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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Jeffrey Fredrick on Harsh Realities and Learning

Jeffrey Fredrick on Harsh Realities and Learning


1. [...]What made you decide to explore these realities?

Ben's full question: This is Ben Linders for InfoQ and I am here with Jeffrey Fredrick at QCon London. Welcome, Jeffrey! Your talk at QCon London you mentioned several harsh realities from Agile. What made you decide to explore these realities?

Well, it was not so much a choice, but a necessity. I was talking about the challenges that we faced at my company, so the realities I was personally dealing with.


2. These are the kind of realities that you see happening when you are working with organizations which want to work with Agile, find ways to work Agile – that kind of stuff?

I think this talk was really about personal motivation of the company I was at, the team I was leading, how could I help them change and really coming around to understand that it was going to require a change in me and this was not what I had expected. I had been very confident that I knew how to tackle the challenges we had, but I came up against the limits of not my knowledge of Agile practices, but my limits to myself as a person and being able to communicate what I knew in a way that was useful to other people. So I would have a vision in my head, I would have a certain understanding what the problems were and the kind of changes that we need to make and there was a real difficulty that I experienced personally in transmitting what I knew in my view of the world to others, so that they would engage with them.


3. You state in your talk that human psychology can work against successful Agile adoption. Is this the kind of thing that you run against?

Oh, absolutely. Both myself and others. I really came across this fundamental problem that we all live in a very first person view. We fundamentally see the world only through our eyes. So we have this feeling that we are the hero of the story and that everything important happens in front of us and therefore we have all the relevant knowledge. We think that therefore we have the most informed point of view and the positions we have come to through our time and experience are the only possible correct answers. It is very hard to escape that sensation and to realize there could be very important things happening off-screen, that I am not perhaps the most important person in this particular drama and therefore I need to go and look for answers somewhere else, that there is information that may have just escaped me or perhaps something that I heard, but I did not understand the implication of it and that someone else has connected dots that I failed to. That is a very unnatural thing to do and I think it is that limitation of our human perspective that we grow up unaware of it and we have had our entire life of practicing as though it did not exist and therefore it takes really effort to overcome.


4. Like you would ignore the situation and you do not want to go there. Is that the kind of behavior that people will have?

I think that before it comes to something that you just don’t want to go there is that they do not conceive of the possibility. I think the problem is really to say that they are behaving this way, that they are not considering the points of view of others, is not their experience. Their lived experience is that they are curious and compassionate and interested in others and interested in the best decision. Their really emotional experience is that they are not putting their view first and it is that lack of awareness of the gap between the life that you are living in your head and the life that you are living in the world. It is how your actions are experienced by other people. If you want an analogy, they do studies where they ask people to tap on a table or an object. They say: “Can you tap out a tune? Think of a tune in your head and tap!” Then the other person can guess what the tune is.

Ben: Which is difficult, but for you is very clear.

Exactly. And the challenge is that the person doing the tapping often is convinced that it is perfectly clear because they can hear the music in their head. But the people outside – they miss all that and there is a gap then between what we experience and our actions and we act, we view our actions with a full orchestra of our intent in mind. To other people it is just the tapping. That is very hard to be aware of.


5. One of the harsh realities is accepting we are wrong. You talked about that today, about how people do not like to be wrong. Can you dig into that one?

Yes. It is a real challenge because if you ask people what it is like to be wrong, they describe this sort of sense of embarrassment and just a host of bad feelings that can come with it. It can be crushing and humiliating and people have that experience and naturally they want to avoid it in the future. The reaction then is to assume that anything that I have come to the conclusion of, I have done it very carefully and deliberately and I am confident that I am right. I have gone through this process, I have looked at all the facts available to me and now that I have said it, it feels true. It does not just feel right, it feels true and there is a difference in those things which is truth is something like objective reality and we have this feeling that the conclusion we have come to, somehow corresponds not to a concept, but to the world. When we have such a deep level of conviction of the truth of what we are seeing, the idea that we are wrong is inconceivable. So it is not a resistance to being wrong, it is just it is not even a possibility in this kind of framework.

Ben: You would not even think of being wrong.

