Mike Cohn’s Opening Keynote: “Let go of Knowing”

Special thanks to Mike Cohn, who did a great job kicking off the Global Scrum Gathering in Phoenix, AZ with his opening keynote, Let go of Knowing: How Holding onto Views May Be Holding You Back.  It set the tone for the week and opened up my mind for gathering new perspectives!

Overcoming biases, challenging the assumptions we bring into conversations and new opportunities, and admitting when our beliefs are proven wrong – this is the Intellectual Humility at the core of being agile rather than doing agile.  Scrum is not a best practice in itself, it is an empirical method for finding better “next” practices.  Cohn quoted one of my favorite philosophers on the virtue of intellectual humility:

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.”

– John Stuart Mill

The rapid feedback loops we strive for in Scrum are meaningless if we are unwilling to revisit our assumptions and beliefs.  The agile frameworks and philosophies we explore and promote – with the goal of building a complex product more efficiently and effectively – are intended to create a safe-to-fail environment, not a fail-safe system.  Not only do we need to encourage this mindset in our organizations so that our teams are free to experiment, we must be the example in this and admit when our assumptions were incorrect.  Process stability allows us to effectively measure data, but process rigidity is likely to ignore metadata.  Cohn gave some great examples of ideas held by agile thought leaders that did not stand up to to the test of time:

  • Ron Jeffries has abandoned estimating completely after doing it for many years as part 

  • Ken Rueben once argued the ScrumMaster should NOT be a team member, but now believes it can work

  • Robert Martin was a complete skeptic of TDD when he first heard of it until he tried pair programming

While we joke about “Scrum, but” companies (e.g. “We do Scrum – but we only test every third sprint”).  Mike put things nicely into perspective, setting a great tone for the week:  Scrum was born through companies that were essentially “waterfall, but…” companies.  As in Art and Literature, it took a new era to name the previous era, but Agile, Scrum, XP, and Lean all evolved over time.

“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

It was fantastic to start my week with this mindset, looking for new perspectives and challenging my beliefs along the way.  I picked up a few non-core-Scrum tactics along the way.  The only way to stay innovative and keep improving is to risk the possibility of proving yourself wrong along the way.

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