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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Beyond Fearless Change: New Patterns and the Agile Mindset

Beyond Fearless Change: New Patterns and the Agile Mindset


1. Linda, can you just introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about you?

Ok, my name is Linda Rising, and I am an independent consultant, I just recently moved to Nashville, Tennessee so I am practicing my Southern, I can say “ya’ll, how ya’ll doing” and that works well because right now I am close to Dallas, Texas where the Agile 2012 conference is being held and I am interested in Agile, I like to talk about Agile processes, especially retrospectives, but I am also interested in patterns and the change process, I’ve written a book with Mary Lynn Manns called Fearless Change and now I guess my passion is how your brain works. And that of course fits in with everything.


2. Great, so before we jump into that, I just have a quick question for you, you just told me off camera that you just got on Twitter.

I did, I’m so excited.

Michael: One of your first twits was about George Miller.

Yes. I was waiting, I think, to get on Twitter before I thought I had something to say that other people might not know. And when I learnt that George Miller died two days ago I thought “people are affected by what he did and they might not even know who he is and they might not know how he changed their lives and what impact he had”. George Miller was the psychologist who discovered that we have cognitive limits, that our brains just can’t handle more than about six or seven things. And his paper, which was written in the 50s, was called the The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, and we quote from that all the time and we refer to that and I’m not sure most people realize where that came from or when that research was done, but I thought it was significant that he contributed to our field and that maybe most people wouldn’t realize that he died two days ago at the age of 92.


3. Well, your big thing is patterns and there’s a couple of areas that I want to explore that. One is you’re working on a new book for InfoQ, thank you, and can you tell us about what that book for InfoQ is about?

The Fearless Change book was published in 2005 and since that time we’ve learned a lot about those 43 patterns and we have been writing some new ones and we’ve talked about another book, a follow on, and I think we realized that we don’t have perhaps enough for a full-fledged book but an InfoQ book of 100 or 150 pages would be perfect. And what it would have in it is some deep learnings about those original patterns, some things that we wish we had said and some new patterns maybe a dozen, new ones that we’ve been using, that we’ve discovered in our research. So that we hope that will done by the end of the year and it will be called Beyond Fearless Change.

Michael: Great, so these are patterns that basically extend the work done in Fearless Change.

Yes, and some of it has to do with what we’ve learned about the patterns that we have in Fearless Change and a good example of that is the piggy back pattern, which is about building on what you already have. And it was about not coming in and turning everything upside down. And what we realize now is that pattern is bigger, wider, deeper than we originally imagined and that now when I teach classes about those patterns I call it the stealth pattern. So you don’t come in and talk about extreme programming, you don’t come in and say “well, we’re going to get rid of everything that we’ve done in the past, we are going to have a totally new way of approaching this process, we are going to do something brand new”, that just scares people, people are afraid, they don’t know what is going to happen, what will their role be, will they somehow lose their status in the organization. Instead, you come in and say “I think maybe we can try a few small experiments, maybe this will work for us, maybe not, we’ll learn something if we just make a little tweak to what we’re already doing now”, so you don’t introduce new terminology or new ways or scary things, you build slowly step by step on what you’ve already got, we didn’t realize how important that was.


4. Interesting. You’re also doing some new work in the area of patterns. My question was are you recognizing new patterns, are there new patterns emerging, what’s happening now?

We have about a dozen new patterns and it’s interesting that we had a great keynote this morning by Bob Sutton, who’s at Stanford University, who’s written a number of books about evidence based learning and organizational change, I’m definitely a follower of his, I don’t know if he is on Twitter or not, I’ve read most of his books, I read a lot of his papers and he talked this morning about a couple of things that fit very well with two of our brand new patterns. He said when you talk about introducing change into your organization, the first thing you want to do is, well he called it “introducing a hot problem”, you want to scare them and our new pattern is called wakeup call. So his example was from the effort called 100,000 Lives that changed the way hospitals do business, as some of us realize hospitals are not very good places, people make mistakes, people do things unintentionally that cost lives, so the wakeup call, when they began that change effort, was to have a mother come in and address the audience and talk about the death of her young daughter, which was caused not by the illness that took her to the hospital but by a series of errors or mistakes on the part of the staff.

So that was definitely a wakeup call, definitely a scary thing to think about, that could be my daughter, that could be me. People were then ready to listen to what Bob Sutton called this morning the “cool solution”. So you start out with a hot problem and you hand out the cool solution. So our new pattern is called concrete action plan, that you’ve got to have something that has enough detail that people can sign up for it, it can’t be what Jim Collins calls a big hairy goal, this has got to be detailed enough so that people can see here’s what we are going to do about it and have it be detailed enough, concrete enough so that people can say “alright, I know what we’re going to do now”. So the hot problem, followed by the cool solution, our patterns are called wakeup call and concrete action plan. So we have about a dozen new patterns that we discovered in our research that are going to be in the new InfoQ book as well.

