We need more rubber ducks in Agile

Stand-ups, as we all know, form the backbone of work in Agile. People gather once a day and go over three questions: What did I do yesterday, what am I doing today, and what obstacles do I have?

There’s been a lot of writing about how important stand-ups are. In fact, if I had to pick only one thing from all the Agile practices to implement rigorously, it would be stand-ups. They allow a team to communicate better, organize their work, make commitments to each other, and dynamically plan their day. Done well, they can lead to an almost meeting-free workplace. Done poorly, they become just another question-and-answer status report.

We all know how they work. But why do they work? Traditionally, we’ve talked about how informal conversations work better than written documentation. Get folks in a room and have them tell each other what their situation is. This allows folks to make commitments to the team and share with the team things that need attention. It’s all about communication.

Recently, however, some authors in the business management community have suggested that the key part of the stand-up is the third question: what obstacles do I have? I’ve long thought this was the case. Identify your obstacles and that way the rest of the team can help you with them.

But that’s not what they mean.

Examining great business leaders, such as J.D. Rockefeller or T.Boone Pickens, each of them felt that the key to their success was their daily meetings with their team. But the reason wasn’t peer-to-peer communication. It wasn’t even identifying problems. It was having each person on the team vocalize what their worries and obstacles were.

You see, many of us carry around a list of things we’re worried about and that we need to work on. But the area of the brain that carries these concerns is actually different from the area best suited to work on it. By requiring that we vocalize and explain our worries and obstacles, it engages the parts of our brain better able to solve problems.

Developers see this all of the time. When they run into a particularly nasty bug, many times they’ll start talking aloud to themselves, explaining what they’re trying to do and what they expect the result to be. As they “talk out” the problem, their brain, by hearing the words, begins working on the problem from a different angle. Pretty soon the problem is solved. This method even has a name — “Rubber Duck Debugging”, which means you can put a rubber duck on your monitor. Talk to the duck when you’re having problems, and you’ll better be able to solve them.

The same benefits can be gained by talking about what you’re planning to do. Vocalization dramatically helps execution.


I’m not sure I buy into this as much as others do, but it does bring up some fascinating ideas to increase productivity for our Agile teams. Perhaps we should be concentrating much more on having team members talk honestly about problems instead of focusing so much on commitments. Perhaps teams themselves should have more games where they verbalize, explain in detail, and write down concerns.

Perhaps we need more rubber ducks.

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September 16, 2013

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