I don’t know how many times during my years of agile coaching that I have been asked “What does a Scrum Master do?” Yes, the Scrum Master is responsible for effectively using the Scrum framework. Yes, they act as servant leaders for the team. But, what do they do?
We like to feed the birds in our yard, and I have an interest in photography. On Thanksgiving this year, we had our regular flock of sparrows flitting about. They would sit in the bushes, fly to the feeder, eat seeds, and then go back to the protection of the bushes. Because I had the day off, I chose to try to get some good photos of the birds. Of course, as soon as I stepped outside, the birds scattered. They were fearful of the intruder into their domain.
So, what does a photographer do? In this case, I sat. I waited. I counted to 200, slowly, to make sure I was not in a rush. I listened to the birds in the distance. I waited more. I was still, and calm. Eventually, a single bird landed nearby.
I continued to be still. Shortly after one felt safe with me sitting near their feeder, the others arrived.
They left the safety of the bushes to come near the feeder. Then, and only then did I slowly move my hands to the camera, and aim the camera at the birds, and begin to take photos.
The birds behaved as if I were not even there. A squirrel eventually walked along the top of the fence, joining the birds at the feeder.
A woodpecker and chickadees joined the sparrows. I kept shooting photos, making sure to not make sudden motions and scare the birds. All of the sudden, the birds scattered. Wings flapped as the birds took off in all directions.
Silently, and without warning, a coopers hawk flew through just above the bushes and landed in the black walnut tree. Coopers hawks prey on birds.
This experience got me to thinking about how we engage as agile coaches. Some folks love to rush in, waving their hands around telling the team to make changes. They correct mechanics of a Daily Scrum. They try to fix all the “non-agile” behaviors. A “coach” who does not create safety will alienate the team. A coach who does not wait will scare people from truly sharing their concerns. And, most importantly, the coach will miss the complexity of the local context.
If I had been moving around in the yard, trying to get the optimal angle for all the shots, I would have missed what was really going on. I never would have seen the hawk. This parallels experiences in coaching. Remember to be still, watch, listen. Try to notice everything that is happening. Take action when the time is right.
How do you get people to do what you want? Why not offer an incentive?
The root of the word “incentive” is “to charm” or “to chant.” Do you feel good when somebody is trying to “charm” you into doing something? I don’t. I feel like I’m being manipulated.
Instead of trying to charm people, try to move them. Or, put another way, motivate them. Don’t pull, push, or lure them along with incentives. Instead, move them emotionally. Foster a deep, profound connection between their labor and a greater purpose.
Remember, Incentives (charms) wear off; motivation lasts. Motivate people instead.
Every year I leave the Agile conference with a long list of books that I want to read. This year, I thought I’d publish my list. These books were either cited in conference talks or mentioned in hallway conversations. I’ll make updates throughout the week. Please feel free to add a comment and share the book(s) that you heard about this week. Here’s my list:
In Alan Padula’s session on Large Scale Agile Transformation, he shared a slide based on John Kotter’s book Leading Change. As with many things, it is hard to change an organization. Kotter provides a framework for that change.
Agile 2016 is upon us, so I thought I’d take a few moments to share some thoughts for getting the most out of the conference. I’m not going to replace the conference materials, but simply share some complementary perspective.
1. Get to “Popular Sessions” Early
Sessions will get full. If you really, really, really want to see a session, get there early. Just because you used the Sched app to express interest does not guarantee you a seat. Take personal responsibility for being there early.
Lyssa Adkins has facilitated some really rich sessions in the past. But, to make the session a great experience the session attendee count was limited. That left a lot of disappointed people who wanted to participate but were unable to get into the session.
Sometimes room participation is limited by fire code. Esther Derby has powerful insights, and lots of people who want to attend and participate in her sessions. Don’t plan to walk up 5 minutes after the session and expect to get in.