Michael: Great. We’re looking forward to that.

Yes, I am too.


5. So, concreteness implies things that are fact based, things that are validated.

Yes, you know we all have that problem. In the United States we make New Year’s resolutions, they don’t do that everywhere all around the world and it doesn’t work as an example if I’m doing training in other countries but everybody knows what I’m talking about that at some point, maybe on your birthday you have an idea for some goal, some giant new thing, “I’m going to run a marathon, I’m going to lose 50 pounds, I’m going to start exercising for two hours every morning”, it’s some giant, huge vision. We do that in organizations as well, Jim Collins called it a big hairy goal. And that’s important, that’s your vision, that’s where you want to go, but what research shows is if you don’t have some plan that has details in it that says “here is what I’m going to do tomorrow or on Thursday”, then you are not likely to reach that giant goal, in fact what research shows is that those New Year’s resolutions or those birthday visions that we conjure up last two months at most and then they fall by the way side and then we never do run that marathon, we never do lose those 50 pounds and we never do learn that new programming language.

So the solution is why don’t you start with a concrete action plan. Say what you are going to do on Thursday, say on Thursday “what I’m going to do is instead of watching television after collapsing at the end of the day I’m just going to walk around the block”. It’s a small step and I’m going to do that for a week and then I am going to evaluate how do I feel, how is this working for me and then I might walk two times around the block and slowly step by step you have a little plan that is going to take you in the direction of that big goal. And starting small and having a very concrete detailed idea, so, I never had a weight problem but I know that when I face a giant buffet I have a set of rules that I always follow and that I think saves me from diving into the middle and eating a lot more than I should. And I recommend that concrete action plan approach to anybody who’s trying to reach a goal, you have few rules, just one or two ideas that are going to take you through the next week and then you see how that’s working for you and you build on that, step by step.


6. So you were talking earlier about kind of beyond the Agile mindset and you also told me that you had done research recently. Can you basically just talk about beyond the Agile mindset a little bit and maybe share some of the research with us?

Sure. Let’s say first of all what the Agile mindset is.

Michael: Let’s do that.

So at the Agile conference last year I gave the closing keynote and I thought it was a pretty good keynote but I was surprised at how it affected listeners, even those who weren’t there because they post the presentation afterwards and a lot of people watched that. And apparently it really changed a lot of lives. And I realized that maybe a lot of people didn’t know about that research and how important it might be to the way people lived their lives, how it might change the way they raise their children, worked on their teams. So the talk was about some research that’s been done by Carol Dweck and she said we are hardwired to have a mindset, the kind of mindset we have is not hardwired, it’s either going to be one of two, we’re either going to have a fixed mindset; and the fixed mindset essentially believes that whatever talents or abilities or intelligence I have when I am born, that’s it, and there is nothing I can do about it, I’m either going to be a talented musician or a programmer or any other skill or ability or talent, I’m either going to have it or I’m not. And a lot of companies believe that and in fact they try to hire what they call the brightest and the best, the people who have it and they try to avoid the people who don’t. So the fixed mindset believes that we should be able to identify those people and we do it by looking at how they perform, obviously they have to work at it, it it’s difficult for them, then they don’t have the talent then, do they? And we apply that to ourselves as well, if we have to work at it we believe “well, this isn’t for me, if I have to really struggle then I’m not a natural at playing this instrument or performing this career, I should look for something else”. And many people spend their entire lives looking for where is it I don’t have to exert any effort, where I can naturally do this. Well, that’s the fixed mindset.

Michael: What’s my day job kind of thing.

That’s it, and we look for that in others including the people we choose to marry, this is either a perfect match, I’m looking for the one and only or not. So if things go wrong, that’s an indication isn’t it, well you must not be the one for me. So the Agile mindset believes that whatever skills and abilities you have at birth, there is nothing you can do about that, clearly that has an impact, but you can grow, you can improve, you might never be a Beethoven or an Einstein, but you can be better tomorrow than you are today. An IQ test or a test of any other ability is very good at measuring where you are now but it cannot say what you will be like tomorrow, there’s no way of combining the effort, the determination, the enthusiasm, the passion that you have for whatever it is that you want to do and that combined with your talent or ability that you were born with, that’s what’s important. And if every relationship is not what it is today, it’s what we can make it by working at it, by improving it, by growing, by learning. So it applies across the board, and the importance of that really struck home for me because I’m a woman in the technical field and I know that we struggle with bringing women in. So is there a connection with mindset? And the research shows pretty clearly yes and it’s very strong.

