Ignorance, teamwork and Agile projects

I've done a lot of work with Agile development teams in the past few years. I like the Agile methodology. It makes a lot of sense when building software applications and, especially, when everybody is working on only one product for an extended period of time.

In every Agile team I've been in, though, there's always this talk about how working in Agile is being a sport-like team. The project management methodology is full of sports terms like "sprint" and "scrum".

Great teams move like a single unit, everybody knowing their position and their teammates' strengths and weaknesses. This is never instantaneous. Teams have to work together and train together for weeks, months or years before they develop this mutual understanding and exist as a whole.

But sports teams have something else, as well. They have established rules of the game. Preëxisting constraints exist and are known throughout the training period and worked within, long before the team reaches a competition level.

Rules of a game are like contracts. They exist to protect participants, ensure that everybody is treated fairly and, most importantly, they remove assumptions.

Assumptions are a killer. Assumptions will be the reason any team or project falls down. My job in the User Experience field is about identifying assumptions, exposing them and dealing with them in an open and honest manner. I'm like a lawyer for interaction design. I have to either remove the assumption or make everyone aware of it.

Establishing rules is not as much fun as designing interactions or building code that produces kick-arse animations through parallax scrolling. In a world where most people don't even like to try to use the instructions that come with Ikea furniture, convincing people of the necessity for rules and their adherence is almost impossible.

Through the past few weeks I have spoken around town about ignorance and the role it plays in being a better designer and developer. This is not just a talk about working with clients, though. It's also about how we work with each other.

In a team, players have clearly defined roles. When I put a team together I am constantly looking at the roles that we have covered, if there's any doubling up and, more importantly, if there are any holes.

Not everybody in charge of a team will do that, and that's fine. But we can define assumptions in that case. The assumptions by the person putting the team together might look like this:

  1. We have a job to do with a defined goal.
  2. We have a sufficient team of dedicated and skilled people to achieve that goal.
  3. These dedicated and skilled people will communicate amongst themselves to work out how that goal will be achieved.

Assumptions are often exactly like this: a kind of pyramid in which one builds on the next. Identifying problems often means excavating through assumptions until we recognise the source. Excavation takes a lot more effort than building.

It's much easier to remove assumptions before they become problems. It's much easier to establish the rules of the game up front, before strapping on the special shoes and heading onto the playing area with the required equipment. (Note: It's very difficult to create a sports metaphor while also trying to be code-agnostic.)

Earlier I said that rules of a game are like contracts. There's another way this is true. They need to begin with negotiations. New players bring new skills and different experiences. The team needs time to negotiate through these experiences and ways of working or playing. It takes time to find the common ground.

It's okay for this to happen on the field if the stakes are low. But if there's money, livelihoods, share prices or mutual respect on the line, then there better be a lot of pregame honesty, awareness and practice. There must be a way to recognise, acknowledge and overcome assumptions.

Otherwise your whole team metaphor gets thrown out the window and all you have are a bunch of people who didn't want to write a requirements document.

Your Holiday

My temptation, when people post photos of their holiday in Bali, is to post photos from Kerobokan prison in the comments.

I resist that temptation because I know it's petty and won't change people's thoughts about traveling to Indonesia, it will only change their attitude to having me as a social media friend.

But it was only months ago that we, as a nation outraged with injustice, mourned over the deaths of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.

Bali is part of Indonesia and Indonesia behaves appallingly, in terms of global citizenship.

Many countries behave appallingly in this regard. Australia behaves appallingly. The US behaves appallingly. China behaves appallingly.

(I'm searching for dirt on New Zealand, but I think it might be clean.)

Yet, it's travel to Indonesia that sticks in my craw and I'm trying to work out why. Currently my theory rests on the images of paradise-like tranquility yelling to me as a lie about the "real" nature of Indonesia.

But I know that politics, economics and human rights are complicated topics, not likely effected by incidents of individual outrage and wishing the world was fair. I know that people sometimes just want somewhere quiet, warm and pretty to visit, cheaply, with their family. I know that it's easier to lie to ourselves with justifications of our actions than to actually reduce the occasional luxury we work so hard to afford.

Knowing these things don't make it better. They make it worse. Because I also know that nothing is ever improved by taking the easy route and we can't expect other people to work hard to better our world while we choose luxuries over morality.

