Sunday 25 September 2016

Why don't you just

I'm solution oriented. If I hear about a problem, I like to make suggestions about how it can be resolved. Sometimes before people have even stopped speaking, my brain is spinning on ideas.

As a coach and mentor, this trait can be a problem. Thinking about solutions interferes with my active listening. I can't hear someone properly when I'm planning what I'll say next. I can neglect to gather all the context to a situation before jumping in with my ideas. And when I offer my thoughts before acknowledging those of the person who I'm talking to, I lack empathy.

Earlier in my career I was taught the GROW model, which is a tool that has been used to aid coaching conversations since the 1980s. GROW is an acronym that stands for goal, reality, options, way forward. It gives a suggested structure to a conversation about goal setting or problem solving.

When I jump to solutions, I skip straight to the end of the GROW model. I'm focusing on the way forward. While I do want my coaching conversations to end in action, I can end up driving there too fast.

Pace of conversation is a difficult thing to judge. I've started to use a heuristic to help me work out when I'm leaping ahead. If I can prefix a response with "Why don't you just" then it's likely that I've jumped into solution mode alone, without the person that I'm speaking to.

Why don't you just ask Joan to restart the server?

Why don't you just look through the test results and see how many things failed?

Why don't you just buy some new pens?

"Why don't you just" is the start of a question, which indicates I'm not sure that what I'm about to say is a valid way forward. If I'm uncertain, it's because I don't have enough information. Instead of suggesting, I loop back and ask the questions that resolve my uncertainty.

"Why don't you just" indicates an easy option. It's entirely likely that the person has already identified the simplest solutions themselves. Instead of offering an answer that they know, I need to ask about the options they've already recognised and dismissed. There are often many.

"Why don't you just" can also help me identify when I'm frustrated because the conversation is stuck. Perhaps the other person is enjoying a rant about their reality or cycling through options without choosing their own way forward. Then I need to ask a question to push the conversation along, or abandon it if they're simply talking as a cathartic outlet.

This prompt helps me determine the pace of a conversation. I can recognise when I need to slow down and gather more information, or when a conversation has stalled and I need to push the other person along. Perhaps "Why don't you just" will help others who are afflicted with a need for action.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Going to a career

My father-in-law works in HR. A few years ago when I was thinking about changing jobs, he gave me a piece of advice that stuck. He said:

"People are either leaving a job or going to a job. Make sure you're going to something."

Sometimes you're changing jobs primarily to escape your current situation. You might have an unpleasant manager or colleagues, feel that you're being paid unfairly, find your work boring or the working conditions intolerable. You're searching for something else. You're leaving a job.

On the other hand, sometime's you're changing jobs in active pursuit of the next challenge. You might be looking to gain experience in a new industry, for a new role within your profession, or for a greater level of responsibility in your existing discipline. You're searching for something specific. You're going to a job.

These two states aren't mutually exclusive, obviously you might have reasons in both categories. But his advice was that the reasons you're going to a job should always outweigh the reasons that you leave your existing one.

When I reflect on my career, I have definitely changed jobs in both situations. But it has been those occasions where I've moved towards a new role, rather than escaping an old one, that have propelled my career forward. The decisions that I've made consciously in pursuit of a broader purpose, rather than as a convenient change in immediate circumstance, have always served me best.

I find myself regularly sharing this same advice with others who are considering their career. If you're thinking about what's next, make sure you're going to something. Deliberate steps forward are how we grow and challenge ourselves.

Sunday 4 September 2016

The end of the pairing experiment

I have spoken and written about the pairing experiment for sharing knowledge between agile teams that I facilitated for the testers in my organisation. After 12 months of pairing, in which we saw many benefits, I asked the testers whether they would like to continue. The result was overwhelming:

Survey Results

I had asked this same question regularly through the experiment, but this was the first time that a majority of respondents had asked to stop pairing. As a result, we no longer do structured, rostered, cross-team pairing.


The first and most obvious reason is above. If you ask people for their opinion on an activity that they're being instructed to undertake, and they overwhelmingly don't want to do it, then there's questionable value in insisting that it happens regardless. Listen to what you are being told.

But, behind the survey results is a reason that opinion has changed. This result told me that the testers believed we didn't need the experiment anymore, which meant they collectively recognised that the original reason for its existence had disappeared.

The pairing experiment was put in place to address a specific need. In mid-2015 the testers told me that they felt siloed from their peers who worked in different agile teams. The pairing experiment was primarily focused on breaking down these perceived barriers by sharing ideas and creating new connections.

After 12 months of rostered pairing the testers had formed links with multiple colleagues in different product areas. The opportunity to work alongside more people from the same products offered diminishing returns. Each tester already had the visibility of, and connection to, other teams.

Additionally, our pairing experiment wasn't happening in isolation. Alongside, the testers within particular product areas started to interact more frequently in regular team meetings and online chat channels. We also started meeting as an entire testing competency once a week for afternoon tea.

The increased collaboration between testers has shifted our testing culture. The testers no longer feel that they are disconnected from their colleagues. Instead there's a strong network of people who they can call on for ideas, advice and assistance.

The pairing experiment achieved its objective. I'm proud of this positive outcome. I'm also proud that we're all ready to let the experiment go. I think it's important to be willing to change our approach - not just by introducing new ideas, but also by retiring those that have fulfilled their purpose.

Now that we've stopped pairing, there's time available for the next experiment. I'm still thinking about what that might be, so that our testing continues to evolve.