Get out of your own way!

This is a re-issue of a post from my old blog dating from December 17, 2006. It is a review of a session I attended at XP Days Germany 2006. I think it is still relevant today.


One of the most interesting sessions I attended at XP Days Germany was Developer Awareness, given by Shamsuddin Butt. Butt has a dual background in software development and psychology, which gives him a unique perspective on issues of organizational culture change, team dynamics, individual performance, and coaching.

In this session, Butt applied concepts from Timothy Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Tennis to the question of individual and team performance in software development. In the book, Gallwey describes the “inner game” within a player between his/her Self 1, who is judgmental and controlling, and Self 2, who can realize the individual’s potential for high performance if only Self 1 would get out of his/her way. The basic idea is to feel what you’re doing and just let yourself do it, rather than trying to monitor, control, and criticize yourself from an internally-imposed third-party viewpoint.

Butt demonstrated this through a couple of interactive exercises. The first one involved all the participants in the session. All but two people stood in a circle facing each other. Then each person looked to the right to take note of who was standing there. Next, everyone rearranged themselves in an attempt to put as much distance between him/herself and the person who had been standing to the right. At that point we were ready to begin the exercise.

Butt handed tennis balls to one person in the circle, one after another, until eight balls were in play. Each participant tossed balls to the person who had been standing to his/her left originally, and caught the balls tossed by the person who had been standing to the right, and who was now more-or-less opposite him/her in the circle. The last person in the sequence just dropped the balls. One of those who was not part of the ball tossing circle collected the balls after they had been “processed” and returned them to Butt, who fed them back into the circle. Finally, the other “outsider” counted the number of balls the circle “processed.” At the end of two minutes, we stopped and tallied the results.

The whole thing proceeded rather sloppily. One person gradually moved into the middle in an attempt to catch balls from his partner more easily. Of course, other balls struck him from the sides as other members of the circle tried to toss to their own partners. (Although Butt did not use this term, I thought it was a wonderful and natural example of local optimization, a problem that occurs in many organizations and on many teams!) On the whole, we dropped many balls. As the clock ran down, we tried to speed up, with the result that we lost many more balls. In the end, we “processed” 18 balls in two minutes.

The counter announced the score, and Butt suggested we set a goal for ourselves and try it again. Without discussion or planning, we repeated the exercise. The second time around, everything went far more smoothly. The group processed fewer balls, but only dropped one. It felt as if we were working slower, and yet we managed to “process” 20 balls. Not only was our net performance better, but the “work” felt palpably less stressful than the first time.

The point of all this was to illustrate the fact that teams will find their own rhythm if only you get out of their way and let them find it. It’s a key ingredient in the agile concept of self-organizing teams. The phenomenon should be very familiar to practitioners of Scrum, XP, or other agile and lean methods that allow teams to choose the amount of work to which they can commit during each iteration, rather than imposing an arbitrary workload on them based on a predetermined “due” date. In effect, the Self 1 of each member of the circle stepped aside and allowed the Self 2 to operate without interference. The result was an example of emergent behavior.

The second exercise illustrated the Self 1 vs Self 2 concept on an individual level. Butt asked for two volunteers: One who considered him/herself very good at ball games, and one who considered him/herself very bad at ball games. The “good” player tossed tennis balls to the “bad” player, who had to try and catch as many as possible. To make it a bit challenging, the thrower was asked to make it a just a little hard to reach each ball, throwing some high, some low, some to one side or the other, and so forth. On the first try, the catcher caught one out of eight balls thrown.

He was then asked to set a goal for himself. He set a goal of three balls. Butt asked him to say, out loud, what the trajectory of the ball looked like as it traveled through the air. Concentrating on describing the trajectory of the ball, the catcher in effect distracted his Self 1 and kept him out of the way, allowing his Self 2 to catch five out of eight balls thrown. At one point, the catcher remarked that he did not see the point of all this, although I thought it was fairly obvious. Afterwards, Butt asked him how it had felt to catch the balls. The catcher said it felt as if “something” other than him was catching the balls. This is, in fact, exactly how it feels to do anything when your Self 1 is out of the way. This is how it feels to be “in the zone.”

Butt’s point in all this was to illustrate the difference between mentoring and coaching. Mentoring is about showing people and teams how to do specific things. Coaching is about helping people and teams discover their own innate ability to excel.

It struck me that the whole idea of Self 1 vs Self 2 sounded a lot like the zen concept of no mind. I asked Butt about this after the session, and he said it was so; Gallwey had in fact studied with an Indian guru. Zen comes from Buddhism, which comes from India; it is indeed the same concept, but re-cast in a way that is accessible to the dualistic Western mind. The pervasiveness of dualistic thinking in the West is demonstrated by one reviewer’s comments about the book on Amazon’s website, in which he credits Gallwey with providing useful advice in spite of “aspects of psychobabble and mysticism.” I would say the ideas are useful because of those aspects.

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