Just enough here to make something wonderful

2020-01-13

In the last quarter of last year, I joined a new client. Like many development departments, budgets were tight, wants are infinite, and management wanted to find ways to get the best from their developers. Pretty typical. But as I spoke with the team, one complaint kept coming up. Everyone, from developer to Business Analyst, wanted the company to help them grow.

Some thought it ought to look like paid training. Others thought management should give assignments based on career goals. But everyone felt kind of dead in the water. They all knew there was no money in the budget for such things. Seeing the pattern, I decided to talk to the department director, and get her opinion on the matter.

As we spoke, it was clear she was equally vexed. She knew of the teams frustration, and she wanted to give them something! But her role required her to take a wider view. Whatever she agreed to do, she had to do it for more or less the entire department! This point in particular was painful for her, as it had killed previous good ideas. Sure, there was budget to do that for one person. But there was not enough for everyone. Hearing this, I asked if I could know how much she had to work with. It wasn't a lot, but something in the back of my mind told me: 'there's just enough material here for something'.

I took the puzzle home over the weekend and mulled it over. The same thought kept coming back. There's just enough material here for something! Then one morning, as I sat in my study it hit me. I looked at my bookshelf and saw my copy of Practices of an Agile Software Developer. The light-bulb went on and I had my plan! We could run a book club.

Considering the situation of the client, I actually brought that same copy to work on Monday. But that didn't cover the next question: Who should be in the book club? You see, book clubs as development can be tricky. If you make it mandatory, everyone shows up but you kill any productive conversation. And with a book like 'Practices' , the point is to find way to apply what you've learned, to practice! For me, killing the conversation is a no go. Instead, interested volunteers would be ideal.

Only one Of the teams in the department might be interest to read, discuss, and apply the content of the book. Armed with the start of a plan, I went to their Team Lead and pitched the idea. Get his team copies of the book, have them discuss a chapter once a week, and find ways to apply what they'd learned. He immediately agreed, so I took the pitch to the director.

To prepare for this pitch, I brought my copy along, and noted a couple potent ideas which I'd picked up from it. I found the purchase link so that I could show her the cost to provide the book to the interested team. And I planned an explanation for why it ought to start with this group. In the end we asked the department to spend less than 200$ of it's training budget. This would provide a group of 8 with the materials they would need. And the team would spent an hour a week for the next quarter or so talking over it.

With the green-light, the Team Lead and I pitched the idea to the team. We showed them the book, and explained the planned format. Further I took the time to emphasis the intent. We were going to read the book in order to apply what we would learn. Specifically, that the team would be apply the learning to how the team worked. I emphasized this point to bake in the right expectations. New initiatives can be prone to bloating if you aren't careful.

A little positive change can encourage the want to change the world. But that tendency can be disastrous to the momentum you need to build and maintain for a book club to be effective. If you let conversations drift beyond what the people in the room can affect, it turns into a gripe session, robbing the movement of its energy and positive drive for improvement. Now, I wish to note that I was not a member of that particular development team. But I thought them the most likely to succeed with this particular format.

As a result, I spent time with the Team Lead and the Team Influencer to prepare them to lead the book club in my absence. I felt it was of paramount importance that the team should own this practice right to the roots. So I guided our first discussion. I spoke of the guiding principles, and provided the starting format. Naturally, I leveraged a Liberating Structure.

For the second session, I stepped back to supporting role. This allowed the Team Lead and Influencer to start, guide and govern the conversation. With a couple coaching sessions, after each discussion, they felt they were ready to take over. And I took my bow. I am pleased to report they have successfully survived the holiday season and are getting back into the groove.

In writing this, I wanted to both tell the story of starting the book club, and to capture my thoughts on the process. I've heard the complaint about development before. And I've often wanted to help. The book club was the first time I found any success in helping others get the development they craved. I believe it is due to a change in my approach. The struggle of budgets is a real one. But all too often it can feel like a cop out by management.

This time, I took the constraint seriously. I sought a solution which would set both the team and management up to win as partners! No initiative like this can succeed if either group must win at the expense of the other. Equally important, was how the initiative's seed was guarded. As I mentioned before, to be successful, whatever you do has to produce growth, that is positive change.

Certain choices seriously jeopardize the environment necessary to facilitate that growth. For the book club, psychological safety is a must. But so is a certain esprit de corps. You want the group to all be eager and to believe they have the autonomy and influence to make the changed. This is why I emphasized the principle that the team would apply the lessons to the team!

It is also why I immediately prepared the Team Lead and Influencer to lead the discussions with out me. Psychologically, I was an outsider. Moreover, I had proven I was an influential voice in the organization. A misplaced comment from me, could damage safety, or divert a conversation. Better to let the team completely own the activity.

I hope the story, and discussed rationale behind the actions may help you prepare your own book club pitch. Remember it only takes one person willing to ask the questions, and to make the pitch to get things started. If you can setup your manager to win along side you... and if you can protect the safety necessary to improve, you won't believe how much can be accomplished!