Dealing with the messy middle; accepting the wisdom of improv

A number of years back my thesis advisor retired and I made the trip to Boston to join in the celebration. One of the observations that has stuck with me was that the curtain was going up on Act 3 of my advisor’s career.

The reason it hit me was that I was being forced into a similar transition but not by choice. The metaphor of the curtain coming up on another act was a lot more empowering than the feeling of the curtain falling to end the performance. That helped me switch from licking my wounds to contemplating what to make of the next act.

Two things have become more clear as this act has unfolded. First, this act has called for me to step from the wings onto the stage. Not all the time, there is still work to be done from the wings, but I have to step into the light. Second, it turns out that there is no script for Act 3; Act 3 will be improv.

Now, the truth is that life is improv, but it can feel safe to pretend that there is a script. If you’ve been pretending there is a script, then making it up as you go feels like you must be cheating somehow.

There was a time when I ran the training function for Diamond Technology Partners, the consulting firm I co-founded with nine other partners and fifteen staff. When we had grown to several hundred professionals a few years later, one of our staff came to me with a proposal. Rik had been an actor before he became a consultant and convinced me that any consultant would be a better consultant with some basic improv training.

We ran the experiment with help from Second City in Chicago—a world class improv company. I joined in the initial sessions myself; much easier to evaluate an experiment from the inside than from the sidelines. It was a success but seen as a bit too threatening to the conventional wisdom by people with the power to say no. I was pushed out shortly after for other reasons and that is a story for another day.

But the improv perspective was a demarcation point in my thinking that only became clear in retrospect.

One of the mistakes that made me uncomfortable taking the stage was believing that you had to have your lines memorized to perform. I had learned one level of truth in the quest for expertise; experts were people with knowledge and answers. You wanted to find the person who wrote the book to get the best answers. If you wrote the book, then you’d better have the answers.

With two books written so far, you would think I would have also learned some deeper truths as well. But, having head and heart out of balance makes certain lessons slow to sink in. Thinking about the differences between scripted performance and improv was one of the elements in getting back to a more balanced place.

Among the fundamental principles of improv are the notions of accepting what is happening in front of you as the only meaningful starting point and of subordinating your personal agenda to letting the collaborative process play out.

What that translates into for my work is that the process is about exploring questions and digging into uncertainties not about starting with predetermined answers. That may seem trite and trivially obvious but honest inquiry is tremendously hard to do inside most organizations. The most powerful demonstration of true expertise is to be comfortable not knowing and trusting that the answers will appear after you’ve worked through the questions.

The essential part of that journey is working through the mess in the middle. There are powerful forces and temptations to rush through that stage. Developing and maintaining the strength to resist is a continuing demand.

Learning, bodies of knowledge, and half-lives

half life curveWe think of learning relative to a body of knowledge; we talk about learning a foreign language, data science, corporate finance, or carpentry. Academic degrees are built around demonstrating mastery of a body of knowledge.Professions are defined and certified in terms of mastering a specified body of knowledge.

I have two problems with this thinking from the perspective of learning. Who specifies what constitutes the relevant body of knowledge? And, how do you handle the problem of updating the body of knowledge? The way we conventionally think about those two questions seriously interferes with our ability to learn in the environment we face.

What is it about the environment that triggers my worries? The pace of change. We’re familiar with Moore’s Law, for example. There is the exponential growth in multiple measures of data and information. There is the exponential growth in scientific publications.

The simplest organizing idea here is the notion of the half-life of knowledge. We know that this half-life is shrinking in all sorts of fields.

What happens when that half-life is shorter than the time it takes to update a relevant body of knowledge and fold the new knowledge into certification processes and school curricula? Professional associations worry about this. Schools doing curriculum design worry as well. Organizations that find schools and professional associations moving too slowly worry and respond by creating corporate universities.

What does it all mean from the perspective of an individual trying to cope? What do you do if you understand that you can’t simply turn the problem over to the experts?

The standard responses of going back to school or trusting in the continuing education requirements of your chosen field are insufficient. All of those responses are rooted in the assumption that learning is simply about mastering a body of knowledge.

