Winning the argument

When I was at school, I used to take great joy in arguing with my friends. When I want to University I learned to argue more seriously – putting forward strong, logical arguments for the position I chose to take in an essay.

At work I have learned to put forward strong, considered arguments and I have also learned, sometimes, not to put forward strong, considered arguments.

After all this time though, I am still learning what it means to win an argument.

Winning the battle

I originally thought that getting other person to admit that they were wrong at that you were right was winning. I guess that is kind of true since they admit that you won. However it generally means that they other person actually disagrees with you again later. So I guess you could call this “winning the battle.”

Convincing others through the weight of a respectful argument

But what if I do honestly convince the other person that I am right (yay) and also maintain respect and psychological safety. They are happy and so am I, plus I won them over with the weight of my compelling evidence.

But then – was it my compelling evidence, or was it my oratory skills, or even that they were biased and I fluked on a message that appealed to them?

Learning something new

What if instead, I go in with one opinion, get confronted by new evidence and then change my mind?

I have lost the argument to someone else (in theory) but I have learned something new.

So who won then – the person who left with the same opinion and information that they started with or the one who gained something new to take away with them?

Arriving at a new point where neither expected to get to

My favourite arguments at school were kind of a mix of learning something new and convincing someone of something – but where we both ended up coming to a new, unexpected conclusion. It was fun and it boosted our egos. We all seemed smarter than we were before.

But then what if we successfully agreed on the wrong conclusion? It means we felt good at the conclusion of the argument and we built better relationships. It also meant that if something later proved we were wrong then we were in it together.

Conclusion, if there is one

So – what is winning an argument?

  • Convincing someone you are right?
  • Learning something new?
  • Reaching a shared, if surprising conclusion?
  • Both bring right in the end?

My feeling is that I win if I learn something new and/or end up with a shared view that allows for later learning. But that means we win if we are both actually wrong, which seems a little strange.

So I guess I am open to arguments here – when have you won an argument and when have you not?

Agile coaching tips from my grandmother

I was dispensing advise to some teams on minimising WIP, keeping focused and pacing themselves, when I could almost hear my parents and even my grandmother giving me the same advice.

So here are some of the tips that I heard as a child, that still seem to be good advise in an agile context.

Busy today?

“If you are too busy to do that today, what makes you think you will have more time tomorrow?”

I often find myself wanting to postpone things until “we get through this busy period” only to realise later that the busy period is the rest of our working lives. My grandma’s wisdom is to either:

  • Close the loop on things today so they are off our plates and not still hanging around
  • Be honest about things that won’t happen and make a call now
  • Plan on the basis of being busy and not having enough time, rather than building a great plan to try to create enough time

What did you think was going to happen?

I often talk about “fear of failure” being bad and suggest that we should focus on “learning experiences” rather than mistakes. Sometimes though, I have seen something happen, that I really should have anticipated. I do not believe in catastrophising or ruminating about it, but actually pausing to think “if that was what I expected/kind of expected, then what could I do differently to avoid it next time.

Never trust a skinny cook

If you do not eat the food you cook, should others be nervous about eating what you cook? Maybe.

But more importantly, if you serve something to others you should believe in it yourself. If an agile coach wants to avoid feedback, demand un-shiftable plans, claim there is no way to measure the impact of their work and roll out agile in a fear-based top down approach … do they really believe in what they are asking others to do?

If we want to serve up ideas to others – we should be growing fat on consuming them ourselves. We should love using the techniques, practices and approaches that we suggest to others.

Just because it needs to happen, does not mean that it will happen

I often want to believe that I will be successful and that things will come together – and they often do. But planning on people adopting a practice, delivering on time or doing anything else just because “they have to” is not a good plan. A better approach is to either plan for how to help them do what you need, or anticipate it might not happen.

An agile mindset or a winning mindset?

I sometimes still say that “agile is a mindset” rather than a set of processes and frameworks. I still think this is true – but I sometimes hesitate because I think people will interpret the word “mindset” as something different to what I think it is.

Defining a mindset as a set of attitudes

For me, a “mindset” is a set of attitudes that someone has. They might have a growth mindset, which means that they believe in learning from feedback and improving through deliberate; or they might have a fixed mindset, which means that they think success comes from talent and that you are born talented or untalented.

But there is more to a fixed mindset than those simple terms and there are more than two “sets of established attitudes” that people might have. So what do I actually mean if I say agile is a mindset?

OK – I think “agile practices” are practices that help a high performing team create value more quickly and easily. An agile mindset is a set of attitudes about what factors will make it quicker and easier to get work done and create value, thus informing us as to what practices will work in our context.

So there is a slight issue here – you might not define an “agile mindset” in quite the same way. Perhaps you would say it is an extension of the Lean Mindset, or a focus on value, or it is an understanding of the values and principles in the agile manifesto.

I believe that the Agile Manifesto is a set of values and principles, that could describe an agile mindset.

However, the frustrated lawyer in me suggest that there are two escape clauses in the Manifesto:

  • The whole thing starts with the words “We are uncovering better ways …” which suggests that we are still learning and that the manifesto is only a summary at a point in time
  • The words “the best … come from self organising teams” which suggests that the team should debate and agree on things, that I would extend to include “working practices”, and “our overall team values and attitudes.”

