Agile Particle Collider

Take a particle from it’s box. Now take a few more from each of their boxes and collocate then into a single box.  They are at times bound to collide into one another.  The smaller the box, even more-so.  Now take a team of people and put them into a time-box.  To get any where the team needs to move in the same direction, coordinate, and establish some agreed upon destination all while making concerted effort to move. There is bound to be collision, and some will call this conflict.  What if instead it was merely agitation towards alignment – would the terminology make it any less opposing?  What about the state of the particle? Did it trust the particles around it? Did this particular particle not bond or perhaps was in a high energy state that made it very volatile, radioactive and cause some decay…

Assuming even none of these problems, and as part of an agile effort we have a loose collective of particles. I have seen two particles – or people argue and I had to interrupt them both with a laugh…  they were really agreeing with each other (quite vehemently) but neither paused to consider the context from which the point came.  The perspective individually allowed for both of them to be right… How?

Thinking and Communicating Context

Are we at the same perspective or level? – details, tasks, stories, epics, product, portfolio.  Maybe role, team,  program, organization, community.  Possibly impact, resources, scope, priority, knowledge, risk. What about minutes, hours, days, weeks, sprints, months, quarters, years?  The aforementioned argument had two different time contexts in mind.  Both had two quality concerns but one was for today, the other was for for the next several sprints.  It was a false dilemma that both their solutions would be mutually exclusive.  Check out a list of errors in logic sometime.   Poisoning the well, hasty generalization, shotgun argumentation and Nirvana fallacy are common enough.  Both people were absolutely so focused on delivering great software that they overlooked a few things that might have made their collaboration easier.

Needs Drives Behaviors.

I always like people.  There are some behaviors I don’t care for.  Some thinking can be changed… some can’t.  Is it responsive behavior, or deeply ingrained personality, – what level of thinking is it? At times I want to drive back to the motivation, and though I cannot always address it, if I understand what is going on, I am far less fearful and far more effective at suggesting and taking some course of action to make it better. At times this is my imperfect perspective at what is happening and why – but then I tend to over think things at several different angles.  Some movement forward is as important as the right direction. I look to myself to balance things gently, observe if they have gotten better or worse.

And In All This Communication – Did We Forget To LISTEN?

This is the other side of the coin.  There is a GREAT book by Mark Goulston called Just Listen. In it he also describes the various layers to our own mind.  From the reptilian, reflexive, primitive to the higher functioning and cognitive. Some times we are so bent on ourselves and proving a point that we forget the simple courtesy of allowing others to speak to their concerns. We loose the ability to influence others if we were to stop, shutdown, and disengage.  We also forfeit our own opportunity to grow.

When many people get together and have a passion to create the best software possible, they can always have collisions.

Mutual respect for everyone’s craft, expertise, and human being. By ‘being’ I mean our ability to learn and grow.  A human been, as one college professor liked to say, has assumed room temperature.  Allowing someone to grow by necessity includes a certain amount of forgiveness, of forgetting. Things and people moving at the speed of agile – need themselves to be dynamic, and would be unfair to hold them to a static view.  Just like for the organization – it is the rate of change we are measuring.  So in all of this we remember every once in a while to keep our heads up.  Heads down activity all the time does not always allow for continuous improvement or learning.  Taking the time to make the software, the tools, processes, team, or organization better.  There needs to be some balance in all of this.

When these are opportunities we should take hold of them.  Looking ‘oppositionally’ at each other across some problem chasm is never as effective as standing side by side – looking in the same direction and solving it together.  That latter achievement together will build trust, and allow us the chance to collaborate at a dozen different levels.

And at last – if you have to let off some steam – Find creative ways to wash over it.  I have known teams to use Rockem-Sockem robots, Fuzeball, paintball, or a lan party to get past something pent up and laugh.  Any interrupt to our communication is just another impediment to be gotten around and moved past.

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Respectfully Real

Dilbert Drama Queen

Respect for the Individual is a part of my company’s culture and a huge part of my personal belief structure. When I was a kid and would get in a fight with my siblings my parents usually took the “stop your fighting now; kiss and make up” approach. So, as I grew up and entered High School, University, and the workforce, that was the approach I would most often take; if I saw conflict arise I would encourage the parties involved to stop fighting and “kiss and make up”, as it were. What I’ve come to understand as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach is that conflict is not always a bad thing. In fact, in order for self-organized teams to reach their fullest potential, conflict is necessary.

I was first introduced to this concept by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd at the 2012 Scrum Alliance Global Gathering in Atlanta. They were leading a break-out session entitled “Embracing Conflict: A Systems Intelligence Approach to Conflict Facilitation for Scrum Masters, Coaches & Leaders”. There I learned that there is a difference between Productive Conflict and Unproductive Conflict. In essence, Productive Conflict is issue-driven, where the conflict is centered on a disagreement on how to address a given need, whereas Unproductive Conflict is ego-driven. This was a fascinating concept to me at the time – that there exists a type of conflict that is not only okay but should be encouraged! Despite their masterful instruction, I still struggled with this as I naturally shy away from any form of conflict. I’ve gotten better in the year and a half since I heard this message, and would like to share some advice from what I’ve learned.

