It always fascinates me looking at old maps of the world, drawn based on the observations of the early explorers. These maps are often very accurate – for the regions the explorer had visited – and yet many of them show the world as having an edge, where they draw big monsters that prevent future exploration. Sometimes we see a similar thing in software teams!
As rational and logical as we like to think we are, we are all human, and we never see objective reality, because everything goes through our perception, where it can be distorted. How we view our own horizons is a prime example of this.
When explorers had never been past a certain point, they genuinely believed there could be monsters beyond it. This profoundly affects the way they view their journey, and the way their crew behave. Nowadays we think nothing of flying between continents, because we know it’s been done many times before, and so the idea of monsters beyond the horizon is quaint and ridiculous to us.
That doesn’t make the beliefs of those early explorers – or the effects of them – any less real though. We have seen beyond the horizon, and know what’s there, and they haven’t. It probably wouldn’t matter how well we explained it, because until they see it for themselves they will have doubts. If we take them on the journey though, and show them, their perception will be changed forever.
This same thing happens often when we go to a software team with something they haven’t seen before, perhaps TDD, or pair/mob programming, or maybe iterative delivery. These things are beyond their horizon, and they only have their imagination to guide them. Often there is psychological scar tissue as well – perhaps they have tried some of these things before, and it hasn’t gone well for them. Their response can be one of doubt, or even fear.
Of course, we’ve seen how these techniques can work properly, and seen the tremendous benefits at the other end of the learning curve. Our horizon is much further in this respect, we have seen things that these teams haven’t. We can help this team to push past their existing preconceptions, and show them what is possible.
A team that is held back by these walls of monsters will very probably never be able to push past them without help from someone who has seen the other side. But even then there’s another piece that’s needed – they need to be open to seeing it. This is a big psychological barrier for many. They are put in a position where they need to trust, and be slightly vulnerable.
If you’ve got something like this where your team are being held back by the monsters at the edge of your map, the best thing you can do for them is to bring in someone who has been there before, who can guide them through to the other side. Just knowing that it is possible is a big part of winning the psychological battle. Help the team have an open mind, and remove cultural impediments like being unsafe to admit not knowing something.
When the team can take on a guide and see how these things can be done it’s immensely rewarding for them – and will give them confidence to broaden the next set of horizons, and unlock the next set of possibilities.