That is right. It is not a possibility that comes in. The intuitive way that we act, the way that cognitive psychology works is we have a strong sense of coherence of the story we have created for ourselves and we are so used to things that are coherent are true that we do not examine our own beliefs critically. And this did not create any space for people. This is then the skills that we can practice. We are trapped in this field only as long as we are unconscious. Once we become conscious of the way psychology works, we can deliberately create space and deliberately bring in critical thinking and we can start treating our concepts as something that can be examined, as though we would examine ideas from other people. We can begin to get insights that we will never get if we do not create that space for ourselves to examine our own thoughts and beliefs.


6. What would be some of the ways to become conscious of this? Would that require some training or skills? What is the way to do that?

I think it's really fundamentally about reflective practice. Do you have any way to reflect on the decisions that you have made? Lots of different disappointments, lots of different teachers lead to different types of reflective practices and they are all good. So the question is: if you look at the decisions you make, what is your process to reflect on them, to reflect on how you came to the decision and how it worked out. One important element that all of these share is they share the idea of looking at the prediction and then a result. I think it is important to counteract our cognitive biases by writing our predictions down, because memory is a slippery thing. There is many cognitive biases that have to do with our ability to rewrite our memories. We feel that things that we now learn, we have the illusion that we have always known that. Things that we now believe, we have the feeling, the illusion that we have always believed that. We lose the difference of who we used to be from who we are today. The only way you become aware of what you actually thought at past times is if you have it recorded in some way that you will then become aware, because if you rely on your memory, that is just not a reliable guide.

Ben: That is the reason to write down your hypothesis when you are doing something like the expectation that you expect to get out of that.

Absolutely. Many people just say “Look, this is just a scientific method and it is applying it to ourselves in the same way that we would in research”.


7. Another reality is that people are adapted to spotting mistakes from others, but do not see their own mistakes. So what is the way to deal with that?

I think that is another well-known, classic phenomenon. The Bible says we can see the moat in our neighbor’s eye, while ignoring the beam in our own. It is very true. I think it goes back to this idea of our experience through reality and it is the same practice that I just described. It is a question of taking our thoughts and making them external to ourselves. You can achieve this by writing something down and then putting it aside, and then coming back to it and then reading it as though it were someone else. I know someone who exploits this property by sending e-mails to himself and implicitly, he sends e-mails to his older, wiser self. Have you ever noticed that if a friend comes to you for advice about their problems, you can see clearly in a way that they cannot. It is because that one of the elements that gets in our way to think clearly is our attachment to the problem. The closer we are, the more we have invested in that, the harder it is for us to see clearly. When we are living in the moment, we are very much caught up in that. So any sort of practice that gets any sort of distance between our thoughts and ourselves and lets you see “This is the way I was thinking. These are the thoughts that I had. These are the reasoning I came up with” If we can externalize them and look at ourselves as context to have that bit of space between our thoughts and ourselves, then we can deem to look at it with a more critical eye and a more balanced eye.


8. So you should get detached from it, before you can really reflect and learn from that?

When I say “detached”, I want to be clear: it does not mean that you do not care, but it means not being caught up in the moment. Between stimulus and a response, there is a space as a quote from Viktor Frankl and in that space is our ability to choose. So it is really about developing that space, of being able to look at ourselves from that sort of observer point of view as though we were another person and bring our full capabilities, rather than looking at ourselves through our lived experience.


9. Translating this stuff to teams who are doing retrospectives, would you have the same mechanism in there? Do they also need to take some distance before they are really able to reflect on their way of working?

I think it is very useful for teams to work in a very similar fashion, to be explicit about their predictions and then to compare their predictions to what actually happened. I think that is a fundamental practice. I think that a lot of teams that respond to their retrospectives being born and not getting much out it, I think very often these teams are experiencing the same things we might experience as an individual, where we are unwilling or we are not aware of the need to take the time to look at it as though we are another team and that kind of shift in frame. Imagine you saw another team behaving the way that you behaved. What would you say about them? That is going to be hard for most teams to answer because they are unaware of how they actually behave. So how do you overcome that? How do you begin to get that self-awareness? You are probably going to need a deliberate practice to allow you to do it and it could be a question of keeping track of what your norms are for how you believe you behave as a team and then testing yourself – do you actually do it?

