Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind“. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.
Most of us are quite good at what we do for a living, basically because we do it almost every day. This knowledge and expertise comes with several problems. As agile practitioners, we know that one of the big problems with big, up front planning of projects, is that we don’t know what we don’t know – so our plans for the future can never be perfect. One of the big problems with being an expert, is that we’re not actively aware of what we do know either.
Who would you rather hire to solve some complex business problem – an expert in the field, or a young, inexperienced person with no domain knowledge? The truth is, they can both provide valuable contributions. Without preconceived judgement, the beginner may ask strikingly efficient questions, turning the problem (and maybe the solution) upside down.
But here you are. Unfortunately you’ve become an expert in your field – jumping to conclusions and solving problems at an impressive pace. Now what?
You need to practice having a beginner’s mind. Believe it or not, it’s actually a lot more fun. It’s also a bit scary. You’re used to coming across as the person who has all the answers. Now you will have to behave and feel like you don’t really know much at all. The interesting thing about asking questions, is that you tend to get answers. Even when you think you know the answer already, it often turns out that you don’t.
The thing about beginners, is that they fail a lot. Even the very feeling of not knowing can feel like failure. You’re the expert, right? The cold stare of a boss or a customer when you ask a question you’re supposed to know the answer to. I should know this. I do know this! This beginner’s mind bullshit is going to cost me my job. Then they answer. Perhaps with a sarcastic tone.
And the answer isn’t what you expected.
You’re immediately kicked behind the knee by the feeling of surprise and (yet again) failure that you actually didn’t know. A second later, your feet barely touch the ground as the consequences of this new information floods your brain, mixed with the baffling realisation that the you of 1 minute ago, knew far less than you do right now.
Suddenly you remember what learning feels like.
I know you’re an expert, but why would you want to stop learning? My youngest son is 7 months. He fails a lot. He learns even more.
So, what’s it all about, this software business? Making money? Isn’t any business? Figure out how to bleed the customer of as much money as humanly possible, while doing as little as you can get away with. It’s a bit of an art, really.
It doesn’t matter if you’re buying software services for your company, or a carpenter to remodel your house. They strip you naked and hang you out to dry. That’s just the way modern business works, I guess.
Or is it?
At Revio we have a set of core values. One of them is Proud. By the end of the day, we need to be able to stand up straight, and be proud. Proud of who we are. Proud of what we accomplished.
Proud of how we have treated others, and proud of what we have delivered to you.
As much as we would like to be flawless, we are not. There are times when we look at the result of a project, a system update or some other deliverable, and must admit that it falls short. We ask ourselves if we can be proud of that delivery, and the answer is No, we can not.
I hold both myself and the rest of the team to high standards, so when that happens I feel really, really bad. Then our COO looks at me and says:
“Meanwhile in Africa..”
What he means is that sure, our server is down, our customer is furious, and it sucks. But while the customer may very well be furious, he’s not dead. He is not being killed in front of his wife and children in Libya, and luckily – neither are we.
When we’ve reminded ourselves that no matter how bad we screw up, most of the planet is still doing quite a bit worse than we are, it’s time to get back to work. Whatever was wrong must be put right, and whatever the customer is expecting, we must try to achieve.
Our way of conducting business may not be saving lives. However, by being honest, dependable and proud of what we do – we hope we are able to make yours at least a little bit better.
On my way to work today, I almost got a hard lesson in the evils of multitasking. I was doing maybe 70km/h on the highway during rush hour, and for some reason I looked out the side window for a few seconds. When I looked back on the road, the cars in front of me was standing still. And I was still doing 70.
Being a certified ninja driver, I instantly hit the brakes and ended up partially sideways about an arms length away from the nearest car. I also had time to peek in the rear view mirror, where I was able to share a look of panic with the guy in the car behind me. Luckily for me, his braking skills was as amazing as my own.
I guess that should have made me want to write something profound about life. About not wasting your life in the office, perhaps. And it kind of did.
When driving a car, you should really pay attention to what you’re doing. But it’s easy to get distracted when you’re sleepy, as I was. It’s also easy to get distracted when you’re bored.
People who really love what they do are often portrayed as being really focused. They may appear single minded, driven towards a goal. You’d probably not hear anyone describe them as distracted.
At the moment I drive a “family car”. It’s so boring to drive that I’m both distracted and sleepy before I even get out of my driveway. A few years back I had a purpose built sports car. Something about it seemed to demand my full attention at all times.
Sure, I drove more aggressively when I had it, but I was also a lot more focused behind the wheel. Driving to work was no longer a task, it was fun. I was focused on driving the car, and never got distracted by random objects along the road. Driving a sports car actually made me a better driver. I was doing something fun. And part of what made it fun, was that I was a part of a well functioning system. So if you are easily and often distracted at work, why is that?
How does it feel when you sit behind your desk at the office, does it feel like you’re driving a Porsche? Or are you actually bored and frustrated? Are your boss, your co-workers or the processes and policies of your company preventing you from doing a good job?
If that is the case, please let me remind you that you are spending nearly half of your waking hours at that desk. That’s a lot of time spent not having fun.
Let’s say you witness a boy fall off his bike. What do you see? What do you do? If you help the kid back up on his bike, most would argue that you’ve solved the issue at hand. But isn’t it likely that the boy will soon fall off again? And if that is the case, did you really solve the problem?
If we scratch the surface, there’s a whole range of other problems hidden behind the most obvious one. Why did the child fall off the bike? He probably needs more training in order to reliably control a bicycle. He certainly lacks basic risk management skills. Do we have an equipment problem? Perhaps the bike is of the wrong type or size for the child?
Riding a bike is basically a process. I don’t know about you, but when the rider of the bike ends up face down in a ditch more often that not, I see room for improvement.
Let’s leave the kid and his bike for now. Say a customer reports a bug in your software. What do you do? Fix the bug, of course! Problem solved, right? Wrong. Why wasn’t the bug discovered before the software was released to the customer? Your test team (if you even have one) should have prevented that from happening. So improving your test and QA process will do the trick, surely? The QA manager raises his hand: Wait a minute, isn’t the developer supposed to test his work before releasing it to us? A lazy developer must be the real problem here!
At this point you’re probably on to me. “I see what you did there,” you say with satisfaction in your voice. These are all reactive solutions to the real problem. The real question. Why did the bug occur in the first place? Lazy or incompetent developers? Maybe. Someone has created a piece of software that doesn’t work as intended. You may guess my next question: WHY?
When I find myself in a similar situation, I often find that the developer wasn’t given enough information to make the right choices during development. Let’s all say it together: Shit in, shit out. If I had a better developer, he may have recognized the turd when I shit in his hand, but I can hardly argue the origin of the turd itself.
So we have established that I’m full of shit, but how did we do that? We did a (somewhat informal) root cause analysis. As a fan of Lean and the heritage from the Toyota Production System, I like the 5 Why’s. – It’s a process where you basically keep asking why until you arrive at the real source of whatever problem you need to resolve.
The kid fell off his bike – Why?
He doesn’t really know how to ride a bike all that well – Why?
His dad doesn’t have time to teach him – Why?
He works all the time – Why?
He thinks making money for his family is more important than being there for his kid.
So there you go. Not only did you learn how to solve problems (instead of just removing symptoms), you also got a life lesson. No worries, you can thank me later. Now put down your laptop and go be with your family. And never solve another problem without asking WHY at least five times!