Home > Agile Thoughts, The Agile Team > Why Can’t We See the Ships on the Shore? Agile Teams Can, Can Yours?

Why Can’t We See the Ships on the Shore? Agile Teams Can, Can Yours?

shippicOn a warm August day in 1768, explorer James Cook set sail from England aboard his ship, The Endeavor.  On board were 94 crewman and scientists, and their mission was to find the fabled ‘Southern Continent.’  Early map makers in 1570 claimed that there were two major continents at each of the earth’s poles, and Cook was to discover this southern continent and claim it for England.  Although Dutch explorers had unsuccessfully attempted to find this mass of land in the early 1700′s, Cook was certain that his attempt would result in landing on these undiscovered shores.

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Cook and his crew arrived in Taihiti on April 11, 1769, but soon realized that this was not the undiscovered territory they sought, so they departed the island chain and headed southwest.  After a brief stay on the islands of New Zealand, Cook again set sail in search of the great southern continent.  Finally, on April 9th, 1770, a full two years after then left their home country, the crew of the Endeavor finally arrived at the continent we now refer to as Australia.  Having already experienced the native populations on several other islands, Cook was well prepared for any possible contingency, from friendly natives offering gifts (such as his experience with the Sandwich Islands off of Alaska) to those natives intent on attacking his men (as he experienced when encountering Maori native tribes on New Zealand.)  But this experience, this arrival to a new land, was different.

When Cook’s ships anchored off-shore of this new land, it drew no reaction from the natives they could see working close to the shore.  Cook knew that they must be able to see them, but still there was no reaction, no staring by the natives out to the sea with wonder, no anxious reactions; simply nothing.  Studying more closely the accounts of James Cook and his botanist Joseph Banks, it is revealed that the natives must have been able to see them, as the ship sailed only a quarter mile off of their shores.   Other villagers must have been able to see the ships, but they too ignored these foreigners.  Cook wrote in his journal that “an old woman followed by three children came out of the woods…she turned her gaze toward our ships, but offered neither surprise nor concern.”  Then the Aborigines began to prepare dinner “to all appearance, totally unmoved by the sight of us, though we were less than a mile from their spot.”

nativeCook and his crew was not only perplexed by this curious behavior, but were now determined to make contact with these natives.  Cook writes “we set out from the ship intending to land at the place we saw these people…as soon as we approached in our small boats, from the rocks two men scrambled down to the shore, each armed with a lance, with an intent to attack us.”  For some unknown reason, these natives were unaffected and unaware of the large ship anchored just off the shore, but were hyper-aware of the smaller boats that were landing upon their shores.

After that initial contact with the native people of Australia, it was discovered that this population was simply not able to see these large ships, as they represented something completely unknown to them.  As Cook explained, his ship represented “the largest artifact ever seen, or unseen as it were, on the east coast of Australia, an object so huge, so complex, and unfamiliar as to defy the native’s understanding.”  Cook’s ship was essentially unseen by the natives because they had no experience that such an object could exist.  Once his crew transported to the shore in smaller boats, the vision of invaders arriving by small vessels being a familiar site, the natives responded by perceiving this arrival as a threat.

Or so the story goes.  And although this story has been told many times, using different explorers and other details, all of which may or may not be factually true, the message behind the mythos is still pertinent: we tend to see what we expect to see and can easily become blind, or choose to ignore, that which exists outside of our experience.  There are plenty of terms modern day psychologists give to this type of phenomenon including cognitive dissonance, perceptual blindness, habituation, inattentional blindness, etc.

So what does the story of natives not being able to see a ship off shore have to do with Agile teams?


Humans (and Agile teams by extension) naturally strive to reach consonance, or agreement and harmony, among the beliefs they hold to be true.  Cognitive dissonance, or a disagreement or difference of beliefs, can occur when we try to hold two contradictory beliefs about something simultaneously.  The natives believed that ships the size of Cook’s did not exist, and thus resolved this major disagreement of what they saw with what they believed to be true, by simply ‘not seeing’ his ship when it was anchored off-shore.  Although different today, it is still a common tendency to resolve this dissonance, or difference, through any number of means, including rationalization, justification, or dismissal of one of the beliefs.  The most common method for resolving cognitive dissonance is to simply dismiss the lessor known of the two beliefs, that belief which we have less experience with, while also building positive evidence and confidence in the remaining idea or belief, which was the route the Aborigines took when presented with Cook’s competing reality.   We do this so that we don’t have to experience the anxiety that comes from weighing two completing beliefs, especially when there is disparity in the amount experience or familiarity between them.  In short, people and teams tend to continue doing what they know, even when presented with a better possibility.  This behavioral pattern reduces stress, but it becomes an impediment to true growth, as the pattern regularly precludes exploring the unknown in deference to the known.

