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Travel outside of your comfort zone helps to establish your beginner’s mindset.

Audio Version:  SPaMCAST 177

Why is it easier for some organizations to innovate? Why do some organizations become less flexible after a new idea is successfully implemented? I believe that the concept of the beginner’s mind holds a substantial clue about why some people and organizations either embrace or resist change.

The beginner’s mind is a concept from Zen Buddhism known as Shoshin.  It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.  The beginner’s mind can be present even when studying at an advanced level.  Quoting the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  The beginner’s mind embodies the emotional qualities of enthusiasm, creativity and optimism.  These qualities are critical for tackling tough problems and for innovation.  The beginner’s mind is just one framework for understanding why some organizations and individuals seems to embrace the boundlessness of the environment around them but nevertheless it is a powerful tool for self-reflection or judging change readiness.

I would like to address the idea of change willingness through the filter of the beginner’s mind from two perspectives: The first is from the point of view of the constraints we accept or create for ourselves and our organizations, and the second would be to reflect on attributes that help us accelerate embracing change. (more…)

The Beginner’s Mind
By Thomas M Cagley Jr.

Audio Version:  SPaMCAST 177

Why is it easier for some organizations to innovate or to change more than others? Why do some organizations become less flexible after a new idea is successfully implemented? I believe that the concept of the beginner’s mind holds a substantial clue about why some people and organizations either embrace or resist change.

The beginner’s mind is a concept from Zen Buddhism known as Shoshin. The concept of the beginner’s mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.  The beginner’s mind can be present even when studying at an advanced level.  Quoting the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  The beginner’s mind embodies the emotional qualities of enthusiasm, creativity and optimism.  These qualities are critical for tackling tough problems and for innovation.  The beginner’s mind is just one framework for understanding why some organizations and individuals seems to embrace the boundlessness of the environment around them but nevertheless it is a powerful tool for self-reflection or judging change readiness.

I would like to address the idea of change willingness through the filter of the beginner’s mind from two perspectives: The first is from the point of view of the constraints we accept or create for ourselves and our organizations; and the second would be to reflect on attributes that help us accelerate embracing change.

Constraints

Experts

  • Many if not most people reading this essay either are or are on the way to becoming experts.    Expertise can be a double-edged sword. In order to become an expert, knowledge and hopefully wisdom must be accumulated which can allow an expert to see the depth and breadth of a specific topic providing the basis to solve many problems. The effort and sacrifice required to become an expert can at the same time create barriers leading to a lack of systems thinking and flexibility. Embracing the attributes of expert-dom (note that I did not say that you should eschew knowledge or wisdom rather the behavior of being an expert) has consequences much in the same way cholesterol hardens and clogs arteries. The investment of time and effort required to become an expert can generate a need to defend our comfort zone when challenged or when circumstances change. Another classic problem with experts is that it is easy to become a one-trick pony. For example I am sure we can all think of someone that has arrived at their level of expertise by using a specific technique (for example using Scrum, Kanban or classic project management techniques).  The default option is to try that one technique first without respect for changing circumstances. Taking the point of view of the beginner, it would be better to spend the time needed to review the problem even if they have seen it before.  Why? It is because they would not expect the circumstances to be the same before judging whether any specific technique or piece of knowledge is relevant.  I remember a mentor early in my career suggested that I practice the black art of expert-dom but not the behaviors that the moniker suggests inorder to avoid downsizing in the short run.  It was a good strategy however in the longer run constant re-invention has been more effective.

“Shoulds”

  • Rules and “shoulds” are an integral part of modern corporate life.  Rules come in many flavors from policies (policies on sexual harassment for example), to software development lifecycles, to informal coding standards.  The problem with many “shoulds” is that they reflect other peoples ideas of how we should work and what is best based on their perception of the environment.  The beginner will question the rules and “shoulds” to separate what is necessary and desirable because they do not have the same preconceived notions.

