This is a transcript of episode 199 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Jeffrey and Squirrel draw lessons from unlikely sources like Henry Ford and Eliezer Yudkowsky on creating a culture that favours innovation and inquiry.

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So this week I found insight on innovation from a source I absolutely did not expect: Henry Ford. Longtime listeners are probably saying, ‘Hey, Ford, isn’t he the standardisation guy? Wasn’t he trying to do everything exactly the same so that there wouldn’t be any variation or new changes?’ But in the linked article he was quoted saying something that surprised me. ‘Hardly a week passes without some improvement being made somewhere in machine or process, and sometimes this is made in defiance of what is called “the best shop practice.”’ His context here is the construction of Model T’s. Were you as surprised by this as I was?

Jeffrey: I was. It was an intriguing article, in particular it said that Ford was against people writing down the results of their experiments?

Overly Conclusive Learning

Listen to this section at 01:16

Squirrel: That’s the other goofy thing! This article talks all about how in current days we’re reinventing things that didn’t work before. I remember getting Webvan deliveries in the 1990s in San Francisco. Now we’re all getting deliveries from our grocers. How did Webvan fail? Now suddenly somebody had the idea ‘Let’s do exactly what Webvan did, but better?’ How did someone get that permission? Well, Ford would tell employees ‘Do not record your failed experiments.’ He thought you have one recorded experiment that worked, you go ahead and write down the new process and tell everybody to use it. But if you tried something that didn’t work, don’t record it and don’t have people learn from that. You don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, well Jeffrey tried it, it didn’t work, so it can’t work, so I won’t try doing it this way.’ There are lots of examples of how Ford did this and it was beneficial to him. The article connects that to how today in Silicon Valley and London and so forth, we’re trying some of the old things again.

Jeffrey: The first surprise for me was this idea that Ford was empowering people, which goes against our memory and impression of who Ford is. Second, the overall idea here that just because something hasn’t worked in the past doesn’t mean it won’t work in the future. What does that mean for us, and for our ability to improve within the work that we’re doing? It seems to me very often people might fail on both of these. They don’t feel empowered to go and try and tinker with their process. They don’t have the status to be able to do that.

Squirrel: ‘Hey, we just had a scrum training and it showed us exactly what to do here on page 72. I guess I better do what it says. Improving it wouldn’t be a good idea.’

Jeffrey: I frequently see people in this situation come to the conclusion that what they are trying simply doesn’t work. ‘We’ve been doing scrum. We had the training, we’re following the book, and maybe it works for others but it doesn’t work here.’ Part of what’s happening is they don’t feel like they have any ability to change anything. They don’t have what I have heard called a hero license.

Squirrel: Oh, wow! Can I get one of those?

Jeffrey: Yes, actually! You have the ability to just go ahead and write it down yourself. I came across this idea in the writing of Eliezer Yudkowsky, who some would know as the author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which is a fantastic Harry Potter fan fiction that was written to help introduce people to the idea of rationality and what it’s like to live thinking in a rational way. He wrote a blog post wherein he described a dialogue between different parts of himself and introduced this idea of a hero license. He says, ‘What you’re doing right now is you’re demanding to see my hero license.’ The idea is I’m going to try to do something that you think is in excess of my current social standing, and you want me to show you my license which proves to you that I already have enough status to do it. I think that idea of a hero license is a powerful one because people often don’t feel empowered. Sometimes it’s because others in the environment aren’t empowering them. They’re saying, ‘We don’t want to hear your ideas because you don’t have the license. You haven’t been certified.’

Stated Permission

Listen to this section at 05:00

Squirrel: I don’t see that very often, that there’s somebody saying ‘stop having innovative ideas, don’t try something, don’t tinker.’ I don’t see that often.

Jeffrey: Far more common is that people have created this idea within themselves; they believe that other people don’t want them to do it.

Squirrel: They’ve never tested this assumption. They’ve never tried to exercise their hero license. In fact, the place I hear this most often is from founders saying, ‘Well, I’m not a technical person, so I’m not quite sure what I should do. But I just haven’t seen very much from my tech team recently. I wonder what could I do to help them? Because I’m not seeing any results.’ I actually have these printed physical certificates so I usually respond, ‘Would you like one of my certificates that gives you official permission from Squirrel to ask questions of your technology team?’ Very few people actually take me up on this. But happily they may take up the license to actually ask questions, which I always find very helpful. Almost never is the response to those questions, ‘Well, that was useless question. You should stop asking us.’ They might give a very technical answer or an answer that’s not very helpful. But that doesn’t mean the question is not valid. I printed the licenses so I could hand them out to people and give them the permission to actually ask the questions. That sounds much like a hero license.