This means an agile team might agree that they think the Manifesto is wrong and still be agile.

So I have a personal mindset (my own set of attitudes, beliefs, values, principles and assumptions) and when I become part of a team, we debate with each other and through our collaboration and respectful discussions we might agree on a team mindset. In fact a whole organisation might have a shared mindset if they have a strong culture, whether it is positive or even negative (Enron, recent failed political teams and others come to mind).

But does that mean that any set of attitudes that the team agree to will be agile?

I don’t think so. For me all agile teams are biased toward ongoing learning (adapting to change), collaboration and experimentation. Most importantly they are also aligned on how they define (and challenge) value.

Some (Scrum people) might believe in empiricism, others (design thinkers) might believe in wicked problems and multiple definitions of emerging value and others (HR Agile and “modern” agile) might believe in empowering small teams to move ahead of the organisation and fulfilling their individual human potential in a psychologically safe environment. In all of these teams there should be adapting to change, creating ongoing value and collaboration, but there might be significant differences in other areas. Or so I believe.

All this theory might actually make it scary when I suggest to a leadership team that we can be agile without any particular framework as long as our journey is based on the championing of collaboration, defining and redefining value and adapting to new things as we learn them. It sounds like a recipe for chaos with the hope that value will emerge from the primordial agile soup that the changing culture becomes.

So maybe I should talk about a winning mindset instead – a shared set of attitudes which we can agree on, that will help us define the optimal practices, tools, processes and team structures that will help us “win” in our current environment.

If I start by defining what it means to win – then I can talk about what we need to agree on and how we should then behave to maximise our chance of winning.

I honestly believe this works – and we can even define what we think a good starting set of attitudes is.

The mindset of a powerful learner

When my daughter started school – she learned a mindset – that of a powerful learner. This included a growth mindset, as well as some some principles that would (according to her teachers) help her to become a powerful learner.

Self-regulation, circles of engagement (expanding teams), resilience, specific thinking routines (ways of solving specific types of problems) and a growth mindset would lead to powerful learning.

My daughter is now at a new school and there are different sets of attitudes that she is learning. They are similar and, I think, they are important in defining how to approach learning as a student.

The product teams I work with have a different set of principles that, we believe, help them become powerful teams that create great customer value and, thereby, win as a product team.

Early in my career, I learned the importance of both “flow” so the work became habitual and somehow seemed to do itself, and “ongoing learning”, which I later came to see as a growth mindset.

But then, opposing this view, I have worked with Project Managers and executives who believe in “relentless effort”, grit and determination. When I told them that a basketball team can win if they get into a state of flow, they responded that a team wins when they persist in the face of challenge, fighting for each point and constantly challenging each other.

I believe now that that both relentless determination and effortless flow can lead to winning, just as both experimenting and adopting consistent proven practices can lead to success. But at some point these different mindsets clash and something has to be given up to find the focus of the best mindset, for now, for this team, for this definition of winning.

What do I bring to the team then?

My “work mindset” was influenced by my family, by what I learned at school and by what I learned in my first job or two. It is now, most likely, 30 years out of date. That means that I have a legacy mindset, filled with potential work-arounds, biases and assumptions. But it is still a working mindset that seems to help me.

I like to think that my “out of date, legacy mindset” is also a mindset that has evolved through broad and deep experience in working in different contexts and fields. So, like a trusty old mainframe system I bring tried and tested lessons from the past, while still getting some maintenance and enhancements made to my thinking each time I work with a team.

By talking through our different attitudes and doing some maintenance on them, I think we can then agree on the practices we should adopt based on those attitudes and that the practices should then become the best possible approach we have to winning, whatever that means to us.


What do you think?

  • Do you think you and your team agree on what “winning” means? Does it matter?
  • If it does matter (which I think it does), are there a set of attitudes (or mindset) that support your ability to win?
  • Do your team practices, structures, meetings and your team uses align to your definition of winning and your team’s set of attitudes?

I am curious to hear what your attitude is, even if it is different to mine.

Misdiagnosing bad (and good) luck

Sometimes I make good decisions based on the information that I have available. Sometimes I make bad decisions. Sometimes I wait for more information and sometimes I act quickly on a hunch. I have written about this sometimes in the past.

You would hope that good decisions lead to good outcomes, but sometimes, in fact, I have made a good decision and then been unlucky. Similarly, I have sometimes made a bad decision, but been lucky.

Nothing revolutionary in that observation I guess, but let me put it in a diagram anyway.

Decisions and outcomes – good and bad

Now I can break outcomes into 4 types

  • A good decision leads to a good outcome – well done me, I made a good call
  • A poor decisions leads to a poor outcome – Not well done, learn to do better
  • Outside events led to a poor outcome, in spite of the decision being good. I was just unlucky this time.
  • Outside events led to a good outcome, in spite of me making a bad decision. The outcome was a “fluke” and I got lucky this time.
Good call, bad call or luck based outcome

What I want is good outcomes regardless of my decision – so I am happy to be lucky. However there is a danger here.

