The need to teach the principles that drive practices with the practices

This is an except from Al Shalloway’s upcoming book: Going Beyond Lean and Agile: Introducing FLEX – FLow for Enterprise Transformation. It is from a particularly important section called Teaching and Adoption.

I have never liked the common Scrum/SAFe approach of teaching select practices that are expected to be used as is. Their justification is that you need to understand how to use these practices before going beyond them. I have observed that while people need a set starting point they also need to understand why things are working. This creates learning opportunities from the start and enables a gradual improvement, or even, the transcendence of the practice.

The martial arts model of “Shu (follow) Ha (break with) Ri (transcend)” is often used to justify this approach. But several flaws exist in this logic. In the martial arts you are trying to disengage your mind at first, not so in knowledge work In addition, no guidance on how to move from following (“Shu”) to breaking with (“Ha”) is provided. What’s worse, is that by defining Scrumbut in the way it has been, the belief that people who don’t “follow the rules” are bad and get poor results.

The worst flaw, however, is more insidious. It’s the loss of the opportunity to learn while using. This would be to provide the underlying model of the practice. People can ‘follow’ the practice while seeing how it applies the underlying principles involved. This enables them to learn how to use these principles and tailor the practices for their own situation. They never break with the underlying principle but will break with the practice and possibly even transcend it completely. But not the principle.

Let me give you an example from sailing. Fledgling sailors are told to look at a flag or ribbon on the mast to see which direction the wind is going. But they are also told that they can learn to see the wind in the water if they look upwind and attend to the ripples on the waves. Newbies can immediately use the flag on the mast. But by looking at the more advanced practice of looking at the ripples on the waves they can learn to see the wind before it hits the sail – a very useful thing. So very quickly they learn to see the wind as it hits the sail and before it hits the sail. In addition, they eventually notice side ripples on the main ripples. These are from swirls in the wind. This tells them even more. They learn through a combination of using the basic practice, trying more expert practices, falling back to the basic one when needed and understanding what is happening much more. They never transcend the principles – only the practice that they started with. And they don’t have to do a sudden “break” with the practice, but can do it over time.

Learning with this combination of practices and principles is what sets Net Objectives training as different from frameworks. All frameworks are a combination of practices and principles. But the framework is defined by some core set of practices (e.g., in Scrum you must have time-boxing and cross-functional teams). The dangers of this are twofold. The most obvious one is that the practices prescribed may not fit your organization. But the other, more insidious one, is that doing this prevents you from learning as quickly as you would otherwise.

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