Archive for the ‘Listening’ category

Self-Retrospection (or my own Clean Feedback) on the 3 Techniques workshop at AgileDC 2014

November 13, 2014
2014-10-21 16.10.11

Participants at work!

On October 21, 2014, I held a workshop at Agile DC conference titled ‘3 Techniques to Raise the Communication Bar on your Agile Team’. I had an hour to convey the three techniques that I had proposed in the workshop summary to a room of close to 50 people.  I introduced the audience briefly to Clean Language and we practiced listening skills using the basic questions.  Then we learned two techniques from the Systemic Modeling work of Caitlin Walker.  Clean Setup and Clean Feedback.

I’ve compiled all the Clean Feedback forms from the participants and posted them here.  I’ve also compiled and posted on my blog a full list of followup books and other internet content that will help participants if you wish to continue your journey learning Clean Language.  [As a side note, in the intervening month, my conference interview on Clean Language with Todd Charron at Agile 2014 conference was released and that can be found here at InfoQ website.]

Here are my key takeaways from presenting at AgileDC.  Each bullet has my observation, the meaning, and the impact – which is the general format for giving Clean Feedback.

1.)  I had a strict 1 hour limit.  I must be crazy to even attempt my ambitions in such a short time, and the impact is that I probably will not do an hour long intro again in the same way. I would probably pare down the number of exercises and keep it really simple, as suggested by George Dinwiddie in a post-conference twitter conversation. Even though I had a lot of great feedback, the pace was too fast.

2.) The room was full and the feedback reflected that participants were grateful to have interactive exercises as a format at the end of the day.  Exercises are very effective and energizing and really help to engage the ‘what’ of the session better than slides.  I will continue to hone the exercise rhythm for future workshops so there is enough time to debrief each time as well as to do short live-demos in front of the larger group.  I may also try to do workshops with fewer people where there is more opportunity to interact with everyone during the exercises.

3.) A number of people expressed that they enjoyed the workshop – in person – afterwards. Even my boss came and asked for a session for the other coaches back at headquarters.  I wanted nothing more than for folks to have a great memory and enough exposure to know that Clean Language techniques exist and that team communication can be enhanced by questions, curiosity, intentionality, and feedback.  The impact for me – knowing that some got what I intended – means that I will continue to find ways to teach and share these techniques and to practice them in smaller groups. I currently have a three hour workshop planned with the Mid-Atlantic Facilitator’s group on January 30th, in Washington DC. You can register here if you are local to DC.

4.)  Longer term follow up with participants is rare, though I have no doubt that some were stirred by just this brief exposure. I may add a field on the feedback form in the future to optionally collect emails from participants that want to receive more information.

Lastly, a few people were interested not just in the how – which they got from practicing, but the wider context of why. I’ve included some of the key points taken from Caitlin Walker’s book, From Contempt to Curiosity, in this poster, which I had hanging in the workshop space. I don’t think many had a chance to really look at the posters I prepared.  The points on this particular one are a great way to close this post – giving you more food for thought (and me too).2014-10-23 07.17.46

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…)

Building Bridges through Curiosity

February 20, 2014

This blog post is inspired by two case studies, one using ethnography and one using Clean Language – both to improve company resilience and success over time.

An international company (Tesco) recently used an innovative ‘ethnography’ approach to help turn around poor financial results. Their goal was to infuse diversity of thinking by having managers at international locations become ethnographic observers outside their own country at other Tesco locations.  This would help the observers and observed become more aware of their own local cultures by exposure. It spread ideas that worked and helped to meld the culture. You can read about it here.

That Tesco project posited that positive change can come from these steps: perceive what happens in another other work environment, uncover restrictive assumptions through questions, and explore both the new and home environments in new ways. The primary questions used were: What’s familiar? What’s surprising? What do I want to learn more about?  Training folks to be curious by enlivening their senses, taking them out of their environment and teaching them questioning skills can indeed be useful in building bridges.

While reading this story, I made immediate associations with the Clean Language group work that Caitlin Walker and Nancy Doyle, from Training Attention, have undertaken to improve interpersonal understanding in teams and groups. I recommend you read about this adaptation of Clean Language for organizations here.  Similar to the ethnography study, Clean Language and Systemic Modeling for organizations use questions to surface the way people operate and think of their life/work/environment. The Tesco experiment involved moving people to new environments to stimulate new thinking. The Clean Language work more simply involves only exposing internal thought processes and intentions to one another within a team or organizational structure. In both cases, the goal is to help folks learn how to reveal information which isn’t readily available or in their field of awareness. This increases the communication bandwidth for mutual understanding and reduces conflict.  In addition, with Clean Language Systemic Modeling the goal is that peers co-coach each other and fold Clean Questions into everyday work, conversations and meetings. Long term, there is no dependence on the Clean Language trainer. The process promotes new relationships and emergent knowledge within the organization.