2. Don’t Complain if a Session is Full
The session limits are there to create a safe and valuable experience. Much like WIP limits support delivering value, session capacity helps participants get good value for the sessions. Be kind to the volunteer who might be telling you that the session is full. If they say the session is full, the session is full. Please thank them and go find another session.
3. Go to the “Undercards”
In boxing, the under-cards are the lesser known fighters. They can be really enjoyable to watch, for any number of reasons. Just as in boxing, some of the lesser known presenters are going to provide tremendous value, new insights, and new perspectives. When they’re famous, you can say “I saw them talk about ____ back at Agile 2016.
4. Check out the Experience Reports track
These sessions are by practitioners, sharing hard-earned wisdom. They have also gone to the effort to create a paper that corresponds to their talk. I suspect you’ll find that these sessions aren’t filled with untested theory. They’re likely to provide insight you might not find elsewhere. Despite not being “big name” folks, the quality of insight I’ve gotten from these session in the past has been quite high. These are 45 minute sessions, so can be rather quick and to the point. And, if you happen to find yourself in a session that’s not providing value for you, it will be over quickly!
5. Don’t Fret
There are a ton of sessions in each time slot. Don’t fret about finding the one perfect session. Pick from the many alternatives.
6. Practice Sustainable Pace
Give yourself permission to skip some sessions. For some folks, going from session-to-session non-stop for the week is too much. Feel free to skip sessions, relax, and perhaps bump into somebody new in the common areas of the conference. Some of the best insights I have had at past events have been from chance encounters and conversations.
7. Give Feedback
The speakers love feedback. In addition to perhaps filling out the official feedback forms, please consider talking with the presenter.
8. Purple Shirts Rock!
Last but not least: thank a volunteer! The fine folks in the purple shirts are there to help the conference run smoothly. Through the volunteer corp, we have quite a number of folks who travel internationally to be part of Agile 2016. They’re volunteering a lot of hours of their time to the conference. Please be kind, and thank them.
Imagine using Microsoft Excel to calculate your project’s budget. Now, imagine that you shared your file with another person and when they open it they get a different result than you did. How annoying would that be?
Or, imagine a scenario where you receive different answers from Excel that depended on the last application you had used? Use Photoshop and then Excel, get one answer. Look at your Outlook calendar and use Excel… get a different answer. That would be awful. If you were unaware that the tool was producing different results, you would likely continue to use it and be surprised when you got problematic results. If you did know that an application behaved this way I think it is safe to say that you would stop using it. A tool like that would be useless. Or would it?
Your brain can anchor its judgement, even when you are not aware that it is happening.
You see, our brains are such a tool. Different people can take the same set of inputs and come to completely different conclusions. Even more interestingly, the way our brains interpret new information can be profoundly influenced by other information that we have recently been exposed to. It’s possible that what is at work here is a cognitive bias called “anchoring.” Anchoring can cause your stakeholders to have unrealistic expectations, your team to have distorted estimates, and your teams to focus on the wrong things.
For this post, we will start with a short definition of anchoring, then share a classic example of anchoring. After that, there are a few examples from the world of software development. The examples will be followed by some research on the topic. Lastly, I’ll share a few ways you can try to combat anchoring.
What is Anchoring?
Anchoring is flaw in the way our brains process information. Our brains do not give equal weight to all the information it receives. We give preference to some information. Anchoring is the name given to the tendency to put too much weight on the first piece of data we receive. The mind attaches itself more strongly to the first piece of information, and doesn’t give equal consideration for all the later pieces of information it receives.
A Classic Example – Car Shopping
I was in search of a car for a teenage driver. While it might have been easier to find a car like the one from the movie Uncle Buck, we thought we’d spare him the embarrassment. Our quest became finding a car that was safe, mechanically sound, and ideally, a convertible. Oh, and we wanted to spend $2,500 or less. It wasn’t imperative that we stay with that budget, but it seemed that we ought be able to find a vehicle for that price. Thus, began our quest.
