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?

Open Friday – Lernende Organisation mit Open Spaces

[English summary: I’ve translated my experience reports about regular, company-wide Open Spaces into German.]

Bei sipgate haben wir supergute Erfahrungen mit regelmäßigen (alle 2 Wochen) Open Spaces gemacht. Auf Englisch habe ich dazu schon mehrfach gesprochen und geschrieben. Inzwischen gibt es den kompletten Erfahrungsbericht auch auf Deutsch, bei der Informaktik Akuell. Wenn Dich nur das Ergebnis und weniger der Weg dahin interessiert, findest Du im sipgate-Blog eine kürzere Variante.

Open-Space-Unconferences_Wall-Skills

 

 

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? 😉

Thank God it’s Open Friday – Agile 2015

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

Oh wow, back from Agile 2015. My first Agile. What a ride, so full of impressions and met so many interesting people! I feel about a gazillion blog posts coming on 🙂

But for starters, here’s the paper for my talk “Thank God it’s Open Friday!”. I recommend the paper over the slides, because it’s self-contained. The slides miss a lot of commentary, even with speaker notes.

What is this “Open Friday” thing you ask?

“Every other Friday all employees in our company hold an Open Space. It’s how we spread knowledge, solve problems, gather ideas and superseded meetings.” – Me, 2015
Update: Here are the questions people have asked me about Open Friday. The answers, too 😉

A team has a common goal

At the moment I’m part of a really great team. We don’t even have a proper backlog, but it still works, because we have common long-term and short-term goals and a very clear shared vision.

However, in 2010, we already had teams, too. Well, “teams”. Teams in the name only.  See, back in 2010 we were still siloed. The “teams” were actually just a bunch of people sitting in the same room, doing similar things. We would say “backend team” although everyone in the group build and maintained their own system. To say it with Shakespeare:

Sharing a room doth not a team make.

A team has a common goal. Team members help each other reach this goal. None of the members has an individual goal more important than reaching the team’s goal. If there’s no common goal, don’t call them “team”. Call them “group”. Thank you!

Bias for Action

… or the Anti-“Somebody else’s problem field

At one point I worked at a company where I would waste 5 minutes every time I wrote an email, thinking about the recipients of that mail. Not about who needed the information, but about who would be pissed – for vanity or political reasons -, if I didn’t include them. Besides time it wasted a lot of my energy because I disliked these games so much. A “cover your own ass” environment like that is toxic for initiative. It leads to a “not my job” attitude, if even slight deviation yields repercussions.

How much could we have achieved if us lower level employees could have run with our ideas? If we had been encouraged to show initiative and implement improvements right away?
Fortunately I work in the promised land right now: People running with their ideas and taking responsibility happen all the time at my employer and it’s awesome!

Example: Demo time

It was demo day. For us that means that all teams present what they launched in the previous 2 weeks. All in all 30-50 people. Usually we do this in the big conference room, but it was closed that week due to water damage.

10 minutes prior to the demo my colleague looked up from his screen and asked “Huh, where are we going to demo with the conf room out of order?”

In pre-agile 2010 times that would have been it. End of story. We would have assumed that “somebody”, e.g. the scrum masters, took care of it. All teams would have congregated somewhere and spend 10+ minutes watching someone set up a projector and screen and laptop and … 40 people looking on for 10 minutes? That’s a whole work day we would have collectively wasted.

Not nowadays, though. We were aware of the problem and we were capable of solving it. So we did.We used 10 minutes of 4 team members to get the equipment, set it up and gather everyone in the new location. Everything was set up and running at demo time. Nobody bored. Nobody annoyed. No time wasted.

How did we get here?

What happened between pre-agile 2010 and today? Do we just have more initiative? Though we do hire differently now, I think that only a small part of it boils down to how much drive individual employees have.

