Navigating in the Mountains, Using the Right Technique for the Conditions – Testing an Agile Analogy

One of the joys and challenges of being human is that we communicate and understand differently. Some people prefer numbers and facts, others need a picture or a story. Art exists in many forms because it helps us to break through and communicate.

I’ve been trying out a new analogy recently and wanted to expose it to a broader community to see if it resonated. I’d love to hear your views.

One of the joys of my life is a day walking in the hills. There are various skills that that you need when you are out in the hills, perhaps the most important being navigation. I call navigation a skill because it isn’t a method, it’s a collection of tools and techniques that you need to apply in the right situation to get the right result. The tools and techniques that you use on one particular day, or even during a specific hour, are influenced by several factors, including:

  • Visibility – How far can you see?
  • Local knowledge – Do you know where you are going? Perhaps you’ve been there before?
  • Terrain – Is there a defined path? What are the hazards ahead, or to the left or right?

If visibility is good; if there’s a defined path and you are walking a route you’ve walked many times before you join the chosen path, look ahead and walk. Navigation is straightforward and doesn’t require you to spend all of your time looking down at a map. When things are really good you can even see places where the journey could be improved by taking a slightly different route or by taking a shortcut.

This approach is fine until the factors above change. Clouds roll in causing visibility to drop to a few metres and you arrive at a point where the defined path becomes less distinct and the terrain becomes indistinct. At this point the navigation techniques need to change, it’s time to get the map and the compass out.

For anyone who hasn’t used a map and compass in this situation what you need to do is to take a bearing. This video shows you how to do that:

Further details here.

The important point is right at the end of the video:

  • Take a bearing,
  • Pick a landmark that you can see,
  • Head to that landmark,
  • Take another bearing at the landmark,
  • Repeat until you get to the point where you are wanting to go.

Unless you are a very skilled navigator and there are lots of visible landmarks it’s not likely that this approach will get you directly from A-to-B, but it will get you there. Even if you could navigate on the direct route it’s likely that there will be obstacles in the way that will cause you to stop and adjust. Navigating this way is slower than when conditions are good, taking a bearing takes time and diversions cause extra work.

The key skill in this approach is to take bearings often enough to keep you focused on the end goal, but not so often that you are spending all of your time taking bearings. The length between bearings depends upon the amount of visibility and the available landmarks. If you can only see for 5 metres, then that’s as far as you can navigate. The last thing you want to do is to pick a landmark that is itself out of sight, that’s a recipe for disaster because you are likely to miss the landmark in the mist and plunge yourself into a situation where you don’t know where you are on the map. Relocating yourself on a map is another skill, slowing progress further.

Some days you start out on a walk where visibility is good and you have great local knowledge but that situation can change rapidly. That’s when the approach needs to change to match the conditions.

Projects, particularly IT projects, are journeys from one place to another. The methods that we use should be dependent upon the conditions, that’s where this analogy comes in. Agile is fabulous for those situations where it’s a bit foggy and the path isn’t clear. Take a bearing, pick a landmark and then sprint to it, then take another bearing. Lean isn’t great in the fog, but is the fastest way of making progress when conditions are good. Even in a Lean situation you may still want to define some interim goals to maintain motivation but you’re not changing the path or the destination just because you’ve reached an interim goal. Even if you think that the road ahead is clear and you can follow tried and tested routes doesn’t prevent the conditions changing and a different type of navigation being required.

Like all analogy this isn’t a perfect picture of the different approaches, but it’s helped most of the people I’ve described it to. Does it work for you?

My 2 Modes for Writing a Blog Post

I recently passed 2,000 blog posts so was pondering how they got written. Blog posts tend to get written in one of two modes, unfortunately I don’t know which one it’s going to be when I start, which I find highly frustrating.

Mode #1 – Easy: I sit I write, I review, I post

On most occasions a thought comes to me, or I read an article that sparks a thought, or someone says something and in that instant I know what it is that I want to say. I don’t always know the full content, but the outline of the story is there in my head, not just the concept.