End Vs Journey

  • A few years ago I wrote an essay on my trek to Machu Pichu in Peru. The lost city of Machu Pichu was incredible; however much of the learning experience was derived not from the ruins themselves but from four-day hike through a myriad of climates.  It would have been easier to take the train instead of carrying a backpack through the Andes: however the sites and the self-knowledge derived from the journey would have been lost.  The same can be said for the problem-solving required to develop, maintain or enhance software.   Knowledge is built not only from the result (Machu Pichu) but from the journey (the hike).  PS – this is why we have retrospectives and post-mortems.

Fear of Failure

  • As our lives become more complicated and / or we invest effort in developing a specialty, it is easy to take the safe, well-trodden path because we feel that failing represents a limitation that can’t be easily overcome or will effect more than just ourselves.  By pushing us to the safe path, the fear of failure reduces the possibility of bringing innovative solutions to bear on development problems and limits the experiences that lead to learning something new. Taking chances is critical to expanding knowledge.  My advice is to experiment, fail fast, fail often but not constantly and don’t fail twice doing something the same way.

Defensiveness

  • There are many paths to defensiveness, many of which we have already explored.  One of the reasons defensiveness is bad is that when you become defensive communication becomes difficult.  As soon as you becomes defensive, barriers are erected which makes it difficult to listen, accept and process data that is at odds with your point of view. Frankly, being seen to be defensive will chase those away who have different points of view, which can only serve to reinforce the original point of view which creates barriers between ideas.  A self-reinforcing cycle that can’t have a good ultimate outcome.

“BEEN THERE DONETHAT”

  • If I had a nickel for every time I heard the expression “been there, done that” I would be a rich man (or at least on the way).  A beginner does not make the mistake of assuming that since an idea has been tried in the past that it can’t or won’t work now.  As we have noted before, the world is a dynamic place and circumstances change and therefore when problem-solving all possibilities should be on the table.  Consider problem solving techniques that evaluate alternatives as quickly as possible; prototyping and experimentation (spikes and tracers in agile quarters) are tools to quickly evaluate solutions.

Preconceptions

  • Constraints are an integral part of life, the universe and projects. Most of us have been educated to discover the constraints we are operating under and deal with them. The constraints we have been taught to find and therefore accept as real can blind us from possibilities in a manner similar to the filtered vision that expertise can bring to the table. The beginner does not begin with a set of preconceived constraints and “shoulds”. At the very least, a beginner will question preconceptions of the world around them.  Note: Not all preconceptions are bad.  For example the preconception that holding a meeting while driving in traffic is generally not good idea is probably not worth spending a lot of time questioning or testing. In the business world it is easy for processes to pick up additional steps that were added for a specific purpose or to ensure a specific incident does not happen again — which may no longer be applicable or that the solution is overkill.  If a step does not make sense just accepting that you “should” do it just because the process says so is generally not a great answer.  I am not suggesting that the beginner’s mind is a “get out of jail free card” for civil disobedience but rather that the status quo is generally not the most efficient solution and pushing to reinvigorate it through change is a better answer.

Accelerators

There many ways to enhance the beginner’s mind so that you unlock creativity and innovation.  A strategy is to take positions diametrically opposed to the constraints we just discussed.  For example, to embrace the beginner’s mind an expert could quit being defensive of new ideas while still capitalizing on the knowledge and wisdom gathered while becoming an expert.  Bottom-line, experts would need to resist developing barriers and being defensive when confronted by new ideas.  Other mechanisms to accelerate embracing the beginner’s mind include:

 

Openness

  • The beginner’s mind sees the possibilities in every situation because it is open.  The goal of openness is to help ignore the constraints of what has been done in the past or just settling on the solutions our area of expertise makes us comfortable with.  I suggest investigating a new concept, taking a class on calligraphy (a nod to Steve Jobs) or just reading a book on topic outside of your comfort zone to help open your mind.  Openness is just as much a learned behavior as is the fear of failure or defensiveness.

