Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Course Corrections vs. Adjustments

Professionally, I'm a software technologist who specializes in software development methods and practices. For the last few years, I've been focused on helping big companies with many small teams become more "agile" in the way they work. In doing this, I've noticed amazing similarities between the software development teams I interact with professionally, and the small communities of people I interact with personally outside of work, particularly discipleship groups of guys whom I meet with from time to time to pursue truth and do life together.

The small software development teams I coach professionally are very much like discipleship groups because they do life together too. We spend more waking hours at work than any other activity, so I want to be sure these teams are not just existing or merely tolerating their work lives as drudgery. I want them to thrive and have fun and be successful, the same things I want for my family and friends and whatever discipleship group I happen to be doing life with at any given time. One thing I've learned from both contexts is this: What we say to one another matters.

One of my favorite phrases is "words matter." How we speak and the words we choose can often convey unintended messages, and I was reminded of this by Mike Cohn who is the highly respected instructor I intentionally selected for my Certified Scrum Product Owner training. I'm on Mike's "tips" email list where he sends out weekly wisdom, and this morning the subject was "Stop Making Course Corrections." I read Mike's weekly tips because his wisdom often applies not only to my work life, but life in general. Mike's email today started out like this:
Hi Dennis,
I listened to a podcast this morning that mentioned the need to do course corrections. Then I read an article in Harvard Business Review, and it mentioned the importance of course corrections. Enough! We need to stop making course corrections.
No, I’m not saying we need to get it right the first time and know exactly what we’re building. In fact, I’m saying exactly the opposite. When someone says they are making a course correction that implies they are now on the correct course. It implies there IS a correct course. There isn’t. At least not one that is knowable in advance.
Instead of course corrections we make course adjustments. A subtle nudge to product direction here. A minor shift to the product strategy there. And here’s the key: We never know if those nudges and shifts are going to make the product better. Each is an educated guess. An adjustment rather than a correction.    ...
For about a year, I was in a very command and control oriented discipleship program led by a guy who is very talented at establishing vision and finding followers. It was mostly experimental, and I chaffed a lot under the leadership of this well intentioned guy who was leading it. But, I couldn't figure out why we locked horns until I got free from the heavy handed methods employed in his program. This guy liked to use the phrase "this is just a minor course correction" every time he was trying to get me to change behavior. The implicit message this sent, whether intended or not, was "My way is correct. Your way is incorrect. Do what I tell you, or this program is not for you."

Some of the younger guys in this group cowered under this leadership, and were frightened about being kicked out. The leader would talk about the guys who had not made it, and how they lost their once in a lifetime opportunity. I think this was a genuine effort to make us feel good about being in an elite, high-performing team, but the encouragement created fear similar to what my son in the US Air Force felt about being "recycled" if he failed a part of his bootcamp. But in this case, "recycling" wasn't an option. It was do or die, and "course corrections" meant, "It is my way or the highway."

Ultimately, after about a year, we decided this program was not for me, and I moved into another discipleship context that was a better fit for me at this life stage. We parted ways amicably, and what I learned is I do not thrive in command and control organizations. I prefer agile teams who share responsibility, hold one another accountable, and pursue a shared vision through respect and mutual accountability. A year after the start of this program, I saw one of the guys who left the group during the first few weeks. He's thriving and even leading people in another context.

I know from my corporate life that high performing teams cannot thrive long term under heavy handed command and control leadership from the top down unless you're in a culture like the military, and even the military is starting to learn about agile methods of leadership. True leaders don't try to control. They lead by seeking first to understand before being understood, and follow all those other Seven Habits too.

Mike Cohn's advice is to encourage people through course adjustments, and the word choice matters. Adjustments lead to a mutually discovered path toward freedom and creativity, and it also shows humility in listening to someone who might have different ideas about what adjustments are necessary. Only a prideful leader believes their way is the only way or absolute best way. So, I would join in with Mike by encouraging leaders to seek input and help the people under your leadership to engage in conversation around how to adjust course without coming at them with correction.

And if you do have a case when empirical evidence proves you correct and they are incorrect to the point of being in danger, admonishment should not be in the context of "a minor course correction" because in that case the word choice is weak and indirect. If someone is in danger, such as in a military firefight and about to be blown up, then give them a direct command, but don't tell them to make "a minor course correction." Choose your words carefully, because words matter.