Beginners’ Patterns are generally ineffective for delivery, but excellent for learning, and building a foundation for far more effective ones. Leapfrogging the beginners’ patterns for evolved ones is rarely effective for building a sustainable capability.

Let's Start At The Very Beginning...

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning…

Much of my work is with large organisations who are fairly new to Lean and Agile ways of working. I spend a lot of time introducing very basic practises such as estimating with StoryPoints (and now I think about it, many other Scrum fundamentals), and working with delivery cadences that are measured in weeks and months, not days and weeks.

Often a response I get from fellow coaches is one of disdain: You’re not still teaching that old nonsense? $MyFavouritePractise is much more effective!. And that may be true – $MyFavouritePractise may indeed be a more effective at delivering higher quality code at a greater rate, better attuned to business value.

Although this is not intended to be a SAFe-boosting article, I hear this thinking absolutely embodied in many criticisms of SAFe: It’s Not As Agile (read: “rubbish”) compared to our $SuperDuperPractises. It’s slow, unresponsive and frankly we’ve moved on from most of those ways of working.

In my most recent Leading SAFe training, experienced Lean/Agile practitioners who I respect greatly in their experience and abilities were shaking their heads and not seeing the value of learning Scrum basics. This just tells me that I failed in my intent – to show them Agile through the eyes of someone new to it.

But this fails to appreciate that in a Lean/Agile transformation, we’re doing two things: yes, of course, we are delivering. And showing that Lean/Agile delivery is better than other ways of working. But we’re also dealing with learning journeys, and often with people who have deeply embedded knowledge and beliefs about how delivery should work.

We’ve all already been through that journey, and regularly suffer the Curse of Knowledge, forgetting what it is to not know.

Despite being very aware and vocal about the risks of recipe thinking, and forcing learning, we fail to see the tendency in ourselves, and keep trying to guide others through accelerated paths to our level of enlightenment. We keep thinking in push mentality: what people need to be taught to pass an imaginary threshold and be accepted as ‘True Agile’, rather than what they need to take them the next step in their journey towards better.

We want our customers to accept our methods, and bask in the reflected glory that we’ve got our customers to see the light. In doing so, we consider our needs before those of the people we seek to help.

The Curse of Knowledge means we dismiss the learning journey that we went on, and deny it to those we seek to help. While it took us years to get where we are now, we are delusional in thinking we can short cut that journey in customers by starting them with highly powerful advanced practises.

So for example, while near any delivery will hugely benefit from starting with TDD, test automation and DevOps from Day 1, I’m far from convinced that that’s an effective way to embed them as standard practises in an organisation. They are always open to but this is more work challenges, and unless you’ve been through the pain of technical debt, refactoring and increasing regression burden without it, and then tried to retrospectively introduce it to an existing (and still running) team, and argued for a refactoring sprint (or 5) with assertive Product Owners, you won’t truly learn the benefit.

So yes, I teach beginners’ patterns to beginners. And I know that those patterns are basic, and less effective than more advanced ones for delivery. But it’s in practising those beginners’ patterns, those oversimplified heuristics, that old mindsets are unlearned, that habits are laid down that will serve as the foundation for learning and implementing better patterns.

This is hard work for a coach. It’s hard to work past the Curse of Knowledge. It’s hard to sit in a planning meeting and not think in frustration If only I had half a dozen GOOD people rather than these ten, we could do this with twice the quality in half the time (or at least, to keep that thought inside your head). I would be lying if I said I’d never done that, or tried to unfairly accelerate that.

It takes huge empathy and patience to appreciate that you have good people. Inexperienced, perhaps, but good. And with time and the right learning experiences, they too will be the superstars you’re imagining. After all, don’t we believe in the Growth Mindset? That people are adaptable and defined by their actions and willingness to learn, not their inherent talent?

Further, it takes respect to ensure that they take their learning journey to their maturity, not leapfrogging to yours.

A key skill for coaches is to put themselves in the shoes of those you are coaching, with their existing skill and experience, and to do so absolutely without judgement or criticism of them.

A key capability for a learning organisation with a wide range of knowledge is allowing Curse of Knowledge failures to escape safely – to forgive them and do no harm.


Many thanks to Marc Johnson and Neil Killick for the conversation that prompted this.

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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Beginners’ Patterns: Coaching with Empathy, Patience and Respect by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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