Is Disruption done nicely as effective as Disruption done coarsely?

So a colleague of mine (Kim B) and I were talking about a workshop she was in last week that uses disruption in a safe way to show to participants that the more adulterated the feedback they receive the less useful it is.

It got me thinking of all the disruption I’ve had in my life- the most painful and coarsely handled tended to be the most positively impactful:

  • Being told at Microsoft (essentially at the threat of dismissal + subsequent deportation) to become a SDE level developer from being a ‘manual’ tester
  • Performance management at ThoughtWorks to work on my consultative skills, empathy, EQ etc.

I had a lot of very personal things in this list, but I reduced it down to just the few that I thought would be accessible-
The thing with my personal list as well as the two above- in every single one of those moments or events caused me to go to Zero, and rebuild again, just differently.
Also, each one of those things made me stronger in some areas, yet weaker in others.

If I were to take the lessons from each, and find a nicer way to learn it- is it even possible? Without cause and consequence, would I have learned?
Without that raw, here it is- “make a choice”, or “hey- you have no choice- just deal with it” would it have been as impactful? Are there many more situations that I’ve since forgotten simply because they didn’t happen this way? I don’t doubt that the answer is yes.
Feeling uncomfortable, unstable, like that feeling on a Sunday night of dread going into work the next day because you know what is coming- its a horrible feeling. Once you’ve experienced it you swear you never want to experience it again- and yet through the process you come out different. In time, (at least for me) I look back at the experience positively for how I grew from it. Perhaps it is that outlook that makes it different from person to person adding additional complexity. I often meet people in my travels at work who seem to have one job, its the job they’ve always had- they have no aspirations of growing and changing- they find sameness attractive. I am the reverse, I thrive in the chaos, I live for new experiences and new opportunities. I like failing as quickly as possible and rebounding. I dislike failing late and I find that painful and hugely wasteful. Perhaps- just perhaps these situations above are where I didn’t fail quickly enough and that is why the learning was so great. Is this it- the piece?

By failing often and small, we learn small pieces, but we deprive ourself of cataclysmic failure that would have taught us something big?
Perhaps, but I suspect we learn different things. For example a huge failure tends to result in “I need to plan better”, ergo- a big piece of learning that may be difficult to articulate into one piece of learning, whereas failing small and fast often provides detail that otherwise would be difficult to discover in a post mortem. In reverse though, small failure often doesn’t allow us to see the bigger picture of what would have happened if it had been allowed to continue, we can guess some of the time, but without actually experiencing it we don’t know if it is actually a big deal or not..

Just thinking- thanks for being here šŸ™‚

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Breaking the rules before understanding them

A dear friend regaled me not long ago with a tale of how he was part of a team that were tasked with solving a problem. The methods of solving that problem were realistically deemed to be finite, one was the path well trodden but was not terribly desirable from their way of thinking, whereas the other was full of unknowns. They went the other path, and produced something that ultimately failed- but it failed brilliantly in that they achieved something that others deemedĀ impossible.
I’ll explain with more context. They were building a mobile application. They could use the manufacturer’s tools, or use an open source solution. The open source solution unbeknownst to the team had severe limitations due to the manufacturers eco-system. They used that tool to do things it was never intended to do. It caused all kinds of odd behaviour, but when it was presented to someone else who knew of such rules- they could not wrap their head around the fact that they had managed to achieve it. By his reckoning, they had achieved anĀ impossible feat.

In a music context, there seems to be two very different schools of thought:

  1. You need to know the rules (theory) before choosing to break them.
  2. There are no rules, dont believe anyone who tells you that there are.

Case in point, the tritone which is dubbed the “diabolus in musica”Ā (“theĀ DevilĀ in music”) and is generally deemed to be avoided. Some have used it intentionally knowing of its significance. Others use it because they’ve created a song where it works complete unaware it shouldn’t have been used. I suspect this is common as musicians are often self taught, often by sound.
I would imagine Music is just one example, I’m sure the same thing applies to Art and perhaps even architecture.

