Curiosity didn’t kill the cat…

..perhaps something else did. I don’t know – I’m a dog person.

I am starting to see a common thread, kind of a tapestry of supporting ingredients that either enables or blocks change. It’s not just with Lean/Agile, but any change effort. Many times the implementation of new ideas don’t get off the ground because they never had chance to take root in the first place. Why?

(can you mix conflicting aviation and farming metaphors? I think I just did)

I think there are at least three fundamental ingredients we overlook when we prepare for change: Imagination, Curiosity and Introspection. These are not Values, but Traits. Values can be taught and even enforced; Traits are cultivated.

(yes, the farming metaphor works better)

Imagination

If we want to effect change, we first have to be able to imagine a world where (1) what we currently do is not good enough any more, and (2) there is a better way.

If you can’t leap that far, then you really don’t have anywhere to go to. It’s that simple. Many folks I have met and worked with over the years have done well and succeeded in their careers doing things a certain way so why change now? It’s hard to imagine that what has been successful in the past isn’t the best way to do business anymore (I’m working the best way I know!).  But change is constant -whether you accept that premise or not- and it is a harsh reality that what made us successful yesterday may be a liability tomorrow.

We have to imagine the new behaviors we want. What do small batches look like in your environment? What would it mean to rely on self-directed work teams? What implications are there from facing risk head-on (as opposed to the traditional avoidance maneuvers)? How would Planning change with a Lean/Agile mindset?

Purpose and motivation come from the question “Why?”. Tools, practices and processes answer the question “How?”. Imagination springs from the “What if?” domain.

Lean ideas are so far away from current popular wisdom, even counter-intuitive, so making the paradigm shift requires a good dose of imagination. In some people it’s innate, in others it needs to be cultivated.

Imagination plays a huge role in overcoming one of our biggest challenges: our difficulty in translating good ideas from one domain to the next. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb remarks, “Humans somehow fail to recognize situations outside the contexts in which they usually learn about them.” Taleb labels this phenomenon domain-dependence.

That is, we easily recognize good ideas in one domain (say Manufacturing) but fail to apply the same ideas in another domain (say Software development). Even years after Mary and Tom Poppendieck provided compelling insights on how to map the principles behind Lean Manufacturing to Software Development we have trouble accepting that the same laws of nature which influence manufacturing apply in knowledge work.

To see something in one place and imagine how it could apply somewhere else is the essence of innovation. You can’t do it without imagination and unfortunately we don’t pay much attention to that particular trait. Chances are you didn’t ask your most recent hire anything to gauge their imagination. You probably focused on skills and experience, right? If you have Imagination and Curiosity -the subject of the next section- you will acquire the right skills and experience. Imagination and Curiosity are the more important success factors.

More on domain-dependence in a later blog post perhaps – this is one of our biggest problems w.r.t. process innovation and progress.

Curiosity

Very well, we want to improve and achieve better results but without a certain level of curiosity your options are limited to variations on familiar themes. You can streamline this or optimize that without stepping too far way from the playbook or without asking too many fundamental questions. Curiosity doesn’t do well within your comfort zone – it needs to break out. New solutions develop when we are curious about how well we actually perform today, and curious about how things work in other places. Curiosity about how things work. Curiosity about why we do things the way we do. Curiosity about why (the ultimate “5-Why”-type-of-why) we are feeling the pain we do in our projects.

The best people I have worked with have all been very curious. Never satisfied that they know everything, but always having this internal unsettling feeling that there is something else that needs to be discovered or questioned, always wondering what’s there at the next level or behind that next door. For Curious People, the questions are more important and exciting than the answers, and every answer triggers ten new questions.

If you are curious, you don’t need management to tell you to use the 5-Why method. You already ask more questions than can be answered. Keep going, and use your Imagination to come up with new ways of working based on the answers you find.

Introspection

This is perhaps the most difficult one. Introspection is the precursor to Reflection. Reflection fuels Humility. Humility is a necessary condition for un-learning, especially as we acquire more experience, success and seniority.

Yes, un-learning. Lean/Agile is a paradigm shift. To make a paradigm shift we usually have to un-learn something we know to be obvious and true to make room for the new paradigm. For example, we have to un-learn the “obvious” application of mass-production scale economy (and thereby the division of labor) to knowledge work and the usefulness of Pert-charts.

Once you are armed with curiosity and imagination, the easy part is to look at the system as a whole and identify where the waste is in the value stream etc. It moves the fault-assignment away from the individual and onto the system, which I totally agree with. But it could also (incorrectly) be a way to move responsibility away from oneself and onto the system.

It can be quite difficult to look inward for an honest assessment. But inwards we must look, because if you are leading change, then your own convictions and sense for what is the right thing to do must also evolve along the way. That is after all the Agile way. Inspecting and adapting at the leadership level requires introspection. If you don’t live along those principles, your team won’t either.

Introspection then enables us to stay open enough to consider new knowledge, to be flexible enough to adapt to change, and to be humble enough to continuously re-orient your own world view. Remember, finding the “one way” to “do Agile” (ouch! you don’t “do Agile”) and then pushing it through is just another way of commanding & controlling.

Bottom Line

So… the trinity of Imagination, Curiosity and Introspection. These values can’t be commanded from the ivory tower, but they can be cultivated at all levels. It’s an indirect approach. You reap what you sow… sometime later. I am fortunate to have been surrounded by people through my career which display these traits. As I realize now the importance of them, it only underscores how subtle these influences are. Or maybe it shows that I am a slow learner. In any case, hopefully this post triggered some thoughts on your end.

It’s a long-term and indirect investment with no clearly visible cause-effect relationship, but if you cultivate these traits then you are moving int he right direction – no matter where you end up.

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