Archive for the ‘Effective Meetings’ category

Book Review – From Contempt To Curiosity

April 6, 2014

Caitlin Walker has written a brilliant book recounting her own 15 year journey with Clean Language as applied to groups – a compilation of stories illustrating the models that she developed along the way which she now groups together and calls Systemic Modelling. This work builds on the work of others as well – the originator of Clean Language, David Grove, and his original modellers, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, with whom Caitlin trained and learned. She acknowledges these and many others who assisted her in her consulting practice, Training Attention, along the way. There is a nifty appendix of the major influencing works at the back. (more…)

Prevention *and* Build Quality In – how can we help stem teen suicide?

March 6, 2014

Last night, over 1000 people gathered in the auditorium of our local high school to learn what it is the school and school system and their partners will be doing to respond to the rash of suicides that has plagued our school as well as surrounding schools in recent years. At our school, we have had three in each of the past two years – two just last week.
This picture shows everyone introducing themselves.

2014-03-05 19.23.08

I was skeptical that this event would meet my needs. The invitation email made it seem like the evening would be a ‘one-way street’ of information to the parents and audience members. Aside from the introductions shown in the picture and some interaction in the cafeteria at the end, that is the way the evening largely played out.

Who came? The media, the Superintendent of Schools, School Board Members, many community mental health service organizations, representatives of several foundations concerned with suicide, and student representatives from a group called Active Minds. The evening started with formal introductions, statements of intent to engage the community, recognitions of the school leadership, staff, and teachers.  This felt like armor.  I was hearing too much left brain analysis/problem solving and needing more that leaders show vulnerability and emotion. I wanted connection from the heart.  I felt alone in this sea of people – surely similar to the way a quiet teen might feel navigating the halls of a 2000 person high school.

To help allay fears of parents, Dr. Panarelli, Director of the Office of Intervention and Prevention, described how the crisis counselors are actively engaging with the students, seeking out and making themselves available all around the school. She asked us to not talk about each incident as being part of a pattern or naming the school as somehow different, as this would make the kids feel bad. [Note to self: this is hard to do]  She asked us: do your kids have 3 adults other than parents that they feel they can talk to if they or others around them are experiencing emotional difficulties? None of this made me feel reassured. I tried to empathize with these presenters. After 6 suicides in two years and many more within the county as a whole, they are visibly taking on a big communication and mobilization effort. The goal is so much bigger than any one person or organization. Kudos to everyone trying.

Jesse Ellis, the County’s ‘Prevention Manager’ (as if this could be managed), said he will leave no gap unfilled. He will be ‘sure’ we will be successful. He will coordinate activities, invite parents to participate.  To me this is exactly the wrong message. We don’t need a false sense of we’re in control now. We need to model that we may not prevent the next one, but it won’t happen without us putting forth our best effort. We need to show our own vulnerability and not be shamed when we fail. Then he cautioned us that while he doesn’t want to use stats, he did want to share that we are on a good track compared to the rest of the state. This statement made my heart sink. It also seemed incongruent and impersonal. I don’t think he meant it that way. He is coping with the aftermath, trying to make sense. This is my most liberal interpretation.

The students from the Active Minds Club spoke next. They have had mental health awareness training. They provide yoga classes to reduce stress after school. They listen non-judgmentally and provide emotional support.

After the representatives spoke, we filled out survey cards with our suggestions, inviting us to share our contact information and ideas. I wrote down that I would help facilitate an open space event to allow more interaction, connection, dialogue and community involvement. We were then invited to visit the cafeteria where we could take fliers and information with us. It was too crowded, but there was a lot of energy. I made sure to visit the Active Minds booth. I was very impressed by the listening skills of the 4 student reps as I stayed to chat with them for a few minutes. I will encourage my son to check out this organization especially as it is largely thus far a college campus organization. I signed up to help them and to attend their meetings in the coming months.

If I could pick an analogy for this whole school effort, it seemed to me like a lot of Quality Control at the back-end of a development process. ‘We know there are depressed kids, let’s make sure we catch them before they commit suicide’. I wanted it this: ‘We imagine the source of suicides is that kids are many times unable to express and share their feelings, their fears and their vulnerabilities. They do not have role models for this. To succeed in raising mentally healthy adults, we need to start in the elementary schools, modeling and teaching empathy, emotional intelligence and resiliency’. I wanted to hear things like: We’ll be introducing Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violdent Communication in elementary school.’  This would be akin to ‘building quality in’, in software terms, not inspecting for failure at the end.

