This is a transcript of episode 135 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

A client tells Squirrel about a “horrible” meeting where his team accused him of pushing them to overwork and take shortcuts, but we discover it was actually a great breakthrough.

Learning is the detection and correction of error, and in this case, Squirrel’s client discovered a major cultural problem that he’s now able to correct. We reflect on why feeling horrible can be a great indicator of valuable learning.

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The Transcript

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile! Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. I’m super excited about today’s topic. You and I were talking yesterday and you told me a story that I thought this has got to be our podcast topic. And this might be a fairly short episode because this is such an important topic. We shouldn’t talk for very long. I don’t want us to lose the message. So can you tell us that story and then let’s take it apart and really suck the juice out of it.

Squirrel: Sounds great. So I was coaching a client and the person I’m coaching was introducing a new idea. He was introducing the idea of a burn up chart. So we’ll put a link about that in the show. Notes, as always. But it’s a concept where you can track what the team is doing and you can see where they’re likely delivery date is. And it’s a very simple, lightweight thing that you can easily set up very quickly. And he wanted to do this for his team because they have a distant due date for their project. And he wanted to make sure to define what this was and have the team have visibility of it. And so he said, ‘hey, guys, let’s try this great burn up chart idea’.

Squirrel: And I knew he was going to do this. So when I got in touch with him for our coaching session, I said, ‘so how did that discussion go?’ And he said, ‘oh, Squirrel it was horrible. It was the worst thing ever’. What happened was I told them about the burn up chart and they said, hey, so that means that what we should all do is work super extra hard and weekends and long nights and everything else so that we can make sure to get the right number of tickets done. So we stay on the slope. So we’re we’re hitting the right date in the future. And he said, ‘oh, Squirrel, this wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t want them to have that reaction because I don’t want them working long hours when I want them doing is thinking cleverly about what to do and cutting scope and coming up with clever solutions to stay on track because we want to deliver, but not by whipping themselves’.

Squirrel: And I certainly didn’t want them to conclude that I was after micromanaging them and forcing them to work harder, that isn’t what I want, because that’s not how you get knowledge workers to be effective. And I said, ‘well, actually, this actually sounds like a wonderful conversation. This sounds like it’s super.’ And he said, ‘What do you mean? I felt awful afterwards. I had to tell them all about how I didn’t mean that. And I was really sorry and oh, it was horrible.’ I said, ‘yeah, you felt horrible, but it was a wonderful result’. And the reason it was a wonderful result is, they already believed this this was already a hidden fact, that they believed that at least it was possible that you might want them to work super long hours in order to meet a deadline. And that’s the opposite of what you actually want. But you were not aware and this horrible experience allowed you to be aware and to correct it. So I said, ‘good job, this is super. I’m glad you felt horrible!’ That was the story. So I hope I helped him to feel a little bit better about it. And maybe we can help listeners to understand why that’s a wonderful rather than a horrible result.

Jeffrey: And I love this becuase it is such a great illustration of something we’ve talked about several times, which is the sort of learning is horrible idea. And I think it really highlights exactly what kind of learning is horrible. Learning in general is not horrible, but there is a particular kind of learning, which is when what you learn is different than your self-image. And that comes across so clearly in this story that what this person learnt, what made it so horrible, was that he learnt that his team had a view of him that was exactly the opposite, that the story they created about him was diametrically opposed to what he wanted. He was like here’s a tool that will help us make good trade offs and keep on track by being focussed and smart. And what they thought is, ‘oh, this is just a tool for you to make sure that we put in extra time. You know, this is the way that you’re going to be theory X-ing us. You’re going to be, you know, holding up this chart saying, look, we’ve got to do whatever it takes to make this deadline and this completely different stories. And particularly, this story was about him. It was about him and his intention. And to learn that people had this different view of him was very contrary to his view of how he saw himself. And that’s what made it horrible.

Squirrel: Indeed. But finding out something like that is much better than not finding it out.

Jeffrey: Absolutely.

Squirrel: I know you like to say this some Jeffrey, how do you feel when you’re wrong?

Jeffrey: Well, this is this is something I got from Kathryn Schulz and we’ll put a link to that in the end.

