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A 10,000 Pound Elephant Can Be Restrained by a Puny Rope. (Pssst, Your Development Team Can Be Too.)

June 20th, 2009 8 comments

ElephantElephants can easily grow in excess of 5 tons each, tearing through trees, brush, and even houses if they get in their way.  These lumbering giants are roamers by nature, and typically care very little about what obstacles are in their way, as most obstacles they find in their environment are no match for their own gigantic size.  Keeping an animal like this in captivity can be quite a challenge.  Perhaps a zoo that has the proper facilities and staff can keep these gentle giants confined, but when an elephant is born to a poor farmer on the plains of Africa, the challenge would seem to be much greater to do the same.  But in reality, it is actually quite easy.

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When an elephant is born in captivity in Africa (and I am using the word ‘captivity’ very loosely here, as there are no pens, no cages, and no fences on the majority of these properties), the owner of the newborn elephant ties the animal to a tree or post with a strong chain, thus preventing the creature from escaping.  As the elephant grows during the first few weeks, the chain that binds him is continually tested by the elephant in his attempts to free himself, but as a baby, his efforts are just no match for the chain.  As the elephant continues to grow, his attempts to break free of his confinement become less and less frequent as he learns that his might and muscle are no match for the hardiness of the restraint, so confined he stays.  Soon after, the elephant simply gives up any attempts to free himself, and thus seemingly is relegated to a life of capture, believing that his strength will never provide the effort necessary to overcome his restraints.

As an adult elephant, having been conditioned by his past experience, he can now easily be tethered to a tree with the puniest of ropes while making no attempt to break free.  He makes no attempts at freedom because he carries with him for life the belief that he does not possess the strength and power to break the ties that bind him.  This elephant could easily uproot the tree that the rope is attached to, or simply snap the puny rope, but no effort to do so is made because early in life, the elephant learned that he was not capable of doing such a thing, even though he has grown to many times the size that he was when he still had made attempts to free himself.

The rope no longer serves the purpose of physically binding the elephant, for it is not strong enough to accomplish that feat if ever tested.  No, now the rope simply serves to confine the animal’s mind, reinforcing the mistaken belief that the elephant’s current capabilities are no greater than they were when he was just a fraction of his current size and strength.  The puniest of ropes can bind the largest of elephant, simply because the elephant believes that it can.

So what does the fact that gigantic creatures like elephants can be confined by weak restraints have to do with software development teams?

Plenty.

Our belief about our ability as individuals is often seen through the lens of our past experiences.  Too often people suffer failure only to take the circumstances of that failure as a definition of the limits of their abilities.  We are just like elephants in this regard, making the mistaken assumption that our past experience equals our future potential, or lack thereof.  A team’s behavior is no different, and can often be worse, especially in a corporate climate that reinforces our limits through lack of management support in our efforts to try again that which we failed in the past.  We learn too quickly that even if we make an effort to break the rope that binds us, when we are unsuccessful we sub-consciously decide to re-write the definition of our abilities, never to test that definition again.

chainsNow, I am not advocating enduring the classic definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, although it may sound like I am.  In this old adage describing the actions of the insane, it implies that circumstances remain the same, which in life, is rarely the case.  If the adult elephant were to once again attempt to break free of the rope, it would not fall into the insane category because the circumstances surrounding the scenario of his captivity have changed.  And although these circumstances have changed in reality, they have not changed in the mind and belief of the elephant, thus the force truly confining the adult elephant is not the rope at all, but his own limited beliefs.  This is sad for the elephant, because the elephant does not have the luxury of making conscious decisions to challenge a defective set of beliefs based on outdated information.  But we do.

Often times, the best course forward for individuals or teams is not the most obvious, it is not the easiest, or it is not the most readily apparent.  But individuals and teams rarely make concerted efforts to do more than scratch the surface of possibilities directly in front of them to test whether their current actions will produce the best results possible.  Or even simply better than the results they have achieved in the past.  The lens of our past experiences through which we view our current situations often does very little to encourage innovative thinking, in fact more often than not, it values only using information from past events that lead to successful conclusions, even when innovative thinking is called for.

Take an old Sufi parable (I have changed some minor details to modernize the story a bit)…

A man was walking down the street late one night, only to come across Darren, an old friend of his, on his hands and knees under the corner streetlight, frantically searching for something.  Wanting to help his friend, the man asks what he is looking for so diligently, to which Darren replies that he has lost his house keys.  The man gets on his hands and knees to join his friend in the search.

After 30 minutes of combined effort, the man finally asks of Darren “we have searched every crevice within 30 feet of this spot, are you sure that you dropped your keys here?”

Darren replies “no, actually I dropped them about a block away.”

“What!?  If you dropped your keys a block away, then why have we been wasting our time looking here?”

“Well, the light was better over here…”

Now as crazy as that may sound, the message of the story is much less absurd.  This simple parable illustrates something far more common among software development teams, doing what we have known to work in the past without expending any effort to determine if that past approach is appropriate given new circumstances, requirements, and constraints.  The lazy approach to our efforts will often yield shades of success, but very rarely yield extraordinary results, results that exceeded our own beliefs about what was possible.  And like the elephant, what we believe to be possible is more often a factor of the limitations of our beliefs about what is possible, rather than what is truly possible.

How do Agile teams take these realities into account and use them for their own benefit?

Retrospectives.

Retrospectives are forums for communication that are held on regular intervals during the project so that the team can discuss and collaborate on their performance as a team over the past iteration.  And just like any other tool, Agile or not, your team will only get out what it puts in.  Too often, I hear about or see with my own eyes, retrospectives that prove to be a waste of everyone’s time because the team does not challenge themselves to see beyond their past experiences, to see that their ropes no longer have the power to bind them, but rather these teams get in a room, say everything went as good as it could have gone, and then leave.  These retrospectives are not the true retrospectives that assist good Agile teams in their effort to be great.  These meetings more resemble those of Cargo Cult Agile teams that go through the motions believing that they will yield the same results.

Agile teams recognize that they must truly be proactive.  And being proactive is more than just a buzzword, it is more than reacting at an earlier point in time than the last possible moment, it is a decision to create a better possibility for the sake of having a better possibility as opposed to simply fixing something that is broken.  And when something is broken, being proactive involves the team seeing how they contribute to their own problems. When individuals and teams only act when forced to by an outside element, their actions, or more appropriately, their reactions lose the power of creation, for they did not choose to create a better team, a better product component, a better customer relationship, they only chose to act in the light of circumstance.  And when that circumstance, when that reason, goes away and the fire gets put out, we all go back to doing what we did before never quite drawing the line between what we were doing before and how those actions started the fire we raced to extinguish.  We go in circles and wonder why we live this way, how we got here, and then feel hopeless in our efforts to eventually break the cycle.

Agile teams that practice mastery in the area of retrospectives never leave those meetings without identifying areas of effort that may lead to better results than they achieved in the past.  These teams recognize that it is never about the destination, it is about the continual journey that defines what we are capable of, and that definition is never static.  Unlike the elephant, great Agile teams question the beliefs about past experiences to determine if they still hold value, and when they don’t, these teams quickly rip that tree from its roots and move on to greener pastures.  The alternative is allowing ourselves to be bound by a puny rope, believing that it is not within our capabilities to roam free.  And sadly, although we have a choice to break the rope, few teams ever make the decision to do so, but rather spend their time and effort discussing just how strong this rope truly is.

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