That sounds great in theory, right? But where has it actually worked? I learned recently about a case study of a small software development company that Caitlin trained 10 years ago. This company provides tablet solutions to pharma labs to track their lab/research work. For ten years, this company has required its employees to learn and use Clean Language and Systemic Modeling. It has had stellar results in bridging all kinds of communication gaps. Communication between marketing and developers is vastly improved. The marketing staff, now widely using Clean Language questions, make sense (inquire more deeply) about a complex and changing market and learn much more about their potential customers before ever proposing solutions. These bridges have in turn enabled the company to rise above its competitors in what was then a crowded field, all while keeping a relatively small corporate footprint.  There are many other domains in which Caitlin and others  applied Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, including: Police, Health Care, University students, troubled youth, to name a few.

Does this spark your curiosity?

Clean Language and Systemic modeling build understanding and rapport via respectful listening and inquiry. Clean questions are particularly good at focusing attention on the words and thoughts of the person being questioned. This is because the questions do not promote advice or content on the part of the questioner. They are ‘clean’ in that sense. Here are a few of the basic questions:

  • What would you like to have happen? (intention)
  • What else is there about X? (probing for more info)
  • What kind of X? (probing for metaphors)
  • X (or that)  is like what? (probing for metaphors)

In these questions, X is the exact word or phrase used by your interlocutor. There are an additional 6 questions that inquire about location and time/space.  Extending this into organizational work, the Systemic Modeling techniques involve selective use of what Caitlin calls ‘Clean Setup’ , ‘Clean Feedback’, ‘Modeling Time’, ‘Diversity of Perception’, ‘Modeling Positive (or Negative) States’ among others. While I won’t go into detail here, these Systemic Modeling questioning tools are used in conjunction with Clean Language in groups.

As someone posted in one of the Clean Language groups I participate in, Clean Language is  also ‘simple’, ‘accessible’ and ‘sustainable’. If you want to read books, or other blogs about Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, you can learn about them via resources (books, blogs, DVDs) that I have collated here.

Why did the case study about Clean Language affect me viscerally? The case study caused me to reflect on my own past, in particular a collective team failure (losing a contract re-compete). For years, we had had our heads buried in our ‘own’ analysis, our narrow context and our problem solving work for our customer.  We did good work, not excellent work. But looking back, I see that we were all missing a sense of curiosity about ourselves and about the way the environment evolved (or stagnated) both internally and in the competitor/customer ecosystem. Knowledge work is not just a reflection of the work processes and structures we put in place – this can lull us into a sense of ‘having things covered’. Knowledge work is deeply rooted in and affected by the way people think and how broadly they think and enquire about the world around them. To change from status quo or to ensure survival, we may need to become aware of how it is that we think first. We need to pull from what may be subconscious current thought processes, make them explicit (exposing assumptions and contradictions), ask for new outcomes and then re-structure our models based on what we want (our intent). This can be done – internally and sustainably – with the help of Clean Language questioning and modeling via coaching and training.

Promoting a culture of inquiry as a way to ensure long term corporate resilience is nothing new. But Clean Language and Systemic Modelling as a tool is very new and quite intriguing.

Finally, curiosity and questions that work well are driven by a fair amount of ‘intentionality’. Here are some examples of intentionality that I have developed:

1) I have an intention to learn; therefore I may request that someone  ask me ‘cleanly’ about what I am like when I am learning at my best. And as they help me develop my conceptual landscape using Clean Language questions, they will help me increase my self awareness while also learning what works for me.

2.) I have intention to support the work done by my team; therefore if someone disagrees on some matter, they have some information that I don’t, and I want to find out  what else there is about that view that I may be missing. I then ask them ‘clean questions’ to reveal their thinking.  This enables them to be heard and understood and contrasts with normal arguments and discussions that might ensue when I reassert my own views. Instead, I learn (my intention is to learn after all) an alternate view, which then may help expand my own thinking.

3.) I have the intention to be aware about things evolving outside of my immediate work and home life – to stay curious; therefore I will inquire and ask more outside my normal channels using clean questions. This might be markets, customers, peers at other companies, former colleagues, neighbors, chance encounters in public places.