So what we know about bright little girls is that when they are born they are natural pleasers and they do well in school for the first primary grades, they are good at language, they know what teachers want, they read well, they communicate well, they’re very intuitive and so for the first few grades they excel. And teachers and parents tell them “oh, you are so smart, you are so pretty, you’re so talented, you’re so good at everything you try”. And the research shows that that creates, that environment produces the fixed mindset, the little bright girls believe “I have it, I am talented, I am smart, clearly the evidence is there and everyone says so, everyone tells me how smart I am”. But then something happens in junior high, all of a sudden the courses are harder and they are not so intuitive anymore, they’re not just about communicating, reading and getting along with people, it’s about mathematics and science and there’s no way that they can do well there without some work, without some effort, without maybe failing and all of a sudden the message changes “well, this isn’t for me then, I’ll go somewhere else”. So they leave behind all the hard stuff and they move over to the easy stuff and that’s where they stay. Well, what about little boys, what about bright little boys? Well, little boys from the beginning, you were a bright little boy, I’m sure at one time, and did your parents say “oh, you’re perfect, you never make any mistakes, you always do what you are told”, is that how it was?

Michael: More or less.

More or less? My experience is that bright little boys are always getting into trouble and they are always pushing the envelope, they’re always climbing, breaking, doing things that maybe they shouldn’t do and the message that most bright little boys get is “why can’t you be quiet, why can’t you sit down, why can’t you pay attention, if you just worked harder, you’d do better in school, why can’t you be more like your sister?” and so what the environment does for little boys is it creates an Agile mindset, they know they’re not perfect, but they know if they work at something they can figure it out, they know that if they do sit down they work on whatever the assignment is, they can do better, so the message for little boys is from the beginning pretty clear. So research shows bright little girls are the most fixed group of people on the planet, and bright little boys the most Agile. So no wonder, they jump into science and math and hard stuff, it’s just what they’ve been doing all along, they don’t get it right away but they know that if they struggle and work hard, they can learn, they can get better.

Maybe we need to tell bright little girls “it’s ok if you don’t get it right away, it’s ok to work hard, work is good, it’s ok to fail, that’s how you learn’, maybe we should tell each other that, maybe we should be more open to that kind of thing with our spouses, with our colleagues ,“I am not get this right away, it’s a hard thing, but I know I can get better at it, if I work, if I’m determined, if I really care”. So that’s the difference in mindset. And what I’ve learned over the past year is how that connects to another topic that was a talk I gave in 2008 that had to do with stereotyping, our judgment of other people based on just a few queues. We’re about to have an election in the United States, were you aware of that? And it’s interesting to look at the two candidates because they are both members of stereotyped groups.

I ask people often “are you going to vote for Mitt Romney?” and I sometimes get the reply “oh, no, I wouldn’t vote for him because he is a Mormon”, “oh”, I say, “what do you know about Mormons?”, “well, I don’t know much but I do know they’re a cult, aren’t they?”, I say “I don’t know, are they?”, “well, I’m not sure, but I’m not voting for him”. That’s stereotyping, when you don’t know, you have no evidence, but you make your choice and you’ve made your decision based on just a few queues. And of course, Obama is black, an African- American, he’s definitely a member of a stereotyped group, people would not vote for him simply because of his color. So, what an interesting race, two guys up there who are just not the ordinary white male, Anglo- Saxon, Christian, they are members of stereotyped groups. We live in interesting times. So it’s interesting to connect the Agile mindset with stereotyping, turns out that the research shows those who have an Agile mindset, they do stereotype because we all do it, but they don’t hang on to the them, they’re willing to let some information change their mind, they’re willing to learn because they understand that it’s about learning, it’s about growing, it’s about being Agile, so they don’t stereotype as severely, I guess.

So the talk I was scheduled to give today at 3:30 was supposed to be about getting old and stay in current, how do you do that? I had a bad birthday this year, I became 70, and there is no way I can say to myself “I am not old”, I am old, 70 years old is old and there is nothing you can do about it. And I do know there are negative stereotypes for people who are old. So now I’m a member of three stereotyped groups: first of all, I’m a woman in a technical field, I’ve always been stereotyped for that, I’m now old, lots of negative stereotypes there and when you step outside the United states there are a lot of people out there who really don’t like Americans. Strike three, it’s a wonder I’m still standing, oh my goodness. So I looked into negative age stereotypes and I learned two very interesting things that I’ll talk about today. The first is, there is some research on owls, barn owls. A guy at Stanford put some glasses on owls and they watched to see whether they could adjust because barn owls have to calibrate how they see and how they hear because they fly at night and they can see a little bit but mostly they navigate like bats by sound. So they are continually calibrating until they get to be an adult and then they stop.

