Harness Change

Matt's Writings

Providing value through example, repetition, amplifying other's wisdom and very, very occasionally with a thought of my own

Momentum has a quality of its own

As an aside, but I share it because writing more is a goal and that requires writing...more.

Recently, I was excited to learn a new word that captured a quality with which I could immediately identify - "Profluence". 

Definition of profluence - a copious or smooth flowing

Newton's Second Law also applies to mental inertia.  You do more easily the things that you are already doing.  

A peril of introspection for me is that sometimes I think of something that resonates powerfully.  It excites me usually because it’s the feeling of something clicking, some abstract piece of understanding that I’ve managed to boil down to a concise, memorable and still useful way of integrating it into my thoughts.  It’s wonderful when that happens and I immediately want to share this little gem that I’ve unearthed.  

So, what’s the peril?  How could that be bad?

The peril is a common one - I am not my user.  The beautiful and succinct thing that I’ve made may include, or exclude context that is necessary for someone else to see the value in it.  If the mental hook for remembering this gem is hinged on a conversation that the other people didn’t have, or a works better because it includes a reference to a book or movie that was important to me (“A Jedi cares not for these things”) then it will likely fall flat for others that don’t share that context.  

How to manage it?  Consider your readers/users.  Unthinkingly relying on assumptions about what they know, want or need is the road to failure.  Knowingly using context is vital to success because it lets you take short-cuts in your explanation and if you use examples that are relevant and real then they’ll believe you understand their context and thus your gem will more likely be relevant and practical.

The catch is that the only way to avoid being unthinking is strive to be constantly questioning.  You'll always fall short but if you're regularly and routinely asking yourself "Yes, but how do I know this about my users", then you'll be more likely to ask it at the right time, or at least before it's too late.  So if you need to avoid assuming you already know what your users needs then you need to include that question in all the places that it should be, and you need to get good at discerning it.  The answer is cheap and immediate if you have evidence of your recent validation at hand because you're using it.

How does a Sprint Goal relate to my road trip to the Michigan Cherry Festival?

[ Note: I would thank Michael “GeePaw” Hill for many of the things he has written but notably right here for putting words to something that I was feeling. Something he wrote inspired me to include this: 

Against the backdrop of current events this kind of writing is not important. It’s not even the most important thing that I could have written. It was the thing that was next in my mind to write. Don’t let it distract or detract from the other more important issues, speeches, and writing happening now. 

Please take care of yourself and others, stay intolerant of injustice, stay angry with broken faith, and work on equality, when you can, how you can

Black lives matter. ]

Originally published Jul 14 · 7 min read 

A two lane highway with the word “START” painted on it fading into the distance under a slightly cloudy sky
For me, every moment of a road trip has a purpose. A road trip is about putting some friends in the car enjoying the trip at least as much as it is about enjoying the destination when you get there.
A few years ago I proposed a road trip to the Michigan Cherry Festival to a handful of friends. Everyone considered a forecast of the overall itinerary and some of the expected stops along the way, and everybody committed. We had a common vision that was sufficiently detailed that we could all comfortably commit the time and money for the trip.
The first day we wound up leaving later than planned so we had to jettison a couple of stops (some notable statues and the Sword In the Stone in Rochester) but we had a surprising amount of fun at the Jello museum and North America’s oldest mini-putt golf course.
The second leg of the day had some disappointments — for example, the poisonous plant exhibit at Cornell had been moved due to construction — but some upsides too — by consensus we all lingered over lunch at the Parkside Diner. But for me the definite winner for the day was NASA’s presentation at Kopernik Observatory.

I enjoy road trips because there is an explicit expectation of flexibility. If we see something along the way that we want to stop at — we can and will. If we had planned out the itinerary and followed it rigidly we would have had to ignore the value we discovered along the way. We wouldn’t have visited the Transportation Museum that we discovered was directly downstairs from the Jello Museum (“Did you come here for the Jello Museum or the Transportation Museum?”), and definitely would never have stopped at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

Obviously, everyone in the car needs to share this expectation. And we have to have a common sense of the extent of that freedom. We all agreed that we have to be home in a week to go back to work. 

We can manage the complexity of multiple constraints, including negotiating individual trade-offs and arriving at our final destination by having a shared vision, knowing the rigid constraints, having a shared decision making process and trust.

We handle complexity on the road trip just like a Scrum team

Multiple arrows all pointing to the word “Possibilities”
A Scrum team works in a very similar fashion. The Sprint Goal is a communications tool to allow people to make better decisions in response to the ongoing discovery of new information throughout the Sprint. It defines the inflexible piece of the puzzle and everything else is ultimately flexible.