When I am lucky, it is easy to learn that I can get away with bad decisions, or worse, that I made the right decision. I will get away with this as long as I am lucky.

When I am unlucky, I may feel despondent and again learn the wrong lesson – that I am helpless or that I should have done better.

The trick then, is to learn from my “good calls” so I can practice the skills needed to repeat them; and to learn from bad calls, so I can learn to see my mistakes coming.

However – it is also important to avoid the wrong lessons from the flukes and unlucky outcomes. If I learn the wrong lessons then I will potentially be learning to make worse decisions.

So how can I do that? One thing to do is to follow the old proverb:

“Look not where you fell but where you landed”

An old saying

In other words, learn to review decisions based on what I knew at the time. This can be hard but is doable.

But another trick is to think about luck when making decisions. I can’t always predict luck, but I can ask myself a couple of questions:

  • What do I think will happen when I make this decision? When should I see evidence of that?
  • What are the odds that I am wrong? If I was wrong, what else could happen? Would that be good or bad? What might I see that would indicate that things have changed from what I expect now?
  • What would I do if I was wrong? When would find out?

Predicting what else might happen at the time your are making your decision is actually and important way to protect from “hindsight bias” which often leads to learning the wrong lessons from outcomes.

So I am going to focus some of my attention on predicting what I think will happen and what else might happen. Then I might look at when I was lucky/unlucky or making good/bad calls. I hope that this will help me with my expectation setting (and resetting) and with my planning. I will see how it goes.

Noticing what is not happening

There is a Sherlock Holmes story where the famous detective is trying to understand how a race horse disappeared. In it Sherlock is talking to a police officer:

  • Policeman “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
  • Holmes “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
  • Policeman “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
  • Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

That conversation has always struck me, both as a great piece of suspenseful writing and as a reminder of what we often miss.

I often listen closely to what people say, but perhaps I should more often wonder what is not being said. What conversations are we not having, that perhaps would be worth having?

Similarly, when I think of a solution or new initiative, I often focus on what it will solve and sometimes what it will involved in implementing it or what issues it might create; but perhaps I should more often wonder what will be left unsolved, what does not have to change or what seeming issues are not actually caused by implementing the idea.

This week I might focus on the questions

  • What is not happening here, that I would have expected?
  • What are we not talking about, that perhaps we should be?
  • What might I be missing here?

If you want to learn more about the quote, then I think the following article makes for an interesting read.

The power of distance

“Look within Grasshopper, and you will find the answer you seek”

Said the guru to the traveller

When I read books on self improvement and EQ, one of the first things I often encounter is the recommendation to “pay attention to how you feel and react.” I interpret this to mean, that we should notice how we are responding to what is going on, in the moment, to observe whether we are tense, angry, opinionated, or even excited.

Looking inside yourself and listening to your body is great. You start to notice your triggers, your potential bias and in particular your emotions.

Noticing your emotions means that you can manage them rather than being managed by them. it also means that you can start to notice the outside triggers and environmental factors that are driving a lot of your behaviour.

By developing a sense of presence, or self awareness, you can move from mindless reaction to mindful action.

But what about the opposite?

What if we stop being present within ourselves, we stop “being in the moment” and instead we start to look at things from a greater distance, without paying much attention to how we feel right now at all?

Is that anti-coaching or is that another source of insight?

I claim that the power of distance is, potentially, as useful as the power of being aware our selves.

Moving our focus

Here is a simple trick that you can try.

Look out a window and think about what you see. Now look at the window itself and observe what you see.

I imagine that when you look at the window, you see the window but not the landscape outside, while when you look “outside the window” you see the outside landscape but lose your awareness of the window itself.

We can also try the same exercise, but with solving problems and untangling dilemmas.

As a thought experiment – Are you more likely to see the flaws in an idea that you are explaining to a friend, or to see flaws in the ideas a friend is explaining to you?

I imagine that you find it easier to see flaws in the idea someone else is explaining and I believe it is to do with how “close” you are to the idea. When you explain your own idea, you are focused on the idea, but when you are listening to someone else, you are thinking about counter ideas, different contexts and different situations that might support or challenge the idea.

But we don’t always need a second person to help us do that.

When I coach people and they seem stuck in their thinking, I sometimes ask them what they would advise a friend to do in the same situation. It often causes people to pause and consider things from a different perspective – a more distant one.

This is not me giving them my perspective, but rather them asking themselves what perspective they would take if it was not them that was facing the dilemma.

Moving further away from a problem or dilemma means that we sacrifice detail and emotional depth, to gain a broader perspective, to see the bigger picture more clearly.

Asking what advice you would give a friend is one way to do this, but I could also ask:

  • What was your goal when you started? What is your goal now?
  • When you complete this, then what will you have?
  • How would other people in the team describe that?
  • What would someone brand new notice, that we might not be seeing?
  • How do people solve this in other organisations?

None of these are trick questions, they are just attempts to look at things from a more distant standpoint, to see if we remove the noise of our own history, doubts and emotions.

Once we see things from a distance, we might move to action or maybe we might move back to reflecting on our own perspective, by using questions like these:

  • And how did/does that make you feel?
  • And what is the real challenge here, for you?
  • And what do you want?
  • And what has been your contribution/responsibility here?