 

Become a Learner

  • One of the benefits of a beginner’s mind is that it is open to continuous learning.  Much has been written about the need for continuous learning and training in IT (in reality this true for any profession). There really should be no debate of whether it is the responsibility of the organization or the individual to continually enrich or reinvent themselves (the same can be said about organizations — just ask Kodak); you are in control of your own life and career. In order to actively enrich your horizons, you need to be actively learning at all times which requires an open and questioning mind. Time, success and expertise can contribute to hardening of filters which slow learning but only if you them. I am not suggesting you should be a failure, with no expertise and that you die young; rather, I am suggesting that you recognize that the filters we erect to focus our attention can lead to myopia which reduces the possibility of innovation and growth. While being a lifetime learner is not an immunization for career tragedy, it can reduce the risk and transition time if and when career shocks occur (it will also make you more fun to talk to at parties).

Boundaries

  • It is easy to see boundaries all around us — boundaries between people, boundaries between teams, boundaries between processes, boundaries between applications and boundaries between organizations just to name a few. By definition boundaries are barriers.  It is easy to let experience and fear cause us to see a barrier as insurmountable and retreat into more comfortable territory. A beginner does not see boundaries as insurmountable obstacles but rather new territory and ideas to explore.

Positive Outlook

  • Simply put a beginner looks for a way to succeed, rather than a reason an idea won’t work. My experience has been that it is far easier for someone to see how a change can’t work than it is to see how it can work.

The concept of the beginner’s mind provides a framework to consider why some people and organizations have an easier time embracing new ideas and why they innovate serially.  Each step away from the joy of change and experimentation towards constraints and deterministic solutions creates barriers between people, ideas and new solutions which generate a risk of systemic failure.   Become a beginner again.  Take a class on a topic you have always been interested in but haven’t done anything about.  Relish the experience of being excited about learning, not being the expert and asking the stupid questions as you explore the boundaries of the topic. The experience and feelings from this simple act can act as a template that you can translate into your day-to-day world to liberate the beginner’s mind and the potential for innovation and creativity lurking within.

Shu Ha Ri

 

I spend several hours every week running – on purpose. I don’t run very fast, which means when I have the occasional fall because my mind wanders, I inflict very little damage to the ground. This is a preamble to letting you know that I have lots of time to think when I run (which is the reason the ground occasionally gets in my way). Recently I have been thinking about just how rigorously practitioners need to follow processes, methods, and frameworks and when it makes sense to tweak processes to fit the culture. (more…)

Learning games are tool in learning empathy.

Learning games are tools for learning empathy.

A University of Virginia study in 2013 found that humans are hardwired for empathy. However, arguably we are not necessarily superb practitioners. Given that most software development, Agile or not, is done in a team, we need to find ways to hone the skill. An oft-quoted study from the University of Michigan published in 2010 found that students were less empathetic than in the 1980’s.  Why this fall in observed empathy has occurred is open to debate, but stress, distractions, isolation (think about that home office) and multi-tasking have been suggested as contributors. Regardless of why we have gotten worse at empathy, there are steps that can be taken to get better at empathy. Those steps include: (more…)

The front cover of The Mythical Man-Month

The Mythical Man-Month

The Other Face is the 15th installment of the Re-Read Saturday of the The Mythical Man-Month by Fred P. Brooks.  In this essay Brooks tackles the thorny issue of documentation. Both code and documentation are the manifestations of a message.  Code is the tool though which the programmer communicates with the machine. Documentation is the tool through which the programmer communicates with world outside the operating systems. Both communication paths are critical to delivering the most value possible. While documentation is widely acknowledged as need, the downside is that, from time immemorial, documentation has been viewed as a scourge, a pain, and sometimes as a punishment; it is designed to keep developers from doing real work – creating code. Leaders and teachers need to find a means to surmount this seemingly natural hesitancy. Brooks’ solution is to show them how to do the documentation needed, rather than relying solely on exhortation. (more…)

That's a bad attitude.

