“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!” ORLY?

Thoughtful parable from Johanna Rothman on the feeble manager’s fall-back “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”.


Ah, yes, Mindset.

So, last time, I blathered on about The History of the World in Three Minutes. The most important point, and I hope this was clear, was the the Industrial Revolution gave us (us = The West) a two-tiered education system. The Obedient Unskilled and the Proud Professional, to paraphrase.

Tender reader, strap yourself in, we have another point to make.  There is an excellent book, Mindset Carol Dweck (Random House, 2006). Carol Dweck is a psychologist who’s been researching her subject for many years. Read the book, but in summary, she proposes that there are essentially two mindsets.

The first, the “fixed” mindset, is best exemplified by say, a great tennis player. This guys knows he’s the best. He cannot lose. If a game doesn’t go his way, it’s not due to a failing of his, oh no. His shoelace broke, there was a reflection glinting in his eye, the line judge was asleep.  But him lose? No, impossible.

You here it in corporate speak “We only employ superstars!” You hear it in parents thinking they are encouraging their kids “We only want you to be the best you can be.”

The problem is that if someone is the best, and identifies that way, then any failing at all is a failure of Self. Which makes is impossible to either admit to failure, or even take on anything where failure is a glaring option. Or even a very subtle option.

It’s not even always about being the best.  It might be simply about being what you are.  Your test scores show that’ you’re a C in math.  So you know that you’re only so-so at math. “I couldn’t never do that job, it needs too much math, and I’m meh at math.”

What’s the second mindset? You probably guessed it, it’s the “learning” or “growth” mindset. This guy might not have won today, but he learned something and maybe he’ll win in the future. This girl got a C in math, but she’d like to get a B next time so she’s going to study.

[Stop Press! At this point, I interrupted my writing to attend the East Bay Agilistry Meetup where Dr Ahmed Sidky gave a talk titled ”The Agile Mindset: The Key To Being Agile Not Just Doing Agile”. He had some fabulous slides on Carol Dweck’s work, and there was much nodding and agreement going on!]

In light of Ahmed’s talk, and I’m hoping that he’ll be sharing the deck, we can cut to the chase.

The fixed mindset fears failure, as it’s a failure of Self. The growth mindset embraces failure as a learning opportunity. The fixed mindset reaches for certainty and tries to resist or control change. The growth mindset acknowledges uncertainty and embraces change as opportunity. The fixed mindset hates looking bad or stupid, the growth mindset just doesn’t care about that.

If you’re reaching ahead to seeing that the “old school” way of doing things equates to the fixed mindset and agility equates to the growth mindset, yep, we’re getting there, and we’ll bang that gong with a vengeance shortly.

But first I want to cover the why of the mindsets. Why do people think that way?  We’re not born with a built-in mindset.

John Taylor Gatto has written at length on the problems of Western schooling. He documents the history of the decisions and actions taken to implement methods of schooling specifically designed to support the Industrial Revolution. To summarize, two streams were required. One would produce unskilled obedient laborers and soldiers to do the hard physical work and be cannon-fodder, the other would produce highly self-invested professionals who would manage the others and provide the technical problem solving, all to benefit the owners of the industrial means of production.

The thing is, it worked incredibly well. The Industrial Revolution was the driving force behind the explosive growth of the 19th and 20th centuries. Never mind the politics, never mind the Dickensian and Orwellian aspects, all the benefits of modern life that drive our society today came from the industrial revolution.

But think of that second tier, the professionals.  Their work is knowledge work. As Ahmed so nicely put it, we keep working while the cost of the change we’re undertaking is assessed as being less than the value that change provides. And knowledge workers are all about driving down the cost of change. And as they focus on this, what comes right behind it? Technology!

Technology is all about finding more and more ways of enabling cheap change. So what do we get behind the Industrial Revolution, but a Technological Revolution!  Taa-daa!

But the thing is that the way the professionals had been taught to think was industrial.  It was about production lines, it was about nailing certainty, and ensuring that the means of production was predictable and completely controlled. The workers could be commanded “Do this, and do it thus, and keep doing it” and all would work.

Whoops. All this quest for certainty produced the technological revolution that brought with it the means for innovation that brought with it… uncertainty! Change! Yikes!

And the poor old professionals, still being churned out by the University System, a great machine that grinds exceedingly slow and exceedingly small (and at HUGE expense), the poor old professionals are still being taught to invest highly in their Qualification (ooh!) and still being taught to prepare for a career (a what?) and still being taught to believe in The Plan.

I’m going to pause, and find a dark corner, and give myself a quick rub-down with a damp copy of Oz Magazine from 1968, and wait until I calm down before I continue.

Up next… well, team, what do you think we’ll be talking about next…?

Forthcoming attractions!

Ok, I’ve been nudged back into blogging action by my recent contact with the Agile community in the Bay Area (San Francisco if you’re looking at a globe).

Here are the topics I’m thinking about and will be writing about in the coming weeks:

  • Neuroscience, agility, facilitation, and the besieged middle manager.
  • Social history, tea kettles, short-term problem solving and long-term problems.
  • AQAL once I understand more than how to spell it

Any one of these could morph into a PhD or a Tome of Significance if I’m not careful. Hands up everyone that thinks I’m careful…

Right then.

Oh, the team will find that too hard….


I need to blow off a little steam.

There’s a habit that I see around me all too often.  We propose a process improvement, and it requires the use of a tool, something like filling in and updating issue tracker tickets.

And we’re told by the manager of a team that their team will find this too hard.  Wait… what?

Programming is hard.  Driving is hard.  Cooking is hard.  Bringing up children is hard.  Does this manager think that his people – while regularly asking them to do the impossible – are incapable of of filling out and updating an issue tracker?  But that’s easy!

What is going on here?  What motivates people to keep demanding success while setting people up to fail?

