Archive for April, 2009

Happily unhappy

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Apr 23 2009

My first real job out of college, I worked at a small car insurance company in San Francisco. The company had started many years earlier as a small, family-owned insurance company before being acquired by Transamerica. When I joined the company, it provided bank-mandated add-on car insurance. That means that if you applied for a loan and couldn’t get insurance on your own for any reason, this over-priced insurance got added into your loan.

It was a job.  Not a great job, and not a terrible job.  Just a job.  I did what I do, and tried to improve things a little bit along the way – processes, procedures, the forms we used (had to be designed to work well in a typewriter – remember those?), and just being friendly.  Although back then I was still in my arrogant, the world is here to worship me phase.

I worked in the Claims Department. Of the people I worked with, a number of them had been there for 35 years or more. They’d started right out of high school, and never left. One of the vice presidents – not a particularly popular or likeable one – had worked his way up from the mail room over the course of decades.

So there I was, working in my first full time job after leaving college.

And I realized that many of these people hated what they did every day. They woke up and hated the thought of going to work. They didn’t like the customers they dealt with. They didn’t like the work they did. They felt underappreciated, underpaid, and undervalued.

And they showed up for work every day, and griped about it every day.

The not-very-likeable vice president showed up every day, and did his best to make everyone else miserable.

I struggled then, and struggle now, with the idea that anyone could stay at a job that makes them that unhappy for 35 days, much less 35 years. Thirty-five years. Between the ones who griped, and the vice president who made others unhappy, it was clear that each of them was finding ways to deal with their unhappiness.

So what was the reason? Why did Clara and Norma stay there that long, being that unhappy, and talking about their unhappiness every day? Why do people all over the US (I can’t speak for other countries) do that same thing?

Here’s my hypothesis: they weren’t really as unhappy as they said. In dealing with what they viewed as a hostile and unappreciative world, they found camaraderie and consolation in knowing that there are others who feel the same way. I think that somehow, strange as it is, being unhappy made them happy.

I find myself doing this kind of thing from time to time – griping, because griping allows me to share, collaborate, dilute my discontent, and otherwise get a sense of my place in the universe. And it’s important to me to have that sense. I talk about context a lot, and the griping/discontent/unhappiness helps me to understand what that context is.

We’re strange creatures, we humans.

Agile Assessments – Proven Best Practices

Agile & Lean | Posted by Doc
Apr 23 2009

Agile Assessments – Proven Best Practices | ThoughtWorks.

ThoughtWorks has just released the beta of an Agile self-evaluation, with the goal of helping organizations and teams determine how well they’re doing with their Agile adoption.

Yes, I work for ThoughtWorks, and am happy about it.

Yes, ThoughtWorks would be happy to help anyone who desires it to achieve greater effectiveness in their Agile adoption (one of the things I love to do).

That said, I went through this assessment, filling in answers based on one of the clients I’ve worked with.  I found it to be right on the mark, based on my experience of the client’s organization.

The report is free, and has some real value in and of itself.

Since it’s in beta, the developers of the assessment would love to have your feedback. There are no strings, hooks, or tricks.

The Unconference: Where Geeks JIT Together

Open Space | Posted by Doc
Apr 21 2009

The Unconference: Where Geeks JIT Together

Steven M List

More collaboration and less imposed structure. That’s where technology is leading us. Whether it’s Wikipedia’s collaborative bottom-up organization or the Unconference’s on-the-fly topic and presentation planning, the trend is clearly about less prescription and more participation.

Just a few years ago, there were no Unconferences, Open Spaces, BarCamp, FOO Camp, or DemoCamp. So why does it seem like today there’s another Unconference or Open Space every other week? What’s so compelling about geeky, nerdy, tech folks getting together just to talk about whatever’s on their minds?

via The Unconference: Where Geeks JIT Together.

I just had to share – coming out in the May issue of MSDN magazine.

Circle of Questions strikes again!

