On October 21, 2020, I led a Toronto Agile Meetup “Quicktalk.” Here’s the promotional blurb.
“What is there about Agile that hasn’t already been said? Lots, actually, but much of it is “elephant in the room” stuff. We know it’s there, and it’s probably big, but we pretend not to see it. Maybe it’s time to start talking about it.”
One of the issues I’ve observed is that we don’t recognize our own dogmatism. A lot of people have a preference for one of the Agile frameworks. This can be for any of many reasons. Maybe it’s the one we learned first, the one for which we have our most recent (or only) certification, the one the “cool kids” are talking about, the one we know the most activities for, the one that “just feels right.” Maybe it’s something else. But we just know our framework, activity, method, process or other solution is the right one. We risk becoming a bit, well, fanatical.
There’s an old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Are Scrum, kanban, SAFe, unSAFe, etc. our hammers?
What if our favoured flavour of Agile isn’t right for the context? What if Agile’s not the answer? What if we open our minds to the possibility that some other solution will work?
Do we talk about this? With our employers and clients? Amongst ourselves? Do we even think about this? Or do we introduce our preferred frameworks, structures, tools and processes and make sure everyone does them correctly?
Perhaps it’s time to think about how we understand the first value of the Agile Manifesto.
Which leads to another conversation. Agile practices were designed to replace current processes, not pile on. They are instead of, not in addition to.
In my long-ago Scrum training, people from a large financial institution, objected to almost everything our instructor told us. “We can’t do that,” they whined. “Audit won’t let us.” I might have called out, “How do you know? Have you asked them?”
As Agilists, our role is to improve the way people work, not add to their burden. Certain reporting requirements and other practices become redundant when teams work in an Agile way. Does the corner office really need that status report when they can see the work board? Is this security practice still relevant?
Conversations with our bosses, partners and clients can create realistic expectations. Can we hold them? Do we hold them?
The same sort of conversation can help us – and our
bosses, partners and clients – understand whether agile practices and actually address the business problem. Or which practices address it and which add no value.
They may have hired us to teach teams to use Scrum properly and get all those user stories lined up in Jira with the right amount of story points to the appropriate decimal place. How is that going to help our clients, our customers or our organization? Perhaps it does that. But do we know? Do they know?
When we have a constructive, two-way conversation about the practices they and we are introducing, we contribute.
Do we wait for the all-singing, all-dancing, all-ducks-in-a-row. super-technicolour Agile solution to come along, all signed-off and budgeted and staffed up with seals of approval all over it? Change does not have to be a big, hairy deal.
We can make change non-threatening – for everyone – by framing change as an experiment. “Let’s try this small thing for a short time and see if it works. We’ll learn something. We’ll use the people and budget we already have. And, if it doesn’t help, we’ll stop it.”
Nothing will convince people you are serious about experiments and empiricism like cancelling a change that didn’t work out.
A few days ago, a colleague asked me what I would recommend new Agilists do to build their knowledge and credibility. I suggested they learn about business – not just business, in general, but their business. We need to understand what are the business results organizations are hoping to achieve through Agile practices. Are we getting them? Is what we’re doing helping?
The software industry has done well to move from a process focus, to a program focus, to a product focus. The next focus must be an outcome focus. What is the point? What are we getting? How is it working?
One of the most disturbing things I have observed is a sort of “Agile Arrogance.” I see Tweets about, “these guys just don’t get it,” and comments about “management morons.” Why are some people so dismissive about people who don’t buy the ideas they’re selling? (Recall the dogma section.)
I suspect they define success in their jobs as “people do what I tell them.” Is that really the deal?
We are hired and paid for our expertise and experience. We offer our best support in the best way we can. People, including those who hired us, won’t always take it. Recall Jerry Weinberg’s Third Law of Consulting: “Never forget they’re paying you by the hour, not by the solution.” Our job is to make the offer.