Yet still, I praise everyone who showed up last night. Bless you all.

There is a lot of work ahead. I just pray one or many of us will be there in support, at just the right time, for the next kid who needs it.

Passionate Agile Governance for HOAs

July 19, 2013

A year ago, I agreed to join the Board of our 16 member homeowner’s association that had been devilishly plagued by rancour for years over a member who was reluctant to comply with the 30 year old community covenants. They could afford a lawyer and tripled the size of their house and did a lot more I won’t mention. The then Board nearly depleted its funds hiring its own lawyer, angering its members who weren’t fully aware of this spending until last year’s meeting.

I wasn’t President straight away. But over the course of the year, the Board changed as people dropped off due to bitter emails about that as well as other matters. With the last resignation – this time the President, I knew this was an opportunity for me to bring something new and fresh. No one else wanted to be President.

So in February of this year, I became President. We still had the arduous task of getting the membership to approve the new covenants – and we had to negotiate and wordsmith the documents. We kept a nice balance between strict definitions (only on critical things like house size) and leaving many things open for reasonable discussion and decision by the architectural board. The last positive vote needed came in earlier this week. Thrilling! Next up was our community meeting which happened yesterday.

Earlier in the week, I drew a mind map to compare software development and governance to community development and governance. There was a lot in common. First you build something (houses or software). You envision what to build. You develop constraints, processes and governance. You approve or deny changes. You maintain documentation of some sort, usually not very well. Stakeholders overbuild, are not sure what their needs are and are not aligned with the structure, vision, or culture in place (or with each other). Both software and communities get really buggy (failures in code, cracks in street, homes needing repair, repainting, refactoring). People suffer.

Once I accepted all these similarities, I started to imagine I could bring much to this annual homeowner’s meeting, to maybe even start the healing process. Here is what I did and it worked.

Welcome: I told a very emotional story from years ago in the neighborhood. I expressed my hopes for healing and showed my vulnerability within the story.

Check-in : I let everyone say a few words about how they were feeling.

Facilitation: I ditched the dysfunctional Robert’s Rules protocol that past meetings used which had caused friction. Not everyone had had a voice. Many had felt it was unsafe to speak and stayed quiet. Others had raised voices and interrupted each other with frequency.

Expectations: I created meeting rules (active listening, cell phones away, no interrupting) and an agenda with Kanban post its. I moved topics throughout the meeting. The ‘discussing’ column allowed one Topic In Progress (TIP). Latecomers could see what had been covered and what was left in a glance at the wall. I wrote action items next to the Completed topics, if there were any.

Timebox: I kept the meeting on target. We’ve had 2.5 or 3 hour meetings in past years. We finished in 1.5 hours.

Venue: I changed the venue to just give us a new perspective: We used to hold them at a home, and there was drinking and food and banter. I did it at the local library. It worked just fine. Some complained, but most loved it. I wanted people to FEEL something different. Sometimes you have to change space to do that.

Closing: I let people choose from three options: Appreciations, 3 words to describe the meeting, or Pass.

I have never had so many appreciations. It felt so good. I think it was really more about the Opening, the Check In, and the Closing than anything else. The prior President who has been on many HOA boards and led many such meetings said: I’ve never been in any HOA meeting like that. It was so effective! Well done!

This isn’t a paid position, but even if it were, the only meaningful kind of payment you EVER get for connecting people is an inner satisfaction.

It is what I’m good at and I do enjoy it. And the community needed it. And received it. It was a win-win evening.


A Culture of Great Meetings [AgileDC workshop]

October 24, 2012

In this post I cover

  • Why I care about this topic
  • What was covered in this Great Meetings session
  • What I liked about this session
  • Other related thoughts

Why I Care

Everyday I hear the same thing when I ask how my husband’s day was:  Oh very busy; full of meetings.

I reply: Were they useful?  He says: Oh no. Most of them are a waste of time. But we don’t know any better way to share information and make sure everyone is on the same page.

This sad story is repeated over and over throughout many organizations and is no doubt a contributor to our national debt and sluggish economy! I too, want to help fix these dysfunctions and ease the pain experienced daily by so many!

Attendance at the AgileDC session titled ‘A Culture of Great Meetings’, was fantastic. This topic is HOT! The room was packed with standing room only in the back.

Laura Burke (@agilenvironment on twitter) from Rally Software was the facilitator. She had the full meeting agenda up on the wall – written out in advance and legible from a distance.  She said in no uncertain terms: Electronically emailed agendas are simply NOT sufficient to keep a meeting focused!

