Friday, December 31, 2010

My Personalized Agile or What I have Learned from It

I complete exactly 3 months at ThoughtWorks today. While this has been a momentous career shift for me, I may not have written a blog post on it except for the learning. Needless to say, an understanding (albeit very rudimentary) of the Agile philosophy supersedes all other learning (and that has been plentiful too).
Coming from a very traditional, waterfall-driven background replete with all the drawbacks (what I perceive as drawbacks in comparison now), it took me quite a while to assimilate the philosophy—even the basics of Agile. A dictum like “Just deliver; don’t document unless the document is going to add value” would throw me into a tizzy. Don’t we need to document so that in case a point comes when the blame-game starts (I assumed it would), we have our backs covered? Apparently not because there is no blame game! There is no one to blame. Everyone is in this together—the team, the client, and all other remaining stakeholders. 

As I mulled over these rather shocking, almost blasphemous, aspects of Agile, I thought it would be a good idea to pen down my thoughts and put them forth for inspection and feedback. And to track my understanding over time…

The original Agile Manifesto, which is my source of inspiration, can be found here

My interpretation of the Agile philosophy
I am trying to acquire better ways of learning and building personal knowledge networks and helping others do it. Through this endeavor, I have come to value:

Adaptive over predictive
Collaboration over documentation
Continuous feedback over periodic reviews
Generalization over specialization

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, I value the items on the left more and have found them to be in synch with what is required today to build a learning organization, an organization of motivated, passionate individuals.
Unpacking each claim

Adaptive over predictive

Ruth Clark describes adaptive in relation to expertise in her book Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, and I think it reflects my understanding of Agile philosophy very well. Being adaptive means to be flexible, open to change, reacting to situations just as the situation demands. Adaptive expertise brings open-ended inquiry to the problem and not a pre-defined solution. Being adaptive is to be always ready. In this context, I am reminded of the phrase “a mind like water” by David Allen. Paraphrasing from Getting Things Done below: 

Water neither flinches nor ignores the impact when a huge boulder hits its surface. It welcomes a boulder just like it would a pebble. The ripples it generates are in direct proportion to the size and impact—neither more nor less. Water neither underreacts nor overreacts. And very soon, water goes back to its natural state—open and clear—ready for the next impact. 

This is the state of being truly adaptive and agile. With the unknown and the complex becoming the norm in knowledge work, adaptability is the key to dealing with challenges, to be comfortable with ambiguity, and to move to a state where we are constantly learning.

As Eric Hoffer very aptly says (the highlights are mine):
We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling.

Collaboration over documentation

Going back to my roots in traditional organizations where documentations supersede communication, conversations and listening, I can appreciate the value of collaboration. Please note that I am not advocating doing away with documentation, but documenting only what adds value and when it adds value—to the project, to the team, to the stakeholders or to oneself. I am using the Minutes of Meetings (MOMs) as an example to make my case. 

Coming from a culture where minutes of meetings were more important than the meeting participants, I can truly appreciate the need for collaboration. Unlike any of the methodologies that fall under the umbrella of Agile, in traditional orgs most meetings are conducted as rote and many of the crucial stakeholders are missing. Hence, a stringent documentation is required to capture what transpired and to keep everyone in the loop (so to speak). Needless to say, many of the subtleties of discussions are lost, and the minutes become more of a “save our backs in the future” documents with little of value coming out of them.  

Let me take this a little further. When I claim that under the aegis of Agile philosophy, collaboration is more valued, this is what I imply. First of all, collaboration for me implies disciplined collaboration—a term popularized by Morten T. Hansen in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Disciplined collaboration is to collaborate for results. And this is precisely what the philosophy of Agile supports. Some of the quotes from the book that supports my understanding of effective collaboration are:
  1. The idea of disciplined collaboration can be summed up in one phrase: the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.
  2. Disciplined collaboration requires that organizations be decentralized and yet coordinated. To build this model, leaders need to detect the barriers to collaboration and overcome them without reducing the benefits of a decentralized structure.
  3. Collaborative companies run on networks, those informal working relationships among people that cut across formal lines of reporting. If the formal org chart shows how work is divided into pieces, networks reveal the informal organization-how people actually work together.
Finally, a collaborative company can do away with unnecessary documentation, remain lightweight and agile because the concerned people are all in it together. Everyone is in the loop, always!