Again there is no trick here, just pausing to move from looking at the landscape to going back to looking at personal agency, feeling and accountability.

So both sets of questions are really about deliberately moving further from a dilemma, in order to gain perspective, or moving closer, in order to focus on the detail of our own reaction, action or emotion.

Moving our perspective of time

Chip and Dan Heath provide a simple thinking routine for creating some distance from a decision or problem in their book “Decisive.”

The routine is to ask yourself three questions:

Suppose you did decide to build this feature. Ask yourself:

  • How will you feel about this decision in 10 minutes?
  • How about 10 months from now?
  • How about 10 years from now?

Once again, the idea is to escape our current focus and to consider things from a greater distance, or more precisely a longer period of time.

So what?

When seeking to grow or find a new path, I can focus on my own feelings and a sense of presence in the moment.

Alternatively though, I can step away from myself and observe things from a greater distance. Sometimes it is that distance that allows me to see things that I was not seeing before, or to see patterns that I was not aware of.

One way to step away from myself is to seek the opinions and insights of others, but another way is to just move my own awareness to see things from a distance.

Florence Nightingale, Agile Coach, Data Scientist

As an agile coach, I like to think that I can help teams to see their work in a new way and hence start to find better ways of working. I also like to think that my “Agile Experience” gives me an edge that people in the team will not have.

However I am sometimes humbled by the breakthroughs that teams make without me, or at least the insights that they have, that I did not see coming.

Even more, I am humbled when I see people in roles that I would not consider “agile,” where people work in an environment that I would not consider agile, yet where they display an amazing agile mindset AND matching set of practices.

One example was when I found out just how agile modern kindergartens are. Another is the nursing profession, where they have been having standups, visual management and self organising teams since before I was born.

I don’t know if many teams have a more efficient standup than the nurse/doctor shift change and I have seen few story walls as effective as the “big wall” that I saw when someone showed me an operating theatre planning space. Beyond that I cannot think of a self organising team that need to focus on quality more fiercely than a an operating theater team. There is not much point in the surgeon doing a good job if the anesthetist does not and I don’t think the team have the option or re-planning scope and deadlines while they put the operation on hold.

Anyway – I often think that, while we still think agile is new, people like Florence Nightingale were pioneering a lot of our “new practices and mindsets” quite some time ago.

Today I learned a little more about this amazing agile coach who made it her mission to revolutionize medicine (or more specifically patient care). Today I learned that she was also a data scientist who struggled to get others to recognise the valuable insights she wanted to share, based on robust statistical data that she had.

In order to communicate the “complex numbers” to her highly educated but data-poor stakeholders she had to quietly innovate new ways to visualise data, even without having a BI budget or data warehouse/BI tool.

If you want to be just as amazed as I was, you should read this article from Scientific American

I guess we can agree that Florence Nightingale was an amazing woman, but I think there is another lesson here for us agilistas and smarty-pants change managers.

Florence Nightingale was probably doing amazing work without being given the recognition she deserved in many situations, because she was not a general, a doctor or even a man. If that is true then there is also a risk that there are multiple Florence Nightingales in our own organisations, innovating and delivering amazing results, but without knowing what agile is, or being certified CTA (Certified as Truly Agile).

Even more likely, there are people doing great work on a smaller scale, without it being on our radar. I think this is probably one of the greatest lost opportunities for change – to identify the “bright sparks” who are already solving problems and creating value in our organisations.

What I take away from this is that we really need to identify the existing people who are making potentially small changes and give them more support, rather than focusing on the flaws of the organisation or the promised improvements of a new Framework or Way of Working.

Rather than building something new, let’s identify and strengthen what is already budding in our organisations and help people to flourish. We may not encounter Florence Nightingale but I bet we will find smart innovators struggling away in many places if we look hard enough. Especially if we look at where the work is being done on the ground, rather than looking at our own recommended changes.

Assessing our assessments

I have been assessing some teams recently, in order to diagnose where they can create further improvements in their performance. This assessment will be valuable in helping the team decide where to focus their attention in continuing their growth.

Really though? Is both those statements really true? I guess the following needs to be true for the assessment to be worthy of their consideration:

  • I am doing some assessment of some kind;
  • That assessment is designed for the team to use in improving their performance; and
  • The assessment is good.

Of course, whether the team actually use the assessment and whether the usage of the assessment leads to improvements are still not decided, even if the above statements are true. I won’t look at these last points yet though, because these are about change management and I should only worry about the team making use of the assessment if it is actually good.

Assessment 1 – Am I doing some assessment?

There may be reasons to believe that the world is an illusion or that I am a butterfly dreaming that I am an agile coach doing assessments. Maybe soon I will wake up flapping my wings around and eating flowers, thinking to myself:

Wouldn’t it be lovely to be in a world where I really was a human, assessing team performance.

Alas that was just a dream. Back to the daily grind of fluttering about looking for nice flowers to land on so I can enjoy their nectar.

A butterfly, waking from a dream about being an agile coach

OK – let’s start by creating some assumptions. Let’s take it as a given that the team and I exist and that I have done something I called an assessment.

