This is a transcript of episode 246 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel has a suggestion for collaborating with people who are irrationally wedded to particular “agile processes”, and Jeffrey has related ideas for working to their polar opposite, the anti-zealots who say no process will ever work.

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Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:11

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. Hey, I was looking at your Twitter feed, and I saw a tweet about “process zealots.”

Squirrel: Oh, man. One of my favorite topics.

Jeffrey: Is it? Great, I was hoping we could talk about it at CITCON coming up next month. What do you think?

Squirrel: That would be super, if I had known about CITCON in enough time to plan to go. So for the first time in 16 years or something, I won’t be going.

Jeffrey: Oh, no!

Squirrel: Which means there’s a space open for listeners who want to go to this thing. You better tell them what it is.

Jeffrey: CITCON is the “continuous integration and testing conference,” and CITCON Europe is happening in the Netherlands in October. You can come and talk to me about anything you’ve heard on Troubleshooting Agile. I’ll also be, by the way, at the DevOps Enterprise Summit after that. Will you be there Squirrel?

Squirrel: I won’t be there either. But you know what? I am going to be in other places Jeffrey, we’re just going to miss each other all over. I’m going to be in Berlin and in Vienna doing events there on tech and product warring and other exciting topics. So there’s lots of places where we are, but none of them are the same place.

Jeffrey: Okay, so if people would like to to meet up with us in the coming months, we’ll put links in the show notes and we’d love to talk to you about how to analyze your conversations and other ways to make software better. But since we won’t see each other, perhaps we could talk about process zealots today.

Squirrel: That sounds great!

Jeffrey: You had a great quote—

Establishing Connection

Listen to this section at 01:55

When you have a process zealot in your team, ask them to connect your practises to their “Bible” (Scrum, Lean, SaFE, whatever). Chances are what you want to do is in the Good Book and that will help them see why it’s useful.

Jeffrey: …do you want to explain your tweet and what you meant by it?

Squirrel: Sure, I don’t remember the tweet exactly, which is why I tweet: so I don’t have to remember. But I do remember the situation. One of the leaders that I’m coaching said, “Man, I just couldn’t get this guy on-side. He kept telling us that we weren’t doing ‘less’,” or maybe it was Scrum or Lean or I don’t know. But this guy was attached to one of these acronyms and my client just could not unattach him. It was like he was attached with a sucker and couldn’t be pried off. Every time my client would say, “Could we try this thing that would help us and address this problem,” the person would say,” Oh, but look here on page 50, it says we have to do it this way.” My client was tearing his hair out, and the solution he found kind of by accident was that he got the person to identify how one of the things that was clearly going to help was actually part of whatever process it was. So he said, “oh, so what we’re doing is X, and we’re doing that on alternate Thursdays just like it says here in the book. But it’s a real innovation so why don’t we do it every week.” And the person said, “Yeah, that sounds great! Why don’t you go and investigate this more? Maybe we can write about it and tell people how great it is that we’ve innovated and we’re using this stupendous process.” I hasten to add not to do this in an underhanded way. None of “That sounds great. (Aside) Ha ha ha, into my hand, I’m just humoring this person.” I advised him to say “you and I don’t agree on the value of this process, but it sounds like there’s something valuable in it that you found. So let’s work on that.” That’s the attitude with which I intended the insight. Maybe if you have someone whose zealotry is getting in the way, you could help them to see how their zealotry could be turned in a helpful direction, is the idea.

Jeffrey: Right. The way you describe it, “ask them to connect your practices to their bible,” I really like that. The idea that what you’re doing that you see is beneficial is probably reflected in some way in whatever the process is. There are certain things that you need to be doing and these different processes might use different terminology, but ultimately the goal is to ship software, so there are probably similar components at the core. Is that kind of what you had in mind?

Squirrel: Yeah, absolutely. There’s likely to be something valuable in any of these processes. They all follow the same sorts of ideas. They worked for somebody once, as you were telling me a little while ago, so there must be something good in it. That’s what this person kind of stumbled on. I wanted to share with more people the idea that you could actually pull that out and say, “well, look, we might not agree on all these things, but there is this one here that we do seem to agree on. Maybe we could work on that together.”

Jeffrey: I think this is why it resonated with me, is because lately on Twitter I found myself getting a bit bummed out by the negativity.

The Resistance

Listen to this section at 05:26

Squirrel: Really? I’m shocked.

Jeffrey: I know. Maybe I shouldn’t spend as much time there as I do.

Squirrel: It’s write-only for me. I just write and run.

