Deliberate Practice – the Leadership Kata

A kata is a set of actions that are assembled in sequence to help you train your mind and body to perform with precision, proper form, and to help you develop muscle memory so that these forms are available to you without thinking. The word “kata” comes from the martial arts. At the Agile2011 conference there was a tutorial titled “The Agile Leadership Kata: Discovering the Practice of Leadership” by Tom Perry. We applied the kata to the practice of leadership. Slides form the session can be found here.

Stephen Denning refers to leadership communication as performance art. All performance requires practice. Katas are a practice tool. Why bother? As a leader, why does it mater if I practice? If my current set of leadership tools are working, do I really need to develop new ones?

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Listening Tools

A great TED talk on how we are losing our listening…

Particularly interesting for me was the part on filters that we apply when we listen.  In a world where we we are increasingly broadcasting, Julian Treasure reminds us of the importance of listening, and shares five tools for improving our listening. Enjoy.

Bad Decision Making

I tried an experiment with a few colleagues over the past couple of months based on Karl Popper’s famous experiment for confirmation bias. The results have big implications on how we can easily head down the path to making bad decisions.

The experiment goes like this. The experimenter gives the subjects a 3-digit pattern, “2 4 6” and asks them to write the rule that makes any other pattern conform to the same rule. The subjects may ask questions in the form of another pattern. For example, a subject may ask if the pattern 1 2 3 conforms, and the experimenter will answer either yes or no depending on whether or not the pattern conforms. After several attempts, the subjects write their “rule” for the pattern.

For example, subjects may ask:
“Does 4 8 12 conform?” The answer is yes.
“Does 6 8 10 conform?” Yes.
“Does 3 6 9 conform?” Yes. And so on…

Confirmation bias guarantees that you will ask more questions that get answered with a yes than with a no. The reason is that you start to build a model in your head of what the pattern conforms to, and you go about proving that you are right.

The answer to this puzzle is that the numbers must be increasing in value from left to right. (a < b < c). All someone has to do is offer the question “Does 2 3 1 conform?”, and you quickly start to converge because the answer is NO. One of my colleagues supplied negative integers (-2 -4 -6) and the answer was no. This led to some debate among the pair and they were far faster at converging than when they got yes answers.

I did the experiment with a pair of programmers and another pair of people, a programmer and a tester. The programmer-tester pair won. Why? Testers have the mindset of disproving rather than proving. Programmers like to prove their design works. Testers like to break features. Ironically, two testers in a pair don’t always do as well as a designer-tester pair. The diversity of the pair is what helps create the conditions for rapid convergence. Try this simple experiment yourself and share the results. The experiment is described in detail at the Developmental Psychology web site here.

Confirmation bias implies you filter and interpret data to support a belief you already have. The debate on Gun Control is an example of how the same data is interpreted different ways by people with differing perspectives. To increase government spending or reduce taxes to stimulate the economy is another debate where confirmation bias plays a role. There are huge implications for decision making. Human beings try to fit data to support their beliefs. Forcing yourself to disprove a hypothesis is powerful.

If you are responsible for delivering high quality products, what are the implications of confirmation bias on how you work? What can you do to create healthy team diversity and conflict which leads to better collaboration, and ultimately, better products?

Perfection and Pragmatism

This is a long post, so here is the digest version first.

  • Develop a vision of perfection for your Agile business that includes the product AND the people that create it.
  • Think about what it feels like to work in this perfect Nirvana – engage your right brain.
  • Start moving toward that vision now as fast as you can without losing control – be pragmatic.
  • Be prepared to suffer some mental pain along the way – so eat cookies and drink milk.

That’s it. The rest of the post is some ranting to prime some thinking.

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Software – Artistic and Innovative Expression

Creating great software is a lot like creating great music. Both require skill, practice, and technical knowledge. Both require creative thinking, collaboration and involve good judgment. Both have an end-customer. Both have a user-experience.

