Early this week I was at a conference in Bangalore. Here is the experience for the day and my take away from it.
At the company guest house where I was staying, I was told that it would take an hour to reach the conference hotel. Since the registration was to start at 8:30 am, I decided to leave by 7:30. It was a pleasant surprise to be there in 35 minutes flat, probably because the traffic was thinner than normal. When I went to the registration area I noticed that the registration team was preparing and were ready by 8:15. Some people were already there and more kept walking in and patiently waited for the registrations to start. I did the same.
But coming from agile background I know the importance of managing queues and maintaining flow. Whereas here the registration team was ready and waiting for time to turn 8:30 and so were the attendees. It was a funny sight, as if an invisible wall was stopping the flow and building potentially lengthening queues behind it. I am sure from their past experience the organizers had good reasons to do so. But I started wondering what would happen if the barrier was removed and flow started. May be the conference hall was getting ready and people walking in would have disturbed the arrangements; maybe not. Those registering could wait either in registration area, or go up to the conference area but wait when they saw the conference hall door is closed. But at least there would be shorter queues at the registration.
At 9 am the conference started and first item on the agenda was a keynote by Joshua Kerievsky about modern agile. It was an excellent session and as I listened and came to know about the four guiding principles one by one, I couldn’t help but to see the experience of a few minutes before in this light.
First principle of modern agile is – Make People Awesome.
This includes both the customers and our own people. Here the attendees were the customers, and the registration team our people. Were either of them being awesome? Could they have been more awesome if neither of them had to wait even though they could start?
Second principle is – Experiment and Learn Rapidly.
Trying out something different would reveal early the potential problems of taking an alternate route. And if there were no major issues, it could become one more option for future.
Third principle is – Make Safety a Prerequisite
I think it was safe enough to try out a different way. The people involved would understand.
Fourth principle is – Deliver Value Continuously
Stopping our people from delivering value when they were in a position to do so interrupted the value flow
Just before lunch I took a session which was about how our opinions (assumptions + beliefs + values) shape our way of working, which in turn affects our decisions, actions, interactions, and even emotions. Naturally at the back of my mind was a thought whether the opinions of the people involved in the morning incident had anything to do with their way of working? And if so, can this happen in other parts of our life and work in a similar situation. The validation of this possibility came soon after.
At lunch I joined a group which were sharing their experiences about agile at work. As expected most of them were practicing Scrum. I popped in a question whether they sometimes start work on the stories of the next sprint if those are clear enough and developers have slack towards the end of current sprint? One person said they never are in that situation. So I asked if they were in that situation, would they do it. He thought for a moment and said “But Scrum doesn’t allow it”. It was probably his assumption, because to the best of knowledge the Scrum guide does not anywhere say so. My next question to the group was whether they would like to do it if allowed. Another person responded that it will create problem with measurements because there will be effort variance as well as uneven velocity from sprint to sprint. At this point the group dissolved as everybody was keen to have the desert before rushing back for the next session.
When I looked back over the day, I realized that we often tend to live in separate compartments and don’t take learning & insights from one compartment to the other. Morning incident was separate, the modern agile keynote was separate, my session was separate, and discussion over lunch was separate. How nice it would be if we allow the insights from one compartment flow smoothly to the others.
Once we understand what WoW is, next question that comes to our mind is where do we start? One simple way I have found quite useful is to separate facts from fiction (our opinions) by calling out what we think they are, followed by verifying them. For example.
I Know (fact) and ask ourselves (how do I know)
I (assume / believe / value) and ask why do I have (that opinion)
A real life scenario will make that clear.
Situation: Lack of self-organization
Team unable to take decisions though capable of taking
E.g. who will work on which task?
Team Member-1: Nobody told me which task to work on.
Q: Who is supposed to tell you?
A: I assume scrum master will tell.
Q: Why do you assume so?
A: I believe it is Scrum master’s responsibility.
Q: Have you asked her?
A: No, but I will check, and then ask the right person.
Team Member-2: I am new to this project.
Q: Did you ask other team members?
A: No. I know they also wait for the team leader to tell them what to work on.
Q: What if the team leader is not in office?
A: We wait till he comes.
Q: Don’t you think you could save time if team knew which items who should work on?
A: True. That is what we used to do in our previous project. Team leader would assign tasks in the agile tool.
Q: Have you suggested that in this project?
A: No, I believe this is the way this team works, so I should do the same.
Q: Would you like to suggest it to the team leader?
A: I assume he would not like a junior member of the team do so.
