I did not say slow down to speed up later

A while ago now, I was listening to a great presentation by Pat Reed, who is an excellent agile coach.

(Editor’s note – if you are interested, you can learn more about Pat by watching this video, which is one of a series of interviews with women who have had a big impact on the agile world). Anyway, back to my story.

The presentation was going very well until Pat said “I think one of the greatest challenges for this organization will be to convince our teams to be willing to do less.”

People nodded, but Pat paused for effect. When she paused, someone wanted to clarify her point and said “you mean that we should do more with less.”

Pat said no. She actually meant to just do less.

This was more controversial than it sounds because external consultants had reviewed the organization 12 months earlier and reported that they would not achieve their ambitious goals at the pace they were going at. In fact, a key reason for them going on a journey to be more agile was to remove the impediments that were holding them back.

Saying that the organisation was paying us agile consultants a chunk of money to result in them doing less work was a little different to what people thought the goal was.

I spoke to people and they agreed that teams were not really working at a sustainable pace, but they were hoping that once things became more agile the teams would be able to move at that pace, or maybe slow down when the pressure was off.

If you are busy today, what makes you think you will have more time tomorrow?

My Grandmother – Expert in common sense

My grandmother was a also a wise woman and she would often tell me to focus on what I should be doing today and not leave important or difficult things for later. I would tell her that I was really busy and didn’t have time. She would then ask me why tomorrow would be easier than today and I would get annoyed. I never came up with a good answer to the question, other than to concede and focus on finishing things today.

Having said that though, tomorrow can, and should, be easier than today.

For me, a core concept of Kanban is that tomorrow can get easier, IF we direct our attention to what is impeding us today. If we make things visible and then remove impediments every day, then tomorrow it will be easier to get things done and hence we should be able to get more done without working harder.

If nothing ever changes, then nothing ever changes

Mark Dasco – Technical Philosopher

Of course, the assumption inherent in Kanban is that you make the right things visible and you act to remove the most important impediments first.

You can make it more complicated by telling people that they need to limit their WIP and Whip their limits and call on the spirits of Kaizen to cleanse their systems. Or alternatively, you can just ask “What sucks when we do our work?” and then focus on getting rid of what sucks.

Either way, increased attention on the challenges you face and gradual improvement through taking action does mean that life gets better over time.

However, I don’t think that is what Pat meant. She has another saying that has stuck with me since the first time I she said it:

It is what we choose not to do, that gives us the time and the energy to do what we really want to do

Pat Reed – Agile Guru

If we reduce WIP and practice Kaizen we can get more done though having less impediments and distractions, but there is another step inherent in what Pat said in that presentation.

Rather than being more effecient, just abandon the less important things. Don’t get to them at all.

Actually though, there is another point here, it is not about finishing one thing before starting another, it is about planning to never start the “another thing”.

In other words, if we focus our energy on what really matters, then we will get better outcomes than if we focus our energy on maximising the amount of things we get done, regardless of whether we reduce the impediments we face.

Freeing ourselves from the burden of worrying about the second most important thing (or the tenth) frees us to not only get the most important thing but to still have energy left for what ever else comes our way.

So life will be better because we have more energy for the adventures we are going to go on, as well as the fact that we hit our most important goal.

At least, that is what I think Pat was saying.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

George Bernard Shaw – Philosopher

One challenge that I think we all face as coaches and leaders is that we naturally have a habit of hearing what we expect to hear, not what is really being said.

As a result, one of the key things to learn as agile coaches is to actually listen to people and validate our understanding rather than trying to convince people to change their ways.

I find when I really focus on what people are saying, more often than not, they already have the answers to how we should move forward.

A lot of my success as an agile coach has come from listening to the team uncover their own solutions rather than the “Shu-Ha-Ri” approach of bringing them the knowledge that they need in order to do a better job. I am actually quite proud of my record of letting people solve their own problems while I travel with them.

Having said all that though, here is a case where I thought I was listening, but somehow was not. I was also confident that the crew understood and even agreed with what I was saying, when maybe in fact they were not.

I said to some good coders that we should slow down a bit to move faster.

They nodded at my sage words and then started doing some good things like focusing on technical quality and knowledge sharing.

I was quite happy until one of them asked when we would start to go faster recently. I told them to reflect on the inner mojo of their coding and all would be well, but they ignored my distractions and asked again when we would reap the benefits of the work we had don.

We dug a little deeper into our previous conversation and found that we seemed to be talking earnestly, but actually participating in two different discussions while we were talking – I was in one conversation with myself and they were in a different conversation. Here is a summary of what occurred at the critical moment.

We need to slow down to move faster

James King – as the words appeared in his head

We need to slow down now in order to move faster later

James King – as others heard him

The people I was speaking to were assuming that I meant we should slow down now by focusing in fixing technical debt, training some people and changing our processes.

The effort of implementing the change today would inevitably slow us down in the short term. The payoff would be that, having made these improvements, we would be able to go faster later. These sound like wise words and the plan is a good one based on sound Kaizen principles.

Unfortunately, it is not what I meant. There was not “now” or “later” for me, just slowing down.

I meant that if we slow down permanently, to take a moment longer to be curious or to act without detailed planning and evaluation, then we will notice more things as we go.

If we also take some time out to reflect on what we are doing, then the combination of noticing more things and having more time to reflect on them, will allow us to find answers to questions that would have eluded us if we were frantically busy.

I literally meant we should slow down … to stay slowed down. In hindsight, sounds a little different to “slow down to speed up” wording that I used.

My theory is that if we slow down a little, it will free us up to be more aware of what is going on, meaning that better solutions will reveal themselves to us and big problems will resolve themselves. I don’t mean that if we take longer to evaluate things in more detail, then we will go faster, nor that our short term pain will lead to a long term gain.

My theory is that if we pay more attention to the universe, then the universe will pay more attention to making life easier for us. It is kind of a Zen hippie thing.

I wonder if my friends would have agreed with what I was saying if we had actually understood each other. In fact I still wonder if they are comfortable with the idea that we should slow down when things get hectic.

I might go an have a cup of tea while I ponder that, before my busy day of Zoom calls.

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