We have to start asking better questions

Disclaimer: This is something that came about after a discussion with a good friend of mine about how agile communities and groups often end up talking about the same old topics over and over again. I’m taking this as a chance to experiment with a more unfiltered writing style that injects my feelings on the matter more than usual so it may seem a bit rant-y.

There’s this smart person who said that “All frameworks are wrong but some of them are useful” I forget who and I don’t even know if someone really said that but I believe it in it anyway. Frameworks are good and often they’re helpful. Specific techniques, practices and patterns on how to do things can be very useful but they can also be trap. They’re a trap in the sense that they make you think that being good at this technique/framework/pattern will solve your specific problem. As an agile practitioner though I think we spend too much time talking about frameworks, techniques and patterns rather than talking about how to solve problems.

Let’s go through some examples.

“Coach is it okay if our stand-up lasts longer than 15 minutes?”

This to me is an example of a question that needs to be better. Every time I get asked this there’s a series of questions I often respond with.

  • Are you guys able to update each other about the progress of your work towards whatever goal you’re all working on?
  • Are you able to ask help from each other and from people outside the team?
  • Do you know when you need to help someone from your team?
  • Does whole team feel like the time invested in this meeting is a good use of their time?

If you answered yes to all those questions then tell me does the 15 minute rule even matter?

Let’s pretend you said no to any of the questions above. Then the one you said no to exposes a problem to that might be worth solving. As a practitioner I would care if a team isn’t able to ask help from people outside their team. I would definitely care if the team thinks that the time they use for stand-up is better used for something else. Those are problems worth talking about, those are problems worth asking about and exploring. 15 minute rule? Meh.

“Should we do story points, t-shirt sizing or hourly estimates? Should we use fibonacci sequence? Should we do poker planning?”

We’re all tired of hearing questions like this right? Questions about specific techniques and little mundane decisions that steer us away from the real questions. If we’re talking about planning these are the questions I’d be asking

  • Do we all have the same understanding of the work we’ll be doing?
  • Do we know when the work is “done”?
  • Does the team have a way to know if they’re taking in too much or too little work?
  • Do we have a way to quantify how much work we’re taking in?

If at the end of planning a team is aligned what work needs to be done, has a way to represent how much work they took in and has a way to gauge if they took in an adequate amount of work then it was a good planning. If teams are able to do all that, does it really matter whether they used story points, t shirt sizes or psychic telepathy to figure out the sizes?

But JM specific techniques and these “mundane” questions are how you answer important questions!

Maybe but for me frameworks and techniques are all just tools that help us solve problems and what’s valuable to me is talking about the problem, how you solved it and not the tool. Here’s an analogy for you, if I have a nail sticking out from the wall and I wanted to do something about it I could…

  • Pull out the nail using the back of a hammer
  • I can pull it out using pliers
  • I can hammer it back in so its not visible
  • I could use a saw to cut off the nail

We can talk about “should I use my left hand or right hand when using a hammer?” or we can talk about the many ways you’ve handled a nail sticking out from the wall.

I’d rather talk about the latter, wouldn’t you?