Jeffrey: I ask people all the time, what does it feel like to be wrong? And people always say it’s terrible, it’s embarrassing. And, you know, I say think a particular moment and people would say this and it’s like, well, no, actually being wrong feels great. Being wrong feels exactly like being right. It’s learning that you were wrong. That feels terrible. It’s that moment of like, oh, no. It is the very moment you stop being wrong is when it feels bad.

Squirrel: And that’s the moment of learning.

Jeffrey: That is the moment of learning.

Jeffrey: And so this is the same thing. We put these things together. It’s especially when you learn something about yourself. So it’s bad enough if you have a view about the world, you’re arguing for a certain plan, you have a certain belief and it turns out, no, you were mistaken. I think it’s because there’s enough distance between that and myself, I may or may not be like, OK, I take that in stride. But when it’s about me, it’s very, very hard to take in stride. It’s just very natural. It is literally personal. And that’s the difficult thing. And so what I like about this story is it helps us to say actually this is when we have that sensation. You know, we talk in our book about triggers and tells like, this is a great tell that valuable learning is happening, which is, I feel horrible. Because it’s actually an opportunity to fix things, because after this conversation, his team now has a different view of him. So it felt horrible for him to go through. But coming out of it, the relationship he has with his team is better. They have a more accurate view of him and his story. They’ve been able to correct a mistake about him. And it’s much like, you know, if you have a building discovering a problem and then and then fixing it.

Squirrel: I have one of those. I have a building. I have a six hundred year old house that I’m sitting in right now here in England. And this house, of course, is built of things called lath and plaster and wattle and daub, which are horse dung and scraps of wood and so on. So it’s not exactly built to modern building standards. And when we bought it 13, 14 years ago, we looked at various problems that there were in it. And we said we think there are going to be more. And of course, we found things like modern concrete behind the paint used to repair the walls. And so somebody had just slapped in a bunch of concrete. Of course, that’s terrible for a wall that is not built for that purpose. But you couldn’t know it, right? It was behind layers of paint. And it wasn’t until we had some specialist restorers and who came in and carefully stripped off the paint and said, you know, we’re not sure what this is back here, but it certainly isn’t six hundred years old and it’s pulling the wall down. So we’ve got to take it out with teaspoons and small picks so that we can repair this wall. It was painful to learn that, but it was always there and the wall was always in danger and it always could have fallen down on us.

Squirrel: But it was when we took off the paint and we learnt that there was actually a problem behind there, behind there, that we could actually start to correct it, which is the same situation for my coaching client because he’s not done fixing this problem. This team may still have some of these beliefs. The culture may still be different to what he wants, but he’s now able to take steps to address that. And it’s a discussable topic. So he can say, you know, this other thing we’re going to try. I wonder if you’re thinking about this the same way you thought about the burn up chart, because if you are, I want to make really sure you guys know this is, this new thing, whatever it is, is not for that purpose. It’s not for beating you up. And if they then say, ‘oh, yes, we know that we learnt that we’re OK’, then he knows he’s corrected the problem, he has removed the concrete. If they’re still kind of doubtful, he knows there’s more work to do that. In either case, it’s discussable. It’s a problem he can address rather than being hidden behind layers of paint or in somebody’s head.

Jeffrey: Exactly. And that’s I think the takeaway message is when you have this, you may have the temptation to feel bad to be defensive, to blame. Those jerks, how could they think that about me? How could they think about us? Because it’s not always going to be manager and team could be across teams. There’ll be these these temptations to be bad and negative. And what we’re saying is embrace the opportunity here to improve the relationship, to improve the foundation to make it something that you’re building something better for the future because that’s the opportunity.

Squirrel: And I think we’ve said this before but Jeffrey, what’s the correct response to any feedback?

Jeffrey: Thank you.

Squirrel: So that would be what we want to do is say is, ‘this feels horrible, but thank you because I now have the opportunity to correct some errors’.

Jeffrey: Yes, exactly. And so, so such a gift to to hear from someone. How what they actually believe, what they’re actually thinking, it really is, is the start of making things better.

Squirrel: Absolutely true. Well, if listeners have similar stories or questions about opportunities for the horrible experience of learning, you can find us on and you’ll find our Twitter and email and all kinds of other things and ways to get in touch with us. It’s also in the show notes. And of course, we like it when you hit the subscribe button on whatever you’re using to listen to us, because we will be back here every week as we’ve been for one hundred and thirty five weeks, and we’ll continue to be here next week.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thank you Squirrel.