Episode #132 – No Surprises!

Featured speakers:

Clayton Lengel-Zigich Clayton Derek Neighbors Derek Jade Meskill Jade Roy van de Water Roy

Roy van de Water, Jade Meskill, Clayton Lengel-Zigich, and Derek Neighbors discuss:

  • No Surprises


Jade Meskill:  Hello. Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Jade Meskill.

Roy van de Water:  I’m Roy van de Water.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich:  I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Derek Neighbors:  And I’m Derek Neighbors.

Jade:  We wanted to talk about a recent situation that’s come up with a team that we’ve been working with. Some unexpected things happened to the organization and the team got their hands slapped.

And took a look back at how they found themselves in this situation and came up with a really interesting working agreement around “no surprises.” The idea was that anybody who was impacted by their actions would understand what they’re doing before take action.

Let’s give a little bit of background about how they got there.

Clayton:  The 30‑second version is the opposite of what their agreement was. There were some actions that were taken by the team that surprised the absolute crap out of a lot of people.

Derek:  The thing that is interesting is if something feels obfuscated, it can elicit feelings that are much more exaggerated than they really are. In this particular instance, a team was working towards doing something, and they were talking to multiple members of other teams to get this done within the organization.

However, they released what they were doing into production without telling the other teams they had been talking to that they were going to do that. When that happened, not only was there a surprise of, “Whoa, how did this get into production”? But there was this feeling that, clearly the team that did it must have been lying, hiding, and doing a bunch of things behind everybody’s back.

They didn’t take the time to let them know, which even exaggerated the emotions of “not only am I surprised, now I feel I’ve been lied to, and I feel you tried to hide this from me.”

I take it personal, and it’s very angry, and this caused all sorts of ripple effects. So I think, when you surprise people, there’s more than the surprise ‑‑ it’s the emotional reaction that I tend to imply all sorts of intentions on your part. Clearly because you surprise me, you must have been hiding something from me, lying to me, or doing something. Because if you weren’t, you would have been forthcoming about it.

Jade:  So is it fair to say that when you find yourself surprised you by default assume the worst intention.

Derek:  Absolutely.

Clayton:  Yeah. I think that’s fair.

Roy:  I think that’s probably a safety mechanism. That allows you to prepare for the worst.

Derek:  I think it’s just kind of human nature. Why wouldn’t you share something with me, unless you had some malintention.

Clayton:  Right. You have something to hide. That’s obviously, why he didn’t say anything.

Roy:  Right. If you had share with me, I could have offered all sorts of help like, “Derek, why did you surprise me”? I could have made your life so much easier if you just told me.

Jade:  I could have just thought you know, and then it would have been real simple.

Derek:  And then the other thing that it goes to is ‑‑ it goes to trust building. When you get surprised and you feel that their intent was probably malintent because you were surprised, it erodes trust. This can go from the littlest of things to the biggest things.

When a team makes a commitment as, “We’re going to get this to you by the end of the week, or by the end of the sprint, or by the end of the day,” and they don’t do it, that erodes trust. In the same way, if you do something and you don’t tell somebody that it’s going to happen and that’s a surprise.

Or a new feature shows up and they didn’t know about it, it’s a surprise. It could be a customer could be surprised, your own team could be surprised.

I mean, how many times have you been maybe out there…If you’re a developer and somebody on a team basically power‑coded all weekend and added all these fantastic features. You show up the work on Monday, all the stuff is there and a bunch of the crap is broken. And you’re totally pissed off at them even though you like all of the features that they have gone and put it.

Because you didn’t talk to anybody, about any of those things, they just dump them and they’re not in Monday morning when you come in. And there’s all these problems that you don’t know how it works.

Jade:  Even when there’s not problems. You have that feeling that maybe, yeah, it’s cool that they did that but you just don’t like the way that that happened. How you were shocked by those things just magically appearing.

Clayton:  What does it say and what can you do if you’re an organization where you want to do something. If you were to adapt the “no surprises” mentality and you said, “OK, I don’t want to surprises these people or just person.”

But when you went and said, “Hey, I’m planning on doing this later today or I’d made a commitment and I in order to fulfill my commitment I need to do XYZ.” That person says, “Oh, no, you cannot do that under any circumstances, I am telling you no, right now.” How do you deal with that?

Roy:  If you’re in alignment and headed towards the same goal, that shouldn’t be an issue, right?

