Enjoy the Silence

My proudest moment as a facilitator was when I did nothing.

Well, outwardly I did nothing. Inwardly I held the silence. I’m a chatty person. Shutting up is hard for me. Letting silence be. Enduring it. I counted from 10 to 20 in my head and when I had reached 20 I started over. I looked at them intently although they had technically already spoken about the problem. And then the magic happened!

The person that had talked before spoke up again. An additional thought on the topic that made her very concerned. We spend quite some time talking about what she had brought up. It was that important.

I don’t think she would have addressed the issue at all without that long pause. We would have nodded at each other in agreement, closed the topic and started another one, with that issue simmering on. Festering.

Very interesting things happen when you don’t fill an awkward silence with chatter. You’ll hear things that others wouldn’t have come forward with on their own. You’ll give others space to think through thoughts they hadn’t thought through before. It’s magical. Enjoy the silence!

What was your proudest moment as a facilitator?

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And what else?

Have you ever had to broach a difficult topic? You prepare, you make notes and you head for a 1:1. You start by talking about various smaller topics. You avoid the big fat whopper of a topic that you’ve been worrying about. Time is ticking by. You’re stalling. Then at the end of the – inconsequential –  conversation, there’s this little pause when you would usually leave and you have that inner debate on whether to mention THE TOPIC or not.

Well, I can’t help you with plucking up the courage to mention the topic. But I can help you if you’re on the other side of this potential conversation. That is, I’ve got advice for you if you would you like to hear about a serious problem sooner rather than later.

"And what else?” teases out difficult topics

It’s simple. Ask “And what else?”. Ask it often. It invites hesitantly shared information.

Oh, and yes, “And what else?“ is a better phrase to use than “Is there anything else?” It’s open instead of closed and errs on the side of implying that there is indeed something. So, sharing is more likely to happen 🙂

It doesn’t just work in this particular situation. “And what else?” is a great phrase in general, because it gives others the opportunity to reflect and dig a little deeper than the top of their heads. I picked up in an excellent workshop on solution-focused coaching by Sinnvoll Führen.

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So what? – Look for the real problem

Recently this statement raised my inner alarms: “We’ve got lots of problems! For example, nobody is pair programming.”

Why would this rub me the wrong way? That nobody is pair programming? After all, I am indeed a huge fan of pairing up. I witness this practice’s many benefits every single day at work. But no, that’s not the point. My alarms went off because “lack of pair programming” was presented as an actual problem. It’s not.

Let me repeat that: As much as I love pair programming, not doing it is not a problem in and of itself. Rather, pair programming is a possible solution to a host of problems an organization might be having such as:

And depending on the actual underlying problem there are different solutions available, one of which could be pair programming.

Nobody who’s not already a convert will start pair programming just “because”. Instead go looking for the actual problem. Ask “So what?” That phrase is magical and you can use it repeatedly. Just like there’s the Five Whys, dig deeper with five “So what’s”:

“Our problem is that nobody’s pair programming!”
“So what? Why is that a problem?”
“Nobody knows anybody else’s code. It’s 1 system = 1 developer.”
“So what?”
“Whenever a developer is sick or on holiday development in their area comes to a screeching halt. And there’s always someone sick or on holiday. Makes us super slow to release. And I dread the day someone quits.”
“Well, that does seem like a pickle…”

Okay, it weren’t five “So what’s” because I suck at making up examples but you get the point.

"So what" is a magical phrase to find an actual problem

This is not specific to agile practices either, though Agile folks have a reputation for dogmatism. Here’s a recent example from the field of web analytics: “We’ve got a huge problem: We can’t do cross-domain tracking.” Soooo …? What are the questions I want answers to and that we can’t answer because we lack this?

I’ve learned “So what?” in the context of Henrik Kniberg’s Cause-Effect-Diagrams and have since used it whenever I suspect that a “problem” someone presents is actually their (preferred) solution. It’s the same as with product features:

“Love the Problem, Not Your Solution”
Ash Maurya

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My Facilitation Mindset

It all started with a tweet by Tobias Mayer:

“Don’t make assumptions” says one school of wisdom, “Assume positive intent” says another. I choose the first. You?

I’m a card bearing member of the second tribe (at least I thought I was) so I answered:

The second one. Makes me kinder.

Going into difficult conversations assuming positive intent has rarely left me disappointed.

Or as Gitte Klitgaard so beautifully put it:

I find that I get what I expect. So if I expect good, I get good.