One of Alvin Toffler’s oft-quoted observations is that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” He had a handle on this problem. We need to master another layer of skills, to see the body of knowledge as something dynamic and evolving.

From that vantage point we take on responsibility for actively updating and maintaining the bodies of knowledge that concern us. Whatever our central interests, we have to also acquire basic competence in how learning works and in how knowledge is created. We need to become our own curriculum designers and our own research directors.

What problem are we trying to solve?

Lever“Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the Earth” doesn’t work if you are standing in the wrong place.

It’s tempting to focus on the lever—to make it longer or stronger or out of some new  material. What you aren’t likely to do is take the lever you’ve got and look for a new place to stand. Nor are you likely to ask whether a lever is the relevant tool.

One of the courses I teach is on Requirements Analysis and Communications. The goal is to equip students with the tools to articulate a problem with  enough detail and precision that a effective solution can be designed and implemented. That phrasing is awkward because all too common practice is to define problems in terms of known solutions.

It’s the inverse of children with hammers pounding everything as if it were a nail. It’s claiming you have a nail to be pounded because someone with a hammer has come along.

None of this is any easier in a world rife with voices clamoring that they have the magic hammer for X.

Everybody has an answer. Everybody is selling a solution. Everybody has a hammer.

How do you learn

  • to take the time
  • to ask the questions
  • that will define the problem first?

The root question is always “what problem are we trying to solve?” The first several rounds of answers to that direct question are always statements of a solution, which is not a statement of a problem.

Asking effective questions is a learnable skill. I can give you a list of useful questions and I can lay out a process for asking them. But, what you really need is an opportunity to observe effective questioning in action, to practice in a safe environment, and to get feedback.

What I’m describing, of course, is the case method—either law school of business school flavor—or problem-based learning. What’s less emphasized is that these are inquiry processes; they are about questions, not answers. That makes them frustrating when you’re accustomed to being rewarded for answers, whether in school or in life.

The way out of that frustration is to understand the goal is building a skill not parroting an answer.

Questions about questions

One of my professors, Warren McFarlan, made an observation about the choice of questions that has stuck with me. He argued that you could either ask questions that would get you published or you could ask questions that mattered.

He might have been a bit more diplomatic in his phrasing but that was the essence. Were you going to be driven by safety or by curiosity?

Most of education and society drives our questions to safety. We learn which questions lead to the answers that our teachers and managers are looking for. “Will this be on the test?” is the default question. The ways we suppress curiosity while pretending to encourage it are limitless.

I had a classmate in business school who liked to chat with our professors after class, which earned him a reputation as a brown noser. The notion that you might be genuinely curious about the subject was a foreign concept to most of our classmates. I got to know Phil as the year went on and discovered that he already had a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science. I may have been the only one in our section that he revealed this to; he believed, rightly I suspect, that this would only brand him further.

Curiosity is a dangerous value; it has killed more than cats. Suppose you also believe it is important regardless of the risks. How do you encourage, promote, and nourish real curiosity in environments that fear and suppress it?

How do you learn to ask questions that matter?

I’m making a claim here that I’ve avoided this problem and navigated the system with my curiosity intact. How did I manage that? More importantly, are there any lessons to learn?

School was a place where most things came pretty easy. But the culture still rewarded right answers and compliant behavior. As I listen to others tell tales of the pressures to achieve they faced from parents and teachers, they strike me as foreign. I was certainly praised when I did well, but I never felt pressured. My mom was always a believer. She was pleased with my results. But, she never talked about expectations. I imagine that with my six younger siblings to wrangle she was mostly relieved that I was operating on my own.

Looking back, my dad was pretty tricky. It was never “were you the best?” The question was “does this represent your best work?” If the answer was yes, the actual grade was immaterial; if the answer was no, then an A was no defense. That got me through high school and by the time I reached college I was comfortable chasing my interests instead of grades. I took courses based on my interests at the time, not based on my grade point average. As I often tell my students today, I managed to collect at least one of every possible grade.

Grades served as feedback, not measures of my value.

