back to camp. It was really slow going and then the weather turned on us. “
  • <Base camp >…. ” Guys this is not on! You made a commitment ! You are professionals! We expect you to meet your commitments. This was what was agreed and planned.”

Sound familiar ? Well probably not because we aren’t sitting at Everest base camp or trying to summit the highest mountain in the world… or are we ?

There are so many parallels in this story. The one that pops out for me is the conversations. What we talk about matters! Now this isn’t what real summit teams talk about – which is itself interesting. Agile is based on regular, face to face conversations and the stand up is one of the agile mechanisms that support this. A stand up allows all the affected and interested parties to get the information they need to get things done and to make effective decisions. Its the place where we meet face to face and talk about what we are delivering. A quick side note – I am using the phrase stand up and not Daily Scrum for a reason – stand up’s happen at all levels, from squad to tribe to executive and can happen at any frequency – daily, 3 times a day, weekly or anything else that makes sense for the work that the team is delivering. How often, when and who depends on what is needed for the information to be provided timeously and not to be a blocker for the flow of work

A regular stand up is essential to creating alignment, flow and collaboration.

Yet it is one of the hardest agile practices to embed. The stand up easily gets bogged down in anti patterns !

As agilisits we lean into these anti-patterns  every day, with either no stand ups happening (at any level never mind the daily at squad level)  or stand ups happen but are quick and all about status. Oh wait, lets not forget stand ups that aren’t stand ups at all but are really project status meetings and we are still spending precious capacity and time on PowerPoint slide decks that get modified later by layer until they reach the top (now 3 handy slides instead of the 100 from 5 different sources). The old and familiar management by reporting.

All signs that we are stuck in old assumptions and thinking patterns about what it takes to get work delivered.

Why are “status” meetings non-agile and an issue ? Because the devil is in the detail

A catchy and perhaps overused phrase that – the devil is in the detail, but true none the less. When we talk about status, we loose the detail ! Anytime we have to talk about a status we are no longer talking about fact but instead we are talking about a generalisation, an average. Yes we are at 80% there and yes it sounds good that we only have 20% left but ….what is in that 20%?

Status conversations are by design past focused and not focused on what it will take to get us to complete. They aren’t forward focused. They don’t naturally look at how the work to come is different and so may in fact take longer than we expect.

Enter huge surprises stage left.

Generalisation is in itself Unilateral Control (which isn’t Agile)

In his book the Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwartz describes the unilateral mindset and its counter, mutual learning where collaboration and high performance is anchored on curiosity and a focus on testing assumptions and inferences (opinions) and understanding generalisations. An approach that feels like a strong agile mindset.

Why it Matters ? Seeing the system that generalisation creates – opinions & expectations

What we do creates the system/ culture that we live in. This system becomes self perpetuating (which may be one of the reasons why we struggle to get out of status conversations – our entire system is built on them). Let’s take a step back and look at what happens when we talk in generalisations :

(1) We create false expectations.

(2) We also create opinions

The false expectations aspect comes from not being able to see what is coming next clearly. When I tell you that my status is Green and we only have 20% of the work left I automatically am left with the impression that it will be simple and quick and jump to all sorts of conclusions which are obvious so I don’t clarify and confirm them (why would I ? They are obvious)

The other interesting consequence of a status conversations is that they are based on opinions. Think about that for a while as I suspect some people may be strongly reacting to this statement.

A status is a generalisation. A generalisation is an opinion. Now an opinion can be well informed by data and so useful. An opinion can also go the other way. Either way it is still an opinion and the thing about opinion is that they are personal! When anything becomes personal we are in a totally different game. We are strongly attached to our opinions. We live these as expressions of ourselves. Our opinions can easily become the value that we bring to a space and when these are ignored or denied we leave the door open for the killer of collaboration, defensiveness.

When someone has an opinion that they are attached to they start to defend that opinion and often fall into a strong, closed, non-changeable position which at bests distracts us from collaborating and focusing on how we can achieve the goal we agreed on and normally is the death of all of that because now no-one is remembering the whole point  – to deliver more value, more frequently with  more ease to our customer.

When we stop doing status updates and start focusing on the specifics we take bias out of the system because we are focusing on facts/ data that allows use to make better decisions that aren’t a personal judgement on anyone’s ability or value.

Pitfalls to avoid – Specifics doesn’t mean detail

Just a quick clarification, I am not saying that leaders need the detail! Being stuck in the detail creates something totally different that tends to disempower people and bog the system down in micro-management. I am talking about getting not aggregating or generalising and talking about blockers. Its about changing how we talk about our work so that our conversations support the flow of work. Flow depends on the ability of work to move through the system, so conversations that support delivery should be focused on how work is flowing or rather , where it isn’t flowing. When we do this we shift from opinions which turn things personal to facts.

Where to from here – becoming a better observer

If you had to create a slider bar for yourself, where would you be sitting ? In conversations that are based on opinion or conversations that are based on specifics ?

What is the actual impact of being too far on the left (opinion/ generalisation/ status conversations) ? What are the questions that you can start to ask yourself and your teams that will enable them to become better observers of the system and the impact of what they are doing and saying ?

Writing this has opened up a whole load of new possibilities and patterns for me, so I am wondering what has come up for you ? What anti-patterns have popped into the light ? What now becomes possible ?