Language Hack to Improve Quality of Decisions You Make

Setting aside the enormous power of our habits, several times each day, we still have a conscious choice to make. While we usually fail to notice that, each of them is inevitably influenced by complex set of biases. And there are literally hundreds of these. Just see this amazing infographic. Despite corporate pushes to always make the best choice possible, finding an optimal one is quite tricky. I even dare to say it’s impossible, given that there’s always a set of factors we’re not even aware of. If we care to be on the spot, usually we’ll just be close enough.

But what if we could do one simple thing to improve the process? Just a small tiny detail? Wouldn’t that be good?

A few years ago, the key employee of my client notified them of canceling his contract. Do you know what the CEO said upon hearing the news? “Damn, that’s bad.” Then he started figuring a way to handle the situation, as everyone would expect. Disbelief, anger, disappointment – all underlined with a notion of uncertain future. To ensure everyone else that things aren’t actually that bad, he called for an all employee meeting, sharing the optimistic operational data and mentioning several promising prospects. He’s never done that before.

As you can imagine, he clearly overdone it, prompting more employees to consider quitting.

A few months ago, a friend of mine – somewhat tired of her current employment – heard that competing business was to open nearby. Even more, they were fishing the job market for people just like her. All she could say was, clearly, “That’s good news!” With new optimism, she updated her resume and filed it instantly. You could see her eyes brightening up and cheering. With emotions and hopes storming within, she started to underperform at work. An ad-hoc feedback session, with HR member involved was, in her perception, just brutal.

The new business didn’t hire her.

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to leave home in the morning, I checked the weather. It was to be foggy, moisty, and substantially colder than the day before. I distinctly recall saying to myself, “What a bad weather!” As I drove to a client, I kept thinking if any of my plans need updating due to unexpected conditions. As pessimism filled my heart and brain, the obstacles started piling up. I called my assistant and asked her to postpone important meeting to another day.

Then, out of nowhere, a viral thought manifested in my mind. It was strong enough to leave me missing one green light and pushing the envelope of everyone’s behind me tolerance to stupid drivers to their very limits. What if we all used wrong words?

As humans, we’re driven by emotions and gut feeling more than we would ever admit. It’s not really a bad thing. We’re perfect in our imperfection, that’s what makes us human.

The catch is that we can invoke these emotions with incredible ease. And they bias even more, for no valid reason whatsoever. Words like good, bad, great, fantastic – all impact our decision making. Which is sad, as they’re mere opinions, not facts.

What the CEO could’ve said instead? “Okay, that will impact our plans.” That’s a fact. “Damn, that’s bad” is an opinion. Ironically, business can actually benefit from departure of key employee – it sparks evolution, a change, an improvement of process to be more resilient in the future.

My friend? “So I have second career option.” It’s neither good, nor bad, just statement of a fact. And being happy of alternative option is likely to yield better results than being happy because, well, it’s good news.

Myself? “Okay, there’s fog outside”. As many of us, I was programmed in my childhood to automatically associate rainy days and fog with something bad. You know, “Don’t go outside, the weather is bad.” That’s beyond pointless. The weather just is. As are career options. As are events impacting businesses.

Now scroll up and read the last sentence of the second paragraph.

“Wouldn’t that be good?”

I think that stating it like “Wouldn’t that yield more benefits?” would’ve been more factual.

Just give it a shot. You’ll be surprised.

Fallacy of Time-based Estimates

I know a guy incredibly fond of estimating development effort for a ‘scrum’ team in hours. Because, apparently, it’s the best tool to increase developers performance.

Ouch. On so many levels. For so many reasons. As the science of engagement screams in pain while dying, let’s just repeat: ouch.

Of course, there are some arguments against the practice. That no two developers share the exactly same knowledge of the product. That no two developers have the same experience. That, ultimately, we learn and grow by failing. That, maybe, for some reason, we have this team-based tool, called story points, which could make more sense. Because ‘this whole scrum thing’ is all about teams, and so on.

It’s a big no, apparently.

And this guy is actually right! Yes, you can use time-based estimates to evaluate each individual developer’s performance! Yes, it will work! For a price, but let’s just leave it to the side.

On the other hand, it takes some deliberate effort.

First, during the planning session, you have to split all the tasks at hand between individual developers. Simply because, my hour will never equal your hour – which works for every single pair of individuals in the world.

Second, you force each of the developers to precisely estimate the level of effort. It may take up to one full day per two-weeks sprint. A money well spent, apparently!

Third, immediately after the sprint you invest some time to assess each individual’s performance and provide immediate feedback. Failing to do so means no learning occurs, hence people never ever improve.

This guy I know fails on all three.

