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That’s what learning feels like

None of us like to be wrong. I’ve tested this with many audiences, asking them “how does it feel when you’re wrong?” “Embarrassing”, “humiliating” or simply “bad” are among the most common answers. Stop now and try and think of your own list of words to describe the feeling of being wrong.

These common and universally negative answers are great from a teaching perspective, because they are answers to the wrong question. “Bad” isn’t how you feel when you’re wrong; it’s how it feels when you discover you were wrong! Being wrong feels exactly like being right. This question and this insight come from Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk, On being wrong. Schulz talks about the “internal sense of rightness” we feel, and the problems that result. I think there’s a puzzle here: we’ve all had the experience of being certain while also being wrong. If the results are “embarrassing”, why do we continue to trust our internal feeling of certainty?

My answer comes from Thinking Fast & Slow. That sense of certainty comes from our System 1, the fast, intuitive, pattern recognition part of our brain. We operate most of our lives listening to System 1. It is what allows us to brush our teeth, cross a street, navigate our way through a dinner party. It is the first filter for everything we see and hear. It is how we make sense of the world. We trust our sense of certainty because System 1 is the origin of most of our impulses and actions. If we couldn’t trust System 1, if we had to double check everything with the slow expensive analytical System 2, we would be paralyzed. So we need our System 1 and we need the sense of certainty it provides. We also need to be aware it can lead us astray.

When our sense of being right guides us we are acting from a Model I / Unilateral Control mindset. The result of a Unilateral Control mindset is less information, reduced trust and fewer opportunities to learn. And we all like to learn right? I now ask my audiences this question and I get universal nods. We all like to learn. “No you don’t”, I reply. “You just told me that the feeling of becoming aware you were wrong feels bad! Well guess what? That’s what learning feels like.” That’s my recent ah-ha moment: that we claim we like to learn, but when it actually comes to learning, to correcting a wrong belief with a right one, we don’t like it.

I find this discrepancy very interesting, very revealing. My theory is that when we imagine learning we are thinking of writing on a blank slate. It is about learning facts where before there were none. That is a good feeling, we get a little chemical kick from our brain when that happens. We don’t imagine correcting our mistaken beliefs when we think of learning, and that’s a real shame, that should change. By all rights we should value that kind of learning even more than learning new facts: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” (Will Rogers)

I think the problem is that we are primates. To primates, from an evolutionary psychology standpoint, status is everything. Status is the primary determinant of reproductive success. Losing status can be the same as a reproductive, evolutionary death sentence. In our modern knowledge economy, chest thumping is the assertion that we are right, and winning the fight is proving the other person wrong. That’s how we put them in their place (in the status hierarchy). This means our instinctive reaction to becoming less wrong tends to be negative. The loss of status feels too high a price to pay for learning. Even trying to help someone else become less wrong is understood as a risky prospect. We don’t want them to lose face, we don’t want them to get angry with us for correcting them. Thus the habits of Unilateral Control, protecting both ourselves and others, are reinforced.

All of this explains why developing habits for learning, developing Model II / Mutual Learning habits, requires a lot of practice. We are fighting decades of acculturation on top of millions of years of evolution. To win this fight we need to be committed to what we are fighting for. We need to care more about learning than being right. We’ve got to care about making the most informed choice possible. When I can remember to hold these values in mind it becomes easier to act differently. I can go seek out those people who are most likely to disagree with me, who are most likely to teach me something. I can deliberately share my chain of reasoning and invite others to poke holes in it. With practice, lots of practice, I can come to see the person who corrects me as more friend than rival, and to feel the correction as the victory of joint learning rather than an individual moment of shame.

“The story I’m making up…”

Last week at the August session of the London Action Science Meetup we started with a discussion of the phrase “the story I’m making up…” I love this phrase! It captures the process of the Ladder of Inference, but it has an immediate emotional resonance that the ladder does not.

I came across this phrase from an unlikely source: Now I’ve got nothing against Oprah, but this it just isn’t in a url that shows up a lot in my browser history! So the real credit goes to @frauparker, who is someone I clearly trust well enough to follow off into the well-scrubbed bright and shiny parts of the internet; in this case an article by Brené Brown on How to Reckon with Emotion and Change Your Narrative, an excerpt from her new book Rising Strong. The article is well worth reading but I’m going to take a look at it through the narrow lens of the action science workshops I’ve been leading.

