Lesson 3 from the apocalypse – practice

Pluto Krath was stirring his third coffee. Behind his office window, he was gazing at his team.

— How does she do that?

He knew it was there. But he couldn’t put a grasp on it.

OK, time to have a look at the KPIs before next meeting.

— Bwaaaahaaahaa!

In this scream, there was a mix of surprise and pain from hot coffee burning his hands. But not a milligram of pride.

— I can see you didn’t get in-office reflex back. The Pluto from a couple of years ago wouldn’t have let a drop down.

Tara Reid was sitting at Pluto’s office, playing with his dashboard.

— Exactly, make some noise when you’re here. I almost forgot you could torture me anytime.

— Come on, put yourself together. You know I’m here to help you ask the right questions. So the new one is a bad girl?

— No, the opposite. Lin has been here for 2 weeks, and the team already made a huge leap forward. I’ve been trying to help them work as a team for 2 years. I’ve been telling them to spend time talking, pairing, mobbing, do BDD, katas, BBL, and nothing happened. We organized workshops with the whole management team, to identify and distill our culture and our values. We identified collaboration as the corner stone. We communicated, reviewed our chart, made presentations. We even organized workshops in the teams with superstar coaches. Nothing sticked. And Lin joins the team, and everything gets together.

— Then I’ll leave, if everything’s fine.

— No, not everything’s fine. I don’t understand. That’s a problem. We burnt mountains of euros for nothing, and Lin changes everything in 2 weeks, on her own. I need to understand.

— It’s obvious: instead of saying what to do, she did it. Simple as that.

— What did she do that we didn’t do? We also did a lot.

— Well everything you said: pairing, mobbing, BDD… She sit next to her collegues with a big smile, and collaborated with them. They learnt doing it by doing it, so they did it.

— That’s also what the coaches did. Where’s the difference?

— Lin collaborated on the issues they have in real life. Not just with toys. Everyone could feel progress in daily work. They also found solutions to problems on their way. The team adapted theory to their context, by practicing in this context.

— Are you saying we did all this for nothing? What do we do with culture eating strategy for breakfast?

— Oh yeah, quotes are flying around. It’s probably true. But what is enterprise culture? The culture of the CEO? The board? The management team? The product team?

— That’s one culture per hierarchical level.

— You’re oversimplifying things. Even you alone do not share the same culture with your friends, your kids, your team, your boss. You have N cultures per person, group, level, day… I admire your sacrifice to make all that explicit, but you can only distill a tiny part of these cultures. To answer your question, what you did was useful. It’s part of the things that helped Lin cristalize the conclusions of your workshops. Oh, I almost forgot. Since you talked so much about it, what does the company mean by culture?

— That one’s easy. Culture is values, what is tolerated, forbidden, encouraged, discouraged. Values are unnegociable things. They guide principles, which in turn guide practices.

— Good. So, if values are unnegociable, it’s because they are stable and shared by everyone, right? Since they guide principles which guide practices, why did the team’s practices suddenly changed in such a short time? Practices should be a unavoidable, shouldn’t they?

— Good question, that’s exactly what I don’t get. I suppose we can apply an infinity of practices within a given culture, as long as they are compatible. But then, how is i…

— Wait wait, I have another explanation for you. Culture is described by generic words, which can contain anything you want. Nobody understands the same thing from these words, really. They change nothing. The only thing that changes behaviors, is being concrete. Giving examples of what is encouraged, forbidden, and so on. And of course, what is possible.

— Once again, you’re going against what everybody thinks. Do you mean employees don’t understand the values we communicate?

— OK, let’s take an example. Since you identified collaboration as a corner stone of your common culture, let’s go there. Jeanine is the team’s tech lead. Robert, from support, raises an issue no one had ever thought about. Users are blocked, so Jeanine and Robert spend a few hours identifying the problem. Jeanine finds a solution, and pushes it to prod. A few hours later, another customer faces a regression, partly because of Jeanine’s update. Karim, a developer on the product, is very upset about that. He knew the risk. He knew why the product was made that way in the first place. He accuses Jeanine of a lack of collaboration, for understanding, testing, or discussing about breaking the rules. Jeanine is stunned. She says she worked with the support team and the users, in order to try and fix the issue. So, who is right? Did Jeanine collaborate, or did she not collaborate? 1 single word, 2 perfectly valid points of views, leading to 2 opposite conclusions in the same context. The common culture of collaboration only caused conflict.

— But you agree with the trio culture/principle/practice, don’t you? Even the agile manifesto was built this way.

— Honestly I don’t know what to think about that. What I know is, it’s not very useful. Like rational arguments, it’s only useful to convince people who already agree. As at Enron‘s, it doesn’t help fighting toxic behaviors. Some might even say that defining a common culture is toxic in itself. Anyway, this trio is theory. And you know the difference between theory and practice, right? Don’t waste your time: it’s practice. Actually I think practice drives principles and culture, not the opposite.

— Wait a second, I feel things coming together. So you would change people by practicing?

— Exactly, repetition makes perfect. Anyway, it’s worth trying, don’t you think? Til now, approaching the problem the other way around didn’t help. And you are observing a success approached through practice. In addition, this approach is way cheaper than the one you chose. Sounds like a reasonable bet to me.

— It reminds me of the epidemics. Everybody said that wearing a mask was Asian culture. That French people couldn’t help from kissing each other because they are a Latin people. That we couldn’t motivate teams without coffee breaks. And through experience, we realized there were good things to keep. We even learned to wash and dry our hands. Makes me wonder whether rules changed our culture.

— That’s it, practice opened the eyes of people experiencing it.

— I have the impression that if we want to invest in coaching again, it will be on the keyboards, in the teams. Interesting.

Pluto let his mind wander, contemplating his team. He emptied his cup of cold coffee, smiled, forgot about Tara, who had already left. He resolved to focus on what his colleagues experienced daily. Tara was right, it was worth trying.

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