Archive | August 2011

The Art of Handling Elephants in the Room

When we spot and elephant in the room, or an undiscussable topic that isn’t being addressed, it is tempting to tackle it head on.  However, just naming the elephant or telling people that they’re not discussing an undiscussable topic  is rarely a productive approach.

Afterwards Tom and Eric weren't exactly sure at which point during their discussion the elephant had entered the room

Having spotted an elephant in the
room it is tempting to shout about it

Here’s a scenario from a team’s retrospective meeting:

The team had talked about a problem and had decided to hold a workshop to focus on that issue. Kelly, the external consultant, saw a problem that no one was mentioning.

“I think there’s an elephant in the room here!” declared Kelly

“Really?”

“Yes, there’s a proposal to have a workshop, but no one has mentioned that last time we ran a workshop no one turned up! This seems like an undiscussable topic!” said Kelly

There was general agreement that people hadn’t shown up for the last workshop. After some discussion the team decided “let’s not have a workshop then” and the meeting ended.

I think Kelly’s intention was honourable – how can I get the group to start discussing things to better understand the cause of problems and ways to avoid them in future.

However, in this scenario, Kelly didn’t get what she wanted – rather than get to the cause of their problems in the past, they just decided to bypass these issues and cancel the workshop.

Unfortunately I think Kelly’s behaviour may have contributed to the results she got including the unintended consequences, such as possibly reducing the chance that the team would feel comfortable talking about ‘undiscussable’ topics in future.

Problems with the approach

There are several possible problems I see with Kelly’s approach.

Unclear intent. Kelly raises the issue of the groups not mentioning that no-one attended the previous workshop, but she doesn’t state what her intention for mentioning it was. If you are not explicit about your intention for saying something then people will automatically invent their own reason, which may not have been what you wanted.

Negative assumptions about others’ motives without providing evidence. When Kelly makes the claim that there’s an “elephant in the room” it could be interpreted as her saying that the group were all aware that no one turned up to the previous workshop and that they were all deliberately not mentioning it.

Kelly doesn’t provide any evidence that others are all aware of the issue, or that they have made a deliberate decision to avoid discussing the issue.  Kelly’s claim is high on the ladder of inference.

Making an assumption about someone else’s motive, such as thinking “this group is deliberately not talking about a problem they know to exist” is an example of an attribution. Making negative attributions like this without providing evidence can mean that people feel confused or unjustly accused. Once people feel accused then it increases the chance they will respond defensively or withdraw from the conversation.

No curiosity about how others see the situation. Kelly states her view to the group but doesn’t ask whether they see things the same way or see it differently. I’d assume that Kelly was acting as if her view was obvious to others. Since Kelly asked no questions about how others see the situation and expressed her view in a definite way, it reduces the chance that others will offer their view or that Kelly would find out if others saw the situation differently.

Changing the focus from conversation’s content to it’s style is challenging. Moving from talking about the topic of a conversation (“we should have a workshop”) to talking about the style of the conversation (“we’re not discussing the undiscussable”) is a high-impact change of direction.  “Going meta” like this is often worthwhile but takes skill, time and energy. To justify the investment it is better to wait until you have solid evidence of a pattern of this type of behaviour. If it’s just a single instance it more effective to keep talking about the content (“how can we make sure people turn up to this next workshop?”) rather than the communication pattern (“we’re not discussing the undiscussable”)

A more effective approach

A more effective approach may have been as follows, with annotations in brackets on what I’m trying to model:

I’d like to check a concern I have about how we are discussing the plan to hold a workshop [share your intent] and see what other’s views are. My recollection was that the last time we planned a workshop no one showed up. I was speaking to Bob and Jane about this yesterday [share your evidence].  Do you remember the last workshop the same way or differently? [be curious about others’ views]

If there was agreement around the fact no-one showed up to the last workshop I’d continue:

This is making me wonder if we are avoiding talking about what happened around the last workshop [state your reasoning]. I would like to talk briefly about what happened so we can avoid the same problems happening with this workshop [state your intent]. In terms of the last workshop, would anyone be willing to share what caused them not to attend? [inquire into others views]

Let me know your view in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

Image Credit: David Blackwell on Flickr

5 signs your conversation is about to turn toxic

Difficult conversations are often unplanned and sneak up on us. Spotting the signs that your conversation is about to turn toxic gives you a chance to stop your automatic reactions so you can change course, even in the heat of the moment.

Here are five sure-fire ways of spotting that a conversation is turning toxic.

Not getting Involved

Build your awareness of the signs you’re about to move into conversational ‘silence’ or ‘violence’

1. Your body starts to give you signals

When you’re about to get “hooked” into an unproductive conversation there are obvious changes in your body.