My experience is exactly the same. Whenever I don’t manage to assume positive intent and give in to blaming thoughts it leads to more disappointment. My beliefs always always leak into what I say and how I say it.

That’s why I ask someone else to facilitate / mediate in my place when I cannot honestly assume positive intent for each party.

The “don’t assume anything” school of thought has never helped me to prep angry people for constructive conversations. When someone thinks others to be malicious, countering their theories by saying “You don’t know that. Don’t just assume that” only helps for about 2 seconds:

They rake a hand through their hair and say “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I don’t know that for sure.” Pause for effect. “But I swear, they’re just doing that to fuck with us!” Aaaand, back to square one.

What did help multiple times is giving a couple of scenarios in which the enraging behaviour is a result of good helpful intentions of the other party and doesn’t manifest their evil and / or stupid nature.

Giving examples of how something might have had positive intent opens the door to really talk. I’ve established a possible alternate reality 🙂

What’s really going on is something we can try to find out during the facilitated conversation.

After I laid out these thoughts, Tobias remarked:

Talking “of how this might have had positive intent” is very different to making the assumption, isn’t it?

Huh? Hm, I guess that’s true. Apparently I fall inbetween the two schools of thought and my mindset when preparing to facilitate is “I assume that positive intent is possible (while not actually assuming any particular motive)”. And I can come up with at least 2 positive intent scenarios for any given situation.

Assume positive intent is possible

Learned something about myself there. It’s a mindset that has served me well so far. What’s your mindset for crucial conversations?

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Improve your Retrospectives with this 1 weird trick: Liftoffs

When health is concerned, preventing issues altogether is often easier than treating them once they’ve manifested. The same can be said for retrospectives:

In retrospectives we often make up for the fact that we didn't have a liftoff

Either Deborah Hartmann Preuss or Steve Holyer said that in a conversation and it rang true. Very few teams get a proper liftoff and they lose weeks and months of productivity to initial friction. In contrast, a proper liftoff sets up a team for success by laying a solid foundation of agreements and shared understandings. Then the team doesn’t have to spend their retrospectives patching up problems that could have been avoided.

What are liftoffs exactly?

You might know them as kickoffs, jump starts, launches or project starts – a meeting at the beginning of a team coming together and / or starting to work on something. I’m going with the name “liftoff” because of the book by the same name written by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies. Continue reading

Story Cubes for Retrospectives

Sometimes we have guests over who want to learn more about our Open Friday and see it in action. Lately we’ve been asking for a session in return so that visitors add to our pool of knowledge. These guest sessions are often interesting and sometimes you strike gold: Cynthia Hohlstein and Kevin Plechinger hosted an inspiring session on and with Story Cubes. Because neither of them blogs, I get to share their idea with you: Story Cubes are sets of 9 dice with images on them. The images cover a wide range of motives, such as a speech bubble, a sheep, a star, a hand or a walking stick figure. The idea is that you roll 3 dice and then tell a story that contains the 3 motives you rolled.

3 Story CubesThis can easily be turned into a fun activity for agile retrospectives if players answer a question instead of just telling a story. Cynthia and Kevin already had a couple of ideas:

  • What was last sprint like?
  • How do customers view our product?
  • What’s the state of agility here in our company?
  • What was your carreer path? How did you get here?

We spend the hour-long session answering questions in groups of three. It was very interesting because the cubes prompt you to talk about aspects you wouldn’t normally have touched on – you tell the truth and still have to incorporate the 3 images. Among others, we used the “Customer View” question and it was quite revealing. Story Cubes help with changing perspective and add a fun element.

Thank you Cynthia and Kevin for introducing us to story cubes!

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Open Up Solution Space by Reframing

Last year I shared Reframing advice from Esther Derby, about how you can change your own thinking about “difficult” people.

This year it’s advice from Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka about how to open up solution space in other people’s thinking:

When someone says “My boss never listens to me” this is a very definite statement. “Never” and “always” imply that it’s a done deal, no use trying. You can open up possibilities by reframing this to “Aha, up until now, you  have not succeeded having your boss listen to you.” “Up until now” introduces the idea that this can change. There’s hope, hooray!

Would you like a coconut?

Last week I attended a very enlightening workshop hosted by solution-focused coaches  Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka. Early in the workshop Veronika introduced a superb metaphor for giving advice that nobody asked for. I’ve written about unsolicited advice before, but the coconut-model does a much better and funnier job.

Let’s start with one of the solution-focused tenets: “Everybody is the expert for their own situation”. Based on our experiences we all see the world differently and can never truly know anyone else’s impressions. We each live on our own island and usually don’t know much about the islands of other people.

