A few weeks ago I had the privilege to attend the Scrum Alliance global gathering in Austin, Texas, where one of my Agile idols, Dan Pink (author of one of my favourite books, Drive) gave a very interesting talk about the importance of timing and the implications it has on morale and people. And then I started applying subconsciously this concept in my mind… when people (and this includes myself sometimes!) lose the momentum and go into auto-pilot when problems emerge. I call this Escalation by default.
Dan Pink is a really sound man; if you have not read Drive, a profound and thoughtful study about the very concept of motivation, then you should do it right away. But his speech at the Scrum Alliance was a different one: the importance of timing and the syncing about individuals.
The concept (all based on Dan’s words, not my own thoughts!)
We, as individuals, have a natural tendency to discuss similar questions and topics and all relevant midpoints but rarely sync up in a coordinated way. And this is a common problem we normally do not stop to think about: The very concept of timing is about making the right decisions at the right time. This is pure science and require evidence, not gut feel. Ask yourself: when are you most creative, most analytical?
This is why we build routines that fit our own personalities; why we choose to go to the gym in the morning instead of the evening, why we book appointments at specific times of the day (like a doctor appointment), why we try and avoid unnecessary stress by avoiding rush hour when possible, and a very, very long etcetera. Our very lives and smallest decisions are based on timing and optimisation.
Timing has beginnings, midpoints and endings. Each one represents a very specific feeling and opportunity. Beginnings, in brief, are the exciting moment where we decide to execute an opportunity. This can be applied to literally everything.
Midpoints are interesting, as they raise what’s called the uh-oh effect where we tend to question the very existence and success of whatever’s happening. Let’s apply it to life itself and we can talk about the mid-life crisis. Scientifically, that doesn’t exist. But there’s a pattern indicating that, indeed, something is going on regardless of religion, gender, race, etc. Something ever happens in the middle of a process. There’s a transition.
The lesson to learn about midpoints is that we need to be aware of them and use them to wake up rather than roll over. Being slightly behind at midpoints will increase our chances of winning. We will focus in getting better. Will change our behaviour.
Endings, however, imply a different opportunity. Endings define the whole journey. This one might have been tough, but if successful no one will really care about the struggles. Endings can also be disappointing even if the journey has been exceptional (did anyone say Game of thrones?). Endings determine massively how things will be remembered.
Endings help us energise, encode and elevate. When we have good and bad news, we should always start with the bad ones as we naturally prefer endings that will elevate us.
My takeaway applied to my working routine
This concept of timing can be applied to something as large as the very meaning of our lives and the decisions we make throughout all of our journey, or something as tiny as deciding to have a cup of coffee. It doesn’t matter, the pattern is always the same. Are we conscious of the choice of timing we use for all we do, especially in the workplace?
My job as a Release Train Engineer requires a massive amount of concentration and resourcefulness. There are things going on constantly that affect many of my colleagues, and it is my primary responsibility to find a way forward to all of them. The problem is: it’s easy to lose focus. Very easy. And it isn’t something I cannot afford; not for myself, but for the wellbeing of my people. This is always my primary focus, despite I need to take care of my psychological safety as well.
I will not go into the specifics of the situation, but a few days ago I got invited (=forced) into an impromptu meeting about something critical that had happened. The invite did not have lots of details; and what’s even worse, I had no idea what the person who invited me was talking about. This meeting would happen hours later, so I had some hours to investigate where all this came from.
My team had no idea what was going on either, but we all started asking and investigating with the points of contact we had at our disposal. Yes, something had happened, but it was unrelated to them. We spent some time questioning whether there was something we did wrong… but no. It was not the case. But it brought a sense of discomfort and stress that was definitely not needed.
The meeting happened, and I could comfort the person who had organised it with the facts we had gathered. The issue, which was promptly dealt with by the team that had the power to make it happen, dealt with it and problem solved.
But, to me, this is a good example of really terrible timing. And this is not on a specific person being terribly reactive, but a cultural problem. Being reactive and asking for explanations without context is extremely dangerous for this already mentioned psychological safety of the teams. And this might be possible to avoid at local level, but what happens when a company is so big, so geographically dispersed, with so many different mindsets in place, and such a different sense and perception of what a good working culture looks like? It’s just the very definition of chaos.
My attitude towards almost everything (work wise) is to calm down and analyse the facts or wait till the moment to intervene is truly at hand. My motto: don’t speak if you cannot improve silence. But, sometimes, my silence can be interpreted as laziness or disengagement. Obviously, only by those that demand an equally reactive behaviour as themselves. And this is damaging even if do not look for it. Don’t get me wrong: some people are indeed naturally passive in a negative way, but it is tricky to distinguish between both.
I do not believe in the escalation by default approach for several reasons, all of then related to the effect in the timing.
- A constant escalation means… no escalation. It’s business as usual. The effect of escalation loses its value completely. Not to mention the credibility of those who escalate by default.
- An escalation means immediate disruption to a team, with the consequent increase in stress, loss of focus in their task, and a very serious threat of disengagement and anger. Escalations are necessary only when they’re actually critical and analysed with proof. No team in their right mind will turn their heads away.
- After an escalation, there is a recovery times for the team. This time, effectively, is a massive loss in the opportunity of value. No team can go right back to work. It just doesn’t happen.
- A project with escalations will alter the concept of midpoints and endings. The work will be badly remembered, and will also imply a toll in the midpoint, including resignations.
Yes, Dan Pink is right. Timing is something we all need to have into consideration when we are about to unleash an action. We need to look at the big picture and ask ourselves: is this the right moment to act?. That is why I never reply an email outside office hours (reading them is my choice, replying them too), why I take my time to think before I reply in a conversation, why I keep a low profile in most of my interactions that imply transactions on a professional activity.
Because my timing could change everything: make someone’s day miserable or great. I choose the second.