Facilitation, Musings | Posted by Doc
Apr 19 2009

I facilitated a retrospective for a client’s product development team (s/w dev, product manager, QA) recently.  They had never done a retrospective before, so I had to choose my activities with some care.  That was challenging, because I had two hours, and wanted them to experience a variety of things during that time.  Here’s what we did:

  • Introduction and Welcome
  • Fun (the game I refer to as Count-Off – does anyone have another more common name for it?)
  • Prime Directive
  • Working Agreements
  • Starfish – I really wanted to do a timeline, but given the time limitations, opted for the Starfish
  • Break
  • Fun (Untangle or Human Knot) – facing inward, then facing outward
  • Take Temperature again
  • Circle of Questions
  • Appreciations
  • Closing

As is often the case with groups that have never done a retrospective before, it started with nervous laughter, silly jokes, a lot of shuffling, and nervous and expectant looks.

As I described the purpose of a retrospective, there were nods and some smiles and lots of interest.  This is a good group that works well together.  There were a couple of loudly self-professed introverts (is that an oxymoron?), and the usual variety of personality and communication types.

The Check-In helps to gauge the emotional atmosphere. I just asked “How are you feeling about being here right now? Give me a thumbs-up for good, thumbs-down for not good, and middle for neutral.” I got mostly up and neutral, with a few down.

Using Norm Kerth’s “Create Safety” exercise (from his book Project Retrospectives) helps to judge how safe the group feels in talking and sharing. Fortunately, the group I was working with was mostly in the 4 – 5 range, with a few 3’s.

When we got to the fun, it was – well – fun. 😉 My intent was as it is with most icebreakers – get them up, moving, stirring up some positive energy, sharing with each other, but no pressure other than our own native competitiveness.

While some disagree with it, I like Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive. For me, it sets the tone as non-judging, non-blame-searching, non-fault-finding.

Working Agreements, learned originally from Diana Larsen and Esther Derby in “Diana and Esther’s Excellent Retrospective Adventure” at Agile2008**, is a powerful and enduring tool. Once created, the team maintains them and continues to use them.  They become an embedded part of the culture. The activity of creating Working Agreements (or Ground Rules) is also covered in Diana and Esther’s excellent book “Agile Retrospectives” and in Norm Kerth’s “Project Retrospectives“.

Then we got to the Starfish. I love the looks on the first-timers’ faces. Blank, confused, unsure… and then the first person writes on a sticky and puts it up on the sheet of flipchart paper. And then the next. And then the dam breaks, and there’s a flood.  I love that.

We did clustering and discussing, and then mined it for information. The biggest thing to come out of it was that the team, as a whole, felt that they didn’t have an ongoing grasp of the overall product vision. They’ll be scheduling something to work on that.

After the break and the fun, I decided to check safety again. Not surprisingly, the numbers had shifted upward, with more 5’s and 4’s, and just a couple of 3’s remaining.

Now we get to the Circle of Questions.  Thanks for bearing with me.  The long lead-up was important.

You can imagine it. This group sitting around, with me explaining how Circle of Questions works. Oh, my. Blank looks, some looking distinctly uncomfortable, even just a touch of hostility, perhaps?

I finished explaining, and then chose one fellow to start it off. Wouldn’t you know that I’d picked perhaps the most introverted of the folks there, with the next most introverted sitting to his left! There was a long pause, after which I said “If you’d like, I can start you off.” He declined my offer, and got things started.

As always, it was a bit slow at first. What was wonderful was that the questions quickly became very deep, insightful, and important. They talked about their process. They talked about their organization. They talked about their frustrations and fears.  All done with great respect and mutual concern.

It was glorious.

After the first time around, ending with Mr. Introvert, I suggested that we continue, but going in the opposite direction. The other introvert said “I was going to ask if we could go in a different direction!” while Mr. Introvert said “Oh – I didn’t think of another question.” Long pause, then he got it started again.

Ultimately we got around one more time before I had to call time.

After the close of the retrospective, several of the participants came up to me to talk about the Circle of Questions: how surprised they were, how much they got out of, what they learned from it.

On the surface, Circle of Questions sounds like it’ll be kind of boring. It isn’t.

I’m really glad I actually read through all of the exercises in “Agile Retrospectives” – this one is one of my favorites.

* BTW, a great site for team building and ice breaker games is Wilderdom.