Even then – the range of assessments I could do is probably huge.

So let’s confirm that I have also determined the scope of what I am assessing, which I have.

If, for example, I didn’t know whether the team has a clear purpose and a decent level of respect for each other, then I might be wasting my time assessing the frequency of meetings the team has, or the alleged velocity in previous sprints. Similarly, If I already know the team is an established one, with a clear purpose and team members who respect each other, then there seems little point in assessing these things, since I already know what the result will be/

So what I need to decide before I start assessing is:

  1. What will I take as “a given”, which I will therefore not assess. For example, this could include the assumption that the team is working on the right goals, if I am assessing the way the team breaks down it’s backlog.
  2. What I will actually be assessing now, which is hopefully useful.
  3. What should be left until later? Perhaps because it is less important or because I can learn and apply something from a shorter assessment rather than assessing too much at once. The same way the team slice their stories into thin slices of value, I should slice my assessments into thin slices of useful information that can be acted on.
A triangle to help me decide what to focus on right now

Cool – I know what I am assessing.

Assessment 2 – Is this really for the team?

I am feeling a little philosophical today, so let me ask a big, abstract question – Why do any assessment at all?

As with all things agile, if I say that something is valuable (and therefore potentially worth doing), then I should be able to say WHOM it is valuable to.

  • Who actually gets the benefit of this work?
  • What makes it valuable to them?

Potentially, I could share the assessment with any of the following people, who would gain some kind of benefit from me sharing it. Depending on who it is and what they want, the assessment I do might be quite different. I might assess the team:

  • For the “team selector” who creates and maintains the team and wants information to support them to:
    • Select who is on the team
    • Select who on the team is assigned to a project, mission, game or training course;
    • Assess people for promotion, bonuses, elite training; or
    • Assess people to design a curriculum for training in areas needed, potentially customized to different needs
  • For the “bill payer” who wants information to support them to:
    • Understand whether the goals the bill payer has paid to achieve are actually being achieved;
    • Understand where the costs in time and money or being consumed by the team;
    • Influence what the team will strive for and what they will ignore or avoid
  • For the people who are being assessed, in order to:
    • Help the learning of those being assessed
    • Create a sense of satisfaction and momentum
    • Clarify and set goals and standards to aspire to
    • Gain a certification that demonstrates their accomplishments and qualifications.

So that clarifies some things for me – the assessment should not be an end in itself but should be something that adds value to someone. Of course it could become too broad, if I aim to use the assessment to meet all the needs of all the people.

In the specific case that I am thinking of, I could do assessment for the coaches and managers to make decisions about what “curriculum” to create for teams, or I could do an assessment for the team members themselves to learn where and how to improve. Both might be valid goals but I it might be better to choose whether to optimize for one of those goals rather than hoping to kind of achieve both.

Maybe I should even have some user stories for my assessment:

This assessment will help (who) to do (what) so (there is some benefit); or

This assessment will provide (who) with (what insights, validations or information) so they can (make what decisions, or improve against what goals)

Says the coach, just before conducting the assessment

In this case I chose “This assessment will provide the (specific) team with insights about the way they work together so they can set better improvement goals for themselves.”

Defining a goal like this sets me up much better than saying “I will assess the team,” and even better than if I said “I have this health check so I guess that is what the team needs.”

So lets check-in. I definitely did some kind of assessment on a team. In fact I even knew who would get value and what that value should be. Finally I had a big triangle to wave around (or more accurately I was able to say what was given, for the purpose of the assessment, what I would focus on and what I would leave for later).

If I know this much, I should be good to go- but there is still the question of whether the specific assessment I perform will achieve my goal.

Assessment 3 – Is the assessment a good assessment?

Academics, scientists and quality freaks have done a lot of good work to help us define what a good assessment looks like. Let me list the key things I have taken away from the research, which I personally think define a good assessment.

You do not need to nail each of the following but you should define how important each is to you when you are doing your assessment.


Will the assessment give the same results when conducted multiple times on multiple targets (or maybe “teams” is a better word)?

For example:

  • If I assess a team multiple times, and they are still performing at the same level, would my assessment give the same result each time?
  • Will my results vary depending on the time of day, where they are in their current sprint or the stage they are at in their quarterly rhythm?
  • If I assess different teams, who are performing just as well as each other, but who are using slightly different tools and techniques, then will I get the same result?
  • If there are multiple assessors, will the result depend on the assessor, or can people expect the same result from each assessor?

Since I was doing doing a single assessment on one team, for their own learning, I gave less attention to this factor. On the other hand if I had been assessing multiple teams at multiple locations to create a shared learning agenda across teams or a report on where to design coaching for multiple teams, then this becomes a lot more important.


Is the assessment actually measure what it is supposed to measure?

It is surprisingly easy to build measures that do not actually measure the right thing.

For example, if I say I am measuring quality of work or teamwork, but I measure velocity or speed, then this might not be correct. Speed might increase as a result of good team work or improved quality, but it might also increase because of less team work, reduced testing or building features without understanding quality from the users perspective.

