Archive for January, 2009

A letter from a father to a son, April 1943

Musings | Posted by Doc
Jan 31 2009

The following is the end of a letter that my grandfather wrote to my father in April of 1943.  My father was 19, it was early in his service in the US Army, and I suspect it was the first time he was away from home for any extended period.

I debated whether to share this or not. Not because it reveals anything of any concern about my family, but because in many ways it’s such an intimate exchange between these two men. It brings tears to my eye, and opens a window into a relationship of which I knew little.

Just for context, my father died in 2007 at the age of 82. For much of his life, we had a wonderful relationship, and for some parts it wasn’t so good.  Nothing remarkable in that.

What’s remarkable is that I never knew about this collection of letters – there are many of them – that my grandfather, who died when I was 14 and whom I didn’t know at all well, wrote to my father several times each week. My grandfather was around 50 at the time of these letters.

I’m transcribing them all, a bit at a time, and have tried to preserve my grandfather’s punctuation/style.

I hope you enjoy this.

When you finally get out of quarantine, and go to Augusta, on your first holiday, please inquire, which suitable place I may stay during my visit to Augusta and bear in mind, that when I do come, I wish to contact, the different officers I had mentioned & written to you, that are members of my college fraternity.

Perhaps at this point, it may appear to you that I am stressing these relationships as an important factor for you. While you are going through your basic training in the Engineers Battalion – Be assured, that in the half century that I have lived – I have come to the realization that we must learn to graciously and humbly receive the generous offers of our friends, in what capacity they are willing to serve – I think that Shakespeare in one of his plays – said – It is more gracious at times to receive than to give – and if these men, can in some small measure, recognize your fine qualities of character, your gentleness of nature, your warmth of heart – your simplicity of heart and soul – and recognize honestly – and you in turn to receive this recognition – will you not then serve your country in a greater capacity.

Do not, my dear son, for one moment underestimate the sweetness of human touch – the inestimable value of interesting friendships – the beauty of moral principles – all these factors go to make for decency in living.

If my words will in some small measures, reveal to you, my love for you – and in that love convey hope for you with every new day – I will be satisfied – I will be at peace with you.

Your Dad.

All in my head

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Jan 31 2009

Does this ever happen to you? It usually happens to me when I’m doing something that doesn’t require a lot of my attention – showering, washing dishes, ironing (yes, I do those things 😉 ).

I find myself thinking “I did X. I didn’t do Y. Debbie* will probably be upset that I did/didn’t.”

Do you do that?

When I catch myself, I stop, take a breath, and think “When’s the last time Debbie got upset about that? Hmm. Never, maybe? So why are you getting yourself all worked up about it?”

This ties back to the idea that we all live in our own heads, and interact with the world through behaviors – speech, action, results. I define results as the things I observe that can reasonably and rationally be assumed to be the result of someone’s behavior. Like coming home and finding that the bed is made. I didn’t make it, so someone must have. My wife was the only one home, so it was probably her. “Thanks for making the bed, Sweetie!”

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Patterson et al (yes, I’m going to keep referring to this work – I think it’s seminal) talk about the Stories we tell ourselves, and understanding our Paths. In the example above (I did/didn’t whatever), my Path was the thinking that led me from what I did or didn’t do to assuming something about Debbie’s feelings, with no evidence to support that.  Assumptions – you know about assumptions.  Once I recognize my Path, and I can see my Story: “Debbie will probably be upset.” What happens when I tell myself that story? I feel angry/defensive/upset/hurt. That leads to me stepping out of the shower/kitchen/living room and acting on those feelings towards Debbie.

Poor Debbie is then sitting there wondering what she might have done to lead me to feel that way, or what kind of an ass am I for treating her that way, or…

The thing is, for a moment – just a moment – whatever is in my head seems to be real. What I expect, what I think someone else has/does/will feel, and therefore my emotional, mental, and physical reactions are based on that pseudo-reality that exists only inside of my head.

