Guidelines and guardrails


This could also be called something like X won’t save you.

I used the turn of phrase, X won’t save you, first with a client when they said: If I put the proper process in place and execute it repeatedly, then all would be right with the world.

I responded:

Process won’t save you.

Humans aren’t machines executing code in a stepwise fashion. The hardware and software allowing me to function in the world are different than the hardware and software enabling you to operate in the world.

In short, humans are a hot mess.

Yet, many of us love the idea of universally applicable and repeatable practices, habits, processes, whatever. However, we also explain why some arguably universal thing isn’t worth trying. We are somehow unique, and “it won’t work here.”

In short, humans are a hot mess.

The African proverb comes to mind:

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

All of this is why I no longer believe in the existence of an uncuttable approach to existing as a human or “being productive.” At least not in formulaic detail.

And that’s a fucking struggle.

It’s easy to say, “If those people would just do X, then life would be better for everyone.” However, it’s difficult to say to yourself, “I’m shaming, blaming, and possibly being elitist as fuck right now.”

This brings us to guidelines and guardrails.

Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a road. Down the center is a line. To your left and right, there are short barriers. Beyond the barriers are some gravel and broken glass. Beyond the gravel and glass are cliff edges. After a long drop, jagged rocks and boulders are at the bottom of the cliff.

That line down the center of the road is a guideline. The more I stick to it, the safer I am. But, of course, sticking closely to the guideline means I might miss seeing and experiencing the “outside world” (Buddha as protected prince or all science no philosophy). But that’s my choice to make. My line to draw. My line to toe.

Things get dicey when someone else tells us what lines to toe.

When I’m brought in as a coach, it’s often to help with adoption and transformation. When I ask who chose the tool for tracking work, it’s rarely the people doing the work. When I ask if managers and “leadership” are tracking their work with the same tool, the answer is often no. When I ask who chose the process the team is supposed to use, it’s rarely the people doing the work. Again, management and leadership are rarely trying to use a similar approach.

“That’s for those people and would never work for us. But we know best what will work for them.” (“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.“)

These same managers and leaders get frustrated because their direct reports don’t feel empowered to make decisions. They keep asking management for direction and what they should do next. (So much self-inflicted baggage.)

Guardrails are more hardcore than guidelines.

A habit I’ve gotten into, which some may find strange, is walking down the hallway to my apartment door with my eyes closed. I’ve never run into the walls. Granted, I’ve never gone the whole length without opening my eyes, re-centering, and realigning myself. The center is the guideline, and the hallway walls are the guardrails. I walk slowly. The faster I go, the more often I open my eyes and readjust.

At no point am I in danger of serious injury. With that said, I will receive feedback that I’m off from my goal if I deviate too far for too long. I’m accountable for determining how I respond to the feedback, up to and including seeking advice and coaching beyond myself.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your stance, teams in organizations rarely choose their coach. The rationale for why teams can’t select their coach is that the people doing the work don’t know what they need to do that work. Or, the fear is the team will choose someone who will “let them get away with anything,” thereby hurting the organization. (So much self-inflicted baggage.)

It can be patronizing, condescending, and self-deprecating.

When I’m brought into a team, two things often happen:

  1. I ask if the team wants more of a laid-back, hippy professor or a war-torn drill instructor.
  2. I come up with one change that should be easy to absorb.

So far, no one has chosen the laid-back, hippy professor. This indicates that most folks don’t want someone who will “let them get away with anything.” In fact, asking those in my charge how they want me to act, and following through and acknowledging when I fall short, helps bring psychological safety to our interactions. If they choose a way I’m not willing to do given our context, we talk about it. The exploration establishes a guideline and possibly some guardrails.

The easy-to-absorb change I try often involves “The Daily” and is based on observation and discussion with the team for about a week. First, I want to know the individuals on the team and the interactions they want to have. From there, we can start figuring out processes and tools to help us get there. Finally, I try to make the change small enough that the team can absorb it almost instantly.

In one case, this change was for me, as the coach, to stop calling on people to speak and ask for status; one, this isn’t a classroom, and two, the event’s purpose isn’t to give me status. For this team, that was too much change to absorb, and they told me they wanted to keep doing it the way they had been; me calling on people. This helped me gauge where they were in their overall journey, and I could choose to step into that space with them.

Later we talked about it.

Why did they want me calling on them? What is the purpose of The Daily? Who’s the audience? Was I trying to shove what they viewed as my responsibilities onto them? And similar.

It’s easy to try and apply the same practices and tools in the same timescale to different groups of people and systems and expect similar results. It’s also easy to forget how long it took to go from a troubling place to a happy place and that the people here now aren’t the people who were there then.

For one client, it took us three years and two leadership changes to decide using a design system would be beneficial. For another client, they had a design system in place when I got there. For both, it made sense to have a design system—for me and this site, a fully baked design system doesn’t make sense.

My place and context are different. Therefore, I had to change my approach, even though I’ve been in similar situations quite often.

It’s easy to fall into the trap that others need to change. And, if we all share the view that others need to change, then nothing can change; from The 7 Habits book, “If you think the problem is ‘out there,’ that thought is the problem.” For me, it’s an exercise in empathy and self-reflection. It’s about putting myself in their shoes by learning their history and why certain things trigger specific responses. It’s about reflecting on my history and learning and acknowledging how little I know to be certain.

What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)

The more detailed I am in how a team or organization should be, the more pain and suffering I typically cause and suffer myself. Conversely, the more focused I am on the few uncuttable things, the more joy usually results. In other words, there is no “my way”; only a way that works for the parties involved.

Everyone has a to-do list. Not everyone writes it down or has the same amount of stuff.

Everyone has a way of prioritizing things on that list. Not everyone uses the same method(s) to do so.

Make things you want to do easy. Make things you don’t want to do difficult.

(There are others, but going into them would start moving from abstract to concrete in a way that would be counterproductive to this article.)

By “working for them,” I mean folks are maximizing the results they’ve identified as desirable while minimizing the impacts they’ve identified as undesirable.

I’m not sure how to meander gently to this last bit right now, so let’s make a leap:

Don’t try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, try and realize the truth [there is no spoon]. Then you’ll see it’s not the spoon that bends. It’s only yourself. (The Matrix)

I don’t change people or organizations; I can’t control them. I can only control myself.

Therefore, I bend myself in the areas I’m willing and able to meet them where they are. Then we both figure out where we want to go together and possibly for how long. I’ve grown a lot over the years due in no small part to the clients I’ve served. I hope they feel the same about me.

Will we estimate the work? Will it be in story points? Will we use micro-services? A to-do list? Scrum, kanban, something else?

Who knows, and who cares.

Will we try and make life better for those we serve? Without a doubt.