We offer our mad programming, facilitating, coaching, change management and people skills and experience. They are more likely to be appreciated, and our support accepted, if two other traits are in place. You can’t be certified in them and they may not show on your resume. But people know when they are present. They’re worth discussing – and practising – if we are to improve our profession and our own chances of success as practitioners. We need to develop humility and curiosity in ourselves and nurture these traits in others.
We need conversations about all these things, where we use empathy and confidence, in equal measure.
What I’ve seen, in over 50 years in the workplace, is that real confidence comes from knowing you don’t have all the answers and being OK with that because you’re going to find them – or you’ll find something better on the way.
In this era of social media influencers, anyone who’s read a book or watched a TED talk can self-promote as an expert in that topic. Now that we’re isolating in a pandemic and everyone is rushing online, I could be a legit distancing diva. After all, I’ve been working, coaching and training online since the ’90s. And I know how to use breakout rooms, polls and whiteboards on Zoom and have the power to mute anyone at will.
Unfortunately, I seem to want no part of it anymore. I’m not sure why, except that it worries me.
LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGICAL INTERMEDIATION
Buzzwords make you look smart, right? I see folks in my professional world believing, imagining or pretending that their online tools connect them. They judge that they – both people and tools – are being effective. They wonder what made us think work teams needed to be co-located. Unfortunately, no matter how good the tools are, they provide, at best, a shallow, fabricated, artificial connection. When work requires true collaboration, is real communication happening when we spend our days on Zoom?
I recognize that tools are what we have, as we isolate, temporarily, in this pandemic. And I’m rather fond of what Zoom has done and can do for me and my tribe. What worries me is my certainty that some business people, watching work groups make this ‘remote work thing’ actually work, are thinking, “Hey, this ‘remote work thing’ actually works; let’s keep it going. We’ll save on premises costs, travel and the hassles of dealing with people all day.” The cost issue, alone, will be attractive once the pandemic ends and the accountants tally the financial impact while the PR folk position this to maximize share price.
Worry Number One: What will be missing when technology is, forever, intermediating? Even deluxe, wonderful intermediary platforms (Adobe Connect, iObeya, D2L, etc.) require careful thought about what, why, with whom and in what context we are communicating. Are we considering these things when we set up – or sit through – the seventh online meeting of the day? Or when we reformat our highly interactive in-person workshops as webinars? Or when we move our annual conference to virtual? Or when we forget that there are still neighbourhoods without reliable highspeed?
Worry Number Two: Are we chasing solutions before we understand the problem? And what is the problem, anyway?
Yeah, yeah. I know about the George Box quote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I developed this model, years ago, when I was trying to get bosses, colleagues, clients in the business world to recognize that communication only happens when we make a connection. And connection only happens when our message, or content,
is aligned with the situation people are in, or context,
and the channel or means of contact
Context: So let’s start with breaking down the work. What parts of it can people do alone? What parts need collaboration? Do they need to see and manipulate screens together? Or can they talk about it and send each other screenshots? Who needs to collaborate with whom? Who has the info needed? These are context questions. You can probably think of more.
Content: Is the communication about transmitting facts (“Here are the sales figures for March.” “We deployed n times in April.”)? Or does it need a discussion (“What factors affect our sales figures for March?” “What led to the drop?)? Do we need images? Or will data suffice? Are we informing people? Or do we need people to make a decision? Again, who has the info needed? These are content questions. You can conjure up others.
Contact: Next come the means of contact questions. Here are a few big picture considerations. Do the people with the information have a good Internet connection? Can people get through the firewall? How long does it take? Do people know how to use the tools? Do they have company tools, or are children and a spouse also using the family computer? (That’s also a context question, as is the next one.) Do they have a quiet place where they can be on a call? (Yesterday, I heard about someone who, on a confidential call, had to Zoom from the privacy of the bathroom.)