The Office Speak posts are mostly great examples of this way of working. Someone says something that I think needs reflecting upon and off we go. One of the posts in this series is the all-time most visited post of this blog: Office Speak: “Sharpen Your Pencil”

Sometimes the inciting incident comes at an inconvenient time and I need to write it down before it gets lost, but generally I’m in a position to write something shortly after the idea arrives. Because of this the posts often need to be scheduled to be posted at a time when people are going to read it, but that’s normally the next day. So from idea to post is normally less than 24 hours.

I would like to have more posts like this, sadly there’s also Mode #2.

Mode #2 – Hard: I think, I sit, I start to write, I re-write…I post

Similar to the Mode #1 posts there’s normally an inciting incident of a thought, a conversation or something that I read which creates a spark of an idea.

“I should write something about the effects of technology on our mental health”

I think (as an example).

“Yes, but what’s the story?”

Is my immediate response.

“Well it could be…”

That’s where I move into the picture building business. I create a set of pieces, some of them collected from other people, others trying to portray an idea that I’ve had. There are snippets of personal encounters and stories that I’ve heard. There are also quotations that I’ve heard and longer form items that form the scaffolding of the idea. Sadly though, having the elements of the picture doesn’t mean that I have a narrative and I find that creating satisfactory rending can be incredibly hard.

Sometimes I try to just power through as if this was a Mode #1 post by sitting and writing, but it’s normally evident within a few minutes that the story needs more work than that. It feels a bit like riding a bike into a shallow river – it’s fine at the beginning but it’s quickly evident that you are going to grind to an abrupt halt and progress is going to require a different approach.

This may be the point in the article where you are saying to yourself “Give us your wisdom Graham, tell us how you overcome this conundrum.” Sadly, I have no wisdom for you. I don’t have a foolproof way of getting through the mire that is a Mode #2 post.

The only way that I know to get a Mode #2 post concluded is to wrestle it, sometimes I win the wrestle, but many times the wrestle defeats me. There have been numerous times when I have engaged in the struggle for far too long before concluding that it’s not worth it and regretting the time that I’ve spent trying to get to a winning position. I’m also sure that there are times when I gave up way too early and the results would have been amazing if only I’d persevered.

There’s no way of knowing which wrestling moves are going to work and which ones will just cause you pain. I find that creating a mind-map of the article ideas can be helpful, but that doesn’t always work. There are times when I write a set of paragraphs for each of the ideas and shuffle them around trying to find the narrative with limited success. At other times I pick a new beginning for the article and try to get Mode #1 going in a different direction which is fraught with frustration. Sometimes I rewrite the opening paragraph, then rewrite it, trying to find a different way out of it and into a whole new portrayal. The struggle is part of the joy of the endeavour, if you didn’t loose the joy in winning wouldn’t quite be the same, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I console myself with the thought that there are few things in life that are worth doing that come easily, but that’s meagre consolation.

Thankfully this was a Mode #1 article.

Do you have any wisdom for me?

Because it’s Friday: “Swim Wild” the The Wild Swimming Brothers

A beautiful short documentary film about three brothers from the north of England who have made their name as wild swimming adventurers.

One of the themes of this film is the impact of wild swimming on mental health which is one of the reasons that I love to be in the open water.

3 brothers, who have come to be known as The Wild Swimming Brothers, have felt the pressures that many people experience while living and working in a city. Feeling the toll that urban living was taking on them, they decided to begin an aquatic journey that has propelled them extremely far from city walls.

The Wild Swimming Brothers

The 5 Phases of a Reply-to-All Storm

Reply-to-all Storm: The set of events that occur when a group of people decide that the appropriate response to an email is to reply-to-all. In nearly all of these situations the replies add no value other than to fill-up the email account of everyone on the distribution list.

I’ve observed many a reply-to-all storm and it occurs to me that they have a set of phases to them, have a missed any?

Phase 1: Initial Contact

I’m not sure quite what the anatomy of an email needs to be to start a reply-to-all storm but there are some characteristics that will increase the likelihood of a storm starting. Emails with a pointless subject and equally pointless content are my favourites, they create a response in certain people that is completely disproportionate to the initial contact. It’s rare that a reply-to-all storm is generated from a meaningful email.