Q: Would you like to try it and see what happens?
A: That’s a good idea. If it works I will make a good impression on the team leader.
Team Leader: I am accountable for the results so can’t take any risk till the team matures.
Q: Do you know whether team is immature, or you are assuming it?
A: I know they are immature.
Q: How do you know?
A: I believe it takes years of experience to become mature, as I have.
Q: Do you think all those who have many more years of experience are more mature than you?
A: Of course not. I know quite a few who are not as good as me.
Q: So length of experience is not the only criteria for maturity?
A: Hmm, I guess so.
Q: How about allowing them to take some decisions which you think they are capable of? This may help them mature more quickly.
A: It may work, it may not. But too much is at stake because my promotion is being considered at present.
Q: So you value looking good more important than being effective?
A: When you put it that way, could be that is what is holding me back. On second thought, I think by helping the team become matured may actually help me show better performance and bag that promotion.
We can enroll our team members / peers to ask us such questions and in turn we can help them by asking such questions. After some time it becomes a habit and we start asking ourselves these questions.
As I am putting together the WoW framework and one of its early practitioners, let me share my perspectives and experiences while using it.
To begin with I started closely observing various situations I passed through during the day, starting right from the time I got up in the morning, and continuing till I went to sleep at night. Initially it was very difficult to be an observer, while simultaneously being intimately part of the reality that was unfolding. But by constantly reminding myself that I am also an observer, slowly I started getting it. It was a very different and interesting experience to be in two roles at the same time. But it was also motivating when I started seeing things I was blind to earlier.
I have always found “Why?” to be a very powerful question to reveal the hidden connections. I started doing that with everything I was observing. For example, when I found that I tend to repeat same behavior in a given situation again and again, I asked myself why possibly I may be doing so. After some time I realized that without my being aware, I seem to have decided to choose one of the many behavior options in that situation. Over time it had become a habit and I had even stopped thinking about it.
So next question was “Why did I do that?” Probably at that time it was a right choice. But I had never tried to look at it again to see whether it was still a valid choice. My mind just kept giving same instructions based on what had worked so far.
I noticed that what I observed with my actions also applied to my interactions with others. It was just a copy of earlier behavior in a similar situation. My mind had gone to sleep and was just mechanically repeating its instructions.
One day I had a startling experience. I met a person who had a great resemblance with someone I know well, and for some reason dislike him. Surprisingly I felt the same dislike for the person I had just met for the first time. Something in me established a non-existent connection and reproduced the same emotion. When it became clear what was happening, I could now keep it aside and deal with the new acquaintance without any bias. As it turned out, he was a nice person and we had a good relationship thereafter.
As I started understanding the decisions behind the actions & interactions, the next “Why” was about the decisions themselves? Soon it started becoming clear that our assumptions beliefs and values (which collectively I like to call as opinions), are the source of everything else. They are the key to understanding our visible behavior. Let me give a few real life examples.
Yesterday I had gone to a path lab to get blood reports. The sample was taken previous night. But yesterday evening I was told that the report is not yet received. Some waiting and further questioning revealed that the person at the report desk assumed it was yesterday’s sample and kept looking at reports for the day only, while it was lying there all along in another bunch of reports. Surprisingly even though I had mentioned it, the assumption that it was report for the same day was so strong that her mind had blocked out date of sample.
This example clearly shows the power of our assumptions. But even more interestingly it highlights the need to understand not just our ways of working, but also be watchful for others’ way of working that directly impacts us.
Another example that I come across again and again shows us the power of our beliefs. Majority of us believe that those who are senior to us and / or have more years of experience are more knowledgeable and mature. This belief is so strongly ingrained, especially with us Indians, that we never even question it though the stark reality sometimes is quite the opposite. Add to this the value attached to respecting the elders, and we have a deadly cocktail. I enjoy watching the TV serials for this same reason. They are a reflection of our social and cultural ethos. One such current serial on Sony TV recently had an episode where an elderly person behaved during a marriage ceremony which resulted in completely spoiling relationship between the two families. But not a word was said just because he could not be questioned being an elder. How unfortunate that we never even think of reviewing such beliefs and values.
It is so important to know our opinions, and see how they are influencing our decisions, which in turn lead to our repeated behaviors. Unless we do that there is no hope of having any permanent change for better. From time to time, we may decide to change our actions & interactions, but often they turn out to be like New Year resolutions. For a couple of days our enthusiasm will keep it going, but soon the old habits bring us back to square one.