Start by Communicating the Vision

The Product Owner communicates the overall vision (a road trip to the Cherry Festival in late May). The idea has enough expected value to devote planning time.

Within the Vision make a high level plan / sanity check

The Scrum Team elaborates this vision to include a series of expected high value opportunities along the way (a prospective itinerary for each day). This elaboration allows some preliminary sanity checks (our first version of the 5 day itinerary would have taken 9 days to complete, and included no time to actually eat meals).
Upon consideration of the options we decided on a 5 day trip. Remember, once we start we can still be flexible. Each day, and each stop — if we want to linger over lunch, or spend extra time at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology exhibit then we can huddle up and discuss which planned value we will discard in favour of an extra hour, or a different stop entirely.
Upon consideration of the options we decided on a 5 day trip. Remember, once we start we can still be flexible. Each day, and each stop — if we want to linger over lunch, or spend extra time at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology exhibit then we can huddle up and discuss which planned value we will discard in favour of an extra hour, or a different stop entirely.
The word “learning” on a street sign in the foreground with arrows pointing in several directions. The background is a busy metropolitan street.

Use the Sprint Goal and new information to recreate the shared plan as necessary or desired

As often as the Scrum team feels the need they can huddle and decide if they should follow the previous plan, or amend it to do something different. Everyone can contribute to the discussion of relative value and time and we emerge with a shared plan. Of course, at a minimum they do this at least once a day at the Daily Scrum.
A Sprint Goal provides a Scrum team a way to ensure that everyone knows what is flexible, and what is inflexible about the sprint they are within. The road trip example Sprint Goal is predicated by the most important thing we’re delivering that day. Each Sprint’s Goal would be different and each might be important to only some of the stakeholders. Kopernik Observatory was definitely the must do of the first day. We self-organized within our shared knowledge of the constraints.
On a road trip, or in a Scrum team, it is critical that the understanding of what is the most important part of the delivery be common across everyone involved. That understanding is the Sprint Goal. The Sprint Goal allows everyone to respond effectively in a complex situation (allowing a team to respond to previously unknown information when it arises). Otherwise you can only follow the plan, no matter what you learn.

Within the known constraints and using the discovered knowledge

The Scrum Guide says during the Sprint:
  • No changes are made that would endanger the Sprint Goal; 
  • Quality goals do not decrease; and,
  • Scope may be clarified and re-negotiated between the Product Owner and Development Team as more is learned.
Given the time we had (our Sprint length), we could forecast the stops that would deliver the highest value (forecasting during Sprint Planning what PBIs we would try to deliver) and make a shared Sprint Goal (attend the presentation at Kopernick Observatory and get to the hotel before 1:00 AM)

In summary, this is natural because it works

It works easily when we have the shared understanding we need. Otherwise somebody is a prisoner on the trip that everyone else is having.
We all work in this same way every day, we just don’t always recognize it in our daily work. Consider a family trip to the Zoo. The family may plan to do all of the exhibits at a small zoo and may take one look at a long queue to get one exhibit and decide that it is far better to just move onto the next one. We realize in the moment that following the plan is not going to achieve our desired goal, so we change the way that we achieve the goal in light of the new information. It’s just easier for the family because their Sprint Goal is simpler to communicate (have fun at the zoo and learn about animals) if they have to verbalize it at all.
The example works really well in other ways also!
  • It’s far, far easier to do when working with people who are well known to you. A long standing team can react seemingly effortlessly to new complexity because they have a deep knowledge of each other. A brand new team is learning that understanding on the fly. For example — the next road trip would require less justification up front to get me to commit.
  • Not creating or validating the definition of value with your stakeholders. Our trip included a stop at the statue exhibit at the gates of a Zoo. But didn’t include actually going *to* the Zoo. This caused some distress in folks who were really excited about zoos and assumed we would actually visit the Zoo. Sadly we didn’t get that feedback until our final Sprint Review and we could only include the new understanding of value in our next road trip.
  • Consider the ‘Definition of Done’ for a stop at the Zoo vs. for lunch at the Spiedie and Rib Pit.
  • Consider each stop as a Product Backlog Item (or User Story, if you prefer), with a planned cost (travel time), and a variable cost (lines to get in).
Questions or comments?
  • Twitter: M Grierson
  • LinkedIn: Matt on LinkedIn

End notes:

Yes, this was an actual road trip and not just a metaphor. Ask me about amusing anecdotes like “Putting out hot with fire”.
The places I mentioned, mostly from the first day:

How I know when someone is lying

[ Against the backdrop of current events this kind of writing is not important. It’s not even the most important thing that I could have written. It was the thing that was next in my mind to write. Don’t let it distract or detract from the other more important issues, speeches, and writing happening now.
Please take care of yourself and others, stay intolerant of injustice, stay angry with broken faith, and work on equality, when you can, how you can.
Black lives matter. ] 
[A finger touching on an icon for the world wide web, which is scattered among a lot of other icons]
The beauty of the internet is that everyone can share anything with potentially the entire planet. Sadly, not all of it is equally valuable.
My first bad ‘smell’ is when someone posts something to the Internet and uses absolute statements without any limits. Either they have the extremely rare gem of a universal truth, or they’re wrong. The only question is *how* wrong they are, not IF they are wrong.
An absolute statement is short, pithy, and it’s a great tool for grabbing attention and conveying the main intent of your information. However, by definition it lacks nuance. And the problem is that almost none of life’s interesting knowledge is simple.
So the more absolute a statement is, the more likely it is to be a lie.
I’ll say that again, differently:
The more rigidly absolute the statement is the more likely it is that I can find some set of conditions (place, time, etc.) where the statement is not true.
Gravity is a great example. It’s a seemingly constant force pulling us towards the earth. For most of human existence we could treat it as a constant and move on — Gravity is 9.81 meters per second squared. Period. But once we started launching satellites that understanding was no longer that simple. Gravity was still constant, but it changed depending on where we were.
So when someone posts something to the Internet and uses absolute statements without any limits I get suspicious. Either they have the rare gem of a universal truth, or they’re wrong. The only question is *how* wrong they are, not IF they are wrong.
There are some additional complications in practice.
First complication: we are all at different points on a large number of learning curves and we may be wrong about where we are in that journey. (See Dunning-Kruger)
Secondly, and tied to the first, most insights are context sensitive. Almost everyone on earth will quite confidently assert that gravity is a constant force pulling down, but astronauts will beg to differ, and physicists will answer “Well, generally…”. But until you learn what contexts break your new insight, you think it applies everywhere.
In order to properly understand the big picture, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.
― Xunzi (c.312 BC — c.230 BC, Chinese Confucian philosopher)
Third complication: People have motivations beyond the joy of sharing knowledge. There are many motivations for sharing your hard won insights. A few obvious ones are: the joyful feeling that comes from saving people from making the same mistake, to recognition from your peers, or even marketing yourself as ‘an expert’.
Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
― William Goldman, William Goldman: Four Screenplays
The trick then comes in trying to tell whether the wisdom you are getting from social media is gold (highly valuable, useful knowledge), useless (not applicable, mistaken) or suspect (marketing, influence garnering, etc.) or somewhere mixing proportions of all three.
Personally, I see many people using unqualified absolute statements like: “(Thing) is dead!”, or “(Thing) is always a waste of time!”
To me using unqualified absolute statements seems often * to be one of two things:
  • A very immature understanding (maybe the speaker only knows a small part of the truth)
  • Intentionally provoking people to comment for some hidden purpose (often so as to generate traffic for their personal brand)
* See Hanlon's and Occam's Razors, plus a dollop of Dunning-Krieger effect 