My work in the theater taught a second important lesson. Working on stage productions was always about scarce resources and hard deadlines. You can generally negotiate an extension on a class assignment; you can’t move opening night. On a show, the question is always “does this make what the audience sees better?” That leads to a second question, “if the audience can’t see it, why are you doing it?” There’s no good reason to paint the back side of a set.

The question is not about effort; it’s about value. We track effort because we can’t always wait to measure value; effort can be an appropriate early warning signal. Demanding maximum effort is a lazy manager’s way to avoid thinking about the value you are seeking to create.

The old adage is “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I encountered an improved version on the bulletin board of a doctor friend:

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well enough for the purpose at hand. It is probably wrong, and certainly foolish, to do it any better.”

Throwing resources at problems is rarely an effective strategy despite the frequency with which it is employed. Acceptable as a strategy if you are resource rich, questionable if the problems and opportunities exceed the resources available. Getting the most leverage out of resources starts with learning how to ask better questions.

Review – Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

 Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland

There’s a rule of thumb in software development circles that the best programmers can be ten times as productive as average programmers. This is the underlying argument for why organizations seek to find and hire the best people. There is research to support this disparity in productivity. There is similar research on the relative productivity of teams. There, the range in productivity between the best and the rest is closer to two orders of magnitude; as much as a 1,000 times more productive.

Jeff Sutherland makes the case that the practices that collectively make up “Scrum” are one strategy for realizing those kinds of payoffs.

Sutherland is a former fighter pilot, a software developer, one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, and the inventor of Scrum. This is his story of how Scrum came to be, what it is, and why it’s worthwhile. The particular value of the book is its focus on why Scrum is designed the way it is and why that matters.

Scrum’s origins and primary applications have been in the realm of software development. Sutherland builds an argument that Scrum’s principles and methods apply more broadly. Although he doesn’t make this argument directly, this wider applicability flows from evolutionary changes in the the organizational environment. Changes in the pace and complexity of organizational work simultaneously make conventional approaches less effective and Scrum more so.

Scrum is a collection of simple ideas; it’s a point of view about effective problem solving more than a formalized methodology. That’s important to keep in mind because like too many solid ideas, the essence can get lost in the broader rush to capitalize on those ideas. There appear to be an unlimited supply of training courses, consultants, and the usual paraphernalia of a trendy business idea; you’re better off spending time reading and thinking about what Sutherland has to say first. That may be all you need if you’re then willing to make the effort to put those ideas into practice.

Sutherland traces the roots of Scrum to the thinking underlying the Toyota Production System. He also draws interesting links to John Boyd’s work on strategy embodied in the OODA Loop and to the martial arts. Scrum is built on shortening the feedback between plans and action. It is a systematic way of feeling your way forward and adapting to the terrain as you travel over it.

Sutherland draws a sharp contrast with more traditional management techniques such as Waterfall project management approaches and their well-worn trappings such as Gantt charts and voluminous unread and unreadable requirements documents.

Understanding the managerial appeal and limitations of these trappings is key to grasping the contrasting benefits of Scrum. Waterfalls and Gantt charts appeal to managers because they promise certainty and control. They can’t deliver on that promise in today’s environment. In the software development world, they never could and in today’s general organizational environment they also come up short.

Understanding that appeal and why it is misplaced clarifies the strengths of Scrum. There was a time when managers came from the ranks of the managed. They had done the work they were now responsible for overseeing and were, therefore, qualified to provide the direction and feedback needed to pick a path and follow it. Management was primarily about execution and not about innovation.

The illusion in waterfall and other planning exercises is that what we are doing next is a repeat of what we have done before. If we have built 100 houses, we can be confident of what it will take to build the 101st. If we are building a new road or a new bridge, then what we have learned from the previous roads and bridges we’ve built can provide a fairly precise estimate for the next.

This breaks down, however, when we are building in new terrain or experimenting with new designs. The insights and experience of those who’ve built in the past don’t transfer cleanly to this more dynamic environment. The world of software has always been new territory and we are always experimenting. The terrain is always in flux even when the technology is temporarily stable. Now, it is those who are doing the work who are best positioned to plan and manage as we move into new territories and terrain.