The next step for generating contact questions would be to match tasks and tools. What can be an email? What needs to be a call? Do we need to see each other? How can we do that? Do we need to share screens? How can we do that? What’s the value of having [whoever] here? What’s the downside risk? What about this tool your brother-in-law recommended? Can we use that? Do we really need it? Will it run on everyone’s machine? When you work thorough that task-tool matching exercise, you may discover that you don’t need to spend seven hours a day with your whole team assembled on Zoom.
We can make working from home work if we’re thoughtful about the content, context and means of contact, matching tools to tasks. We can make it work if we remember that we are dealing with people, unpredictable, creative, quirky and oh so human. As I and others have said before, this is a weird time. Working at home is our response to ‘sheltering in place during a pandemic’ or ‘staying safe in a crisis.’ Let’s hope it’s temporary and not ‘a new way of working.’
My email and Twitter feeds are generously sprinkled with messages from tool vendors and consultants pitching their solutions to this new challenge of Working From Home (WFH). I want to scream, “This is not teleworking. This is staying at home in a pandemic and trying to work.”
Tools aren’t the WFH solution, no matter what tool vendors, your boss, the IT department or some dude on Facebook tell you. I’m married to Gadget Guy. As a result of that happy union, and having worked from home since the ’80s, I’ve accumulated heaps of teleworking tools and toys. Speakers, microphones, lights, cables, software, furniture, coffee makers. What do I use? Not many.
As I wrote in Part 1, when you’re WFH, tools are less important than behaviour. I can’t overstate the importance of the human aspect of working at home. It was always important; now, more so, since we’re working in a cloud of uncertainty.
Still here are a few things I’ve learned about WFH tools.
This may be the most important WFH tool. Best created as a collaborative effort, it sets out how you’re going to work together. It’s formal, but not immutable. It will evolve as you learn what works for your team.
A team agreement sets out such things as:
- How will we communicate? What tools for what type of communication?
- What are our core hours?
- How will work get done?
- Where is information stored?
- How will we define success? How will we measure that?
- Whose Internet connectivity is iffy – or nonexistent?
- Who is also responsible for looking after children or others?
- Realistically, how productive can we be?
Under normal circumstances, it’s best to have a dedicated place you can call your home office. But these circumstances aren’t normal. You may be sheltering in place with roommates, spouse or children who are also working from home. And pets.
- Privacy may be impossible. As best you can, carve out some turf for everyone to assemble the stuff they need to do their jobs.
- Find a box where they can put that stuff at the end of the work day. (See Habits, below.) Especially important if you have toddlers or pets who might mistake your stuff for playthings.
- Get as comfortable as you can. Your chair will be important. So is lighting, both for doing your work and any video calls you may be on.
- Find a way to communicate with others in your household when you’ll be on a call. That way they won’t be blasting Lizzo or walk into your Zoom call in their underwear. (Yes, we have seen this.)
Speaking of Zoom, there are a gazillion of remote communication tools available. Don’t use too many. When you need to find information someone sent you, you don’t want to have to check email, Slack, Trello, Sharepoint, the google drive and voicemail. (See team agreement, above.)
- Pick tools that are easiest to use and learn how to use them. But don’t make things complicated. Just because Zoom has polls and breakout rooms doesn’t mean you need to use them.
- Video will be important. The information richness chart (see Part One) tells us communication is more effective when we are face-to-face. Unfortunately, the signal may degrade the group is large and all are on camera, so you may, sometimes, need to make a tradeoff.
- Still with Zoom or any video tool, get some light on your face so people can see you.
- Keep calls as brief as possible. Or take breaks. Nobody wants to sit on a video call for more than 40 minutes. Even that’s tough.
- And don’t have people there who don’t need to be.
- Phone people, now and then, just to see how they’re doing. If you’re their boss (or whatever the term is this week), make it clear that you’re checking in, not checking up.
- Get dressed. Sure, you could work in your jammies, but don’t. If you operate as if you are “going to work,” you will feel more professional.
- Eat lunch. Hide the snacks.
- Know when to knock off. You may not be able to leave your home “office,” but you can leave the work. So do. (After decades of WFH, I still haven’t quite got the hang of that habit.)
