This is a transcript of episode 136 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Reacting to an insightful comment from Elisabeth Hendrickson, Squirrel and Jeffrey have a minor tussle over how to interpret the idea of “reflecting and adapting”. They eventually agree that adapting works, but only if your definition of “team” is broad enough.

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Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

Podcast Episode Transcript:

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So you had an interesting prompt for our podcast episode this week and it was from an old friend of ours, or at least an old friend of yours, someone I’ve admired from afar, Elizabeth Hendrickson. We’ll have a link to her Twitter and so on and in the show notes. But what was the prompt there? What made you excited to talk about something from her?

Jeffrey: I was really excited about about this quote. And I’ve actually shared this on Twitter when I was listening to the Idealcast, which is Gene Kim’s podcast, and he had Elizabeth Hendrickson on his show in episode number three and I was listening to this and I’ve known Elizabeth for a number of years and it was a really great conversation between the two of them. I was really enjoying it. And then this moment came that got me really excited. And it was when Elizabeth was describing this learning simulation that she used to run. And it’s a really great simulation for teams and departments and companies to come in and she would put them through this experiential learning course that she developed called word count. And it was one of these elements where people are trying to work through the simulation and then learn lessons that they take back and apply to their real team because the simulation, you know, recreates the team dynamics that they have all the time. And it does it in a kind of microcosm so they can learn the lessons much faster. And she was describing word count and the kind of lessons and dynamics people that come in at the end. She had this statement that said and this is the electric statement for me, and it said “The whole point of word count is reflect and adapt and the power of reflecting and adapting your working agreements to improve the outcome.”

Jeffrey: And now part of the reason that resonates so much with me is because it explained in a moment why my consulting company name is what it is. It’s my company name is Reflect Adapt Ltd. And when I was coming up with a name, I wanted something really meaningful and it was exactly this. My motivation was I really see that people can get much better outcomes when they learn how to reflect and adapt together and this idea of changing their working agreements to improve the outcome. And I was like, oh, she gave my thesis statement on the air. That’s fantastic. And then this morning for you, I was so excited. You know, actually, this could have been the, you know, the statement. We could have had this on the cover, the back cover of Agile Conversations. Our book to say like this is the point of it.

Squirrel: Yeah. Because it’s so easy to reflect and adapt. I mean, what I don’t understand is why people don’t do it more often since we all know how to do retrospectives. And yes, we should we should just do retrospectives in our teams. And then when as soon as we’ve done that reflection and adaption, we’ll be doing better. So that’s the podcast. Thanks, everybody. Really appreciate you listening to Troubleshooting Agile. We’re all done for the day, right, Jeffrey?

Jeffrey: Well, you know, actually, to be honest, I kind of thought so. I mean, not quite that summary, but this statement was so exciting to me that I thought it was very clear. And then you very usefully pushed back on me. You’re like, no, that’s that’s not at all. I, I think you’re way off base. You know, you’re missing something. I was slightly taken aback. What do you mean what am I missing? What’s what’s missing from refelct and adapt?

Squirrel: Well, the problem is, the error I see over and over and over again is that people do exactly what I was jokingly doing a moment ago and they say, OK, now we know what the important thing is. We don’t even have to read that book Agile Conversations. We don’t even have to listen to this podcast episode. All we have to do is make sure we’re doing reflection and adaption, adaptation. And guess what? We are because we have a retrospective at the end of every sprint. And you know what? Our stand up used to be five minutes. Now they’re ten. And boy, that’s made everything a whole lot better. We’re right on track. And the terrible, terrible mistake which they only discover much later from they’re lagging indicator, which is usually something like money or acceptance by a customer, is they’ve been reflecting and adapting with the wrong metric. They’ve been reflecting and adapting for an internal reason. And that’s because, and this is the title I strongly encouraged us to use instead, their team that they’re using for their reflection and adaptation is much smaller than it should be. They’re leaving people out and therefore they get surprised later. And this is a very, very unpleasant surprise, especially because they think they’ve been following the right advice. Hey, I did all the reflection. I improved my process. I you know, my database tables are really well normalised. Everything’s wonderful. Yeah, I can’t log in. Oh, wait a minute. I forgot something important.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And when when you pointed this out, I immediately went. Oh yes, that’s right. They’re doing a local optimization and they’re not looking at the full system that they’re using the wrong metric, so they are in fact reflecting, but they’re doing it in a very local way when they’re part of a much larger system of delivery. And it made me think of Chris Argyris and his distinction between single loop learning, which is getting better at what you’re already doing roughly, and double loop, which is sort of reconsidering, do we even have the right strategy and that sort of taking a step back.