** I’m delighted to say that, as Stage Producer for the “New to Agile” stage at Agile2009, their workshop will be offered again. It’s a winner, and well worth attending if you have the opportunity.

Icebreaker Game: Count-Off

Facilitation | Posted by Doc
Apr 19 2009

I don’t know if this game has another name, nor where it comes from originally.  I learned it in ThoughtWorks Immersion in Pune, India in July of 2008. If anyone knows the origin, let me know. Mostly I call it the 5/7 game, but have decided to give it a more official-sounding name. 🙂


Have the entire group stand in a circle (or any geometric shape in which they can all see each other). Standing is important. If you have someone who cannot stand – someone wheelchair-bound, for example – they can play as long as they have a way to turn in a circle in place.


We’re going to count off, starting at one and going around the circle clockwise, each person saying their number aloud. Just to be clear, the first person says “one”, the second person says “two”, and so on.

When you say a number that is a multiple of five, you clap your hands.  Yes, that includes five and ten and so on.

When you say a number that is a multiple of seven, you turn around in place. No, it doesn’t matter which direction you turn in, so long as you turn around. So that includes seven and fourteen and twenty-one and so on.

When you say a number that is a multiple of both five and seven, do both things – clap and turn.

Is everyone clear?

Now, if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do – clap or turn – or you do what you’re not supposed to do, you’re “out” and you step out of the circle – you can sit down or whatever you like, as long as you don’t interfere with the game.

If we’re not sure whether someone did or didn’t do something, the group as a whole will decide.  We’ll see when we come to it.


Notes for the Facilitator

There will be some things that will likely come up:

  • “Oh, I didn’t know I was supposed to do BOTH things!” (on 35)
  • Lots of laughter
  • When the group gets down to seven people, the seventh person will be turning around every time around the circle, and turning and clapping every fifth time around the circle
  • When the group gets down to five people, the fifth person will be clapping every time around the circle, and…
  • If someone is a little late with clapping or turning, let the group decide whether they’re out or still in
  • Having something – some little trophy or toy – to recognize the winner is fun – let them hold it either until the end of the event, or until the next game/round (I’ve done more than one in longer events, because it’s so much fun and the first round is very short for some people)

Personally, I’ve never been in a group that got higher than 80-something.  And that was getting pretty challenging. Feel free to play or not as you choose. If I play, I don’t throw the game.

With a large group (the largest I’ve done it with is about 25), it can take a while.  And it’s worth it.  The ones who get eliminated keep up the spirit, rooting for their favorites, taunting their friends, and helping to decide on the close calls.

I am SO impatient!

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Apr 14 2009

As much as I talk about leading people to choose to change – influencing them – I have to admit that my natural tendency is toward impatience.  After all, I got it, so why don’t you?  What’s taking so long?  C’mon already!

Once I understand something or internalize something or in some other way get it, I forget about my own AHA! moment when I first got it.

What’s important for me to remember, therefore, is that everyone learns at their own pace, and their AHA! moments will come when they come, not when I want them to come.

When I was studying Shotokan Karate, I worked on a particular kata (form) for several months. I reached brown belt, and was so proud of myself. I was doing that same kata one day, and started seeing all sorts of flaws in it.  I went to my instructor and told him how confusing this was, because it seemed like the flaws appeared suddenly.  He said “the higher the mountain, the farther you can see.”

I think there’s a corollary: the higher the mountain, the more the details are lost in the mist of distance. I think this sometimes applies to the lessons I’ve learned and internalized (the “unconscious competence” level of learning).

As a parent, I’ve certainly seen the situation many hundreds of times. My wife or I will tell one of the kids the same thing over and over and over and… one day, all of a sudden, it seems that they get it.


No doubt there’s a combination of a critical mass of receptions, plus some catalyzing event or thought that turns it from more yadda-yadda noise into a message that is important to them.

This means that no matter how important or seemingly obvious the message or lesson, I have to learn to be patient, be determined, be consistent, and wait until the other person is ready.

In my work, I run into this frequently as well.  “Oh, now I get what you’ve been telling me all this time, Doc!”

It’s not that I said anything different, or said it differently.  It’s just reaching that moment, that point in time at which it becomes personally relevant and meaningful for them.

