This is a transcript of episode 133 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel describes two shirts he makes for clients, the How Shirt and the What Shirt, that provide a brief and memorable description of the roles of a technical leader and a product leader respectively, reducing chaos and confusion in agile teams. You may not need job descriptions if four words on a shirt suffice, and as a bonus, the shirts can help your team define what they are doing and how they are working toward business goals—and importantly, what they are *not doing.*

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Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Jeffrey: And today I want to talk about this picture you sent me over the weekend.

Squirrel: I can’t believe you never saw that picture!

Jeffrey: I can’t believe you never sent it to me!

Squirrel: I don’t know why I didn’t! Just as shocked. I’ve been using that technique, which the one we’re going to talk about for at least four years. And somehow I’ve never told Jeffrey about it. And apparently we’ve never talked about it on the podcast. But I really thought we had.

Jeffrey: And we’re going to fix that today.

Jeffrey: So this is a picture you sent me and actually you sent me two pictures. And in the two pictures, were two people and they were wearing shirts. In the first picture, you can see the front of the shirts and in the second, you see the back of the shirts. What are these shirts and why are they important?

Squirrel: Well, I’ll tell listeners what they say first, and I can’t share them because I do these in the colours of my clients. So it would give away who my clients are and so on. And I don’t have their permission to do that. If somebody really wants just get in touch with us and we’ll we’ll send you a picture. I’ll describe to you all make you some shirts. So the shirts say for one person on the front “What” and on the back “Dead”. Now, that doesn’t make very much sense. Don’t worry. It will be a minute. And on the other one, it says on the front, it says “How” And these are giant letters, by the way, take up most of the chest and on the back it says “Lines”. And what I do is I- and I had to do this the very first time because I had a client with a hundred different people who were having trouble understanding how to interact with the tech team. And I needed to explain it very quickly and very clearly in a way that would make sense to all these people in multiple locations.

Squirrel: So I had the two folks who were in charge of the tech organisation stand up wearing the shirts and one said, “hi, I’m this person and I’m in charge of ‘what’ we do” and that person had a product title and that person would decide what things the technology team would do and most importantly, what things they would not do. And the other person stood up and said, “well, I’m wearing the ‘how’ shirt, so I’m in charge of how we do those things.” And that person was in charge of technology, developers, architecture, that sort of thing. And then they both turned around. And of course, they had make sure they stood on the correct side of each other and then their shirts together spelled deadlines and they said we’re both responsible for deadlines. So I now traditionally make these for clients when the situation is right, when it makes sense for them to have this kind of clarity and it becomes sort of a shorthand. So someone will say, well, I’m wearing the ‘what’ shirt on this project, so I’m going to decide not to do that.

Jeffrey: Well, this is a great solution, but I want to go back for a second because this is about troubleshooting Agile. And not solutionising Agile, you said when the is right and I think that would be really helpful. What is it, what’s the symptoms you see or the symptom that make you go, you know, I think I need to get some shirts made. What leads you to that?

Squirrel: Indeed when there’s some form of lack of clarity about these roles and that shows up in a number of different ways. So maybe, for example, that there’s confusion in the rest of the business about the status of things people are working on or the value of what the technology team is doing or the status of a particular thing a person wants to to understand. Is this thing done? Is someone working on it? How are we testing it? How can I get ready for it? That means usually that there’s a lack in the ‘what’ area. And so we need some clarity about who that person goes to. It can also show up within the team when you have chaos raining and people coming directly to developers and saying, please build me this thing.

Squirrel: When you have a lack of control, often someone will say, ‘well, gosh, you know, we don’t control what things we’re doing. We don’t control how we approach them. There’s someone there’s lots of voices giving us this information.’ And I say be helpful to centralise that. It would be helpful to have someone who is accountable for it, both in terms of making sure it happens and in terms of explaining what the value is of doing it that particular way, whether that’s a ‘how’ thing or a ‘what’ thing or whether it’s a deadline thing, we’d like one or two people to be responsible for those areas. And that’s when a shirt comes in handy.

The Need for Clarity

Listen to this section at 04:34

Jeffrey: If it’s okay, I’m going to want to push you a little bit more on this, because what I heard in there didn’t sound that bad. I mean, so people aren’t clear on the status, my view is of the five “So whats” kind of like. Well, so what and why is this really a problem, the fact that people don’t know the status or that there’s people going directly to developers. What why what kind of problems is this really cause?

