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Getting to Why and How

My previous blog post “Making things happen” described a simple model for paying attention to significant aspects of change: Asking “Why” to facilitate common understanding and asking “What does this mean” to make change initiative personal and meaningful.

In this post I explain how I recognize Solution Trap and how I start discussions to get out of there.

Solution trap is a situation where group of people agree on change-related actions, but fail to agree about reasons (why) and concrete consequences of the decision (how). I call this a trap, since it is easy to fall into: solutions are good discussion topic without need to commit into anything. It is much harder to talk about reasons behind solutions (“why” or “organizational alignment“) and implications to daily work (“how” or “how my personal work changes“).

You may disagree with “solutions are good discussion topic without need to commit“. Yep, that’s a strong statement. But think about it: how often you have been sitting in a meeting and found out that other people talk about their problems & solutions and you are happy to find out you are not involved. If anyone asks your comment, saying “OK” is the fastest way out of the situation.

Recognizing Solution Trap

  • People are talking actions and goals that others have put upon them. “Management team wants us to automate all acceptance test cases
  • Actions have arbitrary or meaningless success criteria: “We need to change 35% of our teams to use Scrum by the end of the year
  • Actions are overdone: “We need to split all stories in backlog to less-than-Sprint size” (it would be enough to split coming 1-3 Sprints to this size)
  • Actions are underdone: “Product Owner joins Retrospectives of key teams” (why not all teams)
  • Different teams have different understanding of actions and goals
  • People feel disengaged from actions and goals: “It is not for us, someone else handles that” or “I think we’re doing it OK already, others need to improve

Common to all these discussion patterns is that topics and style reflect feeling outsider or not part of the issue. People are ignorant towards the initiatives.

Getting out of the pit: Start with Why?

  • Ask “Why” frequently enough. “Why do we have this meeting, what is the expected outcome“, “Why is this action taking place, what problem we’re trying to solve
  • Try to be constructive: asking “Why” in this context is not to challenge, it is about facilitating common understanding.
  • Ask high-enough “Why“, seek for purpose. If the discussion is about “Splitting stories to Sprint-size chunks“, then obvious question is “Why do we need to split“. I would go one step further and ask “Why are we using stories“, “What are we trying to achieve with splitting
  • Go around and investigate the different answers to your “Why” and use that information to see level of common understanding. E.g. “Seems that Product Owners know clearly the purpose of grooming sessions, but several team members did not see the point

Once “Why” part is solved, then it is time to move on to “How” (a.k.a “What does this mean to me“). While “Why” may be difficult, you can expect “How” leading into at least equally difficult and much more controversial discussion.

Getting out of the pit: Check What does this mean

Purpose of “What does this mean” is to create commitment, agree common working practices and test the initiative with real-life cases. I use the following questions

  • Check understanding: “What changes in your daily work when we start doing TDD?
  • Check what happens if actions are not taken: “What happens if some teams don’t commit to CI build daily?
  • Find out how everyone knows they are doing things right: “How do we know that Backlog items are small enough?
  • Find out how wide are the impacts: “What teams are affected if we move from component-Backlog to feature-Backlog?
  • Check what happens if new way of working reveals problems: “What do you do when CI build fails?“, “What if Sprint Retrospective outcome is a severe impediment that require management team actions?

Sometimes it is useful to document the outcome of “Why” and “How” discussion. And many times it isn’t. Power of discussion and common understanding is surprisingly strong, stronger than any PowerPoints or staff meeting talks.

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