This is a transcript of episode 134 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

The Shoe Principle says that if you buy a pair of shoes, you have to get rid of one. We hadn’t heard of it until a client brought it up as a way to introduce a new process without overloading the team. We see lots of places where agile teams could apply the Shoe Principle, including alerting systems that no one looks at or standups that have become rote and useless. Like Marie Kondo, we suggest asking whether each team activity “sparks joy”, and if not, try parking it for a week to see if you really need it.

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Jeffrey: We were talking before we get started and you told me about something that was totally new to me and I really like this, which is ‘The Shoe Principle’. What’s the shoe principle exactly?

Squirrel: Well, The Shoe Principle is one of those things that happens when you get a more diverse group of people together and you ask them for ideas. So that’s what I was doing this past week. I was coaching a whole group at one of my clients and this group had more women in it than we normally have in the tech world, which I was very pleased about. And I’ve had a couple of clients with leadership teams and companies with at least 50 percent women representation, and that’s pretty impressive in tech and leads to something very different. So somebody said as if everyone knew it. ‘Well, what we need to do here is follow the shoe principle.’.

Squirrel: And I said, ‘well, I don’t actually know what that is. Can you help me out?’ And it turns out that for four Western women at least, there’s a principle that I guess is well known. I’m not sure at least this person treated it as well known, which is that when you buy a new pair of shoes because you have a lot of shoes, this is an assumption about women. It’s certainly not an assumption about me. I have, I think, two pairs, maybe three. But apparently women in this culture tend to get a lot of shoes. And so the principle is when you get a new pair of shoes, you should discard a pair of shoes. And that way you keep the total shoe number constant. You don’t add to your shoe drawer or shoe closet, your shoe room.

Jeffrey: Right. You get this sort of one in one out.

Squirrel: Exactly. And so we were adopting a new practise. We were going to provide a new type of update that was more efficient and more tied to the company goals and so on. And this person said, but wait a minute, we have a bunch of those and they seem to keep you accumulating. They’re kind of like my shoes. So we should follow the shoe principle. And I thought that was a great idea and not one that I would have put that way.

Jeffrey: Yeah. When you said this really struck me because it is very common that we will accumulate process over time. This is kind of a natural tendency because we add each one for perfectly, reasonable rationales, with, you know, this will help. This is good. The other thing is good. You know, third thing is good. Having them all must be even better. And these things kind of accumulate and they add a bit of friction to everyone’s life, even if they’re automated, even if it’s something that’s happening in the background and emailing everyone.

Squirrel: That’s worse. That’s what you don’t want, you don’t want it to send you email because then you set up a process and there’s some computer that’s deciding that you should do something. And often it’s deciding based on information. That was true 6, 12, 9, 67 months ago.

Squirrel: And it’s no longer relevant, but it’s still alerting you about it, still giving you information that may not be relevant at all.

Jeffrey: But it’s fine because it will just go ahead and create some some rules in our mailboxes so that we have an automated system generating an email that no one reads because they have another computer automatically discard it.

Squirrel: I have seen that more times than I can count.

Jeffrey: And then and then, you know, we put that process in place, those emails in place because of a real concern. And when the event happens that those emails were designed to catch and we don’t catch it because it was all being automatically deleted, at some point we go, ‘oh, wait, this thing happened. Oh, no, this is terrible.’ We have a new RCA and we go and say, ‘well, wait a minute, didn’t we have monitoring for this?.’ ‘Oh, yes, we did. We had that email that was being sent.’

Squirrel: Oh, yeah. But I discarded it.

Jeffrey: Was it was it going off? Did it warn us? Yes, it did.

Squirrel: It warned us. It warned us every morning as we turned it off. So I’ve had clients who just have an alert going off and they just have a process every morning, another process which consists of turning it off.

Jeffrey: Right, and that what you describe there was the very definition of normalisation of deviance. We have a espoused ‘This is what we do’ kind of thing. But in practise that the normal behaviour comes to be to violate the process.

Squirrel: The normal behaviour is to skip the alerts and ignore them rather than the espoused behaviour, which is, oh, we have these wonderful alerts. Look at these. They tell us when something is wrong.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And this we’re talking now about alerts and monitoring, but it could be reports. You know, what’s what’s happening with our users? How many logins do we have? How many, you know, widgets are being moved through every day.

Squirrel: Heresy having to stand up every morning or having a retrospective every week. Those can also become ossified in the same way and normalised that we deviate by saying, hello, we’re all here. Yeah, OK, let’s go. Rather than having an actual exchange of information in your stand up, for example.