So he put glasses on them that distorted their vision. He altered by 23 degrees what the owls see and what he learned was that juveniles, young owls, after a while they can adjust, they can recalibrate their brains so what they see and what they here is ok, but old owls couldn’t do it. It’s kind of discouraging. And then his research assistant said “well, why don’t we try not putting prisms that radically change the owls’ vision but why do we creep up on it, what if we start with instead of 23 degrees, what if we start with six and see what the old owls can do?”. And what they found was for six degrees the old owls could make that adjustment, and then they increased it to eleven degrees, and they could do that, 17 degrees and they could do that and they could go all the way to 23 step by step, concrete action plan, as long as you break it down into little small pieces, the old owls can do as well as the young owls, they just couldn’t do it all at once. So I thought that, since I’m kind of an old wise owl, I could learn just as well as the young people as long as I take my time and as long as I adjust those steps to my learning rate. So what a hopeful thing, I thought. And then the closing for the talk has to do with some other research that was done over a period of 40 years.

They took some very young people, and they divided them into two random groups and the groups were based on one thing which was negative age stereotyping. So in group A the younger people thought “old people, hopeless, helpless, after a certain age there is just nothing they can do”. The other group was not negative age stereotyping so they just watched these people for 40 years. Well, we know that if you hold a negative age stereotyping you yourself, you can affect your health when you’re older, we know that’s true. But what about someone who’s young holds this stereotype, can it have an effect on their health as well? And the answer is yes. The younger, younger than those who stereotype, those who hold the negative age stereotype begin to have at an earlier age cardiovascular incidents, stroke, heart attack, tachycardia, arrhythmias, angina, so by believing that old people struggle and have problems they created problems for themselves. So the message in my talk is going to be “I want to be your image of what 70 is about, I want you to think that 70 year olds travel around the world, I want you to think that 70 year olds can still ride a bicycle for 40 miles every day for a week, I want you to think that 70 year olds can learn anything that a 20 year old can because you’ll be healthier, you’ll be happier and when you’ll get old you’ll be even better than I am”. Pretty scary, huh?


7. I was thinking about Steve Jobs when you brought up the story and his mantra was “don’t trust anyone over 30” for many years until he became.

Until he became.

Michael: That’s right.

And it would be interesting to know if that an effect on his health. That believing 30 is the end of it, as we know your mind has a more powerful influence everything about you and there is plenty of evidence to support that.


8. The other part of what I was thinking at the time is determination, part of your earlier talk, determination always outweighs talent. So someone who perseveres, and we have axioms for this in our culture, but this is part on an Agile mindset too, right?

Yes, absolutely, because there is research by Anders Erickson that has to do with the 10,000 hours, if you have 10,000 hours of practice that is the key. Well I think that is simplistic, there are clearly people who have put in 10,000 hours and are not experts, so it has to do with the kind of practice, it has to be effective practice, it has to be good practice but more than that, there are so many examples, let’s start with Jimi Hendricks, for instance who did not have 10,000 hours of practice before he became a professional performer, he was an overnight, an instant success, he was not only an incredible performer but he was a composer, he took the music world by the throat and shook it up and he did that long before he had even anything close to 10,000 hours of practice. And he’s just one example of many people in many fields who were born with it; I guess you could say, so that’s sort of the fixed mindset. But he also was determined, he fought stereotypes, people thought he was crazy, no one listened to him at first, so it wasn’t as tough he had an easy path just because he was an innovator. There are countless stories and lots of research around people who just were determined and incredibly motivated.


9. So your message is that it’s a combination of talent and determination.

Yes, absolutely. You know, there’s such an old debate about nature versus nurture and what the cognitive scientists are telling us now that it’s both. Clearly, there are people who are not ever going to become talented in a specific area, that’s just not going to happen, 10,000 hours or not, but there are also people who are born with talent who never do anything with it and there are plenty of example of where people have been geniuses who have been created, there’s the famous story of the man who said I am going to raise chess geniuses and he had three little girls and that’s exactly what he did. So it’s also possible, it’s a combination of both, it takes both. So you can’t rest on your laurels, it does take effort and effort is a good thing, and I think that is an important Agile message, that it’s about learning and you’ve got to deliver, you’ve got to interact with your stakeholders, you’ve got to learn as you go along, you can’t just sit back in a room and say I know what’s best, take or leave it.

Michael: Ok, Linda, thank you very much for coming by today and shared your thoughts. Take care.

It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Nov 09, 2012