Scrum comes into play when we are moving into territory where there are no roads and are no maps. If you are moving into new territory you can only plan as far ahead as you can see. There are no maps to follow. Sutherland puts it thus:

Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a structure around the learning process, enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created and, just as important, how they created it. The Scrum framework harnesses how teams actually work and gives them the tools to self-organize and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.

There’s a terminology and a set of techniques that make up Scrum. Sutherland covers the basics of such notions as scrum masters, product owners, backlog, sprints, retrospectives, communication saturation, continuous improvement, and stand up meetings. But he’s no fan of turning these into dogma.

Scrum runs the risk of being viewed as no more than the latest management fad. Sutherland is a true believer and has evidence to support his belief. There are lots of true believers but only a few are willing to bring substantive evidence to back up that belief. That earns Sutherland the right to offer his own closing argument:

What Scrum does is alter the very way you think about time. After engaging for a while in Sprints and Stand-ups, you stop seeing time as a linear arrow into the future but, rather, as something that is fundamentally cyclical. Each Sprint is an opportunity to do something totally new; each day, a chance to improve. Scrum encourages a holistic worldview. The person who commits to it will value each moment as a returning cycle of breath and life.

The heart of Scrum is rhythm. Rhythm is deeply important to human beings. Its beat is heard in the thrumming of our blood and rooted in some of the deepest recesses of our brains. We’re pattern seekers, driven to seek out rhythm in all aspects of our lives.

What Scrum does is create a different kind of pattern. It accepts that we’re habit-driven creatures, seekers of rhythm, somewhat predictable, but also somewhat magical and capable of greatness.

When I created Scrum, I thought, What if I can take human patterns and make them positive rather than negative? What if I can design a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle that encourages the best parts of ourselves and diminishes the worst? In giving Scrum a daily and weekly rhythm, I guess what I was striving for was to offer people the chance to like the person they see in the mirror.

Learning from cases; getting smarter by design

One of my enduring memories from my first days in business school is a video interview of a second year student offering advice on surviving the case method. While I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, it was totally appropriate that his advice was a case study in its own right.

He began with a story of the business challenge of “sexing chickens.” In the chicken business, it turns out that it is important to separate roosters and hens when both are no more than puffs of feathers. The clues are subtle and not reducible to a checklist. Novice chicken sexers can’t be taught to do their job but they can learn.

Prospective chicken sexers go through an apprenticeship. They sit down with a batch of chicks, pick one up, flip it over, inspect, and guess. Sitting next to our prospect is a veteran chicken sexer. The veteran’s job is to give the prospect feedback; either a “yes” for a correct guess or a smack in the head for a mistake. After a hundred or so guesses, the prospect’s error rate will drop close to zero. Neither the prospect or the veteran will be able to offer an explicit theory of what they are doing, yet they are effective.

Learning by the case method is a similar process of guessing and rapid, memorable, feedback. As an aside, recognize that this also describes the essence of machine learning. It is experiential learning at its purest.

The craft in designing case method learning lies in selecting and sequencing cases so that the lessons can be delivered more rapidly and reliably than the random accumulation of experience permits. The assumption here is that there is an order that can be exploited to guide action. There must be an underlying pattern that one can solve for.

If you subscribe to the value of the case method as a learning strategy, you are making a claim that there is a balance between theory and practice to be managed. It is a claim that the particulars matter; that experience or theory can only go so far in crafting a response. That you have a responsibility to design a response that acknowledges that every situation is a mix of old and new, predictable and unpredictable.

There’s a notion here that I am struggling with that has to do with the rate of change. I think that case-based learning potentially makes this issue more visible.

In a slow-changing world, experience matters greatly. Recognize how this situation maps to what we’ve seen and responded to before and right action is clear. As the rate of change increases, the value of experience changes. Prior experiences suggest actions and responses that can serve as the basis for designing a modified response that blends old and new.

Pushing the rate of change still higher means that effective response demands more design and less “here’s what we’ve done before.” What does that imply for learning effectively?

