I first read Nancy Kline’s book Time to Think during my first sailing trip across the English Channel 10 years ago. We were sheltering in Cherbourg marina awaiting a weather window for our return to England. I remember reading the phrase, “The brain that contains the problem probably also contains the solution.” As a strong believer in self-organising teams, I liked the idea of the people with the problem, given time to think, would come up with the solution. Yet in my time helping people as a Scrum Master, line manager, business owner, MBA mentor and friend, my observation is that it’s not as simple as that.
As Good As It Gets
Scrum, a framework for developing complex products, has an event called the Retrospective. It’s the event that teams regularly perform to improve their process. It’s also typically the first event that teams abandon. I was curious why this was. I’ve observed many teams and they find the question, “What are we going to do better next time?” increasingly difficult to answer. Eventually they run out of ideas and then patience. Finally, someone says, “I know how to make us better next time. Stop wasting time on this Retrospective event.” and the Retrospective’s gone.
In my recent roles, moving organisations from traditional software project development approaches to agile product based development approaches, I see the same trap at a macro level.
Organisations review their position at month, quarter or year end due to financial reporting. There’s normally some hand ringing about how things could be better. How can we make customers happier? What’s getting in the way of shipping quality software faster for less? The management will then use their own experience to guide them on how to improve things. Some may even get an external consultancy in to advise, someone they trust. When we choose someone we trust, it normally means - someone who thinks like we do.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” - Henry Ford
People involved in an activity can only analyse the problem based on their own collective experiences.
When we face a problem, if our experience in that problem space is not broad or deep enough, our underlying mental model could well be incorrect. Then we are in peril of identifing an incorrect causal path. A causal path that others with more or, interestingly, just different experiences may identify. It’s like asking the travellers, before cars existed, what they wanted to make life travel faster. You get incremental innovation at best.
Overcoming the Trap
Ways to overcoming this trap are:-
- Courage - you’ll need this to act
- Self-awareness - allows you to know there is a problem
- Open-mindedness - opens up the solution options
- Time - gives you the space to solve the right problem
One of the Scrum values is courage. When I worked with Jim Coplien he and I had a great debate, over an excellent Thai meal in Bellevue, on whether courage was necessary for teams to adopt Scrum. We finally agreed that moving from one mental model to another did need courage, especially when your peers are sceptical.
Without the courage to act all other knowledge will be fruitless.
Having great self-awareness allows you to realise that though you may have an answer, better answers may exist outside of your individual or team experiences. It’s easy to over estimate our own competency in a new skill - something called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Most of us who have learned to drive have experienced this; when as a child we watched someone else drive or played on driving games. I remember sitting next to my dad and thinking how easy it must be to drive. That I could do it, no problem. I then fast-forward to my first driving lesson. My brain overloaded as I went through my first mirror, single, manoeuvre exercise, pulling the car away from the curb. Starting with me saying to the instructor, “You want me to do what all at the same time!”. Only by driving and being told by someone with experience what good driving meant did I become more self-aware.
So one way to become more self-aware is to:-
- Attempt the actual activity, rather than watching or reading about it
- Having an instructor next guiding you on what good looks like for the activity. So you have a good reference model to compare against
Self-awareness can give you space or can be a forcing function for you to be open-minded to other possibilities.
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein
Being open-minded allows us to look beyond the question of how can we get better. Being open-minded encourages us to use our imagination. It allows our ego to move to one side and challenge ourselves on why we do the things we currently do not just how? Also what can we learn from others?
In one sense it’s not our fault we don’t get this far - it’s hard. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow that the human mind is built to conserve energy for our survival. So the mind has two thinking systems to support this. He aptly calls them System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the system that does all the basics and uses little energy. System 2 is where our deep reasoning, the hard thinking happens. System 2 consumes lots of energy. So when we give our mind a hard question like “How do we do this better next time?”, the mind doesn't answer this question, as needs System 2. Instead our mind defaults to rephrasing the question to something close but simpler, so that System 1 can answer:- “Can we do anything better next time?” - simple answer - No”.
That’s where we need to challenge ourselves to work harder. That’s where the value of a coach can come in - to observe, to challenge us to do better when we think we’re already done.
For example opening our mind and engaging System 2 thinking in Scrum would be conclude that we may need to ask another Scrum team if one of our team could observe their events for a Sprint. Note what they do differently. Then in our Retrospective use these observations to drive different thinking. Helping us to improve.
At the organisation level, an example would be to invite a leader from a non-competitive industry to come and spend some with us. For example in banking software if we want incremental improvement ask another bank in a non-competitive market to share ideas. If we want revolutionary improvement we may be better talking to the best in class software as a service companies. The companies who live or die by the software they produce are likely to be way ahead in their state of the practice.
There can be a great benefit in looking across completely different industries. In his cult book A Technique for Producing Ideas, James W. Young describes the practice of looking at the intersection of things for new ideas. You can only do this if you have an open-mind.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein
In the, 'What have you done for me lately,' corporate culture we have now, spending time thinking, so that we can solve the right problem takes courage. It's much easier, quicker and more visible to produce yet another PowerPoint deck solving the obvious symptoms.
In the senior leadership agile training sessions I run someone in the room will often say, “I’ve spent more time thinking about how to improve my organisation in this session than I’ve managed to do all year.” Sound familiar?
Working with Startups I’ve seen them equally challenged with where to spend their most precious resource, their time. Here the results are more immediately catastrophic. The result of spending too long on a solution that no one wants, or too long building the perfect product, are failure for a startup.
We should aim to be in the minority and make the time to regularly reflect on whether we’re doing busy work rather than meaningful work. Time to think how to measure if what we’re doing is making a difference. Time to pivot our approach if the empirical evidence is telling us we’re going in the wrong direction.
A Change in View Point
When I started this post it was about my hypothesis that the people with the problem are unlikely to be the people with the answer, if they’ve limited experience of the context. During the research and writing I’ve changed my point of view.
My new hypothesis is that if the people with the problem are self-aware and open-minded enough then they may at least come up with the statement, “We may not understand the problem well enough. Let’s go and look outside of ourselves for a better answer.” Rather than think they’re as good as they can be. Though not a direct answer to the problem they set out to address, if they have the courage to take it, a great first step in a better direction.