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Monday, February 28, 2011

Software for Your Head 3

The project team kickoff meeting from Software for Your Head by Jim & Michele McCarthy continues.

(from page 7):

The problem with this team is that not one damned person on it is speaking the truth. They don’t really lie, not much; they just focus on the smaller stuff, because the bigger stuff is too scary. So they don’t tell the truth. Not all of it, anyway. Hell, not even the pieces of it they have.

So now what? You lean back and think. Well, your first impulse—to get them going on a shared vision—was wrong. And the second impulse to get someone to say something about the Case of the Missing Vision, or even better, get someone to do something about it, this impulse is also wrong. After all, these people are smart: They know they lack a compelling vision. They don’t need that tidbit from an advisor, or even from one of their own. Who really wants more meetings and retreats in which people don’t speak the truth, even if the topic is vision? More going through the motions won’t help.

Then what? What would be most helpful? You reason, the most helpful thing you could do would be to encourage someone—just one—to examine his1 own personal failure to speak the truth at this meeting.

Now you’ve got your guidance. Anyone smart enough to ask for it gets it. It would be simple but difficult at the same time. You would tell him that he should think, feel, and engage more deeply, and really participate as if it mattered, as if he cared, as if his time counted. You would advise him to examine what he believes in right now, what’s happening in his own heart and mind, and to honestly assess his engagement with his work, values, and team. And then, he would want to seriously question his evident willingness to tolerate— hell, endorse—wrong action. Does he act on his beliefs? Or does he just like to believe in them?

That sounds about right. You wonder what impact this question might have had on teams where you and your teammates expended large amounts of effort for only mediocre results. If just one person on this team who believed in something that the team was neglecting, something important (like, say, the necessity of a team having a shared vision)—if just one person who knew he was doing the wrong thing and yet let himself go on doing it; if he would just answer this question: Why is he willing to accept less than the best possible results, even though he is the one investing his time and effort in this project?

If he answered that and also really saw how this self-betrayal wasted his time, then he couldn’t say he was “too busy at work” to the family anymore. He’d just have to say he was “too wasteful” or “too cowardly” the next time his little girl wanted him to play pretend with her on a Saturday. If he answered that, you figure he’d probably nearly soften up enough to actually engage with the others.

But wait. That’s not the important thing, the talking with others. That’s a trap, a diversion, like fighting for quality instead of creating it. It’s what he does about it, not just what he says about it. They have to balance; what he says has to mostly be like how he acts. But, geez, if he just shared his true thoughts and feelings with the rest of them without preaching or dictating; if he could just tell them what he actually believes about the vision problem, say, and could describe how he hasn’t consistently acted on his beliefs in a way that makes any difference, then he could tell them what he is going to do. He could say, “I’m not ever going forward with another project on a team without a genuine shared vision.” Or, even better, he could say, “I’m going to work on this vision, starting at x time and place, and I’m going to keep working, with whoever wants to work on it with me until I clearly know where we’re taking this product. Will you help?”

Thoughts? Comments? More soon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Software for Your Head 2

Continuing with the stereotypical project team kickoff meeting from Software for Your Head by Jim & Michele McCarthy.

We left off (from page 5) with:

My, but you’re feeling anthropological today, aren’t you? Is it maybe the presence of the cynics nee idealists? Does it touch you somehow?

Whatever. The scarcity of vision does strike you as interesting, even though it’s not a major topic of conversation (or even a minor one, for that matter). You know that most of these team members would agree that “shared vision” is a vital thing for a team. Why, if you went around the room and asked who was for and who against a shared vision, almost all would vote for it. Some would hedge or go technical on you (define this, what do you mean by that, it depends). But none would vote no. And yet, despite this general conviction, no one seems committed to a particular shared vision, or attempts to achieve one on this team. Of course, catching a shared vision, that’s a tough problem. Who knows where lightning will strike? Who has mapped the rainbow’s end? You note that there are a few who absolutely believe that a shared vision is the vital ingredient for a successful team. Still, no one speaks up about this obvious vacancy.

Instead,while you drift in and out, they plod on through the usual meeting follies, cracking a few minor jokes, interrupting without reason, talking overlong and repetitively, sporadically fighting for control, while somehow meandering through a poorly conceived and prematurely written agenda. Yet all the while the people on this team are somehow numbing themselves to a frightening lack of vision of where it is they are going. You wonder, why doesn’t anyone speak up? Don’t they care? You are willing to bet dollars to dog biscuits that plenty of perfectly good beliefs and values are lying dormant within the members of this team—beliefs and values that would make all the difference, if only they were put into practice.

But, because you are acting as a kind of mentor or coach, and are really troubled by this curious vision oblivion, you decide that the obvious first step is to get them going on a shared vision.

