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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5 more things I learned at Agile on the Beach 2016

From Kat Matfield’s session “User Research in an irrational world”:
1) If at all possible, look at records of what people actually did in the real-world situation, (screen recordings, chat logs, …) instead of putting them into a research situation (in which they will always pay more attention) or asking them to remember (memory is extremely unreliable).

From Gez Smith’s session “Agile Marketing”:
2) Maybe 1 thing goes viral per year. Rest is planted and pushed with fake accounts

From Darci Dutcher’s session “Running killer workshops without killing yourself”:
3) If you use dot-voting and don’t limit the number of votes you get information about the long tail of interests. Not relevant in short retros but maybe for a longer workshop.

4) A retro is a sub-kind of workshop. I never thought of retrospectives in those terms. Nice realization.

From my own session:
5) Putting your cell phone near a mic is a really bad idea (audio feedback)

I also learned about Jeff Patton’s Cups, the sticky note bonus shape and that I’ll try to remind more speakers to repeat the audiences question before answering it.

All in all, a very nice (knowledge) haul 🙂

 

 

Of Baby Elephants and MVPs

As you know, I’m a sucker for a good metaphor be they coconuts or hosting. I’ve got a great new one for you: Baby Elephants! Fantastic, right?

Well, yes, it’s promising. Baby elephants – What’s not to like. But what are they a metaphor for, pray tell?

Cute baby elephant courtesy of Beratung Judith Andresen

Cute baby elephant courtesy of Beratung Judith Andresen

Judith Andresen introduced baby elephants as a metaphor for MVPs at Agile on the Beach 2016. One immediate benefit is that it short circuits endless, mostly fruitless discussions along the lines of “What exactly is an Minimum Viable Product?” “We need  an Minimum Marketable Feature instead!” “No a Minimum Loveable Feature is the way to go!” “No, it has to be a …”

Instead of arguing about different concepts, baby elephants give people concrete images to work with:

  • “I think we’re building a teenager elephant here, not a baby anymore.”
  • “We’ve got too many baby elephants in the stable already. Let’s get those out before acquiring a new one.”
  • “What are young mammoth trees (which the elephant is supposed to move) in our context?”

Judith’s fable includes much more, e.g. the context in which a baby elephant is an excellent MVP. Read the whole fable about nature-oriented forest management with baby elephants here.

Can you repeat the question?

At the beginning of September I was at Agile on the Beach 2016. It was just as good as I expected, which says a lot given that I had really high expectations!

Fantastic talks, learned tons, in beautiful sunny Cornwall – what’s not to like?

Well, one thing. It’s a pet peeve of mine: Despite most presenters doing a really great job, virtually none of them repeated the audience’s questions before answering them. For the camera and everyone sitting in row 5 or farther back the answer was meaningless.

“Mumble brumble bumble mumble?” – “Yes.”

Repeating questions was so rare that several people enthusiastically commended me on doing it in my talk (on what happens when the whole company becomes agile). Not sure I want my distinguishing trait as a speaker to be “at least she repeats the darn questions” that’s why I appeal to you to get into the habit of doing it, too, when you’re a speaker. (Or to continue if you’re already doing it. :))

If you’re in the audience, you can help by asking the speaker “Can you repeat the question?” after the first unrepeated question.

I had only resolved on doing so during the last talk and it went spectacularly wrong (the original asker repeated the question, again speaking to the front which did not help either me or the camera). After that disaster I didn’t wanna ask again. Instead I decided to bring a sign next time. It’s less intrusive than asking.

Theres-A-Sign

Please help spread the word! (Pun intended ;))

Sense-Making Machines

Once, on our way to the movies our tram stopped at “Heinrich-Heine-Alley”. It’s a popular tram stop in Düsseldorf, especially for tourists. One such (German!) tourist exited there with his family and remarked: “Ah, Heinrich-Heine-Alley, he was mayor here once.”