Hand drawn chalk illustration showing two heads (each lacking a piece of a puzzle) talking to share the missing pieces
The first use case is the reason that sharing knowledge should be done. It’s sharing your piece of the truth so that you can match it up with other people’s and together grow a greater understanding. I get into lots of those discussions that go like this:
X: “I hate Scrum because the Daily Scrum is a soul-killing status meeting”Me: “A badly run Daily Scrum can be an agonizing thing for everyone involved. One run well can be a powerfully enabling event for a development team. If you follow the Scrum Guide it should be a place where we guarantee that at least once a day the whole Development Team collaborates together on what they must do to achieve their Sprint Goal.
X: But in my organization managers keep co-opting the Daily Scrum and turning it into a status meeting. What can I do to stop that?
Me: Depending on your role in the organization you may need to take a variety of stances — Teacher, Mentor, Facilitator or Coach. First, try to empathize with them and find out why they are interested in status at all — what are they doing with that information? Educate them on the roles within Scrum and ideally how to get the information they need from the relevant Scrum event. Show the impact their choices are having….
The second use case is essentially a Howard Stern style ‘shock jock’ approach to posting. When people use absolute statements constantly they are mostly generating noise, not expanding knowledge. They may be gaming the metrics of ‘page views’ or ‘number of comments’ so that they look like a ‘thought leader’ or generate ad revenue.
They use sweeping statements and never qualify them. I typically also find that if I point out the situations where their absolute statement isn’t true that they aren’t interested. I assume then that their purpose isn’t to expand their view on the truth but some hidden purpose.
Not all absolute statements are bad. It’s a communication tool that is effective for its purpose. Not all people who use them are bad. Frustrated, despair filled people who are hoping for change use them all the time — probably partly to share knowledge that something isn’t working and cry for help.
Consider the title of this article “How I know when someone is lying”. I chose it in hopes that it would give you my main intent, catch your interest and that you’d click through. Then I explained it was within the context of “on the Internet”, and then that what I was going to share was one way to guess that people were saying something untrue.
This general rule is not true everywhere, but it is true enough, in enough places, that I share it with the world in hopes we can all more quickly identify the things that are truly valuable.
The value of a shared piece of wisdom rises with two factors: 
  • How much using it helps me 
  • How much of the time I can use it
The suggestion I’d like to leave you with is this:
As you go about your business distrust blanket assertions without evidence or limits.
Even adding “in my experience” changes an absolute statement from noise to an invitation to a conversation. Further, I’d suggest if you encounter someone who issues those statements all the time to either ignore them, or at least seek to understand their real motivation.
I’ve read some very interesting marketing white papers, but I need to bear in mind that their main purpose isn’t educating me.
To give you some good examples of carefully generalized yet usefully specific insights I will look at the domains of software development and product development. These domains are examples of complex work where there are untold ways to do that work and some ways are far better than others. Below are a few examples of generally applicable, useful insights you can review in your own time:
I would say that they do really well at conveying the most useful portions of some clearly excellent experiences. Some of these are more specific (software development, or even a software development practice) which lowers their possible value to anyone not doing that work but in my opinion these in particular have a high impact when used.
In closing, I’ll note that I find “Trust, but Test” as an approach gives me good value when reading Twitter. :)
Questions or comments?

Meet Them Where They Are

tl;dr Recently I took a course wherein I was given cause to consider the maturity of a Scrum Team, by role, at a granular level and I came away using the sharper focus in further conversations.

Recently Vesna (@V_Source) asked me to talk about one of my findings from a recent course. One of my ‘lessons learned’ from the course was a humbling reminder of the importance of “Meeting people where they are”, shaped through the lens of someone working with a Scrum Team. This was only one of the things that I took away, but it was one that I found myself able to apply immediately, so it was top of mind, and hence got Tweeted.

In the Professional Agile Leadership (PAL-E) course there is an exercise that makes you arrange a collection of behaviours into a grid. The rows are essentially ascending of maturity and the columns are the roles within a Scrum team and its environment. (http://roneringa.com/leading-scrum-teams-to-maturity/)

Like anything with or about people, there is some grey areas, some overlapping thoughts and behaviours, but the process of deciding if I agree with the proposed grid forced me to refine my thinking. I had to define my own unarticulated thoughts in order to know if I agreed.

Which influenced my answers in many of following exercises. I found myself being more conditional in my assessments. “If the team were at Level 1, then you might want to do…but if they were instead at Level 3, you might want to examine…”.

I know teams mature over time, and what that looks like, but it was enjoyable to be able to bring a more nuanced assessment to bear, and consider in a moment of meta-consideration why I might choose a course of action where I previously might have just done it without thinking.

What About “Meet Them Where They Are?”

I’ve long known that I can’t jump straight to the parts of Scrum that excite me when I’m working with a team. I remember trying to convey the cool parts of feedback loops and empirical systems to teams and individuals and it being very ineffective.

I realized then that I needed to tailor my language and concepts to the audience because they didn’t know the vocabulary and often felt they had no reason to invest the time to learn. My success went up dramatically if I could gain and use the awareness of their interests and overall knowledge level.

The impact of the time spent considering the very casual way that I’d previously been thinking about ‘maturity level’ was that I could imagine better nuanced delivery, with greater success.
The other interesting part of the exercise was Ron’s “Weakest Link”

The success of an entire team is determined by its least mature role. A Scrum team will only show the expected results on each level when all the roles are at least on the same level of maturity.
As an Agile Leader it is your responsibility to facilitate the growth of each role in a team in order to make the whole team grow.

Again, interesting in how it modulated the ways that I might consider in working with a team. But I’ll leave those thoughts for another day.