From Perception to Reality

perceptionRecently I was speaking to a client about an issue that I have started to see with a growing number of their agile development teams.  The actual issue is irrelevant, but as I began to speak about what I was perceiving (we’ll come back to this word shortly), I was told that I was wrong and the facts were 100% contrary to my perception.  At first, I was taken aback.  Not by the correction, but that I had completely missed the information that this individual brought to the table.

As in every situation where I feel I have just completely missed it, I stepped back to do a bit of retrospective.  “What did I do right?” I thought to myself. . .  “What/where did I miss it?” I continued to think. . .  Generally, at this point my stupidity becomes quite obvious!  Side note – it is quite amazing what happens when you take a few minutes to figure out what went wrong and try to get the bottom of it.  However I was unable to identify a clear point, whether through error or omission, where I completely missed this critical piece of information that would change the entire conversation. “What was it about my perception that missed what this person said was fact?”

Perception is an interesting word.  At its most basic definition, it means, “the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.”  In other words, it is more than just using one sense – it is a holistic approach.   As I started to go back through conversations and emails and such, I realized that if something sounds like a duck, looks like a duck, and smells like a duck, it is a duck.  I also realized that the facts presented were actually no more than perceptions themselves; perceptions based, actually, on yet another persons perception.  What we had here was the classic battle between an external perception versus internal.  Now it was necessary to find out what reality was.

In my line of work, it is extremely important to understand that people’s perceptions tend to shape outcomes.  If business perceives that there is not benefit to agile, then the organization will suffer.  If the team perceives that there is no executive sponsorship or backing, then morale tanks and productivity follows.  Part of coaching then becomes trying to align everyone’s perception to as close to reality as possible.  This is where psychology and counseling comes to the forefront.  One simply cannot tell someone they are wrong and that their perception is flawed.  Even your physical senses are manipulated by your past experiences and social constructs.  However, perception can be a powerful training tool as well.

You see, reality is something that should not be relative; it can be complex, but it isn’t relative.  In the case of this issue, the reality required that all of us dig for the facts of the matter.  It also illuminated the that if I was seeing the situation in a certain way, it was also being seen that way by others.  It was not a time to get defensive or to argue about the reality, it was a time to make sure that all of our perceptions matched the reality.  In a way this is what inspection is about in agile.  From the review to the retrospective, it is about aligning what everyone thinks is going on to what is actually happening and then course correcting if necessary.

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