Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!

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Summary:

Maybe you're the kind of person who attacks a problem as soon as it crops up. Many times, it's good to act fast. But for a different point of view, read this week's column by Don Gray, who advises us to "take ten" and evaluate a situation before making a response.

I remember when I first started solving problems for a living. I would leap down the stairs three at a time, race to the computer room, and stare at the line printer (yes, it was that long ago) trying to determine what had happened, and what to do about it. I couldn't possibly slow down. I had to "Just Do It!" They were depending on me. Of course, by the time I was notified, the problem had already happened, and there wasn't anything I could do to turn back the hands of time. So eventually, I went down the stairs one at a time, walked to the computer, and was calm and composed when I started investigating the problem.

Now that I spend time working with people, the habit of "Don't Just Do Something, Stand There" serves me well. But for me, "standing there" is an active event. I use this time to determine what is happening, how it is happening, and the best course of action before diving in. To help me with this effort, I use the following techniques:

Gather Some Information
The first activity is gathering information. Asking open-ended questions keeps me involved in what's happening while I'm standing there. Three of my favorite questions are:

  1. How did you (we) come to be here?
  2. How do you feel about it?
  3. What would you like to have happen?

These questions can be answered on many levels. You might hear the history of actions. Maybe you'll hear about the decisions and personalities involved. Another possible response is a story of emotional highs and lows. The response you get will tell you about the corporate culture. Superficial responses indicate a closed culture that doesn't tolerate free thinking very well. An open, honest, well-balanced response indicates a safe culture where individuals are encouraged to think and speak freely.

As I gather information, I try to use as many of my senses as possible. As I listen, I watch and see if the body language, facial expressions, and setting agree with the words. Is the information coherent? Do I have enough information, or do I need more? Common problems with information gathering involve getting too little information or getting too much.

Decide What the Information Means
The next activity as I stand there is to figure out what the information I've gathered means. It's probable that the message I've received is not exactly the message that was sent. This is because, as Bandler and Grinder said in The Structure of Magic, "there is an irreducible difference between the world and our experience of it. We as human beings do not operate directly on the world. Each of us creates a representation of the world in which we live, that is, we create a map or model which we use to generate our behavior."
In other words, there is always some interpretation going on.

To help improve the odds of getting the right message, I like to use Jerry Weinberg's Rule of Three. The Rule of Three states: "If I can't think of at least three different interpretations of what I received, I haven't thought enough about what it might mean." Then of the three, I can select the interpretation that seems to best fit the situation at hand.

For example, in reviewing project progress, I sometimes hear, "I thought you were going to do that." Three possible interpretations (among many others) might be:

  1. It wasn't clear who was going to do this task.
  2. You're right, I'm wrong, and I'll get right on it!
  3. I am a bad person because I didn't do

About the author

Don Gray's picture Don Gray

Don Gray’s goal to answer “What is the earliest indicator for a project’s status?” has led him to focus on such diverse topics as communication, personality types, team styles, systems thinking and human systems dynamics. Don’s varied interests and client experience provides a platform for helping clients introduce and work through change as they transition to agile development practices.  His blog can be found at www.donaldegray.com. Don helped create and co-Hosts the AYE Conference.

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