That’s a bad attitude.

Part of the Simple Checklist Series 

The simple Measurement Readiness Checklist will be useful for any major measurement initiative, but is tailored toward beginning a measurement program.  The checklist will provide a platform for evaluating and discussing whether you have the resources, plans and organizational attitudes needed to implement a new measurement program or support the program you currently have in place.

I have divided the checklist into three categories: resources (part 1 and 2), plans, and attitudes.  Each can be leveraged separately. However, using the three components will help you to focus on the big picture. Today we address attitude.

Here we continue the checklist with the section on plans and planning.  If you have not read the first three sections of the checklist please take a moment see (Measurement Readiness Checklist: Resources Part 1,  Measurement Readiness Checklist: Resources Part 2 and Measurement Readiness Checklist: Plans).

Attitude

When you talk about attitude it seems personal rather than organizational. But when it comes to large changes (and implementing measurement is a large change), I believe that both the attitude of the overall organization and critical individuals (inside or outside the organization) are important. As you prepare to either implement measurement or keep it running, the onus is on you as a change leader to develop a nuanced understanding of who you need to influence within the organization. This part of the checklist will portray an organizational view; however, you can and should replicate the exercise for specific critical influencers and yourself.

Scale and Scoring

The attitude category of the checklist contributes up to forty total points. Each component contributes up to 8 points (8, 4, 2, 0).

Vision of tomorrow

Is there a belief that tomorrow will be demonstratively better based on the actions that are being taken? The organization needs to have a clear vision that tomorrow will be better than today in order to positively motivate the team to aspire to be better than they are.

8 – The organization is excited about the changes that are being implemented.  Volunteers to help move the program or to pilot new concepts are numerous.

4 – Most of the organization is excited about most of the changes and their impact on the future.

2 – There is a neutral outlook (or at least undecided).

-5  – There is active disenchantment with or dissension about the future.

Support Note: Measurement organizations often fall into the trap of accepting and ignoring the organization’s overall vision of the future.  While a measurement program typically cannot change how an organization feels about itself, it can be a positive force for change.  Make sure your Organizational Change Plan includes positive marketing and how you will deliver positive messaging.

Minimalist

I once believed that the simplest process change that works was usually the best approach.  I have become much more absolutist in that attitude, demanding that if someone does not take the simplest route that they prove beyond a shadow of doubt that they are correct. Minimalism is important in today’s lean business environment.  Heavy processes are wearing on everyone who uses them and even a process is just right today, entropy will add steps and reviews over time, which may add unneeded weight.  Score this attribute higher if your organization has a policy to apply lean principles as a step in process development and maintenance.

8 – All measurement processes are designed with lean principles formally applied.  Productivity and throughput are monitored to ensure that output isn’t negatively impacted.

4 – All measurement processes are designed with lean principles formally applied; however, they are not monitored quantitatively.

2 – All measurement processes are designed with lean principles informally applied.

-5 – Measures and measurement processes are graded by complexity and the number of steps required with a higher number of steps being better.

Support Note:  In many cases embracing a lean philosophy is more important after the initial implementation of a measurement program as there is a natural tendency to add checks, balances and reviews to your measurement processes as time goes by.  Each step in a process must be evaluated to ensure the effort required adds value to information measurement delivers to the business.

Learner

A learner is someone that understands that they don’t know everything and that mistakes will be made, but is continually broadening their knowledge base. A learner understands that when made, mistakes are to be examined and corrected rather than swept under the carpet. Another attribute of a learner is the knowledge that the synthesis of data and knowledge from other sources is required for growth.  In most organizations an important source of process knowledge and definition are the practitioners — but not the sole source.

8 – New ideas are actively pursued and evaluated on an equal footing with any other idea or concept.

4 – New ideas are actively pursued and evaluated, but those that reflect the way work is currently done are given more weight.