Continuous feedback over periodic reviews

This is my biggest learning from Agile. The very environment and processes—pair programming, TDD, retrospectives, continuous integration, whatever else you will—support continuous feedback, one of the keys to learning. In this environment, a mistake becomes a stepping stone to excellence. A philosophy that   centers on feedback also encourages mistakes by default. I think of these as bunkos where a “bunko” means - “to make a mistake from which the benefits of what you learned exceed the costs of the screw-up” as described in The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. Because one knows that feedback will be immediate, one is not scared to experiment, think big and explore. Imagine the reverse of this—where feedback comes in the form of yearly appraisals that tell you how many times you have screwed up far removed from the time and the context of the screw up itself. It leaves one mentally screaming, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? How does it help now?”
Here’s one of my sources of understanding and clarity on the purpose of feedback and the way to deliver as well as receive it: Tightening the Feedback Loop by Patrick Kua.

Generalization over specialization

With the edges of our roles and jobs disintegrating, it is of utmost importance to be able to wear multiple hats. While we will definitely have our specializations (that after all is what we were hired for), this should not make us incapable of playing multiple roles. Generalization helps in a number of ways (I am referring to generalization around one’s core skills).
In a world and world economy where situations throw us into unpredictable circumstances and poses unknown problems, being a specialist with crystallized intelligence can be a bit of a hindrance. Ruth Clark in the aforementioned book talks about this at length. I have described it briefly here. To remain adaptive and responsive to changing situations, it is important to develop a fluid intelligence, one that enables us to take on the role of inquiring novices when required, which in turn helps to view a problem from different perspectives. 

To quote Ruth Clark: 

Fluid intelligence is the basis for reasoning on novel tasks or within unfamiliar contexts; in other words, it gives rise to adaptive expertise. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is predicated on learned skills…and is the basis for routine expertise
It is clear that adaptive expertise is the basis of being a generalist. A generalist, according to me, is one who can explore, venture into unknown territories and domain, learn from new experiences and apply that in areas beyond one’s specialization.  

My sources of inspiration and knowledge:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

21st Century Workplace Challenges

The paragraph below taken from Harold Jarche’s post Success depends on who we work with reminded me of a post I had written some time back, the Molotov cocktail = Weak ties x complicated knowledge. I have pasted the quote below:

1. Uzzi found that teams made up of individuals who had never before worked together fared poorly, greatly increasing the chance of a flop. These networks were not well connected and contained mostly weak ties.  
2. At the other extreme, groups made up of individuals who had all worked together previously also tended to create musicals that were unsuccessful. Because these groups lacked creative input from the outside, they tended to rehash the same ideas that they used the first time they worked together. 

In between, however, Uzzi once again found a sweet spot that combines the diversity of new team members with the stability of previously formed relationship. The networks that best exhibited the small-world property were those that had the greatest success.

I have split the quotation above into two parts (the numbers are my inserts and not a part of the original quote), which I have discussed below.

Part 1: My take

The first part talks about the difficulty of sharing with those with whom one has weak ties. This has been extensively discussed by Morten T. Hansen in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. My Kindle highlights from the book are here. I have quoted some of these related to the topic at hand below:
  • People find it hard to transfer knowledge when they don't know each other well (a weak tie). They need strong ties-relationships where people talk often and have a close working association.
  • Weak ties create havoc when people need to transfer tacit knowledge.
This combination of weak ties with complicated, tacit knowledge is what Morten Hansen describes as the Molotov Cocktail, and this forms one of the 4 barriers to collaboration among decentralized units. Given that today’s workplaces have more and more decentralized units combined with a rapidly growing business need to share tacit, complex knowledge, knowledge management and social tools need to be built into the fabric and DNA of today’s organization such that weak ties can be converted into strong ones.

