This is a transcript of episode 306 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.
Your niggling worries and minor observations are “bench sweeps”, valuable dust that are worth refining into gold.
What is a Bench Sweep?
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel. I got a question for you, Squirrel.
Squirrel: I’ve got an answer for you.
Jeffrey: Great. I was looking at your X feed. Still sounds weird to call it that in sort of Twitter and tweets. But anyway, you had an analogy I’d never heard before in software. Actually, I’d never heard about it anywhere, which is something about bench sweeps. Can you tell us what bench sweeps are and what does it have to do with software?
Squirrel: Yeah, well, it has a lot to do with leadership, and that has a lot to do with software. So the phenomenon I read about somewhere, which I can’t remember now, is that when you are a jeweler, you wind up grinding things and shaving things, and you do a lot of stuff that produces a lot of dust. So I think a smart jeweler might wear a mask or something like that and would would have some mechanism for keeping the dust, which is little bits of gold and jewelry, jewels and other things like that from getting into his or her respiratory system. So that’s a good thing.
Squirrel: But there’s something else that’s really valuable, which is the actual dust has really valuable stuff in it. And somebody noticed this at some point and said,
Jeffrey: It’s gold!
Squirrel: It is literally gold inside the dust. And so there are actually companies which I looked up when I remembered this and wanted to draw the the lesson from it. And these companies will take bags of the dust that you have produced in your jewelry shop, grinding and cutting and trimming all day, and they will refine it into something valuable.
Squirrel: So they’ll pay you for the dust that you produce in your shop. Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with anything that we do? Well, the answer is that there are bits of your conversations and your observations and your day to day work that are tiny pieces of gold, and it’s so easy to overlook them and not to pay attention to the value that is in what you’re throwing away. And what those jewelers call that, that dust that they sweep up at the end of the day is their bench sweeps. You take the bench on which you’re working, and there’s loads of dust on it. And a lot of it is rubbish, of course, a lot of it is not valuable metal, but some of it is. And if you sweep it all up and you do all the right chemical processes to it, you can filter out the gold and you’ll get value from it. And that’s what was happening to one of my clients.
Jeffrey: Oh, okay. How so? What was the dust and what was the gold? How was that happening?
Squirrel: So my client, who I’m coaching, came to me and said,”you know, Squirrel, I’ve got these observations. They’re just little things. I don’t know if they really matter. I kind of object to this decision we’re making, but it’s not a big deal. I can live with it. And, you know, I’ve noticed that this person has changed their behavior over in this completely different team that’s nothing to do with software. And, you know, I just don’t know if I should do anything about this. I think I’m just going to keep keep mum. I’m not going to say anything.”
Squirrel: And I said “no, no, no, those are your bench sweeps!” That’s the valuable gold that comes from just being a human in an office or on Slack or wherever it is that you’re interacting with other people. And those observations, those niggling little things in your brain that are saying, “you know, something’s not quite right here,” that’s really, really valuable to share. It’s actually sometimes more valuable than what’s consciously coming to the fore for you. And I’ve seen over and over again that when somebody gives that information, shares that unformed, vague idea, we get tremendous value from it, and it leads to lots of other pushes down the first domino in a chain of very, very good things.
Jeffrey: You know, that’s funny as you describe it, two thoughts come to mind. Like immediately this idea resonates with me, but I think the part that that made me laugh about it is at first I thought of something that I might hear, you know, like very much like you described, having coffee with someone and they kind of have a throwaway thought. They mention something, someone talked about, you know, their time to deploy is, you know, it’s like, “oh, the bill takes 4.5 hours to get everything through the cycle.” And it’s like, “oh really?” You know, and it’s kind of, “can we look into that?” Because there’s something we can, you know, we can we can find out about.
Squirrel: I’m picking myself up off the floor here, Jeffrey. I mean, 4.5 hours to get something live is absurd, but that may not feel very valuable or important to someone else. You know, it used to be five hours, so, you know, four and a half is a lot better, whereas I want it to be 4.5 minutes.
Jeffrey: That’s right. And but for them, it’s sort of common knowledge. But the thing is that you can pick up these little things and sometimes it’s clients, something the client might say or if someone else is describing something happened in a client meeting and you have these little particles, these little things that you can pick up.
Jeffrey: But what really made me laugh was thinking that sometimes we’ll have meetings where we’re explicitly talking about things to improve, and someone will kind of, you know, in the lead up in the room as you’re talking, mention these little nuggets. And then when you get to the actual discussion, they don’t bring them up. And I’ve had times where I’ve said, “well, wait a minute, what about that thing you said as we came in” and they’re like, “oh, that’s just a little thing, you know, that’s not- I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
Jeffrey: And so that that idea of people kind of just what you described with your client kind of not wanting to make too big of an issue of something that is just for them is a small observation, as opposed to looking at it as sort of like, “hey, that’s weird.” You know, there’s kind of I think there’s a quote I’ve seen it says something like, the sound of discovery in science is less often “Eureka!” Than it is. “Hum. That’s strange.”
