Getting Past a Performance Plateau 🗻

Apr 29, 2022 2:01 pm

Happy Friday!

I was working with a client and over the few months we worked together the teams went through a fairly rapid set of changes. When the dust settled, they started improving through retrospectives.

For a while at least.

They ultimately experienced what many teams do, which is to run out of ideas for how to improve. They hit the plateau of performance.

Even though the team ran out, everyone could also see there were still issues to improve and fix, but at the same time they couldn't come up with any ideas at all.

There are a few reasons they couldn't come up with an idea, but probably the two biggest ones are:

  • I don't want to try something different
  • I can't see how something that different could work

Not wanting to try something different is very common amongst teams. I find it fascinating how so much work software teams do is little more than preference. The way they do code reviews, tests, design, and even name variables boils down to preference. So to make improvements to these things means to ask someone to go against their preferences.

Putting it another way, to improve further they will have to do something they may not like.

The second one is a little harder to explain but underpins a lot of challenges groups have when considering changes. I'll pick on code reviews for a moment. Code reviews are almost universally regarded as a good thing to have and do, yet I frequently advocate for abandoning them and have even higher quality than groups did with them.

If the first thought that popped into your mind reading that was, either, "Nonsense," or "How?!" then you're experiencing this point.

This issue boils down to our frames of reference being wildly different. From someone who has spent a career in code reviews, they can't imagine a world without them. For someone who does work without them, they can.

Sort of like we're standing on opposite sides of a door and can't believe the stories the other person is yelling through it.

So what can you do?

Well, at a really high level it doesn't matter. When you get to a plateau you need to abandon the belief you can come up with a good or sensible idea. You instead need to embrace the feeling that the only ideas worth trying are going to make you uncomfortable. So seek those out.

Next, and this is the hard part.

Try literally anything.

Abandon the thought your idea will work or that it's good. The point now is to introduce any change you can. Put boundaries on it and treat it as an experiment to limit risk. Try anything and see what shakes loose. In larger groups, use the question, "What would it take for us to try?"

To quote Gerald Weinberg, "Jiggle the handle".

Let the fact that you shook up the status quo be the engine for learning that will create more plausible ideas.

This will get you past the plateau and help you see it was actually a false summit.

If you've experienced something like this, write me back. I'd love to hear your story.