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The Stinging Foot Spray Experiment: How data helps in emotional situations

The Foot Stinging Experiment Results

“It stings too much!” cried my young daughter after the first spray of the medicine.

Mud at the Latitude Festival 2012

Mud at Latitude Festival

As a result of a muddy weekend camping at a music festival she had developed Athletes Foot for the first time. The only child-suitable treatment available at the chemist was a foot spray.

I had a dilemma; to help her foot heal as soon as possible we needed to continue to use the spray twice a day, but she was clearly upset and distressed by the stinging. It was difficult to tell how painful it really was. How to move forward?

“Could we do an experiment to work out how ‘stingy’ the foot spray is? On a scale out of ten, where 10 is the most painful you could imagine, how much does it hurt now?”


“OK, could you hold this stop watch here and each minute we check how much it hurts?”

And so we drew this simple chart, and made recorded her scores.

The Foot Stinging Experiment

The initial observations from the Foot Spray Stinging Experiment

This was helpful for my daughter, my wife and I. It showed that although it felt very painful, the pain halved after the first minute and was gone completely in four minutes.

A problem was that we needed to keep using the spray twice a day. I decided to try to frame it as an experiment where we could test predictions.

“How stingy do you think it will be when we use the spray this evening?

“A 10 again”

It was a 9.

We kept doing this and chart below shows the results. Each time we used the spray the stinging was less and it stopped stinging quicker.  By the third day my daughter was actually eager to have the spray and was proud of the fact that she could show it no longer stung.

The Foot Stinging Experiment Results

The final results of the Foot Spray Stinging Experiment

This episode highlighted several points for me. The first is the value of jointly designing ways to test disagreements and gather more information. The second is that in situations of high emotions (or pain) there is value in having measures (even subjective ones like ‘stingingness’) to overcome cognitive biases (like magnifying recent events and incorrectly predicting the future). Although this is a personal example I think these benefits are applicable to a wider situation.

Conversations for double-loop mindset changes with Kanban

You can watch the video of my talkfrom the Lean Software Systems Consortium (LSSC12) conference in Boston earlier this month.

Me presenting on using the Ladder of Inference to produce Double Loop Learning conversations

Using the Ladder of Inference to produce Double Loop Learning conversations

Visualising work is a key part of the Kanban Method. In many situations it can lead to people realising there are problems or opportunities for improvement, which can be successfully accomplished by simply changing behaviour (single loop learning). However, in some situations, particularly where there could embarrassment or threat, these change may need challenging existing mindsets (called double loop learning). Using practical examples drawn from directly helping teams, this talk will present a model for understanding how we can proactively engage in conversations that increase the chances of capitalising on the value that visualising the work provides.

Here’s a review from Jack Vinson

Benjamin Mitchell used the topic of “what comes after visualization” to start a conversation of what to do once you’ve got some visualization.  He particularly talked about Chris Argyris‘  Ladder of Inference (and expanded by Peter Senge), which he used as a way of thinking about how we see things and how we interact with our colleagues and coaching / consulting clients.  He particularly warned about staying away from making assumptions and working at the levels of Select and Describe (rather than Explain, Evaluate, Propose Actions).  Since Argyris is one of the promoters of double-loop learning, it is not surprising that Benjamin discussed the Mindset -> Actions -> Results learning loop.  I liked the discussion of taking different actions to get results vs changing one’s mindset because the Actions aren’t getting anywhere like where they need to go.

Here were some reactions from Twitter:

Let me know your reaction in the comments.

Stuck in an overlong Agile stand up? Try the two hands rule

When working with Agile teams the daily stand up meeting provides a heart beat to the day and an opportunity for team members to share information. Stand up meetings work best when they are short and balance the inputs across all the people in the team. A common problem is stand ups that start running too long.

Raising two hands in a stand up

When two hands are raised then it's a signal to move the stand up meeting on

The Two Hands Rule

Sometimes the conversations at stand up can get too detailed or go on too long. For these situations we’ve introduced the “two hands” rule; if anyone thinks the current conversation has gone off topic, or is no longer effective, then they raise a hand. Once a second person raises a hand then that’s a sign to stop the conversation and continue with the rest of the stand up. Those speaking can continue the conversation after the stand up has finished.

This approach makes it easy for people to share their view on the effectiveness of the conversation in a way that reduces the risk of causing offence. It also provides a way for the team to detect and correct its own behaviour.

I introduced this idea recently to a team who agreed to give it a try. In a stand up a few days later I was talking with a team member and didn’t realise that our conversation had got too detailed and gone on too long. I missed seeing that two other team members had put their hands up. It wasn’t until one of them spoke up that I noticed! This is one of the characteristics of difficult conversations; we often become blind to signs, easily spotted by others, that the conversation has become ineffective. By agreeing with the team to use the “two hands” rule they helped me detect when they thought I’d become ineffective.

The technique can have some downsides though. It can feel direct or confrontational, especially when people first experience it. It’s important to discuss any issues after the stand up and consider reviewing the practice in a retrospective.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Have you had stand up meetings that have taken too long? What approaches have you used? If you’ve tried something like the “two hands” rule, how did it go?

Overcoming three mental blocks to listening in difficult conversations

If you listen to most conversations you’ll hear remarkably few questions. When a conversation becomes difficult then we drop all questions; we spend most of our time telling others how we see the world. Here are three mental blocks that stop us from listening and ways to overcome them.


Block #1: “If I listen and understand you, you’ll assume that I agree with you”

Difficult conversations often come down to a sense of us trying to win, or at least not lose against the other person. A common fear is that if we spend time listening and understanding the other’s point of view and not defending our view, then they may think we agree with them.

A similar fear is that if we spend our mental energy focussed on their view we may forget our own view or forget our “killer points”.

A useful reframe is to realise that listening and understanding another’s view doesn’t mean that you have to agree. If you’re worried about forgetting your points, then say something like:

“I want to spend some time listening to how you’re seeing this situation so that I can better understand your point. Even after doing this I may still see things from my point of view, but I want to start by understanding yours”

Block #2: “It’ll be quicker if I just tell you what’s so obviously true (to me)”

When we’re convinced of our own view, or feeling under time pressure, it can seem easier just to tell others our view of the situation, because we think that it will take less time. Just telling others how we see things it actually increases the chances of the conversation taking longer.

When our focus is on telling it’s more likely we’ll start to cut other people off or use strong language to push our points.  This increases the chances that the other people will feel pressured, misunderstood or insulted. Others will often respond defensively, either by expressing their point of view back at us, or by going quiet and pretending to agree. These defensive actions mean that conversations take longer as sources or disagreement are not uncovered or discussed.

You can’t demand that someone else listens and understands you. Our ability to stay in conversations with others depends on them perceiving that we are willing to meet their needs. Listening and understanding others means that they’re more likely to listen to us.

Block #3: “It’s critical that we overcome this major disagreement”

When we feel threatened in a difficult conversation we amplify small differences in views or approach into big problems. We often miss that the “major disagreement” is actually a minor disagreement.

Being able to step back and get curious about how another person sees the world means that we get a chance to more accurately understand the situation and avoid ‘making a mountain out of a mole hill’.

My earlier post “Good question: how one good question can unblock a stuck conversation” shows an example.


Learning to ask questions about other’s views and listen is important in having more effective conversations. Hopefully understanding and challenging the mental blocks that stop us from listening in difficult conversations will help you stay in a more productive frame of mind when practising these skills.

Can you relate to these mental blocks? I’d love to hear your thoughts or 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: Image Credit: Pasma, on Flickr

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


“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