For a few months now I’ve been leading weekly lunchtime workshops at TIM Group where anyone who is interested can join in a discussion of some two-column case study. This might be a canned case study, or one people recall and write down on the spot, but the best sessions have been when someone has come with something in mind, some conversation in the past or future that is bothering them. As a group then we try to help that person to explore how they were feeling, what they didn’t share and why, and how they might be more effective in the future. One of the common observations, and one this article reminded me of, is how hesitant the participants are to put their feelings into words. It seems we can almost always have a productive conversation by asking the series “How did you feel at that point?” followed by “Is there any reason you didn’t share that reaction?” These questions get quickly to the real source of our frustrations that are hiding back in the shadows. Bringing them into the light we find out something quite surprising: they were stories we were making up.

The article has good advice that will be familiar to students of action science and the mutual learning model, suggestions like separating facts from assumptions, and asking “what part did I play?” It also had a key action that is hidden in plain sight. Do you see it in this exchange from the article?

Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!” “I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?”

As I read the remainder of the article from the author’s point of view it was easy to overlook the role Steve played here. It was his calm empathetic question that allowed the author to reply with the title phrase: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.” I really struggle generating this kind of response, of not getting caught up with my own emotional reaction. So I admire what Steve accomplished here.

I’ve long said that “stories are the unit of idea transmission”. What I hadn’t realised before reading this article was how powerful I’d find using the word story to describe what is going on in my head. I’m really looking forward to practicing with this phrase in future conversations.

Video: Frustrated? It is probably your fault

I had great fun with my Devopsdays Amsterdam talk and the video is now online, joining the slides that I posted previously.

The last time I spoke at a Devopsdays was London 2013 (video here). That was another fun talk, and had some overlap in content, but I did feel that I tried to put too many concepts in a single 30 minute talk. My goal this time was to be much more deliberate and leave enough time for each concept. Where I ended up is a talk in three parts. Part one is cognitive psychology, how our mind generates an illusion of certainty where we don’t deserve it. Part two is Action Science and the Mutual Learning Model as a set of behaviours that appropriate for an uncertain world. Part three is the need for practice. This section uses the piano analogy and then — my big risk! — a live demonstration. A brave member of the audience joined me on stage to try applying the concepts I’d just discussed.

As you sit and watch this video I hope it is the final of section of the talk that makes the biggest impression. All the video watching, all the reading, all the learning will mean nothing if you don’t act, if you don’t practice and find the limits of your current abilities and then learn to move beyond them. And I’ll make the first step easy: Download the slides and try the exercise in the video. What would you say to Ted? Write it out and read it aloud. How did you do? Maybe you want to try again…

(Lots more great talks online at the devopsdays vimeo account.)

Slides: Frustrated? It is probably your fault

I’ve just delivered my talk Frustrated? It is probably your fault at Devopsdays Amsterdam. That means my slides must be finished! Here they are to download, and I’m looking forward to the video being posted later.

The piano analogy: some practice required

This year I’m training people in the theories of Chris Argyris, helping them to apply the concepts, and this raised some fun challenges. The challenge on my mind today is how to convince people that practice will be required before they can perform well? My current analogy is the piano.

After a quick search I can show you a three minute video of a 14-year old explaining how a grand piano works. If you’ve got an extra minute I could share a four minute animation that illustrates the mechanism in detail. You probably already know that in a piano the strings vibrate and that produces the sounds you hear. It would take moments to strike each key and allow you to hear each note. Having invested less than thirty minutes you could understand a piano and how it works. You can’t play it, but you know you can’t play it. You were unlikely to have mistaken understanding the concepts for being able to produce the result.

Action Science seems different.

I’ve introduced dozens of people to the topic through Roger Schwartz’s excellent Eight Behaviours for Smarter Teams, a sort of Shu-level guide to producing Mutual Learning behaviour. The response is typically positive, enthusiastic even, and general  agreement they should start behaving in a mutual learning way. However they also believe that now they understand mutual learning behaviour they can also produce mutual learning behaviour. They mistake understanding the concepts with being able to produce the result. Worse, their own incompetence makes them blind to their lack of skill.

