This is a transcript of episode 184 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
Squirrel and Jeffrey trade stories about coaching people who feel trapped by a decision seemingly outside their control—and how a recursive question can help unlock more options and a better result.
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. This is the last episode that I record from London. By the time this comes out, I should be in California, returning to where I was almost 10 years ago, before you and I started working together at TIM. It’s a momentous podcast for that alone, although perhaps we can make it more momentous by having a great topic to discuss.
Squirrel: We can certainly try. This is a topic that came up in our joint coaching, which along with the podcast will be continuing even bi-continentally. This came came up with every person we talked to on a specific day, which was really fun. Jeffrey, do you want to describe this kind of recursive decision-making procedure?
Don’t They Understand
Jeffrey: It is funny how some days each conversation is different, they rhyme. This was a day was like that. We were dealing with a particular type of conflict. The one I think was pretty exemplary was a scenario where there were two people who actually shared a view of what the priorities should be. However, the change our client wanted to make contradicted something that the other person felt that they had to do, conflicted with directions they had been given. This clash of priorities comes up pretty frequently in my own world. Maybe there’s some OKRs set as a priority for some period of time, and then something comes up and the appropriate response is unclear. Do we change based on the new information? Do we stick to the plan? Different people have different information and different views on this. That was the scenario that we saw. From a coaching aspect what often presents is the person we’re talking to feels very frustrated. They feel stuck, that there’s a thing that needs to happen, which can’t. It feels like there’s nowhere to go.
Squirrel: ‘Those other people far away that I can’t talk to, they said, we have to do this.’
Jeffrey: That’s right. Especially if, when you feel this way, the person you’re talking to actually is already convinced, it seems like now there’s nothing either of you can do. We said, ‘this is not the end of the conversation, the end of what you need to bring up.’ This is true whether or not the other person is convinced, this also comes up when the other person disagrees with you over priorities or what should be done. Rather than saying, ‘do my way,’ ask the question: ‘how will the company decide? You and I have a different idea of what the priorities are about, what the right thing would be. But how would the company decide which of us are right or which of these two paths to follow?’ That question we found serves as a very useful invitation and really changes the view of the conversation.
Squirrel: Of course, the possibility is that the answer could be, ‘well, we have to go see those other people.’ That other team hasn’t prioritised this work, or you can’t get it through the operations team to get deployed, or the regulator will never agree something like that, so on. We have a recursive approach to this.
Jeffrey: Well it comes up in different ways. If we disagree about who would be the person to decide, then ‘how does the company decide how the company decides?’ So it gets a bit meta but what we’re saying is, if we have a disagreement, there should be a way for the company to resolve this. We’re not sure where it is. It could be that we need to go to your boss or my boss or some executive. It could be that different executives are stakeholders, and those executives disagree. That doesn’t mean we’re done. We just say, ‘well, great. In that case, how does the executive team decide?’ This can keep going as far as the CEO, the board, until you get to a point where there’s an agreement about how decisions would be made.
Deciding With the Information Available
Squirrel: Which could include agreement not to do the thing you have been advocating this whole time. Part of the point is that you’re grabbing hold of something that you think is important and carrying it as far as you need to. But rather than being the immovable object that meets the irresistible force, instead being the person who says ‘this is a contradiction, we need to do something about it.’ I had someone I was coaching who had a similar situation in his software development team. He believed that he had got to a good state with one particular project. He had focussed a lot of his time and energy on it, and he thought it was in good shape, in good hands, and he could be more effective if he and some members of his team worked on a different project. They wouldn’t abandon the first one, but it had a lot of care and attention and white glove hand-feeding he thought wasn’t needed. He said, ‘Squirrel, the person above me in the organisation always objects in the same way. He says that’s our most important client, we need to take care of them, and strategic things like addressing problems in the code and looking for our next market, hiring more people, those are all less important than this particular client. So put your nose to the grindstone, make this client successful.’ My guy just kept saying, ‘Well, I don’t see it that way, and I’m not convinced of it. I can’t see what I would contribute. I can’t see that that would be the best way to use our resources.’ I said ‘the trick for you is to have the conversation about what thing you might do next without being immovable on it.’ It could very well be that the next thing needed is to continue on this project. But that means that you’re going to be trading something else. Often the company should make a decision about that kind of thing. The company should have a institutional memory of its decisions and it should do so with full information. Otherwise, people in the rest of the organisation such as the board of directors are going to say, ‘Why didn’t you ever tell us? We didn’t have this information.’ I don’t think I’ve ever read about this in an Agile development book because those are usually all about the tactical situation, where you’re trying to make a strategic decision. You may have to carry this discussion a long way beyond your organisation in order to discover the contradictions, to force the company to confront them. They may make a decision that’s counter to where you think it should go. But if you make sure the decision is made explicitly, it’ll be helpful. In a case we were looking at together the question was, ‘are we are we headed for a technical disaster and do we want to continue peddling madly toward the cliff and waiting for the disaster to come?’ The answer might have been yes. But the problem in that case was nobody ever got a chance to decide. If you’re looking at terrible technical debt, a major feature hole, something that you’re seeing in your Agile team that isn’t happening the way that you would like it to happen, and you haven’t helped the company to make a decision about it, that’s that’s on you. That’s your responsibility. It is legitimate for someone to come to you later and say, ‘you never told me.’ That’s putting an awful lot of responsibility on you, but the good news is it’s putting responsibility on you so you can do something about it.
