David Caulfield

Turning up the Good

Get better results by focusing on what's working

In his book, Extreme Programming Explained, Kent Beck describes how Extreme Programming was conceived: "My goal in laying out the project style was to take everything I knew to be valuable about software engineering and turn the dials to 10." Woody Zuill, the author of Mob Programming, took this idea with one of his teams, running a short retro at the end of each day with his team. In their 15 minute retro, they asked themselves the question: "What went well today and how do we turn it up to 10 tomorrow?" After deciding what the team did well for the day and figuring out how to turn it up to 10, they came back the next day and tried their new practice. Over time, they developed a mob programming way of working which Woody now talks about all over the world.

We often forget to look at what we're doing well. We're too focused fixing problems. And once the problems are all fixed, we make up problems to fix. For example, software teams often have an excellent 'root cause' mindset. They look to problems in their team, quickly find the root cause and fix it. But many problems have complex root causes, particularly when it comes to interpersonal, team problems. Questions like "Why is our team engagement low?" or "Why is my team not motivated?" have multiple intricate root causes. These root causes require skilled practitioners to diagnose. Turning up the good avoids this way of thinking. Instead, it focuses on what is working, encouraging people to collaborate together to come up with a new idea.

Why is it important?

Focusing on the good has multiple benefits. Firstly, focusing on growth leads a team to being excellent at their jobs. When we pick something we do well and focus on improving it further, we leverage our strengths instead of minimizing our weaknesses. If I'm the keyboard player of a band, should I improve my keyboard skills or learn the drums? Given my value as a keyboard player, I argue it is better for me to learn new keyboard skills! This will give my band a better keyboard player instead of a bad drummer. My strengths as a keyboard player are what make me valuable.

Secondly, problems seem to fade away when we turn up the good. A team that does great code reviews could turn their reviews up to 10 and create smaller code commits. Over time, this leads to more frequent code reviews, reducing the number of bugs and reducing development cycles.

Thirdly, focusing on what you do well is energising. Many teams host retrospectives with dread. "Oh great - another set of problems we haven't fixed since the last retro". Teams that have a "Good | Bad | Improve" retro often skip over the "Good" section, assuming it's there as a tickbox exercise. But what if we removed the "Bad | Improve" sections and just focused on the "Good"? The team will focus only on what they have done well and celebrate their successes.

Turning up the good in our personal lives

Take a sheet of paper and write at the top of the page "Good things I do in my life". Your list might look something like this:

  • Spending time with my family after work.
  • Meeting up with my friends for coffee.
  • Reading fantasy books.
  • Playing music in my band.

For each idea, write how you could turn it up to 10.

  • Spending time with my family after work: Dedicate 2 hours after work each day focused solely on my family without any screens.
  • Meeting up with my friends for coffee: Schedule a coffee every two weeks with your friend to catch up.
  • Reading fantasy books: Set aside 30 minutes before bed to read a book.
  • Playing music in my band: Practice an extra 30 minutes each week before band practice.

This way of continuous improvement is motivating over time. It encourages focus, ensuring you don't spread yourself thin by taking on too many new tasks or hobbies. This is particularly helpful for someone like me who wants to do new things all the time. We can do new things all the time by turning up the good.

How to turn things up

When I started diving into this concept, I quickly realised that it's easy to see what my team and I do well. The difficult part is turning it up to 10. Here are some ideas on how to turn things up to 10.

Scale it up

Apply the practice to more people or more teams. For example, if there are people that work well together, get more people on the team to work with them.

Enhance the process

Refine the good thing to make it even better, incorporate new ideas and bring in more advanced technologies. For example, a team that are known for following company security guidelines could think of a way to automate some of their practices and share it with other teams.

Share the expertise

Expand the expertise across the team or the organisation. For example: An expert in java programming could pair with some of the other java programmers to show them their techniques and tools.

Set a higher standard

Raise the bar to further increase the team's output quality. For example, if a team have great code coverage, bring in some extra rules like Sonarqube to catch and suggest better coding practices.

Reward the good thing

Celebrate the good practices and behaviours of the team. For example, a person who steps up and helps another team mate in their time of need could be called out and recognised.

Increase the frequency

If the good thing occurs frequently, see if the team could increase its frequency. For example, if the team spend 15 minutes learning together in the morning, they could boost it up to 1 hour learning per day.

Measure success more often

If the team finds that recognising their good behaviour is useful, they could increase how often they evaluate their good behaviour. For example, a team that runs the 'turn up the good' exercise in their monthly retro could think about turning up the good on a weekly basis.

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