I will keep coming back with more insights and more examples about the WoW approach for our life and work. Stay tuned.
I saw a news item yesterday about freight train movement between Mumbai and Delhi. It has only one stop at Vadodara in the total distance of around 1400 Km. The track ahead is kept free to ensure “Sustained pace”. This reminded me of my childhood days spent in a railway town. The primary mode of travel for us was the trains, and I still remember the poor goods train waiting patiently in a loop line while a mail train thundered by.
Over all these years, both the throughput and velocity of freight trains have substantially increased. The freight train mentioned in the news is two KM long and carries substantially greater weight from origin to destination. It also moves in an “Expedite” mode in preference to other trains. The terms sustained pace and expedite that came to my mind shifted my attention to agile software development, and I started thinking whether the way we use “Velocity” is correct. Isn’t size delivered per sprint a measure of throughput rather than velocity? I looked up the definition of velocity and found that it is “The rate and direction of the change in the position of an object”. It is closer to speed than throughput.
That shifted my attention back to trains. A passenger train which stops at every station and an express train stopping at only the major stations may carry more or less same number of passengers (throughput), but they cover the same distance in substantially different times (velocity). A passenger train might attain, for a brief period, speed similar to an express train. But its average speed is much lower because of, not only the waiting time at the stations, but more so because of the frequent acceleration and deceleration involved.
This explains why there is so much importance given in agile for a team to take up only a few items at a time, and take up additional items only when those in hand are fully “Done”. Unlike the trains which follow physical laws, agile teams made up of humans have an additional challenge. Once our attention is diverted to something else, it takes time and effort to switch it back to what we were doing earlier. In addition the information we used might have also become stale in the meantime. So if the agile teams want to achieve high velocity and maintain it, they should be aware and manage the number of items being worked on at a time.
I also remembered that when I was waiting in a passenger train for an express / mail train to pass, sometimes the wait was quite short while at other times it was considerably longer. This was because of the dependency on the time at which the higher priority train would pass. And we had no information when that would happen. Agile encourages transparency. A perfectly flat transparent glass allows a viewer to see on the other side very clearly. Similarly, all those involved in any work should have the information, without filtering or distortion, when they need it. Agile processes and tools provide high degree of transparency, and it is for us to make sure that it remains so.
Another way to minimize the harmful effects of dependency is with enhanced and effective collaboration. When cross-functional team members work on the same item, speed and quality with which it gets completed is phenomenal. Hand-offs are the worst enemy of velocity.
In earlier days, there were single tracks between two stations. This resulted in only unidirectional movement at a time. The other train had to wait at the station. Presently with parallel tracks in both directions this is not an issue. Hence in agile we should think of velocity (a vector) and not just speed (a scalar). Rework moves in the opposite direction to the normal work and slows it down considerably.
There is a saying “Words make the world”. We should not mix throughput and velocity or use one in place of another. Commonly used words package lot of information and meaning with it. More importantly, the words also package the emotions. A mere mention of such a word starts the train of thoughts and images associated with it, and recreates the emotions involved as if they are being experienced now. Wrongly using the velocity when we actually mean throughput deprives us of the immense benefits mentioned above that can make our work simpler and life easier.
Indore has a tradition of annual festival of Indian classical music, called “Sanghi Sangeet Sammelan”, which features high quality performances. Last night, we had a good fortune to experience violin concert by Dr. N. Rajam. Her daughter Sangeeta Shankar, and grand-daughter Ragini Shankar accompanied her. The three generations of musicians were performing together.
The performance started on dot. They started with raaga “Yaman”. Since the audience was quite familiar with Dr. Rajam having heard her before. But most of us were watching Sangeeta and Ragini for the first time, so Dr. Rajam introduced them and in the initial parts the three took turns so that the audience could have a good feel of each of them individually. Once we were familiar with playing style of all three, they kept reducing the duration between two change-overs from one to the other. Soon before we realized, all three were playing in unison. Sometimes, even one line of the lyric would be divided between the three and we would not notice it. The handover was so smooth and efficient that the the individuals were transcended and it gave a feeling as if a single person is playing. It was a great feeling and the audience just got focused on the music. It was also a pleasure to watch the players’ expression of joy as they were enjoying a perfect team work. It looked a completely self-organizing team; there was no indication of Dr. Rajam giving even silent instructions to the other two.
