Your Solution Sucks
Present solutions and people will find problems. But present problems, and people will find solutions.
“No,” Matthew said. His palm was so sweaty, he was sure if he could clench his fist any tighter, he would drip sweat on the meeting room desk. “We must build the white label solution. Not only will it prevent us from dying due to technical debt, it will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.”
The managers looked at each other, more uncomfortable than angry still, but the mood was already turning. At first they had been sympathetic with Matthew. But brows had gotten increasingly furrowed over the last half hour, after they had politely declined the project plan for a new white label website design and he had gotten agitated. He was a nice enough fellow, and a good programmer to boot, but -so the glances on their expensive watches communicated- he simply didn’t understand enough about business.
“Sorry, Matt, we want you to know you’re doing a great job, but you cannot deny that our foray into this white label thing is absolutely not working. We’ve been waiting two months and you have nothing to show, and then you swing by to inform us that work hasn’t even started yet? Sorry, but we can’t-” Sven, the COO said.
“New York IT needed Boston IT to answer to them, but they haven’t-” Matt tried to explain, but the ship had sailed and people were getting up, their minds at lunch already.
“We’ll wait until the waters have cleared, and then you can try again,” Sven said. “But we expect you to get it right that time. Until then, please continue to fix the bugs according to the list Ecom sent you last week. Thanks!” Sven’s suitcase snapped shut, decapitating what little energy had remained in the room.
In the end, only Genie, the Scrum Master, Matt and some potted plants remained in the room.
“We are so fucked,” Matt said, breaking the silence of the plants.
“Let’s get coffee,” Genie said.
A few minutes later, Matt and Genie were sitting on bar stools, two cups before them on a long wooden table, looking out the window of the corporate cafeteria at the New York skyline. It was coming to life in the encroaching darkness.
“I should have waited for you to come out of vacation,” Matt muttered, sipped his double espresso, burned his mouth and cursed under his breath. “…You always know what to say in meetings,” he finished when he could feel his tongue again.
Genie blew on her mint-and-green-tea mix, sipped it carefully, added more sugar and sipped again. “No, you can absolutely do this without me. It’s not magic, you know?”
“Not everyone has the time and energy to do a three week Agile coaching retreat every year, Geenie.”
“It’s only three days every two years, and it still isn’t magic.”
“I couldn’t do it.” Matt gestured in the general direction of the meeting room. “QED.”
“What does a Scrum Master do, Matt?”
“You resolve impediments? You do some coaching, I guess, tell us to play nice when we’re fighting,” Matt said, shrugging.
“Yes, and we teach,” Genie said, smile mischievous. “I wasn’t born doing what I am doing, and I wasn’t bitten by a radioactive Jeff Sutherland either. You can learn it, too, if you want to.”
“I don’t want to be a Scrum Master,” Matt said, sipping his espresso, which had finally gotten to the right temperature. His pupils widened almost immediately. Genie generally avoided this programmer-grade stuff. She liked her heart in her chest, not behind her eyeballs.
She smelled her tea with closed eyes before replying. “You don’t have to be one. But even Uncle Bob says every Dev should learn how to communicate properly.” She punctuated her sentence with the soft clink of her cup hitting the saucer. “So, want me to explain? Yes or no.”
“Yes,” Matt said surly.
“Good,” Genie said. “You can pay me with one of those cupcakes they have.”
When I was just starting out, I thought I had the world figured out. I strolled in, straight out of college and I had read ALL the books. The Scrum Guide, Lean Startup, Management 3.0… you name it.
Truth be told — and there is no reason to be humble here — I did have it all figured out. Theoretically, that is. I saw a problem and knew a solution. More often than not, I could quote the Scrum Guide to back me up, too.
Then I proposed that solution, and got smacked in the face. How dare they, I thought, insolent nonbelievers! They are blind to the glory of Schwaber and Sutherland!
Never mind that I was an arrogant little shit. The real problem was that I was proposing solutions to things that people didn’t even realize were problems.
For example, I told them having two product owners on one backlog was a stupid idea, and I even told them why, but that did nothing. They couldn’t see, nay feel the waste creeping in yet. In short: we didn’t agree on the goal of our conversation. Unfortunately, I only read Crucial Conversations later.
Now, for your white label project. As a Scrum Master, you sometimes have to let people run head first into danger and then blow on their bruised knees afterwards. But the white label project is a big thing, solving a problem that has been looming over us for months now.
You can see it, I can see it, but can the board see it?
“… maybe not.” Matt said, biting his half of the cupcake, which Genie had slid over.
“No, I really don’t think they do,” Genie said, insistently. She cleaned her hands.
“So, what now?”
“Well,” Matt said around a mouthful of chocolaty bliss, “Maybe I could…”
They started planning, and by the time the tea was cold, they were done.
“…and so this company almost lost hundreds of millions of dollars because they kept delaying necessary reworks. To boot, they lost several developers with tacit knowledge of crucial systems. They simply went somewhere where the work was more rewarding, intellectually.
Can you see the parallels to our current situation?” Matt spoke passionately, agitated. His hands had been moving throughout the entire talk, describing curves in decline, slashing budgets and cutting hope short.
The discomfort in the boardroom was different, this time. It no longer had the awkward quality of not wanting to offend someone passionate about a topic. Instead, it simmered with shocked realization. A hint of shame even, but also the threat of it bleeding into anger.
“Of course, Matt,” Sven said, a bit terse. “And you propose we do this white label thing you have been pushing to solve this problem, yes?” Eyebrows were raised again.
In the corner, Genie took a shallow breath, inaudible. This was it. But she didn’t say anything. Jumping in now would paint Matt as incompetent, and she would lose his trust forever. For a moment, time circled around the question of the flavor of Matt’s passion.
“No,” Matt said, and when she heard his calm, friendly tone, the stress melted from Genie like electricity out of a muscle. “I’m here just to highlight the problem, and while yes, the whitelabel solution we propose, it’s just one of many. Instead, I’d like to work together with you to find the solution that suits us all the best. I mean, I don’t really know all that much about business.