A private note from GeePaw Hill, and a tweet from Brian Marick inspire me to mumble a bit about mindfulness and collaboration.

Responding to my note on collaboration and the Increment, GeePaw asked privately whether, perhaps, mindfulness, upon which many of my thoughts on learning rely, might be something we assume but can’t really depend on.

In a tweet, Brian Marick referred to the possible origins of Agile’s well-known focus on face to face conversation over the written.

Neither of these fine gentlemen is in any way to blame for what follows.

No Mind, No Learning

I replied affirmatively to GeePaw’s question. Certainly, if people do not think about something, they’re unlikely to learn much about it. It has always been my practice to wonder about what the heck is going on, and to think about and study the underpinnings of ideas, to observe what happens if we fiddle this or that aspect of what’s going on. I wouldn’t say I’ve done that in any marvelously scientific way, but I’ve always studied programming in general while doing programming in the specific, management in general while doing management, and so on. I think about what I’ve been doing, and what happened, and try to figure out how to get more of what I like and less of what I don’t like.

Take TDD and refactoring, for example. I don’t just write the next test that comes to mind and make it run. I also think about how hard it was to write the test and try to figure out what about the idea, or what about the existing code, made that test hard to write. I think about how hard it was to make it work, and what that tells me about the code, or my understanding. When I refactor to make the code better, I relate the changes I make to Beck’s four rules, or to other principles of design.

So I’m always both thinking, and meta-thinking, about my work. As GeePaw’s question suggests, if I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t learn as much about what goes on inside a “process” like TDD/refactoring or Scrum or XP or whatever. That would equip me less well to make decisions. It would equip me less well to make suggestions or to solve problems as they arise.

So, yes, mindfulness is critical, and if one doesn’t have that habit, well, I guess one isn’t going to learn so much.

I’m not at all sure what to do about that, so I’ll move on to Brian’s thought, which I see as connected, both to the notion of collaboration we were talking about, and to the question of mindfulness.

Collaboration vs Documentation

GeePaw calls for what I’m starting to call Radical Collaboration. Agile calls for Radical Collaboration. I mean seriously, “business people and developers must work together daily”? That’s crazy talk! Why do we ask that? Why isn’t comprehensive documentation enough?

I put it this way in a reply to Brian’s tweet:

I believed, then and now, that it was because I can only write down p% of what I think and you can only get q% of what I write, and what you need to know is often in the (1 - p*q) part. When we talk, your questions, and even your statements, change what I say.

We collaborate in an attempt to become “of one mind” about what we’re trying to do. The better a developer understands the business need, the better job they’ll do building the software. The better a Product Champion understands the realities of development, the better they’ll be able to shape the ideas and questions that the developers need to solve.

And remember that GeePaw calls for deep trust among the Makers, and he’s right to do so. Trust comes from long, intimate, truthful sharing of ideas, hopes, dreams, understandings and all that jazz.

When The Authors wrote the Agile Manifesto as I watched, we focused so hard on individuals, interactions, working together, because we had all had times of marvelous mind-meld level collaboration and we knew that it was many times more powerful than the mechanical document-driven processes of that day and age.

(And, unfortunately, the still largely mechanical execution of frameworks like Scrum and SAFe, Lo! these many years later.)

We knew that working effectively together gave us the best chance of success that we knew how to get. We all knew that talking with someone worked better in person than on the phone, that that was better than sending them an email, that that was better than writing them a memo, and that was better than telling them to read your book.

So intense collaboration is critical to communication, and to success, and we’ve been saying that for over two decades now.

How do these two ideas come together, if they do?

Reflection – Retrospectives

The practice of Retrospectives is common to most “Agile” approaches, and in my view, the people who suggest that they work so closely together as not to need them may be mistaken. The Retrospective is a special opportunity to look back over the recent past and think a bit more globally about it. We think about what happened, how it went, why it may have gone that way, how we might improve.

And we do that, in a formal Retrospective at least, together, collaborating.

In our talk “Twelve”, at a recent conference1, Chet and I generalized the notion of a planning session at the beginning of a Sprint, and a Review and Retrospective at the end, to a general notion of an “Opening Bracket” and “Closing Bracket” around any bit of our process where a feedback loop could arise, from project inception / end, down to writing a test and seeing it run. Whenever a cycle ends, there’s an opportunity to reflect on what happened, and to think about what it all means and what we might do better next time.

When we think of making moments for reflection at all scales, we create what we might think of as milli- and micro-retrospectives. Usually these will involve more than one person: the mob, the pair partner, the three people in a meeting. Sometimes it will just be ourselves, thinking at the end of writing an article “What would have made that go better?”

And that, my friends, is mindfulness in action. When there’s more than one person involved, Radical Collaboration combined with the practice of reflection on what just happened in the time bracket, creates mindfulness. When you’re on your own, collaboration won’t help, unless you have more than one personality, but the habits of reflecting will probably carry over to your private moments as well as your public ones.

If you’re like me, they’ll carry over readily, because I’m always at least somewhat worrying about what could have gone better, and the notion of treating those thoughts as opportunity for understanding and improvement is a very strong move.


Radical Collaboration, Opening and Closing Time for Reflection, Mindfulness.

They all go together, it seems to me.

Thanks for tuning in.

  1. I’ll write that up one of these days. Basically, “Turn all the XP Dials up to Twelve, not just Eleven.”