Include differences (learning styles, that is)

Include differences (learning styles, that is)

The team that completes a project will be different from the one that began the project. Each person on the team will have a range of individual experiences, and presumably, they will learn from these experiences. A mismatch of learning styles can result in communication problems. Communication problems act as a filter for what each individual learns by blocking or altering what the learner perceives.

Learning styles reflect an individual’s preference for how they learn. In many cases individuals mirror their own learning style when they share with others. Most, if not all, teams I have been associated with over my career have been comprised of individuals with different learning styles. This means that to effectively communicate and transmit knowledge, each team member must understand the learning styles of their team members (this is another reason why stable teams generally have higher levels of performance).

An example of the impact when team members do not understand each other’s learning style can be seen in a team I recently observed.  The team is a relatively new team and is distributed, with most interactions occurring via teleconference. Most team members have not had time to adjust to each other’s learning style; therefore members use their own learning patterns as a default when interacting. For example, one team member follows the logical/Lawyer learning style. When presenting information they build a case – fact by fact – in great detail. No one else on the team leverages this as their primary learning style. The great level of detail and the slow (but relentless) build to the conclusion leads to frustration and disengagement. On the same team, another member is verbal learner/Talker.  This person needs learns by hearing, and in many cases, by vocalizing each point.  This person presents information in the same manner as they learn, talking it through (with lots of Keynote slides … with no pictures). In both cases because the members are not aware of the learning styles of other team members communication is inefficient (and my observation is that it can be ineffective).

Teams that are centrally located generally recognize learning style mismatches based on visual and empathetic feedback and can self-correct (assuming that team members actually pay attention when they get together). Distributed teams generally need to take a more active approach to learning each other’s preferences. I recommend the following approach which can be used as a team-building exercise or as a retrospective exercise:

  1. Before the exercise, create a couple of canned scenarios.  For example:
    1. Scenario One:  Pass status information about a trouble task, including a plea for help.
    2. Scenario Two:  Build consensus for a design decision.
  2. Have each team member identify their primary and secondary learning style.
  3. Share these styles with the team.
  4. Once all team members have shared their style, have each team member select a method that is not their primary or secondary style and have them convey the information needed in complete each scenario. (Allow 5 minutes for preparation).

The goal of exposing the team to other types of learning styles is to push each person outside their comfort zone.  This serves multiple purposes. First, the process helps to build empathy. The process also reinforces the awareness that, on a diverse team, all messages need to be shared in a variety of ways so that multiple learning styles can easily absorb the information.  Finally, by learning and becoming sensitive to other learning styles, individual team members will expand their ability to recognize nuances in communications that lay outside their normal learning style. This will ultimately increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the team.

Proceed with caution!

Proceed with caution!

A team is a collection of individuals. This fact is important to remember because how each individual consumes and synthesizes information is as varied as the number of team members. However there is a finite set of learning styles to take into account. Learning styles not only impact how individuals absorb and remember information, but how they share information with others. While there are several models of learning styles, I have found the seven learning styles to be useful with multicultural IT teams.  Here is my interpretation of the seven learning styles:

Visual – The Diagramer absorbs information from pictures.  This is the person that builds diagrams or draws pictures to understand a concept. Adherents of mind maps tend to fall into this category. Walk around your department and look at how the whiteboards are being used. In a meeting the person that jumps up and starts drawing when they begin to explain a concept is generally a visual learner.

Aural – The Musician needs to hear the information they are processing. Pitch, pace and rhythm tend to important components in how this type of learner processes information. When the aural learner talks about concepts, they often combine sound references into the descriptions. For example, when attorney Johnny Cochran famously intoned “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” he was evoking aural techniques that helped make the point sticky.

Verbal – The Talker needs to talk though the content they are trying to absorb. In many cases the dialog can occur internally. For example, I tend to game plan certain meeting scenarios beforehand by running sample conversations through my mind so I can anticipate how they will sound.

Physical – The Builder builds models as a means of understanding of a concept. Experimentation is a form of physical learning you often find in an IT department. Physical learners build something that is tangible so they can develop knowledge.  If the learners we were discussing were rocket scientists they might build model rockets rather than drawing pictures of rockets.  If we talking about programmers we would expect them to create executable code rather than models or diagrams. True prototypes (throwaway proof of concepts) are means of hands-on learning. Physical learners in non-physical situations will use tactile words to describe concepts. I recently talked to a database modeler that described the model symmetry of the model he was working on.

Logical – The lawyer builds knowledge by assembling facts and assertions into logical arguments that can be evaluated. The process that the Lawyer follows tends to build very solid bases of knowledge that are hard to challenge and disrupt.  Logical learners, because they tend to move from point to point, find it more difficult to make large jumps that do not follow from point to point. To paraphrase Socrates: All programmers are human, Joe is a programmer, therefore Joe is human.

Social – The Grouper prefers learning in group settings. The critical component for the social learner is other people.  The interaction with others is an important part of processing. Interaction in groups includes verbal and non-verbal communication and emotional support. Do you remember the person when you were at University that always organized the group study sessions? They probably fell into this category.