Part 2: My take

However, a team of closely knit individuals—dispersed or co-located—are likely to lack diversity of thought. This happens partly because of our tendency towards homophily, which leads to the “birds of a feather” syndrome. Therefore, in this case, although the ties are likely to be strong creating the necessary condition for tacit knowledge transfer, this sharing does not very often lead to innovative problem-solving. What is required is diversity! Scott E. Page in his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies talks about the importance of diversity extensively. You can see my Kindle highlights from the book here. I have quoted some of the more relevant passages below:
  • Two fundamental changes have led to this directional shift: the business world has become more global (and therefore more aware of ethnic diversity) and the practice of work has become more team focused.
  • Diversity is a property of a collection of people-a basket with many kinds of fruit.
  • We should look at difference as something that can improve performance, not as something that we have to be concerned about so that we don't get sued.
  • For diverse groups to function in practice, the people in them must get along. If not, the cognitive differences between then may be little more than disconnected silos of ideas and thoughts.
  • By diversity, I mean cognitive differences.
How do the quotes from the two books tie in with what is required in the 21st Century workplace?
Before that, we need to examine what are some of the characteristics of today’s workplace, especially those that depend on knowledge workers for success.

My understanding of today’s workplace:

  1. Predictable, routine tasks are being either automated or outsourced, or soon will be.
  2. Knowledge workers are increasingly taking more responsibility for their work as well as personal growth.
  3. Hierarchy is being replaced by wirearchy.
  4. Managers are being replaced by leaders, coaches, and facilitators, or will be.
  5. The kinds of work being done are those that defy being codified into step-lists or guidelines.
  6. The problems are complex—often chaotic—and resist solving using best practices of yore.
  7. Ambiguity, complexity and chaos are replacing the predictable, known, and simple.
  8. The competitive edge is the ability to problem solve quickly and innovatively.
  9. The day of individual stars are past; it is time for collaborative team work.
  10. Routine expertise, based on set skills and crystallized intelligence, is being superseded by a need for more adaptive expertise and fluid intelligence. 
Given this situation, it is clear that some of the following are needed to build a workplace that innovates—in other words—a learning organization:
  1. An environment that fosters and facilitates collaboration
  2. Safe setting that encourages exploration and learning from mistakes
  3. An environment that supports questing dispositions and applauds risk taking
  4. Opportunities for workers to connect with others from different departments and teams (which will bring in the much-needed cognitive diversity and build strong ties across diverse disciplines)
  5. Implementation of social media and tools that will allow people to find relevant experts, connect with whoever they need to, and freely share knowledge, insights and information.

Gary Hamel summarizes it thus:
  • Industrial Economy was based on physical capital
  • Information Economy was based on information
  • Creative Economy is based on ideas 
Employees with these traits are best positioned to help their companies – and themselves – in the Creative Economy:
·         Initiative: Seeing opportunities to try something new, and actually following up on them. This is a marked contrast to the obedience trait.
·         Creativity: Designing something different than what exists currently, be it business, product or process. Contrast creativity with intellect. Creativity is less bound to the rigors of logic and proof, more responsive to our individual yearning for things that are new.
·         Passion: Our internal engines provide the fuel that spurs us to action. We pursue something because it answers an internal calling. Contrast this with diligence, which is the application of one’s mind and efforts to a task or project. Diligence is a more mechanical effort, passion is an emotional one.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Learned vs. Learners

