Optimizing for the hardest challenges requires the right “training wheels”

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Do your training wheels solve the right problem? Depends on what you’re optimizing for. By training wheels in this context, I mean the part of the challenge that you make easier (automate, hold constant, etc.) instead of focus on learning. If you want to reach high levels of success, it’s important to take on the hardest challenges. And, if you want to get good at the “hardest challenges”, you don’t want training wheels that solve the problem for you, you want training wheels that help you get rid of the training wheels as fast as possible (because training wheels are a commodity).

For example, when learning to ride a bicycle the hardest skill is balancing. And, it’s more effective to learn how to balance without training wheels. You need to make the task appropriately challenging and build the key skill of balancing — e.g. with a strider bike.

A broad example from software development is that too often I see marketing, product, or process solutions that are optimizing for solving the problem — i.e. the “performance” of the solution. This goes back to the idea that we really optimize for performance and devalue learning & feedback— despite many of us saying we optimize for learning & feedback. Solving the problem is important, but solving how to learn is more important. This is just one example of how we should be building our constraints, or training wheels, around the hardest thing to do.

How would your marketing, building product, or defining process look different if you optimized for learning instead of performance?

In your product, did you optimize for delivering a feature to the customer, or for better understanding your ability to know if you are meeting your customers’ needs. The former is more about performance, whereas the latter is about learning. The hardest thing isn’t shipping the feature (although doing that well is hard), the hardest thing is understanding how you are meeting customer needs. If your training wheels help you to ship features (even ones your customers asked for), you aren’t getting better at the hardest thing. It’s probably controversial, yet, I think a lot of customer feedback that comes from surveys is simply training wheels — and it often stops people from learning to do better customer research.

In your process, did you optimize for simply rolling out the next iteration of a process or were you more focused on providing a clear way to continually utilize feedback to improve your team? The former is more about performance, whereas the latter is about learning. The hardest thing isn’t rolling out a new process (although change management is hard), the hardest thing is building commitment to continuous improvement. If your training wheels make it easy to rollout new process, you aren’t getting better at the hardest thing. I’ve often made the mistake of spending a lot of time coming up with how to introduce a better way and how to communicate it, this is training wheels for the team, but it doesn’t teach them to own their process at all. So, my goals would be better served working with the team on it together — guiding them in how to come up with a better process.

One more process example, I’ve seen some directors or VPs asking teams to go to what they call Scrum 101. What they mean is they just want teams to go through the “ceremonies”. This is the cargo cult of being agile. Performing the ceremonies is not valuable and is definitely the wrong training wheels, teaching people how to comply and follow ceremonies. Instead, if you’re getting started with agile, start with focusing on activities and outcomes that add customer value, e.g. customer collaboration and empowered teams — maybe start with developers being present with customers or working with support, then asking questions, and responding to customers, etc.

Back to the idea of training wheels, I don’t want to get too caught up in my suggestions of what is more important. Choose what’s important to your success, often it will be your hardest challenge (because that’s where you can gain a large competitive advantage — something unique and hard to copy). Then, rather than putting some training wheels in place that help you do better, ensure what you do is reinforcing building skills to deal with the hardest challenges so that you get better.

Coach. Leader. Manager. Passionate about helping people. Curious about problems, especially customer. Create environments for delivering software people love.

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