The Polished Rocks metaphor

I hope you find this useful.  It's one of the most useful lessons I've learnt in the last five years.

In Agile we deliberately structure our projects to pull forward most of the pain and frustration that normally gets left until the end where it's harder to fix.  We chose to confront it very early on when it's easier to fix and we have a lot of runway ahead of us to recover.

This "bring it on" approach is not always a fun way to work - especially if you're not used to it.  It can be very disconcerting - is the entire project going to be like this?  It can be demoralising - we fix one problem only to reveal 3 more, will this ever stop.  It can look in competent - This is the most unhealthy and chaotic project I've ever worked on.  And yet, it's very healthy.

I [try to] console people in a nice, sensible and logical manner by explaining that the early-pain is deliberate and that things do get better over time and that they're really only in trouble if today's problems are the same as last month's problems and the month before's and so on.  I also explain Tuckman's forming, storming, norming and performing model.  But that kinda logic only goes so far.

Last year I stumbled across this little known story from Steve Jobs which I've added to my toolkit.  It's a simple metaphor and for many people it's more consoling (maybe even inspiring) than the logic.

But what I've always felt that a team of people doing something they really believe in is like is like when I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

And one day he said to me, "come on into my garage I want to show you something." And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, "come on with me." We went out into the back and we got just some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, "come back tomorrow."

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.

And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.



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