We scoured the Craigslist posts for weeks. There were many listings that were close to the criteria we were seeking, but the sellers’ “asking price” was higher than our budget. I’d use a couple reference web pages, including the Kelly Blue Book and the North American Dealer Association (NADA) page in an attempt to validate the asking price. Almost everybody was asking more than the industry sites indicated. Some were asking a lot more. But, we know you have to negotiate, right? No matter how much outside information I got, my mind kept telling me that the prospective seller would need a higher amount. They were asking for more. I was anchored on the initial ask, despite having data to indicate that the ask was inappropriately high. It is hard to treat the first price equally, even in light of later information.
Anchoring on Software Teams
The car shopping example is a classic example, but doesn’t directly relate to our professional lives, unless you sell cars for a living. While anchoring can lead you to pay too much for a car, the potential downside for technology teams are orders of magnitude bigger.
1. The Dreaded SWAG
Let’s say the big boss wants a set of features brought to market. From initial high-level discussions, the work seems to be pretty simple, an initial Scientific Wild-Ass Guess (SWAG) of three months comes up during a hallway conversation with a couple folks from the technology side of the business. Everybody gets excited about the new product, and dive in to scoping and planning the work.
As the details unfold, it becomes apparent that the work is more complex than initially envisioned. The team starts to understand that it will be harder to implement, and night not fit as smoothly with he existing application framework that is being used. It starts to feel big… really big. It starts to feel like the work is going to be three or four times as large as the SWAG Unfortunately, the initial estimate of three months is going to be weighted more heavily than all the new, refined, information. Sure, the business needs to figure out if it’s still worth the bigger price tag. And, because of anchoring effect, it will be very challenging to reset stakeholder expectations. That initial estimate will be remembered, and it will rear its ugly head for months to come, particularly as the work (most likely) continues to grow.
2. The Story Size
We estimate work on a regular basis. Many teams use story points for estimating the size of product backlog items There are many ways that assigning story points to backlog items. Some of the estimating methods are profoundly susceptible to anchoring. Here are two estimating patterns that create anchors when assigning story points:
A small fraction of the team estimates the work and then takes it to the team to review and update.
The whole team is involved in estimating the work, but as the work is being discussed, an initial number is voiced and then others are asked for their opinion.
If you do either of those techniques, please stop. No, seriously. Stop!
If you’re interested in learning much more about Story Points, please check out the Story Point articles that Mike Cohn makes available on Mountain Goat Software.
3. The Derailed Retrospective
Anchoring doesn’t just happen with numbers. Poorly structured, or worse yet, unstructured retrospectives can also get anchored.
There’s a common scenario for retrospectives where the team gets together to talk about what’s been happening. No structure, no facilitation. In scenarios like this, the first talker “wins” and skews the remainder of the retrospective. The first topic raised sets the frame for the meeting. The group just got anchored. In this scenario, there’s a really strong possibility that the first topic raised is not the most valuable one to talk about. It might be the most recent (another bias), or something emotionally safe to discuss, or somebody’s “pet” complaint, but it’s not likely to be the most important or valuable one.
What Does the Research Say?
It’s important to go beyond personal anecdote, so let’s take a foray into the research side. There has been a lot of research on cognitive bias. And, even with the research, there is a lot that is not understood. The field of bias continues to produce interesting results.
One study that is often cited is a 1974 publication called “Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. In a demonstration of anchoring bias, Tversky and Kahneman asked participants spun a wheel. The wheel would give participants either a high number or a low number. Later, participants were asked to estimate the number of African countries that participated in the United Nations. And, it turns out that the number the wheel provided had a very significant impact on the estimate provided by participants. If an estimate in such a condition of uncertainty can be influenced by the result from the spin of a wheel, how much more might we get influenced by the estimate of a colleague under conditions of uncertainty?
Combating Anchoring Bias
Now that we’ve seen some examples and dipped our toe in some research, let’s look at some ways to combat the anchoring bias.