2 – The “not invented here” point of view has a bit of a hold on the organization, making the introduction of new ideas difficult.

0 – There is only one way to do anything and it was invented here sometime early last century.  Introduction of new ideas is considered dangerous.

Note:  The Buddhists call this the beginner’s mind which seeks new knowledge with free eyes.

Goal Driven

The organization needs to have a real need to drive the change and must be used to pursuing longer-term goals. The Process Philosopher of Sherbrooke argues that being goal-driven is required to be serious about change.  In many cases I have observed that a career near-death experience increases the probability of change, because it sharpens focus (assuming it does not create a negative atmosphere). A check-the-box goal rarely provides more than short-term, localized motivation.

 8 – The organization has a well-stated positive goal and that measurement not only supports, but is integral to attaining that goal.

2 – The pursuit of the measurement is about checking a box on a RFP response.

-10 – Measurement is being pursued for no apparent purpose.

Overall Note:  Measurement programs that are not tied directly to supporting organizational direct goals should be stopped and restarted only after making sure of the linkage.

Conviction

Belief in the underlying concepts of the measurement (or other change framework) provides motivation to the organization and individuals. Belief provides a place to fall back upon when implementation or support becomes difficult.  Conviction creates a scenario where constancy of purpose (from Deming’s work) is not an after-thought, but the way things are done. Implementing measurement programs are long-term efforts — generally with levels of excitement cycling through peaks and valleys.  In the valley when despair becomes a powerful force, many times conviction is the thread that keeps things moving forward. Without a critical mass of conviction it will be easy to wander off to focus on the next new idea.

 8 – We believe and have evidence that from the past that we can continue to believe over time.

4 – We believe but this is the first time we’ve attempted something this big!

2 – We believe  . . . mostly.

0 – No Organizational Change Plan has been created.

 

Next up: scoring and deciding what to do with the score.

Practical Software Estimation
Function Point Methods for Insourced and Outsourced Projects
M.A. Parthasarathy

A Review by Thomas M. Cagley Jr.

 

Estimation is a topic that has spawned an industry, caused publishers to fell many trees and practitioners to consume many electron discussing the how’s and why’s of estimation. M. A. Parthasarathy’s new book “Practical Software Estimation,” published in 2007 by Adison Wesley, is one the rare books that presents the topic in a manner accessible to beginners while providing hints and techniques useful to an experienced practitioner such as myself. Capers Jones provided a blurb featured on the back cover, “A clearly written book that is a useful primer for a very complicated set of topics.”

 

The book walks the reader through the estimation life cycle, beginning by grounding the reader in the rational for estimation and the relationship between estimation and measurement. A quote from the book on page 31 describes “estimation and measurement as two faces of the same attribute of a software application: Size.” Size is a critical concept and Partha describes the concept and how to leverage function points as method to size projects. Leveraging the same concise writing style he used to describe the estimation process, Partha provides a great description of function points. “Practical Software Estimation” extends the intellectual dialog while addressing the practical. The discussion of the relationship between non-functional requirements, quality of service and general system characteristics is worth the price of the book. (I would suggest that the mapping proposed by the author is still early in its definitional stage and requires field testing.)

“Practical Software Estimation” explains the linkage between size, delivery rate and the resultant estimation of effort, schedule and cost. Effort, schedule and cost are outcomes of an estimation process, in Partha’s words. The book is wrapped up with chapters on using an estimation process in agile projects, using estimation as a tool for project monitoring and control (an important overlap for those pursuing the CMMI), and finally tips, techniques and case studies.

There are two types of books I typically find when I visit clients’ offices: eye candy and reference manuals. You might be tempted to buy M. A. Parthasarathy’s Practical Software Estimation and display it prominently as a badge of your knowledge of estimation. However, if you are like me, the real mark of the value will be the amount of yellow highlighter used and notes scribbled in the margin that proves its value. My copy of “Practical Software Estimation” is already of the well thumbed variety.

This is a book to buy and use.