Jeffrey: And so I thought that was a very useful, a very useful clarification. Because I agree, one way you can put it is that people generally do reflect and adapt at the level where they’re already comfortable. And so if their limits of comfort are just themselves, you know, they will they will look at their own work and see how they can improve it but they might have friction with other developers on their team, you know, their peers, their colleagues. Or if they’re a designer, they may have a friction with another designer. But if they’re not comfortable with the relationship, then what they might do is just, you know, say, well, that’s too bad, well what can I do without thinking about actually doing it together? But if they’re comfortable with their peers, their most immediate peers, then maybe they’re not comfortable cross-functionally or if they’re comfortable cross-functionally, maybe they’re not comfortable talking to, say, their clients and rethinking what they might do with their clients. And when I was thinking of reflection adaption, it was it was it was much broader. It’s about everyone involved in the system, everyone who a stakeholder. In fact, it comes down to the sort of functional definition of what a team is, which is for me, a team or a group of people who share a problem.

Squirrel: And almost always your team includes your customer, for example, because you’re building your software for somebody. There’s somebody who has a problem and that person’s part of your team. And that can be very surprising when some people realise that and say, oh, how can I include them? That would be a very different way of thinking.

Jeffrey: That’s right. People tend to have an almost adversarial view of their customer, which is weird. It’s like, oh, those stupid customers, you know, they are always asking for things or you know, maybe it’s because we’re going to be charging them. And people think about, getting paid for their work and selling software as almost a zero sum game. You know, we only win if we’re getting more money than than it’s than it’s worth or something like that. I don’t know exactly what the unspoken logic is that is, but it tends to inhibit the idea of who we share interests with.

Jeffrey: I have one example and try to clarify this between the two of us I shared with you, which is came from CITCON. And this is the continuous integration and testing conference where you and I first met and in 2006 and we’ve been running, been part of ever since. And I would run a session there most years for the past several years with the provocative title ‘Frustrated? It’s Probably Your Fault’ Where I would invite people to bring frustrations that they had. And secretly I now can say, you know, behind it, I didn’t realise the time was this concept of the power of reflecting and adapting on your working agreements to improve the outcome, though I wouldn’t have used those words at the time. But it was the idea that, look, there’s probably a conversation that you’re missing that you could be having.

Squirrel: And there’s probably a breadth. There’s probably someone in your team that you don’t realise is in your team. There’s someone who shares your problem and you’re ignoring them and you’re not using them as part of your reflection and adaptation.

Jeffrey: And that’s that’s exactly right. And I’ve had many cases that over the years and the example I shared with you was someone the way this would work is one person comes at a time and then so and I ask that person questions until they go, oh, they have that aha moment. Yes. There’s actually something I could have done. It was my fault for not, approaching this differently, I’ve not talked to the people. I’ve not had the conversation I could have.

Squirrel: And therefore whatever is going wrong is my fault.

Jeffrey: Yes, exactly!

Squirrel: Yes. But good news because I can do something about it.

Jeffrey: Yes, exactly. And that’s that’s that’s the punch line. Is there something you can do? Is that it’s good if it’s your fault because you take action. What happens is people see the first person go and then the second person go. And so it gets harder. In a sense, people are bringing what they think are more challenging problems. I don’t find them more challenging because it’s the same pattern again and again, but it’s helping them expand what conversations are possible. And so someone came up and said, look, OK, I see what you’re doing here and it’s a great message and I really get it. But look, my situation is different. I’ve heard this more than once, but this is one of those cases. My situation is different. There’s really nothing I can do because the problem I have is the person who I need to influence. Is in another company that, you know, they are a vendor and the problem I have is that they’re delivering software that is not high enough quality haha.

