For the past three years, my mom could simply tell her friends, “my son Ken works for NASA.” Now that Curiosity is on its way to Mars, mom wants to know what it is that I am doing next…and when I’ll visit again, of course!
What do you say, when someone asks, “so, what is it that you do at work?” Are you prepared to explain it, in simple terms?
“An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.” –Ernest Rutherford, quoted in Einstein: The Man and His Achievement (1973) by G. J. Whitrow, p. 42.
What’s the big deal about “Agile teamwork?” How do you do what you do? Why?
How do we do what we do?
To an outside observer, patterns and practices will be evident in our behaviors and artifacts. For example, a daily standup, a cumulative flow diagram, a Kanban board. What might you feel compelled to say to a visiting friend or relative, as you give them a quick tour of your workspace? What about a newcomer joining your team, on their first day, if they haven’t yet been indoctrinated through training, experience, or study?
Manifest behaviors and artifacts create a “visible” perspective. How we do what we do is discoverable. Our “why” may be a mystery.
Why do we do what we do?
So what will you say next, if your visitor asks that simple but profound question, “why?” That’s a very important question. Because, as practitioners–when we aren’t certain what to do or how to go about it–we can innovate. What drives our innovation? Our motives aren’t so “visible” as our behaviors and artifacts. Hopefully, we do have some goals identified, and we are principled in our doing.
Like a compass, goals and principles guide us as we work, and especially as we explore our frontiers. In unfamiliar situations, we can look for patterns, “make something up” and give it a try. That’s an experiment. That can be observed. Yet why we chose to go a certain way isn’t so obvious. A little reflection goes a long way when we act on what we learn. We can “inspect and adapt” to improve our results. We press ON!
What about those who would do likewise? Will imitation or mimicry be sufficient? Probably not. But with some record keeping and explanation, we can make a map or a journal to show or tell others where we’ve been, what we built or tore down, and capture lessons learned along the way. There is value in the legacies of our journey–our charts and transcribed thoughts–when they serve as “visible” trail markers or field guides for those who would follow. When we take time to explain why we acted, whether by rule or exception, we begin to create a transferable legacy, in addition to whatever else we made. Others can build on that and also press on.
Historical Flashback: “Plan-Do-Check-Act” and iterate in small steps. That was the simple yet profound behavioral guidance from Walter Shewhart at Bell Labs in the 1930’s and promoted by W. Edwards Deming. They went to great lengths to explain how and why “PDCA Cycles” work, for example, and much more in the way of principles. (Consider The Deming System of Profound Knowledge and especially Deming’s “14 Points for Management” therein.)
Back to the Future: How might you work differently today? Could you explain why?
I hope you can. I may need some help. A couple months ago I “choked” in an interview, struggled for words, and realized I needed a refresher to be more articulate… and more concise! (Clearly, I still struggle with the ‘concise’ part. Perhaps I don’t understand well enough yet.)
Soon, I’ll be chatting with my mom again. Wish me luck!