Gain Specific Knowledge
When people have concrete knowledge of a subject, they are less likely influenced by the anchoring condition. For example, if you are an expert on Africa’s participation in the United Nations, you would likely know the percent of countries that participate in the UN. Thus, the expert would not get anchored on irrelevant data. But beware. While that is true that people with specific knowledge on the topic are less susceptible to anchoring, people still tend to view themselves as less prone to anchoring than the average person. These are the result of research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
So, the first mitigating strategy is to become more expert on the topic, thus giving you better information to work with.
Provide Multiple Explanations
When people fixate on a single outcome, they are prone to anchoring. An approach called “multiple-explanation” can help to de-bias the judgement. Let’s go back to one of our earlier scenarios where the project was estimated to take three months. One strategy to help de-bias the judgement would be to come up with explanations about scenarios by which the project was delivered in a much longer timeframe. For example, the work turned out to be complex, or needed to be highly scalable, or the team is distracted by the scores of other “top priorities” that the business puts on them. By going through the exercise of explaining a number of different scenarios and outcomes, the initial judgement can become less biased. For more on Multiple Explanation for Debiasing Judgment, read the research by Hirt and Markman.
Planning Poker – Show Your Cards
Anchoring, by definition, is over-weighting the first piece of information you receive. When estimating work, Planning Poker is specifically designed to withhold estimation until everybody who is estimating has formed their own opinion. Then, and only then, do all the estimates get exposed at the same time. It’s a subtle difference compared to what we discussed earlier regarding estimating. In that “anchored” scenario, a subset of people provided an estimate and asked for validation. In this scenario, it is all estimators sharing estimates at the same time. By revealing all estimates at once, anchoring is less likely.
Silent Writing for Retrospectives
The “first talker” scenario for retrospectives has a very simple alternative. Don’t start with talking! Instead, set a framework for the conversation and allow people to reflect for themselves, writing down their thoughts. Then, get people to share them. By allowing people to silently write their thoughts down, they aren’t as prone to the anchoring effect of the “first talker.”
Anchoring is insidious, and impacts our lives in many ways. While we may think we are not as prone to anchoring as the average person, we are. Simply being aware that anchoring is a bias is not enough to remove its influence on us. It is important to look for strategies and tactics that make anchoring less likely to bias our judgement. I hope the four strategies for debiasing stakeholder expectations, getting un-anchored estimates, and letting all voices get heard help your business and teams. I am interested in your feedback, so please leave a comment.
The development teams took a 30 minute break from creating games and participated in a yoga session that included focused breathing, stretching, and relaxation exercises. No special clothes were required, and no trip to a studio was needed. We used the chairs we had, in the space we were in. Just that short break to get moving left everybody feeling refreshed.
Afterward, Latasha and I were talking, and the question was posed: “Why do we push ourselves to the limits, and beyond?” It was during this exploration that Latasha mentioned “You’d be surprised how strong you feel when you’re not on the edge all the time.” That struck me as a very profound comment, and one whose applicability goes way beyond yoga and athletics.
Consider how many times software teams are pushed beyond “sustainable pace” to put features that have never been vetted by customers into production by date that is rather arbitrary. How does that make you feel?
How strong could you feel? Woo!
What would it look like of we backed away from that edge a bit, and took a different approach? How much stronger would people feel? How much better would employee engagement be? How much better would relationships between people in the company who are focused on technology be with those people who are focused on the financial, marketing, or product facets of the business?
The good news: we’re more connected in 2016 than ever. The bad news: we’re more connected in 2016 than ever. There’s an enormous amount of value in that connectivity, as well as an incredible threat to doing truly deep and meaningful work.
With all the connectivity that is designed to help us communicate and collaborate, the sheer number of interruptions that I experience can be astounding. There are new message notifications from Outlook, Yammer desktop notifications, Facebook and Twitter notifications, Lync, Slack, and Skype. That doesn’t even begin to count the distractions created by one’s own brain; thoughts of things I need to do, ideas for new projects and remembering that lingering chore at home. It’s time to tame the distraction beast! Here are some tips that I have implemented to improve focus. Hopefully they are helpful to you as well.
