How small barriers suck the life and gumption out of cross-skilling your Agile team (or, why we need to fix the small stuff).
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Cultivate the right mindset: get on with what needs to be done, inspect your work and adapt your process, select the highest value work and try your hand at any skills to reach the outcomes desired.
All good stuff, and of course we want all our people practicing this wisdom, but the reality of moving outside your usual skill set is fraught with politics, impediments, blocks and barriers that are likely to evaporate the pool of enthusiasm you have cultivated.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, there is a long discourse on the role of gumption when maintaining your cycle. “A person filled with Gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s Gumption.”
Gumption is resilience to failure. It’s the spirit of motivation. It’s what the Greeks called enthusiasmos and it’s where we get our enthusiasm. To do a good job, to strive for the best quality and to always want to do better, requires us to be filled with gumption and retain that gumption when all around has gone bad.
But gumption is fragile. When maintaining a motorcycle, it’s said that the wrong part, or a shredded thread, or just bad lighting can suck gumption from a mechanic like a hole can drain a bathtub. In Software Development, we all know this to be true, even if we have never fixed a motorcycle. We know that twenty minutes waiting to talk to the IT helpline will likely set us up for a bad morning. We know that five minutes waiting to log on when we only want to check our calendar can drive us to a cake at the coffee cart. And we know that waiting days for security passes to essential information will have us trawling the job sites (if we have access).
We put up with this sort of carry on when we know it’s a one-time thing – like when we first arrive at a new job – but when we are asked to be crossed-skilled and try our hand at anything, we make an initial effort but soon give up roving outside our main role because it’s just too hard.
As a team leader, I recently tried my hand at software development – not such a stretch as you might imagine, I have a background in coding going back many years. The enterprise encourages this sort of thing and even allows the staff to use Wednesday afternoons to pursue innovation and improvements to the way they work.
The barriers to success were numerous, annoying and gumption sucking. First I was unable to download the right coding tools. Then access to the repository (wherein resided the correct coding tools) was restricted. Then I couldn’t install said coding tools because I don’t by default have access to my PCs main drive – you get the picture? Already I am one Wednesday down, and I’ve not started.
On the following Wednesday, it was back to the drawing board. Where did my access requests get to? Have I been granted privileges? What was I doing? Oh yea, I was trying to install the code editor…where did that get to? Crikey, what was it I was trying to do, again?
Many of the staff have been filled with gumption by leaders and inspirational speakers wielding “just go for it” presentations, only to face these type of problems. Worse still, some staff knew this would be the case and didn’t even bother starting. For those that do, slowly, but surely, gumption is sucked out. And when gumption goes, so goes innovation.
Robert Pirsig puts it like this, “If you are going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven’t got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away because they won’t do you any good.”
So what’s the solution? Before instilling the desire you must first allow the desire to be fulfilled. The landscape is born well before visitors can arrive, and you cannot expect most of the staff in large enterprises to be trail blazers to a promised land when they have neither the desire nor the tools to make the journey. In the words of Kevin Costner, if you build it, they will come, and an enterprise must remove barriers between the usual roles so that cross-skilling is a smooth glide not an arduous, never-ending journey.
Eliminate those annoying barriers first. Then good things will happen.
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