I have been deviating from the key themes of this blog, i.e., learning, performance, training and collaboration, for some time now. However, the deviations have been topics that moved me deeply, and I did not want to write about them in a separate blog. They are as much a part of me as all things learning. In the future too, I see this blog being intermittently peppered with posts unrelated to organizational learning but delineating experiences that are of personal import.
With today’s post, I am back on the theme of learning and its impact on performance—personal and organizational.
In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. -- Eric Hoffer
This classic quotation summarizes in a sentence what takes scholars and academicians reams of paper to theorize and prove. And this is the trigger for today’s post. The difference between the terms “learners” and “learned” is crucial in today’s environment of constant change, and this is my topic for today.
I have recently been reading Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement at a colleague’s recommendation. This is one of those must read books for trainers/learning and development professionals/anyone interested in the phenomenon called learning.
Building Expertise deals with learning and training as it needs to be. However, before I ramble on, I want to clarify that this post is not a book review. I want to highlight a few concepts from the book that impact how we think of learning, training and performance.
It is now common knowledge that an organization’s ability to innovate is its competitive edge in today’s economy. Innovation itself is a term that requires some unpacking. For example, it could be used to mean blue ocean thinking or innovation by combining the already existing in an entirely novel, unforeseen manner. But I digress.
In this post, I want to examine a few aspects of expertise and what that means for the workers of the 21st Century.
According to Wikipedia (2007) “…an expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability in a particular area of study.” ~ Building Expertise, Ruth Clark
Today, we need experts and in more diverse areas than we even know. However, building expertise is becoming a challenge—an almost insurmountable one on occasions. In the earlier days, expertise came from experience. Often, years of it; 10,000 hours of it. This experience was then codified into best practices and the next generation of workers was trained to follow the best practices and get the desired results. Predictable, measurable, trainable! This worked wonderfully (when the world was stable and work was routine) till it didn’t anymore. We all know that we have reached a point where codified best practices have almost ceased to exist. Almost, because there are some routine tasks that still need to be done, but do human agents need to do those? More importantly, are those the kind of work that will provide us with the indispensable competitive edge? Maybe not. With everything changing at a pace never experienced before, there is no time to undergo the same experience repeatedly for the building of expertise around it. I am talking about knowledge work here. Not about playing the guitar or becoming a champion chess player. Those kinds of expertise will still need 10,000 hours of practice.

Ruth Clark, in the book, describes 7 lessons learned about experts:
1.       Expertise requires extensive practice
2.       Expertise is domain specific
3.       Expertise requires deliberate practice
4.       Experts see with different eyes
5.       Experts CAN get stuck
6.       Expertise grows from TWO intelligences
7.       Challenging problems require diverse expertise (this ties in with what Scott Page says in The Difference but that is for another post)

What most interested me are the last two. My Aha! moment happened when I read about the concept of two intelligences. While I have read about adaptability, understand its impact and importance in a world that is in a constant state of beta, I was not sure I could explain it to someone else with conviction and theoretical support.
She talks about routine expertise vs. adaptive expertise and crystallized vs. fluid intelligences
Quoting from the book below:
Routine experts are very effective at solving problems that are representative of problems in their domains. They are adept at “seeing” and solving the problem based on their domain-specific mental models.
In contrast, adaptive experts evolve their core competencies by venturing into areas that require them to function as “intelligent” novices.
Fluid intelligence is the basis for reasoning on novel tasks or within unfamiliar contexts; in other words, it gives rise to adaptive expertise. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is predicated on learned skills…and is the basis for routine expertise
Routine experts are the learned ones who have deep domain-specific knowledge; however, often this deep knowledge becomes a hindrance in viewing the world through fresh eyes. They tend to see everything through the lenses of their domain. Adaptive experts, on the other hand, are able to take on the role of inquiring novices when required and are thus able to view a problem from different perspectives. They are the learners.
However, it is also important to note that adaptive expertise is based on routine expertise. One cannot adapt to new situations and events unless one has deep domain-specific knowledge.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On the Tiger's Trail...

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? ~ William Blake

We read this poem in school where our teachers tried to explain the significance to the best of her/his ability. And my mind would conjure up visions of a tiger in a zoo, and the essence of the poem was lost to me.

But now I know that I never understood the essence of the poem, never really visualized the power, the strength, and the grace of a tiger as it truly is till the 27th of November. Yes, I can be that precise because I know the exact moment when the poem hummed through my mind.

On the tiger's trail

It was the morning of 27th November, a little more than a week ago to be precise. A cold, frosty morning in the jungles of Kanha in MP, India. We (my friend and co-blogger Sumeet Moghe and I) waited for our safari jeep to arrive. It was still impenetrably dark outside, the trees loomed like huge black shadows, weirdly shaped, mysterious. The moonlight glinted down casting strange, hallucinatory shapes on the ground, tricking my eyes. We stood quietly listening to the jungle sounds--a music offered for free if one cares to listen. 

