Agile Particle Collider

Take a particle from it’s box. Now take a few more from each of their boxes and collocate then into a single box.  They are at times bound to collide into one another.  The smaller the box, even more-so.  Now take a team of people and put them into a time-box.  To get any where the team needs to move in the same direction, coordinate, and establish some agreed upon destination all while making concerted effort to move. There is bound to be collision, and some will call this conflict.  What if instead it was merely agitation towards alignment – would the terminology make it any less opposing?  What about the state of the particle? Did it trust the particles around it? Did this particular particle not bond or perhaps was in a high energy state that made it very volatile, radioactive and cause some decay…

Assuming even none of these problems, and as part of an agile effort we have a loose collective of particles. I have seen two particles – or people argue and I had to interrupt them both with a laugh…  they were really agreeing with each other (quite vehemently) but neither paused to consider the context from which the point came.  The perspective individually allowed for both of them to be right… How?

Thinking and Communicating Context

Are we at the same perspective or level? – details, tasks, stories, epics, product, portfolio.  Maybe role, team,  program, organization, community.  Possibly impact, resources, scope, priority, knowledge, risk. What about minutes, hours, days, weeks, sprints, months, quarters, years?  The aforementioned argument had two different time contexts in mind.  Both had two quality concerns but one was for today, the other was for for the next several sprints.  It was a false dilemma that both their solutions would be mutually exclusive.  Check out a list of errors in logic sometime.   Poisoning the well, hasty generalization, shotgun argumentation and Nirvana fallacy are common enough.  Both people were absolutely so focused on delivering great software that they overlooked a few things that might have made their collaboration easier.

Needs Drives Behaviors.

I always like people.  There are some behaviors I don’t care for.  Some thinking can be changed… some can’t.  Is it responsive behavior, or deeply ingrained personality, – what level of thinking is it? At times I want to drive back to the motivation, and though I cannot always address it, if I understand what is going on, I am far less fearful and far more effective at suggesting and taking some course of action to make it better. At times this is my imperfect perspective at what is happening and why – but then I tend to over think things at several different angles.  Some movement forward is as important as the right direction. I look to myself to balance things gently, observe if they have gotten better or worse.

And In All This Communication – Did We Forget To LISTEN?

This is the other side of the coin.  There is a GREAT book by Mark Goulston called Just Listen. In it he also describes the various layers to our own mind.  From the reptilian, reflexive, primitive to the higher functioning and cognitive. Some times we are so bent on ourselves and proving a point that we forget the simple courtesy of allowing others to speak to their concerns. We loose the ability to influence others if we were to stop, shutdown, and disengage.  We also forfeit our own opportunity to grow.

When many people get together and have a passion to create the best software possible, they can always have collisions.

Mutual respect for everyone’s craft, expertise, and human being. By ‘being’ I mean our ability to learn and grow.  A human been, as one college professor liked to say, has assumed room temperature.  Allowing someone to grow by necessity includes a certain amount of forgiveness, of forgetting. Things and people moving at the speed of agile – need themselves to be dynamic, and would be unfair to hold them to a static view.  Just like for the organization – it is the rate of change we are measuring.  So in all of this we remember every once in a while to keep our heads up.  Heads down activity all the time does not always allow for continuous improvement or learning.  Taking the time to make the software, the tools, processes, team, or organization better.  There needs to be some balance in all of this.

When these are opportunities we should take hold of them.  Looking ‘oppositionally’ at each other across some problem chasm is never as effective as standing side by side – looking in the same direction and solving it together.  That latter achievement together will build trust, and allow us the chance to collaborate at a dozen different levels.

And at last – if you have to let off some steam – Find creative ways to wash over it.  I have known teams to use Rockem-Sockem robots, Fuzeball, paintball, or a lan party to get past something pent up and laugh.  Any interrupt to our communication is just another impediment to be gotten around and moved past.

The 7th Sense – A SeNsE oF HuMoR

cheshireYou walk into a conference room and there is absolutely something you didn’t expect.  An artifact from some one’s sense of humor.  Are you prone to get angry or does a smile break out?  Every so often I find myself getting into the details and weeds, or even a bit stuck because something is a little more difficult than first suspected.  We are working pretty hard, we are also trying to do the right thing – the right way.  Along that journey, are we sharing a great experience or are we just wearing ourselves and others down?  I’ve seen storming and norming take place within a team, again and again.  I’ve even seen direct competition.  What is difficult is aligning and focusing on some of the same goals, and even making the means to that end a shared one.  Just as ergonomics suggests we take a break now and again to remain healthy, we should remind ourselves to look up, and find something to smile Cheshire about every now and again; enjoying the work that we do, the value and service provided, the team around us.