A Readable Agenda

Great Meetings Agenda


To learn how to better engage Agile teams by practicing techniques that engage the wisdom and experience of your teams.


  1. What are our top contibutors to bad meetings?
  2. How do we open a meeting and why do we do it that way?
  3. What are some safe ways to address challenges in meetings?
  4. How do you hold a quick retrospective and why are they critical to meetings?
  5. Why do I care so much about your meetings?
Great Meetings Communicate these types of things well!

Great Meetings – Part 2

What was Covered

First Laura had everyone take stickies and write down ideas about what contributes to bad meetings. Each group put up their stickies on wall.  Each group then dot-voted on the ideas. Most of the groups generated a dozen or more and all included some variant of the following:

  • No Set Agenda
  • Inattentiveness
  • Dominating Talker

Next, Laura asked us to come up with safe ways that we might address each of the two issues that we had voted on. So we had another round of ideas to solve these issues. She used the ‘pass the pen’ technique: each person in the group takes the pen and writes his or her idea on the big poster sized sticky.  One idea for creating safe and effective meetings was the Lean Coffee technique.

She had the groups tour around the room to observe the work and ideas of the other groups. This did not work very well as there was really no room to move easily. Each group also shared verbally their top two ideas.

Laura talked a little about the Groan Zone. Every one knows what this is – when people roll their eyes in meetings, when people stop paying attention, when action and movement on making decisions is side tracked, when debates go on and on.

As Laura progressed through each part of the meeting, she referred back to the agenda, ticking off the progress we were making.  Soon, we only had 5 minutes left for the retrospective. She had us write more ideas on stickies:

  • What I liked (about the session)
  • What I wished (for the meeting to make it better)
  • What If…(some crazy idea)

The last two sounded similar at first, but some people were clever and used the What If to show contrast. For example, What If this session had been conducted by Powerpoint? Now that was some good meta-level thinking about experiential learning – thank you Alexei Zheglov (@az1 on Twitter)!

Laura posted all this feedback at the back door so people could take a look after the session.  I’m sure everyone was thinking: Wow – I could use this to gauge the effectiveness of my own meetings!

Laura Burke is an experienced facilitator from Rally Software. She walked the talk, using the very techniques to conduct the meeting/session that she was attempting to teach us.

After the retrospective Laura shared her background with us and told us how she came to love facilitation. She had studied Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies!  I was not suprised to learn that Laura’s mentor is Jean Tabaka (author of the book Collaboration Explained) of Rally Software. Jean Tabaka is one of the people included in the Who Is Agile book I have been editing and I have long thought of her as my mentor too – even though we have never met.  What fascinating ladies with such interesting backgrounds!

What I liked

  • Hands on participation, adequate supplies.
  • The room was setup beautifully, including the colorful agenda.
  • Slides were used minimally and were creative.
  • The text on the slides could be seen from the back of the room (this is often not the case)
  • The preparation and care for the participant experience could be felt. People were told that if they did not find the meeting useful, they could leave at any time.

What I wished had been better:

  • The space was sized to the audience (or vice-versa)
  • The session time was a little longer to allow for more questions and answers
  • The facilitator should always repeat the questions or contributions when the participants do not project their voices adequately A handout might have been provided for futher information and resources such as books, blogs and techniques
  • The facilitator did not have to stand in the projection path to the big screen.

What If?

What if people interested in this session could have also learned about the Core Commitments and Protocols?

These topics are compatible and complementary!  This year’s Great Meetings session was so much in much demand that I think an intro to other techniques would have been welcomed by the attendees.

[Disclaimer, I proposed a session on Jim and Michele McCarthy’s work with Core Protocols, but it didn’t make it this year; I will try again next year and/or invite Vickie Gray to do it with me! Vickie Gray has a great book called Creating Time which explains the protocols in an entertaining way! ]

We all want better work experiences and more individual and team engagement. There are solutions. Let’s publish them, promote them, train them and create better work places.

Thank you AgileDC, Rally Software and Laura Burke for a great session!!!

Please add your own insights if you attended and feel feel to comment on this post!

Intro to the ‘Ask for Help’ Core Protocol – I’m modelling how!

May 24, 2012

Asking for Help is one of the key skills your team members need to have if they would like to have successful outcomes, agile transitions, or superb products. Sadly, many people shy away from asking for help due to cultural conditioning as well as  rewards and compensation based on individual performance.

