Create Experiences Not Arguments

Change Pro-Tip: When I can give people an experience, I get dramatically better results than when I give them reasoning.

I’mo tell you one of my stories. Twenty years ago, with a considerable amount of "Shut up, I’m the pro from Dover", I got permission to do TDD in a corner of the app I was working on, an app that walked remote groundstations through reconfiguration using a "console". My buddy and boss Gary was unimpressed, but I had permission, so he let me go to it, and I had a few hundred tests. (They were pretty easy, just ASCII call-and-response mostly.)

He brought me a small bug one day. One of the config screens needed a slightly different set of lines than the app was sending. Gary paired with me, and we found the issue right away: we just needed an extra linefeed.
We wrote a test for that, got it to red. We added our code, it went green. We ran all the tests, we got maybe 40 other reds. We looked again. Right answer, wrong location. We cut-pasted it to the right location, now we got our new test green and all others green.

Smoke break. And Gary’s all distant and acting kinda weird. And he’s staring off into space, not saying anything, and I’m my usual chatterbox self, but I finally run out of steam, and I’m just standing there.

Finally he turns to me. "So. I guess this TDD shit really works, huh." Nothing opens a person to adopt a "better" like the actual experience of its "better-ness". Nothing.

By comparison, every other technique for creating change isn’t just second-rate, it’s third-rate. The difference is that dramatic. So what’s that telling me? It’s telling me where to invest my time as a coach: in finding and creating experiences.

Now, I’m basically just another pretty face — which is good, cuz people cut us pretty ones a lotta extra slack — so although I’d like to tell you I got that on one try, in fact I proceeded to spend most of my time the following years creating and refining arguments.

There are three reasons for that.

  1. I love rhetoric in all its forms.
  2. All my coaching friends were doing that.
  3. I still won often enough, even if inefficiently using argument instead of experience.

And a fourth reason, too, now I say it: a lot of what I coach isn’t "obvious" in how it works. Crafting those arguments was part and parcel of understanding why any of this crap works at all. That was especially true of TDD, but it’s true of lots of what we do in this community.

So i just want to be clear: I get it. I get why we quest for the perfect argument, the best rhetoric, the reasoning, the theory, the exquisite slide with the perfect quote from Gandhi or Sid Vicious. The road to hell is lined with excellent parking spaces. For many would-be change agents, including me, one of the most attractive spaces is the "argument" space.

I tell myself to resist pulling over. "Create experiences, not arguments," I say to me. And then I go looking for the experiences I want. It turns out, btw, that finding or creating experiences isn’t as difficult as it sounds, once you start looking for them. They basically come in three flavors.

"Toy" experiences are short exercises or games that give a person a taste of the better. They’re not usually exactly the experience, but something near it. These have little or nothing to do with the day-job. The katas you find on the web are toy. So are the games.

The upside to the toy: it’s easy to do it, and there are a lot of sources.

The downside to the toy: used incorrectly they are big yabbit generators: "Yabbit, we don’t score bowling games in my dayjob, we do rocket science."

"Rigged" experiences are situations from the dayjob world that you’ve vetted to be sure you’ll get the "better". They’re not toys, but they’re still cheating in some sense. You go into them expecting a particular outcome with high confidence.

The upside to rigged: they’re more powerful than toy.

The downside to rigged: they’re harder to find. They always mean rework, once by yourself, once with others. They pull your focus while you’re rigging them.

"Raw" experiences are live-action, like the one I had with Gary. I wasn’t trying to persuade him. I was trying to fix a bug. The fact that he got that experience is partly simple serendipity, partly the fact that this TDD shit does, in fact, work.

The upside to raw: It wins a lot more than the others.

The downside to raw: It’s risky to bet everything on. Few of the techniques in our community work every time in all circumstances. When it flops, you better be either a) pretty or b) prepared with an alternative approach.

So that’s it. As a person who opens other people to change, for a living or just because I want a different world, I need to know and remember: "Create experiences, not arguments."

I’m off on the dayjob now. Have a lovely Monday, and look around you for experiences!

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