This is a transcript of episode 149 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel tells the story of a client who was asked an impossible question about agile team productivity, and we explore why such impossible questions are actually valuable and worth investigating with curiosity.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. I’m here to ask you an impossible question.

Squirrel: Excellent. I’m looking forward to it. I had one of those this week.

Jeffrey: Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I wish I had the impossible question for you but instead, what I wanted to know is, what is the impossible question and how do you go about answering it? You told me you had what seemed like a conundrum to me or a paradox, you said there’s this impossible question and you should answer it and that combination didn’t make sense to me. So what do you mean by that?

Squirrel: I thought there was opportunity for learning when I heard it. So I was coaching someone, as I often do, who’s in the leadership of a technology team. And somebody asked that person an impossible question. And he brought it to me and said, isn’t this an impossible question? Isn’t it so annoying that people ask these impossible questions? The impossible question was what productivity gains are we going to get from the new people we’re going to hire in the next quarter? And my reaction to that question was, A)You’re absolutely right, that’s impossible. And B) It’s very important that you answer this impossible question. And that kind of blew his mind. And so I thought it might be a learning opportunity for all of us.

Jeffrey: Yeah. It seems like the idea that this is an impossible question to answer and you should answer it, I kind of come to mind like the Star Trek, Kobayashi Maru thing like this is an unwinnable situation. How do we answer a question that’s impossible to answer?

Squirrel: The situation is actually very similar to that for those who don’t know what the Kobayashi Maru is, it’s this test in the Star Trek universe where someone who’s learning to be a starship captain has to deal with a situation where you can either rescue some passengers and start a war or you can abandon the passengers and let them die. And it’s designed so that there is no answer that will address the situation. In all likelihood, your entire spaceship is going to be destroyed anyway. So the goal is not in that situation to necessarily answer the question directly, not answer it as it is posed, what can we do about this ship, the Kobayashi Maru? How can we deal with that ship and what should we do with it? The question is, how is the person who’s being tested going to handle this impossible situation? What will they do? And that’s an example of going beyond the question, which is what I was suggesting to the person I was coaching after he kind of picked himself up off the floor and said, well, why are you telling me to answer an impossible question? I said, well, it’s kind of like when a child asks you an impossible question and kids love these. So I thought of two of them that the first one is, what colour is the monster underneath my bed? And then the other one I thought of is, what do dogs dream about? And those are really important good questions that kids ask. They’re also impossible to answer. There is no monster under the bed, so there’s no colour to describe.

Squirrel: And although it would be great to know what dogs dream about, we don’t have telepathy, especially for dogs. And although there’s evidence dogs dream, we have absolutely no idea what they’re dreaming about. We can’t know. But just like the question that someone else in the business asked the person I was coaching, what productivity gains will we get from these people we’re going to hire in the future? It’s a valid question. It’s a worthwhile question to ask. And answering it will help everybody to learn, because, for example, when you answer the child’s question, you can go to a broader context and ask about why are you thinking about monsters under your bed? What’s important about the monster? Could we draw a picture of the monster? There are lots of places you can go with the question without answering it, which, of course, is impossible. And there are ways to address the concern that the child has, which is, for example, how real is this fear that I have of monsters or how can I really understand my dog if I can’t understand what the dog is dreaming about? If those are the sorts of things the person is really wanting to know, you can actually answer those and you can address the question that is underlying the question, and that’s really useful. So, for example, I was suggesting that this person, of course, not try to predict the exact productivity metrics of a software developer, that person’s not even met yet. We don’t even know who this will be or when they will arrive or if we’ll even find them.