Ok, I know that humans are designed to identify problems.  It’s what we do.  I know that the emergent design of evolution built us to survive by spotting the problem before it spots and eats us.  So what will it take to upgrade that problem-spotting mechanism to operate beyond the immediate problem into an assessment of longer term value?  We don’t live in a life-threatening environment for the most part any more.

So what can we do to help people see past problems to benefits?



Well, maybe this is yet another example of the need to ask questions, not offer solutions.  I’m seeing more and more the wisdom of hardly ever offering a solution until enough questions have been asked for the consumer of the solution to have already said out loud that they need it.  If that’s not done, then the solution can be seen as something to be assessed as new information, and what do we do with that?  We see it as a problem!

Have I answered my own question?

Let’s try it.

Me, what do you see as the problem here?

“Well, I see managers who don’t believe that their people can do simple things.”

What else?

“Well, it makes me mad!”

Why’s that?

“I’m offering them a solution to their problems!”

Ok.  But do they see them as problems?

“Sure, they’re complaining the whole time!”

Have they asked you to provide a fix?

“Um… kinda…”

Have you asked them if they see this as a problem?  And if they see it as an important problem?

“Um… not exactly…”

Right then.  Could it be that since you’ve not asked them, then they’re not thinking about a need for a solution, so when you offer it to them they just see it as another problem?

“Hmmmph.  Good point.  So the manager saying it’s ‘hard’ is code for ‘Don’t bring me another problem’.  Right.  Got it.”



Ask first.


Calendar scheduling versus to-do scheduling. “Clock time” versus “event time”.

David Allen (the Getting Things Done guy) discusses lists versus calendars in his latest email/blog post.

This relates to a point raised in a book I’ve just finished reading  Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy.

Calendar time, “clock time”, is a relatively recent development in the history of humanity.  Trying to fit our tasks into scheduled time is always a problem, as we’ll never know if we’ve scheduled the right amount of time until we’ve completed the task.  Partnoy argues that getting work done by scheduling with clock time is all about efficiency, the desire to use every second in an approved manner.  This idea came about thanks to Taylorism, still a huge influence on management and project thinking.  Clock time is derived, Partnoy tell us, from Babylonian mathematics being in base 60 and the lunar month occurring twelve times in a solar cycle.  it has nothing to do with governing our schedule in reality other than marking how much time has passed.  Using clock time to organize our list of things to do seems odd when we realize this.  We could just as easily have ten hours in a day as twenty four.  If the moon was slightly different in size, we might have fifteen months in the year.  Using clock time is obvious, as it’s there, but it has no inherent ability to actually define our real world obligations.

Contrast this with “event time”.  Event time is, for example, “after lunch” or “when I’ve finished this”, or “tomorrow evening at sunset”, or “when Bill comes to visit next”.  Or “when I’ve finished this” I say again!

GTD’s approach recovers a focus on event time with the concept of “next actions”.  For each project – something that requires more than one step to complete – you determine the next action.  Once you’ve determined your list of next actions, you do them.  You fit them into you day around actions that have to be taken at specific times, such as meetings.

This is also a concept addressed in an agile approach.  We handle “clock time” in Scrum sprints or by measuring Kanban cycle time.  We acknowledge the inability to know ahead of time exactly home much clock time we need for a specific task using a variety of techniques.  Size-based estimation, team-based capacity that averages individual capacity, velocity, limiting WIP, all speak to this.

And then we do the work using event time.  When this is “done done” we’ll move onto the next thing.

Anyhow, once again, it turns out that social history proves to be a great source for understanding and improving our methodologies.  As one of my coaches says “Read.  You won’t live long enough to get it all unless you read!”  Indeed.

Agile in Government! Really?

Apparently so.  Who knew that that dear old Circumlocution Office had it in them.  Check this out. 

Shame it’s back in dear old Blighty, as I’ve a feeling that the Land of the Free could do with a healthy dose of agility at the top! 

Actually, no it’s not a shame, as I was told that something like half of all legislation written in the UK since the Magna Carta (written in 1215) has been written since 1997!  (Do not quote me, this is from fuzzy memory.)  Someone’s been trying to handle things with a command-and-control approach, not the way to adapt to a fast changing post-industrial society.

Why did you post about that?

I was asked the other day why I’d posted on this blog about the apparent war between science and religion.  What did that have to do with it all?

Well, I’m writing this blog to slowly but surely outline my view of the world.  I have no intention of separating my thoughts about business and work from my thoughts about culture and society.

Put simply, remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The pile of stuff that’s important to humans?  Right.  Does it say anywhere “work”?  No.

We work, we do business, to achieve these things.  I recognized that some people achieve them with their work, but it is a convenient fiction to say that if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life.  I call shenanigans! 

One of my business mentors once threw a bucket of cold water in my face “Those who are Successful are interested in the Result, and are not concerned with what the Method looks like.  Those who are Unsuccessful are interested in the Method, and then JUSTIFY the results.”  I can still hear the capital letters…

A light went on, and there was no hiding from it once it was on.  I knew some many people who were doing something that looked awesome to them, only to find that it’s still a job, still more about the business than the thing, and finding that the love had turned to poison.

But the happy ones, the ones climbing to Maslow’s Peak, didn’t give a tinkers about what they had to do, no matter how unappealing.  They did it to get what they wanted.  Oh, and the happiest ones did it by helping others and largely never disagreeing with anyone!

So, in my world, it’s as important to think about why things matter, why science, why religion, what good do they do, and to look for ways to reduce disagreement and self-righteousness, as it is to think about the things that we do to get there.

Oh, and by the way, I personally define “good” as “that which makes more possibility” and “bad” as “that which reduces possibility”.  Let’s keep it simple, eh?

Makes sense, doesn’t it?