push_my_anxiety_button

Thursday, 17:30, attending a WebEx call with the Agile transformation team. The topic: majority of teams overcommitting virtually every sprint. The client organization wants to change that, so they can have a better forecast on remaining work, so they can tell their customers what's expected without unpleasant surprises after iterations end. You probably know the drill. The word of the day, for some time now, is Predictability: at the start of the iteration tell us, using your past performance, how much do you safely feel you can complete. This is Agile 101 - plan according to velocity.

Well, parallel processes are a funny thing. On my drive back home, and while I am connected to the weekly WebEx call, suddenly the connection drops. I can hear everyone well, and for some time I had a video feed (which is useless for me anyway as I am driving), however I cannot un-mute myself.

I feel grateful for Charles for pretty accurately describing what I said seconds before the un-mute function failed. And other than that, I feel frustrated and powerless.

During that time everything could have been against me. All the slow drivers prevent me from arriving quicker; the police car near-by prevents me from pulling over and trying to fix the connection, etc.

I guess that if I had not had that understanding about what was going on for me, these emotions could have overtaken me. This was reality for me.

Luckily for me, I don't. The moment I understand that the "knot" in my stomach, the sensation that all my nerves are tickling me was sign of what's going on for me in the Here and Now.

Here and Now. 

Here and Now in the car, I sense that I am in a competition, and I am about to lose.

I am disadvantaged: I am driving in the car, I must continually mute and un-mute myself to avoid everyone hearing the car background noise, and I am alone here, whereas the Rome group members are sitting together, and they don't need to compete over the microphone time.

Plus, they can use video, I can't.

Of course, all of this is an internal dialog, partly unconscious, going inside my mind.

For me, this is reality. And because it's reality, it's real, and it must be right.

Until...

Until I stop and think: why do I feel that way? What's happening around me? What has happened in the previous meeting? What did Edna tell me just before this meeting that may be related?

This is all a parallel process to the topic we were discussing: Our teams are over-committing, some of them possibly feeling unsafe, in a framework that sends conflicting messages: Deliver Fast *and* Be Predictable.

It then started to make sense to me.

*This* is what's going on for me. Now let's use the Here and Now to explain to the other participants how this explanation may be useful for us.

When Bob, the senior managers says: We want you to be more predictable, this might be interpreted as: "I will tell you which features you should deliver, and you will become predictable by delivering on, or ahead of, time". Since Bob sends potentially conflicting messages: we want you to become faster and we want you to become more predictable, it is hard to say how this is being interpreted without actually checking the impact. In our case, Deliver Faster may be perceived stronger than become more predictable. This, in turn, fosters unsafe feelings within teams, because they feel they already work as fast as they can, considering all environmental aspects (such as unstable builds or frequent API changes from 3rd parties).

And then WebEx connection fails, and prevents me from explaining all this.

As we end the call, my senses are still agitated: the driver in front that insists on driving 35kmh; the 'L' driver moving at 15kmh and slowing me down.

My thoughts now are: this might be how teammates feel: the broken build; the dead test-server; our velocity gone out of the window; the other team testing on another, healthy, test-server, taking us over. And here we are, derailed, unable to move.

Of course, this is all hypothetical. None of it is accurate or based on concrete evidence.

And yet, it helps me empathize with teammates. With Bob, not understanding why features don't get finished, for crying out loud.

This is the parallel process that sometimes a single word, in a specific intonation throws us into. "Ilan, what do you have to say about the update from the Rome team?" Boom, that's all it takes. I am 'infected' with the competition motives, like everyone else.

The good news is this is part of our role as team-members. Particularly as coach, consultant or facilitator: To identify these automatic communication channels, and make sense out of them.

And then bring them back to the team once we've processed them into plain English:

'Bob, potentially conflicting messages, such as delivering features faster and becoming more predictable, can get the opposite of our intentions, and throw teams into unhealthy and undesired competition. We suspect that teams feel frustrated and powerless because of this.

'Here's the evidence for it: 1) teams take all the stories of a given feature to themselves; 2) teams mark red tests as 'Ignore' to make their build pass; 3) … '

This is concrete evidence to support our hypothesis.

Now that we have a sound hypothesis and the data to back it, we can start talking about potential causes, various options, possible solutions and eventually recommendations for plan of action.

The key to all this is to acknowledge what we feel in the Here and Now, talk candidly about it, and make sense of it in our context.

Following the weekly WebEx we start discussing how to get the message across to Bob. Valentia from the Rome team took action to draft the message, and we began an email thread to perfect it. Edna, Paolo and Valentia are at work phrasing a message that addresses the conflicting messages issues without sounding like blaming. The concerns over Bob's reactions have not disappeared, yet it feels like teamwork again. Our efforts now turn to help Bob and his team help Scrum teams feel their work is teamwork once again, and to feel more empowered and less frustrated.