Solve people problems with data

[This post has been a draft since 2013. Not sure why, it was 95% finished…]

At OOP one presenter asked the audience and thus me: “How did you successfully resolve the biggest challenge in your professional life?”

My answer: “Talking”. Every one else’s? “Conversation”, “Communication”, “Face-to-face-meeting”.

In many ways I’m paid for having conversations: As Jerry Weinberg said, every problem is a people problem – I try to solve these people problems by having conversations or making other people have conversations with each other.

But sometimes that’s not enough. It hit me, that my more successful interactions in crucial situations have not just been about exchanging perspectives. I’ve had data with me. Consequences of behavior expressed as numbers and charts, or even as a price.

When you’re leaning towards the “touchy-feely” end of things, it’s easy to forget how data can make the case for you.

For instance, if a Product Owner receives too many feature requests to implement all of them and is not empowered to reject them, the requests will pile up. If that pile is hidden in a ticket tracker, the problem is invisible. The requesters will just wonder and / or bitch why the developers don’t fulfill their requests, whereas the developers will groan under an impossible workload.

If the PO tracks the requests on a board the problem will at least be visible, when the board overflows. The PO can point to it and make their case. Will this change anyone’s behavior?

Sample Graph: Request VolumeWhat if the PO tracks the incoming vs. the finished tickets to demonstrate how much demand and capacity are out of sync: The yellow line represents the accumulating unsatisfied requests. This is a chart to base a discussion on. Much better than “it’s just too many”. The PO and the stakeholders now see that there’s about 3 too many requests per week and that there’s no way for the developers to ever catch up with the pile. Time to take some decisions.

Data is powerful! Especially if the information not hidden in a sea of numbers. If you want to convince people take the time to coax out the information. Make a fancy chart! You know you want to 😉

Sometimes it’s enough to bring a few numbers to put things into perspective: That you’re not complaining unreasonably. It can help counter the opinions (read “not backed by data”) of people higher up in the food chain.

Whenever I encounter a significant problem I think about how to make it accessible, visible or even palpable* for others who I want to help me solve it.

* There once was a team that inflated a balloon for every ticket they got. Within a week they were up to their knees in balloons, communicating to every one that they got way too many requests. Can’t find the original source 🙁

The Coach’s Casebook – Book Tip


Cover of The Coach's Casebook
If you’re even remotely interested in Coaching, I highly recommend “The Coach’s Casebook” by Geoff Watts and Kim Morgan. I’ve just finished it and it absolutely lived up to the raving reviews I read on Twitter! For the record, I’m a coaching newbie. I’d figure that newbies and intermediates will gain the most.

The book looks at 12 specific human traits ranging from Perfectionism to Fierce Independence to Procrastination. For each trait they look at a fictious yet very concrete case that’s based on reality. It’s a first person narration from the perspective of the coach and very relatable. The coach’s supervision with their own coach is part of this and really underlines the importance of supervision. Then come 3 methods that one could use to support someone with the respective challenge. At the end of each chapter is an interview with a successful person that overcame the trait.

Of all of these, I could have done without the interviews. They didn’t always seem relevant to me. I love the case studies and the methods. You get to see a wide range of approaches and the inner workings of the coach on top. I’ve learned tons and highly recommend it!

Eat together!

A friend of mine works in an engineering company with 2 offices. The big original one where the founder roams and a smaller, newer one, where my friend works. The 2 offices aren’t far apart geographically, but far enough to develop separate culture.

Her office has a Theory Y mindset, the big one a Theory X one. For example in her office people take a joint breakfast break and often also take lunch together. Her boss frowns on the breakfast break as a waste of time.

It’s too bad he hasn’t yet seen the value of informal time spent across all roles of the company. All the little things that never become problems because people clarify them over tasty dishes, often without noticing. The hours of frustration you save because a colleague gave you the exactly right hint over lunch. The latter one alone easily makes up for the time wasted invested.

Lunch at sipgate

I’m lucky enough to work in a company that values social experiences. So much so, that we build a restaurant. And shot a video about it. For the German speaking among you: Enjoy!

Did I mention we’re hiring? 😉

What have you learned from what you tried?

[This post is one of many sparked by Agile 2015.]

When somebody asks you for advice, you do ask for what they have already tried, right? Before blurting out all of your brilliant ideas, right?

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 5.03.11 PMWhat if I told you, we can do even better?

“What have you learned from what you tried?”

Can you feel how this shifts the focus from unsuccessful tries to the valuable learning gained from them? One small change in phrasing, one giant leap in focus 🙂

Sometimes I’m rubbish at remembering where I picked something up. I’m 80% sure it was Michael Hamman in his session “Helping Executives Become Agile Leaders: Coaching the Executive Leader“.