And that requires patience.


You can’t change me

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Apr 13 2009

Change is a powerful and frightening thing.

What’s just as frightening, is that many of us think we can change others. Not initiate change, not encourage change, but effect change in others.

We can’t.

Oh, sure – people in my life may change because of things I say or do.

But they don’t change because of me. They change because they choose to change.

The most I can do is offer my thoughts, through my spoken or written words, and demonstrate through my behavior, and at the same time offer them the opportunity to change.

Think about some of the books you’ve read that led you to make changes in your life. Did the author change you? Or did you embrace and internalize what the author wrote and make changes in yourself?

Now think about this in the context of work. If I can’t change someone, or make them change, then how do I effect the change that I believe is important? And, especially, how do I effect that change in someone who is not emotionally attached to me nor a student or apprentice of mine?

I don’t! I speak and share and show. If I do it well, then maybe they’ll choose to change. And maybe they won’t.

If this doesn’t make sense to you, read the Serenity Prayer, and think about it.

…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Insights you can use

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Apr 10 2009

Three Myths about Teams

Myth #1: All a team needs to get them working well together is a clear goal and sufficient pressure to perform. I’ve never seen a team without a clear and compelling goal gel; but I’ve seen plenty of teams who did have a clear goal flail and fail. Until a group of people decides to work as a team and decides to agree, they won’t function well as a team.

Myth #2: A manager can discern individual contributions to team results. While a manager can tell certain things about the way a team is functioning, in most cases, it’s impossible to tease out individual contribution. And when managers try to assess who has made the biggest contributions, they are often wrong. Taking action on an incorrect assessment can have devastating effects on the team, and makes the manager look foolish.

Myth #3: If the team isn’t struggling or working long hours they aren’t working hard. Teams that are working well together make the work look easy. They work at a purposeful, yet relaxed pace. They even look like they are having fun.

via insights you can use.

Esther Derby frequently has valuable insights that I can use. 😉

I would call these “The Three Start-Up Myths About Teams,” having worked at numerous startups over the years. These have certainly been among the guiding principles that most of those startups lived by.

A recent job put the lie to this being about startups for me, though. The CEO seems to have these three myths as his mantra. He would make comments about the people who left “early” (although they might have been there for ten hours), who didn’t have the right spirit (even though they were working from home into the wee hours), and who weren’t contributing enough (even though he didn’t have a clue, couldn’t read code, and didn’t really understand what we were doing). He was proud of his MBA and his alma mater, and claimed success in startups.

Of course, this company was not a startup, did not have a clear vision of what it was trying to do, did not have any market research to support its product plan, and whose owner has no idea of what it means to be a leader.

These myths are not about teams, of course. They’re about managers, ineffective false leaders, and their failing attempts to get groups of people to work together as though they were a team, while actually creating dysfunction.

I think that Esther has done us all a valuable service, in identifying these three myths.

Look for them carved into the lintel over the door – if you see them, run!

ALT.NET Houston Open Space is done, and…

Events, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Apr 06 2009

for me, this event exemplified some of the best things about Open Space events.

It was a “typical” weekend event – we opened and created the agenda on Friday evening, sessions all day Saturday, and sessions and closing on Sunday.

The great majority of the 100 participants had never attended an Open Space before, mostly had no clue what it was about, and many came in skeptical. I love it when they start out skeptical. 😉

I was a bit worried (as always) that there wouldn’t be enough topics. Was I ever wrong to worry! We had more overflow than any other event I’ve facilitated. The newbies got the idea quickly and the topics kept on flowing.

The energy was outstanding. Once things got rolling, the bumblebees were pollinating, the butterflies were flitting, and the conversations moved up and down the halls.

Topics spanned everything from how to expand the community to programming in F# to discussing BDD (and TDD and DDDD).

For me, the best part was, as usual, the closing circle.

The words I heard included “open” and “respect” and “sharing” and “wow”. The skeptical had become the converted.

On top of all of that, this group was one of the most eager and effective in not only getting proceedings up on their wiki, but also in sharing videos and far more information than just came out of the event. Plus the amount of tweeting that went on and the people who were connecting and watching streaming video and tweets around the world, was impressive.