Very soon our safari jeep arrived and we were off. The chilling wind stung our faces, bringing tears to the eyes. I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my jacket in the faint hope of keeping them warm. We entered the jungle premises and our driver and guide in one accord decided on a route to follow through the dense jungle. Their experience endowed them with an instinct that we could not fathom. We had barely gone a kilometer when our guide pointed out the pug marks of a male tiger on the ground--still fresh and clear on the frosty ground. A thrill of expectation shivered down my spine. Driving cautiously, we followed the pug marks. The dense jungle of sal and bamboo trees belies any effort to see through it. The brambles and bushes that lie between them are perfect cover for the wildlife there. Nature's patterns are flawless till we humans decide to mess with them. 

We must have covered almost 15 kilometers across the rugged terrain of the Kanha, deep into the heart of the jungle when the pug marks vanished into the jungle. "He must be somewhere close by," whispered our guide. We tried to look through the impenetrable barriers of the thick foliage, unable to see anything, the tall grasses a fitting camouflage for the tiger. Just then, a roar very close to where we stood galvanized us into action. Out came the cameras, the chill was forgotten. "He'll come out somewhere here," was our guide's pronouncement. 

Sure enough, the king of beasts, the largest cat of the jungle emerged, barely ten feet away from where we stood. I know I almost forgot to breathe. To see this magnificent animal in his natural surroundings--proud, graceful, charismatic--was a miracle. This is one experience I know for certain I will carry with me till I die. 

He walked towards us--unconcerned and imperious. Even as I tried to keep my camera focused on him (and this was tough as the instinct to just gaze in awe was uppermost), I kept wondering at the levels of depravity and ignorance that could lead to the killing of this beautiful beast. All because some rich, misguided individuals with money to spare think a dead tiger's skin on the floor of their home symbolize status. And that is not all. Every conceivable part of a tiger from the bones to the penis are used to make traditional Chinese medicines.
Demand in China poses the greatest threat to tigers in the wild and organised crime runs the illicit trade in the world's largest felines, according to international experts," states a report from the Tiger Summit.
To be very honest, although I had been aware of the outcry against tiger poaching, and like to think of myself as someone who cares deeply about the fate of animals on our planet, I had been just a passive, armchair lover of animals. Quite useless. 

Till I saw this magnificent beast face to face. 

For the past one week I have not been able to get the image of his imperious walk out of my mind but it soon gets eclipsed by gruesome ones of trapped or poisoned tigers. These have been haunting me enough to make me write this post. And as I write, I realize that this immensely powerful beast can't speak for itself. It is up to us to do the talking, to raise our voices and make enough noise that will force some folks out there to take action. Our individual voices may not be loud enough but collectively, we can create a roar.

And finally, the following perfect moment of serendipity spurred me to action, made me feel ashamed about my inertia. I heard this talk by Shekhar Dattatri where he says, "When I was 10 years old, my life changed when I read this book by Gerald Durrell, My Adventures in the Forest"...I could only wonder at the beauty of serendipity. This is the same book I read at the same age that fueled my passion for animals and their right to share this planet with us. Thank you Shekhar for reminding me of this once again.

If you feel strongly about saving our tigers, our forests and our ecology do share the post, write your own, tweet--anything that will help to protect and preserve the tigers. A little bit of our time is all they need. And as Shekha Dattatri says, 2,400 years ago people knew this intrinsic synergy between human life, the forest and the tiger. The Mahabharat cites it. If we let our tigers go, so will our forests and eventually us. 

Here are the links to some videos that taught me a lot about tigers. 

The Truth About Tigers - Part 1 - a film by Shekar Dattatri

The Truth about Tigers - Part 2 - a film by Shekar Dattatri

The Truth about Tigers - Part 3 - a film by Shekar Dattatri

Off the Record - Shekar Dattatri -WILD-LIFE & CONSERVATION FILM-MAKER - EPI 27 - 3(3) -

I am visiting the following two tiger reserves in the coming two weeks: Nagarhole and Bandipur. Even if I don't encounter a tiger, I am still keen to explore and understand their natural habitats better. 

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the follow...