Week Eleven: Monday

This is one of many entries in the Change Diary: a true story of success and failure, written as it happened.

11 Mar, 2002

Lots of good things happened today, but I'm short on time and can't discuss them in depth. But basically, I'm starting to see my labors bear some fruit. On two separate occasions today, I had the opportunity to describe my ideal process to managers. The whole nine yards: bullpen, pairing, test-driven development, me coaching, my past coaching experience.

Why haven't I done this before? I was never asked. The last thing I want to do is shove big ideas down someone's throat. I've been waiting for the right moment ever since I started working there. It's interesting that it arrived twice on the same day. Oh, and both times, the response was active interest and talk about needing a new project to come along so we can do it.

The other good thing that happened today was on the bottom-up front. My current team had a planning game! It took nearly four hours, which is typical in my experience. It started out a little rocky, as we were figuring out which tasks to include, but then went very smoothly once people started volunteering for and estimating tasks. I also had everybody estimate their own velocity, for use over the next week. Next week, we plan on having another planning game to check velocities and update estimates.

I got the planning game to occur by talking about it over the last week or so. I kept saying to anyone who would listen that I wanted to have everyone sit down before we started the next version to look at the tasks and estimate them. Then today, my comments resulted in an architect here asking the team lead to schedule a meeting to discuss features to be included in the next version. Before that meeting, I talked to everybody I could, saying that I wanted to do something called a planning game, and here's what it was. I got buy-in from the team lead to do so and lead the meeting. As people were gathering for the meeting, I told the project manager and architect that I had been talking to people about doing a planning game, here's what it was, did they mind. It was hard work setting it all up, but it paid off.

I feel like things are building up to a head here. I wish I could say why. I've effected some change on my local project, but it's been very sporadic and labor intensive: the traditional "two steps forward, one step back." But I'm also seeing wide interest in process improvement that isn't directly related to what I've been doing. I'm not even certain that it's a result of my efforts. If it is, it's because I've been continually talking about process improvement to anyone who will listen. Maybe I've raised people's awareness and interest without them directly realizing it. I don't think anyone would point to me if asked why the organization is suddenly so interested in process improvement.

Years Later...

21 Apr, 2006

David Schmaltz and Amy Schwab, two folks I have enormous respect for, use the term "soup" to describe the stuff we float in at a company.

The soup has an enormous impact on our work lives. A sensible person accepts the reality of the soup and works within its constraints. You want a nice, hot bowl of soup but you're swimming in last week's clam chowder? Then you eat clam chowder. The sensible person lives with the soup they've got. It's part of the way things are... unchangeable.

Or is it? I didn't want cold chowder. I wanted something tasty. And so I started working on changing the soup.

Take a gigantic pot of soup and put it on the stove. Turn the burner to medium. What happens? A whole lotta nothing. But slowly... oh, so slowly! ...the soup starts to warm up. It begins to change from a cold, gloopy mess to something a little more palatable.

Ideas have a way of coalescing out of thin air in an organization. One day, nobody cares about an idea. The next, it seems like everyone's talking about it. I think ideas appear "out of nowhere" because the soup has been heating up for a while. One moment, ugly soup. The next... the bubble of an idea.

I take advantage of this effect. It's not manipulative, or even entirely conscious. When I'm interested in an idea, I like to talk about it. Over time, in various conversations, the idea comes up. Sometimes it's a question. Sometimes it's a story. Or a casual comment. Or even an enthusiastic explanation, complete with wild gesticulation.

There's a balance to be found here. Too many comments, too much false enthusiasm, and you could easily turn people off. The better I've become at this, the less I've had to say. Now it's nearly automatic, which makes writing about how I do it just a tad difficult. Gerald Weinberg describes something he calls "jiggling" which sounds right:

Later, during speaking engagements, I found that I spent one hour giving a speech and seven hours listening to people tell me their problems. I am not by nature a passive listener, so I often made jokes, uttered cries of disbelief, asked dumb questions, and sputtered grunts of non-comprehension. To my surprise, many people told me that my speech had solved their problem. I came to realize that it usually wasn't the speech, but the unstructured sessions before and after the formal part of the program, that solved the problems.

Over the years, I've discovered that what I do has no commonly accepted name. The best name would be jiggler, but who in his right mind would pay for the services of a jiggler? Sounds too much like juggler, or giggler, or even gigolo. So, after trying various alternatives, I still use the public name "consultant," although secretly I know I'm a jiggler. (My Tarot card is the Fool.)

Gerald Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting

Whatever it is, when it's working, little bubbles appear in the soup. They're in the background comments. The not-quite-jokes that can be easily taken back with a quick, "just kidding!" The try-it-on-for-size remarks that test for reactions. The quiet-hall-conversations that stop when somebody approaches. If an idea is making the rounds, I know that something is heating up the soup.

Anyway... turn on the burner and let the soup sit. With a little luck, several months, and a lot of patience, you could have hot soup.

My wife says that any good soup has its fair share of vegetables and a few limp noodles. It's the seasoning that makes it good. I can't top that.

Next: Week Eleven: Tuesday

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