Janus and the art of partitioning

Why Janus? Well, not only is he the Roman God of Beginnings and Gateways (or doors, transitions, journeys, that sort of thing), he’s normally depicted with two heads, one looking to the past or beginning and the other looking to the future. Seems to resonate with what I try to do with my clients – help them along a journey.

Why this post? It was triggered by me reading the book Unlearn by Barry O’Reilly. The book helped me crystallise or make explicit something I think I’ve been doing often enough to be considered “typical behaviour” – the act of unlearning.

I’ve been thinking about how to use this new found explicit conscious awareness to help my current employer (as well as my current and future clients). My typical role on an engagement is some form of…no wait, this link might give you a sense. Alternatively choose any number of words from the following set and arrange in any order to give you my title (naturally, duplicates are encouraged) “agile/ninga/coach/therapist/comic/beer-buyer/disruptor/transformation/hygienist”. The key thing about my clients (and my current employer) is  that their overall delivery maturity is nothing worth writing home about. They’re certainly no bleeding edge delivery outfit, constantly testing hypotheses by using practical experiments, with unicorn tendencies.

So who hires me? Mostly Laggards and Late Majority organisations (See Everett Roger’s book Diffusion of Innovations).

What does that mean for me? Generally, the mental models I have in my head for how “software delivery should work” are two or three decades(*) ahead of the executives and senior management types that I spend time with. That means that unless I take great care, I’ll end up using language that’s incongruous with the recipient’s world view. And there are enough snake oil salesmen out there to replace me, making it easy to put lipstick on a pig – see the Internet on cases where “agile transformations don’t work” or “agile transformations not delivering on orders of magnitude improvements” or variations on the theme. For me, that’s Janus looking forwards.

How am I trying to solve this? I learned a foreign language. This one’s called “Management from Yesteryear”. I learned it because if I was to stand any hope of working out if something I say is being misinterpreted, then I need to understand how it’s interpreted. Some people could call this empathy, but I disagree. It’s more a model of a person from the nineties (say), to help me understand how a real person would behave. For me, that’s Janus looking backwards.

So how does Barry’s book fit into all this? Well I realised that if my client needs to evolve by 20 years, they’ll need to go through an awful lot of unlearning and relearning. That’s assuming that if someone is going through that much evolution, they’re able to skip a few of the intermediate states. If that’s not possible, well that just increases the amount that needs to be learned and unlearned in a comparatively short space of time.

So what I need to do, is help them get starting along that journey, and supply the occasional nudge if they start going too far off track – say unlearning something that’s still relevant or learning something that isn’t helpful. That’s harder than it sounds, as it’s tricky to understand what off-track actually means, not to mention how on earth I’d be able to observe this. What would be ideal, is if they themselves could work out how to tell if they were going off track. A more realistic scenario is that I’d have a sense of how they’re thinking and try to use that to gauge the degree of discomfort they’re feeling and from that attempt to infer the degree of off-track-ness. That said, sometimes it’s helpful in the longer term to learn something, realise it’s incorrect and fix that. All adding yet more uncertainty into the “are they on track or not” overly simplistic question.

That’s where my internal-model-of-a-person-from-the-nineties comes in. I fancy myself in (very) amateur dramatics circles, as someone of the method acting school of thought. When working with someone, and I’m asking them to go through cycles of unlearning and learning, it seems only fair that a part of me goes along that journey with them. It’ll help me build some empathy. It’ll also help me spot when things aren’t going well, because in addition to seeing their expressions, I’ll be feeling similar things too. It’ll help them trust me a little more than otherwise. It’s a great way for us to discover potentially exciting new things that neither of us would have foreseen. And finally, that shared experience is also a good foundation for building some psychological safety.

A brief segue into psychological safety.

I’m trying this approach with my current client, and so far it’s been proving to be an interesting experiment. I’m not too clear about how cleanly I’m partitioning the me-from-now and the virtualised-me-from-the-nineties, but if nothing else, I do appear to have more empathy and connection with my client. So that seems to be positive. I’ll keep trying this approach and see if it gets any better or give’s me something different. Might even blog about this later.

 

 

(*) I know that sounds harsh, but for example organising teams by components and architectural layers for efficiency reasons is just so nineties. And not in a cool retro way.

 

 

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