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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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?

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!