Squirrel: Oh, sure. So if someone doesn’t know the status, then other people in the business can’t efficiently prepare for something that’s coming or prepare for something not to come. I have a classic story. I think we tell it in Agile Conversations. I can’t quite remember where someone had booked a party and had the balloons and was already to have loads and loads of customers show up and hadn’t bothered to tell the developers that something was supposed to be ready for those prospective customers to see the developers, definitely we’re not going to have it ready. So that led to some interesting results in the as it turned out, in that case, we were able to find something that we could demonstrate, but it sure would have been more helpful to have a process in place so that either they could send back the balloons or that they could be ready for what we could actually demonstrate. So that’s kind of an external consequence. Internally if you have people going directly to developers, that throws off all the other scheduling and planning and architecture and anything else that might be happening in some very small organisations, that works just fine. Yeah, very small number of developers. They’re very collaborative. They’re co-located sometimes, they have a lot of informal communication patterns. It’s when you get just a little bit larger. And it doesn’t require very many to have this problem that I can be saying, ‘well, I’m writing this code today, Jeffrey, and I need your help’. And you say, ‘oh, sorry, so-and-so came to me, I’m doing a different thing today.’ And I say, ‘but wait, you were going to help me.’ So that sort of chaos and inefficiency is often a signal that you might need some shirts.

Jeffrey: You know, you say chaos, but isn’t that Agile? I mean, isn’t that an organisation that’s adjusting to what’s happening?

Squirrel: It certainly is. And that’s why in the small organisation, it works well, it’s if you try to adjust to everything at once that you don’t get very far. So an Agile organisation acts together and in a coherent and coordinated way, Agile is not chaos. Agile software development should not look like everyone doing whatever they feel like that morning or whatever they’ve been ordered to do or whatever someone felt like telling them to do, that he or she thought up coming in on the train. That’s not what it should look like.

Squirrel: It should look like a group who has, in a disciplined and careful way, defined its negative space. These are the things we’re not going to do. And here’s why and is accountable for the things that is going to do and is to the degree that the company needs, to the degree the organisation needs, predictability can be predictable. And to the degree the organisation needs, productivity can be productive.

Jeffrey: This concept of negative space you just mentioned is interesting one, so who is it who’s defining the negative space then is that it sounds like the two shirts that should be the ‘how’ shirt is or-.

Squirrel: No, no, that’s the ‘what’ shirt. It’s the person deciding what to do because that person is also, most importantly, deciding what not to do. Something I think I also never managed to tell you and certainly haven’t mentioned to listeners is that at one point in my life, I taught art to eight year olds. And if you know anything about me, my wife is the art historian, definitely not me. But what we did because we were looking for mathematical patterns in the art is we would turn the paintings upside down and look for triangles and things like that, which was lots of fun. But one of the places you looked for triangles, which I had never thought of in my very naive understanding of art, was in the negative space that is in the part of the picture that you did not, that had not been drawn, so that if you draw a bowl of fruit or something and suddenly there would be a very interesting circle in the background in the part that wasn’t painted, formed by the other fruit and curling around and making a circle. And that was interesting artistic statement. OK, this is all the art history I can manage this week. But the idea is that the things you’re not doing are as important and actually in software development, even more important than the things you are doing.

Squirrel: So the ‘what’ person is in charge of the not only what you’re doing, but what you’re not doing, the negative space. And the ‘how’ person certainly has a lot of influence. I should mention this, by the way, as well. What you don’t want is a ‘what’ person who just dictates to the ‘how’ person, hey, build me a time machine. That’s probably got some technical aspects that are not going to work out so well. So you want those two to be very good friends and collaborating all the time. But it’s clear who the decision maker is and who’s accountable. So if something isn’t done, the ‘how’ person says, we had a good discussion about it. I explained the trade offs and that person over there who’s wearing the ‘what’ shirt, that person is the one to talk to about why we decided not to do it. And similarly, the ‘what’ person can say, well, we’ve discussed this project. We’re working very hard on it. We’re really having some technical difficulties. And the ‘how’ person right over there is best suited to tell you about what those are and what trade offs we’re making.

