VUCA Lessons For Agile
Agile in New Orleans

The "Realization, Suck, Advance" Progression

S Ski Many skills go through a familiar progression:
1) Poor Performance
2) The Point of Realization
3) The “Sucking” Phase
4) The Advancement Phase

I went through this with TDD, then with a switch from management to leadership, more recently with learning to ski down hill in control on cross-country skis.

Realization Suck Advance

1) Poor Performance – Some things you just cannot do, or you have a lack of recognition about. The end result is that performance is poor.

2) The Point Realization – this is when you realize what you are supposed to be doing and the “a-ha” moment occurs. It feels good to now know what you need to do, but usually we are not practiced at it and still continue to fail for a while.

3) The “Suck” Phase – We know what we should do, but despite our best efforts we fail at doing it. This is because we have had no practice and we have not developed our skills yet. It can be frustrating that after making the mental leap that our performance hardly improves at all. From an external view observers may see no discernable improvement between before and immediately after the Point of Realization. Yet the seed has been sown and with practice we will get better.

4) The Advancement Phase – Now at last we start to make progress as we practice, continue to make mistakes, but get better and better. Our performance improves, we still fail occasionally, but less often and we get longer periods of high performance in between.

Applied Behavioral Analysis Science
My latest Point of Realization came during a presentation by Tony Parrottino at a recent PMI-SAC meeting. Tony was talking about Applied Behavioral Analysis Science as outlined by Aubrey Daniels.

I have felt for some time that creating plans and outlining objectives for a project seemed to be “pushing-a-rope” in terms of aligning a team for progress and success. I had also been reading about better team recognition and found “Encouraging the Heart: A Leader's Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others” by J. Kouzes, B. Posner to be really useful. 

Previously, visioning, team buy-in and rewards were all important but separate topics to me; Applied Behavioral Analysis Science tied them together and gave me an “a-ha!” moment of connection. (A little like when you follow a road for the first time and then discover where it comes out and suddenly two loose ends have been connected.)

The content of the presentation was a little difficult to extract, the juicy bits were interspersed between long anecdotes, and entertaining stories. The presenter ran out of time with lots of topics still left to cover, but like first seeing an iPhone demo’d in a noisy bar, I had seen enough to know I was going to investigate more in my own time.

Some great points that were demonstrated included the need for alternative thinking models. While it may be tempting to think that outcomes on projects would be better if people employed a little common sense, common sense can lead to many incorrect conclusions.

Historically, common sense convinced people:
• The sun rises up in the sky in the morning and then falls down again at night
• Planets revolve around the earth
• Stars come out at night
• Heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects

Science teaches otherwise and common sense can get us into lots of trouble. The science is usually simple, but not obvious. Once we see how things actually work, we can adjust, but working with a faulty model, common sense can lead to common problems.

Applied Behavioral Analysis Science is not really psychology, but a separate branch of science. It links goal setting and rewards, behaviours and results. There is too much to discuss in a single post, but I plan to write more on it as I learn more myself. Having reached the Point of Realization, I am very much in the “Sucking Phase” as I try out new approaches and discover how much more I have to learn and practice.

However a couple of ideas I can outline right now include:

Managing Behaviour
We attempt to manage budgets and schedules, but in reality we can only hope to manage behaviour. Budgets and schedules are really just the results of cumulative behaviours. Performance is a function of an interaction between a person's Behavior and his/her Environment (P = B x E).

Tom Gilbert introduced ABC theory: Antecedents (preceding events or conditions) lead to Behaviors which, in turn, lead to Consequences and results. In other words, behaviours are prompted by stimuli conditions which then result in responses which are, in turn followed by reinforcing or aversive consequences. The reward or punishment value of these consequences increases or decreases the probability of future repetition of this behavior.

ABC Cycle  

As an example, many people do not like work, but do like playing golf. Golf has good antecedents (a pleasant environment, easily understood measure of success, a focus on reinforcing feedback and encouragement) and so people will pay good money to play even though it is a futile pursuit. Work, on the other hand, often has very poor antecedents (a bad environment, no success measures, no reliable feedback, little encouragement) and as a result people want to get paid to perform it even though it should yield a more rewarding and lasting output than golf.

“Gilbert believed that it was absence of performance support at work, not an individual's lack of knowledge or skill that was the greatest barrier to exemplary performance. Therefore, he believed it was most necessary to focus on variables in the work environment before addressing an individual's variables.”

For project managers this translates to spending more effort on: the work environment, success measures, feedback, encouragement and recognition and letting the performance fall out naturally than trying to “push-the-rope” of performance expectations into the team as plans and milestones.

This is the bit I still suck at, my performance is barely better than after I made the realization, but I have a clear view of my destination and I know what I need to learn. Things are improving, but just like my cross-country skiing, not as quickly as I would like.

Potential Benefits
The potential for real benefits is large. In a traditional work environment, given a goal and a deadline, the common outcome is a low level of performance until the deadline is approaching and then just enough output to meet that goal on time. This appears common sense, it is the efficient (least work) way of accomplishing the goal on time.

Task Completion

It produces the classic S curve of performance yields we see so often on projects. Yet, if we create an environment with better conditions where people were enjoying themselves and trying hard all the time, like in golf, the idea is that we could get a straight line performance yield, additional benefits, and more over accomplishments and early finishes.

Does this work? Groups like the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) think so and offer variety of resources on these topics. I will be investigating further and reporting ideas and experiences back here.


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