Solitary – The Introvert learns best by themselves.  This is the type of person that takes the book home over the weekend and just figures it out.

Learning styles are not mutually exclusive.  Each person usually has a predominate style and one or more secondary styles. I tend to the visual, but often augment pictures with physical experiments (whether writing code or brewing beer). The individuals that make up a team will have a mixture of learning styles. Each person’s learning style influences not only how they acquire knowledge, but also how they store and retrieve knowledge.  For example, music or sounds are a tool for aural learners to gather information and then retrieve it.  Many of us have used mnemonics to memorize facts. When I was young I learned to play the piano.  When I was learning to read music, my teacher taught me the mnemonic “every good boy does fine.” These are the notes on the treble cleft.  Teams need to work together to accommodate and validate different learning styles. When team members are not aware of how others on the team learn they can often talk past one anther, which could reduce knowledge-transfer effectiveness.

Dharavi slums in Mumbai, India

Laundry in Mumbai, India

I recently spent two weeks in India. India is a land of extreme contrasts.  As extreme as any of the examples is the Dharavi slum which sits within spitting distance of world-class architecture.  As a business man marveling at Incredible India while sitting in an executive lounge, riding in the back seat of a car with a driver whisking me to appointments, eating at tables  set aside for dignitaries and even overseen by random strangers while touring the slum it is hard to understand India.  Being a visitor with handlers providing orthodox interpretations of the sights and sounds reinforces the fishbowl mentality and reduces the chances of deep understanding.

Software developers and other IT specialties can trap themselves into a fishbowl by latching onto a single set of ideas and then reinforcing those ideas by allowing gatekeepers of orthodoxy to constrain how they interpret what they read and hear. There are times within the IT community that ideas take on a life of their own.  For example, the 1990’s marked the high water mark for CMMI and the concepts that revolved around the model.  Adherents of the CMMI model became almost religious in their zeal to protect their boundaries, like the adherents of Object Orientation and Case.   Each new community created its own fishbowl to supplant the last. The fishbowl ensured that the next new “thing” went unnoticed by those in the fishbowl.

Many Agile adherents have begun to build fishbowls of rules around frameworks, like Scrum or Kanban, suggesting that only a single orthodoxy exists. They are abandoning the culture of improvement and experimentation that spawned the Agile movement.  To be truly small “a” agile, we must continuously look for ways to escape our fishbowl, to learn, to grow and to change.

A sharp saw cuts faster and cleaner.

A sharp saw cuts faster and cleaner.

Motivational Sunday

The final habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is Sharpening the Saw.  This is a reminder that who and where we are today can’t be who or where we are tomorrow. This habit is a prescription for balanced self-renewal.  The balance is based on a four-category model that is integrated into the previous six habits. The four categories are:

  1. Physical: This category reflects the need to care for the machine; the body, with exercise and diet. Our bodies provide endurance, flexibility, and strength, which enable us to grow.  It is easy to see that struggles with health will make it difficult to concentrate on intellectual growth.
  2. Spiritual: Covey states that, “If your motives are wrong nothing can be right.” The spiritual category reflects our commitment to our own value system.  Our values provide leadership to our lives.  Grounding our values in the habits of proactivity, beginning with the end in mind, and putting first things first helps us to focus on providing service to our community.
  3. Mental: Continuous education and renewal of skills is critical for personal growth. This category includes exploring new topics, debating, and writing critically. Development needs to include a broad approach with hands-on training rather than the more common corporate training. This broad approach should challenge those involved to examine and question underlying assumptions.  An example of how this approach can be implemented is reflected in the Kanban, which requires making policies explicit so they can be challenged.  Mental renewal provides the tools so that we can rise to a challenge when the challenge comes.  This category is also a reminder that when a challenge comes, it is usually too late to re-tool.
  4. Social / emotional: The final category of a balanced renewal is social / emotional.  We are deeply influenced by our relationships, which help write the scripts for how we interact and relate to the world around us.  In the end, integrity to our values is an important attribute of how others view us and is the most important attribute of how we view our selves (assuming some level of introversion).  This category also speaks to providing service to others, which we see as a central tenant of agile leadership (servant leader).

Renewal requires us to pay attention to all four categories.  Ignoring any one category will negatively impact progress on others.  For example, without our health it is difficult to provide service to others or continually re-tool.  In the final habit Stephen Covey advises his readers to continually improve.  Covey caps this habit with a model of growth as an upward spiral of learning, committing, and doing.  This model is reminiscent of the Shewart Cycle (also known as the Deming Wheel) of plan, do, check, and act.  Regardless of the model, continuous improvement requires a cycle that is repeated forever and ever.

Getting to graduation reflects commitment and learning.

Getting to graduation reflects commitment and learning.