In software, the same applies. For example this morning- I looked at an APIĀ and realised it would let me do what I wanted. I was intentionallyĀ ignorantĀ around whatever rules were in play. I just used the API to do what I wanted. The author of the API would probably have strong views about what I did. He may be impressed, he might have scratched his head and ultimately shrugged. He might have been disgusted and then promptly removed the capability for me to break the rules.

Teams do the same thing, especially teams starting down a path towards Agile or Lean practices. They dont know what they’re doing, they’re just exploring the possibilities. The Agile ManifestoĀ is intentionally vague about implementation. It is not a tutorial, it is not prescriptive.
Many have read it then generated prescriptive processes or directives in line with it. More still have skipped the bits that didn’t feel right to them and introduced other ideals that are specific to theirĀ organisation.
I wonder, does the Manifesto have rules? even implied, it suggests certain behaviours over others. As a practitioner when someone breaks those rules, or encourages others to break them, it can be very frustrating. I find myself now saying- “so what?” maybe it isn’t a rule at all? or if it is, perhaps it is worth breaking just to see what is possible?
As long the customer isn’t hurt, as long the business doesn’t go insolvent due to this decision- what’s the big deal? We could reflect and learn from it…

I suspect many of us aspire to learn “how things are done” and in many ways we become conformist as it allows us to belong. Some however shun this and don’t care what is perceived as theĀ right way and instead just do whatever it isĀ their way even if they do not yet know what it is.

It is something I’m only now just beginning to learn.
It is a choice.Ā I can choose to seek out rules, so I can then choose to follow or ignore them, or I can choose to not even bother looking and just do what I want. There are consequences of course; but I believe now that its worth discovering them rather than worry so much about what might happen. I also do not seek knowledge so I can create my own rules. I used to, they kept me safe, but were ultimately limiting constructs, especially when I then applied them to other people.

Think of all the things you could have discovered but didn’t because you limited yourself from even trying. How often did you try to limit others due to rules you actually created for yourself? What if they weren’t there at all?

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On normalcy during team forming

Background:Ā Bruce Tuckman in 1965 published a model for group development known as “Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing” which is now pretty much considered the standard for understanding andĀ categorisingĀ team dynamics, at least by lay-people such as me in the commercial space. It’s a model that I employ daily and it has never stopped being useful to me.

A kind word of note: if you have studied Psychology at University, chances are this post will be insultingly benign- forgive me please, I’m looping in things I know little about (I’m reading and learning) to team situations I live in everyday and most likely will do so poorly. I studied Sociology at University briefly back in 1994 and wish I’d studied more, you will too šŸ˜‰

I’d like to explore one section in particular which is the Forming stage.

The Forming & Storming stages are my favourite phase of all the stages because there is so much emotion and guardedness as well as influencing by many of the parties- but there is also an unspoken drive to achieve, even if it is just the team’s successful formation.
An aspect of this is achieving “normalcy”, it could be finding the standard operating method that the team will work, or even how they’ll communicate with each other. If anything, I wish humans were a bitĀ slower as this process seems to end so quickly in most teams I’m a part of. There is so much I’d love to do in this stage but alas it is gone all too quickly- at least until the next team member change (and we start all over again).

Normalcy interests me as the individuals each have a completely different aspect of what they consider normal elsewhere and here, in this moment. Some for example want to bring how they did it at the last place and bring it here carte blanche. Others though were dissatisfied at their last place and want to do it differently here. Others are passionate and yet others again could careless. Some want to find out how it is done in the existing culture, others want to create a new culture or are completely ignorant of it. Some, are using criteria to make decisions and are aware of it and how it will impact others and themselves.

I find this fascinating and also particularly challenging as it is like a grenade is going off inside all these different people, all at once. Some manage it well, others barely manage it at all. I’ve witnessed a situation 5 months ago where several members of the team had experience with change coaching and perhaps that influenced what happened- direct and clear communication. It was the smoothest and simplest formation I’ve ever seen. Everything seemed effortless as short and medium term friendships were quickly formed and long term ones were rekindled.