It was a joy and a delight to be allowed to facilitate this event, and to share in the energy and excitement.


Is it safe?

Coping and Communicating, Facilitation, Musings | Posted by Doc
Apr 06 2009

In any book on facilitation, meetings, or effective communication, you’ll encounter the concept of safety.

I think about safety a lot, because I think so many of us take it for granted, or think it’s safe when it’s not, or have different understandings of safe.

Here’s an example:

Marge: I think we should go to Flerbit’s for dinner.

Frank: That’s a dumb idea! We just went to Flerbit’s last week. Let’s go to Smagger’s instead.

Marge: Whatever you like, Frank.

Frank thinks it’s safe, because he feels comfortable and free to speak his mind.  And, after all, it must be safe because Marge agreed with  him, didn’t she?

Marge feels like there’s just no point in speaking at all, because Frank always points out her shortcomings, makes her feel stupid, and always gets his own way.

Does Marge feel safe?

Let’s try another example:

Dunstan: I just finished writing the tests for the code we’re working on. They all passed.

Ben: Of course they did. You always forget to deal with <situation>.

Dunstan: I don’t forget about it, I just ignore it because you always change the code.

Ben: Oh, so it’s my fault?

Dunstan: Well, if you wouldn’t say it’s done before it’s done…

Does either of these guys really feel safe?

Let’s get back to the definition of safe.  Here’s my definition:

A safe situation is one in which all parties have confidence that they can express themselves and share their ideas and opinions without being attacked, assaulted, insulted, belittled, or otherwise mistreated just for speaking up.

A safe situation is one in which I can make a mistake, misstatement, or incorrect assumption, and still have people treat me with respect.

A safe situation is one in which I can share, have a dialogue, and feel like a whole, valuable human being at the end.

A safe situation allows for criticism, challenge, discussion, different ideas, exchanges of views, and allows all parties equal chance to hear and be heard.

Yes, all of that.

Let’s look at Frank and Marge. Marge made a suggestion. Frank belittled her by referring to it as dumb. Frank would tell you that he didn’t call Marge dumb, he called Marge’s suggestion dumb. Frank doesn’t seem to grasp that Marge has an attachment to her ideas, and that calling her idea dumb is tantamount to calling her dumb. Frank probably doesn’t understand that being abrupt and judging can lead his listener to feel hurt or angry.

Now for Ben and Dunstan.

Both of these guys treat the other with disrespect.  They get into an attack/counterattack mode.  Ben talks to Dunstan disrespectfully, so Dunstan counterattacks. Why? Because it comes naturally. If I am caught up in how you make me feel, then if I feel bad I also feel justified in giving as good as I got. If I’m focused on the contention, then I’m not focused how well we’re communicating, and I’m less likely to share/contribute/participate.

Let’s look at alternate versions of these exchanges:

Marge: I think we should go to Flerbit’s for dinner.

Frank: I like Flerbit’s too, and we just went to Flerbit’s last week. Let’s go to Smagger’s instead.

Marge: Okay – that’s a good idea. I’m up for that, Frank.

Small changes make big differences. Staying away from judging, emotionally loaded words like “dumb” allows the exchange to be positive and friendly instead of hostile and frustrating.

Dunstan: I just finished writing the tests for the code we’re working on. They all passed.

Ben: That’s great, Dunstan. How about <situation>? I know we’ve chatted about it.

Dunstan: I’ve had to rework the tests a couple of times in the past. I’d rather wait until you tell me that it’s really done. Is that okay?

Ben: Ah. Hmm. Yes, I think that’s reasonable. So maybe next time you could tell me “all of the tests, except the ones for <situation>, have passed”? That way I’ll know and we won’t have any misunderstanding. Would that work?

Dunstan: Good idea. Sorry I didn’t say it that way this time.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you behave with mutual respect, engage in dialogue as opposed to attack and counterattack, and commit to mutual goals and understanding.

Here are three questions for you:

  1. What’s your definition of safe for yourself?
  2. What does it take for you to feel safe?
  3. What do you do to make it safe for others?
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