I am going to model for you the ‘Asking for Help’ protocol. This post is really about my asking you for help (see below in a minute). But first, I would love to share with you a little background on the Core Protocols for great teams.  If you are not familiar with the Core Protocols that originated with Jim and Michele McCarthy, pick up a new and valuable  book called ‘Creating Time’. In this wonderful introduction to the Core Protocols and Commitments, Vickie Gray tells us the story of the  Time-Eating Monster that lurks around every meeting and every interaction in the workplace feeding on the slightest opportunity to gobble up your precious time. The monster does this by feeding on dissonance, indecision and inaction, insecure egos and more.  But you can slay the monster and indeed you must.  The Core Protocols, of which ‘Ask for Help’ is one, is the way to slay the monster. And one of my offerings to you is to teach your teams the ‘Core Protocols’. The book does introduce a subset of the full set of protocols, interwoven with the storytelling. It makes a compelling case for improvement that you will relate to!

Now I will model the ‘Ask for Help’ protocol myself. It makes me fell a little vulnerable, but it will help me succeed!

Will you help me find an agile transformation gig in the DC area?

Saying No is perfectly ok. The Core Commitment for this protocol is not to discuss the request further once someone says ‘No’.

To help you out in answering my ‘Ask for Help’ question, I have summarized what I want to work on below.

  • Coach your teams to greatness with better communication skills, using one or more techniques such as:
    1. Introduce the basics of effective two way communication using the Satir Interaction model
    2. Train the team on Core Protocols patterns that make Good teams Great
    3. Help you develop the agile mindset/culture within your organization
    4. Teach  the principles of a ‘Thinking Environment’ culture (based on work of Nancy Kline)
    5. Teach retrospective techniques, principles of self-organizing teams, servant-leadership, and high trust cultures
    6. Teach you how to climb down the ‘Ladder of Inference’ and break down assumptions within your communication.
  • Train Kanban (using a combination of simulation games, Version 3.0 GetKanban board games and training material – I have two sets so can train up to 14 people in a 1/2 day session)
  • Coach Kanban Transition: help you model your current processes on a Kanban board and coach you through a Kanban adoption
  • Teach theory of and application of Scrum; coach Scrum teams
  • Introduce you to Principles and Practices of Radical Management
  • Help you navigate the use of social media outside your organization to improve your network of learning and support in your new initiatives
  • Make you aware of other resources, books, articles, blogs, specialized consultancies and conferences to augment your learning opportunities
  • Guide you, your team, or your executive leadership on a Temenos retreat to create a basis for developing strong teams and missions.
  • Coach individuals at all levels of your organization

Please contact me at if you know a place that needs my help!  My preferred work location is still in the immediate DC metro area. If you can’t help, thanks for reading anyway, and hopefully you have enjoyed learning about one of the ‘Core Protocols’.

I Listen, You Think and Resolve

April 8, 2012

Building on my last post about the power of being present’ in conversation, I am setting a new goal: to become a really good listener. This will take me a bit out of my comfort zone.  Heck, it would take most people far away from their analytical, interactive, interrupting conversational styles. As described by Nancy Kline in her book, ‘More Time to Think’, attentive listening allows the ‘listenee’ the thinking room to talk through and solve dilemmas and mental blocks largely independently.

Most people don’t give the act of listening much notice. I didn’t until I started reading about Clean Language questions developed by David Grove. The Clean Language questions made me realize how much of ‘ourselves’, our values, our opinions and solutions we inject into every conversation. The power of not injecting our responses and substituting instead Clean Questions along with selected words used by the person you are listening to – is magical. It allows the other person to blossom and open up in ways they couldn’t have imagined.

The book More Time to Think takes a slightly different angle suggesting that most people are not doing their best thinking – because they are not given the space, encouragement or safety to finish talking through what they are thinking. By introducing Listening Environment and Listening Sessions, special guiding questions and the use of several other techniques–most requiring the listener to keep his/her mouth closed, but not allowing them to lose attentive focus– the thinking person will find and fix their own problems and/or enable new creative solutions to form.

As with Clean Language – the coach (listener) is not viewed as indispensable to the coachee (thinker)– because the coachee (thinker) finds his/her own solution. This is great stuff!  Simple, but powerful. Indeed, some of this may simply be used in natural conversation, once you have mastered the general techniques.

How do you give your loved ones, and your co-workers sustained attention when they speak to you? Please feel free to add your comments.

And if you would like additional information on Clean Language, please visit Judy Rees’ new site: It is free with registration and teaches much of what is in her book through short video clips and other material.