- Take breaks. Step away from the computer. Walk the dog. Schnoogle the cat. Sing a song. Bang on the drum (but not all day. Sorry Todd Rundgren.)
So the big idea is: Don’t stress about the tools. Do the best you can with what you have. Do what’s really important. Don’t expect yourself – or anyone else – to be as productive as you are in your workplace. And remember we’re all human.
SUPER REFERENCE – LISETTE SUTHERLAND – COLLABORATION SUPERPOWERS
If you want excellent tips and resources for teleworking, head to Collaboration Superpowers, where our friend Lisette Sutherland has assembled tips, tools, resources, podcasts and workshops, all dedicated to working from home. When the coronavirus hit and people started working from home, she set up a How To page. https://www.collaborationsuperpowers.com/covid19/ It’s loaded with ideas and links to more resources.
Except for people providing essential services and a few idiots, most of us are in the second week of self-isolation due to COVID-19. Whether it’s lock down, shutdown, quarantine or social distancing, scads of people are now working from home. Nobody knows for how long.
As businesses scramble to get set up with communication and collaboration tech tools to keep the wheels of industry turning, I thought I’d write a series of posts to share what I’ve learned in 26 years of working, teaching and learning from a computer connection.
THIS IS NOT NORMAL TELEWORKING
The first thing to remember is that, night now, we’re working from home as a result of a pandemic. Anything that anyone, including me, tells you about their past teleworking experiences needs to be viewed through a lens of “this ain’t normal.” This is not an experiment. We’re not doing this to save money or travel time. We’re trying to slow the spread of a deadly virus. Government health departments and, in some places, uniformed officers, are telling us to stay at home, for our own sake and that of others. People are, justifiably, distracted and concerned and that will affect everything they do.
Any organization that thinks people working from home will produce the same amount and quality of work as they did in the office is in Fantasy Land. In normal times, there’s a productivity drop, at first, as people sort out the procedures and processes involved in teleworking. In normal times, they’re not working with concern for their health, their loved ones, their jobs, the economy and the food supply. Lower your expectations. (This applies whether you are the boss or an employee.)
THE BIG IDEA
Remember you’re dealing with humans. Tools and processes matter but, despite what the vendors claim, they’re not the key to working at home. What matters is human connection. We’re a social species. Even when our work can be done solo, it’s important for us to know we’re working together, part of something bigger.
I was part of a team that started working from home in the early 1990s. As teleworking pioneers, our tools were lousy, by today’s standards – PCs on modem dial-up to a LAN/WAN, IBM’s chat tool, no email, no Internet, no printers, and the ability to call into a teleconference line. As we quickly learned, the tools were not going to be the key to success.
We made being remote work through reaching out to each other. We used that conference line for a quick early morning meeting to check in with each other and synchronize our work. (Agilists will recognize this as a virtual stand-up.) We used the chat system to share personal news, vent frustration, celebrate milestones, post dumb jokes. (This was before the era of cat photos.)
As managers, my boss and I felt we had a responsibility to keep people connected to each other and to the organization. He and I chatted every morning – a virtual coffee break. I did the same with my team in the afternoon. We made it very clear, by the nature of the conversation, that we were checking in, not checking up. This was critical in our time of change. It’s more critical, today, as people deal with additional burden of uncertainty and worry caused by the pandemic.
Invite your team to design its own ways of staying in touch and keeping the human connection going. Keep activities optional. Not everyone wants to attend a Zoom Happy Hour.
All forms of communication become critically important when you are not face-to-face. The illustration to the right shows what communication professionals call “media richness.” We get the most information from a face-to-face discussion. (I currently believe there’s an even higher level – face-to-face with a whiteboard. But that’s a topic for another day.) The least info is conveyed by a poster or mass mailing.
When we’re together, we don’t rely on words, alone, to convey our meaning and intent. We have tone, body language, pace, intensity, volume. When we have only words, such as when we’re sending a text or an email, we must be careful about our choice of words. You’re not just responsible for the message you send; you’re responsible for the way it’s received. Be sure your intent and meaning are clear.