Jeffrey: Probably healthier. I read it because some people share interesting ideas of what they’re doing and I really enjoy hearing the positive things. “Hey, we tried this, it worked well.” I like the success stories. What I find really anti-valuable are the things where people say, “I’m so sick of this process, it will never work.” Really what they say is “I’m sick of people who keep telling me to use this process, keep pushing, forcing this process on us. It’s stupid. It could never work.” Now that you talk about process zealots, I’m thinking these are the anti-zealots. The one that triggered me this week was someone saying “I’ve given up, I’m not going to resist. Fine, I’ll write myself OKRs. But of course this is not going to possibly add any value.” Total dismissal of the process. The thing about that is processes aren’t that important—and this might sound strange—in the particulars, which is to say every process that exists, someone probably took the time to right it down because it worked for them. It worked for them in some context and they said, “Hey, this has useful attributes that other people could apply and learn from.” Now, certainly some people go too far, zealots who say, “Oh, this is the one right way, now that it has been written down this is the one true way and everyone should adopt it.” It is a bit like the XKCD comic for standards. But it has worked for someone, so rather than just dismissing them as useless why not ask: what was it that people found valuable? When people found this valuable, what problem was it solving for them? Maybe that would be useful for me, or maybe it’s not a problem we have. Sometimes when people suggest a process, my response to them might be, “Look, I just don’t understand that it solves a problem we have. Do you think we have a problem that this addresses?” Because, maybe maybe we do, maybe we don’t. If we do, then it’s worth discussing. If someone’s just advocating it because they think this is the right process and they don’t particularly have a problem in mind to solve, then I’m less interested. This curiosity I think is something that you tapped into here, or your client did, when dealing with their process zealot. “Well, how does what we’re doing relate to what’s in your process?” That kind of curiosity to me is what unlocked that interaction for them to be excited and make those connections, because those connections might be there. Long time listeners of our podcast or people who’ve read our book are not going to be surprised that we talk about balancing advocacy and inquiry. I’ve seen problems where people lack that balance.

Squirrel: Well, maybe we could try it out here, Jeffrey. I’m known for being outspoken in my criticism of Scrum. Maybe if we work hard at it, I could find something that could be useful in Scrum. How about that?

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’d be great. Can I be the Scrum person?

Squirrel: Sure, but I might be able to do this on my own because I was thinking about it while you were talking. It strikes me that Scrum must have worked for somebody, and it does work for lots and lots of folks. From the name I’m remembering the rugby games I used to watch at university and didn’t understand, a mass of humans all coming together and you can’t find the ball underneath. But the whole idea that you would work really hard on something as a unit seems very, very helpful. We now have ideas like mob programming which people are getting great success with, which has a similar idea. So if you were the Scrum zealot and you were telling me we can’t break the sprint, we have to concentrate, I might ask, where we can find a particular thing that would be really helpful to concentrate on, to focus on intently as a whole team, even if it’s not our specialty and for us to work cross functionally on, because I bet you could find such a thing and we could agree on it, even if I wouldn’t agree that we should never break the sprint and the backlog grooming should have a backlog grooming.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that was great.

Squirrel: I’m maligning Scrum, by the way. Don’t write this letters. I know that it’s “backlog refinement”, not “backlog grooming”. Don’t write us letters.

Moving Past Labels

Listen to this section at 10:45

Jeffrey: What I like there is in a sense you recapitulated a conversation that I had with someone in the past couple of weeks where we were doing a retrospective, and they are Scrum advocates and had used them before and talked about the value of Scrum ,and they said “Oh, you know, that would be one of the great things about Scrum are the iterations, that we have frozen what’s going to happen during the sprint and-“

Squirrel: Freezing!? Eugh! Sorry.

Jeffrey: So I said “That’s great, freezing actually was one of the real innovations of Scrum because if I go back to the nineties where these things came out of, one of the biggest problems, one of the classic mistakes was changing requirements. To say ‘look let’s go ahead and freeze the requirements for a week or two and allow people to actually get stuff done rather than being constantly in flux.’ That was fantastic. That was a real innovation that helped a lot of teams.”

Squirrel: Absolutely! In their context, which is different from our context today in many cases, but not all.

Jeffrey: Exactly. That was exactly how the conversation proceeded. “I think given where we are on this project, I’m not sure that I would value that. In fact, we’re kind of at the opposite stage where we’re trying to talk to clients and respond quickly and we want to be able to turn things around in less than a week or two. So I’m not sure that the trade offs,” and that’s what I always go to, “the trade offs involved in having these planning meetings where you set the sprint context and freeze it are the ones that I would make for us right now. What do you think?” That was how the conversation proceeded. But it started with that idea that, “yes, there are these things that are valuable. Are those trade offs that make sense for us?”

Squirrel: It sounds good to me. Did you manage to find a common ground with this person? Did you find something that you could both agree on and work on together?

Jeffrey: Oh, I think so, we did were able to work through that. I think it was a positive conversation in part because it wasn’t about binary zealotry, “it must be Scrum” or “it can’t be Scrum,” instead talking about what were the particular problems and contexts and trade offs that were relevant, both in the past when this person would use it successfully, and now the current context. I really like your initial lead in here to go to the people who are very attached to a given process, who are really strongly advocating it, and asking that question “how is what we’re doing reflected in your process,” I think that invites them to be a bit curious as well, gets them into a more of a introspective mindset rather than just strongly advocating. That is what leads to a higher quality interaction. So I’m really happy that you had that tweet and we could talk about it now, even though I’m disappointed we won’t be able to talk about it at CITCON.

Squirrel: If you’re thinking to yourself, “My zealot would never have any common ground with me. I’m such an anti-zealot, this zealot and I could never come to any agreement.” I’m reminded of a chap named Xavier Amador who does work with people who have very severe mental disorders, the ones who believe that other people shoot lasers out of their eyes and that the aliens on Mars are controlling us with radio waves and stuff like that. He has a whole process for agreeing with them, finding something that you can empathize with, and partnering with them to find a solution. So if he can do it with people who have that level of literally out of this world zealotry, I have the feeling that we could find something in common no matter which side of the zealot, anti-zealot spectrum we might happen to be on. So we’ll leave a link in the show notes to some of his great material.

Jeffrey: Yeah, his LEAP method. That’s fantastic and I really like that you brought that into this conversation.

Squirrel: Sounds good. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.