The challenge, therefore, is to stop and think in STATE terms: what has actually happened. Not what I think will happen or interpret, but what has actually happened. Has Debbie actually gotten upset? Do I have evidence to expect that she will feel upset? If so, I can choose my behavior, informed by what I know of her.

But thus far, it’s all in my head. Reacting based on what is in my head is something I can take control over. Now. Right now.

* Debbie is my amazing wife of 32.5 years. She hasn’t killed me or dumped me yet, so I’m hopeful that is’ going to last. 🙂

Facilitation Antipattern: Conclusion Jumper

Facilitation, Musings | Posted by Doc
Jan 31 2009

conclusion_jumperMotto: I don’t need to hear everything you have to say – I’ve got it!
Belief: I am quicker than others in figuring things out, and am required to tell them so.
Behavior: States a conclusion as if they have enough information, then argues the point.
Characteristics: articulate, convincing

In my life, I have been so guilty of this. When I was younger, because I knew I was smart, I always assumed that I knew where the other person was going and would jump in. Of course, the other person was offended/annoyed, even if I was right.

Why? Because they wanted to finish what they had to say. They didn’t care that I was impatient to move on, that I thought I knew what they were going to say and where they were going, that I thought I was smart  – they wanted a show of respect.

Yup – Conclusion Jumpers are generally disrespectful. What their behavior says is “I’m smart, I’m fast, and what you have to say is less important than my desire to show my smarts and move things forward.” Who is that about? Them – the Jumper – not me.

If you are a facilitator, even if only for one meeting, then your responsibility is to be patient, listen, ask questions – not interrupt, nor assume that you know what someone means or what they’re going to say. Your responsibility is to encourage all parties to listen to all parties – if you don’t do it, then they will learn that they don’t have to.

In fact, part of your responsibility is to teach everyone present about respect and patience and listening.

I seem to have used the word resonsibility a lot in this post, don’t I?

Facilitation Pattern: Guide (aka Sherpa)

Facilitation, Musings | Posted by Doc
Jan 31 2009

Motto: I’m here to hold the lamp and show the way.
Belief: My role is to help you find your way and shine the light where it’s needed.
Behavior: Listens, asks, reframes and rephrases.
Characteristics: Calm, attentive, patient, and offering.

There are many pitfalls (think of the word literally, as well as figuratively) in meeting with and talking with others. In the role of Guide/Sherpa, the facilitator’s responsibilities include steering the group around the pitfalls, helping them to avoid the known dangers and recognize the signs of upcoming trouble.

In many ways, the Guide is also a teacher, as through his behavior, the Guide teaches the group what signs to look for.

Can a participant be a Guide? Of course.

One of the key factors in participatory/collaborative events of all kinds is attitude.

Do you ask “What am I going to get out of this?” or “What am I going to put into this?”

Simple wisdoms:

  • To give is to receive.
  • To teach is to learn.
  • Sometimes asking is telling/teaching.

Great consumer experience

Musings | Posted by Doc
Jan 30 2009

I had some shirts that I wanted to have embroidered with my company’s logo (this way, I get to choose my own shirts 😉 ).

There is this couple I’d met at the gym who have their own embroidery business. We’d talked from time to time, but I hadn’t had a need.

This week, I had the need. I called late yesterday, and reached Jim (the couple’s names are Jim and Stacy Sass, the business is Threads Embroidery & More). Honestly, they don’t have the snazziest web site. What they do have is integrity, great customer experience, and living up to their advertising and commitments.

I chatted with Jim, sent him the logo, agreed that I’d bring my shirts by in the morning.

This morning, I dropped off the shirts (Jim wasn’t in at that moment, but someone else was who was professional and personable). A bit later, Jim called, then sent me a PDF to proof. I approved it and told him to go ahead.

About two hours later, my shirts were ready.  They’re perfect.