 

Coach Demand, not Supply

[This post is one of many inspired by Agile 2015.]

Another nugget of wisdom from Esther Derby and Mike Lowery‘s “Coaching Flow” (the other one being “Reframing“) was “Don’t coach Supply, coach Demand“. So, what does that mean? Let’s say, there’s someone frying bacon and you want them to fry eggs instead.

sketchnote_coaching-flow

If there’s someone shouting “Bacon! Baaaaacon!” into the cook’s ear all the time, you won’t get far with your eggplants egg plans.

You’ve gotta change the Bacon shouter’s behaviour first, before the cook has a chance to change theirs.

It certainly rings true for me. That one time at band camp I worked in the tech department of a company and we hardly ever shipped anything. Mostly because the business department demanded STARTING whenever a client shouted. FINISHING, by comparison, wasn’t in their focus. They were upset that none of their requested feature ever saw the light of day, but dropping what you were doing to switch to the latest request was way more important than finishing an old request.

In short, tech had little chance to change with business breathing down their necks and demanding unreasonable behaviour.

I tried to coach the business side, too, but my “authority” was clearly rooted in the tech dept. My influence on the business side was very limited. The overall company was very sales driven anyway. Not much wriggle room.

At that time none of us techies were able to change demand, so the results stayed the same, as coaching supply will rarely have lasting effects.

Maybe today I would do a better job, but back then, not a chance…

Reframing – Conflict Games 3/3

[This post is one of many sparked by Agile 2015.]

Whereas the first two games (click here for series start) are for teams to get to know each other, before conflict situations arise, “Reframing” is for the conflict situation itself.

Esther Derby and Mike Lowery introduced “Reframing” in their session on “Coaching Flow“. It aims to change attitudes before entering a crucial conversation.

sketchnote_coaching-flow

If you are about to have a difficult conversation with someone, it won’t help, if you think of the other person as a lazy idiot or other negative labels.

If you can enter the conversation with a mindset of respect, well, that will help a lot. Your whole attitude and willingness to listen will be better geared to resolve the conflict.

“Reframing” exercise

  1. Think of someone you don’t get along with and write down the adjectives you associate with that person.
  2. Write down a neutral version of that adjective. “Stubborn” can become “strong-willed”. “Lazy” can become “works at sustainable pace”.
  3. Take the neutral words and make them positive. “Strong-willed” can become “confident”. “Works at sustainable pace” can become “energy saving” or “gemütlich”.

I’ve always been good with words, so I expected it to be easy. It’s not. This exercise kind of backfired, because there were a number of attributes we didn’t manage to reframe. Not even when we pooled our brains and helped each other find words. Despite only modeate reframing success, we still had a lot of fun! And one participant in particular turned out to be quite the euphemistic wordsmith.

In the “stuck” cases, it would have helped us to have a list for inspiration. I don’t know of any such list, so I have started to collect reframing possibilities in this spreadsheet.

Please add your reframings and improve the existing ones! Right now, “confident” and “flexible” have to work much too heavy duty. Thank you in advance!

Disclaimer: Don’t use the list right away! Try to find neutral and positive words of your own! The list is only for when you’re stuck and think it’s “impossible”. Have fun reframing!

Thanks, Esther and Mike for “Coaching Flow“!

Team Toxins – Conflict Games 2/3

[This post is one of many sparked by Agile 2015.]

The second game (click here for series start) is from Jake Calabrese‘s workshop “Benefiting from Conflict – Building Antifragile Relationships and Teams“.

It’s based on the belief that each of us has one default “toxic” = “less than helpful” behavior they fall back on in times of conflict and stress.

These 4 toxic behaviours are Stonewalling, Defensiveness, Blaming and Contempt.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 7.51.06 PM
In the original game, everybody writes down their default toxin on an “Hello, I’m …” sticker. Then you go about the room shaking people’s hands, each of you introducing themselves: “Hi, I’m Blaming.” “Nice to meet you Blaming, I’m Contempt.”

We were only 7, not 100 like in Jake’s session, so we “played” it differently. After writing down our main toxin someone suggested that the others try to guess yours, before you reveal it.

Disclaimer: You should only ever assess yourself, not others!

That being disclaimed, we were a fun little, high trust group and everybody opted-in into the other-assessment. So we did it, with very interesting results: For all but 2 (out of 7 people) self- and other-assessment were exact opposites!

For example, I’m a die-hard stonewaller. I’ll bite my tongue for a very long time until I finally erupt in frustration. The others pegged me for Blaming, Defensiveness and Contempt, but no vote for Stonewalling. These differing views were typical.

