Tuesday, August 26, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #13 of 17:
Channeling Pressure to Ease Pressure  

Most "managers" facilitating Agile projects have a classic Baseball problem: Resolving the intrinsic pressure by either deflecting too little of it or too much of it. That's a classic Binary Thinking Trap, one of the most common weaknesses of American managers. Again, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa has already developed a theory of Agile action you can tap into. It requires understanding and lots of practice, but I think it works better for finding the guts one needs to be successful at Agile than any other I've been exposed to. And the craziest thing about this technioque applied to Agile is that it seems contradictory.

Contradictory, because most think of Agile, properly, as being all about stripping out process to focus on results/outcome, and this Agile technique is one La Russa calls "Win through process".

We spend a lot of ergs as Agile team Coaches or Scrum Masters creating "just enough" of any attribute, investing energy to find the ideal balance between imposing and passivity on myriad dimensions. But it's been my observation that one of the hardest "just enoughs" is just enough PRESSURE.

In my experience helping PMs and coaches, it's been more common for me to find otherwise-talented managers of time and action to fail to sufficiently absorb the pressure from above and instead just push it on down the org chart. That almost never helps the team members OR the project OR the from aboves who want the pressure they expend to deliver benefits.

But the other end of the continuum, applying close to zero pressure, is equally underachieving as a setting. I know...when I started, I just presumed everyone worked as hard as she was able with the project's end goals and objectives at the forefront. That was, more frequently than I would have guessed, not true for the teams I worked with. Further, even when the team was successful at self-managing and self-pacing, most projects, even the best ones, have pressure moments where one or more of the team members have to find a way to break a creative or efficiency ceiling that retards the overall project.

To optimize the team, you have to help them by pressuring them, but not for the hell of it or because management wants you to, but because only when pressure feels normal and manageable can team members harness it to achieve and not suffer from it.

Baseball in general, but Tony La Russa specifically, has been a crucible for finding that Agile balance, and there is no shortage of useful practical lessons to document from La Russa's Hall of Fame winning career.

How does he right-size the pressure pile?

By chronically exposing his team to it so when the most vital moments come at them, they know how to use the external pressure as a force they can use. He describes this process in his recent book, One Last Strike (p. 140-143). He's describing a September game against the Atlanta Braves; Tony's Cardinals are 7-1/2 games behind the Braves for a playoff spot with only 19 games to play (a very very long shot to catch them). The game they're in is a must-win, as is every game at this point. They are going into the bottom of the 9th inning, training 3 - 1.

Rookies can be a blessing or a curse, and for the Braves {snip} their rookie closer Craig Kimbrel had been the former. He'd converted 25 straight save chances, and he took the mound against us looking for number 26. Sometimes rookies are good because they are, in a sense, clueless. Too young and inexperienced to feel the pressure.

This very point is true in many cases for programmers inexperienced with Agile ("Rookies"). If they've come from a rigidly-structured waterfall environment, they frequently expect things to work in a way that keeps the pressure off them until the end (and, of course, they equally expect all the flying monkeys wilding anyway, though with pressure more on management than on them).

In this 9th inning, there's a lead-off single, a fielder's choice and a strikeout, with the result that there's a runner on first and two outs.

...we were down to one final chance, down to our last out. Then the curse of being a rookie kicked in. That's too harsh actually -- the unexpected happens to veterans, to. Needing just one more out to close the deal and put a serious dent in our hopes, Kimbrel walked (Rafael) Furcal on four straight pitches.

Interesting. Tying runs now on base. {snip}

That feeling, that sense that something was about to break our way, sat in the pit of my stomach like a bubble inflating. It's more fun to believe than to doubt.

No kidding, and here's one of the main cognitive continental divides between non-Agile and Agile coaches/PMs. Because the non-Agile PMs are trained to believe that doubt or fear is the default stance, the one to live in. If you're open to printing an epigramme as a sign and displaying it facing people beyond the team, you can't do much better than this one.

So runners on 1st and 2nd bases. Kimbrel walks the next batter on five pitches...bases loaded, two outs, perhaps the most inflective inflection point in any sport. And now we'll get to the poster child for channeling pressure to ease pressure...

Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, two outs -- suddenly, who do we have coming up to bat but Albert Pujols, a .377 bases-loaded hitter with twelve grand slams.

Albert had always been a clutch player for us, but high-pressure situations aren't something that you just wake up born to deal with.

For years, part of our coaching had been that we taught players to to embrace pressure and make it their friend. And they way they'd do that was to confront it. They couldn't hide from it and say Hey, whatever happens, happens so just go out there. No, they had to step up and make something happen when they were expected to make something happen. They had to feel the anxiety, but we had taught them how to handle that anxiety, to use it to become a "go-to" competitor.

How did we teach that? Our first lesson would be never to let them run away. We'd tell each player to feel it -- the more often, the better. Over time they'd just get used to it. Just like if you live near a train and have to listen to locomotive sounds all night long you eventually stop hearing them. It becomes part of your normal state of affairs.

La Russa goes on to say most start out becoming either too hyper or too tentative, but that experience with pressure gives each player the chance to self-examine and make adjustments, emotionally, mentally, physically.

You can't play for months with the attitude of whatever happens, happens, then suddenly in (the pinch) say, Okay, now I'm going to go out there and make a play or get a hit.

{snip} Feeling it is the first part of learning to deal with pressure. The second part is preparation. If you've done everything you can in advance to put yourself in the position to succeed, you'll be more relaxed and better able to deal with the pressure that comes with having to perform. {snip}

The third part is the golden rule when it comes to high-stress moments {snip}: When you're in a position to perform, getting distracted by the possible result creates more pressure than anything else. If you're focused on the result, you feel the anxiety. Instead, concentrate on the process not the result. Win through process.

And since a primary role as Coach or Scrum Master is to steward the process, it is your work to make this pressure internalization bearable and effective.

How does all this translate when Albert's got the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the the 9th against the Braves? For one thing, he doesn't think What happens if I fail or success? His total focus is on the process that defines his best at-bat for the situation.

Pujols goes on to deliver a two-RBI single, tying the game, sending into extra innings, where the Cards win it and inning later.

This channeling pressure to ease it is important for the team, but as the coach/scrum master, it can be even more important to you. You need to do all the preparation for success the way La Russa's players have to do for themselves. You will have to suck it up when a team is struggling and not let the outcome affect your courage, even if you choose to tweak some process.

PRESSURE IS. You need to aikido it into team momentum. Just like La Russa.

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