Perhaps more subtly, if I am measuring “defects the team found and decided to fix” as a measure of quality, but I define quality as maintainability or user experience, then I am measuring the wrong thing, even if people see defect fixing as quality. Instead, perhaps, I should be measuring the ability to maintain the system or the experience of the user to assess, if I want to assess quality in these cases.

I might also use a measure that gives a false reading, even if it reliably gives the same false reading every time. For example, if pay rises are predicated on “displaying an agile mindset,” and I ask people, just before their pay review, whether they have an agile mindset; then I think that I will reliably receive the answer “yes”, regardless of the mindset being a fixed or growth one.

Validity was important for my assessment this time because the team will make decisions on the result. However there is a mitigation in that the team will debate my assessment as a group.


If reliability and validity make a measure or assessment useful, it is credibility that determines if it is actually used.

If people do not understand or accept the score, number, rating or opinion that comes out of the assessment, then they will not act on the results.

For example:

  • I believe that “share of voice” is a good measure or team empowerment and effectiveness. This reflects whether everyone in the team gets to talk just as much as each other. However I have found that sometimes if I point out that only some people were speaking, team members explain to me why they think that was valid. They justify the rating rather than considering it as a thing to assess and maybe change. They may have a point, or I might be right, but either way it is a poor assessment if it will not be understood and used by the consumer; and
  • When senior managers learn what velocity really measures, they often question whether it is a measure of team performance (which it is not). So while velocity is a good measure for the team to use in predicting what they can achieve, telling executives that the team is consuming stories at a good rate of points, they are likely to be more baffled than informed.

I have found this more problematic when an assessment is likely to challenge existing views and biases. If I rate a team as bad at cooking when they have a reputation for being great cooks, then people need a lot more convincing than if I confirm their existing views.

For the team I am assessing, I might want to make sure my assessment results are easy to understand and also credible.

Decision support and Educational Effects

So my assessment was (I believe) reliable enough, valid with some level of precision and accepted by the team.

However, if the team are going to learn from the assessment then it must be well designed to help them learn. This is again a matter of context. For example if I was a school teacher and I was students in a final exam (when they should know their material), then the assessment need not provide much support for student learning, but the education effect would be critical when I was using formative assessment during the semester.

In this case the assessment I am doing is literally designed for team learning, so the ability for the team members to apply the results to their learning is the most important criteria for success. This means my results must be simple, related to what the team wants to be good at, timely and helpful in clarifying a next step.

Some questions that help here are:

  • Does this assessment help to clarify team goals or the goal of what we want them to do?
  • Does the assessment make it easy to identify what was good, what could be improved and what to do next?
  • Is the assessment timely – is the information still relevant and more importantly, provided in time to reflect on and change the habit, behaviour or output?
  • Is the information provided simple, specific and clear? Or is it cluttered, overwhelming and vague?

Cost (or efficiency)

I could do an amazingly detailed assessment of the team, brining in multiple coaches equipped with video cameras, regression testing, fitness trackers and heaps of technology. I could even fly the whole team to a specialist lab in silicon valley somewhere, in order to participate and a herculean set of simulations.

Of course the cost of doing so would be far higher than the potential benefit to increasing performance.

The best assessment would be real time, created by the team themselves as part of the work, without any delay or other impact on what they are doing.

As much as possible, I like to create a way for the teams to better assess themselves in the moment of their work, rather than having me audit them.

In this case though, I spent some of my time (and theirs) in assessing them and communicating the result. So it was important to make sure that my assessment consumed just enough time to create useful lessons.

It is hard to know in advance, with certainty, whether the assessment will be worth doing, but we can make an educated guess. For example I know not to do a whole battery of tests if I know the main challenge for the team is that they have really bad retrospectives. I would be better off just assessing the retrospectives and then focusing more time on helping make improvements there.

What to take away from all this reflection

So, for me to assess whether any assessment I want to do is going to be worthwhile:

  • I should know who needs something from the assessment and what they need;
  • This should help me decide what I should take for granted, what to focus on in my initial assessment and what to ignore for now;
  • I should design and assessment that is sufficiently:
    • Reliable
    • Valid
    • Accepted
    • Supportive of ongoing learning (and/or decisions)
    • Cost (and time) effective

When I am done, I can assess whether I achieved these goals to “assess the quality of my assessment” and get better at assessing in the future.

What has been left out of this assessment of assessments?

I have not assessed whether the tam used what I shared or whether doing so proved useful to them.

Perhaps that is the next thing I should assess. Given I have shared some results, how useful did sharing them turn out to be?

With all this assessment of assessments, should I be able to do even better assessments?

Of course I hope to continuously improve my assessments. However sometimes when I think about what assessment to do I actually go the other way and drop the whole concept of assessing teams.

Instead, sometimes I will postpone my assessment and just observe for a little while longer without judgement. Sometimes curiousity is a better coaching tool that judgement, assuming that the curiousity leads to information that is shared with the team.

Then I might come up with a hunch, which leads me to a hypothesis, which leads me to wanting to conduct an experiment or some kind of assessment, in which case I am right back at the start of this article again.

Daily reflections for positive change

I just completed a course on positive psychology. More accurately, I just completed a a Coursera specialization made up of 5 courses on positive psychology.