No clue, if that is because we’re really bad at self-assessment or assessing others or both. In my case the stonewalling is something I try hard to overcome at work, because I’ve seen that it leads nowhere. Nowhere nice, anyway. (In private I don’t try as hard, although it would be helpful.)

In fact, many of the participants remarked that they fall onto different toxins at work and at home. Or that the toxin depends on the person they have the conflict with. Interesting! I haven’t asked but would guess that it depends on the level of trust between the both of them.

Last observation: Although the label “defensiveness” seemed fitting for some people’s behaviors, the descriptions (“Not open to influence”, etc.)  didn’t fit anyone. I wonder if we’ve got a different concept of “defensiveness” or if there’s just many more possible manifestations of it than the given 3.

After the assessments we talked briefly about the antidotes to the toxic behaviors:

Team Toxins - Antidotes

Play this game during a team liftoff so that people will know what behaviour to expect of each other when the shit hits the fan. The game can also inform Working Agreements. You probably don’t need “We stay respectful” in a team of Stonewallers. How about “We openly address things that annoy us, even and especially, very small things”?

Thanks to Jake Calabrese for introducing us to team toxins!

 

What Color is Conflict? – Conflict Games 1/3

[This post is one of many sparked by Agile 2015.]

Somehow I ended up attending a lot of sessions related to Conflict at Agile2015. Back at home I offered a workshop to share 3 games / exercises with the wider company. I’ll share the games and our experiences with them in this and the next 2 posts.

First off is “What color is Conflict?” from Ellen Grove‘s workshop “Games for Learning about Conflict Resolution” (my favorite session of all of Agile 2015, BTW).

sketchnote_conflict-resolution

All you have to do is scatter a number of color swatches (pilfer paint samples from Home Depot?) on the table.

Color Swatches - Conflict Color
Each person has to pick the color that they associate with conflict. Then you go around the table and everyone explains why they picked their color. Even if most people pick red, they pick it for different reasons and those reasons are interesting.

This game is great for a new team that’s just starting out together, e.g. during a liftoff. It lets each team member know all the others’ attitudes towards conflict.

Thanks to Ellen for her inspiring workshop!

PS: I pondered conflict so much since Agile 2015 that conflict is now a different color to me than it used to be. Curious, eh?

Explain, Explore

[This post is one of many inspired by Agile 2015.]

Here’s a game for newly-formed teams that you could play during a liftoff: “Explain, Explore”. It’s from Luke Lackrone‘s engaging session “#awkward – Coaching a new team“.

All you need is a piece of paper and pen per person. It’s probably more fun with more people. 8 or more participants would be good.

In the Explain round, everybody writes down a word or phrase that is true for them. Then they team up with someone else, preferably someone they don’t know yet. The partners exchange names and then explain to each other, why their description is true for them.

Example descriptions from the session: “foodie”, “mom of a Golden Retriever”, “hiker”, “dad of a 4-yr old”, …

Now you mix things up. People walk about the room and swap their notes for someone else’s at least 3 times.

After swapping, the Explore round begins with finding a new partner. Everybody checks the description they got via swapping and explore in what respect that might be true for them, too.

It’s a fun game that serves 2 objectives: Getting to know each other and taking on a new perspective. To quote Luke Lackrone:

I always like to say one of the outcomes here is to point out two mindsets. The Explain mindset is easy for us: we can explain something true about us easily to others; but the Explore mindset encourages us to push through surface resistance and connect things that aren’t obvious. For example, I might get a card that says, “Mom” but I’m not a mom. How might that be true for me? Well, perhaps the traits of a mom — giving structure, loving, teaching — reflect how I interact with my team. Maybe I’m the team mom!

As teams are going through agile transformation, or even routine self-improvement, we want to encourage them to live more and more in the Explore mindset.

Thanks, Luke, for sharing this game, the equally great “Journey Lines“, and your help proof reading this post!

PS: How awesome is “Luke Lackrone” for a name, eh? I need to write a novel just so that I can name a character thusly 🙂

Product Owner Value Game

[This post is one of many sparked by Agile 2015.]

Dajo Breddels and Paul Kuijten brought their crafty PO Value Game to Agile 2015. I was lucky enough to get a spot to play and with a really advanced group, too!

To me, the game has 2 valuable lessons to teach:

  1. It invites you to focus on Business Value instead of just costs. Consequently the game’s slogan is “Teach the value of value” 😉
  2. It lets you explore the tradeoff between analysis (getting better cost & value estimates) and execution.

I’ve already got a deck of the game cards + dice at work and hope to play with my POs on Wednesday – really recommend it for all Product Owners and executives! You can get it here:

http://www.povaluegame.org/

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