Ask Why

I have a son who is almost six. He can drive my wife and I crazy with what she refers to as “Whyarrhea”; he asks “Why?” so often that it’s as if he has no control over it. I fear that my colleagues may feel the same way about me! I always want to understand “Why?”. Why did you choose that tool? Why are you producing that metric? Why are you having this meeting? Why are you working so many hours? You get the idea.

People who feel compelled to do things without understanding why they are doing them scare me. So, when I see conflict arise in my team, I start asking “Why?”. I want to get to the root of what they’re arguing about, and I don’t stop asking “Why?” until I get all parties to the same root problem. Once I understand what they’re really arguing about, I get them to explain their contradictory solutions so that we can all weigh the pros and cons of each. Once each solution is explained, I ask what it will take for us to get to a consensus, be it a proof of concept, cost/savings analysis, weighted requirements matrix, etc. I remind them that the solution doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough.

This approach doesn’t work if the conflict is ego-driven, and this root cause analysis, logical solutions approach will reveal Unproductive Conflict fairly quickly.

Ask the Stupid Questions

I come from a background of software development, but I like to act like I don’t sometimes. If the team seems to be chugging along without any kind of disagreement I may throw a wrench in the system by asking something they might consider being a stupid question. “How are you going to test that?” “Why don’t you do it this way?” “I heard about this Open Source library we could use, why don’t we try that?” These questions are good at introducing Productive Conflict in one of two ways. First, I might strike a chord that resonates with one of the team members who didn’t want to speak up at first, thus bringing out a beneficial conversation that might not have otherwise taken place.

Second, the team members may find that they agree on a decision but not for the same reasons; by trying to answer me, they may find that there is an underlying factor that they disagree on which may impact implementation details or future decisions. Without the “stupid question”, this realization may have occurred much later down the line, if at all. Some may think that not ever revealing a disagreement is a good thing; what they do not realize is that the conversations that those disagreements create and the consensus that results makes the team much better than they would otherwise be. The sooner we can make that happen, the better.

Solicit Ideas prior to Conversation

What is the point of Planning Poker? Most people will tell you that it’s to prevent influencers from running the show when the team is estimating the work, which is definitely one of its major benefits. Without something like Planning Poker, the timid on the team would be left to accept the estimates of the bold, resulting in a lack of ownership and some rather passive-aggressive Retros when commitments are not met.

This concept can and should be extended to other realms as well. Use this when picking a tech stack. Discuss the need first; make sure that everyone understands what the purpose will be behind whatever language, library, or tool they will be picking. Then let everyone bring their solution proposals to the table, with everyone revealing their recommendations at the same time. This gives everyone a voice and produces conversation that might otherwise not have happened.

Separate Ideas from People

Great, high-performing teams embrace Productive Conflict because they don’t associate people with their ideas. All ideas belong to the team, and no person is belittled because their idea was not chosen by the team. This is difficult for many people; it is hard to have your idea rejected without feeling rejected as a person. You can help by referring to ideas by a name or title appropriate for the idea, such as “Spring” or “EJB3”, and not “Bob’s idea” or “Susie’s suggestion”.

You can also reinforce the team’s ownership of ideas by congratulating the entire team for a job well done when ideas are successfully implemented. We succeed or fail as a team, not individuals. If an idea isn’t working out then let’s fail fast and do something different; it does nobody any good to dwell on the fact that the idea was so-and-so’s to begin with. The conversation that led to the decision to implement the idea should have involved everyone and ended with team consensus. That means that, by the end, it was the team’s idea, not one person’s.

Respectfully Real

My CIO, Karenann Terrell, uses the phrase “Respectfully Real” when she wants to discuss something we could be doing better at as a division. She encourages others to voice concerns and even dissent, so long as it’s done respectfully. She understands the power of embracing Productive Conflict. She sees what Lyssa and Michael see – that teams have their own attitudes and behaviors, and that Productive Conflict is an essential tool at improving the team as an entity beyond any of its individual members. Not all conflict is productive and respect for the individual is paramount; however, trying to squash all conflict with a “kiss and make up” approach instead of leveraging it as a tool for growth shows a lack of respect for the team and does them a disservice.

What are your thoughts on conflict? What methods do you use to identify what particular type of conflict is arising? How do you foster an environment that promotes and encourages Productive Conflict? I’d love to get your thoughts. I also hope that I did justice to Lyssa and Michael; if you would like to learn more about taking a Systems approach to Agile Coaching, I suggest you look them up and learn more directly from the source.