Intellectual Humility

Reading time ~ 2 minutes

I love having conversations with people I respect, look up to and know are an expert on a subject I’m interested in (and usually ten others besides).

Every now and again I’ll find myself nodding sagely as they reference some great wonder, piece of writing, language, blog, book, person that they assume I know about.

There’s a good reason that I nod along…

I don’t want to interrupt the flow of what they’re saying, it’s interesting and I want them to continue uninterrupted as I take what they’re saying on board.

There’s also a bad reason…

My intellectual ego is seeking their respect and validation. It’s preventing me from admitting that I’m struggling to comprehend.

Unfortunately in a group situation, this momentum can carry us too far. Once the thread has reached a suitable stopping point, how often are we willing to go back and ask for an explanation, more context or admit that we “don’t know” something that someone else assumed we do.

Watch out for rooms full of people listening to something they don’t understand and nodding, not wanting to interrupt and secretly not willing to be the first in the room to break the seal on their lack of knowledge.

What time do we waste walking away not understanding the full picture and having thrown away the best opportunity to seek clarity?

When you don’t know the answer or don’t understand, don’t pretend.  Lead by example and others will also be encouraged to ask or research and share. This in turn will build a stronger knowledge culture for your teams.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question. If you thought of something to ask in a room full of people I guarantee at least one other person will have as well.

Avoid playing intellectual chicken, be proud to ask the first dumb question of the day and get people to respect your intellectual humility rather than your intellectual ego!

The Egoless Daily Stand-Up

Reading time ~ < 1 minutes

Back in about 2004 I was really proud of myself for coming up with the term “Egoless Development” in explaining my team’s approach to self-organization and collective code ownership. The concept was actually invented some years earlier than my use of it.

(egoless :: proud – an oxymoron perhaps?)

Somehow I doubt the author had Egoless Daily Stand-Ups in mind though…

Most of the variations I’ve seen on the 3 basic questions in a daily stand-up have a small but significant issue in common – they’re entirely ego-centric.

    • What have I done since yesterday?
    • What am I planning to do today?
    • Do I have any problems that would prevent me accomplishing my goal?




There’s a mountain of guidelines on daily stand-ups (some of the best being Martin Fowler’s) so I’m not going to retread these. All I offer here is a tweak in thinking.

These are about the team, not you…

Consider these – either as questions themselves or in your approach to responding to whichever questions you use for sharing with the team

    • What have I finished or accomplished that others on the team need to be aware of?
    • What am I going to “open the lid” on that I should confirm with others before starting?
    • Where am I stuck, who can help me and how does that impact the team?

How is the work you’re performing going to aid the teams commitment or goals?

As a footnote, Mike Cohn’s suggested 4th question for the scrum of scrums – “Are you about to put something in another team’s way?” works (at least in my mind) for the same reasons – it’s more about other teams than you.

Breaking The Seal (Part 2)

Reading time ~ 2 minutes

In my first article on “breaking the seal” I described how this pattern applies to managing WIP on teams. There’s also a work/social concept that fits the same name with a different pattern…

Name: “Breaking the Seal”, “The Lid is Off” etc.

Analogy: When you open a new pack of good coffee there’s that great smell that comes out – suddenly everyone wants a brew.

Concept: Socially, many people are unwilling to speak up in a crowd or be the exception either in positive or negative situations. Fortunately for experienced agile teams, the social norm of staying silent has often become disrupted but you’ll need to break it back open once in a while and as a coach you’ll need to find ways to introduce it.

Being the first to speak up triggers team inertia; suddenly others’ voices will also be found.

How many times have you sat in a meeting where someone uses a term or concept you have no idea what they mean but you don’t speak up? How many other people in the room also have no clue but stay silent? This might be inertia, it might be fear or just an unwillingness to appear stupid. Particularly with technical teams where your career goal may be “technical guru” – being seen as wrong or not clued up may be a sign of weakness. Having a “wise fool” on the team breaks the seal on this but needs some caution applied.

In some organizational cultures it may not be socially acceptable to question more senior staff. This really gets to me. In fact, I’ll write another post dedicated to this.

Occasionally speaking up might be risky, particularly if there’s obvious management issues. (Nobody likes to speak about the elephant in the room when the elephant is in the room) In these cases arrange with a few like-thinking peers to take it in turns to be the one to raise issues so it’s not always you. This will also ensure that you’re not speaking alone with others relying on you to take the risks up every time.

On the more positive side, the “red cards” tool relies on this same concept for group self-facilitation. Where once it becomes socially acceptable to halt a problem or challenge others the team’s self-organizing capability steps up another notch.

Practice this in your own teams – challenge yourself and your peers to ask a dumb question or plug a rat-hole at least once a week.