That tourist was making sense of his surroundings and “previous mayor” seemed like a reasonable reason to name a street and station after. It is reasonable. It is also wrong. Most Germans (and surprisingly Russians) know that Heinrich Heine was a poet. (I think Heine was born in Düsseldorf, but I don’t really know. I’m just sense-making here ;))

Humans are sense-making machines in search of a narrative. If facts are missing, we’ll often make them up. Once we got the narrative established it’s hard to let go. It’s why we keep going in the wrong direction, despite disagreeing signage. I love this episode as a reminder of how (made-up) context is everything in Usability. There’s no telling where users end up if they start with a warped context and it’s not their fault. It’s surprising to me that a fellow German doesn’t know Heine, but I’m also aware that it’s entirely possible to be smart and live a good life without knowing that tidbit. It’s not essential. Neither are the ins and outs of your software and its context. Be as obvious as you can.

PS: Fact-checked Heine: Yes, he was born in Düsseldorf, died in Paris. He was never mayor 😀

Host Leadership is the better metaphor

Whenever someone mentions “Servant Leadership” it triggers an almost Pavlovian reflex in me to say: “Have you heard of ‘Host Leadership’? IMHO it’s the much better metaphor for Scrum Master work.”Host-Leadership

Part of SM work is enforcing rules. How can you do that as a servant? The metaphor breaks. As a host it makes perfect sense: You have to make sure that everybody is having a great time and not one person ruining it for many. As the host you set house rules.

Despite being a big fan I haden’t even mentioned Host Leadership in this blog, yet. Until now 🙂 If you’d like to know more, here’s the 6 roles of Host Leadership and the official webpage for Host Leadership.

Letting go of decisions

When building self-organizing teams, one of the hardest things for their (former?) managers is to pass power on to the team. Power as in “the possibility, ability and duty to take decisions”. If you pass a decision on, you have to let go of your “solution”. There are infinite solutions out there. Don’t expect the team to pick the exact same one that you would have picked. The chances are rather slim.

Unfortunately this is how I sometimes see it go down:

Manager thinks: “The solution is obvious. But I’m supposed to empower them, so I can’t just tell them what to do.”

Manager to team: “It’s your decision. Figure It out. You can do it.”

Team goes and figures it out.

Team to manager animatedly: “Look, here’s our solution :)”

Manager: “Umm, no. No, it ain’t. <Some leading questions> It’s your decision. Figure It out.”

Team goes and figures it out. Again.

Team warily: “Sooo. Here’s our solution attempt.”

Manager: “Umm, wouldn’t it make sense to … <Some more leading questions>”

“Together” they arrive at a new solution.
The team is quietly steaming.

This is the opposite of empowerment. Having to reverse engineer a fixed solution by trial and error is painful, disheartening and teaches a terrible lesson. As someone who used to be on the receiving end of this, I’d love for the manager to just straight out say what they want. They are the boss. It’s okay for them to dictate the solution, if there’s no wriggle room. But making teams guess over 3 rounds, because they don’t want to dictate a solution? That achieves the opposite of want they intended. Plus, they blur the line. It becomes harder for teams to tell when they really own the solution and when they secretly don’t.

Sometimes the solution mismatch stems from the manager having more information than the team. If you’re part of the team, strive to become good at asking questions about constraints.

If you’re the manager pass information on to your team as soon as you notice they’re missing. If it’s classified information, you probably shouldn’t pass that particular decision on to the team.

And check out Delegation Poker. It can help managers and teams figure out, how much power is really conveyed for each pending decision.

All eyes not on you – Chain Question

As a facilitator, I think it is my job create opportunities for others to speak. I try to keep in the background as much as possible, which isn’t always easy. Participants focus on me more often than I’d like. That is to say, not only when I talk about meta information like instructions, but also when they themselves talk about the subject matter.

One simple technique to connect participants to each other, rather than to you, is to create a questioning chain. This works well when the group forms a circle and there’s a question everyone should answer. As the facilitator you can start it of by asking the question to your neighbour. Then they ask their neighbour on their other side. It works best, when the asker actually waits and listens to the answer 😉

Just like Role Play for One this technique is popular with language teachers. I relearned it in Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka’s workshop on solution-focused coaching.

I hope it’ll help you get attention off of you and on the content your participants bring to the table.

Do you have tricks you’d like to share?

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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