Don't panic


Some days it seems like my job is mostly about not allowing people to panic. Or at least pointedly ignoring those who do. I hate doing it, I really do — it’s not in my nature to ignore people’s emotions, or their ideas or inputs, but I simply can’t allow the presence of panic in the process.

We constantly encounter panic in many obvious and many more subtle forms, but it’s important to understand the different manifestations of panic and that there is really one root cause: the fear of commitment.

No, I’m not talking about the kind of commitment which explains why “there ain’t no ring on your finger” — I’m talking about the commitment to expend some effort.  For example:

  • You fear that what you thought was the right thing to do actually isn’t — you panic that you won’t be able to change your mind and that you’ll have wasted time and effort on something which will be of zero use.
  • Even though you know what the right thing to do is, you fear that you won’t do it exactly right — you panic that you are not ready to commit yet without gathering even more information about how to do it right.
  • Something bad (unexpected) happened with your last commitment and you panic that if it happens again you will look really bad.
  • The bad thing that happened means that all your previously communicated timescales have been delayed, and you panic that when you communicate this delay you will look really bad.
  • Although you originally committed to make person A happy, person B is now shouting so loudly about what they want that you are panicking you may have committed to the wrong person.
  • Complaints from person C suddenly start to increase — they are having some kind of emergency. Now you panic that you should never have committed to person A or B and want to drop everything to look after person C.

Sound familiar? This fear of commitment is endemic in business, and for good reason. People are expensive, time is expensive and our competition is always poised for us to slip up. So what should we do? What should we do!? I’ll tell you what we shouldn’t do:

Don’t Panic.

We’re using Agile right? (Nod your heads) This is a fabulous start. We can leave our decision making to the last possible minute, and we don’t need to invest in loads of up-front specification or design work. Even when we get it wrong, the impact will minimal. Still got that panicky feeling? Okay, let’s dig a little deeper.

Fear of doing the wrong thing

You’ve been working hard to identify the best thing to work on next. You’ve analysed the costs, the benefits, and you’ve found others who support your approach. Is there really a better alternative right now? One thing you simply can’t do is nothing at all, so have a little faith in yourself.

And so what if you’re wrong? You won’t have wasted too much time, and better yet — this is the beauty part — you’ve learned so much by being wrong. It’s very rare that any effort is really wasted. Often what you’ve done can be re-used later, or used by others now. If you really do feel like you did the wrong thing, then it must have been for lack of some knowledge or insight. If you now know you were wrong then you must have gained that lacking knowledge or insight in the end. That’s a big deal.

Don’t fear doing the wrong thing because it happens all the time and it’s how we all grow. Don’t panic.

Fear of imperfection

So you’re sure you’re doing the right thing, but you’re worried you’ll screw it up? Listen, if you’re going to screw it up, you’re going to screw it up. You’ve prepared as much as you can, and it’s time to get stuck in now, so best thing to do is to just give it a whirl, see what happens!

Even if you do screw it up, at least you’ll know better how to do it next time. Okay, so it’s taken longer than you anticipated, but could you really have prevented that? If you’re so worried about doing it wrong, why don’t you just make sure to pay extra attention to what you’re doing so that you can improve and refine as you go along? If we spend all our time waiting for assurances of perfection, we’ll end up waiting forever and achieving nothing at all.

Don’t fear imperfection, because only by studying our imperfection can we learn how to achieve perfection. Don’t panic.

Fear of looking bad

Oh dear. So you think that people only take notice of the bad stuff, and never the good stuff? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done great things in the past? Or that you’re honest about your occasional failures? Or that everyone’s giving their best every day and working as a team to achieve some shared success?

Are people really judging you on your failures alone? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then you’re in the wrong job my friend. How can you ever be happy if you’re the one who gets kicked when things go wrong and never the one who gets the pat on the back when things go right?

Worried about job security? Well you just told me how much success you’ve had — I’m sure there are plenty of other organisations who’d value that success. Organisations that wouldn’t beat you up every time you have a set-back.

But really now, are things that bad? Maybe it’s all in your head — maybe the people in your organisation understand that there’s some risk involved in what you do, and that in general you’re a great team of people who do some truly excellent work. Maybe you’re beating yourself up.