I’m pretty sure that the likelihood of a reply-to-all storm increases exponentially with the number of recipients on the initial distribution. Emails to 500 people aren’t likely to result in a storm, emails to 5,000 people have a much higher probability, correctly crafted emails to 50,000 people are almost certain to result in a storm.

Phase 2: Initial Reply

Someone has to be the person to start the storm. Much like a firework requires an ignition a reply-to-all storm requires someone to get everyone started. It helps if the initial reply is as benign as the initial contact.

The purpose of the initial reply email is to create a release valve that gives everyone else permission to participate in the storm. A single drip doesn’t create a flood, but it does make a pathway for what is to follow.

Phase 3: Engage the Pack

Two emails do not constitute a storm, but that’s all that the pack requires for those who are going to participate to become engaged. The pack, in general, only have one response which may use different words to these, but they are basically all saying the same things:

  • “Why was I sent this email?”
  • “Stop sending me these emails.”
  • “Remove me from this distribution list.”

None of the individuals involved in the pack realise the irony of their actions.

By this point most people have disengaged by clicking “Ignore” or “Mute” in their email app but this is where volumes come in, all that the storm needs to continue is one more person in the cohort to keep it going.

Phase 4: The Anti-Pack Becomes Engaged

The anti-pack’s role is to keep the reply-to-all storm going by telling people to stop replying-to-all. We are now in double irony territory.

These emails come in various grades depending upon the frustration of the recipient. This appears to be one of the few occasions where it has become acceptable to use capital lettering in an email subject. The use of the words “IMPORTANT”, “URGENT” or “STOP” become prevalent as does the use of bold, coloured and enlarged content all saying the equivalent of “please stop”.

Phase 5: The Die Down

Thankfully reply-to-all storms rarely last longer than a day, in my experience. You can sometimes get someone who tries to restart it the following day, not realising that everyone has already left the party, but that rarely does a restart result in a full storm emerging.

As quickly as they come, they leave.

Avoiding the Reply-to-all Storm

People have talked about getting rid of this problem for decades and yet it still persists, you may be wondering how we stop it. The simple answer is that you can’t because the instigator of the action is that weakest link in most processes – the human. You can do many things to avoid it, but stopping it altogether requires humans to behave in a logical way and that’s not going to happen.

Office Speak: “I’ll give you 2 minutes back.”

You are sitting on a conference call that thankfully is nearing it’s long and bitter end. It’s the fifth or sixth of the day and your ears are the temperature of the inside of an oven underneath the plastic covers that they’ve had on for the last few hundred minutes. Your bladder has reached volume level 11 and is screaming for some relief. Your head is numb from the diversity of subjects that you’ve had to give your attention to and then the person who has been facilitating your torture for the last 58 minutes says, in a tone which suggests that it’s a special gift:

“We’ve reached the end of our agenda, so I’ll give you 2 minutes back.”

There are many variations of this line which may be 5 minutes, or even 10. It’s rarely more than that because it’s almost unheard of that someone who has booked an hour long meeting successfully expedites departure in 30 minutes. We all know, after all, that meetings generally grow to fill the available space.

There you sit, looking at your gift of a few minutes and think to yourself “what am I supposed to do with that?”

You take a quick trip to the toilet, but that doesn’t take you more than a minute and now you’ve only got a minute, or perhaps two, left. What are you going to do?

You don’t have any emails to look through because that’s what you were doing for much of the last 58 minutes and the few minutes you have aren’t going to make much difference to any backlog anyway.

Perhaps you have enough time to make a drink, but you’ve already had enough coffee and your bladder is still recovering.

There’s no point in trying to progress any of the actions that you’ve picked up in the previous calls because they all require you to think and you’re not capable of that type of thinking at this time in the day.

You haven’t seen any daylight yet so a walk outside would lift your spirits, but there’s barely enough time to get to the front door of the building before you need to be on another call. There’s not even enough time for a nap.

And so, you sit there, wondering what you are supposed to do with this gift that you have been given and watch it walk steadily and slowly out of the room.