Try Different, Not Harder

Change Pro-Tip:

I give the same advice to myself as a coach that I do to my teams: "Try Different, Not Harder".

A while back we covered Alice’s vision of how to change things. In countering it, I offered the adjustment "from final to iterative".

The idea of iterative change is straightforward: It means that we change a thing, and then later we change it again, and still later we may change it again. I want to be sure we don’t mistake iterative with incremental. This is a common misunderstanding for a lot of folks. They’re not opposites: a change can be both incremental and iterative at the same time. But it can also be only one of these.

Why do we ever change the same thing twice? There’s just a few reasons. I want to cut to the chase, though, so I’ll focus on just one reason to change the same thing twice: because the first time we changed it things didn’t get "better" or didn’t get "better" enough.

Remember, the City On The Hill isn’t a real thing. It’s an imaginary point off in the distance. When we work iteratively, we are guessing that it will send us closer to where we want to be. They’re educated guesses, but they’re still guesses.

And sometimes, friends, we’re wrong. That is in fact the whole point of the approach to change that I advocate, in both code and in orgs: the cost of never making mistaken moves is many times higher than the cost of making mistakes, reverting, and trying something different.

I understand why Alice is so desirous of never making a mistake in her changes. But the cost of never making a mistake is very often never making a change at all. It’s just too incredibly hard to be sure.

So. What happens when we make a change and it doesn’t help, or it even actually makes things worse? The bog-standard reaction for beginner-changers in every domain I’ve ever changed things in is this: we re-double our effort. We try again, only this time, we try harder.

The slide I opened with calls this out as one of the 19th century’s favorite motifs. It takes a lot of different forms, but at its most compressed, it says "whatever bad experiences you have are the result of your failure of will". The view is particularly endemic in American culture. It touches on everything from our assessment of mental illness to our mindless celebrity-worship. And at the workplace, it is an everyday thing.

A lot of it is implicit, but by no means all. "We’re missing our estimate, so we need you to work over the weekend." "You forgot to change all the places we used that string because you didn’t think". "My change didn’t work because they didn’t try hard enough to make it work."

What about doing it to ourselves? "I messed that up so next time I’ll try harder to get it right."
When a boss tells me her team doesn’t "feel a sense of urgency" — god, how many times have I heard that — she is saying "they’re not trying hard enough".

My wife is a master teacher. When I first started teaching, I would call home every day and de-brief with her. And I wasn’t terribly good at teaching, so I had a lot of problems to debrief. I’d give her one, something like, "this one guy just does not get it."

And she would sit there and rattle off in rapid succession, "did you try A, did you try B? Maybe if you did C, or wait, no, you could even do D? Only as a general rule, she didn’t stop at 4. She could spin alternative "try"s so fast I couldn’t even remember them all.

And she never said to me, "Try harder." She knows me very well, and she knows how hard I want to do well, and it never occurred to her that I was trying any less hard than I was capable of. Instead, she told me in her way, over and over again, "try different".

When a team makes a change, and it doesn’t make things better, the right default reaction is to try a different change. (That’s not an always/never, that’s a default answer, a go-to reaction.) When an individual changes some code, and it doesn’t make things better, the right default reaction is to revert the change and try a different change. Again, a default, not an always/never rule.

As a professional coach, my greatest strength — aside from my looks and my haute couture, of course — is the huge variety of try’s I know about for any given problem geek teams encounter. And right behind it? The huge variety of try’s I know to get an experience into them.

If you’re not a pro, just someone seeing a problem and having an idea about its solution, you’re not going to have as big a variety laying around. And you don’t have Virginia to suggest a random dozen in the daily debrief. But guess what: they’re there, if you’re looking.

Here’s some ones to get you started: Use different media. Use one-on-ones. Use walks outside in the middle of the day. Use a dayjob problem but unpushed and show what you got. Use 11-minute meetings. Use personal stories. Use more laughter. Use less powerpoint. Use beer o’clock.

Use a friend in another company. Use a local expert who’s a pro presenter. Use posters in the toilet. Use blessings from a big-wig. Use anywhere that’s not a meeting to build consensus. Use an exercise. Use before/after.

There are a million ways to do almost anything that involves humans interacting. If you look for them, you’ll see them all around you. There’s more to the slide, especially about horrible 19th c motivational methods. But I’m gonna stop here and let it soak.

When I fail, I don’t default to trying harder. I default to trying different. It seems to work very well for me.

I stayed up until 7 am, so I’mo let you go, and head off to some well-deserved reading-myself-to-sleep. I hope I have sweet dreams, and I hope you have a sweet and somewhat dreamy Wednesday!

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