Here’s what’s IMO more important: Knowing that #1 you are permitted – heck, encouraged! – to improve whatever needs improving and #2 you have the time to do so. Your time and the time of other people that you need to make it happen. (Money is less important, but it helps that even bigger amounts are just one question away.) Continue reading

Yammering helps (to get rid of emails)

Is your inbox overflowing? Mostly with company internal mail? Yet, you and your colleagues still miss vital information? E.g. a year too late you find out that colleagues in France did the exact same work your team did?

That does seem to be a common complaint. Not where I’m working, though. I get maybe 2-7 emails a day. At most half of these require an answer or action on my part. It used to be many more, about 25-40, which is still little by many people’s standard. So how did the whole company – not just me – reduce their mails and everyone is still vastly better informed?

Yammer.

Don’t know what “Yammer” is? Think “Twitter” but just with people from your company and you join / follow groups instead of individuals. (You can follow individuals but that has never made sense to me. Unless of course I want to stalk someone and want to read their every thought even those in group “Dung worms of South East Asia”.) Continue reading

The Product Owner’s tasks according to the Dev Team

One of the questions that inspired Mail-Skills.com is: “What do you expect of a PO? What are her tasks?”

As always, the answer is “It depends”. One major influence on what I expect from a PO is maturity. Not the PO’s, the Dev Team’s.

A team that’s recently started using Scrum usually expects a user story to come with a subset of the following:

  1.  detailed description
    • sometimes with a specific solution
  2. further details as acceptance criteria
  3. list of test cases
  4. Photoshop mockups of all interfaces
  5. everything clarified with stakeholders

Can you feel the remnants of a compartmentalized, planning-heavy process?
Yet, I wouldn’t try to shake all of the habits right away. A PO trying to share those duties with the team rightaway will often be seen as not doing her job. “That’s what YOU’re here for, aren’t you? Do we have to do your job, too?”
Heaven forbid that the dev team have to clarify details with a marketing guy themselves…

The trick is for everyone to slowly evolve from “everything’s pre-chewed” to “we can and want to do this together – results will be better”.

A PO that fulfills none of the above can actually be a great PO – to a mature team. Much better than one who stifles the team’s creativity by over-specifying everything: Continue reading

One-on-Ones in Agile (Transitions)

Have you ever had regular One-on-Ones (“O3s”)? If not, I think you’re missing out. Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne describe them as:

  • 30 minute conversation every (other) week
  • Between a manager and one of her team members. (Each team member gets their own O3 each week.)
  • Default time division: 10 minutes team members topics, 10 minutes managers topics, 10 minutes for coaching or mentoring

Now that I finally experienced O3s, I agree with Mark and Mike that they are the “single most effective management tool“.

Here’s what I think is awesome about O3s for the team member:

  • It’s a very close feedback loop – You always know whether what you’re doing contributes to the company’s overarching goal
    • Which for me goes hand in hand with “Having Purpose”
  • Validation – You are important enough for your boss to take time to listen to you
  • Guaranteed sync point – You don’t have to disturb your boss because you know there’s a time to tackle all non-urgent issues in the O3

As the manager you can: Continue reading

Lean Altbier (aka “Lean Coffee”)

Another month, another agile meetup:

This time we tried out the “Lean Coffee” approach to facilitate a discussion in the whole group about a range of topics.  As the meetup takes place in a brewpub for Düsseldorf’s typical type of beer “Altbier” we dubbed it “Lean Altbier” and it went down like this:

  • Everyone writes down topics they’d like to discuss on stickies (1 topic per sticky)
  • Stickies are collected and read out. The person who wrote it describes the topic in 1 or 2 sentences
  • We put all stickies on a cardboard menu and passed it around the table so that everyone could distribute 2 votes
  • Order the stickies according to votes
  • Start with the topic of highest interest

Originally we thought we’d just talk about each topic until the discussion dies down, but it seems that discussions rarely completely die. Just more and more people detach until only 2 or 3 keep talking. So I’ve started to set a timer and once the time is up, people give a quick thumbs up or down. Majority of thumbs up gives the topic an additional time box, thumbs down moves the discussion on to the next topic. This makes sure that the discussion stays interesting for most participants. Continue reading