This is a transcript of episode 229 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel and Jeffrey are both seeing faster results from coaching clients through the amazing technique of just asking them to go faster — and explaining the reason. They explain why and how this works and how you can put it into practice too.

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Listen to this section at 00:11

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. You’ve made a change to how you’ve been coaching people recently, and I would love for you to share with myself and the listeners what you’ve been doing and how it’s been working out.

Squirrel: It’s fantastic. What I do is book regular meetings with people, and there’s still some people maybe listening to this who have those regular meetings in their calendar. Well, if you started with me today what I would do is book 15 minutes with you, and not book anymore.

Jeffrey: Well that seems strange, is that all I get?

Squirrel: No. What happens is that in that 15 minutes—and sometimes we go over, I allow more time, but in that 15 minutes—I say, “Right, what can we do today? What can you get done tomorrow?” I look for homework that the person I’m coaching can do. I had one today where I asked, “could you do that Thursday?” and he said, “Yeah, that’d be pretty easy.” I said, “How about Wednesday?” He said, “Great, I think I could do it then.” So I booked the next 15 minute session for Wednesday. In fact, he just wrote me before I got on to do the podcast with you today, Monday when we’re recording, and he said, “Actually, I did it today.” I was ecstatic. “I might try to squeeze in a time tomorrow to see him and to take the next step. This has been tremendous in accelerating progress. Some of my clients are getting whiplash because they’re moving so fast, but this is a good problem.

Jeffrey: It’s funny, you and I are kind of doing similar things. In the last few months, I’ve had people who I have daily meetings with in the afternoon and we go over and talk about, “what’s the issue today and what will you do for tomorrow?” And we’ll check in again the next day. So very similar small increments and as you say, replacing cadences that were more likely to be a week at a time, and for people who I’m doing things with daily versus people who are doing things weekly, there’s no comparison. We’re getting much more done. Those people are getting much more done in the daily meetings, even though the calendar time looks like it should be the same if I’m doing a one hour session with someone or 4 15 minute sessions, you’d think it’d be the same amount. But that’s not what’s happening.

Squirrel: Well it’s actually different in calendar time. Fewer days of elapsed, but the the clock time is the same.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Squirrel: What I’m finding is that things that I would have said, “okay, great. Well, do that for when I see you next week,” I say “how about Wednesday,” and in one case today, “how about tomorrow?”

Active Working Time

Listen to this section at 02:53

Jeffrey: The reason I thought this is worth talking about is it goes to the heart of something I’ve told people for many years, which is that when we discuss schedules, people are often worried, I hear “this is going to take a long time.” Actually, things don’t take a long time as a rule. What happens is you spend a lot of time not doing them. Things take a long time when you’re not actually doing it. It doesn’t take that long, there’s just this huge overhead. There’s this huge aspect which which in lean terms would be waste: time that’s just waiting. If we put this on a value stream map, it’d be very clear that what we’re talking about here is the amount of time spent adding value. Doing the work is very small, but what’s happened is that the calendar unfolds and a lot of time passes. You have a lot of elapsed time between actually making progress.

Squirrel: “Well, Jeffrey, I’m sorry. You know that can’t possibly be right, because my calendar is full. I’ve just got so many meetings, I couldn’t actually make progress with that until at least next week.”

Jeffrey: I hear that so frequently. But when we get into the details, what tends to happen is there is actually a complete lack of prioritization as people have filled their calendars. Work expands to fill the time available.

Squirrel: Yeah, I don’t let people tell me that they don’t have time. We have the same 86400 seconds—I hope I’ve got that number right—every day. You could use those seconds for something else. What they really mean usually when they say “I don’t have time” is they mean “I have prioritized something else” or “someone has prioritized it for me,” or “I have assumed that I should prioritize in a different way.” My coaching clients who listen will know that I never let them say that. I always make them say “I have prioritized X over Y.” And then my question is “why?” Perhaps they are correct, right? Doing my homework might be less important than fixing a bug that’s going to sink the company. Not arguing. Sounds great. We’ll meet on Thursday, not Wednesday. I’m completely fine with that. But when they say they don’t have time, they’re actually hiding a prioritization decision, and the most helpful thing is to bring that into the open. Of course, it does tend to lead to—we hope productive—conflict, and that’s often what they’re avoiding.

Jeffrey: Yes. You say that they’re making a prioritization decision, but usually it’s only implicitly, they haven’t explicitly made one. It’s when you actually get them to draw out the prioitization decision explicitly, then suddenly people’s behavior change. That’s what I see, is they realize, “oh, wait, actually this is more important.”

Squirrel: “I could cancel every meeting I have today and still create more value for the company if I did this one thing than from all those meetings. Therefore…” Usually they can finish the sentence. There’s another thought experiment I use sometimes Jeffrey, have you seen Independence Day, the movie?

Jeffrey: Oh, many years ago. That’s one where the spaceships show up over all the capital cities?.

Squirrel: That’s the key fact! So I ask them to imagine that spaceships have arrived over every key city on planet Earth, and the lasers are trained. But this time, instead of in the movie where they just start shooting, the aliens say, “We want you to-,” and then I finish the sentence with whatever it is they’re supposed to do. And I say, “Do you think you could get it done this afternoon if that happened?” Now, there are examples where the answer is no: “I’d like to grow a tree in my garden.” Okay, well, you better start shooting. We can’t do that. “I’d like to build a time machine.” Well, I haven’t invented one, go ahead and shoot. But most of the time it’s like, “could we release this feature? Could we hold a meeting with this client?” You know, they’re actions that are in the control of humans and are not unreasonable and therefore they could be done. The only problem is the priorities aren’t right. The aliens kind of remove the prioritization challenge. The aliens say, “okay, do it now.” It suddenly becomes existential. That’s what helps people understand that it’s not that they can’t do it. It’s not that they don’t have enough time. It’s they’re prioritizing something else. And that’s the discussion to have.