This would help. Short-term, anyway. Now that you’ve decided how to help, you can barely restrain yourself from saying something that might awaken their somnolent vision-building potential. But you say nothing now, and not only because of the difficulty of fighting the others for precious airtime, and of suborning the agenda, but because you intuit that jumping in with that straightforward and inarguable direction (get a vision, people!) might be a long-term mistake. You are having a growing belief that there just may be bigger, tastier fish for you to fry here. No sense settling for little crappies, you think, when some big ole lunker bass might be about.

You are increasing your degree of presence.

The problem, you think, is not merely that they ought to acquire a shared vision. Clearly, they need one, and they aren’t about to get one, not with their present behavior, anyway. And yet, your intuition whispers that the lack of a shared vision is not the most important issue to address. So, trying that on, you think some more. What was that about fish to fry? Teach a man to fish, etc. Yes, that’s it.

You know that some of these team members do believe in having a common purpose. You know the whole team would really catch fire if team members just had this one big, energizing, lightning-striking, all-solving vision! But here, on this team, almost unbelievably, not one person will even say anything about this AWOL vision.

You wonder why would they lie and betray their beliefs. A little more of your dwindling supply of innocence goes poof. There must be some explanation.Maybe the lack of shared vision is the symptom here, not the problem. The problem with this team is that not one damned person on it is speaking the truth. They don’t really lie, not much; they just focus on the smaller stuff, because the bigger stuff is too scary. So they don’t tell the truth. Not all of it, anyway. Hell, not even the pieces of it they have.

So now what?

Continues soon. Sound familiar? Please comment.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Software for Your Head 1

As we prepare for our “Simple Rules and Tools for Great Teams” Immersion (aka McCarthy Technologies's BootCamp) I re-read the foundational book “Software for Your Head” (online version). I think of it as the book based on the “movie” the team is about to make in the immersion simulation.

The authors, Jim and Michele McCarthy, set the stage for the development of the Core Protocols for great teams in the book with the following story.

I always find myself transported into this story as the central character, agreeing ferociously with his thinking having been there so often in the past. I hope you will resonate with it too.

From page 4 on:

Imagine a team at the beginning of a new project.

Pretend this team is having a meeting. A kickoff meeting for a new product team members have been asked to build. And you—because of your experience with so many teams over so many years here; because you’ve been to so many kick-offs; because you’ve seen what was the greatest that happened here, and the absolutely not-so-great so many times; because you have worked shoulder-to-cubicle with many of the people on this team; because you have fought for quality so noisily and so consistently, for so long, even though the victories were minor and infrequent; because you are a good thinker and a sensitive person; because you are now finally a bit more accepted by senior management; and because you have shown your loyalty, they feel, and show some promise as a more senior mentor—have been asked to observe this team at this meeting at the beginning of this new product creation effort.

It is a meeting more like other meetings than unlike them. For the most part, the atmosphere is like the dozens of other project starts: There’s a drop of hope to go around, and a squirt of suspended disbelief (maybe this time things will actually go right), and a dollop or two of slippery new belief in the promise of the rare blank sheet, of the chance to do it right this time. Of course, there is the old bucket of dilute scars and cynical vapor being pumped into the air by that whining dehumidifier, and the great pool of dispassion is nearby, too (gets a lot of use). But there’s some of it all, anyway, in the usual proportions.

Dampened by these ambient team fluids, the team members are discussing many things at this kick-off meeting: process, schedule, costs, risks, competition, time lines, and the like. Company politics. The expected disputes are here, contained within the acceptable bounds of conflict, but left mostly unresolved. Handled so-so, but as per usual. You readily discern the rivalries, the alliances. You can feel the newbies’ poorly hidden excitement and fear, and you can smell the repressed hope of the cynics. Your mind drifts in and out of the meeting when the classic technical issues, the old standbys, resurface for another great gulp of communal airtime. Hello, old friends. We’ll discuss you inconclusively once again, once again.

One thing gets you thinking. You notice that the vision behind the product is mentioned only in passing. You see that any discussions about purpose here are strictly pro forma, dispassionate. Technicalities and the usual resource constraints are the real bread and butter of the discussion, the things people care about, fight about. To the extent they care about anything, you think, they care mostly about the things that they believe stop them. They’re creating some sort of blame scenario out of real and imagined deprivations— in advance. It’s like shaking rattles at the evils beyond their control. Go away, bad gods. But they always win, don’t they, if you believe in them at all. That’s why they’re there. To win.

My, but you’re feeling anthropological today, aren’t you? Is it maybe the presence of the cynics nee idealists? Does it touch you somehow?”

I'm pausing here to let us both carry on with our lives. Please let me know when you are ready to continue. More to come!