Bertram's island and Zili's island

Let’s say there are 2 people on their respective islands, Zilli and Kurti. Zilli’s island sports a glorious coconut tree and Zilli looooves coconut. The meat, the milk, the pina colada – she loves all of it!

Kurti’s island on the other hand has fir trees growing. Kurti has never heard of coconuts in his whole life, let alone seen one. What a sad state of affairs! Zilli wants to share the coconut goodness and saves one of her precious coconuts to throw over to Kurti. What do you think how Kurti will react? Grateful?

Zili throws a coconut

Unlikely. Zilli just attacked him with a big stone. Unprovoked! Why would she do that? Kurti has no choice. He has to defend himself!

Bertram raises the shields

Which in turn will anger Zilli. Kurti lets her gift go to waste! That was an excellent coconut! Pfft, she’s never going to share anything with such an ungrateful person!

Not a good exchange at all. Yet, it often plays out like this when someone tries to introduce change. But Zilli could have done better. She could have asked, whether Kurti is interested in trying coconuts. And if he’s not, accept that. And if he is, all the better! She could have shown him how the crack one. The meat, the milk, the pina colada. Chances are that Kurti would have liked some of it.

Questions build bridges

I plan on using this metaphor a lot in the future. I want to pass on what I learn. I hail from a long line of teachers, I can’t help myself. Heck, this blog is nothing but a big pile of coconuts, so that I have an outlet. You’re here on your own free will, so I hope that’s okay with you. And if we meet face to face and I ask “Would you like a coconut?” you know that I’ve got excellent, excellent ( 😉 ) advice that you didn’t exactly ask for. You can say no. That’s okay. It’s why I ask first 🙂

PS: Thanks to Veronika for the flipchart drawings!

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Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that?

After about 2 or 3 years into my agile journey there was a time when I would listen to a talk or read a book and be like “Yeah, it’s exactly like that! I wish someone had told me 3 years ago! It would have helped me a lot! Why didn’t anyone tell me that?”

The specific information provoking that thought was typically something about people, how they behave and communicate, and how change unfolds in an organization.

After even more time I now have the sneaky suspicion that “they” did tell me that. But I wasn’t ready. The factual information didn’t stick, because it was beyond my horizon. I wonder if there are some things you have to experience yourself, mistakes you have to make and only in hindsight you can appreciate the wisdom of others.

Not sure if that is disheartening (I’d rather learn from others than make mistakes myself) or liberating (we are allowed to fail). All I know is that I’m a lot more patient than I used to be. I can now let others make mistakes they need to make in order to learn. And I try to not push advice on others, when they haven’t asked for it. It’s something, I guess 😉

Ritual Dissent

At sipgate we sometimes are too nice to each other. That might sound like a luxurious “problem” if you’ve have to weather a tough company climate, but it can indeed be a problem. As in, we don’t shoot down ideas that aren’t that well thought out. Or we proceed with projects that only one person is really excited about and all others think “Meh” quietly to themselves.

What has really helped us to challenge and improve ideas is a technique called “Ritual Dissent”. It works like this:

One person pitches their idea to the others. Then the pitcher turns around, so that their back is to the group. The others then have to point out weaknesses and flaws in the concept (dissent) or can suggest alternatives (assent). They are not allowed to say anything positive!

Of course, the dissent should be something the pitcher can work with. “This is the worst concept I’ve seen today” fulfils the rule of “not positive” but the pitcher can’t use it at all. It’s bad how? In what aspect? Only speak if the pitcher can use your feedback to improve instead of slumping their shoulders in defeat.

The great thing about Ritual Dissent is that it a) absolves feedback givers from having to find positive aspects for a “sandwich feedback” and b) it gives you permission to criticize. It’s what we want here! You’re not a nagging nay-sayer if you point out flaws!

Usually you do Ritual Dissent when several people will present there respective ideas. One person pitches. The others dissent. Next person pitches.

It’s less personal if you know that after you it will be another one’s turn. This is also the official reason why the pitcher turns their back to the group, i.e. that it will feel less personal. My hypothesis is that as the pitcher you have to just absorb the feedback and aren’t tempted to argue your case. And as the dissenter it’s easier to say hard things because you don’t have to see the pitcher’s face twitch when you point out that their “baby” has three legs and no arms.

I find this to be a very valuable technique to improve ideas, concepts and designs in an environment reluctant to voice harsh criticism. Have you tried it?