It was a great course, with some great theory and a lot of meaningful practice. It was full of small things you can do to improve your life and also your coaching of others.

An exercise that I performed in the final course

One of the exercises was to create a “testable positive intervention” for myself.

In order to do that, I had to identify a bad thing that I want to improve about myself. To do this I used a list of “shadow strengths” or a list of overuse, underuse and absence of strengths.

Once I identified an area to improve, I needed to

  • Measure my current performance/happiness;
  • Do some intervening with myself; and
  • Measure my new level of performance/happiness to see if it had an impact.

The result was surprisingly good.

What did I want to improve?

My goal was to improve 2 things that related to a shadow strength of ingratiating, which is an example of overusing appreciation. I reflected on some surprising confusion about expectations and what I thought were agreed goals or actions and how these might have been related to appreciating the good without digging into things I do not appreciate, or things that need to be done.

The two goals I landed on were:

  • Set better, clearer expectations and increase accountability:
    • Set clear expectations of Myself and hold myself accountable to them;
    • Communicate these expectations better to others; and
    • Be more explicit in my expectations of others and where I might disagree with things they say, do, or plan to do.
  • Pause more when in a conversation in order to listen instead of talk.
    • Specifically to count 3 seconds sometimes after talking no more than 40 seconds.
    • I found this relevant to the first goal, because the lack of silence meant a potential lack of shared understanding of expectations.

What did the intervention look like?

A standard to aspire to

One of the practices that the course recommended was to leverage a strength to build improvements.

One of my “signature strengths” is “Genuineness, Authenticity and Honesty.” I decided to use this because, if I claim to be honest and authentic, then it should follow that I am also communicating my views clearly.

Also – I think my authentic self is a good team player, which would suggest that I can listen to others and that I can communicate authentically. If this is the case then I am not trying to become a different person with the above goals, but rather being the same person in the moment that I want to be all the time.

So now I have a positive standard to work towards – someone who has authentic conversations and sets clear expectations – me already on a good day and maybe not me when I fall short of who I want to be.

Daily measures and observations

I used a well known “3 good things today” exercise which, not surprisingly, involved reflecting on three good things that happened each day. This is a great exercise, but not surprisingly, it does not always highlight the gaps or progress I made with my gaps that I am working on. However it kept me focused on good outcomes and positive observations.

I complemented that practice with a report card for the day on my successes. This is designed to remind my of successes but also get me to focus on the situation where success was possible. On most days I had some successes (yay) and a couple of misses. This tool got me to highlight when I did not feel I was successful or I was not happy with “my involvement and my challenges.” It worked well because the expectation that I will be successful combined with concrete example from my day to see if I hit my goal.

Planning to observe and practice in the moment

Now I had a daily reflection to review my success, lack of success in adopting my improvements.

What I also needed was a way to actually observe myself in the moment so I could collect the information to reflect on. I also needed a chance to pick when to actually try to change my habits in the moment.

To do this I coopted a set of questions from the book Presence Based Coaching, which I have previously used in creating habit stories for myself and others.

I started the day with a todo list (I use a bullet journal approach) and then selected 1-2 meetings for the day when I would focus on applying my self improvement. At the beginning of each meeting I would check the following questions and try to be aware of them for the meeting:

  • In this moment what is driving my choices? (“in this moment” could mean the conversation i am having or meeting I am starting);
  • Who am I right now (or what do I see as my role here)? How would I act if that was who I am?
  • What am I actually doing?

Then at the end of the meeting I noted the answers to the same question, but restated in the past tense. Then I took a quick not of how I felt about it.

This data (set of rough notes) then gave me something to reflect on at the end of the day, when I did my accomplishments report card. I think the act of reminding myself of these questions also made me more likely to push myself to improve.

A rapid reflection cycle

So the whole cycle looked like this:

  1. Bullet list at the start of the day, with a cup of coffee and a note about a couple of meetings to focus on when practicing my better practices.
  2. Reminder before a couple of meetings to act better, with a note on how I went.
  3. Reflection at the end of the day with the accomplishment report card,
  4. A quick follow on with a list of 3 good things from the day.

Measuring the result after 2 weeks

I kept all the daily reflections in a google document so I also reflected briefly at the end of each week. This gave me a qualitative view of my progress.

There were a couple of self-reflection surveys that the course included. I scored myself on these at the beginning and end of the exercise. There was also a shift here, whether it was permanent or temporary.

Overall I noticed quite a shift, but I still have to turn things into a habit, so I guess that is my next step.

I think I will stick with these two simple goals for another couple of weeks before I improve anything else. When I do move to the next improvement I will go back to basics and design a new routine/intervention.

The approach worked really well for me. I think the use of a strength as a standard and thing to leverage worked and so did the ongoing focus of my attention.

Scrum for one? Not so sure.

I work with a team who cancelled their showcase.

Due to a combination of holidays, vampire infestations and other one off occurrences which led to only having one developer available for the sprint. The developer and the stakeholders did not want a bunch of people, all looking at the poor, single, developer and asking what he had been up to during the sprint.