This can happen in areas large or small. It can be a question of “Do you actually run your planning game every week? Do you always ensure that you do not try to put too much more into a sprint than will fit? Do you always pay off technical debt immediately? Do your espoused practices match with what you actually do?” It can happen in the micro level as well, if you said “We are trying to have better report in the team and therefore we are not interrupting each other.” Then you have the team actually count the number of interruptions they see in a meeting and you say “What is our score today?” Any sort of practice that makes your behavior apparent to yourself, either as an individual or as a team, will help you have that space to then reflect. Then once you are aware of it, then you can chose what to do and that is the idea. It is not dictating what you are going to do, it is about giving yourself the option to change because if you are not aware of what you are doing, you do not have the option to change it.


10. What can people do to overcome situations where they make mistakes, because it is going to happen? What can they do to get in those kind of situations?

Well, I think making mistakes will happen. So I think that the starting point is to accept that mistakes are not only inevitable, but they are necessary if, that is, your goal is to improve. If you are going to be in a place where you have flawless performance always and you never have a mistake, you probably can only do that with something you already know well and never vary. You may have heard the difference between someone with 10 years of experience and someone with one year of experience repeated nine times. That is the difference. I can imagine someone never making mistakes, if they are simply just doing the same thing over and over again. But if you are growing, if you are adding new skills, if you are learning new things, then mistakes are inevitably part of the learning process. It is unreasonable to expect that you will have perfect performance the first time of anything. So accepting that mistakes are part of the process and then squeezing all the learning out of every mistake that you can – I think that is key. It is OK to make mistakes, but you should try not to make the same mistake twice.


11. Any tips on how you can really squeeze out the learning, how you can really learn from mistakes?

I think, first of all, it is that mindset. It is the desire. Then try to be as self-critical as you can, while also being compassionate, to be able to accept the fact that you made a mistake. If you see the mistakes as part of yourself, as you see your person as an individual, it would be hard to get the learning from them. But if you see them as a behavior that you can change, if you have a growth mindset that is something that you can accept and therefore improve, and therefore you can deliberately practice and work on – coming up with that mindset and that type of practice identifying what specifically you would do differently to prevent this same mistake. And it cannot be simply “Well, I will do better next time” I think this is where you see most commonly both individuals and teams and companies fail to learn. It is this idea that somehow this will all be better and smarter in the future, right? That puts too much burden on your future self, to be that flawless individual. What are you going to change in your behavior that would get a different outcome? And if you have not identified a change of behavior from yourself, from your team, from the system you are operating in, then you are leaving the possibility for that same mistake. So I think that is really the key: you have to have specific behaviors that you are going to do, otherwise you are not really learning.

Ben: This is a trap I also see with retrospectives where people put out very general actions and not see anything coming out of there and then you do not see the benefit any more.

That is right. And they take away the wrong lesson. They take away the lessons that retrospectives are not helpful, as opposed to the idea “I seem to lack the skill to have a valuable retrospective”. This idea that it is a personal failing, I think that it is a very empowering idea, which is that there is someone in the world who could have gotten value out of the retrospective. We just had some experience reflecting on there is someone with the skill to make it a good learning opportunity. We failed because there is something we do not know. What can we do to learn those skills so that next time we have a different result? I think that mindset is very helpful.


12. What advice do you give to people if they are seeking ways to become excellent with Agile?

I think the place where you start with being excellent with Agile is to be clear why you want to be excellent with Agile. I think that is important to know what that would mean. What is different about your life in that future where you are excellent at Agile? If you can come up with a serious reason why, that it would matter, if you can answer that question and tap into your motivation, then I think you will be well set on the path. To do this, I often ask people the five “so what”. You may have heard the "five why's” on our CA. The five “so what” where you say: No, you are not excellent at Agile. Well, so what? Well, so this. Well, so what? And you keep going at this chain until someone really connects with something that matters. Because so often people have not really thought about it very much. They just have not thought deeply about what that future world would be like. They are not really committed to any particular vision. That is simply “Well, of course I would like to be better” in a sort of generic way, but that does not help you. Unless you can connect to a specific vision on how your world would be different and better, you are going to lack the motivation to achieve any sort of excellence.

Ben: Thank you very much for the interview.

Thank you.

May 02, 2016