Confounding expectations

Photo by Ralph MoorhouseSometimes, if you make a dramatic shift in a situation then you can get great results. I experienced two examples of this in the last few days.

First, SPA 2013, a conference for software practitioners, which I referenced briefly last week. It included a number of sessions that involved coding, and I found it remarkable that pair programming was considered the norm. Finding a coding partner at the start of any exercise wasn’t mentioned explicitly; people just did it, and did so enthusiastically. Since I typically work with organisations that are transitioning to this state, and in which the practice is often questioned, it was wonderfully refreshing. Even with the mix of very experienced developers and less experienced ones, everyone thought pairing was worth their time.

Second, a hack day at an organisation I’m working with today. This is a real working environment, where software engineers need to produce production-grade software against the usual business pressures. Work is analysed, broken down, prioritised and tracked. Teams typically work on familiar technologies. Scope for experimentation exists, but is necessarily pragmatism. Then the hack day happened: 24 hours to do something interesting, a couple of minutes to demo it…

What I saw was very exciting. Yes, I’ve had that experience before, but it still amazes me. Some examples:

  • One team developed a simple Android app, having never had a project like that before. A demonstration of people so enthusiastic about their trade that they are actively, and quietly, exploring it in their own time.
  • One team showed a code analysis tool, demonstrating thinking and expectations beyond their day to day work.
  • A third team looked at their forthcoming project—about 3 months’ worth of work—and implemented the key deliverable inside the 24 hour timeframe. Their product owner was “speechless”. It was a fantastic demonstration of how freeing up your thinking (in this case freedom from the usual process) can pull out the core value at minimal cost.

Environment changes always need to be handled with care, and in both these examples the environment changes were short term. But they both provided a hugely valuable reminder that if you give people great opportunities then they can easily exceed expectations.