Blending Agile Approaches (3) When Biases Hinder Learning

This is the third in a series of posts about why I think it’s good for scrum masters, agile coaches and agile teams to blend approaches, and to experiment with how best to deliver software in an agile way. I’m working towards articulation of a semi-formed idea, so it might take a few posts to get there.

Number 1 was about how agile helps us cope with complexity, and number 2 was all about how learning is at the core of an agile mindset. Here it is:

This is number 3, and it’s the awkward one: it’s about biases. Effectively, when it comes to learning, sometimes we get in our own way…

Perceptual selectivity describes how people filter the world, and the daily onslaught of information we encounter. In the main, people have a tendency to retain information that validates our beliefs, and a complementary tendency to ignore or avoid information that challenges those same beliefs. This can lead to something called confirmation bias, which hinders rational, objective reasoning.

To see this in action, try to remember the last time you encountered someone on your social media feeds with entirely opposite views to your own. How did it make you feel? Is it a frequent occurrence? How did you react?

Social media and technology can unfortunately enable and even amplify confirmation bias, by allowing us to filter what we see and hear from people we know.

Unhappy with mildly racist Auntie Jean’s opinion on Brexit? No problem, snooze her updates and you don’t need to listen any more! The side-effect of choices like this is the creation of a kind of echo-chamber, where we only choose to surround ourselves with views to correspond with our own, and therefore lose the opportunity to learn or challenge our beliefs.

For a scrum master or agile coach, it is helpful to be aware of biases that can hinder opportunities to learn, from two perspectives. First of all, these biases may be present in teams or organisations, and a good coach will need to understand how to work around them. Second, however, the coach him or herself may also hold these biases. Awareness of the potential presence of a bias is the first step towards dealing with it.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (Alexander Pope)

Unfortunately, this is not the only bias we need to be aware of. The Dunning-Kruger effect is an interesting theory, which describes how people tend to hold overly favourable views of their own abilities. Paradoxically, as people improve their skills and learn more about these abilities, they recognise their own limitations.

I love this graph because it articulates my own experience learning the French language. After studying it for 7 years in school and university, I was a little over-confident in my own abilities… until I arrived in France for the first time, and attempted to ask a taxi driver to take me to… rue Pierre Taittinger. Much to the bemusement of the taxi driver, after my fourth failed attempt at the pronunciation, I realised I still had a hell of a lot to learn! A little knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing!

In the excellent Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz describes how the ability to dwell comfortably in our own errors, and derive the ability to learn from them, is a great strength and one to be nourished.

Software developers are intrinsically familiar with this notion, as anyone who has tried Test Driven Development will attest. Software is intrinsically wrong while it is being built, as our failing tests continue to demonstrate, right up to the point where the functionality is built, and the tests suddenly and happily turn green.

Failure to fail

Another agile technique which requires comfort in a space of error is pair programming. When programmers collaborate to problem solve, there will potentially be a number of biases in play that can hinder progress. However, if developers can problem solve together, without fear of recrimination for mistakes or errors, then it should be possible to create an environment where learning is possible. This is something every scrum master would applaud. However, biases may prevent this from happening, and also, the dreaded ego may get in the way.

As John Yorke pointed out in his excellent article, ‘The Enemy of Agility is Ego’, misplaced confidence in our abilities can severely hinder a development team’s ability to learn and improve. Confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect can conspire together with ego to prevent us from seeing the wood from the trees.

However, it is not only the development team who may suffer from these biases. I believe that the scrum master or coach must also be aware of the presence of their own personal biases too. Without that awareness and ability to challenge yourself as a scrum master, it is possible that you will not see the most important problem that the team is facing. Or alternatively, in attempting to solve a problem, you may use the wrong tool or technique because you were not open to trying an alternative.

Remember also Dave Snowden’s advice in the Cynefin Framework? (I discussed this in post number 1 in this series). Don’t assume things will be simple, or you may fall off the cliff into the chaotic zone, and find it very difficult to recover. One way to fall off that cliff is to have misplaced confidence in our own abilities, or a closed mind to alternative views of a problem.

However, the tragedy here is that that outcome is entirely avoidable. It’s ok to be wrong! It’s an opportunity to learn! As a change agent, one of Barry Overeem’s 8 stances, the scrum master’s responsibility is to create a safe environment for the team, where errors are tolerated, and learning is derived from them.

To recap, experimentation, feedback and adaptation help us to learn and uncover new ways of doing things, and this is the beating heart of an agile mindset. (Mixed metaphor there, but let’s just agree that the brain and the heart work together!).

For scrum masters or agile practitioners, we need to always be aware of the presence of biases that may hinder a team’s ability to see problems. Indeed these biases can also hinder the scrum master from seeing alternative views of a problem, or alternative approaches to addressing it.

“fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts” (Bertrand Russell)

An openness to the availability of alternative approaches means we will also avoid another enemy of agility: dogmatism. But more on that later!

Next up: how combining Agile approaches can lead to unintended consequences and excellent outcomes.