This makes it worse because I am guilty of the same thing in other parts of my life. I don't go to Indonesia but I support other things, countries, corporations and activities that make the world worse.

I see photos of people's holidays in Bali and they remind me of all the luxuries I should go without in order to make things better for others. They remind me of how other people see the world and I wish I could see that world too, but I know it doesn't exist for me. So I suppose there's envy there too. And to be envious of a thing that repulses me so much causes me more guilt.

Enjoy your holiday. Don't get executed. Never expect justice.

Working Together

Last night I spoke at Web Directions' excellent and low-key What Do You Know (Melbourne).

This was the second of their small-scale events, designed as a launchpad for local speakers to test talk concepts in front of an audience, in preparation for a possible slot at the October event, held in Sydney's Luna Park.

I spoke about learning to be ignorant, which I think is an important step on the road to empathy.

The real delight for me, though, is seeing what other people share from the stage. Looking at their workflows, the small hacks they employ to make their lives a little better, the new technologies that they get excited about: it's the only time I hear people being optimistic about their jobs. It's uplifting. The optimism spreads through the room.

Last night I learnt more about ES6 and JavaScript Promises, and I was introduced to things I wasn't even aware of before like React, Ember and Pact.

It's just a joy to see people work with something they love and then to want to share it and get others excited.

We're all just learning. Or we're all still learning. Either way, it's really nice to know that we're all in this together.

Other People’s Success

This morning, at Creative Mornings, Poppy and Scott (from the Pop & Scott Workshop) spoke about collaboration.

They spoke with the easy-going style of the Australian surf/skate community that just makes things work and no obstacle is too grand. In other words, they are so different to so many people we come across in the creative community. It was a delight.

One of the things they mentioned was celebrating other people's success. I think this is something many of us do poorly and I think it's an attitude I'm going to try to adopt.

Success happens through, not just hard work, but a little bit of luck as well. That means it's not entirely in their control, so be happy for them because their hard work is paying off.

If they don't work hard and they still somehow manage to be successful then my challenge will be working out how to be happy for them. I might need a little bit of luck in that department myself.

Inviting Judgement

Last night I spoke at Melbourne Geek Night with a talk I've been thinking about for a long time.

"A Content-Led Destruction of Silos" sought to explore the way understanding the essence of content can help production teams work together through the design, development and testing of a new digital product.

I wasn't sure if the idea was well-formed enough to put it in front of a bunch of strangers, but I also realised that I couldn't keep putting it off. If I really wanted to discuss this idea with people, I had to be public about it. I had to invite discussion because it won't just come on its own.

The problem most people have with public speaking doesn't apply to me but after the talk I found my heart was pounding. I had the symptoms of nervousness but only once I was off the stage and back in the audience.

We are judged in so many parts of our lives that we rarely invite judgement, and we're even more rarely honest when judging ourselves.

It was only after the talk that I had the opportunity to review the talk as it exists in its real form. This is very different to reading it out loud in my lounge-room. I found myself trying to remember the audience's reaction to different points as a test of their usefulness.

In design and development we talk about testing all the time: And then we see these talks that people give: And we read these blog posts that declare the right way or the new way to do something, but we almost never stop to ask if those theories have been tested and what the conditions were for those tests.

Last night I decided to submit my own ideas to a peer review. In science this happens all the time. In science an idea doesn't even have validity until it's peer-reviewed. I was nervous afterwards because I didn't think that I passed the review but I shouldn't have concentrated on a pass or a fail. I should have just

Today, with the energy of the talk itself behind me, I'm able to evaluate the talk, not only in the way I gave it, but more importantly in the information I actually passed on to the people in the room.

I know that my first mistake was talking about the best way to do something rather than presenting my theory as opportunity for people to discuss its pros and cons. What I really wanted to do, and what I will do when I'm presenting it again, is ask people if they thought it could work.

Now I'm looking forward to the next time I give the talk. The idea of redrafting with a new context excites me. Maybe it won't even be a talk. Maybe it will be an article. What I do know is that I want to make it better and I want to make it useful to people.

Last night was the first step towards that.

Podcasts, Audiences and Australia

Yet the overall audience for podcasts is growing very slowly. In February, Edison Research reported that 17 percent of Americans had listened to one podcast in the previous month. That is up just slightly from Edison’s 2012 survey, when 14 percent of Americans had done so. The business also has some problems, including a labor-intensive ad-buying process, a shortage of audio producers and the inability to accurately measure who is listening.

