I’m Too Nice


I'm conditioned to be a nice guy. And it's all my mother's fault. I'm sure of that.

Yesterday I drove from San Francisco to Pleasanton to participate in an agile game day. It was organized by Elizabeth Hendrickson, and was attended by seven other friends and agilists. It turned out to be a day full of learning experiences for me. One of these was that the Dutch crusty bread I had for lunch really did remind me (a little) of the bread in Holland. Fortunately, the sheer volume of turkey and mayonaise they put on it was so unlike Dutch, that it prevented me from getting homesick.

The second important thing I learned was that I appear to play games by social rules that aren't there. Or, in other words, I tend to play the nice guy when it's not needed, and (worse) when it's not recommended…

Redridinghood
The first agile game was facilitated by Jeffrey Fredrick. Jeffrey adopted the role of a customer who required pictures of Little Red Riding Hood to be drawn for a children's book. He needed the results in just half an hour, and he appointed me as the team's project manager, before leaving the room in a hurry. Can you imagine my surprise? Here I was, having traveled all the way from The Netherlands, far away from work, enjoying a sunny vacation, and then suddenly being moved into a position to deliver a project in 30 minutes, with a team of people whose many talents did not cover drawing. I knew these people for hardly more than a few minutes, and it seemed they were already plotting against me.

To make matters worse, Jeffrey played the part of an ignorant customer (quite convincingly). He required arbitrary changes to finished drawings, pretended to be very busy, could not prioritize the drawings, and gave the team extra work halfway through the project. I thought the customer-from-hell qualification, as suggested by Elisabeth, was quite appropriate. Had I been the wolf I would gladly have eaten him, and picked my teeth with his requirements. But did I tell him to either stuff his new requirements, or to swap them for his earlier ones, or to accept lower quality results on the deadline? I'm afraid not. I was too busy trying to be nice and understanding.

In the meantime, the team required some attention as well. Some were using their computer, instead of drawing pictures, while others were scribbling notes, or talking about their work or family life. But did I tell them to shut up, pay attention, and help the others drawing? I'm afraid not. I was too busy trying to be the attentive guest, and not to offend anyone.

In retrospect, as a project manager I didn't do as well as I could. It reminded me why I've always hated that job. (I'm sure my own project managers will be interested reading this revelation, and will gleefully hold it against me when I return.) But still, our none-too-artistic team delivered the drawings right on time, which accounts for something, I guess. You can ask Jeffrey to show our results. I wouldn't dare publishing that on my blog. There might be children among my readers.

My point is, I think I'm being too nice to people. Particularly when I don't know them. I don't say what needs to be said. I try not to be harsh, and I try not to be demanding. But trying to be nice can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. There are times to be nice, and there are times to be firm. And erring on the safe side might not be as safe as we were once taught.

As I said, I'm sure it's all my mother's fault. She raised me to be nice, and not to break any social rules, no matter whether these rules were written down or just imagined. Well, it just so happens that my parents are here in San Francisco as well. They are probably assisting someone in pushing a cable car up a hill as we speak.

But I will see them tonight, and I'm going to tell my mom to stop messing up my career!

picture by Fresco Tours

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  • http://www.davewsmith.com/blog Dave Smith

    Short simulations like the one Jeff ran, especially when you don’t know the people on your team, are designed to turn little problems into big ones quickly. If you’d had some past history with the team, you might, for example, have pressed me for an answer on the question of what I was going to do next while we were working our way down the backlog. (And, if I knew you, and wasn’t otherwise fixated on some other aspect of the simulation, I might have answered 🙂
    We weren’t plotting against you, we just weren’t aligned.

  • Rita Rodrigues

    Can you gave more details on these and other games? It seems a good way of practicing techniques.

  • Sam

    HaHa. I attended a ‘Certified Scrum Master’ course a month or so ago and we played a similar game. I too fell hook line and sinker into the trap and was TOO NICE. I bit back half the things I would usually say to my team members and instead tried to be a nice, understanding and patient new person. (Not normal behaviour on deadline…).
    But – it was fun – I’m not sure given a bunch of strangers I could change into my usual self instantly – but I’m definetly going to try!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jurgenappelo/ Jurgen Appelo

    @Dave: Thanks, for the input!
    @Rita: That would be a complete blog post in its own right. I might write something up later.
    @Sam: Glad to know I’m not the only one! 🙂

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