My hypothesis is that we need to make the experiential learning process visible, explicit, and deliberate. In a conventional case-based learning environment, there is a separation between those who are learning and those who are facilitating the learning—which is not the same thing as teaching. The goal is for those learning to build a robust, internal, theory of action. The facilitators have strong ideas about what that theory should look like and cases are sequenced to force the learners to develop an internal theory that matches the target theory.

What’s happening in higher-paced environments is that our learners and facilitators are becoming harder to distinguish. In a sense, we are back to a world of pure learning from experience. What changes is that as learners we now must be responsible for building our theories dynamically.

While this can still be described as a form of reflective practice, that reflection now must operate at several levels of abstraction. We can’t rely simply on organic processes to slowly and unpredictably get smarter over time. We need to get smarter on purpose and by design.

Searching for the secret class

permanent whitewaterThere was a time when I wanted to get my hands on the syllabus for the “secret class;” the secret being how to navigate the real world outside the classroom. Think of me as a male version of Hermione Granger; annoyingly book smart and otherwise pretty clueless. Classes were easy; life not so much.

Most of us spend enough time between classes in hallways and playgrounds to soak up the necessary experiences to get a clue. Through a peculiar set of circumstances and events, I was late in encountering and absorbing these experiences. My wife is on record that she would have crossed the street to avoid that earlier me. My therapist assures me that these lessons are learnable as long as I put my heart in circuit between my brain and my mouth.

Because this arena was foreign to me, I had to study it much as an anthropologist might; observing, cataloging, and making sense of what I see. The biggest risk for an anthropologist is to “go native”; to leave the edge and to immerse themselves in the action. Life demands immersion.

I make no claims about life in general. Life within organizations, however, is a place I understand. Thinking about secret classes and learning in organizational settings turns out to be a fruitful path. Really smart people, like Chris Argyris and Donald Schon among others, have thought a great deal about the things people need to learn within organizations. They talk about skills and perspectives that are effectively secrets and acquired by way of experience rather than classrooms.

Experience alone is rarely sufficient to impart these lessons; managers and executives become effective by way of reflective practice. They must process and digest experience to transform it into effective managerial practice. Classic examples of this deliberate reflection are Chester Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive and Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors.

These are valuable and insightful analyses of complex organizations and executive work. They also highlight critical ways that reflective practice must evolve. It’s a common trope that organizations operate in an increasingly fast and complex environment. It’s common because examples to demonstrate it surround us. In the early days of my career, we were still converting paper-based business processes to electronic. Today, we’re knitting together digital processes spanning multiple

That plants us in a world where the volumes of digital data threaten to collapse into a wall of noise and this wall feels more like  the leading edge of a tsunami rather than a fixed landmark somewhere “over there.” Simply coping with the onslaught consumes our attention and drives too many of us and our organizations into reactive mode. We become driven by events. Planning feels like a luxury and the notion of reflecting seems an unrealistic, academic, dream. Peter Vaill makes a compelling argument that we now live in a world of permanent whitewater and have to learn to operate accordingly.

We have a conundrum then. A changing world demands changed responses, yet the pace of change leaves no time for the reflection needed to transform experience into new practice. What are the elements of a strategy that might even our odds? How do we make reflective practice work in the organizational environment that now exists?

Peter Vaill offers a clue in the title of the book where he talks of permanent whitewater, Learning as a Way of Being. Learning is not something neatly distinguishable from practice; we pursue learning while doing. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the notion of observable work as a pre-condition for making that kind of learning possible. Then, there are various techniques, such as after action reviews that should be in any knowledge worker’s toolkit.

There is no “secret class.” Even it one existed, it wouldn’t make sense to take it. Instead, we structure experience so that learning is a continuing parallel element of doing the work.

Learning is harder in the digital world

Snowboard lesson Most of us have crappy theories of learning. The better you were at school the more likely your theories about learning are distorted. I ran into this phenomenon while I was the Chief Learning Officer at Diamond Technology Partners in the 1990s. My partners were full of well intentioned advice about how they thought I should do my job based on their school experiences years or decades earlier in their lives. I had my own, somewhat less ill-informed, theories based on my more recent school experiences convincing my thesis committee to let me loose on the world.