Squirrel: But you can say something meaningful about the types of productivity gains that you expect. And in fact, once we dug into this, my person I was coaching had this very nice graph which actually answered the question effectively in a meaningful way that helped others to understand what he said was, well, if we hire the group of people, we’re going to hire slowly, then we won’t lose much productivity. Our graph will look like this and was kind of a flat graph and then it went up because it was going to be flat while we brought on the new people. And then the new people would add productivity and he could answer in that qualitative way. Couldn’t say that we’re going to complete 17.2 more story points every sprint, that wasn’t meaningful. But he could also say that if we hire these people quickly then we’ll have a big burden of onboarding them and therefore the graph will be a kind of a ‘U’, it’ll dip for a while while we get less productivity and we train the new people and then it will go up and it will be better. And that was a really meaningful answer, which was very helpful to the people who were asking him. And it was after we were able to get to that by taking the impossible question seriously that we were able to get to that useful answer which responded to the context of the actual impossible question, which we couldn’t answer.

Going Beyond the Words

Listen to this section at 05:46

Jeffrey: Interesting. It sounds like you were able to share some useful assumptions and beliefs and essentially this model, the person you’re coaching had a model for what would happen as you hired people that was valuable to share, even though it wasn’t a direct answer to the question. It didn’t feel or seem like the literal answer to the question. One thing that puzzled me about this is about how you choose this response, because other times I’ve heard you hear a question, you know, answer a question that seems impossible in maybe a different way. You’ve answered it as mu, which I know from, originally the jargon file and from Zen saying something like ‘unask the question’. Why is this an engage with it productively, rather than mu?

Squirrel: Yeah, and that’s a really interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that. I can tell you what I think about. I think in both cases understanding the underlying context and answering the kind of hidden questions is the thing that I’m after. I’d say in the mu case, I’d say that I’m responding that way because the other person has an assumption that I want to undo. So the classic example of this is the question. All of these are impossible questions, by the way, but one that’s kind of deserving of a mu response, in my view, is have you stopped beating your wife? And this has an assumption built into it, which is at some point you beat your wife. And if you answer yes, I have, it means I did in the past, but I don’t anymore. And if you say no, I haven’t, it means I’m still doing it. And both of them are incorrect because of the assumption. And so what you’d like to do is change the context that the other person has. I guess that’s one way to think about it. So if someone came to me and said, is scrum going to solve our software stability and predictability problems, then I would probably answer mu because the assumption that’s underlying that is No.1 One scrum is a well-defined thing that we can talk about. And it’s an exact measure we could measure whether scrum is effective in all circumstances. And the other assumption that underlies it is that there are solutions that are likely to handle all of our difficulties, some kind of magic pill that we can take that will somehow make those things better.

Squirrel: And I would want to undo those assumptions before I tried to answer the question. So the question’s impossible, but I want to change the context for the other person and see if I can align with them on different assumptions. In the case of the question about what would the productivity be for our team members, I’m not sure, at least in that case, that I wanted to change the context. It could be that I would want to answer mu and say, ‘well, gosh, there’s not a meaningful way to measure productivity.’ So I can’t really tell you what the change in productivity is. But I do think there are meaningful answers. And I think the assumption that we can think about productivity and different ways of bringing people into the team then of adjusting productivity and affecting it and improving it, I think those are meaningful questions to ask. I think that’s a meaningful context and I wouldn’t necessarily want to undo it. And in fact, once we dug into it a bit, we were able to discover this model that the answer already had. And he could pull it out and he could say, ‘hey, look at these graphs.’ So he had been thinking about productivity in a meaningful way, in fact, had a sort of an answer. So I didn’t really want to undo the context. I didn’t want to change the assumptions before answering. I wanted to answer in the context the person had. So that’s how I think about those two. But they’re both impossible questions and both valuable to answer.

Jeffrey: One thing that occurs to me is I reflect back on when I’ve heard you give that answer. The thing that seemed to me maybe is a factor that I think you’ve generally brought up in the context of it being someone you were coaching. And so I wonder if there’s something also about the relationship and the dynamics that in this case, you’re saying in one hand it’s sort of it’s important here to engage correctly in the spirit which it’s being asked and rather than trying to train the person, which might be similar, what you’re describing about they have an incorrect assumption.