Another Way to Communicate

Whether I have shared or listened to someone who has just surprised me with humor, There is an encoding and a decoding and a feedback loop which says I understand your message.  Laughter or even a subtle smile conveys a language all its own.   Not only do we establish trust, percieving something in a similar manner we are sharing analogies.   A speaker will often play off the audience not just to see if  you are paying attention, but that you understand the story or concepts that are being related in the same way.  Also, if you’ve laughed with someone, you may be far more likely to share, be open, direct and honest with them.

Tempo and Interrupt


Humor is often pulling from one context into another.  Something new.  It can stop us in our thoughts, or bring us to a new level of understanding or perspective.  Laughter,and the breathing pull us from a deep thought, or boredom and into a very active moment. The pace and pulse are quicker.  Edward Yourdon’s book Deathmarch, used the term to describe the massive effort needed by the people on the tail end of a release process.  The tempo never changed, there were no interrupts, no change of context, just endless work without reprieve.  It burned people out.  The reason we changed development frameworks was so that we would never experience this again. Being Agile means we should be able to change tempo, interrupt, and consider the impact to balance our appropriate response. Is our mental process able jump, skip, run, walk, and not just march to navigate the impediments on the proverbial mountainside?


Humor is often SURPRISING.  A different point of view is conveyed. This could be innovation.  Play is often a way to do this. There are companies that have ‘creative’ rooms and dedicated idea spaces.  Take a look at some companies like Epic System’s who have made a tree house conference room, or Google’s famous office slides.  These organizations clearly want to innovate, create and have fun while also working.  Often a fairly innocuous way to introduce new ideas is through a shared humor.  Whenever a coach, scrum master or team member shares this with us it is FAR more effective than constant criticism which often aligns people defensively against new ideas.  The ability to try, explore, and balance as appropriate should always be valued and cause us to remain open to doing something better.

Simply Laughter 

Characterize the communication for the team – Is a high percentage of their conversation about work and sprinkled with some fun and laughter… if so – congratulations.  Breathe, blink and look up from the flat screen and what you are doing. Have a rapport with the people around you. We are sharing, growing while problem solving some fairly complicated work.  I am not advocating any extreme, but as ever a balance.  All work and no play isn’t much of a balance.

AgendaI once asked a team what they wanted to do for a team outing.  I was not prepared and maybe a bit fearful of the answer. While I thought perhaps all of us might volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and build something together, -the team responded with paintball.  I am a great enabler, and I can honestly tell you, that although I had some trepidation – I have never witnessed from this group such acts of valor, aggression, nor laughed so hard in a very, very, long time. Though just like in our real work we show off our lumps and bruises – the fun can be unforgettable. I certainly learned a thing or two about everyone that day, sharing an experience with the team, and never forgot to thank someone who had surprised and ‘taught’ me something.  We are still focused on building software together, and we work pretty hard at it. That sense of humor is something that keeps us smiling while doing it.

Listen to understand rather than listening to respond

When a new team comes together, it’s interesting to watch the dynamics.  In my world, there are a lot of strong personalities.  Really smart people with great ideas and a desire to go beyond what’s expected.  It makes for some interesting forming.  The last team I set up had some great conversations about stories and, initially, I don’t think anyone heard them except for me.  I found myself saying things like  “A – What did you think of what B just said?” a LOT.  Prior to going into their first sprint, we had a retro.  Happily the team identified communication as their focus in their first sprint together.  They identified and agreed to actions:

  • Don’t wait to ask questions because everyone on the team will benefit from the answers.
  • If you don’t understand or agree, say so.
  • Listen to each other.

Listening to understand can be so difficult.  I know it can be for me.  It used to be impossible for me.  I was certain I knew exactly what someone’s point was and would have my brilliant response ready before they had even finished talking.  Generally, I would interrupt and impart my wisdom only to find out I missed the point entirely.  I conveyed something similar to the team once they had agreed on their actions and they modified that third bullet to what is now in the title.

I try to always remember this myself.  I’ve gotten better, but it will always be something I have to work on.  All this Agile transformation going on has my brain in overdrive, but I’m of no use to a team or anyone else if I’m not listening to understand.