Discernment Is About Maintaining Your Strainer

Discernment, noun: The ability to judge well.

With it’s roots in 13th Century Latin, then a hundred years later in French, the word discern means to separate something. As the word has evolved, the concept of doing it correctly has been added. Think of your pasta noodles when they have finished cooking.

Discerning your noodles means to get the hot water away from your food before it gets too gummy.

What’s interesting is how simple the act is. Straining food through a colander, sieve, or slotted spoon is as simple as setting the device in a secure location and pouring. All the work is done by the tool. You just turn your pot upside down and watch the magic. That is, until your tool isn’t maintained properly.

There is a bit of discussion online right now in the Agile community around discernment. Manifesto writers are espousing for the good old days. Organizing bodies are feuding with their members over terminology. In general, we argue about individual practices being, or not being, “agile”.

I don’t need to provide a link for the last one, just check out LinkedIn if you’re curious.

My challenge with this dialogue has nothing to do with the validity of the discussion. It’s healthy to ask tough questions of each other and demand the best for our industry. Many of our livelihoods depend on it. Instead, I struggle with people asserting themselves as experts in discernment based upon limited experience.

Rather than dismiss everyone who isn’t me, making me a hypocrite, I’d rather offer some points on a better approach. If we address the tool used in discernment, we can have more confidence in our conversations after using it.

Here are 3 ways:

Become fluent in the language of your story.

Many of us start conversations by reading our resume to people in the hopes that makes us credible. Without discounting the value of experience, I think many of us would agree spending time doing something doesn’t make us knowledgeable. It makes us a survivor (which is also valuable, but in a different way).

I point this out not to denigrate my colleagues who have survived mergers, transitions, and large change management plans. We should just not use our experience as the lead to our story. If that story spans decades, or weeks, I think we all have something valid to share with the industry. To do so, we must become fluent in our own story.

That means we study. We learn. We share.

First time you tell your story, it won’t be that comfortable. The first time I was at a work party and shared that I was a recovering alcoholic, it got awkward for everyone in a hurry. We all found a way to move on, but it wasn’t fun for any of us. Now, I can not only tell that story confidently and comfortably, I can now easily see when others share the same struggles.

Story fluency isn’t about knowing more than your neighbor on a subject. It’s an understanding of what makes up a facade and false narrative. Imagine if you had just read a book on Scrum, passed your cert, and went about your business. Would you be confident coaching someone else when that little time in the material?

Know the language you’re supposed to be speaking before you start using it.

Surround yourself with other fluent people.

Take my previous story. If you had learned about a tool or methodology in a vacuum, there is a good likelihood you might learn enough to pass tests and have the same letters next to your name as the rest of us. Your learnings would include everything you had seen in your career, giving you depth in your own story.

But what about the rest of us doing the same thing at our organizations?

I maintain that without DFW Scrum and the amazing folks that run the group, I would not be where I am. Did they pass me crib notes to study? Tweet me the right way to think and feel about Agile? While Ty Crockett and Allison Pollard can take a lot of credit, they would also point back to the community we are trying to build.

Surrounding your self with others who are fluent in the language of their story give you a breadth of information you would never have found alone.

For a while, I thought we just had an exceptional group of agilists living in the DFW area. There were so many amazing stories I could glean nuggets of truth from. Then, after widening my circle a bit, I found that there are a lot of DFW Scrums out there. Tampa has a group that’s growing like a weed thanks to the tweets of people like Stephanie Davis. Chicago has over 1200 members in their group meeting in small groups every month. The largest group I could find is in Paris with over 3,000 Scrummers.

People are showing up in droves around the world willing to share their story and learn from yours. It would not only be fun to rub elbows with some of the elite in your city, but beneficial to be able to pull from all that learning.

Be familiar with other stories.

When you’re at those meetups, happy hours, or however you gather with industry peers, what happens when someone shares a story you aren’t quite sure of? Depending on the size of the group, there could be many reactions.

There’s the generic, “that’s not Scrum” to retort. Others might offer a polite disagreement, along with the reasons why the person is wrong. Many just sit silently in judgement, unable to manage the right words.

If you find yourself in a situation of being fluent in the language of your story, and surrounded by other fluent people, is it enough to be able to see the facade others portray? The mob mentality says that you should gang up on that person to “convert” them your way of thinking. As if arguing with anyone has ever accomplished that task.

The hardest part of discernment is when you realize there are other strainers out there than the brand you use. It may accomplish the task well enough, but looks much different than your way. You could drain pasta with cheese cloth just like a wire mesh, but the tools are very different.

Same could be said of other stories in our Agile circles.

I’m not here to argue that there is no such thing as “truth” around us. Often, there is a place for correction there. What I’m asking is for us to at least become familiar with the stories of others first. You might even have to try it out for a bit before you criticize. That whole “walk a mile in their shoes” thing. Having a familiarity with their story will only make yours stronger and more equipped for future discernment.

The next generation of effective leaders are going to be those who work on maintaining their discernment tool. Would you be willing to join me in asking the tough questions and work publicly on this?


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