Jeffrey: That’s right. In London for security on the tube we’re all told ‘See Something? Say Something.’ That’s a great motto to bring in to your teams. When people feel empowered to actually speak, they might speak on all kinds of things! This week it happeend that a developer saw a comment in the feedback form from a client. They pinged the account manager and said, ‘Hey, what should we do about this? Here’s what the client said.’ That led to a discussion between the developer and the account manager and others that was very productive. It would have been easy for them to instead thinkg, ‘that’s not for me to talk about. I’m a developer. My job is the code. Business people and salespeople, it’s their job to talk about clients.’

Squirrel: ‘I’d better stay in my lane.’

Jeffrey: Exactly. I better stay in my lane. I’m not licensed to cover that. I haven’t been certified to go think and talk about what our users are actually doing.

Squirrel: I imagine some of our listeners are empathising at this point because their organisations may have people who stay precisely in their lanes and don’t move out. What would we say to them?


Listen to this section at 08:12

Jeffrey: The most fundamental thing we’re saying here is that it’s worth trying to improve it. If you see something that seems wrong, try to fix it. Try to get better at it. This applies both personally and in teamwork. You can look around and say, ‘Well, gosh, how come we’re doing this? It’s not just us, all these other teams, we’re all having these problems. So clearly this idea I have someone else must have tried. Someone else must have thought of it.’ But that’s not true. I saw a line from Dan Luu on Hacker News that just jumped out at me off the page, where he says, ‘But, luckily for me, relatively few people seriously attempt to improve, so I’m able to do ok.’ He felt himself to be not a naturally fast coder. He didn’t feel like this was something he came into with a lot of strength. But because few other people attempt to improve he was able to become fast relative to other people because he actually put work into it. I think it’s true that few people attempt to improve either themselves or the system that they’re part of, and often that might be because they don’t see themselves as empowered to do so.

Squirrel: If you’re in a position of any kind of leadership—I don’t mean that you have a business card that says you have your hero license to tell the rest of the team what to do, I mean that you have some influence either socially or from the org chart or something else—there’s a great opportunity for you to establish a cultural norm. Coming back to Ford this is what he was attempting from his position at the top of the org chart, which you could do partway down or even at the bottom. If you establish the principle that everyone has a hero license, that everyone should be looking for improvements, we’d advance faster. This includes trying the same experiment that failed last week again. When Dan Luu says it’s lucky for him, that’s because he’s trying a lot of failed experiments to help himself be more productive. The same thing could apply to your team. What experiment did you try this week that mimics one you tried last month? How are you varying it and learning more from attempting the failure again?

Jeffrey: Things change! The experiments that haven’t worked in the past may work in the future. You made this point about leadership, and I want to make sure this applies to me as well. It can be very tempting to embrace the role of expert. I could comfortably lean on facts that prop that up. I’ve been doing this for many years. I have the grey beard. I have the stories from the nineties. I’ve read a lot of these books. I’ve met a lot of these people. I’ve talked to the conferences.

Squirrel: I remember hiring you specifically because you had a grey beard.

Jeffrey: Of course, my most durable asset. It’s very tempting to stay in that role of the expert. If our goal here is improvement, we must recognize the world is changing around us and we’re looking to also change the world. This morning I saw a seminar on Twitter from Chris Mattes where he said, ‘There are no experts in the complex world, only practitioners. Experts exist in the complicated domain. I once attended a session where an expert presented three exemplars. By the end of the session, two more been identified. How can you claim to be an expert in a developing field?’ Our goal is to be always improving. We want our field to always be developing. That means we want to be in a place where we can be sceptical of our own expertise, and open to overturning things we believe but don’t know with certainty. Even then, actually, there’s one of those quotes attributed to Will Rogers that probably he didn’t say, ‘it’s not the things we don’t know that get us in trouble, it’s the things we know that just ain’t so.’ So a bit of openness amongst the experts and willingness to reconsider things is something healthy to bring forward. Personally, I considered myself to be quite good at communication when I came to work with you in London. I had done many talks in the field, I had spent many years giving webinars, it’s something I had studied. Fortunately, I was able to be open-minded when you introduced me to Benjamin Mitchell, who pointed out, as he put it, ‘you’re quite good at advocacy, but I’m not hearing a lot of enquiry.’ The idea that I was missing an element in a field where I thought I was quite strong is what led to us creating this podcast and our book. So for those experts who feel they’ve already done the work, they’ve been innovating, they’ve learnt all these things, remain open even in the face of your own experience.

Squirrel: ‘I’ve helped over 150 technology teams transform themselves, and twice just this week somebody asked me a question I had no clue how to answer. I had to think very hard and I don’t think I answered perfectly. There’s plenty of room for improvement and learning, especially in a fast-changing field like we’re in.

Jeffrey: Luckily, you had your hero license, which allowed you to make the effort!

Squirrel: If listeners would like to get a hero license, we’re happy to grant one to them. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.