I respectfully disagree – we are totally aligned on your lack of understanding

Team FacesOccasionally, my journeys into Agile and Lean process force me down to its foundation: cultural fit.  Frankly, there is nothing more central to the success of a team than culture. That’s especially true about Lean because of the humility and honesty required. If your team is not built on a foundation of trust and shared values then it’s impossible keep having the listening and responsive dialog with our customers.

Successful teams have to be honest about taking negative feedback and you cannot do that without trust.

Trust is built on working out differences. Ideally, it would be as simple as “we agree” or “we disagree.” In an ideal world, every team would be that binary.    Remember, that no team always agrees – it’s how we resolve those differences that makes the team successful.  That’s something we know as “diversity” and it’s like annealing of steel to increase its strength.

Unfortunately, there are four  modes of agreement and two are team poison.

  1. Yes: We agree! Let’s get to work!
  2. No: We disagree! Let’s figure out what’s different so that we’re stronger!
  3. Artificial Warfare:  We disagree!  While we are fundamentally aligned, everyone else thinks that the team does not have consensus and ignores the teams decisions.  We also waste a lot of time talking instead of acting.
  4. Artificial Harmony: We agree!  But then we don’t support each other in getting the work done or message alignment.  We never spend time talking about the real issues so we constantly have to redo our actions.

I’ve never seen a team that is as simple as agree/disagree but I’ve been at companies (Surgient) that tried to build a culture to support trust and conflict resolution (based on Lencioni’s excellent 5 dysfunctions book).  However, there’s a major gap between a team that needs to build trust through healthy conflict and one that wraps itself in the dysfunctions of artificial harmony and warfare.

If you find yourself on a team with this problem then you’ll need management by-in to fix it.  I have not seen it be a self-correcting problem.  I’d love to hear if you’ve gotten yourself healthy from a team with these issues.

Signs of artificial agreement syndrome include

  1. Lack of broad participation – discussions are dominated by a few voices
  2. Discussions that always seem to run to the meta topic instead of the actual problem
  3. Issues are not resolved and come up over and over
  4. People are still upset after the meeting because issues have not been resolved
  5. People have different versions of events
  6. Lack of trust for some people to speak for the group
  7. Outcomes of decision making meetings are surprises
  8. Lack of results or missed commitments by the team

Which side of the desk are the drawers on? (Dunkelisms)

Back in 2001, I had the pleasure to have some long conversations with Phil Dunkelberger.  The impact of those meetings still resonates with me today in a collection of “Dunkelisms” that are an invaluable part of my kick-ass-and-take-names tool box.  I can’t find any Internet source, so I’ll take it on myself to archive these jewels!

Which side of the desk are the drawers on?

I was sitting with Phil and complaining that our web site was not updated and the information was inaccurate.  He looked at me and asked me “which side of the desk are the drawers on?” and completely threw me for a loop.  He explained “when you’re the boss, you sit on the side of the desk with the drawers on it.  You have the power to make changes.”

I whined back that it was Marketing’s job to update the content.  I squirmed under his glare until he asked “as a programmer, do you have ability to update the web site?”  When I said, “yes, but…” his glare wilted my desk plant and the rest of my excuse died with it.

His reply was very crisp, “you have the power to fix it because you have access to the web servers.  If it’s a real problem then the drawers are on your side of the desk.  If it’s not a real problem then help Marketing solve it or move on.”

I’m not saying it would be the right move politically, but it was amazingly powerful to acknowledge that I had the power to fix the problem if I needed.

There are many situations where we voluntarily give up power even when the drawers are on our side of the desk.  For example, when my team is planning we expect Marketing to set priorities that drive development.  Engineering goes along with this for a lot of good reasons; however, the Engineering has the drawers on what really goes into the product.

This Dunkelism helps me align priorities and eliminate roadblocks.  As I dig deeper and deeper into community driven open source projects, I find that the idea behind this expression is a mantra that drives projects forward.

I find this expression very powerful in many situations.  I hope you find it helpful too!

Please (I’m begging here) consider the psychology of meetings!

It’s an occupational hazard that I go to a lot of meetings.  That’s not a bad thing because my job is a team sport.  Except for rare moments of programming bliss, my primary responsibility is to design, collaborate, and coordinate with other people.

The Problem

My problem with meetings is that we often forget about psychology when we are holding meetings.  I’m not going to go all B F Skinner or DeBono’s Hats on you, but I want to reinforce that we all have DIFFERENT MODES OF THINKING during meetings.  Some examples:

  • Listening to a presentation *
  • Giving/getting status *
  • Designing a product or presentation
  • Negotiating requirements
  • Making collaborative decisions
  • Celebrating success *
  • Giving subjective feedback

Let’s get concrete.  It is impossible to get people to  do design during a status meeting.  Even if you have the same people in the room, the way they behave (taking turns talking, rushing to finish, linear) during a status meeting is fundamentally different from how I would expect them to act during a design session (dynamic back and forth, pausing to reflect, circular)

It’s even worse when you factor in time bound meetings (I added * to them above) for open-ended activities like design, feedback, and collaboration.  If you want to kill ideas or suggestions then ask for them during the closing 2 minutes of a meeting. 

A big part of the solution is to remember how people are framing your meeting. 

  • If you want decisions but need to get people up speed then plan a clear end to the status part of the meeting
  • If you want feedback and discussion then don’t throw in a lot of status or one-way presentations.
  • remember:  Any meeting with a power point deck is a PRESENTATION.  It is not a discussion.

Agile Meetings

One of the things I like about Agile is that there is a lot of psychology in Agile!
 
The meetings in Agile are planned so that people are in the right frame of mind for the meeting. 
  • Stand-up (scrum) is a time bound status meeting.  It should be tight and focused.
  • Review is a FEEDBACK meeting and NOT a presentation meeting.  I like to have different people talking during the meeting so that it does not put people into a power point stupor. 
  • Retros are discussion meetings.  The must be open ended so people are not rushed. 
  • Planning is a design meeting where new ideas are formed.  People must be relaxed so they can be interact and collaborate.
It’s even more important to understand that the way iterations unwind is part of the magic
  • Reviews reinforce that team member have completed something.  It puts them in the frame of mind that they have closed something and are ready to start on new work.
  • Reviews give feedback to set priorities so that people feel like they know what’s important.  Their expectation is that they are working on what’s most important.
  • Retros build up team spirit.  They celebrate achievement and clear the air so the team can collaborate better. 
  • Retros establish team trust.  Trust is the single most essential ingredients for good design because people must take risks when they make design suggestions.
  • Planning brings together the feeling of accomplishment and purpose from reviews with the trust and collaboration from retros.
  • Planning should empower a team to be in control of their work and be confident that they are on the right track.
  • Stand-up, when planning works, becomes a quick reinforcement of priorities.
  • Stand-up should be status that the plan is on track or lead to a discussion (a new focus) for correction.

If meetings are getting you down then consider what type of meeting your are trying to create and focus your effort on that outcome. 

Oh, and my #1 tip for more effective meetings

Find ways to be collaborative by sharing screens, co-editing documents, or just rotating speakers.  It’s not a productive meeting when just one person has the conch.