Agile, Design, and the Pursuit of Mastery

One of the principles of the Agile Manifesto is, “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

The general belief is that a self-organizing team has enhanced ability to produce high-quality working software efficiently. But how often are we able to create such an environment, where the teams are motivated and take full accountability for the work they do? We need to get smart about the hierarchy of smart.

Don’t talk to all your employees, all your users or all your prospects the same way, because they’re not the same. If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail. — Seth Godin

Now, I’m a huge Seth Godin fan but I’d go a step further and say if we ask team members to take responsibility before they are ready, we will also fail. I feel only when a UX designer reaches the Competent level is he/she ready and willing to take ownership for their work.

“…you might see folks at this level typically described as “having initiative” and being “resourceful.” They tend to be in a leadership role in the team…even at this level, practitioners can’t apply agile methods the way we would like — there isn’t yet enough ability for reflection and self correction…” — Andrew Hunt

When we don’t have enough Competent and Proficient UX Designers available (in terms of skills and not a reflection of the person…Stage 3 referenced below) we cannot reasonably expect them to be ready to take ownership.

So how do we help designers become ready?

For this discussion I will be referencing the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. The Dreyfus model is used fairly widely (a) to provide a means of assessing and supporting progress in the development of skills or competencies, and (b) to provide a definition of acceptable level for the assessment of competence or capability. The ‘expert’ level does not signify that development stops, as expert practitioners need to evaluate their practice and keep up-to-date with new processes.

Stage 1: Novice

Has an incomplete understanding, approaches tasks mechanistically and needs supervision to complete them.

  1. The novice follows rules
  2. Specific Rules for specific circumstances
  3. Wants to be given a manual, told what to do, with no decisions required

Stage 2: Advanced Beginner

Has a working understanding, tends to see actions as a series of steps, can complete simpler tasks without supervision.

  1. Rules begin to be applied to related conditions
  2. Decisions still based on rule application
  3. Does not experience personal responsibility…yet

Stage 3: Competence

Has a good working and background understanding, sees actions at least partly in context, able to complete work independently to a standard that is acceptable though it may lack refinement.

  1. Learns organizing principles or “perspectives”
  2. The experience of responsibility arises from active decision-making
  3. Wants the ability to make plans, create routines and choose among activities

Stage 4: Proficiency

Has a deep understanding, sees actions holistically, can achieve a high standard routinely

  1. Prioritizes importance of aspects
  2. Perceives deviations from the normal pattern
  3. The more freedom you offer, the more you expect, the more you’ll get

Stage 5: Expertise

Has an authoritative or deep holistic understanding, deals with routine matters intuitively, able to go beyond existing interpretations, achieves excellence with ease.

  1. Transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims
  2. Intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding
  3. Writes the manual, doesn’t follow it.

The concept of “it takes 10,000 hours of training to be an expert” from Ericsson is based on the generalization that it takes 10 years or so to accrue this experience. Sadly many do not reach the desired level — many repeat one year of experience ten times, rather than deliberately train and gain mastery.

Classic Model of Skills Acquisition (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2005)
Not everyone transitions to expert stage; many are doomed to confuse proficiency with expertise; few reach true mastery.

Many of the traits that keep a designer from reaching mastery are very indicative of both Agile and Lean processes, notably the “one task at a time” and “risk-aversion”. Additionally being embedded in Scrum teams that focus on a focused user journey impedes a designer from practicing the ability to see things holistically which is crucial to achieving mastery.

Going beyond just being competent…

The keep point in achieving mastery is that it requires deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is different from work, play and simple repetition of a task. It requires effort, it has no monetary reward, and it is not inherently enjoyable (as some SCRUM teams measure happiness this is important to note). When we engage in deliberate practice, improving our performance over time is our goal and motivation. That’s not to say that deliberate practice can’t be designed to be fun, but it isn’t inherently enjoyable on it’s own.

The four essential components of deliberate practice.

  1. You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.
  2. The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  3. You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.
  4. You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

As we embark on our careers as professional UX designers we do need to be advocates for our own advancement. In our Agile teams we can perform well and be rewarded at the competent and proficient levels but if we get complacent I fear that is as far as we’ll go.

To become true masters of our craft we need to seek out those that can provide immediate informative feedback that we trust. We need good old fashioned critiques by experts, from designers who have been there and can help us level up.

I find the actionable path that synthesizes elegant visual solutions with business and user needs.