Monthly Archives: August 2011


This morning I asked my partner what they were doing today.

“I’m taking my son to get new school shoes but it clashes with something else. It will be a pain”

“When does he start back to school?”

“Next Thursday. We have plans for the weekend and I’m working Monday and Tuesday. I could get the shoes on Wednesday but if I have a problem, it will not be possible.”

Next Wednesday is the last IRRESPONSIBLE moment to get the shoes. If anything goes wrong it won’t be possible to recover in time.

Today is the last RESPONSIBLE moment. If something goes wrong, we can sort it out at the weekend.

Unfortunately many people think the last IRRESPONSIBLE moment is the last RESPONSIBLE moment.

The last responsible moment has options.

The last irresponsible moment does not have options.

Risk of Cultural Misunderstanding.

First an apology to George Dinwiddie for misunderstanding his recent post and for misspelling his name.

My latest post was a major fail. I had read George Dinwiddie’s post and assumed that George was calling out Yogi Berra for complaining about the Agile20xx conferences. I had assumed that because I did not know who Yogi Berra was that he was someone who had complained about the conference. I did not realise that Yogi Berra is a famous baseball player. A simple google search would have revealed the truth.

Changing Yogi from a normal person to a famous sports star totally changes the tone of George’s post.

So the risk this incident has reminded me of is that I don’t understand something even when I think I do. How often do we skip over some of the details in an article when those details may totally change the context and or tone. I should make sure I know what I read and check anything I do not know, otherwise there is the risk the bits I do not know will trip me up.

I am reminded of the quote by George Bernard Shaw* that the English and Americans are “Two peoples separated by a common language”

*GBS – English playwright who wrote Pygmalion and funded a phonetic alphabet. A major fan of accents and dialects who could tell which town or even street a person was from based on their accent.

Complaints should be encouraged and listened to.

The main thesis of the “Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayten Christensen is that products lose market share because they focus on the needs of the majority and ignore features of a product that allow a lower performing product in the main criteria to dominate the market. Ignoring complaints is way to miss these new features.

A significant risk that organizations run is that they ignore some of their customers simply because they are complaining. Rather than try to understand the complaints, they dismiss the complaints as an annoyance. George Dinwiddie’s blog is a classic example of this. He had a great time at Agile2011 but was saddened that people complained about the conference, especially people who had not attended.

George paraphrased Yogi Berra’s tweets.

“Nobody goes to the Agile Conference anymore. It’s too crowded.”

From a learning organization’s perspective, Yogi’s tweet is gold dust. Yogi has expressed what many people have not. An organization that ignores complaints is missing a major opportunity to improve.

I was lucky enough to attend the first two Agile Development Conference’s in Salt Lake City. I was the only attendee from the ThoughtWork’s London office at the first but I had such a great time that almost twenty people from the office presented at the second. I skipped Denver but was dragged back to Minneapolis (Agile2006). I was shocked and dismayed. Something was wrong. It was large and impersonal. Large groups were attending from companies and not engaging with the “Community”.

My earliest memory discussing the size issue was a discussion with Rachel Davies at the eXtreme Tuesday Club. David Hussman had just resigned as Conference Chair for Agile2008 and the Agile Alliance Board were looking for ideas to address the size issue. I suggested co-locating smaller conferences,  splitting the conference based on experience. Rachel adapted the idea and created the idea of stages. For me, the value of Agile has been having all disciplines in the room which the stages discourages. The size of the conference was an issue then. Yogi’s tweets indicate that it is still a problem that needs to be addressed.

Another attempt to make the conference smaller was the Fresher’s Fayre at Agile2009 in Chicago. Unfortunately the organizers for Agile2009 placed the needs of the sponsors above the needs of the attendees. The ice breaker which was previously an opportunity for people to meet became a trade fayre with the emphasis once again on selling rather than learning or building community. There hasn’t been a fresher’s fayre at subsequent conferences. I think the organizers have given up on the scale issue.

Bob Martin recently said that he did not forsee the loss of technical emphasis when he sold the XP Universe conference to the Agile Alliance. Bob feels that the Agile20xx conference is now a management conference rather than a technical conference. As a manager I would disagree. The Agile20xx conference is for coaches and people selling Agile. There is no grand conspiracy, it just represents the interests of the people who keep turning up to organize it. Agile20xx can ignore Bob or they can work to encourage more technical material. I was conference chair for XPDay last year. A few people mentioned that there was not enough technical material. My initial reaction was that this is an open space and people can talk about what they want. I was wrong because it takes time to prepare and organise technical sessions. This year, we will have an open space and two tracks, one of which is a technical track. We listened to a few complaints and adapted.

The Agile Alliance can continue to bury its head in the sand and ignore complaints by Yogi Barra, Bob Martin and others. Alternatively they can listen to the complaints and try to do something about them. My hope is that they start to pay attention to the complaints before they lose all of their attendees to smaller regional conferences and break away communities like Lean and the Software Craftsmanship.

I’d rather be wrong than be right.

I recently quoted Andy Palmer‘s mantra “Strong Opinion’s, Weakly held” (Note – Andy does not claim to have invented it, he’s just the guy who told it to me). He introduced me to the idea following an evening at XTC. At XTC, people engage in passionate debates and quite often they will switch sides and continue arguing with an equal amount of passion when they learn new information about something. As Andy rightly said, some XTC members have strong opinions that are weakly held.

