January 19, 2020

Help Them with the Why

How many times a day are you walking into the conversation where people jump into discussing solutions that lead nowhere, lack a clear purpose for the people involved in the conversation, don’t make sense altogether without the additional “why” discussion? I know I am having those conversations day in and day out.

We are the society of doers, go-getters, and my recent survey of approximately 3 dozen of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches support that claim. We are the community of proactive, goal seeking, “missing accomplished” kind of individuals who, in its majority, rarely step back and ask the “why” question. By the way, I am not a proponent of asking that specific question, a bit later on that.

However, we charge into action with no clear goal, no sufficient understanding, no true north star. And that is pervasive throughout our life, businesses, and culture. We pay the homage to the luminaries such as Sinek, we cite ad-nauseum the Scrum Guide with its pervasive Sprint Goal, and then we punch in the clock, and go about our daily doze of deliverable outputs.

How can we ensure that all we do has a meaningful, solid, and worthy goal behind it. There are numerous techniques, tools, and practices. It does not have to be complex. But some steps should not be skipped, otherwise we are shortchanging ourselves and setting up for a less desirable outcome.

Ensure that your goals are positive and are expressed as such. Positive goals prime your brain to think about what you want, rather than about what you want to avoid. Focusing on the things you want to get out of your life is not helpful. Rather than thinking (and reinforcing) of situations you never want to find yourself again, think of those moments you want more in your life, in your career, in your days. It’s simple and effective. Rather than, “we don’t want to tell our product owner that he can’t release the product because it’s not done,” focus on what conversations you would like to hold with them.

Sprinkle some VAKOG magic. In the NLP world these are main perceptional systems and stand for visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory. You probably won’t need the last two, unless your product smells funny or is something edible, but the first 3 are amazing. Almost 60% of the population have visual as their primary perceptional system, the rest 40 are equally split between auditory and kinesthetic. Travel to the future. Look at your results and outcomes. Ask the so important questions, “What do you see?” “How does the future look different now?” “What are you hearing people are saying about it?” “What is it like for you to be here in this new reality?” Engaging 3 out of 5 perceptional systems makes the goals so much more real, tangible, and desirable.

Make sure you have all the resources available, and by resources I don’t mean people. Their skills are the resource, but not the human beings themselves (can you tell by now it’s my major pet peeve?). Check that goal achievement is in your reach and in your control. Don’t let the dependencies stay in your way. If there’s a dependency that you cannot break or resolve – get to the point where you run into it with a separate, albeit smaller goal. Keep slicing and dicing your goal until that time when the result is within your abilities and capabilities. What it doesn’t mean though, is that every time you run into an impediment you should throw your hands up in the air and announce, “Can’t do anything about it, let’s cut the goal for it to be within our reach.” Stretch yourself. Mentally remove the impediment. Take a look at the world in which this impediment does not exist. What opens up for you? What are you capable of achieving? What else has changed in the environment and in the ecology? Take another critical look at the impediment or a dependency in front of you from that future vantage point. Does it look similarly intimidating and unsurmountable? Maybe, maybe not, and you’ll never know until you take that different-angle look.

Check the ecology, your surroundings, and the affect this goal of yours will have on them. Are you noticing anything bad and undesirable happening? Are there some potential side effects that you’d like to explore in more details and put some mitigation actions in motion? It’s worth checking. And while you are at it, here’s another idea. Your current state of affairs is in place for a reason, and like it or not, serves you and people surrounding you well, to an extent. Homeostasis, i.e. resistance to a change is a powerful thing, and it reinforces itself with mitigating the downsides of the current state. What you are checking for here are those mitigating factors, mechanisms, things that came to be, which serve to dampen the undesirable effects of the current state. If your achieving the goal moves you away from this state, will these mitigating effects be gone? Are they bringing you some benefits that will disappear in their absence and you will sorely miss them? What do you need to put in place to mitigate their absence? These are all questions worth considering and asking.

You probably won’t have all the answers, or perfect answers, but remember the famous Ike’s, “Every time I went to battle the plans turned out to be useless, but the planning proved to be indispensable.”

And to wrap up, I wanted to address that specific concern I had with the “why” question. Why question is evil. If I have my doubts about what is said, my first instinctive reaction is to ask why. That’s an automatic, protective response of my brain that perceives some incongruity, some danger that emanates from the proposed solution. It’s that Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 that throws up a red flag and start yelling, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”

Now with that Northern start up above your head, I hope it’s making your path a bit less dark and a bit more enjoyable. Afterall, he who climbs the mountain will master the road