They were improvising as they went along and the audience loved it. The collective movement through the raaga was so smooth like a bird flying effortlessly, that there was no indication what-so-ever of a great musical discipline in place. In a classical music, even a small variation from the essential structure would be noticed immediately and frowned upon. It was a great combination of perfect self-discipline, engineering excellence and total freedom to try out different variations spontaneously. Can there be a better example of a perfectly agile team at work?
But the agility didn’t stop there. We had till then not noticed Himanshu Mahant who was accompanying them on Tabla so effectively. To bring our attention to him, Dr. Rajam played a short duet demonstrating how a great support person anticipates the needs of the team and responds correctly and appropriately. Both were enjoying the perfect co-ordination, as was quite visible on their faces.
Dr. Rajam was in complete control of the situation, but there was no attempt to command & control. There was no indication of any tension. Each one anticipated and respected others’ needs and responded accordingly; while enjoying being part of a great team. Dr. Rajam was not just a player but also the team leader, a coach and a mentor all rolled-in-one. There were no separate roles and job descriptions. Yet there was no confusion.
After a little over an hour, before we noticed the first raaga was over and there was a deafening applause, which just wouldn’t stop. The team had got their immediate feedback.
After a short Bhajan, it was 9 pm and interval was announced. But the agility didn’t stop even there. In spite of sitting through an intense performance for an hour and half, hardly anybody stirred from their seats. The organizers sensed the expectations of the audience and did a quick check. As the performers were collecting their instruments preparing to leave and the curtain was slowly closing, it stopped mid-way and the well-known well-respected announcer Sanjay Patel came to the stage requesting Dr. Rajam for continuation of another 30 minutes. After a quick exchange with other team members, she agreed. Here was a clear evidence all-around of value placed on “Respond to change over following a plan” of the agile manifesto.
Finally, after another 30 minutes of riveting performance, it was time for the interval. Here was a clear example of not just an agile team, but agile support, and rather of an agile eco-system. It was a great experience rarely seen even, in our domain of software development as it keeps struggling to be agile.
When we were leaving after the program, I remembered what Dr. Rajam had said while introducing her grand-daughter. She said that in their family, it is a common custom to hand-over a violin to a child when he / she reaches the age of three, and before it realizes how difficult it is to play violin, it has started playing with it. I wondered why we also couldn’t do something similar. How nice it would be if the software industry, rather than waiting for them to complete their education, involved students early enough in their school career and helped them create some simple but interesting software.
I grew up in a small railway town and our primary mode of travel outside was by train. As a small child, I enjoyed the illusion of movement when the train on the side track started moving, though our train was still very much stationary. This illusion persisted only as long as I was focused on the other train. However when I looked at the ground below, the reference changed and I was back to reality. With this new perspective, when I looked at the moving train I saw it moving and I was aware of our train being where it was. This was probably my first exposure to the theory of relativity 🙂
Recently after many years, this experience came back quite vividly to me when I was thinking of the years gone by and years ahead. Till I recalled this childhood experience, I had a feeling of rushing ahead in time, almost as if being driven by a force over which I had little or no control. But the moment I remembered the train illusion, suddenly another perspective came in view. I was very still in a thin slice of the time called “The present”, while observing and enjoying as new events and occurrences opened up in front of my eyes. It was like immense variety and never imagined beauty unfolding before my eyes. It was a totally different experience. I was fully alert & attentive, the feeling of helplessness had vanished and I felt completely at peace with myself.
Though the feeling at that moment was one of elation, due to it being a very different and totally new experience, another part of my mind was thinking that all experiences are not same, some are quite painful. But the very awareness of this contradiction also led to resolution of this conflict; as I realized that nature by itself is neutral and beautiful. It is only when we interact with it, the contradictions arise. How we handle these experiences is totally up to us; we have complete control over it if we choose to do so.
This was a great experience till I eventually got back, but somehow I was also changed forever. Really surprising how small memories from the distant past can give totally unexpected turn to one’s way of looking at the world and oneself.
Till a few months back I found guilt a strong motivator. It kept me reminding, almost nagging, for what in others’ opinion I had done wrong. Since this was an automatic reaction, with habit I felt guilt for what I thought others might think as my mistake, because in the past somebody else had thought so in similar circumstances.
This went on for years and got deeply ingrained, till one day I suddenly realized what a fool I was being. Everything became so clear. There was a much better way. This insight came from agile software development. Agile encourages one to learn from failures, decide on change required hereafter, plan the actions to execute and move on. This experience of treating failures as opportunities to improve had a very positive feeling. It was a much better and stronger motivation. I no longer needed guilt. It was sapping my energy and taking me away from reality.