Clayton:  Let’s say that you’re not in alignment.

Derek:  Are they bigger or smaller than me?


Clayton:  I think that’s some conflict. If you didn’t have “no surprises,” and you went and did it anyway, you’d piss that person off, but if you think it’s the right thing to do and it’s the thing that’s going to help you be successful with getting your outcome, but for whatever reason this person is saying no.

Let’s say that they’re saying no for the wrong reasons. That’s probably a typical example. There’s someone that’s the gatekeeper for something and everything must flow through them, and maybe they don’t have the bandwidth for you right now, or they just don’t like you, or they don’t think you’re important. They’re going to tell you “No,” no matter what.

At what point do you say, “Hey, I’m planning on doing this,” and you do it anyway? You’re not violating the “no surprises” because you’ve told them you’re going to do it, you’re just defying them.

Derek:  I think that’s a good example of ‑‑ who else would be surprised by that? If I’ve got a boss, and I go to another person and I say, “Hey, I plan on doing XYZ,” and they say, “No, you can’t do that,” and I say “OK, great, I’m going to do it anyways.”

I didn’t surprise them, but when they go tell their boss, and their boss calls my boss, and now my boss goes “What the hell is going on”? He’s surprised, or she’s surprised.

In that situation one of the things I would make sure I do is, who’s going to be impacted by my behavior that may be surprised, and maybe I should let them know so that they’re not surprised.

Jade:  I think that’s the challenge. Understanding what that really means. The people that would be impacted by my actions ‑‑ there are usually a lot more people than you think that are indirectly impacted by the actions that you’re going to take.

That’s an interesting thing about the way that the team came up with the idea that whoever’s impacted, understands. Doesn’t necessarily have to agree, or give permission, but that they understand what you are about to do.

Roy:  They understand they will be impacted, that does not mean that they will like it.

Clayton:  For me, a lot of that part of it goes back to the difference between honesty and transparency. That example of ‑‑ tell my wife, like “I went and had drinks with the guys.” I might be very honest about that.

But if I’m transparent I might say “We went to Babes Cabaret,” right?


Clayton:  That’s a very different story to tell. I’m being very honest. I had drinks with the guys. That is a 100 percent truthful statement, but I am not being transparent.

Where, the no surprises thing would make me think in those terms. If I go over to someone and say “I’m planning on doing this, here’s why I’m doing it, I don’t even care if you think it’s a good idea or not. I’m doing this, and if you tell me no, I’m still doing it anyway, but I’m not surprising you.”

I think that’s different than walking over and saying “How would you go about this to do this”? “I don’t think you should be doing that.” “Oh yeah, I’m not saying that, just hypothetical.”

Those are very different things. You’re sort of telling that person that maybe this might be happening, whereas “no surprises” really is, “I’m going to be 100 percent transparent that I plan on doing this and I’m telling you that I’m going to do it. Sorry if you don’t like it.”

Derek:  Some of those, too, you have to be careful. You can’t be transparent after the fact, either. “Hey, I just went into the refrigerator and I ate your lunch.” 10 minutes before your lunch time, I come to you and say, “Hey, by the way Jade, I ate your lunch today. You’re going to be impacted. Ha ha ha.”

Jade:  No surprises. You didn’t go to lunch and were surprised.

Clayton:  That’s kind of like a “By the way…”

Derek:  By the way, don’t be surprised, I ate your lunch.

Clayton:  I’m trying to think of other scenarios. I think Derek you mentioned the team scenario about not surprising other people on the team by doing your hero power coding session.

The more I thought about it, and I think talking to other people on the team, the no surprises thing really does have a lot of…Doing some action that impacts a lot of people and has ripple effects, when you think about no surprises in that context, you really have to be strategic about thinking about all the different people.

That might be, like you said, your boss. I might go make this person upset and they go complain to somebody. I think we’ve had a discussion about not wanting to flood the inbox of your boss with a whole bunch of useless messages, but you wanted to make sure at least that if they couldn’t know ahead of time, at least they knew at the same time as someone else. That kind of thing.

Derek:  I think, there’s a couple of key principles or philosophies around this. One of the things is A, if you really believe that surprises are bad and hurt you, you have to put yourself in full disclosure mode all the time.

It becomes like your natural behavior starts to become to disclose what you’re doing to the people that are around you on a regular basis. So that by default, you know you’re not surprising people.