Let’s talk about timeline slippage for just a second. If you’re working on a fixed-scope, fixed-time project then you need to add a nice big buffer in so you can meet your deadline without fear of repercussions. You might want to read Agile Estimation and Planning by Mike Cohn if you haven’t already, there’s a nice chapter in there somewhere about buffering these kinds of projects. But if you’re still left wondering why your project has both these constraints in the first place then maybe you need to raise the question. Maybe one or the other constraint is really not so important after all and can be relaxed. However the constraints are set, the only way you can guarantee disappointment is by not being honest from the outset about what’s achievable.

Seriously, don’t worry about looking bad. You look pretty good from where I’m standing and if others can’t see that then it’s probably a problem with them, not you. Don’t panic.

Fear of pleasing the wrong person

What a wonderful dilemma! If you’re halfway through building something for person A and drop everything to look after person B, isn’t it possible that you could end up pissing off both of them? Perhaps it’s better to make sure person A is happy before you move on to B.

Sometimes it’s hard to say ‘No’ to person B though. But why is it you who has to say that dirty word? Ever think of getting persons A and B together in a room to do their own dirty work? After all, it’s not like you’re creating this pressure, it’s A and B and their conflicting needs that are the issue here. So let’s say A “wins” and B gets pissed off — he’s not pissed off at you though, he’s pissed off at A. That’s a result for you. Or better yet, maybe when A talks to B she’s able to see things from his point of view and decides B’s needs are more important — then they both end up happy! Or maybe she sees room for concessions which gives you scope to do work for both of them after all.

Don’t fear pleasing the wrong person — better to fear pleasing no-one at all. Best of all is to get everyone to make peace with each other, but either way — don’t panic.

Fear of emergencies

This is a toughie. Even when you’re doing Agile, an iteration can seem like an awfully long time when someone’s screaming down the phone for an instant solution. You need nerves of steel to handle this one. But even when four-letter words are raining down upon your head like fire and brimstone, this really isn’t the time to panic.

If a fire starts in a school, do you stop all the children’s lessons, give each one a bucket and get them to run around lugging water backwards and forwards? No — you’d need a lot of buckets, there’d be pandemonium and you’d almost certainly lose some of the little nippers to the fire or maybe trampling because none of them are really trained firefighters. Also they’d get behind in their lessons. Actually the thing to do is isolate the children from the dangerous situation, keep them calm and then call in the professionals.

If you expect emergencies to arise, you need to have a number to call for the professionals. I’m not going to go into how exactly you might do this — it varies considerably and (like all Good Things where the exact detail is practically inconsequential) is highly controversial. But you do need to be somehow prepared and ready to act.

You need to set up your emergency crew in such a way that it will be extremely unlikely to affect your day-to-day running, because if you end up regularly changing your stated plans to fight fires then you will start to look bad (and remember you don’t like that?) Not just because you end up missing your targets because of all the interruptions, but because it will be obvious that you are panicking and panicking looks bad!

So don’t fear emergencies, unless you don’t have a plan for them, in which case you’d better make one right now. The only thing you should fear is the indignity of having to respond to the inevitable emergency with panic so — don’t panic!

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Panic and Scrum

I’ve tried to keep this discussion intentionally agnostic to methodology although I’ve assumed for your sake you are Agile in some sense. But I did want to very quickly touch on how the cardinal rules of Scrum are threatened by unchecked panic:

  • Fear of doing the wrong thing can lead to calls to Cancel the Sprint to avoid “wasting” any more time. Cancelling shouldn’t be used to correct for uncertainty like this. Stick to your commitment for the sake of team morale if nothing else.
  • Fear of imperfection leads to scope creep and chronic under-estimation. You can’t change scope halfway through a Sprint. Be brutal when reflecting on estimation. Was the work really harder than you thought, or did insecurity make you dither?
  • Fear of looking bad leads to constant interruptions of the team. Trust them to do you proud, and for heaven’s sake, leave them alone! Add buffers to fixed-scope, fixed-time projects.
  • Fear of pleasing the wrong person leads you to try and please everyone by putting the team under pressure to cut corners. Do not do this! It makes them feel dirty and bullied and will certainly come back to bite you one day (probably soon).
  • Fear of emergencies creates a general sense of chaos and who knows what you might do? “Borrow” (i.e. steal) people from the Sprint, Cancel the thing entirely, buzz around telling people to hurry up or else just making them feel nervous. Do not do it!

If you’re a Scrum professional who finds themselves confronted with a crowd of wild-eyed panicking colleagues just itching to tamper with your team, remember that panic can be infectious. Remain calm, grab your towel and try and talk them out of it. Don’t be afraid to be insistent. If all else fails, point them my way and I’ll have a word with them.