Jeffrey: Oh, that’s right. That’s a great example. And we can just add these things in and, you know, checkbox. Yep, we’ve got that. We got that. We have a new problem. We introduce a new process. And this is, I think, where I might come into an organisation and you might come in and we find them sort of groaning under the accumulated weight of all of the, you know, relatively good ideas taken independently that they’re, you know, weighted down with and they’re not actually getting the value out of them. They’re not. And certainly they’re not getting, the real excitement out of it.

Jeffrey: When you describe this principal, it actually reminded me of Marie Kondo, which people may know her. She’s got a Netflix show about tidying, and she invented this KonMari process.

Squirrel: And that’s like Kanban. Yeah, exactly.

Jeffrey: So your Kanban should go through KonMarie and she has this key idea in her tidying that I think could apply here as a nice adjunct to The Shoe Principal, which is when she would say, you look at your belongings, you bring them all together and you hold each one and you ask, does this spark joy? And I think that’s a good way to look at our process as well, does our process does it spark joy that that may seem like a strong claim, but I think it should. I think we should have our processes and feel like they add energy and excitement to our day. And if they don’t, maybe we should get rid of them.

Squirrel: You could certainly try dropping them for a bit. So if you if you always feel deflated and bored in or after your stand up, try not having it for a week, see what happens. That would be the Marie Kondo way. I think she actually tells you to throw it away and take it to the rubbish bin that I think she wouldn’t mind if you just sort of put it outside for a bit and pretended it wasn’t there and then you could have it back if it really left a hole in your life.

Jeffrey: My daughter likes watching tidying videos. She told me recently that she’d been watching several of them. And I do know that some people will use that as if you have a very difficult thing that you’re having trouble getting rid of. They’ll say, well, go and put it in this box and put the box over on the shelf and put the date on it. And if you haven’t had to open the box in a year or three months or something like that, you have a time on it. And it turns out if you never had to open it, well, then, you know, you can get rid of it because you know, it wasn’t something you really needed.

Squirrel: I had no idea there were tidying videos. I’m going to have to go check that out now.

Jeffrey: Oh, my gosh. Yes, decluttering videos of all kinds. And but I come back to this idea of joy. I think it’s a reasonable hope that, a process should spark joy. And the reason and I think a lot of people miss this, is that all the process we have, it’s there for a reason and it’s there for us to have conversations. It’s there for us to, actually collaborate and communicate. And we should be generating energy in those conversations. We should have a certain amount of excitement about, you know, what is it we’re going to be doing. And so if our process isn’t leading to exciting conversations, well, that’s not good. And if the conversations themselves are not good, I think retrospectives, you mentioned stand ups and retrospective. I think probably the retrospectives are the ones I see most often where people are going through the motions and feel like, you know, retrospectives aren’t useful, which is always shocking to me because I’ve gotten so much energy out of retrospectives in the past. But I do often come across people where they have become just a checkbox exercise that people go through. And certainly nothing controversial or difficult is ever discussed there.

Squirrel: And the obligatory reference to something we’ll have in the show notes, which is the Agile Retrospectives book, which is getting older now but is excellent and certainly worth looking at and can spark some extra joy if you try some new techniques you might find there.

Jeffrey: But let me say, it’s I think, often changing the format, like having the Retrospectives book. It does bring a bit of energy because they’re a bit different. And so people are a little bit out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, when done just rotely it can actually add to this problem and it can be like, oh, yeah, you know, we had one retrospective process that was kind of boring, but now we have 12 and none of us are really bought into them.

Squirrel: We rotate amongst them and we get bored by different one every week.

Jeffrey: Right. And so I think the question I would have if you’re saying, yep, actually none of our processes are sparking joy for us, then maybe there’s something more fundamental about the dynamics on the team.

Jeffrey: And you should be asking yourself, well, what what is going on with us that we aren’t excited about what we’re doing? Maybe we should be doing something very different. And it’s not just a question of changing. You know, the paint, you know, just changing around the edges. Maybe we something more fundamental.

Squirrel: Makes sense. OK, well, if listeners are trying out some process tidying and checking out whether things spark joy, bringing in new processes and dropping some out, we’d certainly like to hear from you. is the place to find us with Twitter and email and all the other good things. And of course, we like it when you subscribe and whatever app you’re using so you can hear us every week. Excellent.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.