If you have to sit there and think every time I do something, “Should I disclose this to other people? May they be pissed off”? You are going to fuck up a whole lot and always be surprising people.

If instead, your default behavior is, “I’m doing this. I don’t care,” this time I’m surprising them.

Jade:  That’s broadcasting your intentions.

Derek:  Broadcast intentions a lot. The other part of that is if you want to be in that type of culture you have to be OK with saying, I am OK with having a flood of broadcast of intentions coming at me. And I will filter what I think is important.

If I’m the boss, I work in a non‑profit organization where one of the defaults are, I would rather you include me on a mail so that I never surprised by any of this non‑profit works with a ton of mayors and council members and people of influence.

I never want to go to a dinner party or a mixer, and have somebody of influence come up to me, and ask me something and me go I have no idea of what you’re talking about.

I ask Executive Director, please include me on anything that you think will impact me. I would come up as something like this. I would choose the whether it’s important to me or not.

I’m not going to respond to it. I’m not going to say yes or no. I’m not asking you to ask for permission to do anything. I just want to be informed of what’s going on around me so I don’t look stupid.

I think good bosses and leaders are OK with that. Go ahead send it to me. If I don’t like it, I’ll just start devnulling what I don’t care about.

When I’m mad at you, I can go back and go, I can’t really be mad at you because you let me know about that. But that’s a huge cultural shift to do those kinds of things.

Jade:  It really leads to very thoughtful, intentional action. You really aren’t acting off the cuff. You’re being considerate and thoughtful before you take any sort of action.

How does that slow things down or speed things up? How does that affect how the team might accomplish its goals?

Clayton:  I would say that in theory you wouldn’t necessarily be slowed down because you’re not saying that you’re not going to do things just because someone might say no, or be upset, or not want you to.

I think you are probably saving yourself a lot of grief and probably future time in having to deal with the fall out of not being transparent in broadcasting your intent. There might be times you get away with it. You might be able to do something and no one’s going to listen and its all fine.

Maybe, the 1 out of 10 times that you get caught will slow you down way more. You lose all the trust. Now you have to be so explicit in the future. I think that you take so many steps back when you do that.

Derek:  I think of it like this “karma bank.” There’s this trust bank or vulnerability bank so all of the times that I am spinning effort and doing that, the one time that I forget and I do surprise somebody.

If I got a whole bunch of currency over here in the saved column, it buys me a whole heck of a lot. If all the time you’re disclosing stuff and for once, you don’t, I’m like, “Oh man, we’re in the heat of the moment, I totally forgot to say it.”

It’s a heck of lot easy for me not to have horrible intentions about what it was because I know the…

Jade:  I can assume it’s an honest mistake.

Derek:  Yeah. We were all human and stuff happens. The one time that you’re able to cash that in is almost invaluable in terms of time wasted.

I guess, you said, Clayton ‑‑ we’re not having to do damage control. We’re not having do all of this. We’re not having to have a meeting ‑‑ to have a meeting, to have an action meeting.

The first time you have to call 10 people and a team or an organization on a room to review something because somebody was surprised, you probably made up for that instantly the first time you don’t have to have one of those meetings.

Jade:  We talked about the perfect boss. How does the perfect teammate work in this type of no surprises idea?

Derek:  It goes back to perfect teammate to me discloses when they think it’s going to impact people in meaningful ways.

Clayton:  Meaning broadcasting your intention and being mindful of not surprising.

Jade:  So not just externally to other people but internally to your team?

Clayton:  Yeah. I think you have more touch points on the team. I would rather fill up my marble jar, karma bank for people on the team. Like us probably something I want to focus on more than external people.

Those are the people that I’m going to be working with every day and I have to have alignment with. Trust for me on the people on the team was probably more valuable in a long run. It helps me more successful than some random people in the organization.

Derek:  I would also say that the depth of impact should be equal to the depth of broadcast. There’s something like nobody’s going to be really ticked off about this and Clayton and I are only two in the room, I might say, “Hey Clayton, I’m going to do this and that’s fine.”

If Jade found out about it and he wasn’t there, he’s not going to be too pissed off that he didn’t know about it because the impact wasn’t a default.

If it’s something really impactful then I should make sure that I broadcast it to everybody. I think your signal should be equal to the impact that it will have around the people that are doing it.

Jade:  That’s great. With that, that wraps it up for today. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.