Curiosity, Enthusiasm & Optimism
— 4th September 2016
How important is it that everyone in agile teams has a high level of skill, experience or seniority? Not very important at all.
In a multidisciplinary team, you’re very unlikely ever to get the whole team to be on exactly the same level in terms of experience. I was thinking recently that in this environment experience isn’t actually the most important factor in terms of contribution.
Of course, an experienced person will perhaps bring more in certain areas and will maybe be able to contribute in a wider range of activities. But it’s the team as a whole that matters and the experience of individual members is less important.
What is important is that every member of the team displays certain characteristics regardless of their experience. This is what makes the difference between a well-functioning team who are able to work together, solve problems and create great services and those who can’t.
Curiosity is the first thing. Without this you are just going through the motions, turning up for work and doing what’s asked of you.
A lot of people work this way, particularly in large hierarchical organisations. Waiting for a line manager (or someone else more senior) to ask them to do something and then getting that one thing done as painlessly as possible.
The opposite of that is someone who is curious. Someone who sees the problems around them and wonders about them. Wonders why they exist and wonders how they might be solved. This kind of person listens intently to users and colleague alike. They try to interpret what they hear and draw lessons from it. Then they invent ways to find out more.
In agile projects all members of the team have permission and the responsibility to discover and solve problems. Curiosity is what drives us to continue learning that’s what drives all our progress.
Where curiosity is the desire to learn, enthusiasm is about your drive to be active. In agile projects activity is what's needed. Agile reduces the need to worry about making mistakes by putting the emphasis on learning and quickly iterating. We learn by doing. If you're not doing you're not learning.
In some organisations, people often insulate themselves from making costly mistakes by finding ways to avoid activity. Whole areas of business evolve whose sole purpose seems to be inertia. A lot of people are very used to this way of working, but it’s the opposite of what we need in agile.
Enthusiasm for what you’re doing means you're more likely to want to do it, rather than sit and wait for instructions or permission. Enthusiasm is what will turn your curiosity into positive action.
Which brings me to optimism. Whilst enthusiasm is great we have to accept that it’s only sustainable if you feel it isn’t wasted.
Of course, the learning culture of agile means that as long as you’re discovering new things you’re not entirely wasting your time, but the other side of that coin is that we need to feel those learnings are contributing to something purposeful. This is where the optimism comes in. You have to believe that things can change for the better, that the things we’re finding out are going to make a difference.
It is very easy for someone who's worked in an organisation for years to get into a "t'was always thus" kind of mentality. Undermining attempts to improve things that are, in their view, always doomed to failure. It's also common for people to build up cynicism about the intentions of users or their colleagues, allowing availability bias to paint them as stupid, lazy or even dishonest.
Being optimistic means that you can always see the potential to make things better, you'll expect change to be possible and that the people involved will mostly be hard-working, conscientious and honest. Most importantly it'll mean you keep going.
It's easy to get bogged down in levels of experience or seniority. Hierarchies embed a strong sense of place — and by implication worth — in people. I think one of the great opportunities of agile is to sweep away those old, often arbitrary, distinctions and replace it with something where the unit of performance is more often the team than the individual.
If you want to really see a person's worth to an agile team look at how curious, enthusiastic and optimistic they are. People with those characteristics will be contributing and making a different no matter what their level of seniority or experience.