Have a goal
What does “done” look like? It’s easier to see something through to completion if you know what your goal is. Articulate the goal. Write it down. Focus on that goal and get it done.
But what if it’s not possible to finish the work in one sitting?
Set a Timer
When a task isn’t reasonable to complete in a single sitting, commit to working on it for a defined period of time. Set a timer for thirty minutes, and focus on the task until it goes off. Then, take a break.
This blog post has been a “draft” for a long time. I just set a 30 minute timer with the goal of clicking “Publish” before it expires!
Do not Disturb
Do Not Disturb
I hate to get in a state of flow and then have my thoughts completely disrupted by a tweet notification, a mention, or notification of a new e-mail arriving in my Inbox.
When you want to have some deep focus time, tame the desktop and phone notifications. On a Mac, click the little bullet-list icon on the top-right side, and drag the sidebar down until you see the “Do Not Disturb” notification. Turn it on. Don’t forget to set your mobile device to “Do Not Disturb” mode as well.
Drown out the Distractions
Free white noise app from TMSOFT
With open work spaces, the nearby conversations can be very distracting. Using headphones to play music is one way to drown out the discussion can be effective, I find myself getting distracted by the lyrics. Perhaps music that lacks lyrics works for you. I’ve discussed the use of listening to classical music with some colleagues, and while I find it helpful they can sometimes get caught up in the music.
Consider using a white noise app. The white noise can mask the sound of nearby conversations with fan noise, dishwasher, or airplane noises. My personal favorite is “air conditioner. The noise doesn’t have lyrics or a tune for your brain to latch onto. Some of the apps are free, so there’s nothing to lose by trying one.
You can even customize the light to fit your personality. I’ve found the a red flashing light worked best. It very much makes me think of an “on-air” light you see on TV or radio programs.
Clear the Home Screen
Even when the phone is in “do not disturb” mode, it can still grab my attention. Sometimes I want to look up a message, find a page in my internet history, or use the calculator app for some quick math. When I jump onto the iPhone I find the little red badges are a sirens song of distraction.
Take control of the badges your phone shows!
Turn off the unnecessary badges. Do you really need to know that there are 1,406 unread e-mail messages in your Inbox?
Clean the home screen. Minimize the apps on your first screen. Move the apps with badge notifications to the second screen. It’s not that hard to get to the second screen, and the notifications are no longer calling to you from the home screen. There’s a huge payoff to having Facebook, Twitter, and Clash of Chans notifications just one swipe away.
Banish Notifications from the Lock Screen. Unless it’s truly a vital notification, limit the notifications that buzz and light your phone when it’s not being used.
I hope those tips are helpful.
On a related note, just happened across a summary of the book “Deep Work.” The book is being released tomorrow. Some of the suggestions I have above are complimentary to those in the summary of Deep Work that can be found at the blog post How to Manage Your Time: 5 Secrets Backed by Research.
As always, if you have some additional ideas for taming distractions in our connected world, I’d love to hear them.
They claim to have a data-driven model that is both simple to understand, yet rich in meaning. Then the authors go on to state that “The optimal leadership profile above was created by asking 50,000 managers worldwide to describe the kind of leadership that, if it existed in their organization, would allow the organization to thrive in its current marketplace and into the future.” <Needle slides off the record.> What?!
I interpret that this way: the model is based on a bunch of managers imagining a good leader. I’ve seen plenty of managers who have some pretty odd opinions of what behavior would be beneficial to the organization. And, there’s some research to indicate that we’re pretty poor at imagining what we need. Lastly, organizations are complex, and this imaginary leader’s actions are bound to have unintended consequences. So, their methods seem very flawed.