This principle was more recently put to the test in an experiment by Jack Brehm.  Brehm took 225 female study participants, and allowed them to choose one of two items to take home as a gift.  When asked later to rate the two items, a statistically significant portion of the participants rated the item that they selected much higher than the one that they didn’t.  This might sound intuitively accurate because the participants chose that item, but even when the experiment was conducted where participants were given an item at random, the participants still rated the item they took home higher than the one they did not.  Brehm concluded that in this simple experiment, cognitive dissonance was resolved by changing opinions to match the possible dissonance of “I selected X” while also feeling that “there were some things I liked about Y.”  This phenomenon of relieving any dissonance in our beliefs was confirmed by additional research and experiments, and found it to be true for children, adults, and even capuchin monkeys.  What have our efforts for resolving this cognitive dissonance problem resulted in?

We have been conditioned to become problem solving machines, while ignoring the possibility that introducing dissonance can lead to better outcomes.

Teams that have been conditioned to become proficient at problem solving tend to find themselves as habitual ‘firefighters’ constantly seeking out the next problem to resolve, the next fire to put out.  Study after study has shown that this approach to work results in employee burn out, poor work product, and a feeling that instead of being able to design our destination, our efforts are determined by factors outside of our control.  In today’s corporate parlance, we become adept at a reactive form of decision making as opposed to being proactive, or creative, in our planned path forward.  As skilled problem solvers, we carry around a huge problem solving hammer and then understandably see every situation as a nail.  And when our hammer will not effectively ‘resolve’ the nail in front of us, we mistakenly believe that “what we need here is a bigger hammer.”  For those of you who can relate to this approach and may have been nodding your head, you know better than anyone that it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where the bigger hammer always encounters a bigger nail, which then requires a bigger hammer, etc.  When we perceive that problems being solved will result in a greater possibility for our efforts, for our product, or for our customer, we have bought into our own belief that fighting fires is the same as preventing them.

So are you saying that solving our problems is a bad thing?

No.  Problems are identified as such because they introduce a cognitive dissonance that can assist our team.  Letting a problem exist implies a simultaneous belief that “X is bad (a problem by definition)” and “X is ok to exist.”  This dissonance cannot remain, so we either resolve the problem, or modify how we identify the “problem.”  Problems do need to be resolved, but it is only half of the equation for great agile teams.  The other half of the equation represents the positive side that cognitive dissonance can represent, but unfortunately is rarely explored by most teams today.  So let’s explore this other side…

What do you have when you are done resolving a problem?

Nothing.  By definition, when a problem is resolved, it no longer exists, so nothing has been created apart from the removal of a problem.  Again, this is half of the equation.  But can anyone argue that removing a problem is the same as creating something?  It is a subtle but fundamental difference that can make all the difference…possibly the difference between being good and being great.  Interesting to note is that often times, our attempts to resolve a problem can actually make the problem worse.  Don’t believe me?

Let’s take something we are all likely familiar with:

The problem: Ethiopia experiences famine, with a large part of its population facing starvation.

The solution: With its population starving, the obvious hammer for this nail is to provide food.  And the world rallied around this solution, providing hundreds of millions of dollars of food and famine relief.

The results: The food did help, at least for awhile.  Many people that would have starved without the aid, did not starve.  But the aid only provided time, because the underlying structure of the problem did not change, it was only addressed superficially.  But after the crisis was addressed, the plight of the Ethiopians fell off of the news cycle (as many of the Ethiopians had been helped by the massive amounts of aid), and as the news fell off, subsequently so did the donations.  Problem solved, right?  Wrong.  The mechanics of the ‘solution’ did not look more deeply into the problem to see that simply taking care of a symptom would only exacerbate the problem.  Solving the problem only relieved immediate needs, but did not seek to create a better possibility for the Ethiopian people, as they still could not provide food for themselves.  And although initially helped by the donations, the people of Ethiopia had now become more dependent on this help, and fell into greater despair, requiring again for massive aid to be provided by the concerned citizens of the world.

Robert Fritz, author of the book Path of Least Resistance, refers to this pattern occurring like this:

The Problem
to solve the problem

less intensity of the problem

less action
to solve the problem

the problem remaining or intensifying anew

Simply put, solving the problem is akin to providing a fish to a starving man, whereas teaching him how to fish is creating a new possibility for his future.  Problem-solving-persistent paradigms focus on the near term, providing a fish for tonight, but then once that man no longer has hunger pangs, this approach simply moves onto the next problem, only to have to return again in the future to provide another fish when the man is on the brink of death.  Although we may be able to keep problems from becoming catastrophes, we do nothing to truly create a better possibility.

So tie this all together.  What does this all mean and how can this help my team?