Squirrel: Precisely, right.
Jeffrey: And that’s and that I think is what resonates with me in what you’re describing. And now that you have that term. I can imagine seeing it lots of places.
How to get the Bench Sweeps?
Squirrel: Absolutely. So and one of the things you need to do as any form of leader, this might be as the CTO holding those retrospectives, or it might be as the CEO trying to get your your executives to give you observations and knowledge that would be valuable as part of a mosaic, as part of your your whole picture to to give you those little observations from their bench sweeps. In order to create that, to make that happen, you have to make the culture psychologically safe. You have to make it something that is normal, it’s part of the culture. You might even use this term. You might say, “hey, anybody got any bench sweeps this week? Anything that you’ve observed that just seems too small to mention? This is the place where you do it.”
Squirrel: And one thing I’ve seen is that it can feel like you’re doing extra effort that’s not valuable. “Hey, everybody should just know that they should share these kinds of things. And if they’re professionals, they’ll know and they’ll do it.” I’m here to tell you they won’t, and it’s not because they don’t have the company’s interests in mind. In fact, they’re acting in a way that seems most beneficial, to them. But you have to actively and repeatedly and consistently express interest in the bench sweeps, express the desire to hear those kinds of challenges and problems and errors! Because that’s what produces the “Hmm, that’s strange,” that leads to discovery.
Jeffrey: Yes, absolutely. You know, one of the ways I’ve seen that I’ve institutionalized something like that, though I didn’t have that term was something I know you’ve heard and I think we’ve talked about before, something called Aha! Moments. So at the end of a meeting, end of a discussion, we’d go around the room and ask people any Aha! Moments. And one of the things we would stress is this doesn’t need to be the most important thing in the meeting. This is just something that struck you as we went through and talked and, and very often now that you, you know, have that description, what comes out in those Aha! Moments can, can include these kind of little nuggets.
Jeffrey: You know, these the things that I hadn’t noticed or hadn’t thought of as significant. But someone else pointed out, you know, “this was odd. You know, that kind of struck me as we went through that was my Aha! Moment was this.” And I was like, “oh, wow, that was really insightful.” And hearing everyone share their Aha! Moments is often, for me, the most exciting part of an entire meeting, because it kind of get a sense of what people took away, often highlighting things that I had missed. So that’s maybe one way that people could institutionalize the bench sweep process.
Jeffrey: But the key thing is what you described, which is you really have to encourage people to to bring it up, you know, no observation too small, kind of thing.
Squirrel: There you go. So I’ll just close with a story. It’s in our book, but I think it’s worth retelling. I was in an executive team meeting early in my consulting career, and the CEO looked bored as everybody went around the room describing the new product and how they were going to put it live. And the marketing folks said, “here’s the blog post. It’s all ready.” The sales people said, “we’ve got our sales material.” Customer service said they had the documentation. They were ready to answer questions. Product folks said they’d built it. They understood how it worked. The engineers said that “yes, it was ready. The code was tested and everything was ready to go,” to launch the new product.
Squirrel: Meantime, the CEO is staring out the window. It almost looks like he’s not paying attention. And eventually he got all the way around the room and back to the CEO who said, “you know, something just bugs me about this product. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something that that doesn’t seem right.” It was one of these bench seats, one of these niggling little things.
Squirrel: And then we went around the room again and the marketing people said, “yeah, we have the blog post, but it doesn’t seem very interesting.” And the salespeople said, “yeah, we’re not actually sure who we’re going to take this pitch deck to.” And the engineers said, “yeah, actually there’s lots of bugs in it.” And the product people said, “yeah, the focus groups really weren’t all that positive. The user research suggests people don’t want it.”
Squirrel: Nobody had said anything. Nobody had shared their bench sweeps because they didn’t feel safe about it. They thought everyone else was all ready to go because it was so positive. Only when they had the permission from the CEO to share something that might not be totally positive. Did they go forth and say, “oh, wait a minute, actually, I have some problems too.” We didn’t launch the product. So the value of little things, little bits of dust can be very, very high. So make sure that you’re sharing it and you’re creating the environment in which it can be shared.
Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely.
Squirrel: So if listeners have some bench sweets to share with us, we’d sure like to hear it. And if you come back next Wednesday, we’ll have another edition of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.