You’re suddenly leaning forward, making strong hand gestures, speaking faster with a strained tone of voice. Your stomach starts to clench up.  You start to interrupt and cut other people off.

I’ve discovered my shoulders act like a conversational thermometer, rising higher as the tension increases!

Learning to spot these signs has helped me recognise when the conversation could start to become unproductive.

2. You are certain you’re right

Feeling certain can feel powerful. Being right is important. Tragically it’s times when we feel most certain that we are most at risk of being wrong.

Around topics that are important to us, we often use defective reasoning strategies. One approach is to reason based on how we feel. Since I feel certain that I am right, what I believe is correct!

Rather than being clear about our reasoning and the evidence we have for our views, we simply “ask ourselves” – “Are my intentions good? Do I feel like I’m right?” – without realising that even ‘evil’ people are likely to think they have good intentions.

3. You’re stuck in a repetitious point-counterpoint discussion

When the conversation feels like it’s going around in circles it’s a good sign that you or others have been emotionally triggered. In a group situation you’ll often notice that only a couple of people are speaking and they are just taking turns telling the other person their point of view.

You may notice that you’re acting like an Obnoxious Foreign Tourist – if you weren’t understood the first time, just say it again, but this time louder and with more force!

When you spot yourself about to state same points again, you are probably in this situation.  Often a simple change of strategy, such asking a question can break the conversational arm wrestle.

4. You’re in a heroic struggle for truth or justice

When discussing topics close to strongly held belief or values, the focus of the conversation can become a battle for your “truth” or “justice”.

Particularly when we learn new ways or looking at the world (Agile, Lean or Systems Thinking) or new behaviours (pair programming, test driven development) it is often difficult to accept that others do not share our beliefs.

While intending to be helpful and avoid bad outcomes, we often become stuck in our own world view and lose our curiosity in how others see the world. The outcome is that we can come across as religious zealots and end up embarking on conversational “crusades” to protect our sense of truth or justice.

5. You focus on how the other person is causing the problem by being mad or bad

In difficult conversations you can start to focus on how the other person is the source of the difficulty. You may start assuming nasty motives or stupidity to others who don’t share your views – “is this person incompetent or just plain dumb?”.

You can become blind to your own options in a conversation by thinking that they have control over your behaviour or your feelings – “they’re backing me into a corner!” or “they’re making me feel guilty!”.

Noticing that you’re starting to think like this gives you an opportunity to shift perspectives to test if there are joint contributions to the problem and test if the discussion can shift from a win/lose fight to one of mutual help.

Awareness is the first step …

Spotting signs that we are about to get hooked into a toxic conversation is an important skill that allows us to stop and make more productive choices about remaining in the conversation.

When you feel yourself about to hooked it is a good time to stop and get curious. What might the other person be seeing that you’re missing? See if you can solve the puzzle of how their beliefs and interests lead them to see things differently.

What other signs do you look for? Let me know your views in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

Image Credit: Not getting Involved by TarikB, on Flickr

Management Improvement Carnival #140

I’m hosting this edition of Jon Hunter’s Curious Cat Management Improvement Carnival. It’s been published three times a month since 2006. Here’s my round-up of interesting management-related posts from the last month with a focus on the psychology of change and software development philosophies.

Change Artist Challenge #7: Being Fully Absent by Gerald Weinberg

For managers who want to create systems that allow people to do great work, one solid test is to see if the systems works without you there:

Your challenge is to take a week away from work, and when you get back, notice what changed without you being there. … Do you think you can’t do this? Then you have a different assignment … “If you’re going on a week-long vacation and feel the project cannot do without you, then take a two-week vacation.”

Forecasting misunderstood by David M. Kasprzak

David writes well about understanding the purpose of forecasting and reporting to avoid counter-productive fire-fighting management behaviour:

Forecasting has to do with long-term vision and strategy, measurement, and learning.  Focusing on reporting without planning leads to delayed information and chronic “hot buttons” that require immediate attention.

When this occurs, the PDCA cycle is simply broken.  The end result is a system where the people in the organization are in a constant state of “Do!” and “Act!” without any sense of why they are doing anything, or if their efforts have actually caused an improvement.

Matt Damon does it again by Ben Decker

One of the challenges for managers is how to present their views in a persuasive way. Ben Decker analyses the techniques Matt Damon used in a recent presentation to a rally against standardised test-score based funding for schools:

[Damon uses a story -] he weaves the point of his speech around his experiences in public schools. This personalizes the message, gives him credibility, and is memorable. When listing out all the growth he experienced in school, he brought it back to the point by saying, “None of these qualities that have made me who I am can be tested.”