If you observe the general behaviour of people, they would rather be right rather than wrong. Think of the number of arguments that ensue when someone says something and someone else disagrees. Even when faced with incontravercial evidence they will stick to their guns rather than admit that they are wrong. They have to win an argument.

I have a different perspective. Everytime I lose an argument, I learn. Everytime I win an argument, I do NOT learn anything new. There are two reasons I might “win”. Either I know more than the other person OR I fail to understand them. Whenever I’m winning an argument I know that I’m missing the opportunity to learn. Even if I’m just missing the opportunity to understand why someone has an different opinion.

Feature Injection is based on the idea that we cannot prove a model right, we can only prove it wrong by finding examples that do not fit, examples that “Break the Model”. Feature Injection’s “Break the Model” not only applies to IT Business Analysis, it can be used for other stuff as a way to structure learning.

We all have our own model of reality. Our model acts as a filter of perception. Often in strange and wonderful ways. Our filter might make us avoid certain people because “They are not our sort of people”. We may avoid a place because we do not like the smell, the sound, the lighting or the “vibe” (Vibe is a kinesthetic word 😉 ). It simply our filter taking us from somewhere we do not like. Unfortunately our “filter of perception” which is based on our “model of reality” can be our greatest barrier to learning. The filters will either prevent us from seeing new things, or they can distort reality to fit with our “model of reality”. Firstly, we should be aware of those filters and learn to use them to guide us to places where we might learn. These places might be more risky than we are used to. Cognitive filters which affect groups/communities as well as individuals, a phenomena affecting the whole of London at the moment as we try to make sense of the riots.

If I express my opinion in a weak way that is unlikely to offend, I am unlikely to get a response. As a result I am unlikely to proven wrong, and I am unlikely to break my model of reality (learn).

If I expess my opinion strongly I am more likely to evoke a response. I am more likely to be challenged. I may  lose the argument… and learn as a result. And normally I have a new mentor who I follow in life.

A trick I engage in is to make my statement offensive in a grandiose manner. “Every one in the world thinks Kanban is better than Scrum”. That would certainly get the ranting going. The reality is that everyone in the world knows that Scrum and Kanban are complimentary tools…. It is like saying a hammer is better than a screw driver. We are not always that aware though.

A final thought.

You will learn most from those who disagree with you the most.

Several years ago, at an end of conference party, I heard someone say  “Bah, This BDD malarky is rubbish”*. What ensued was a passionate argument that lasted from 2 am to 5am. What I really learned is that I liked the person I had the argument with. They are now a good friend. I could have simply said “I do not like his opinion” and avoided having my “model of reality” challenged.

There are some people I do not like arguing with. Those are the types who have “Strong opinion, strongly held”. They refuse to give up on an idea if when the have information that “Breaks their Model”.

Next time you hear someone who says something you disagree with. Don’t ignore them. Go and have an argument and a coffee/beer with them. You never know, you might learn something.

* I have no idea what was really said. I was far too drunk.

Its not enough to listen, you have to give feedback.

Story 1

Many years ago I attended a conference. It was my first and I got really excited (as we all do our first time). I got to meet a number of the people who wrote the books I’d been reading for the last year or so. I talked a lot. I talked a hell of a lot in fact. Probably too much. Definitely too much. A few months after the conference I heard that one of the authors was meeting up with a friend of mine. I asked my friend if I could join them. He asked and I was politely rebuffed. “He’s the guy who does not listen” was the feedback I received.

At the next conference I made sure people knew I was listening. I adopted a number of techniques.

  • I shut up.
  • I looked at the speaker, focusing on them as if they were the only person in the room.
  • I maintained eye contact.
  • I nodded, and gasped and shook my head as appropriate.
  • I left a pause after anyone spoke before I said anything.
  • I asked clarifying questions about what they had said.

At the end of the conference the author said of me “This guy does full face listening.”

Was I listening more? Nope. I listened just as much as I had before. The difference was I let people know I was listening.

Much of my career has been spent on the trading floors of Investment Banks. These can be quiet or they can erupt into noise and activity. You get used to talking and listening at the same time. Even though you are talking, you are allways listening as well. As a result, I’m often listening to someone even it appears that I am not.

People assumed that I wasn’t listening when in fact I was. Their perception was just as important as whether I was listening or not. They needed the feedback that I was listening.

Listening is about focus. Some people need to know you are focused on what they are saying, otherwise they do not think you are listening.  I know someone who does not think you are listening unless they have eye contact with you.

Story 2

Many, many years ago when I was studying for my first degree I remember having a conversation with one of my lecturers. For some reason he recounted the tale of another student.

There had once been a student who turned up for every lecture and sat at the back just sitting there. Whilst all of the other students copied do the notes on the board, the student just sat there. Doing nothing. The lecturer had discussed the student with other professors who had the same experience with the student. They all concluded that the student was a failure. The lecturer decided to speak to the student about it.

The lecturer had a surprise.

The student explained that they could not listen and write at the same time. So they listened to the lectures and then went home and wrote their own notes based on the lecture. This was at odds with the way most students worked. Most students wrote down everything the lecturer wrote on the board and ignored what they were saying.

It turned out the student wasn’t a failure after all.

Communication is very important on any project. If we do not let people know we have heard their voice, they may assume that we have not been listening. Some times we may wish to engage in some behaviour that gives people feedback to indicate that we are listening.

We should be careful that we do not assume that people…

  • know you are listening.
  • are not listening.
  • are listening.