Every project is a learning activity, whether the project is a simple maintenance activity or the most complex development project. In every case we are looking for a means of solving a business problem. Alistair Cockburn in his keynote at the Scrum Gathering in Las Vegas, 2013 rephrased the oft repeated Agile and lean start-up catch phrase, “fail early, fail fast” as “learn early, learn fast.” Agile attacks the concept of learning early by breaking work into small components and having the team commit to tackling those components a piece at a time. The benefit is derived by getting to functionality early rather than waiting until late in a project to know whether the right functionality has been developed, or even, if it can be developed. The earlier we answer the questions we have about how and what we are doing the better. The Agile techniques of breaking work into small components, then tackling them in a manner that returns the greatest amount of early learning is a risk reduction mechanism.

In Learn Early, Learn Often” Takes Us Beyond Risk Reduction[1], Alistair Cockburn suggests that all projects seek to answer four questions.

  • How can we learn to build what is desired?
  • How can we learn how much it will cost (time, money, people)?
  • How can we accelerate the team learning how to work together?
  • How soon can we correct the mistaken assumptions in the design?

Agile provides us with a set of mechanisms to develop answers to these four questions early in the project. Story writing and backlog grooming takes larger components and breaks them into pieces of work that can be taken into a sprint and completed. This supports getting to done and then to feedback as a tool for learning.  The act of committing to the work, saying what you are going to do and then doing what you said, provides both transparency and a feedback mechanism. Transparency lets stakeholders understand how the team is attacking the work to solve the business problem and at the same time how the team is progressing. The act of delivering and demonstrating/reviewing work at the end of every sprint generates feedback which can be translated into knowledge and learning.

Agile supports a culture where commitment and learning not only can co-exist but actually work best if they do co-exist. If we view every project as a potential risk that can only be mitigated when the right business value is delivered, then each project represents a set of decision points where feedback is required to guide the work towards value. The impact to overall project risk reduction based on learning early in the project what will work and what won’t work or what the real business needs are, will increase the potential for the project to succeed. Committing to deliver complete units of work at the end of every sprint puts the team and the stakeholders in position to understand unknowns that cannot be exposed without hands-on exploration. The combination of commitment and learning early lowers the risk of delivering and then being surprised.


[1] How “Learn Early, Learn Often” Takes Us Beyond Risk Reduction , July 3, 2013, http://alistair.cockburn.us/Disciplined+Learning

Team In An Agile Class Is Born, Collaboration!

A team is born through collaboration in an Agile class!

Agile is not just frameworks, methodologies and characteristics. It is a culture, or maybe it would be better to say that Agile can become an organization’s culture.  Organizational culture is a common pattern of behaviors and the meaning attributed to those behaviors within the organization.  Agile, if embraced, reforms organizational culture. The culture of an Agile organization features three distinct clusters of behaviors: learning, collaboration and business-driven behaviors.

Learning is personal behavior, a project behavior and an organizational behavior.  Alistair Coburn, in his keynote at the Scrum Gathering in Las Vegas, said that Agile helps projects and organizations to learn quickly.  Short iterations and rapid feedback loops give project teams and the organizations the ability to find out quickly if a solution or alternative is viable or not, and get a better handle on what they know and don’t know.

Collaboration is central to teams becoming more than a loose set of individuals. Collaboration includes the ability to take the first step, work out loud, share credit, listen and respect others. These behaviors are also an important foundation for creating self-directed and self-organized teams.

Business-driven behavior includes behaviors like embracing change. One of the core benefits of Agile is improved customer satisfaction generated by embracing change.  The inclusion of the voice of the customer by someone that is not an IT proxy is a major change in behavior for most companies. The product owner in Scrum is an example of this “new” role. A second business-driven behavior is a embracing changes to requirements. Using a disciplined approach to embrace requirements keeps the project (and by default the organization) focused on the current needs of the business.

Embracing Agile means embracing change for most organizations, which is usually pretty hard. Most Agile and Scrum coaches say that unless there is pain involved you are not tackling all of the behaviors that need to change. It is easy to believe you are Agile, but it only counts if you behave Agile.

 

2013-05-08 07.02.17

Conferences force us to sit next to people we don’t know, to interact during exercises and maybe even have a conversation that would not happen if you were watching a webinar in your cube.  Professional conferences force attendees to step outside of their comfort zone. Even if it is a tiny step, it can possibly change how we perceive the world.

Shifting outside of our comfort zone, a state of mind without a sense of risk, makes it easier see things differently. Our comfort zone can be limiting, because it insulates you from perceiving change. Dr. Bill Joiner, in his keynote at the Scrum Gathering, Las Vegas 2013, suggested that today’s managers must have the ability to achieve sustained success in a rapidly changing environment or they won’t survive. I translate that to mean that comfort zones are a thing of the past.

In person professional conferences are a tool to challenge us intellectually and provide a platform for changing how we think about our professional challenges. For example:

  • Presentations that challenge orthodoxy that wouldn’t draw as mass-market webinars.
  • Free form programming such as Open Spaces or Un-conferences that open the lectern to anyone with an idea or a question.
  • Access to experts for formal and informal conversations.

Regardless of your profession, not challenging ourselves to move outside of our comfort zone will make us intellectually lazy.  Without challenges we can’t hope to raise our game to meet the future.  Attending professional conferences and benefiting from not only the presentations but from the interactions is a powerful tool to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s workplace.