Saturday, September 29, 2018

Experiment away: Daily Standup Meetings

In agile, many of of us speak of experiments. There's a lot of power with the idea of deferring judgement and trying things out, seeing what is true through experience rather than letting our mind fool us with past experiences we mirror into what could work.

Experimenting has been my go to way of approaching things. The best thing coming out of it for me has been mob programming. A talk four years ago by Woody Zuill introducing something I intellectually knew I would hate to do, that ended up transforming not just my future but the way I see my past. With cognitive dissonance - the discomfort in the brain when your beliefs and actions are not in sync - with mobbing my beliefs got rewritten. If I was ever asked for top three advice on what to do, experimentation would be on my list, as well as not asking for permission and stopping list-making to actually get stuff done.

Experiments with practices and people are not really very pure, they are more like interventions. The idea of trying before judging has power. But we keep thinking that for the same group, we could try different options without options expiring. The real thing is however that when we do one thing, it changes the state of our system of humans. They will never be as they were before that experience and it closes doors. And as a door closes, other one opens. Experimentation mindset moves us into states that enable even radical changes when the state is right for that transition to happen.

My internal state: Dislike of meetings

Four weeks ago, our team had just received three new members all of a sudden. Our summer trainee had changed into a part time appearance as school required their attention. My colleague appeared to feel responsible for helping people succeed so they turned to their default behavior: managing tasks on Jira, passing their information in writing and turning half of my colleagues into non-thinking zombies working in the comfort of "no one wrote that in the Jira ticket". We talked about our challenges, and they suggested we need to bring back daily meetings. I recognized my immediate strong negative response and caught it to say: "Yes, we should experiment with that".

I left the discussion feeling down. I felt like no one understood me. I felt like the work I loved was now doomed. I would have to show up in a standup meeting every day, after all I was the manager of the team. I would have to see myself stopping work half an hour before the meeting not to be late (being late is a big personal source of anxiety) and see again how a regular meeting destroys my prioritization schemes and productivity. It being in the middle of the day, I would again start working at a schedule that is inconvenient to me just to make space for uninterrupted time.

I knew I had worked hard to remove meetings from my job (unlike most managers around me, where meetings are their go-to mechanism for doing their work) and now the new joiners were forcing me to go back to a time I was more anxious and unhappy.

It's Just Two Weeks

Framing it as experiment helped me tell myself: "It is just two weeks, you can survive two weeks."

I sent the invites to the agreed time, showed up every day, tried hard to pay attention to sharing stuff of value and focused my energies in seeing how others were doing with the daily meetings.

I was seeking evidence against my strongly held stance.

I learned that there are many different negative reactions daily meetings can bring forth.

  • Some people share every bathroom break they took, every trouble they run into and focus on explaining why it is so hard for them to not make progress. 
  • Some people come with the idea of time boxing and mention always two things. You have to say something, so they choose something they believe they need to say.
  • Some people report to others, some people invite others into learning what they've learned, others pass work forward. 
  • Some people have low idea of their contributions and frame it into saying things like "I tested since yesterday, I will test more by tomorrow" - day after day. 
  • Some people collect the best of the last day to share in the meeting, and hold on to information for that meeting instead of doing the right thing (sharing, working with others) when they come to the information. 
  • Some people are happy with the meeting because they have NEVER tried any other options: pairing, mobbing, talking freely throughout the day, having a culture where pulling information is encouraged to a level where your questions always have the highest priority. 
Only one of us expressed they liked the meetings after two weeks. We did not make them work really well. We did not find a recipe that would bring out the best of our collaboration in those meetings. I could not shake the feeling that I was drowning into my "soul-sucking place", agile with rituals without the heart. So we agreed to stop. 

Things already changed

We could say the experiment failed. FAIL as in First Attempt in Learning. It did not stick. But it changed us. It made the problem some people were feeling visible that we did not talk about the right stuff and help our newbies. It changed the way people now walk to one another, giving us a way of talking of the options to a daily meeting. It changed how the team was sharing their insights on teams channel. 

Things were better, because the experiment opened us up for other possibilities. 
Experiments in agile teams are not really experiments. They are interventions that force us to change state.
So, Experiment Away! We need to be interrupted.