I get that the machines actually do the embroidery, and that there’s software that drives the whole thing.

What I’m impressed with is that Jim treated me well, behaved professionally, quoted me a very reasonable price, and did the work as promised.

From the time I dropped off the shirts until I had them in my hands was two and a half hours.

If you need embroidery – whether you’re in Austin or not – check out Threads Embroidery & More.

Facilitation Antipattern: Superhero

Facilitation | Posted by Doc
Jan 30 2009

super_dudeMotto: I’m here to rescue you.
Belief: I bring special skills and knowledge, and you must want me to use them.
Behavior: Leaps into the breach to answer questions, solve problems, soothe injured feelings, and otherwise care for the participants.
Characteristics: Gentle but firm, frequently offering answers/solutions rather than asking questions.

As a facilitator, we’re not present to answer questions or solve problems. And yet, especially if we have domain expertise, it’s tempting to leap into the breach. After all, not using our expertise is depriving the participants of value, right?


As hard as it is, I tell everyone I train in facilitation that they must be prepared to leave their biases, opinions, and tendency toward rescuing people and situations outside.

When you rescue people or a situation, others don’t learn – well, they learn to depend on you to do it for them. It’s like the toddlers who always whine and reach up to be carried, because they’ve always been carried, so they always expect to be carried, so they don’t learn to get around well on their own.

As with most of the Patterns & Antipatterns I’ll be talking about, this applies equally to the facilitator and the participants. As a member of the group, if you keep providing solutions, others will start to pull back and let you do it all. While you might feel good as the superhero, you’re disempowering the team, and teaching them that it’s okay not to participate/contribute.

Don’t be a Superhero.

Retrospecting on the Community Courtyards

Open Space | Posted by Doc
Jan 29 2009

First, since I would wonder and will therefore assume that you do too…

“Community Courtyard” is the name that Bob Familiar of Microsoft came up with to describe the space – physical and mental – that is set aside at an event for self-organizing, community-driven discussions. Bob came up with the name because I told him “You may not call it Open Space, because it is not Open Space and if you call it Open Space people will be angry with Microsoft for ‘doing it again’!”

This discussion occurred at the Microsoft Professional Developer Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles in October, 2008 where I was “facilitating” an “Open Space” that should have been called a “Community Courtyard”. We were experimenting with the idea of providing a space and a framework for supporting self-organizing, community-driven discussion running in parallel with an event filled with stand-up, eyes-front presentations, labs, workshops, and other stuff that was the real reason that people were there.

At the PDC, it was okay, but not a big success.  There was nothing wrong with it – it just didn’t get used much.  And it wasn’t an Open Space.

So for the series of events called the MSDN Developer Conference (MDC), we called it Community Courtyard. I kinda like the name. Well done, Bob!

We’ve done ten of them so far – the MDCs. There’s one more to go, in San Francisco.

I have participated in six of the ten, Alan Stevens has done two of them, and Microsoft staff have done a couple of them. They’ve been more or less successful. I’d have to say that there are a few key lessons to be learned, should anyone else out there want to try the same thing. Lessons particularly about holding a space like this in parallel with an … event.

  • The speakers must come. If the speakers come to the CC, the attendees will come. At the end of each presentation, the speaker should say “I’ll be going to the CC after this session. If you’d like to talk more about the material, please join me there.” This will draw people into the space, stir up some energy there, and maybe lead to unexpected results.
  • There must be some way for the participants to communicate with each other, if they want to have a conversation. We tried word of mouth, whiteboards, and Twitter. Unfortunately, those don’t work well in these kinds of situations. At the PDC, we had the topics proposed by attendees displayed on a plasma TV screen – that worked MUCH better. At some of the MDCs, there was no wireless, or no mobile phone service, so Twitter and other electronic media didn’t work. There must be some way for (a) attendees to propose discussion topics and (b) other attendees to know what they are.
  • Holding a Tweetup works! In Orlando, Joe (sorry, Joe, I don’t remember your last name) from Microsoft called a Tweetup. Fortunately there was wi-fi and mobile service, and a sizable group of people showed up. It led to some community discussions, including one about Open Space!