The Need is Also Why

Listen to this section at 07:09

Jeffrey: And generally people don’t realize that they are prioritizing things. Instead people have what I might call “status quo bias.” This probably has a real name that our listeners could tell us, but basically people like to have their habits and routines. They like predictability. The idea that I’ve set out a schedule for the week, or maybe the month, certainly multiple days: I have planned what I want to do and I want to go through and follow those plans and follow my routine because that’s my routine! Those are my plans! I don’t like them to be disrupted. People are very resistant, in my experience, to question those priorities that they’ve made. Again, partially because they don’t see them as priorities. They just see them as the way that things are supposed to be, that if I have set them up like this or I’ve made these plans, then those are how things should happen. Where I see this very often is when there’s interruptions. This has been very notable in the last couple of years, given the acquisition that I was part of. The acquiring company very much had a view of “this is our priority, this is what we’re working on now.” They’re very much fans of lean, and one of things that means is that if the management team are trying to make a decision and they realize that they lack information, they seek that information before they commit the decision, which is great. One of the ways that plays out is they then request information from different people in the company and usually on a very short timeline. “We’re trying to make this decision. We need this data. Your team should be able to put it together. Can you get that to us?” It’s the kind of timeline of “can you have it for us this afternoon? Can you have it by tomorrow morning? Because we’re trying to make this decision.”

Squirrel: “The aliens are here. They have spaceships.” That’s the kind of urgency that I think your executive team is trying to communicate. Certainly it is what I’m trying to communicate to my clients. “I’m being paid a nice consulting fee here, you have been asked to make this change. Is there something you’re doing that’s more important than that?” Probably not.

Jeffrey: I think there’s actually lessons here for both sides, and this is why I’m interested in this episode, because for people who are in the position of asking for that data—you might be in management or you might be an engineer—you need data from someone else, maybe from management! The lesson here is to provide the context that allows people to prioritize, to let them change behavior. To say, “this is what we’re trying to get done. Can you get this to me this afternoon? Can you get it to me by tomorrow morning?” Give the people the context, because one of the reasons that people get unhappy is they get the request but without the context. And then it’s just a question of power. “Well, there they go again. They don’t care about us.” When actually all parties are probably behaving reasonably. They’re just not communicating context.

Reasonable Priorities

Listen to this section at 10:06

Squirrel: Exactly. I have a rule for people trying to make this kind of decision, and this works when you’re disappointing somebody—disappointing helpfully, ideally—but it works just as well when you’re asking someone for something. “There is an implicit prioritization here, and it’d be good to make it explicit.” So “this is important because-,” or “this other thing is not important because-.” In either case, if you are able to give that context, then it has a very useful effect on their learning. Maybe that person who’s receiving the request says, “Gosh, this information for regulators seems really important. Maybe I should pay attention to regulators. Maybe more of our sprints should be spent on features that give us information for regulators, cause it seems like they could shut us down. I didn’t know that, but we just got three requests, all of which were super urgent. Maybe I should plan for that.” That’s really useful feedback. That’s a very important signal you could give. And of course, if you can’t give that signal in the position of—as you say, Jeffrey—a requester, whether manager or an engineer, if it boils down to “I really want it. It seems important to me.” Then you might want to go reflect on whether you’re just in some really special situation where it’s never going to happen again and we just really need it right now for a 1-off reason, that could happen, but much more likely you’re pulling pulling rank there. You’re doing something that’s going to erode people’s faith in you. And you ought to take a hard look at whether you actually need that request fulfilled that quickly at all.

Jeffrey: In our prep for this you mentioned that as the near enemy of prioirization. We’re saying this is good if you make an urgent request and you give people the context that is urgent. But it can be very easy to just treat everything that way. “I’m a powerful person, therefore, respond to me quickly.”

Squirrel: Whereas if you can give a guide to behavior, then you have not only increased respect, but you’ve increased knowledge across the organization. “This type of request is really important. This type of customer is important and should go at the front of the queue. This type of need is something that we should pay attention to.” If you do that effectively and you’re not at the near enemy of just being a demanding boss who says, “I want this stuff or else,” then you should see that the people adjust their behavior so it’s actually easier for them to fulfill your requests and maybe they even give you a report of the information so that you get it without asking. That would be the sort of behavior you’d want to see, and that would be beneficial. That’s the benefit of having as you said Jeffrey, a fire drill. It tells people fire is something you should pay attention to. “We should do something when there’s a fire.”

Jeffrey: That’s right. Another way to put it: I’m in favor of people being demanding, but they should be helpfully demanding.

Squirrel: There you go.

Jeffrey: In the same way we say people should be helpfully disappointing. We should be helpful on both sides: helpfully demanding and helpfully disappointing. If you’re not able to comply you can say, “look, I hear you made this request, I am fixing this current outage I think takes priority. My intention is to not do what you’re asking, because I think this other thing is more urgent. Let me know what you think.” We’re actually getting into a conversation here once people start being helpful with each other.

Squirrel: I could be helpfully demanding back and say, “you know, there’s these aliens.”

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Squirrel: “Maybe reconsider that bug fix because the guys in the green suits here with the laser guns, they don’t agree.”

Jeffrey: This is fantastic, I’ve really enjoyed this. One thing it really brings alive to me is something that I remember reading many years ago in Toyota Kata. In the book they’re talking about the improvement kata, and that you set up this cycle of “plan, do, check, act.” It says one of the questions you ask is, “when can we see the results?” It has a little prompt: “Today is not too soon.” It’s okay to make progress today. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s okay to make progress immediately. Progress isn’t something we have to wait for in the future.

Squirrel: There we go. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.