Skinned Knees and Broken Bones

How do people learn? I know there’s an entire field of study about this but my own experience tells me people learn from experience. Fortunately or unfortunately, the most instructive form of experience is making mistakes. Or maybe mistakes just stick with us better?

As a ScrumMaster I’m supposed to support self-organizing teams. While the definition of “self-organizing” varies, one key aspect of Scrum is the Retrospective. In a Retrospective, a team reviews its own performance and recommends its own improvements. I fully support this model, but sometimes my experience tells me a team proposal isn’t a good idea. This gives me a choice. Do I allow the team to make the decision so it will have buy-in, or do I draw on my experience to overrule a bad idea?

For me, the answer comes down to skinned knees and broken bones.

When teaching your children to ride a bicycle, you have to decide when to let them ride on their own. Your biggest concern is the likelihood of serious harm if they fail. As they grow and take on other activities you continue to assess the likelihood of serious harm if they fail. We accept that our children will get skinned knees. What we try to avoid is broken bones (or worse). So this is my metaphor for when to let the team try a solution and when I step in on the basis of my experience.

Will failure lead to skinned knees or broken bones?

Recently we had to split our team to allow a group to start working on the proofs of concept (POC) for the next generation of our software while the remaining team members continued to support the existing product. Our support lead did not have the significant architectural experience, but we wanted to know if the support lead had the ability to grow from a task-driven member to a problem-owning member. Was it OK to let someone with this lack of experience take responsibility for determining the correct bug fixes in our existing product?

If this person failed, would we skin knees or break bones?

We decided we would skin knees and we moved forward. The support lead made some mistakes, but we only skinned our knees. And together we learned a great deal about where this support lead still needed to grow – a lesson we all believed was worth the pain.

So I offer this metaphor to you. Will you skin knees or break bones? I’ve known some extreme-sports types who would say, “It depends on how bad a break,” so adapt the model for your style and team. Whatever language you use, I’m sure it will help you make the call and get buy-in even when you decide you have to override their decision.

Maybe it will even help your managers become less controlling.

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