This links in my mind with W. Edwards Deming’s statement that “the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable …, but successful managers must nevertheless take account of them

Is Thinking Allowed? by Tobias Fors

Continuing the theme of managers focussing on what is easy to see, and not what is important, Tobias writes about a manager challenging him for not typing (even though typing is not the bottleneck):

When we sit and think, it looks like we’re doing nothing. This makes it hard to think in many organizations.

Doing is what it takes to change the world, but if we don’t think a little first, how can we know if we’re about to change it for the better or the worse?

Leadership Coaching Tip: A Process for Change by Barbara Alexander

Starting with a reference to Deming’s famous quote “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory”, Barbara writes a summary of the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey including their focus on uncovering the competing commitments and underlying assumptions which keep us “immune from change”:

One example from Immunity To Change that many of us may relate to is the leader whose goal is to be more receptive to new ideas. As you might imagine the behaviors he’s doing instead of his goal include talking too much, not asking open-ended questions and using a curt tone when an employee makes a suggestion. His hidden competing commitments? You guessed it . . . to have things done his way and to maintain his sense of self as a super problem solver

Why progress matters: 6 questions for Harvard’s Teresa Amabile by Daniel H. Pink

Dan Pink reports on research behind “The Progress Principle” (affiliate link) which finds that “people’s ‘inner work lives’ matter profoundly to their performance – and what motivates people the most day-to-day is making progress on meaningful work”. The research showed that support for making progress is more potent than other motivators (incentives, recognition, clear goals, interpersonal support) although surveys have found that it isn’t rated highly by most managers.

Why Is Failure Key to Lean Success? by Michael Balle

In contrast to the support for making progress, Michael Balle defends Lean Sensei’s who leave teams feeling let down by focussing on more on what was not achieved than celebrating what was. Balle talks about improvements made without challenging underlying assumptions (similar to single-loop learning) represent “pretending to learning” and not “real learning (acknowledging and understanding why we were wrong about something)” (similar to double-loop learning).  I’m hopeful that a “sensei” could learn to act in ways that could help teams meet the desired higher-order learning  without having the potentially de-motivating impact described.

Agile Vs. Lean Startup by Joshua Kerievsky

Whilst the “X vs Y” style is unnecessarily combative, Joshua has done an interesting job contrasting the different practices and approaches between Agile Software Development and the Lean Startup approach (which uses Agile Software Development approaches to “build things right” alongside the Customer Development process focussed on finding what the “right thing to build” is).

Effective decision making: avoid confusing discussions with decisions

A key to effective decision-making is to avoid confusing discussions with decisions. Discussions are important for ensuring that the widest range of information is available to make a decision, but treating a discussion as a decision is likely to lead to confusion, frustration and ineffective actions.

Group sessions

Open discussions are important, but they’re not the same as making a decision

Open discussions are important because they allow everyone to understand the problem, the possible approaches and the concrete proposals for moving forward.

A pattern I’ve seen with teams that struggle to make effective decision is assuming that just because a difficult topic has been discussed there is a shared understanding of what has been decided and a commitment to act consistently with the decision.

Often these assumptions are not stated explicitly, leading to statements like “we decided a lot of things in that meeting” when in fact there weren’t any decisions. This can be followed up later by frustration over “how come we are discussing this again? I thought we decided on this in a previous meeting!”

It is important to be explicit about any decisions made during a meeting. One approach is to highlight them visually, which I’ve used when using a simple kanban approach to meetings.

Some basic characteristics of effective decision making include:

  • Being clear about the process used to make the decision
  • Allowing people to raise any concerns or interests
  • Explicitly stating what the decision is

Have you been in situations where you or someone else has confused discussions from decision making? Tell me about your experiences in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

Image Credit: CiscoANZ on Flickr

Good question: how to unblock stuck conversations

When discussions become stuck in a ‘death-spiral’ of point-counterpoint views it’s useful to have some techniques to unblock the discussion. One great technique is to shift the focus from telling people about your views and start asking questions to understand theirs.

Arm Wrestling

I was in a bid planning meeting at a large consultancy when the discussion started to enter a conversational death spiral. Manager A believed that there should be a project manager involved in the project whilst Manager B disagreed. The conversation shifted from a discussion to a disagreement – the difference in views hooked the participants into a verbal arm wrestle over who was right.

I realised that neither manager was asking any questions of the other. It was all “let me tell you again why I’m right”.

It was as if each person thought the other person was just failing to see what was obvious to them, so each was using an ineffective strategy of repeating their view again this time stronger and louder.