Jeffrey: You said a word there, which is these two should be really good friends and really collaborative. But I hasten to add is that that doesn’t mean that they agree on everything.

Squirrel: Certainly not.

Jeffrey: And they don’t necessarily think the same way about everything that they’re engaged in productive conflict.

Squirrel: Certainly so.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I don’t want people to have the wrong idea that these are people who have mind melded before they talk.

Squirrel: You do have an interesting phenomenon, though, that I noticed, which is that if you get this working very well, you get two people who can represent each other’s ideas very well. ‘Hey, that Jeffrey, he’s wearing the ‘how’ shirt. He’s told me this is very difficult. I’m a little sceptical, but he’s a guy who knows and he’s the one who can tell you the best information about it. And here’s exactly what he told me’. So you can distinguish between what you’re thinking and what the other person is thinking and explain the differences. But you really understand them well, then that means that they can often fill in for each other and even represent each other’s beliefs, that they don’t believe themselves in a situation where, you know, somebody is on holiday or ill.

Jeffrey: Right, which which fits very well what we’ve said is that what you can aim for in a conversation is not that you’ll come to agreement, but rather you can come to a mutual understanding. And so what I’m hear you saying is these are two people who talk things through to the level that they understand each other’s positions well and the thinking behind them, the reasoning behind them, not just that they actually adopt the other person’s position, but rather that they can understand it and therefore represent it. I really like that idea as an outcome of a successful mutual learning conversation.

Squirrel: It works great for me.

Jeffrey: All right. So this is something that you said you’ve been doing for a few years. So how many times a year would you say this comes up for you ?

Squirrel: Three or four a year. So it’s not with every client. I have multiple clients, maybe 20 or 30 or 40 in a year. So it’s a small fraction of them. Sometimes I can just explain it and show the picture and they get it and they don’t actually need or want the shirts for whatever reason. But the times when I actually phone up my designer and say, hey, we need some new shirts. This is the colours and the logos, can you get them out next week? That’s two to three times, maybe four in a year. So 10 percent of clients, something like that.

Jeffrey: All right. So it sounds like this these are some tools that people can be thinking about for themselves. But the ‘what’ shirt and the ‘how’ shirt and you might need them if you are experiencing these kind of problems about people not knowing the status and about chaos. If it’s the things confusion are causing problems for you, then you might have a new tool for your arsenal.

Squirrel: Exactly. If you were thinking of writing a job description that had every detail of what your product manager did, you might just want to get them a shirt because then it becomes very easy for people to say, well, who’s wearing the ‘what’ shirt? Are you wearing the ‘what’ shirt? Are you wearing the ‘what’ shirt today? There can be all kinds of useful language about it that makes it much simpler than saying, oh, well, we got to consult line 17 of the job description to figure out who’s in charge of this.

Jeffrey: All right, fantastic well, I can’t wait to share this with people when I come across it, because this is certainly what you’re describing, a scenario I have come across before and we’ve talked to people about the need for clarification and how to do it. But I really like the concrete visual of the shirts. So something I will definitely look to use in the future works out well.

Squirrel: And if any listeners would like shirts, feel free to get in touch. If we’re really diligent and doing well, we might even get them up into the resources section of Don’t worry if it’s not there, though, that’s where we have various things for free and for for pay that we can do or provide various products and so on. So you can certainly get in touch with us and request either a shirt or ask us some questions about how we apply the shirts, what they do and how they work.

Jeffrey: And I’d love to hear from people how they’ve solved this problem. You know, this ‘what and how.’ divide. How did you solve it? Did you make shirts? Did you make signs? Did you make hats?

Squirrel: I had one client who makes customised garments. So they make clothing that is customised for people. And they actually made scarves because it was the winter. So they felt like making scarves. Actually, no, I think it was summer. I’m not sure why they made scarves, but they had fun making scarves. That said ‘how’ and ‘what’. And that was they would ask who’s wearing the ‘how’ scarf? So who knows, come up with anything that you like.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I’d love to hear from listeners how you solve this problem. And that would be fun to hear about.

Squirrel: Yeah. is the place to find that. And of course we like it when you hit the subscribe button or anything else so that you can hear us when we come out next week and we talk about whatever item of clothing is on our minds. Excellent.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.