So this is where the piano analogy comes into play. Everyone acknowledges the gap between understanding and performance. I use the piano analogy to set the expectation that practice will be required. Then we begin using the two-column case study to start retraining their ear, allowing them to begin hearing the difference between Model 1 and Model 2 behaviour for the first time. And when someone is discouraged by their performance, the analogy is there again to help them have realistic expectations: “How long have you been practicing the mutual learning approach? How long do you think it should take to retrain from a lifetime of habit and cultural norms?”

Do you have a technique you use to help set expectations for skill acquisition and maintaining motivation? If so I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on Twitter.

Frustrated? It is probably your fault.

That’s the title of my talk which has been accepted to the program for the upcoming Devopsdays Amsterdam June 24th, 25th and 26th. The topics I’ll be discussing will be familiar to the attendees of the London Action Science meetup — and to the people who have been diligently reading my session notes — which is that if you want to create change you need to start by changing your behaviour.

For the past few CITCONs I have been leading open space sessions with a very similar theme: “Can’t create change? It is probably your fault”. Those sessions have been great fun, because we get to talk through situations in real time together. My challenge now is how to generate those same kind of ah-ha moments for the audience without building it together in the room.

I’m not sure how I’ll do that yet, but I’m excited to have been accepted and to have the opportunity to give it a go. Hope to see you there!

Registration open for CITCON North America

CITCON North America 2015 will be held in Ann Arbor Michigan on October 2nd & 3rd. Registration opened today with a hard limit of 150 registrations.

Why a limit of 150 registrations? Our original inspiration was Dunbar’s number, and the idea that our prefrontal cortex puts a limit on the number of people we can model at one time. CITCON is a 100% Open Space conference, and the quality of the event comes from the interaction between attendees. I’ve blogged previously that I believe selection bias is a significant factor in making these interactions successful, and I believe the small size helps as well. After the Friday night opening ceremonies, agenda creation, and social hour, you really do know at least a little bit about every attendee. I believe that helps people engage in the conversations on Saturday, and helps ensure we have good outcomes in most sessions.

If you’re not familiar with the Open Space format and aren’t sure it is for you we have several resources that can offer some reassurance. First there’s a neat introductory video that was put together at CITCON Europe 2009 in Paris. Next, for some examples of what the sessions are actually like, you can visit the Skills Matter website, where they have videos of five of the sessions from CITCON Europe 2011. Finally, and what for me would be most reassuring, is the feedback and notes from attendees from the events going back to 2006! Reading through those blog entries is like watching the evolution of industry on fast forward. Hope you can join us and add your entry to our list.

Using the two column case study

On March 25th the London Action Science Meetup held a session on Using the two column case study. In our previous session we introduced some of the fundamental ideas of Action Science, and then closed with an exercise based on the two-column case study. This time we started by creating our two-column cases, used them to identify our Skilled Incompetence, and tried to design more competent options.

Skilled Incompetence was Chris Argyris’s term for the effortless, automatic production of behaviors that led to outcomes other than what the actor desired. In the article of the same name he describes using the two-column case format to make the automatic behavior visible, so it could then be redesigned. Our group attempt was slightly different in that our goals were two fold:  first, we were helping each participant identify what alternatives they might have used, and second, we tried to identify what in those situations might act as a trigger for that automatic behavior. My theory is that identifying these contextual triggers will be helpful for “reprogramming” those automatic responses.

I won’t discuss the cases from our group discussion, but I can share three context that came up as troublesome:  disagreeing with a statement, having an uneasy feeling, and someone else trying to close off debate.

Our first context was a common one, so common that it seems innocuous: disagreement. Person A said X; person B disagrees with X. What could be simpler? The problem is that Person A and Person B might mean entirely different things by X! Consider the statement, “Yes, I’ve tested the changes in the new release.” What is meant by tested? Does that mean writing automated checks or performing manual testing? If automated, does it mean unit testing or acceptance checks or both? If manual testing, does it mean on a locally installed build, in the acceptance testing environment, or post-release in production? Or did this person do all those things and more? We could make assumptions — in fact we will almost certainly make assumptions! — but we can’t know we understand what was meant without asking. And so the first takeaway of the night was that if you disagree with someone you might first check to see if actually understand what they mean. Our re-designed statement: “You just made a statement that I think I disagree with, but I want to check I actually understand you and that we mean the same thing.” This is consistent with the mutual learning model in that we are open to learning that we are wrong and we are transparent in our reasons for asking for clarification.