I fought back my impulse to ‘take sides’ and focus on what one side was missing. Instead I decided to ask a question to move the conversation forward:

Me: “[To Manager A] If we agreed to go with the idea of a project manager, could you say what that would look like to you? How much budget do you think would be needed?”

Manager A: “I think we’d need to use 5% of the budget”

Me: “[To Manager B] How does that sound to you? What issues would you see if 5% of the budget was used?”

Manager B: “I’d assumed it was more than that. If that’s all it would take then that works for me”

One well-placed question changed the nature of the discussion. The reduction in tension in the room was obvious.

My question was designed to take the other person “down their ladder [of inference]” and produce more specific observable data. By doing so it uncovered some assumptions about what exactly was involved.

Have you found switching from backing one side to asking questions about the other side’s ideas has helped unblock conversations? Share your views in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

Image Credit: newneonunion on flickr

Ineffective pushback to a pushy manager?

How do you deal with a manager who believes that a software development team needs to go faster and should be pushed? I want to review some of the responses to my earlier blog and test the idea that they would create a productive conversation that would lead to effective outcomes.

Just an ordinary reflection
How does our advice look if others reflect it back to us?

What were the responses?

I got responses from the the earlier post’s comments, twitter and the DZone Agile centre that were mostly from the team’s perspective.

I believe that the responses were intended to be helpful to someone in the manager’s position and raise some important issues. I’ve seen the results of teams accepting a request to “push harder” and in the majority of cases these have been ineffective, demoralising and created more problems down the track. My intent with the earlier post was to encourage a manager with these views to find a way to discuss differences in views in public in order to jointly design productive ways forward.

When handling issues that generate strong points of view it’s important to focus on not just ‘what is right’ but ‘how can I communicate this effectively?’

I’ve summarised some of the responses under headings from the three assumption level ‘rungs’ of the ladder of inference

Explanations:

  • Thinking that pushing a team to go faster is a dysfunctional view and implies little intention to help
  • The causes of poor performance are a management issue
  • It’s probably not a speed of development issue, usually it’s about prioritisation and communications

Evaluations:

  • There are too many assumptions in the question “how can I push the team to go faster?”
  • Just going faster is the wrong goal
  • Going faster or pushing wont help you reach your goal

Predictions / Proposals for Action

  • Pushing has never worked and will never work
  • Talk about it differently – say “pulling or enabling” to remind you that it’s about you helping remove impediments
  • Focus on removing obstacles not “pushing people”
  • The first step is for you to ask the team what you as a manager can change or what you can do to help.
  • Ask yourself “is it a pattern that I keep having to push teams to go faster?” If lots of projects require a push then it’s not the team that’s the problem, it’s your planning!

Unjust high-level negative assumptions?

Looking at the comments from a manager’s point of view, they come across as high-level assumptions that are often negative towards the manager.

My assumption is that the responses were in reaction to the perceived unjust negative evaluation implied by a manager even considering “how could I push a team to go faster?” (the headline of the earlier post).

This highlights the importance of a manager with these views clarifying what’s behind them, and sharing them with specific concrete examples, to avoid creating defensiveness in the responses and becoming stuck in a point-counter-point argument.

It intrigues me that some of the responses may have created the same impact for a manager that they felt manager’s views had on them.

What would a manager think if told these views?

I realise that many of the responses were not intended to be directly said to the manager, but if they were I believe it would create defensiveness in the manager.

I doubt that the manager would feel listened to or understood.

The views were mainly stated in strong, rather than tentative terms. There was no mention of asking for more detailed observable data from the manager or any inquiries into what was behind the manager’s view.

How would people would avoid these negative views “leaking out” into the conversation through body language or tone of voice? As a manager (share your views in the comments) I could imagine thinking:

“These responses show people reacting defensively before they’ve listened or understood my view. They are telling me I’m wrong to think this way and I should start by asking how I could be different. It just shows that you can’t talk to a team about these issues”

Skilled unawareness and skilled incompetence?

Some comments advised the manager to take the team’s perspective and ask the team what they might be unintentionally doing to hinder the team and how they as a manager could help. This is useful as other people have a great ability to spot gaps or inconsistencies in our behaviour. Learning how to honestly ask for help from others is a worthwhile practice.

Yet, there was limited evidence in the responses of following that advice and thinking things through from the manager’s perspective and asking how they might be unintentionally contributing or how they could help.

This is an example where people, acting with good intentions, may be skilfully unaware of the fact they’re not following their own advice to others. This relates to the skilled incompetence demonstrated at a recent Agile workshop

I’d welcome your views in the comments. How productive do you think the responses would be if communicated to a manager? If you wanted to respond more productively to a manager who thought it was necessary to push the team what would you say or do?

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

Image Credit: Steve-h on flickr

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