Friday, November 26, 2010

Letting Them Figure It Out

A few days ago, there was a brief exchange on Twitter about the Scrum advice to let teams figure things out for themselves where there isn’t explicit Scrum guidance on a topic. Since there isn’t explicit Scrum guidance about a lot of things teams encounter that leaves a lot of “figuring out” for teams to do, including adopting practices from other Agile approaches like XP, Crystal, DSDM, etc.

There seemed to be an initial implication that leaving teams to do this could be wasteful, perhaps even detrimental, given the assumption that they really don’t have a good answer for their situation and might not, by consensus, come up with one. I suggested that “guiding" teams to figure things out seemed to me a useful way for a coach/ScrumMaster to fulfill that role than just "letting" the team figure it out. If the coach/SM sees a possibly useful direction for the team to go in, guiding the team that way through the “right” questions would be an appropriate approach.

Given that, I said I didn’t mind teams figuring things out for themselves, just not doing so by expecting them to reinvent all knowledge to accomplish that. Thus, if the coach/SM knows of techniques/practices that have worked for other teams, suggesting those ideas and asking the team what they think about them still seemed to be allowing teams to make their own decisions while still being helpful in a non-directive manner.

So that’s gotten me thinking about the subject of doing this sort of thing as a coach/SM as it has been my way of performing these roles. Indeed, it has been my way of teaching people about things for decades, even before I was involved in software development. I’ve always associated this with employing the Socratic Method, i.e.,

A pedagogical technique in which a teacher does not give information directly but instead asks a series of questions, with the result that the student comes either to the desired knowledge by answering the questions or to a deeper awareness of the limits of knowledge. [From]

I don’t go as far as “Socratic irony” with this. That is, I don’t feign/pose ignorance. Indeed, after using the Socratic approach a bit, I’m fairly certain the students/teams I’ve been engaged with don’t believe that’s the case.

But this raises the following questions:
  1. How much information about techniques and practices might a team need before they start working together so that there are not too many open issues to “figure out”?
  2. Indeed, how many open issues are “too many” for them?
  3. How many times or how seriously should a coach/SM allow a team to “fail” in such decision-making (since allowing teams to fail, a bit, is typical advice given to coaches/SMs/managers in an Agile context)?
On the latter point, one thing I can say is that learning through even a little failure can be stressful when teams are up against deadlines. I also think, given such deadlines, both teams and people around them seem much less inclined to accept the “fail a little” approach.

Now the kind of “deadlines” I am thinking of are not the kind the team commits to themselves through reasonable estimation and planning. I’m thinking of the all too common situation where an Agile approach is taken in the context of already fixed schedules and, more or less, fixed functionality expectations.

Not only is this kind of situation inherently a major impediment to learning through some failure, even though a Socratic approach, it is an impediment to the whole idea of teams “figuring it out” for themselves whether serious failure would be involved or not.

With fixed schedule and functionality (as well as fixed staffing) usually comes 100% “resource utilization” assumptions as the way those outside the team(s) assume planning and estimation will be done.

I believe every team I have ever been involve with, Agile-based or not, has been somewhat astonished at my suggestions that
  1. they only presume a 6, not 8, hour productive day in their estimation, so a 30, not 40, hour week;
  2. within this 30 hour week they commit to less than 100% of that in functionality terms, especially when they are new to this approach;
  3. they do not presume to commit overtime at the outset as a way to deal with the fixed schedule and functionality.

The first point is something I learned doing estimation over 30 years ago. The second has been influenced by my Agile training/experiences. The last is also a nearly 30 year old belief based on watching teams do this, implicitly, if not explicitly, and coming up with unreasonable commitments as a result.

So, it seems to me that trying to let teams figure things out for themselves isn’t something that will be successfully achieved outside the context of having some other things in place that give the teams the “space” in which to believe they can/should expect to do this. Otherwise, they are going to look for someone else to solve the problem (and hang the result on) given their very natural perception that they don’t have the time to take for much team reflection and a Socratic type of guidance.

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