As software professionals we have deadlines. So do musicians. I think about being in a studio, engineer behind the console, producer on the clock, and you gotta create. Pressure… You often hear about the emotional war that takes place between band members, in many respects similar to what software teams go through. You want to add that great new riff you invented, and you search for a place to insert it but sometimes, you just have to save it for another day because it adds weight without value. Similarly, code bloat also occurs because a team member wants to make something cool happen in the code that does not add value. We often hear the words that musicians should “check their egos at the door”. This was made famous by Bob Geldof during Band Aid, the huge Ethiopian famine relief benefit. Bob insisted that the event was not about the musicians, but about helping those in need. As software professionals we can all take a page from that book. Set our egos aside. Create something of value for our customers. Celebrate the success together. Learn from our experience and make the next one even better.

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Learning to Drive – Decision Making on the Fly

When I was 16 years old I got my learner’s permit and had a part-time job. My boss was was a really great driver. After work we’d hit the road. He taught me how to do double-clutch downshifts to match the RPMs of the next lower gear before executing the downshift. He taught fundamentals like learning to drive smooth. Nothing is jerky. No clutch dumping. No whipping the wheel into a 90 degree turn. The idea was to get the best performance out of your car without damaging it, and always staying in control, but on the edge of losing it.

I learned how to take a roundabout at high speed without losing control–feathering brakes, clutch and accelerator to transfer vehicle weight in and out of turns. Downshift into the turn to transfer weight to the front wheels so that they bite (but not too much). Accelerate on the way out at the apex to transfer weight to the back wheels and get maximum acceleration out of the turn (but not too much). He taught me about the line of a turn, and how to take best advantage to maximize speed. “Remain tangential to the outside on the way in, on the inside at the apex, and back to the outside for the exit.” I’m no race car driver, not will I ever be, but what I learned has saved my life at least once. Hesitate or miscalculate and the consequences can be disastrous.

Think of the decisions that need to be made, and the skills required to execute a high-performance drive. Demanding high-performance execution without training your driver to execute and make decisions in real-time guarantees sub-optimal performance and high risk failure. Deciding when to downshift to transfer vehicle weight taking into account road conditions, tire temperature, and your vehicle’s capabilities takes practice. The driver must learn to become one with the car. You can write a driving manual, with every conceivable detail captured, but putting that manual in the hands of a novice driver and expecting the driver to deliver high-performance is naive. Think about all the implicit knowledge that influences your decision making on the road. The sound of the engine, the feel of the wheel, the sound of your tires on the road, your instrument panel. Imagine putting a top-notch driver in the passenger seat and having her tell the novice driver what to do and when. How effective would that be? Better than a driving manual, but not the best. Driving takes skill and practice. The skills are implicit. Until you experience what your car can do and how you handle it, you don’t really know how far you can push towards high performance. Put a high performance car in the hands of a novice and you can end up with a wreck.

The ability to deliver high performance execution comes from experience. It’s the applied knowledge accumulated through trials, failure, feedback, and the development of the sixth sense that aggregates the sensory inputs with one’s experience to deliver real-time, high performance decisions.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, you know what I am talking about.

How are you coaching the “drivers” in your organization?

Is Squelching an Opinion an Acceptable Thing to Do?

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. My mother would argue that only her opinion matters. Well, that’s my mother. I LOVE diverse opinions. When I hear an opinion that differs from mine, it forces me to think about my own assumptions and preconceived ideas. It opens up possibilities and creates an opportunity for dialogue and debate, the cornerstone of innovation.

I sometimes hear that we should control the public opinions of others. On some matters that’s justified. Avoiding panic in a life or death situation falls into this category. But debate about engineering practices and methods of work are fair game and diversity of opinion asks us to THINK. When a whole team is headed in one direction and that brave lone voice says, “you know, I don’t agree, we should go the other way.” Those are the moments when we start to question basic assumptions and attitudes. Lone voices and oddballs are what make great things happen. Howard Hughes is a good example of someone who listened to himself and made a dent in the world. Encourage this in your teams and in your organizations. Endless debate is wasteful, but healthy disagreement is what drives clarity in thinking.

Don’t judge, Don’t squelch. Explore and innovate instead!