I guess that makes sense, after all Scrum is a team sport. A showcase and retro with one person seems an bit over the top. In fact, even with 2-3 people the overhead of scrum seems excessive.

So I got to thinking, what would I utilize if I was on my own? Would I have a sprint? Would I appoint myself PO and Scrum Master and have a backlog that I was in charge of? Would I have a daily stand-up to share the impediments I faced with myself?

I think I would draw the line at having a meeting with the one amigo to break my stories down together, but I would probably still want to track my work.

I know people who use a Kanban wall instead of a todo list to keep on top of their work. I think I might stick with the todo list but the value of focus and transparency still counts.

While I would certainly track my work visually, I would not bother at all with any of the scrum roles. I would just be me. So work visibility is in and role definitions is gone.

Would I have a sprint? I guess it depends what kind of work I am doing.

When I do creative work I often use the Pomodoro Technique, which is essentially 25 minute sprints with 5 minute breaks and then going for a walk or getting a bit to eat after a couple of hours. That is kind of sprinting but it is not a feedback cycle outside the single pieces of work.

But maybe a weekly goal setting session is a good idea.

Actually, I have found a lot of success with WOOP based goal setting for big pieces of work. That is where I set an optimistic goal (a wish) and then imagine how good it will feel to succeed (the outcome). Then I imagine the impediments that will stop me achieving the goal (the obstacles) and finally plan what I could do if the obstacles occur (plan).

So I would start my week with a goal and with a plan to respond to my inevitable distractions.

When I put it like that I wonder why some Scrum teams begin the sprint with a goal like “we will complete the list of stories” when they might be better off agreeing a goal, imagining success and then predicting and planning for the likely threats to success. Anyway, for my one person team I will focus on having a goal that is more than just completed todo items.

But I don’t have a formal planning meeting. I can replace that with a cup of coffee and some goal setting, followed by a walk or a snack.

Is that really enough though?

Maybe sometimes I should do some continuous discovery as well. Instead of just assuming I know what people want, maybe I can stroll over to talk to them and ask some questions about what they want.

I can take my whole team with me, since it is only me. When I have some work done I can also take it with me to show my customer in another visit. Or I can skip that if I am just bashing through some work.

Now I can spend the rest of the day getting on with my work.

Next day though, it is probably time for my first stand-up. Or more likely my sit down with a coffee.

I will get out my todo list, tick some things off (or slide my post-it notes across my desk) and then confirm what I plan to do for that day. Then I will go for a walk or get a second coffee, before setting up my Pomodoro timer and getting stuck into the work again.

But wait, maybe I should have a definition of done or some acceptance tests. I don’t think it will take a lot of debate with myself, but for each thing I plan to do I should know what standard to achieve and what success looks like.

Being the entire team of the one amigo though, I think I will sometimes say that I am starting a piece of work without a clear conclusion. I won’t call it a spike or and MVP, I’ll just call it something I want to do. If that is the case then I will define success for my sprint (the outcome in WOOP) and then decide which other things need a definition of done. Nobody is watching me so I will create a clear outcome when it is worth testing against and an open outcome when I am exploring new ideas.

After several daily sit-downs and a bit of work, I will reach the end of the week. Should I reflect on what I have done?

Actually I do think that is valuable. I will run through what got done, what didn’t and what isn’t really working for me.

I also find it valuable to remind myself of what I have accomplished and maybe where I stuffed up (fell short of my expectations of myself and my goals); which goes beyond just reviewing what I have crossed off todo list.

So I will do that. I will call it my weekly reflection with a glass of wine or sometimes just a pen and paper. The documentation will either be nothing or a work journal with notes in it. Probably the latter if I only have one glass of wine :).

My artefacts are now a todo list and a journal.

So I have ditched the roles and the mystique and I am left with:

  • A goal for the week (or whatever stroll length I choose);
  • An expectation that I will encounter impediments and a plan for some of them if they happen;
  • A way to make the work visible – todo list, Kanban board or whatever;
  • A daily sit down with a coffee and a review of my todo list;
  • A definition of done for some things;
  • Potentially a visit (or zoom chat) to someone I am delivering the work to; and
  • A reflection on how my week went.

That doesn’t sound too far off Scrum, if I forget about eating chickens and eggs or having people walk around calling themselves master or owner or things like that.

If that works for 1 person though, should it work for 2? If it works for 2, should it work for 3? At what point would I actually move from strolls to sprints and sitting down to standing up?

Can I have a team of 5 who set a weekly goal, stroll over to visit people when they want some input and sit down for tea or coffee each week?

When should I start using a burn down chart, a cycle time average or a scrum master? When should I use formal ceremonies? Is it just to do with the number 7?

In other words, is my decision to use Scrum vs Stroll-approach based on the the number of people in the team; where a single stroller works alone, but somewhere around 5 you need more processes and artefacts?

I don’t think it is just about numbers though, there must be a lot of other factors.

I work differently when building a course to when catching up for 1-1 coaching. So I would adopt my stroll framework a little depending on the kind of work I was doing. I also work differently when pairing with some people to when I pair with others.

I wonder now, what factors beyond the number of people I have in my team, should lead me to adopt a different path to creating my way of working?