Jeffrey: And guess what? I’ve already tried talking to them and said you need to do tests. And you know what, they agree with me. So we’ve had that conversation and so and I’m still frustrated. So you’re wrong. And I said, well when you talk to them what do they say. They said that, that they actually proposed doing unit tests as part of the contract. But the people who negotiated the contract from our company took that out. So that there you know, I’m frustrated, but they’re also frustrated and, yeah, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Squirrel: And if listeners are interested and haven’t figured it out yet, you might want to pause for a moment, pause the recording and see if you can figure out where’s the person who’s missing in this team.

Squirrel: Yeah, exactly. And that comes down to it. You know, who is the person that you need to have a conversation with that you share a problem with?

Squirrel: And if you’ve paused and restarted, we’ll tell you now.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it’s I said, well, that’s very interesting. Have you talked to the person who negotiates the contracts and asked them why they do that? Have you shared with them that these decisions they’re making are increasing the cost of ownership for the company? And is that is that what they’re after? Have you have you had that conversation? Because if their goal is to save money for the company to have the best deal for the company, they might be. It seems like they’re making a mistake. And this was the light bulb moment for this person. Actually, I think actually his first response was, I can’t talk to them. And I said, oh, well, why not?

Squirrel: Have they taken a vow of silence? They live on Mars? You know, are they constitutionally opposed to speaking? What’s the issue?

Jeffrey: I was I was waiting and I thought, why not? And then he kind of paused and he said, ‘well, actually, I guess I could. Yeah, yeah, you’re right, I, I can go talk to them.’ And then he sat down and that I think was a great example where someone who was so confident that they had done this, that they had done the reflection adaptation they’d had the conversation that they’d found the people to talk with. And they were all in agreement, but they were all trapped. They were all frustrated. And that was you know, they had taken this idea as far as it was could possibly go. And but in fact, that’s not true. When they could look say, don’t you have a shared interest with this other person? What is the what is the interest you share? What’s the problem you share? You know, if there is one and therefore you’re on the same team and you can therefore be having conversations with them to get better outcomes that both of you care about.

Squirrel: There we go.

Squirrel: Ok, well, I don’t know that we need to belabour the point any further, I think listeners will have got the message. So if you’re thinking to yourself, gosh, I’m really comfortable, I’m doing my reflection and adaptation, it’s easy. Nothing is going wrong for me. I’m right on track. That’s precisely the moment when you should say to yourself, I wonder if I’ve left anybody out of the team? That place of comfort is a dangerous one, that your reflection and adaptation should be difficult. Challenging should cause you some disquiet, because if it isn’t, you’re probably leaving somebody out that is is going to have an unpleasant piece of feedback for you later when the measurement actually comes.

Jeffrey: I would love to hear anyone who thinks that we’re wrong and that in their case, you know, if you think, OK, I understand what you did there, but my case is different.

Squirrel: Yeah.

Jeffrey: I would love to hear from you about that and understand because it could be wrong. It could be that there’s a situation where someone, you know, have done everything and, you know, you’ve had all the conversations with everyone with shared interest. And still, there’s no way to improve your situation. I would be very interested to find that I’m I’d be willing to admit defeat if I can find such a scenario.

Jeffrey: So if you if you have one now, please do get in touch.

Squirrel: Exactly. And you can do that by looking us up on That’s also in the show notes. If you’re driving or something, you don’t have to stop and write it down. But has our Twitter and email and other stuff about us and resources you can use and free videos and all kinds of other fun things. So go have a look there if you’d like to get in touch with us and tell us that we’re wrong because we like hearing that we’re wrong and learning new things. And if you like hearing us hit the subscribe button and whatever app you’re using, because we’re here every week and we’ll have more reflection and adaptation and maybe next week we’ll come back and tell you that we’re wrong.

Squirrel: Excellent. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.