Give everything a “tone check” before you hit [Send]. And don’t rely on emojis to convey your tone. Your cute little grin may not travel well across platforms and applications. Instead, be conscious of your words and explain your meaning clearly.
You may recall that inside your mobile phone, there’s an actual phone. A call may not be as effective as a face-to-face conversation, but it’s kilometers ahead of anything you can write and probably a lot faster. Whatever method you use to communicate, your investment of time and effort in being clear will avoid misunderstanding, speculation and all the ugliness that can accompany them.
Up next: Teleworking tools
Coming soon: Distractions, staying sane, online training.
“Running good meetings is THE most important thing we do. I can’t understand why more people don’t understand that.”
So says a Scrum Master (and wise colleague) I spoke with recently. I was explaining (OK, complaining) that I can fill a coaching course in a few days, but there seems to be less appetite for facilitation workshops. And why would that be so?
“Maybe nobody knows what facilitation is,” said my friend. “Could you rebrand it?”
HARNESS THE POWER OF THE GROUP
If team or group members have to set direction, make decisions, plan collaborative action, solve a problem or sort out an issue, someone trained in facilitation is a huge help. Good facilitators know how to create conditions where people can share ideas, express opinions and discuss them in a productive way. Facilitators develop and follow a process that encourages participation, discovery, discussion, deliberation and good decisions. In short, good facilitation helps people think better together.
As the role of leaders and managers evolves from giving directions to setting direction, and from taking control to giving control, these skills become increasingly important. A facilitative leader can harness the power of the group.
A facilitator helps a group free itself from internal obstacles so a meeting’s desired outcome can be pursued efficiently and effectively. Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse described this, over 2,400 years ago. “A good leader is best when people barely know that he leads. A good leader talks little, but when the work is done, the aim fulfilled, all others will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’ “
In a more recent century, Tom Kayser wrote in his book, Mining Group Gold, “In the purest sense, when wearing the ‘facilitator’s hat,’ an individual acts as a neutral servant of the people. By that I mean that the person focuses on guiding without directing, bringing about action without disruption, helping people self-discover new approaches and solutions to problems, knocking down walls that have been built between people while preserving structures that are of value and, above all, appreciating people as people. All of this must be done without leaving any fingerprints.”
Facilitation skills create and maintain an environment or “container” for the group, where productive discussions can lead to good decisions. In other words, meetings don’t waste people’s time.
Our next workshop takes place APRIL 30-MAY 1, 2020 in Toronto.
YOU CAN LEARN TO MAKE MEETINGS MATTER
With collaboration and teamwork as hallmarks of Agile work, facilitation becomes a key skill for Scrum Masters, Product Owners, Agile Coaches and anyone who leads teams and/or meetings.
That’s why, in early 2016, I developed a two-day workshop to teach it – Facilitation for an Agile Workplace. Successful completion earns participants International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) team facilitation certification, the ICP-ATF. Ellen Grove joins me in leading this workshop, adding her long perspective and experience as a coach and trainer to mine.
Workshop participants explore the facilitator’s stance and mindset along with the pattern of a successful meeting. Then we get practical. We share tools you can use, right away, for planning, gathering data, generating insights and deciding what to do. We explore maintaining neutrality, team dynamics, dealing with difficult situations (or people).
Of course, we look at facilitating Agile practices. And we’ve built a visual facilitation component throughout the two days, to bring the power of visibility, so important in agile practice, to our facilitation.
I COULD SAY MORE BUT . . .
it might make more sense to hear from folks who’ve been part of our workshop:
- “This training has made me realize how facilitation techniques and mindset can help Agile teams to communicate better and achieve next level of self realization.”
- “This program was great at teaching the arc of facilitation and the planning that a skilled facilitator should do when preparing for a session. I learned a great deal from the course and have been putting these skills into practice with excellent results!”