‘d love to ask the authors, but their post doesn’t allow for public comments. I’d welcome your thoughts. I’ll probably go back and read it again when I have a fresher mind. How do you see it?
Are you frustrated with the performance of your team? Upset that they don’t follow the directions they’re given? Do you wish they’d just do what they’re supposed to?
Maybe the problem is not your team. Perhaps it’s that you expect them to follow. What if you, instead, worked with them to also be leaders? What if you changed the model from Leader-Follower to Leader-Leader?
I read Turn This Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. In this book, L. David Marquet, a retired U.S. Navy Captain, chronicles his experience of taking the crew of a nuclear submarine under his command from a Leader-Follower structure to what he calls Leader-Leader. As a result of this transition, the crew and their boat go from performing at the bottom of their class to performing at the top of their class. The story is told in a chronological fashion, sharing anecdotes that help you relate to the changes that are made.
As an Agile Coach, a few things in this book stood out to me, and I want to share them with you.
It Worked on a Nuclear Submarine
First, I often hear “Agile won’t work here because…” People often finish that phrase with some unique reason why the status quo of the organization cannot be changed to a different, less command-and-control structure, more humane organization. If there’s one place I could see a distribution of decision making authority not working, it would be on a nuclear submarine. Yet that turns out to not be the case. To read how Captain Marquet not only changed the culture, but also had massive improvements in performance, was quote enlightening.
Second, this book is actionable. This book is not just a story about the adventures of the submarine Santa Fe. The book is much more than a biography. Captain Marquet shares his philosophy, and the practices that allowed the Leader-Leader culture to take hold. There are a great number of practical “mechanisms” and “questions to consider” within each chapter. The mechanisms and questions provide a framework for taking the ideas of the author and applying them to your own situation.
Third, I appreciate the fact that the author makes it clear that he is not providing a recipe for others to follow. Too often I see organizations take a “Cookie Cutter” approach to agile and lose the reasoning or the philosophy behind the practice. These organizations ignore the local context of their teams and require blind adherence to a specific set of rituals, anticipating that it will bring about real change in the organization. Captain Marquet invites the reader to explore what Leader-Leader might look like for their individual context, and to make decisions that are appropriate for them.
Let me leave you with this suggestion
This would be a perfect book for a team of people at the same company to work through, sharing their reflections and insights.
The first one strikes me because it correctly points out that many people apply an industrial management approach to knowledge work. That’s a huge mistake.
“In our modern world, the most important work we do is cognitive; so, it’s not surprising that a structure developed for physical work isn’t optimal for intellectual work. People who are treated as followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers. As followers, they have limited decision-making authority and little incentive to give the utmost of their intellect, energy, and passion. Those who take orders usually run at half speed, underutilizing their imagination and initiative. While this doesn’t matter much for rowing a trireme, it’s everything for operating a nuclear-powered submarine.” Marquet, L. David (2013-05-16). Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ”
How often do we task teams with getting “the right information” to management so that they can make a decision. This approach turns that on its head:
“Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.” Marquet, L. David (2013-05-16). Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders (p. 49). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.”
In this quote, replace the word “Operators” with a role in your organization (e.g., software developers, consultants, project managers), and see how true it is for you:
“….emphasis on following the procedure can have a stultifying effect. We take bright operators, train them extensively, and then tell them that the most important thing is to follow the procedure.” Marquet, L. David (2013-05-16). Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders (p. 54). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And, the last one I want to share relates to top-down monitoring of people:
“Don’t preach and hope for ownership; implement mechanisms that actually give ownership. Eliminating the tickler did that for us. Eliminating top-down monitoring systems will do it for you. I’m not talking about eliminating data collection and measuring processes that simply report conditions without judgment. Those are important as they “make the invisible visible.” What you want to avoid are the systems whereby senior personnel are determining what junior personnel should be doing.” Marquet, L. David (2013-05-16). Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders (p. 98). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
There are many more profound insights, so go get the book and read it.