How Do We Recognize When We Box Ourselves In?

I’ve been talking with people in various mediums about how their agile approach is working. All these people have similar problems: they are trying to use a specific agile approach. That approach isn’t working for them. They persist because otherwise, they’re not “agile.” They’re stuck on this one possible solution. They boxed themselves in.

We all do this at various points in our professional and personal lives. This example happens to be an agile approach. But, we all do this, at one point or another.

I want to know if I’ve boxed myself into some specific thing. I might want to stay in my box. More likely, I want to get out.

I’ve talked about ruts before. My ruts used to work for me. I now need to change that rut to learn and improve.

Boxes are different. When people get stuck in boxed-in thinking, the approach has never worked. Not one piece has worked. Yet, the people persist, thinking they’re doing it “wrong.”

Boxes are about thinking. If we get stuck thinking one way, we box ourselves in. We stick with mental models that don’t work. We might not even recognize the need to change.

Some questions that might help you see your box:

  • Have I written down my assumptions?
  • Have I explained what these assumptions mean to me?
  • Have I assessed the results or consequences of these assumptions?

When I do this, I often discover these results:

  • Writing down the assumptions clarifies my thinking. I can also share them with other people.
  • Explaining the assumptions clarifies the results I expect to see from this kind of thinking or approach.
  • Assessing the results means I take each assumption and compare it to the results I expected.

A software team thought they could use a timebox of two weeks to work and deliver small results. However, they were dispersed all over the world. They couldn’t agree on the start and end days of that two-week timebox. They were unable to deliver much in any timebox, mostly due to communication lags.

They’d been trying to use this approach for the past six months. They were not much better off than they had been before. They still punished themselves for not using the approach “right.”

When they walked through the assumption clarification-and-results questions, they learned that they had even more problems than I’d seen. Not only were they not “on the same page” for the approach, they were nowhere near each other for what they understood about the product.

Because they wrote everything down, they now had documents they could circulate and discuss. They did. And, wow, did they learn a lot about their mental models and how they had boxed themselves into this one way of thinking.

They’re still discussing how they will approach their projects. They’re experimenting. One thing they learned: almost any specific framework will still box them in. However, they now have ways to discuss how they’re thinking and what they might change.

That’s the question this week: How do we recognize when we box ourselves in?

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