Jeffrey: I’d like to emphasise it comes down to the right mindset. There were three elements about mindset that I think are worth repeating. One was a very tactical choice of words: you use the word trade-off, and you said ‘between these two things,’ there are trade-offs. This is in part actually something that comes from a mindset that really any decision can be acceptable as long as we know what trade-offs we’re making. That’s a different place to come from than ‘this is the right decision and that’s the wrong decision.’
Squirrel: ‘Oh but Jeffrey, this is the best practise. This is what all the other companies are doing. Netflix does it this way, so shouldn’t we? This is the right way.’
Jeffrey: You’re allowed to advocate! We’d recommend you advocate in terms of trade-offs, because there are circumstances when your priorities will be different. Right now you value X over Y but at another time you might value y over X. In the example of ‘do we keep peddling madly towards this cliff?’ Well, if we know there’s something before the cliff, maybe yes, take three more petals to the cliff, then stop. Once we have that valuable thing, then go fix the problem. That might be a perfectly rational thing to do so. This view of and articulation of trade-offs is partially mindset, but practically it’s the language. Introducing the language of trade-offs into the conversation can be very helpful because it helps get other people into that same mindset. The second element about mindsets I wanted to repeat is the most important one: choosing mutual learning instead of unilateral control. Link in the show notes to our past episodes on this. When you’re so convinced that you’re right about the right thing to do, the natural instinct is to use this unilateral control model to make sure you get your way, the ‘right answer.’ That’s what leads to unproductive conflict. Moving to mutual learning and in the Eight Behaviours world, there’s jointly designed next steps. That’s what we’re trying to do here explicitly. We’re saying, ‘Well, what’s the next step? If you and I can’t resolve it ourselves, it should not longer just be this thing between us. So how will the company decide?’ The third element as far mindset goes is this idea of taking ownership for something that might feel far away.
Squirrel: ‘I’m just a system admin. Why am I supposed to worry about worrying about speed of response? I’m supposed to make sure it’s up, but whether it’s performing for users or not, that’s a developer question.
Jeffrey: It’s a very natural thing for people to stay within their zone of control.
Squirrel: Your zone of comfort, where you’re feeling happy and you can avoid conflict.
Jeffrey: What we’re what we’re recommending here is a more high-agency approach. You are the one with the information, you believe you’ve seen something and that if other people could see what you see, they would probably make a different decision. That’s your hypothesis. That’s what’s motivating you. Have the agency to follow up on that. If you take that sort of control, in my experience that leads not just to better outcomes, but it’s much more fun. In the book Drive, Daniel Pink talks about autonomy, purpose and mastery, this is using your autonomy. You’ve seen this thing now we’re trying to give you a way to use these instincts. You have to then take this forward into a positive, constructive conversation. Again, this is not something you do to make sure you get your way. You’re doing it to make sure there’s an explicit decision. It’s very important when you approach this that you do so in a spirit of ‘the company can make whatever decision it wants, but if the company makes a conscious decision while considering these trade-offs, what would be more valuable to do?’
Squirrel: Often you’re balancing risks: the trade-off is a risk of something bad happening or a risk that you won’t recognise an opportunity, won’t build a feature, won’t be able to take advantage of a new technology or something. If that risk then is borne to fruition, if it actually occurs, then the trick is not to say ‘I told you so’ because that won’t help your case either. Instead you are able to say, ‘Oh, so this is one of those things we considered, right? And we said that if X happened, we would do Y. Does everybody remember that?’ That’s a way of ensuring that the decision, if it’s made well, then gets executed well. ‘We said that if the client became unhappy as a result of bad performance, then we would reprioritize and I would go and help the development team tune. Should I do that on Monday or Tuesday?’ That would be a high-agency way of presenting the result without blaming anyone or saying it’s bad, because it isn’t. ‘We made the decision, we took the risk, the event occurred. Now we have an angry client. What are we doing about that? We planned to do this. Well, are we ready to do that plan?’ Another client story, there’s a team that is having real trouble getting over some risk. I asked the person I was coaching one of your classic questions, Jeffrey. I said, ‘Why can’t we do that tomorrow? That thing that would cause us risk?’ And he said, ‘Oh, well, the rest of the company would be really unhappy. We have to avoid errors and problems and things going wrong.’ And I said, ‘have you verified that?’ And he said, ‘Well, actually, no.’ Then I said, ‘I have the feeling that they might be willing to take the risk and to agree to actions like manually restoring data or phoning angry customers and molifying them or doing other actions, which then would allow you to take more risk. And then you could actually take that step today, which then decreases your risk later.’ He was planning a Big Bang, turn it all on all on one day. I said, ‘that’s less likely to work. That seems very high risk. Why don’t we take a lower risk of a different thing and let’s do it tomorrow instead of a few weeks from now?’ So as far as I know, he’s off making that happen right now.
Jeffrey: Very nice. Well, there’s there’s a lot to this topic, because the different kind of scenarios where this might come up are are plentiful. I’m hoping that people will find a place for it in their in their toolkit.
Squirrel: That would be fantastic. Thanks, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.