The main lesson for me, though, which other members of the Open Space community have expressed, is that you can’t do an Open Space in parallel with something else. You can do it before, after, or even as split days (half presentations, half Open Space). But you can’t effectively do it in parallel, because you can’t form the kind of community that is at the heart of Open Space events.

I feel sad

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Jan 29 2009

Meet Pete

I had coffee with a friend this morning. We’ll call him Pete. When I originally met him, Pete was married and living with his wife and three children. During the course of our relationship, we talked about business (where we had originally connected, although we discovered we lived down the street from each other), life, relationships, the works. Several years ago he and his wife (whom we’ll call Joan) divorced in a very non-amicable fashion.

At one point, while he was still married, I gave Pete copies of three of my favorite books: The Art Of War by Sun Tzu; The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi; and The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman by Takuan Soho. I’ll talk about these books and why I think they’re valuable in another post. The importance is that my friend said to me today that the gift of those books changed his life, allowed him to discover a whole new realm, and in some ways contributed to his divorce. Wow!

He finished this by thanking me with tears in his eyes.

That’s not why I feel sad.

The Meeting

I ran into Joan a while back. She was with her new husband, whose name is also “Pete”. Once we figured out how we knew each other, we did all the small talk stuff, and she mentioned that they had five children – her three and his two.  I said I understood what a challenge that was, having four children myself, even if they were all from the same two parents. Just a bit of commiseration and fact.  Little did I know…

Later that same evening, I got an email from Joan. In that email, Joan assaulted and condemned me for having been condescending and judgmental when we spoke. “If we hadn’t been about to go into the event, I would have told you to F*** OFF right there and then. How dare you!” and so on.

Different Universes

I was stunned. She and I had apparently been in different universes. In my universe, I’d had a pleasant meeting with someone I didn’t know well, caught up just a little bit, met her present husband, and went on my way.

In her universe, someone she considers to be a friend of her anti-christ bastard of an ex-husband was rude and judgmental and condescending in totally unacceptable ways.

I read Joan’s email to my wife, who offered to get in her car, go find Joan, and begin torturing her for speaking to me the way she did.

Joan and I exchanged a few emails. I began by being conciliatory and trying to understand how she misunderstood and misjudged me. It did no good – she got meaner and more caustic with each message.  I stopped the exchange after three back-and-forths.

What I feel sad about is that she jumped right to a conclusion about my motivations and feelings that had nothing to do with my reality.

The Question

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Patterson et al suggest asking oneself what I think of as “the question”: “Why would a rational, reasonable, decent human being do that?” Frankly, it took me two readings of the book before the import and power of that question sank in. Think of it as the benefit of the doubt on steroids. Not just “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt”, but “I wonder what might be going on with that person that, if they are in fact rational and reasonable and decent, would have led them to say/do that. Maybe the story I’m telling myself isn’t what’s going on, and maybe I should think about it more.”

I was teaching a workshop on this subject in Pune, India, and told them about “the question.”

“Here’s an example: you’re sitting there, and I’m walking by, and I slap your cheek. What would you do or say?”

A lovely young Indian woman said “I’d punch you in the face!” The rest of the group, after looking shocked, started laughing.

“Can’t you think of any acceptable reason for me to slap your cheek?”

“No. I’d hit you back.”

So I turned it to the group. “Anyone?”

Silence for about two minutes. I just sat there. Then one fellow timidly raised his hand and said “Maybe there was a wasp on her cheek?”

I felt joy, because he was learning to think. Not react or even respond, but think.

And that was the problem with Joan – she did what she thought of as punching me back. Whereas there was a wasp on her cheek.

Stop and ask “the question” – even if the other person really is an unforgivable ass, it may be enough to let you apply STATE or at least respond thoughtfully.

