Edele Gormley

The Why Question

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“Value” might be an overused word amongst us Agile folks, but it’s a very important one. It helps to keep us focussed on the goal of particular exercises or rituals. Over the years I’ve observed people going through the motions for the sake of it—teams having a Daily Scrum just because “the Scrum Guide says to” without really understanding the aim of it, or performing another mindless retrospective, sprint after sprint, without taking learnings from previous sessions. And it’s not just Scrum, and it’s not just teams—I’ve seen Agile Coaches and Trainers just as guilty of doing it.

Recently, I observed a trainer facilitating the Marshmallow Challenge with a group of people. For those of you who don’t know, this involves using marshmallows, spaghetti, string and tape, performed in groups of 3-4 who are tasked with building the tallest free-standing structure out of the materials in 18 minutes, with one marshmallow at the top. What I observed in this session, however, was rather than working together to get the most out of this team building exercise, the Trainer instructed the individuals to go through the exercise alone. It was clear that neither the Trainer nor the participants had thought about the point of doing this exercise in this context, and couldn’t glean any real learnings to build upon.

Taken in a completely different context, consider a new school Principal, who, upon joining the school, is shocked at the expenditure of the canteen. Upon visiting the canteen, he notices that each day the cooks make two vats of custard that noone ever orders, and then are simply thrown away at the end of the day. When questioned, the cooks simply answered “but that’s the way we’ve always done it!”

Too often we get caught up with what’s fun, or what’s the norm. We do things because we’ve observed it at a meetup, read about it and thought it sounded cool, or simply because a process says we need it. All of that loses meaning if we don’t know what the goal is, if we don’t challenge ourselves with the “why?” question.

So what can we do?

good question by e-magic, on Flickr
"good question" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by e-magic

Ask questions. Of yourself, as well as of others. If you are a team coach and you observe people going through the motions and getting little value, question them. Why do you think we’re having this meeting? Do you find it valuable? What can we change? After all, providing value for the team is how we as coaches provide value.

Similarly, if you’re wanting to engage in something like physical team building activities, or Lego serious play, ask yourself, “What is the key thing I want the participants to come away from this with?”. If the tool doesn’t enable you to reach that goal, choose something else. Think of the participants - are they introverted, extroverted, a mixture? Will the extroverts dominate the session and leave the more introverted people feeling like they didn’t get a chance? I identify more as an introvert, and sometimes find “forced fun” in the workplace tiring, especially if it doesn’t have a point. Make it worthwhile. Get your goals. Ask questions. If you’re facilitating a more fun or physical session, ask the participants during the exercise “what are you learning that you can take back to your normal activities?”, or “why do you think I chose this exercise for you now?”.

Because without being able to meaningfully answer the “why are we doing X?” questions, you’re just putting on a theatre show.