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Train. Practice. Trust. (Part III)


**This is the third article in the ‘Train. Practice. Trust’ series. Read Part II here.**


“Take responsibility for your actions and the actions of your teammates.” - Navy Seal Code

We've all been there. It’s the same thing that happens to our projects. We have been put under some deadline constraint imposed by people outside of our team, and instead of looking at the process around us, we rush the process because we absolutely need to add more people. ‘The printer is not quick enough, so we need thirty more paper stuffers to make it go faster’. It takes a long time for a new employee to just understand the nature of the business, let alone the dynamics of a new team.

We are constantly engaging in feedback loops. Under stress, our internal and external empiricism kicks in. Add uncertainty to the mix and the Tuckman model for team state still holds true. We are always revisiting the Forming stage.

I will attest there is nothing like finding out how you deal with stress than when undertaking a recruitment process for a professional unit.

Throughout BUD/S or Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training, the recruits follow the concept of an evolution.

An evolution is small pattern of physical work which can be repeated anytime throughout the training.

The evolution is short and the outcome is distinct. A typical BUD/S day would see maybe 10 evolutions. Get into the freezing cold beach water, out of the water, carry the boat when wet, carry the boat when covered in sand. Run up and down the beach covered in sand, run up and down the beach soaking wet with a boat on your head.

It's hard, gruelling, exhausting and repetitive. This is Phase 1, it's essentially basic conditioning. It’s undertaken in an environment where it's safe to fail, safe to learn.

The focus isn't on practicing what you are doing, but instead on practicing how you are doing it. They are managing the work in the environment around them. The best they can do is work with the tools they have under the conditions they are in. They are learning to trust their own abilities and work as a team to achieve a goal. As the training progresses and the practice shifts to become more specific, they learn to trust a partner and eventually the team around them.

If an individual falls behind they are given extra work to do in order to learn what it takes to achieve and succeed. In other words practice!

If a SEAL recruit quits, they are out. The unwritten rule of SEAL training is never quit. However for those that quit it’s not the end, recruits are encouraged to reapply. Interestingly, the training staff recognise the  merit of learning through failure , learning through practice, learning through training.

For our teams to learn to trust each other, everyone in the team needs to work on the same evolution at the same time, feel the same stress that others in the team are going through. Ultimately the team need to work towards the same goal together, they need to feel that the goal is achievable but have to work hard towards getting it. They need the ability to practice when in positions of extreme uncertainty and they need a supportive culture that understands that is safe to fail, safe to learn.

Software development teams often fail, it's not due to their lack of skill, it’s often to do with a lack of a clear goal as to why they are doing their version of an evolution. What objective are they working towards, how are they going to achieve it as a team, what have they learnt from the previous evolutions, and how are they going to improve their approach.

Throwing more SEAL recruits at an evolution won't make it any easier, faster or somehow a pain free experience. Support the recruits through the process, teach them to work together as a team, trust them to achieve and the outcome will be a more resilient well practised and hardened team.

People, trust building

“What you do has far greater impact than what you say.” - Stephen Covey

We train. We practice. We trust.

The original intention was to write something about the value of training. It just feels like we recruit people and neglect them. Too often people are seen as a cost, and not a benefit to our teams. Look back at the professional unit examples and you’ll see that people are an asset, a benefit, something to be valued and grown.

In sporting or military teams, “train hard, fight easy” fits more naturally. That is because leaders focus on the team owning the objective and the plan.

Software development teams are typically led by people who believe in a plan, not an objective or an outcome.

Sounds harsh, but it's true.

Leadership is knowing when to lead, when to follow, and when to get out of the way. It is understanding the risk implied by the choices we make; it's creating opportunities for our teams to thrive; it's trusting our team and family to do what needs to be done in order to realise the goal and objective.

As leaders, we must also guide and train our teams and family members so that when they need to achieve a goal, they have the knowledge and skills necessary for making better decisions in our uncertain world.

As I'm learning on a current deployment, work is just work. It's how people organise themselves around it that makes the difference. It's the training I provide with space for coaching and practice that leads to trust. For me these are key to setting the foundation for a team.

Part of this current work is encouraging business goals to be created by the management team. This allows the business teams to define their own goals to meet where the overall organisation as a product would like to be heading. Simple ‘What’ and ‘How’ team thinking. The goals are there, they’re just not transparent enough for any action to be taken.

Training is teaching through sustained practice and instruction. Practice is the application of the belief, idea or method.

Therefore, the benefits of training are devalued without concrete practice and in software development this is exactly what we need to do: practice.

I realise I'm casting aspersions but this is something we just don't do in software delivery. We formally train our people rarely, mainly because this is constrained by organisational budgets or lack of incentive. When the teams have to fight, it's often scrabbling to understand the situation and the constraints to solve the problem.

At worst organisations see training as a way of arming the employees to leave and get a better job. This attitude and approach is what arms people to leave. Some will self-teach and build pockets of resistance against the practices of the wider organisation. While this is great, it does only enact the individual’s need to up-skill, and eventually leave without benefiting anyone else in the process.

Close-knit teams, that train and practice together, exhibit behaviours which lead to the individuals and the team reacting positively and accordingly when dealing with the situation. They have the confidence and the training to ensure that there is a high degree of successful outcome from the given situation.

Simply put, for an organisation to be exemplary in its field, build fantastic products, be loved by its customers and its staff alike it needs  exemplary teams.

Teams that have the ability to fight, learn and adapt.

Teams that can own the plan and goal.

Teams that have shared values.

Teams that are trusted and trust themselves.

Teams that train constantly.

Teams that can practice all of the above!

End note

If you managed to read all three parts I thank you immensely for getting this far. If not i’d encourage you to go back and find some time for part I and part II. My hope with this article is to spark some ideas, maybe it acts as an impetus to change an approach or thinking towards teams, training and recruitment.

My approach to life sets my approach to work, learning from experience. Perhaps this is essentially practicing. Learning by doing. If you sit still and don't try, you’ll never know.

My final question to you: after reading this article, what are you going to change or do differently?


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Andy Hiles

Andy Hiles

Principal ConsultantA firm believer that great teams build great products. Andy is a highly experienced process coach, agile practitioner, and certified Agile trainer with the British Computer Society. Currently co-organiser of the South Wales Agile Group Read more