Thereafter, I seriously put it in practice. Initially it was not easy, but successes with this different approach kept me on track. Now it has become a second nature. There is no time for guilt.
Now when I watch others go through the guilt cycle, sometimes I am amused but mostly sad. It is such a waste of time & energy. But it is also so tough to communicate this by explaining till the other person is ready to try it out. If you still feel guilty just try it out; it is a wonderful experience.
There is a captivating TV serial called “Satyamev Jayate” presented by the Bollywood actor Amir Khan. Though just a couple of weeks old, it has gripped the audiences across India.
In last week’s episode on child abuse, Amir made a statement which according to me is very important; not just in the context of the topic of the episode, but also the way we view our seniors and elders. He said “Don’t respect elders for their age but their behavior”. This approach can be applied to all cases where we automatically accept whatever is said or advised by those higher than us in hierarchy status or of course age. This blind faith has great risks associated with it and for this there is nobody to blame but ourselves.
When a person has worked in some areas for many years or he has seen and faced lot of different situations, he is likely to be specialized in certain areas. But that does not automatically make him SUPERIOR in every respect. We should interact with him, take benefit of his experience but need not feel that we are in any way inferior. In yesterday’s episode on marriages and dowry, he made an interesting suggestion “When first time a demand is made for dowry, refuse it; else there is no end to the greed”. This is true for all wrong doing we notice. We think it is just an exception and let it go, but how often do we nip it in the bud?
Just imagine how much human potential will be unleashed if majority of us are able to adopt these suggestions in our day to day practice.
There is a building next to our office which is currently being demolished to be rebuilt fresh into something else. It used to be a lively place as one of my client’s office, which I had visited often more than a decade back in my previous avatar as a one-man software development organization. Almost every day, I have been gazing at it nostalgically remembering my experiences in different rooms as one by one they keep coming down. I see the old structures vanishing and the freedom locked within being released with immense new possibilities emerging. By now, all the old structures are gone and the place is in a state of almost complete freedom, except for the boundary walls. The whole experience reminds me of my favorite concept of structured freedom.
In the absence of any structure the total freedom is useless, as you can’t do anything with it. The people who inhabited the building needed the structures to enjoy their freedom. They could work safely because of the walls. They didn’t have to stand the whole day because there were comfortable chairs. They were not sweating in summer because there were air-conditioners. They could see things clearly because of comfortable lighting with all its wiring with fittings & fixtures. In short, all those structures helped them to go about their work and not be bothered with the inconveniences. Structures are good – they help us. But do they also sometimes come in the way of our freedom?
One day during my visit, I had noticed that they were shifting their accounts section to another room because they needed the current space for expanding the testing facility for the engineers. But the new place available for the accounts guys was comparatively small and I could see the unhappiness on their faces. The engineers of course were happy and so was the management because the dispatches would now go up.
The chairs & other accessories could be easily moved around because they are flexible structures. Same thing could not be done with walls because they are rigid and to change them you need to break them.
This was the case with the physical structures, but the management had also to deal with the mental structures. Some of those who had to move out adjusted quickly while others kept nursing the wounded ego. The management had to deal with soft versus hard structures and choose a strategy suitable for each type. This was an interesting case study in retrospect.
Now my mind was back in the present. On one hand I was sorry for something that was brick by brick going away forever. On the other, I was excited by the brand new structures I would get a chance to see soon. But that is what life really is about, isn’t it?
Recently I read an article “The government is not above the rule of law” by Gurucharan Das in The Times of India. Mr. Das was CEO of Procter & Gamble India and later Managing Director, Procter & Gamble Worldwide (Strategic Planning). Now he is a full time writer.
A few sentences from the article attracted my attention. I realized that if a few terms are replaced as applicable in the context of an organization instead of the country, it provides an interesting perspective about the organizational policies. Here is how,
Original from the article: Citizens look to the state to reduce uncertainty in their lives. The state does this through a robust set of laws. The rule of law is based on a moral consensus, expressed daily in the ‘habits of the heart’. People obey the law not only because they fear the punishment but because they think it is fair and it becomes a habit and a form of self-restraint.
After replacement: Employees look to the management to reduce uncertainty in their lives. The management does this through a robust set of policies. These policies are based on a moral consensus, expressed daily in the ‘habits of the heart’. Employees adhere to the policies not only because they fear the punishment but because they think it is fair and it becomes a habit and a form of self-restraint.
See if it makes sense.