The individual in the forming & storming stages is also a huge area for exploration.Ā WeĀ don’t know how to behave, what is ok and what isn’t. Nothing is normal yet. What could be normal? Our hopes, dreams and fears are laid for all to see whether we’re prepared for it or not. There are also influencers- both intentional and unintentional. There isĀ programming in that each is programming each other as to what they think normal should be. At this point it is all a negotiation.

I’m fascinated by the Sociometer theory published by Leary & Downs (1995) a nice little run down on it can be found here. I wonder how much of this comes into play when a team forms, especially in IT when there are roles that naturally work together and others that are less distinctly engaged yet they are a team. Do individuals feel left out? or do they expect it? are they resentful? If they are left out, when does that get resolved? In some situations others resolve it, in others the individual does- and in some- nobody does. This is especially evident in introverts- who tend to just want to be in the background.

From personal experience, I’ve found that my own role during forming & storming often sets the nature of my engagement for the remainder of the cycle as in once I’mĀ categorisedĀ by others, or selfĀ categorisedĀ I find it difficult to change it mid-model evolution. It usuallyĀ isn’tĀ until the next major event and we start all over again that I exert influence over things that I found to be unacceptable. That is, normalcy to me personally is a short period of stabilisation before the next evolution. I know its coming, but I relax anyway until it is shaken.

The next evolution shakes normalcy so much that I do from time to time find myself wishing it “was like it was before” <person x/persons y joined the team> without ill-intent just that’s how I feel- longing for the past when things were simpler or more fun.
Returning to it seems so difficult that it feels implausible.

Another concept that grabs me, is how some teams seem to know they’re going to be high performing even during forming & storming. I wonder if how muchĀ Collective Self Esteem (Luhtanen, R., & Crocker, J. (1992)) actually plays out as in it seemed as though this team just knew they were going to be rockstars and that their idea of normalcy would eventually be everyone’s. They believed it, not in a win-lose kind of chest pump over the other teams, but rather as a ‘the vanguard, leading the way’ kind of momentum.

I could write more but I suspect I’m done for the day. I’m curious to know what experiences you’ve had during team formation and storming, what did you learn?

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Creating a vision

You’re excited, you’ve just got the go ahead to hire lots of people and build teams. In what direction will you go? how will you structure it? Who will you hire and what for? Setting a vision is a key step.

Borrowing someone elseā€™s vision vs creating your own..

I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’ve heard an exec say “I want us to be just like <revered company x>ā€. I think its great to be inspired by others and does influence a ā€œcan doā€ attitude since everyone knows it has been done before, however the downside is that it ultimately can discount possible outcomes that only your staff can imagine, and you can sell yourself and your company short. Creating your own vision allows the intricacies of your company to be a factor in what you create, both for good and for bad. It allows for targeted outcomes to resolve long held historical pain, or even revolutionary thought and ideas that can spread like wildfire that only original ideas can.

Coming up with an original vision is difficult and some leaders do this naturally, some need to be taught through trial and error. Some opt to use others directions as a response to having failed before.

How do you go about creating it..

Just creating your own vision isnā€™t enough though- it is how you go about creating it. Some leaders form an elite senior leadership team (usually made up of trusted friends) and hand them the problem to solve. Others share a vision with their teams and ask them to workshop it and come up with their own. Others donā€™t come up with a vision at all- and ask their teams to come up with one.
One is a top down approach, one Iā€™d call a hybrid, one is bottom up. I find these to be important distinctions as they cause significantly different reactions in the teams as well as attract different personalities.


Top down basically educates the entire team that the only way to be listened to is to be ā€œmadeā€ a member of the senior leadership team because it the only way youā€™ll be able to influence the direction. The Hybrid approach provides a forum for input and changes in direction and creates a culture of vision ownership. Bottom up on the other hand, provides empowerment to the staff but can often lead to the leadership team having less buy in or even a feeling of servitude to the teams.

Thereā€™s a lot in there, one might even argue the real problem is: top down vs bottom up, however what Iā€™m working towards is that top down and bottom up are decisions that come in response to the vision of where you want to be and how you want to get there. How you deal with the vision plays a big part in how the company will be run while it is decided and indeed after.

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