- “By taking facilitation skills workshop, it changed my perspective about what a good facilitator is, and it brought to me techniques and tools to pull out the most of a team meeting.”
- “Sue and Ellen put a lot of thought and effort into putting the workshop together that may not be evident during the training, since they conducted it with ease and flow. However each of the activities served a purpose in driving home the important points of the material. Excellent workshop and highly recommended!”
- “Agile Facilitiation Skills workshp definitely changed my perspective about facilitation. It provided me the tools, framework and strategies to better engage the audience in an agile way.”
- “Ellen and Sue provide a wonderful course that has tools and tricks that are practical and can be applied to your job immediately. As facilitators, they provide tremendous energy and bring a safe and joyful atmosphere over the course of two days.”
- “I had an opportunity to attend “Facilitation Skills for the Agile Workplace 2.0″ taught by Sue and Ellen. They are both are amazing, talented and passionate facilitators. Course contents were very well taught and explained. Sessions had enough hands-on activities which helped us understand practical implementation of what we learnt.”
- “Amazing class! I applied what I learned the next day and every day since. Sue and Ellen did a fantastic job facilitating and gave us tons of great techniques with enough time to practice. If you interact with people, take this class. You won’t be disappointed.”
Facilitation is much more interesting and valuable than people recognize. Maybe that’s because, when done well, it’s almost invisible. So, I think my Scrum Master friend is right. (He often is.) Let’s rebrand facilitation. Let’s call it “Decision Making, Effective Communication and Awesome Teamwork for Any Workplace.”
Our next workshop takes place APRIL 30-MAY 1, 2020 in Toronto.
Facilitation for an Agile Workplace meets the requirements for ICAgile’s Agile Team Facilitator certification.
“Half (of the meetings I attend) are completely bizarre and accomplish nothing except bewildering me as to why people don’t run out screaming.” That’s a real quote from a real person about real meetings. Yes, it’s sad. It showed up in an informal survey I did some time ago. Folks told me they spend approximately 40 per cent of their time in meetings, a number consistent with data Perlow, Hadley and Eun found in their 2017 Harvard Business Review Article, “Stop the Meeting Madness.” The authors also found that:
– 71% felt that meetings waste their time
– 65% said meetings keep them from doing their real work
– 66% claim meetings inhibit spending time on deep thinking
Calculate the hard cost of bringing minds together to explore issues, make decisions and plan action. It’s often thousands of salary dollars for a one-hour meeting. (And that doesn’t count travel, doughnuts or the opportunity cost when we delay getting to our other work.)
Then ponder another response, from my survey. “We can’t make decisions or agree on priorities. So, we have the same meeting over and over. Literally, the same meeting.”
Imagine if every meeting you went to felt like a good investment of your time. It can happen. Good facilitation enables conversations that lead to good decisions. It requires planning – a whole lot more than finding a conference room and sending out a meeting notification.
The first step is identifying the purpose of the meeting, the desired outcome. That leads you to determine who needs to be there – really – and what they need to provide or do. How will you engage people? How will you gather information, analyze it, decide what to do and follow up? All this should be planned before the meeting.
That’s Plan A. You’ll need a Plan B, too, since humans are involved. And you’ll need to be ready to change your plans. Still, to go into meeting a without a plan is almost guaranteed to be a time waster. The more thought and time you invest in planning the meeting, the more relevant and useful the discussion will be – for you and for the participants.
Given that today’s working environment requires collaboration, teamwork and communication, learning to facilitate well may be the most important skill for the 21st century. A facilitator doesn’t do magic. It just looks that way.
+++++++ At It’s Understood Communication, we care about facilitation. Facilitation Skills for the Agile Workplace is a two-day workshop that offers a solid foundation in facilitation, including using visual thinking to build clarity and understanding. Ellen Grove and Sue Johnston are offering it in downtown Toronto, May 6-7, 2019. There are still a few spots left. To learn more and register, visit nobadmeetings.ca At that site, you can also download a PDF copy of our Facilitation Planning Canvas.