Role-play of Handling an Impossible Question

Listen to this section at 10:02

Squirrel: See, I don’t think it’s necessarily incorrect. And I tried to be careful about how I said that. I would like to align better on the assumptions because it may be their assumption is correct. So I think that you’re right to point to depth of relationship but not necessarily only a coaching relationship. So I’d answer mu to you, for example, because I’ve known you for a long time. And if you came to me and said, “hey, Squirrel, I’m wondering whether this new podcast software that we could switch to, would that make our podcasting audience triple?”

Squirrel: I might say “Jeffrey, the answer to that is mu, because you’re assuming that there’s some magic software that will somehow make our podcasting audience much bigger. And I don’t think that’s an assumption that we share.” And you might come back and say, “well, yeah, I talked to 10 other podcasters and their audiences all tripled when they use the software.” And I’d say “maybe this assumption has more validity than I thought. But you might also say, “well, yeah, Squirrel I guess I’m kind of making an assumption there. Let’s align better on what the assumption is but I would be willing to do that with you, because I know you well, I value our relationship and I want to align on assumptions.” I might not do that as readily unless it were very important to align with someone I knew less well.

Jeffrey: Right. OK, and so in the case of not mu, we go back because it did seem like there was an important relationship element here between the two people, as you said it can be I’ve heard of these kind of questions before. And I’ve had my own frustration with being asked questions that I thought were impossible. I might have said nonsensical or incoherent or other such judgements on my part. And what I liked about this in your story is you were saying put aside that sort of judgement, go beyond the literal words and understand the spirit which it is being asked and engage productively with with that sense of intent.

Squirrel: And just to describe a little more how I might approach it, where I really think it’s incoherent, I might say something like “the literal meaning of your question would make it impossible to answer, but I really think you have something important there. Could you tell me more about the context? What’s the reason for your question? What will you do with the answer? If I were to say yes, how would that change your point of view?” I heard you asking that earlier this week, Jeffrey. And I think that’s a very helpful that kind of dialogue and that kind of questioning as a response to the question to understand the context can be very helpful. So if someone had come to me and said, “Squirrel, I want to know how kubernetes improves team productivity.” I might say, “hang on, those things are just really unrelated, as far as I can tell. But I think you’re driving at something important. Can you help me out?” Because I do think that’s a kind of incoherent question. And it’s the kind of question that somebody who might be non-technical and has just read an exciting article might ask me. But if they’re excited about team productivity, I want to talk to them. I want to find out what they’re excited about, what benefit would they get? Does this mean there are new options, new resources, something new that we could do as a result of their excitement or whatever has triggered them to ask the question? So I do want to find out more about it. And so asking a question back can be a very helpful thing in order to discover what the motivation, what the question is behind it and what is the context, what leads to the incoherence. It’s not bad to share that you see it as incoherent, but to do it in a judgemental way, to dismiss the question and say, well, your question doesn’t mean anything, go away is to miss an opportunity for learning, I think.

Jeffrey: And that’s what stands out here, so answering the impossible question is important because you have a chance to work on the relationship and understand what’s really important with people. This I think for me was the big takeaway of this topic. So I’m really happy that you had that experience and could share with us.

Squirrel: Indeed, while I enjoy doing so. If our listeners are getting impossible questions and want to talk to us about how to answer them or if they have answers to some of our impossible questions, that would be fantastic. You can find us at where you find our blogs and emails and Twitter and phone numbers and who knows what else. So get in touch with us. We really like hearing from listeners. And also, of course, you can come and listen to us again next week by hitting whatever subscribe button might be there on your screen or on your phone or whatever you’re using, because we’ll be here next week with lots more. We might even take a break for Christmas, but I’m sure that we’ll put up something, one of our classic episodes and we’ll be here every week for you to listen to us talk about impossible questions.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.