Sunday, February 7, 2016

How Mindsets can Help or Hinder Learning (Book Review)

It was inevitable that I would read Mindset. Having recently read two books Give and Take by Adam Grant, and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough) which referenced this book, and having heard mention of it in other contexts as well. As promised on the cover, Mindset provides advice that you can apply whether you are a manager, worker, parent, teacher, or some combination. Carol Dweck does a great job of explaining an idea with a lot of research behind it in a popular book, without glossing over too many points. There were a few places where I thought the book dragged a bit, but those sections were brief and far between, and on net it was a quick enjoyable read.

The point of Mindset is that people have one or two mindsets: fixed mindset which is premised on the idea that you abilities and qualities are carved in stone, and the growth mindset which is based on the belief that your basic qualities are cultivated through effort. The 2 mindsets in Dweck’s model provide a powerful framework for understanding how people approach challenges. Those who approach situations with a fixed mindset are likely to see failure as a reflection of their value. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to see a set back as an opportunity to learn and improve.

People can have different mindsets in different aspects of their lives (work, relationships, artistic, technical). Dweck also explains that mindsets are “just beliefs” so you can change them if you want. Mindsets are not just a way people are. From the names you can guess that the growth mindset is the one that can lead you to better things. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the discussions about you can develop (in your self) and nurture (in others) a growth mindset.

While the fixed mindset v growth mindset concept seems simplistic at first glance, it is seems extremely powerful. While reading I found myself thinking “so maybe that is why I do that…” or “maybe I should consider the mindset model when dealing with a colleague.” Since the book wraps up with a focus on education, it led me to consider my approach to encouraging an motivating my (as I write this) third grader .

Since mindsets are not innate, one might ask why anyone would stay in a fixed mindset. The discusson of why that happens lie the most interesting lessons for self-improvement. Your mindset can be re-enforced early in life, and like all things that connect back to childhood experiences, the messages you get early in life are hard to get past, even if they are slowing you down. Dweck shares both data and anecdotes of how various mentors tried to help students ended up moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, with various degrees of success. That all of the stories are not “fairy tale” success stories grounds the concepts in reality. All change is hard, and not everyone can success absolutely. But you can benefit from trying.

Dweck discusses the application of mindsets in many realms, including business, relationships, and education. The book ends with an explanation of a program for elementary schools to help develop growth mindsets, which is appropriate given the focus of Dweck’s research and the value of improving mindset early on. The area that is most interesting to me professionally is how the mindset model relates to leadership approaches.

We often think of leaders in terms of raw ‘talent’ … and that “effort” is for those who don’t have talent. In reality it takes both effort and talent to be continually successful. Dweck explains that more often than not great leaders are the people who were constantly trying to improve, and who don’t have all the right answers starting out. What leads to success is willingness to make a effort to improve. Raw talent helps, to be sure, but it can’t sustain success.

One thing that the book didn’t address for me, though perhaps the answer is obvious, is the question of sustainability. If a growth mindset is good, and is all about meeting challenges, would a growth mindset lead to you overextend your self? Is what we might call “knowing your limits” a manifestation of a fixed mindset? I suspect that the answer is no. There’s a difference between having a perspective that obstacles can be overcome, and having the energy or bandwidth to meet all challenges head on.

There are number of lessons I felt that I could apply immediately to understanding my personal life, helping my (as I write this) third grader, and understanding how to work with teams and people at work. Mindset can inspire you to meet challenges with more confidence, and help you to better understand your interactions with others.

Books mentioned in this article:

Monday, February 1, 2016

Team of Teams: An Unexpected Source of Agile Inspiration

One can find insight in unexpected places. Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal et al is a book about dealing with organizational complexity, written by a general, which uses the war against Al Queda as a common thread. I was somewhat skeptical that I could find information here about software teams that I'd find immediately useful, regardless of how interesting it was. I was wrong. In addition to the advice I was expecting to read about team dynamics, I gained some insights that I thought would be immediately applicable to scaling Scrum Teams.

Fairly early into Team of Teams the authors explain that this is not a war story. While it's true that the common thread in the book is how General McChrystal worked to get the army more able to adapt to a decentralized, agile enemy, there are are also stories from commercial aviation, NASA, and corporate America. While there is a fair amount of military history in this book, there is also a discussion of the history of manufacturing process improvement, office space, and even personal stories about gardening.

The message in this book is that command and control structures don't work in complicated, information rich environments that deal with complex problems. He defines complicated as "having many parts" and complex as having many interactions. To get things done in this kind of environment you many need to cast aside what you are used to thinking of an efficient approach.

McChrystal draws a contrast between being resilient and being robust: The more you optimize a complexy system for a specific goal, the less resilient it becomes. Likewise efficiency isn't always better than adaptabilty: you can build a system that is good at doing things right, but is too inflexible to do the right thing. Redundancy and overlap can enable adaptability; an efficient system that does the wrong thing doesn't add value.

Had McChrystal been delivering this message in the context of a corporate enviroment, you might dismiss this as another instance of someone who is in an environment suitable for agile singing the praises of agility. That he's talking about battle command situations, the canonical top-down environment, gets your attention. As with Turn the Ship Around this provides evidence that an "agile" approach can work in more circumstances than you might guess.

At the core of the book is the philosophy that too much control of information and decision making slows down a group's ability to react to situations. The situations described in the book were ones where the risks of acting too slowly are higher than the risks of competent peope making judgment calls. Automomous decisions are usually good as long as they are visible and shared. While most business decisions don't have the same life or death implications of those made in a war zone, slow decision making can have a business cost, and potentially a morale cost if people feel undervalued and micromanaged.

McChrystal advises us that it's not enough to "empower" people in name only. Automony and delegation only work with a clear understanding of a common purpose. Communication channels and shared information are important to both sharing the common purpose and giving people the tools to act in a manner consistent with that purpose. One technique he used was to provide for open office spaces. McChrystal acknowledges that open office space only improves team productivity when everyone is working on related problems, and that open office space as a way to be "space efficient" is productivity inefficient. Video conferencing for his troops was also important, as his teams needed to communicate with others in remote places. As someone who works in a company with people in multiple locations, the stories of the challenges of setting up video conferencing sounded all too familiar. That they were successful in a low bandwidth war zone situation was encouraging.

The book also had some insights about scaling teams that had an implication for scaling Scrum. While it's appealing to think of projects at scale as hierarchical, each level of hierarchy hides information. That can be fine when everyone knows what other teams need to know and not know. But that kind of knowledge is rare. McChrystal's approach to scaling is that everyone needs to know someone on every team so that information will flow organically.

I found both inspiration for seeking ways to improve, and practical advice about how to structure teams and be an effective manager in this book. While not about agile per-se, I think that there are lessons here that apply to those trying encourage agile adoption in a non-agile situation, and also for those looking to scale agile.

Lessons in Change from the Classroom

This is adapted from a story I shared at the Fearless Change Campfire on 22 Sep 2023 I’ve always been someone to ask questions about id...