I mentioned above the possibility of actually introducing dissonance as a tool for creation.  Not sure if any of you caught this, but this simple idea is the key to truly becoming great, as a team or even as an individual (although I am not advocating for individual greatness alone for Agile teams, as I will elucidate in my next post There is no “I” in Agile.)  The introduction of dissonance exists as a possibility on the opposite end of the spectrum from solving problems.  Rather than solely relieving tension between our problems and our current situation, we can introduce ideas and opportunities that exist between our current situation and a greater possibility.  This is the holy grail for teams that strive for continuous and incremental improvement.  Identifying issues that exist is a valuable skillset, but additionally identifying the dissonance between our current situation and our potential, provides the possibility for growth, improvement, and greatness.  Simply put, we need to identify clearly articulated goals for our team and then recognize the dissonance between our current state and that which we wish to achieve.  This is positive dissonance.  This dissonance also encourages resolution, but in a positive direction, and encourages creation of something new, rather than simply a removal of problems.  Two parts of the equation, each necessary, but only addressing one of them will never lead a team to greatness.  And the identification of areas of opportunity is an acquired skill, as it can take time to truly focus on the bird in the bush as part of our overall strategy.  We must also practice not getting stuck in the rut of tunnel vision or ‘group think’ and elicit input from  every source available to our team.

If we only ask the flashlight where the dark areas of the room are, we may be missing some valuable information.

lionWe must use our peripheral vision to see those things that we might otherwise miss, such as those that are not currently getting our full attention.  And what typically gets our full attention are the fires we are being asked to put out.  Ask a flashlight where the dark areas of the room are, and the answer you will likely get is that the room is fully lit. But of course, everywhere the flashlight points will receive light, while keeping the other areas shrouded in darkness.  Our attention is like a flashlight, and we can often miss those areas that represent opportunities or issues where our light is not focused.  And this is one beautiful aspect of Agile, as Agile acts as a very bright spotlight, showing the room as it is.  But it will only show you the things that you choose to look at, you must choose the direction in which to point your light, your focus, your attention.

In conclusion…we are either running from something or to something.  Running from a lion will keep us alive today, but will not necessarily provide shelter for tomorrow and beyond.  We must, as a team, strive to address our immediate, everyday problems for survival, but for long-term growth we must also apply our energy and attention to seeking out shelter as well.

I know this post was somewhat abstract, steeped in a some psychology, and I would guess that most of the people that started to read this post will have likely not even made to this sentence.  But for those troopers that made it this far, congratulations.  Your reward…my next post will be shorter and perhaps be a bit more fun.  Thanks for reading, I appreciate all of the amazing feedback I have received since launch this blog.  It keeps me going, so thank you again.

  1. June 30th, 2009 at 20:02 | #1

    Ok, I stumbled across this blog about a week ago, and intended to only read a post or two, but read every single one. Now I am finding myself checking your stupid site everyday to see if you have posted another one. I don’t want to inflate your ego too much, but brilliant posts, seriously. Plenty of blogs given the nitty gritty boring stuff, I get more flavor here. Love it, please keep it up.

  2. Barb Millem
    June 30th, 2009 at 22:56 | #2

    First time catching your blog, but found the ship on shore post intriguing. I think i had heard that story before but somehow dont think that it is actually true. Either way, I think that you made some good points, even gave me an education on congntive dissinance. Look forward to your next post.

  3. Jstin Baylor
    July 1st, 2009 at 11:41 | #3

    I thought blogs were supposed to be short format? Pretty long post ya got there! But here i am posting a comment so i made it to the end. The story was pretty good but the real value was when you put it together at the bottom. not sure eveyrone will make it there tho. How often do you post? I will try to be back if i remember. Justin.

  4. Micki Schmitz
    July 1st, 2009 at 14:39 | #4

    Mitch – your comment is hilarious. And I agree whole-heartedly.

    I have been checking for new posts pretty much every day since the first one went up. Most days I really hope for a new post though there are days that I close one eye and sigh with relief when there isn’t one. I say that because they make me think – and I mean REALLY think. I am both inspired and saddened. My shop is dabbling in Agile – overall we are in an infancy stage at best. We are certainly talking the talk (but true to infant form is much more like babbling) and we occasionally take a very wobbly step in the right direction. And I am hopeful: that we remember each success, that we learn from each failure, that we adapt accordingly, that accountability happens, and that I can stop banging my head against the wall – it’s starting to hurt.

    Bill – Thank you. Please keep ‘em coming. You have amazing insight and I truly appreciate your perspective.

  5. July 2nd, 2009 at 16:33 | #5

    I truly appreciate all of the comments, even though this last post was by far my longest, looks like more people than I thought made it all the way to the end. I am going to make an effort to keep them a little bit shorter, based on some of the feedback that I have gotten, but I am sure there will be those topics or subjects that simply require longer posts and more in depth discussions.

    Thanks for the visits! And thanks to Micki and Mitch for the funny words.

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