Are We Unknowingly Creating Our Own Fish Tanks

Once upon a time two young fishes where out for a swim. From the  opposite direction an elderly fish swam towards them. As the old fish swam past he said, "Nice water today boys." The two young fish swam on for a while, then one turned to the other saying, "What the hell is water?" - David Foster Wallace, Commencement Speech

A core component of agility is Kaizen, change for better. Continuous improvement is part of Lean. Scrum has it's retrospectives. Both looking for Kaizen.

Better Is Easy, Right?

What's interesting from my observations is how many teams quickly get stuck looking for Kaizen.

I recently co-ran two training sessions for the same organisation on agile. The groups where given a challenge that simulated some of the organisations challenges. They were than asked to use an agile mindset to best solve the problems. One of the groups was relatively new to agile and to the organisation. Their session was part of their boot camp. The other session was run as scheduled training for existing employees. It included some experienced agile people.

It was interesting that the boot camp group came up with many more ways of improving the challenging situation. The longer term employees continued to work inside of the challenge during their session. They tried to make the best of the challenging environment without questioning the environment itself or attempting to improve the environment. Instead of looking at the challenges at the overall system, which the training session allows and encourages, they continued to only optimise within the environment.

My hypothesis is that the teams that have worked in the organisation for longer don't even see the organisational challenges. Just like the two young fish in the story at the start. They don't notice their environment. The good and more importantly the bad are taken for granted. Most of us fall in to this trap. Not realising that what we're accepting unnecessary practices as being, just the way that it is. We've created our own fish tank without even realising it. We look at the way others work in our organisation and the shared stories of others and see the constraints they appear to have. These become our ways of working and our constraints. 

So how we do move beyond this?

Child Mind

Sir Ken Robinson tells a story of a six year old girl who is in a classroom, for the first time she is completely engaged in her work. She is so engaged that the teacher goes over to her and asks what she's doing.
"I'm drawing a picture."
"What is your picture of?", asks the teacher.
"I'm drawing a picture of god.", says the little girl looking up.
The teacher smiles and says, "But dear no one knows what god looks like."
The little girl looks back up and says, "Well they will in a minute."
I love this story. It is so powerful at highlighting the lack of constraints a child starts with. 

Typical education systems beat this innate creativity out of us. They force us to the comply with a system designed to standardise teaching over nurturing individual talent through more experiential learning. As children, we're harshly punished for challenging the status quo. We're forced to accept the system. Most creatives survive the education system rather than thrive within it. Organisations continue to mirror this approach. I was once told by a senior executive in a large corporate, "Tony you don't understand, talent doesn't scale. What scales is making mediocre people perform slightly above average by using standardised, well defined and followed processes". 

Ironically we need just the kind of creativity beaten out of us as children, referred to as child or beginners mind, to be able to find ways of changing for the better. We need creativity to be talented. We need to take nothing for granted and see the world with fresh eyes. 

Test the Tank

I challenge you and your team to identify what might you be taking for granted as a constraint that may not be true? At the team level: Is it helpful to create individuals dedicated to specific areas of the code? At the organisational level: Is it helpful to have a performance management system that forces us to describe people as under-performing?

Is the tank you live in real or an illusion created over time. 

Can you see the water? I dare you!