From “The Captain” @theagilepirate

Original article posted at

Bramber castle (side perspective view)

Things have been rather busy over the last couple of months. I’ve joined a new division at my current company and have the basis for another dozen articles slowly developing but that’s just the start. I have some really exciting news!

After over a year of development with the exceptionally talented Johanna Hunt (@joh) through field testing, workshops, paper prototypes, conferences, conversations, and peer reviews I’m very pleased to announce the launch of

The Concept

In trying to solve problems of our own, we found challenges that we now identify as “Big Rock” problems – those things that when faced alone cause us sleepless nights and illogical stress. The mental load associated with Big Rock problems can be so taxing that every time we go to tackle them we find ourselves procrastinating and avoiding or exhausted through trying. A deep breath, a step back, a few pointers, a second brain and some support can help us get back on track.

We’ve faced these problems in both our personal lives and professional careers. For example the series of articles I wrote on “The Oubliette” describes the multiple strategies I used for reducing a major defect backlog. (Interestingly I’ve spent the last 2 weeks reusing the oubliette strategies along with a few new ones to help my new team get our quality back under control and keep the motivation to improve high.)

Simple Patterns & Coaching Cards

Between us we’ve taken the “Simple Patterns” concept and our combined experiences  of solving large, difficult problems and developed a set of over 50 simple problem solving patterns. In particular, we’ve captured the essence of big mental hurdles and how these can be overcome in ways that have resonated with almost everyone we’ve shared with. (Of the 150 or so people who’ve explored the concepts so far, only two didn’t find they had “Big Rock” problems of their own.)

We’ve produced a limited first edition set (only 50 decks) of  high quality coaching cards containing 45 patterns.  (Within a week of the box being delivered, with no marketing at all we’re already down to just 35 decks left!)

As of about June 2013, the first edition has sold out however the expanded second edition is now available.

It turns out the ideas and concepts we’ve captured and the formats we’ve chosen are significantly more popular than we expected. Back in August 2012 after a weekend of hand-trimming and cutting (causing a few injuries and RSI) we produced nearly 40 paper prototype decks with unedited wording and far fewer patterns. We gave all of these away and left a few attendees disappointed after running a hugely successful workshop to a packed-out room of nearly 80 attendees at Agile 2012. A month later we had to produce a few extras for a re-run at Agile Cambridge (and took the opportunity for some edits whilst we were at it).

Even whilst developing and trimming the original prototype decks, we actually used the patterns within the decks to “keep rolling” – the idea of having to manually cut out and collate over 1500 paper playing cards is quite a “Big Rock” in itself. We measured our throughput rate, adjusted our cutting process, optimised our flow and working practices, banked our results in suitable sized batches and made sure our pace was (mostly) sustainable!

Here’s a quick preview of what’s in the box…

Big Rocks card deck

The majority of patterns in the deck are unique to us but there’s a couple that are better known (such as the “Rubber Duck” shown above). What’s unique here is the format, approach, style and most intriguingly, the community we’re aiming to build. We want to share the ideas and experiences everyone has using these cards as coaching and problem-solving tools.

If you’d like to find out more and maybe buy a set (or three!), head on over to and take a look.

Furthermore, we’re now running half-day coaching and problem-solving workshops with the cards. (If you’re interested in more details on these, please get in touch with Joh or I)

OK. Marketing over – I generally find selling or marketing what we do a little crass so I hope you as readers don’t mind too much!

I’ll share the full “Big Rocks” story that inspired us to develop the cards in future.

“See, isn’t this neat?
Here we were thinking all we had was one big problem when in actual fact we have hundreds of little problems that we gotta sort out before we even get to the big problem, which means we’re like everybody else in the world.”

Charlotte ‘Chuck’ Charles, Pushing Daisies

What Makes Your ‘Rock’ Big?

  • Perfectionism?
  • Unclear Definition of Done?
  • Lack of Motivation, Interest or ‘Passion’?
  • Task Switching & Work in Progress?
  • Visibility of ‘Rock’?
  • Perceived Size, Effort or Time Investment Needed?
  • Difficulty Letting Go or Delegating?
  • Guilt or Difficulty Admitting Procrastination?
  • Growth Due To Neglect?
  • Emotional Impact or Investment?
  • Something Else?



Example 1: Coaching others

Augment your favourite coaching model by having these cards available.  Share them with your coachee and though coaching conversations either select cards that resonate with the direction you’re both heading in or use them to generate unblocking ideas.

Example 2: Examining your own challenges

Carry a pack with you. When you face a “Big Rock” problem of your own pull the deck out, select the suit that relates to where you are in the stage of working with your “Big Rock” and skim through the cards until you find one or more patterns that jump out at you from the deck and give it a try. If it doesn’t work, try another.

Add your own ideas for how the cards could be used below or via the feedback page.