Which is a good thing after all. Their estimates are rubbish, but as long as nobody *really* cares about them, they’re just fine. Yes, the client will complain for a while – but then they’ll become used to it. Just burning some more money sprint by sprint, oh well.

And yet, it’s not the worst outcome ever!

The worst thing would happen if this guy I know would start exercising his power on the time-based estimates. Because every sane individual involved would just quit. Immediately.

There’s another scenario though. If you were an engineer and was mercilessly persecuted for every time your work log exceeded your estimate, what would you do? That’s right. Increase the estimates. Sure, you’d be bored as hell quite a lot – but safe! Long enough to find another job without quitting immediately.

Story points were created for a reason. Use them. They make sense.

Wasting Money on Experts

At one point or another, every organization turns to hiring some truly experienced staff. People possessing skills unavailable in-house. Those that not only deliver more than the rookies – their performance can be seen as shocking. Their insights reach well beyond what’s visible to the naked eye.

The experts.

Sometimes they turn whole business around and put it back in black. Sometimes they can foster growth of others, for the greater good. Sometimes their leadership (social, technological, actual…) can massively contribute to historic successes.

Most often though, they’re just a waste of money. Given their expertise and limited marketplace, a substantial waste of money. It’s not like it’s their intent.

It’s just that they’re misused.

How is it even possible? How can you understand the need for expert support, find the right person, pay them a ton of money – and somehow spoil it all?

It’s remarkably easy. You misuse expert by telling them what to do. Don’t ever do that.

Tell them what to achieve. They’ll tell you what to do. Then they’ll do what’s necessary.

Your Own Superhero Team – Team Habits

So you’re a Scrum Master, business owner, manager or any other kind of a leader – and you’d like your team to be able to conquer the world. Or just deliver products and services your clients will love. Welcome to the first of series of articles designed to make your journey easier. Today, we’ll tackle the robotic aspects of your team.

Are you into some team sports – football, basketball, volleyball, anything like that? Think of the best team you know, one that raises the bar beyond reach of all others. If you’re not into this kind of entertainment, simply ask around – then choose the most popular answer. That is, unless you surround yourself with local sports club hooligans – but then you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Got the team? Great. Now, spend few minutes or so, on watching them playing – YouTube or Vimeo should do just fine. Make notes about how they play.

Even if you’re not familiar with the particular sport, you should notice one thing. For perfect team, things just happen. Somehow, right players show up at right places to perform right actions. You cannot see any deliberate planning or synchronization. Both of which are often simply impossible, due to extreme dynamics of the situation. It’s almost like magic.

Then it’s everything but magic.

That’s the imprinted, repeated reaction to a specific cue. If teammate on position A does B, you do C. Specific situations are analysed, broken down, and rehearsed during training. Thousands of times. Then, the moment the trigger is activated, you start doing your part. And that’s without even thinking about it or realizing that!

It’s the same mechanism that decides the sequence of actions you perform every morning. One that allows you to commute mindlessly, the same way, every single day. One that decides how exactly you wash your teeth.

Automated response to imprinted scenario is what we call habit.

Competent sport coaches teach their teams the rules. Good ones teach tips and tricks. Great ones design and foster habits.

As each of us has thousands of them, from tiny ones to those defining our personality, so do teams and organizations. Generally, every concept composed of creatures of habit, has habits on its own.

Now, for a few weeks, observe the habits of your team. Spot triggers and reactions. When e-mail arrives in team mailbox, they do A. When new bug arrives on their task board, they do B. When they come to work, they do C (which clearly stands for Coffee, at least in IT).

Some of these habits are great. Some are close to meaningless. Some are devastating.

Spot them, share with the team, ask them to look around themselves!

Which puts you one step closer to growing the team to conquer the world.

As for next step – modifying habits – I’ll cover that next week. Stay tuned!

Active Couch Potato – Is Your Team One?

In a manic world of fitness, there’s a phenomenon called “active couch potato”. It describes a person eagerly engaging in various physical activities, from gym to marathon running – yet, stuck out of shape. As it turns out, for many, even regular trainings are not enough to offset the utterly sedentary lifestyle. Sitting in the car, welded to the desk at work, chilling by the television – running your 5k every Saturday morning won’t make up for it.

I should know well. For quite a few years I was a textbook example. That somewhat overweight guy crossing the half-marathon finish line in the photo above? That would be me, a bit over half a year ago.

And as, with quite a lot of effort and relentless support of few of my best friends, I moved past this limbo, I realized how many teams and organizations behave the same way. They’re capable of heroic achievements every few months (say, just prior to some major product release), then get intoxicated by their epic success, learn nothing, and decay into the world of widespread mediocrity. Several cycles more, they’re surprised by their lack of form, however it’s defined in their business context.

So, is your team an active couch potato or fit and healthy?