The second context we discussed from our cases is having an uneasy feeling, but not having a concrete reason to justify your feeling that a proposed course of action is wrong. This can be an uncomfortable situation given that the values of the unilateral control model, our default way of behavior, include “act rationally” and “win, don’t lose”. From this unilateral control mindset sharing a feeling with nothing to back it up is a sign of weakness. But remember that our goal isn’t winning, it is mutual learning! From the mutual learning mindset sharing our feeling is consistent with sharing all relevant information. If nothing else, your conversational partner will learn how you are feeling, and can then make an informed choice how they want to proceed. Do they want to enquire into how you feel? Do they want to share some additional information they have which might reassure you? Do they want to share their own misgivings? As long as you are acting in good faith, not trying to use feelings as an insurmountable objection, we all agreed that sharing these feelings open the door to improved joint design.

The last context that came up from our cases was in some ways the most challenging:  how to respond when someone says “this is not open for discussion”? Once again we came back to the key distinction between Model I and Model II, which is the goal of controlling the outcome vs. the goal of learning. If I believe the decision that isn’t open for discussion is wrong, then from a Model I perspective I need to find a way to re-open the discussion, to have the decision reversed. But from a Model II perspective, I have the option to be curious, to seek to understand the decision rather than reopen the discussion. Going back to the Eight Behaviors I have the option of responding with something like, “I can accept that the decision is made, but I’d like to understand the reasoning. Can you share your reasoning and intent in making this decision?” With this strategy we can learn more about the interests of the person making the decision. Even better, if we are genuine in our curiosity, we just might learn something that would change our opinion!

Asking at the end of the meetup the group agreed this was a productive exercise. The two column case study format allowed us to identify areas where our communication wasn’t generating the outcomes we like. By discussing these situations with the group we were able to both come up with alternative behaviors and also to recognized the context that resulted in our original ineffective behavior. Our hope is that by continuing to practice in this way we will come to be more aware of our options and less skillfully incompetent.

To help with this process in our next meetup we will be introducing a new tool, The Ladder of Inference.

Why I Write

I’m on Day #2 of the 10 Days to a Better Blog online workshop and the assignment for today  is to meditate and write down the answer to your “why” in terms of your writing, and they even provided a nice template for the content that I’m happy to adopt as my own.

I’m beginning to define and explore the difficult question of why I write and why I want to become a better writer. Here are some of my initial and incomplete thoughts:

  • I aim to reduce suffering in the world of software development through improved practices and improved communication. I believe that the practices and mindsets that make a difference can be taught, and I believe that through writing down what I’ve learned I can reach a wider audience than I do through my working and speaking and meetup activities.

I feel that’s fairly complete. I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to my purpose, my mission, my Why. And thus in the Why | How | What scheme described by Simon Sinek, writing is a How, not a Why.

How to get better at writing? That’s something I’m still working on…

Excited about CITCON Europe 2015

I’m super excited about the upcoming CITCON Europe! As an organizer I’m thrilled with the strong response to the event. It is scheduled in Helsinki for September 11th and 12th and we already have 40 people registered, more than 25% of capacity in just a couple of weeks since we opened registration.

But as an attendee what I’m really excited about right now is who is registered.  When I look at that list of names I picture a lot of familiar faces, and I start to imagine a lot of conversations I’m looking forward to.

Ten years ago PJ sold me on the idea of holding an open space event by comparing it to standard conferences: “You know how the best conversations are the ones that happen in the hallways between sessions? With open space all the sessions are like hallway conversations.” Sounded good to me! And it has been in good in practice now for 25 separate events, on four separate continents. I think we have a case that there’s more than luck involved…

I think an important part of our success has been the selection bias. CITCON is held on a Friday night and Saturday. This makes a big difference in who turns up. This is an event populated by people who have given up personal time to be there. They must have enough interest, enough passion, to make the trek and to put in the time. Details in background — developers, testers, sysadmins, managers, coaches, consultants — matter less than being the kind of person who will make that personal commitment to improvement. And if you’re a person like that, being in room full of others who feel the same way is hugely energizing. I think that’s why these interesting, accomplished people come back again and again, to be part of those conversations.

Now maybe you don’t recognize those names, but you want to be part of that kind of community, what to do then? Easy, join us in Helsinki!