Facilitation Patterns and Antipatterns: Curious George

Facilitation | Posted by Doc
Jan 27 2009

If you happen to be one of my Twitter followers, or you’re one of the friends or colleagues who is willing to listen, you’ll know that I’ve been focusing on this topic recently: Facilitation Patterns and Antipatterns.

The focus came about because I submitted a proposal to present at Microsoft’s TechReady8* (February 2 – 6 in Seattle), in their Architecture track, on Facilitation. When my proposal was accepted, I then had the challenge to put together a presentation for as many as 300 people at a time, to be done twice. I’d prefer a workshop, because I like interaction and games and fun. But for 300 people, plus a webcast/recording, it’s gotta be a presentation.

As I thought about it, and thought about presenting to a bunch of Software Architects (and others – I don’t think they turn them away if they’re not architects), I tried to think in terms that would make sense to them. Being a colleague of Martin Fowler, the idea of patterns and antipatterns came as a natural idea.

As I’m evolving my ideas, I thought I’d start posting some of them here. I’d love to have feedback. This stuff might make it into a book at some point, so the more you help me, the more successful I’ll be. 😉

Both the patterns and the antipatterns can apply to facilitator or participant.

Nothing is exclusive – I can take on the behaviors and beliefs of multiple patterns and antipatterns simultaneously.

Let’s see how it goes.

For each pattern or antipattern, I will describe four things: motto, belief, behavior, and characteristics. I expect it to get a bit mushy at times.

Pattern: Curious George

curious_georgeMotto: I’m here to ask, not tell.
Belief: Asking questions is better than making statements, when I’m trying to bring out information.
Behavior: Asks questions, listens actively, and uses effective techniques to clarify and to elicit.
Characteristics: Calm, questioning, persistent

This pattern is most evident in facilitators. I believe that a facilitator’s role requires that she be focusing on drawing out information. That means asking questions. That means expressing interest and curiosity to elicit knowledge and information that is in the brains of the participants.

* Microsoft TechReady8 is one of two global events that Microsoft puts on for the education of their employees. There should be some thousands of folks there. Microsoft accepts a very limited number of outside presenters, because much of the content is about Microsoft products and technology, and they have that expertise in-house. I’m pretty excited about this.

I’m not responsible

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Jan 27 2009

Just as I’ve said that we can’t put the responsibility for our feelings on others, by the same token, I can’t take responsibility for someone else’s feelings.

There are some interesting implications to that.

For instance, all that time I spend feeling guilty for “hurting someone’s feelings” is time wasted. I’m not saying that I think we shouldn’t be aware of others’ feelings. I’m not promoting insensitivity or callousness or meanness.

What I am promoting is the idea that I am not responsible for your feelings. Your response or reaction to my behavior is just that – yours.

That said, I do believe that we can learn what behaviors lead others to feel certain ways, and choose to behave or not behave in those ways.

And yet, I can’t spend all my time thinking about how my behavior affects you. More importantly, I can’t go back and change the way you feel.

Have you ever known someone who – no matter what you did – always seemed to get upset with you? Always blamed you for what you did, didn’t do, or the way in which you did or didn’t do it?

Sadly, too many of us use our (supposed) feelings as weapons and tools to manipulate others.

  • You hurt me
  • You made me angry
  • I only did it because I knew that you would be upset if I didn’t
  • Why are you so mean?

Guilt, manipulation, control.

So what happens when I say “I’m not responsible for your feelings. How about if you take responsibility for your feelings, I take responsibility for mine, and we talk about why you’re upset about this?”

Of course, I wouldn’t say it quite so directly. 😉 I’d probably do a STATE thing.

The point is, I believe that being a mature human being, being an “adult”, means taking responsibility. I take responsibility for my feelings, for my behavior, and for being committed to my relationships. Relationships include any situation in which I have a connection with another human being, no matter how close or distant.

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