Fortunately, I also made the smart decision to go find several people smarter than I was and hung around with them long enough to soak up some useful insight. Two in particular, Alan Kay and Roger Schank, were instrumental in shaking me free from my poor theories. Very different in temperament, they did agree on fundamental insights about how learning worked.

Learning is what happens when our expectations about the world collide with experience. As we adjust our expectations to be better aligned with reality we learn.

Schools are dangerous places for learning because they are too isolated from the real world. On the other hand, the real world can be straight up dangerous if we haven’t learned how to behave correctly in the situation at hand. All learning is learning by doing, whether we’re learning to turn on a snowboard or solve a differential equation. If we had unlimited time and were invulnerable, we could figure anything out on our own. As it is, it helps to have someone who knows more than we do to arrange the experiences we can learn from in a reasonable and safe sequence.

The name for this strategy is “apprenticeship” and remains the most effective from a learner-centered perspective. All other approaches are compromises to make the economics work or to solve scale mismatches between the number of those needing to learn and those with mastery to pass along. Anthropologist Lucy Suchman showed how to extend this notion of apprenticeship to all kinds of learning beyond the trade/craft connotations we attach to the word. She talked of learning and apprenticeship as a process of “legitimate peripheral participation.” You learned how to repair copiers by handing tools to the senior repair technician and carrying their bags. You learned how to handle the cash register by watching someone who already had it figured out. You learned how to put a budget together by doing the junior-level scut work of helping your boss transform a handwritten budget into a typewritten one.

It’s become a cliche that learning has become an ongoing requirement in all kinds of work. The problem isn’t simply that work demands more learning more often. The changing nature of work also makes learning qualitatively harder as well. This was never a problem for physical work and for much of the knowledge work of the 20th century. Nearly everything you might want to observe was in sight. You could watch how a repair technician selected and handled tools. You could see an editor’s corrections and notes in the margins of your manuscript.

As work has evolved to be more abstract and more mediated by technology, the task of learning has gotten harder. Whether we call it apprenticeship or legitimate peripheral participation it becomes difficult, if not impossible, in environments where you can’t see what others are doing. Previously, the learning called for within organizations occurred as a byproduct of doing work. It now takes conscious and deliberate effort to design work so that it is, in fact, learnable.

Technology in the Classroom

There’s a nice piece over at Studypool talking to a dozen “experts” about effective use of technology in the classroom. I put experts in quotes mostly because I was deemed one of those experts. Kidding aside, the end result is a nice overview of productive ways to think about incorporating technology into teaching and learning environments. Better yet, it offers pointers to a diverse group of folks thinking about this problem.

This advice is more broadly relevant when you consider that, as knowledge workers, we are all tasked with learning on an ongoing basis. From that perspective, we need to have more effective strategies to incorporate technology into our learning whether the classroom is in an ivy-covered hall, an office conference room, or somewhere in cyberspace. None of us have the luxury of working in stable environments. We all must operate on the assumption that we need to assimilate new ideas and techniques into our work practices and do so on technology platforms that are also evolving.

Practice and Performance

Cpl. Derek McGee, USMC MEU15 TRAP 2013

How do you strike an effective balance between practice and performance? In many realms we draw a distinction between performing and preparing to perform. Actors and musicians rehearse. Athletes practice. Soldiers train before they fight.

In other, equally demanding, realms the boundary is fuzzy; at times non-existent. Where does a sales rep or project manager practice? Where does a brand manager practice market segmentation? When does an investment banker practice designing a deal?

The notion of an apprentice observing and mimicking a master is one proven model that blends practice and performance. What troubles me is that this model works best when it is explicit. There needs to be some recognition that some performance settings are about both performance and practice; some fraction of your focus and attention needs to be tuned to learning.

My sense is that we have abandoned the notion of practice built into apprenticeship and favor performance exclusively. If we substitute performance only in place of practice and performance, do we abandon the possibility of achieving peak performance? How do we recognize situations that call for effective apprenticeship models? How do we design organizations so that they meet their performance goals and provide the necessary practice opportunities so that tomorrow’s organization can perform as well or better than today’s?