"Podcasting Blossoms, but in Slow Motion"The New York Times

When I started podcasting in 2005, the number of people who knew about podcasts came much closer to 0. A couple of years ago, at a party, I still had people who asked me what a podcast was and how they could listen to what I created. They had seen my posts on Facebook about episode released and were left bemused.

With around 10% of the United States' population, Australian podcast listener numbers are much lower than their trans-Pacific cousins.

The calculation of listener numbers, as the above article states, is a very difficult proposition. Boxcutters[1] had a peak audience of somewhere between 4500 and 11 000 depending on how it was calculated. For American podcasts, advertising begins at 10 000 listeners. The people who buy advertising did not have the same calculation method as the 11 000 figure, so we never made much money.

By the end of my time at Boxcutters, I had stopped looking at the numbers. I realised one year that the number of listeners weren't as important to me as just knowing people were listening, and that those who did listen continued to do so out of enjoyment. I realised that that was why I kept coming back every week.

Podcasting in Australia survives not on money but on listener feedback. The emails and tweets we received from listeners after each episode made it worth getting into the studio the next week.

At the time of writing, seven of the top ten podcasts on the Australian iTunes store are from the US or UK. The three Australian shows are produced by the ABC. The highest rating independently produced show by an Australian is WILOSOPHY with Wil Anderson, at number 13.

Wil's other podcast, TOFOP/FOFOP is number 21 and his remain the only independently produced Australian shows in the top 40.

It's a tough market to break through and it's even tougher for independent shows. Wil has an established media career to leverage. The Gimlet Media shows mentioned in the New York Times article have the pedigrees of This American Life and NPR programs to help bring them attention. The first episode of Gimlet's first show, Start Up was featured in an episode of This American Life, and you really can't ask for a better boost than that.

I could go on about this but you get the point. It's a disheartening climate for the independent podcast producer.

And yet, I keep doing it. I can't not do it. I found my medium and I love it. It gives me an opportunity to keep learning and finding out about the world and what I personally can do if I put my mind to it.

In creating podcasts I found what I was always looking for during my years of radio. I'll probably never produce something to knock the ABC or Hamish and Andy out of the top spot in Australian podcasting, but as long as I keep producing things I'm proud of, the numbers will continue to not matter.

  1. Boxcutters was podcast about television that I stopped producing in 2013, after eight years of almost weekly releases. Only 14 episodes of Boxcutters were released after I left. Creating a listenable and regular podcast is a lot of work and it takes a passionate team to keep it up. Without that support it's almost impossible to keep a non-financial enterprise going. I'm sure there's another blog post about that.  ↩

Starting with Yes

I say 'no' all the time.

Well, not all the time, but definitely too often. It's a problem but it's part of my job.

A lot of my job, which remains difficult to explain, is to work out whether or not a solution to a problem will work.

Solutions are not binary. They exist with nuances and, similarly, do not succeed or fail outright.

So why do I say "no" when a solution is presented to me and I can automatically see a problem?

When I respond with an instant negative it does a few things. One of them is to obviously display that I recognise an issue with the proposal. But another, and probably the more important, is that it offends the proposer.

By offending the proposed of the solution I'm reducing my chances of having her come to me with a future solution. I might also be making her question her own judgement in these matters. I might also just come out of the whole situation looking like a know-it-all arsehole.

I fear I have come across as a know-it-all arsehole too often in the past.

My intention with saying "no" is just to make people aware that there are more problems with this solution and that it's not good enough to move onto whatever the next stage is.

But what if I say "yes"? Can I be encouraging while also expressing the issues I have with the idea? Of course I can.

And yet I don't. I want to. It's a tough habit to break.

I want to start with "yes" and see where it gets me. It might take a bit longer, but maybe the solution we reach together, through a series of positive statements, is stronger than the one attacked with negativity to test its resilience.


There's no trick. There's no magic. It's all hard and the only thing that gets me through is hard work.

The terrifying monster that wants to stop me from achieving anything appears as a sense of burden, a feeling that nothing is ever achievable. It shows me video footage of Sisyphus with my face superimposed on his body, and then it laughs at me.

I only have one defence against this beast: Planning.

Actually there are two defences. The other one is resignation. It's a lot easier but much less satisfying.

Resignation doesn't keep me alive. Planning does.

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