The nice thing is that no matter where I would like to exhibit this curiosity, the same Clean Language questions and Systemic Modelling techniques can be used. In brief, these techniques are deceptively simple to learn, but require sustained commitment from everyone.  Learning to use them, honing your listening, being aware of your intent and  faithful to your curiosity take time and practice. The reward is in the discovery of new landscapes of possibilities! For organizations, the reward is growth, awareness, and better flow of communication.

Dream Girls

November 30, 2013

Christie and meMy daughter graduates from college (Franklin College, Lugano, Switzerland) in May, I see her following closely in my footsteps of many decades ago. Reluctant but ready to step beyond the classroom, she wants to explore! She loves learning foreign languages and meeting people from around the world. Her major (International Relations) isn’t necessarily immediately marketable (as mine wasn’t – German Literature). She may choose graduate school eventually. She’s anxious about what she will do next but she has dreams. Whatever the path, I have confidence it will all work out. It did for me under similar circumstances. I tell her that.

She comes to me, I think, because I listen. I don’t give advice. Sometimes, I tell her what worked for me. Or I might say, follow your passion. She has some practical ideas, and some wild ones, like moving to China to teach or work.  Oh, that sounds so very familiar. To my surprise, it is unfortunately not as easy to do now as it was in the 1980s. I don’t tell her my preference or what she should do. I think she keeps coming back to me because of that. I give her thinking and reflecting space – what Nancy Kline calls a thinking environment in her book: Time to Think.

As I listen to my daughter, I reflect on my own feelings and my journey. I am still evolving in my career. I’ve made it to where I am through hard work. And I keep moving towards my goal: to be an excellent agile or kanban coach,  facilitator, trainer, and change agent. I read, I learn, I write a bit, I connect with people. There’s some uncertainty. But I’m ok with that. I keep the dream alive by working towards it. That’s what I want her to do too.  Dream girls!

Skilled Conversation Musings….

August 31, 2013

Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei) posted this question on twitter recently. It intrigued me.

How many really “smart” people do you know that excel at skilled conversation/dialogue too?

First, I had to define ‘smart’ for myself.  I could narrow down my list quickly. I did this by thinking of people whose conversation I was naturally attracted to and who could convey easily what they knew at the right level for me. These are people who generally have completely applied themselves to an area of study, but are also broadly versed in a variety of other topics as well. And generally good listeners.

I had to define what ‘know’ means.  ‘Know’ means I have met the person.  So, that ruled out a lot of smart people I know from online exchanges or have met in passing who may also be really good at skilled conversation/dialogue, but I just haven’t experienced it first hand.

Next, I had to define ‘skilled conversation/dialogue’.  Skilled dialogue and conversation is like a rare art piece. It has listening, vision, content, form, detail, interaction, balance, and appeal. It may have a purpose or desired outcome, as well as humor, long pauses, and emotional content.  The skill part comes when most elements are present and when two people wish to speak WITH another,  not AT  one another.  Each knows the difference. The goal is to mutually listen, bounce ideas around, share content, ask questions, and generally move each other ahead a notch with their current mental models of one or more topics.  It is a well-improvised dance. At the end of the dance, each wishes to applaud the other.

I can only think of one person at the moment who qualifies, though many dozens fall into the smart category.  Many of those I haven’t spent enough time with to have experienced skilled dialogue.  Also, since it takes two to tango, I have much work left to do to improve in this area as well.

How do you define skilled conversation/dialogue?

And do you experience it often?

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.

 

Trust and Emotions in the Workplace

March 27, 2013

emotions_in_workplace

I will check in;
I am glad; writing this post on trust and emotions in the workplace.
I am sad/afraid; I cut out a lot of material I wanted to include. I will create future posts.
I am glad; getting better at drawing, slowly.
I am glad; respecting people’s time, wanting to be concise, wanting to keep it simple.
I am mad; not having time to write more frequently.
I am glad; I want to  engage in a discussion with my readers!

I’m in.

(I check in this way to make myself vulnerable and to gain your trust)

Why Trust?

Trust is the real fuel of a productive team. Processes may be useful to organize complex knowledge work, but without trust, even the cleverest process will suffer. Knowledge work involves creativity which involves taking risks (including the risk of making mistakes).

Great teamwork requires trust and vulnerability among team members. How do team members get to this state?

What if they started with a clean slate every day or at the start of meetings- by sharing the current state of their emotions?

When I am able to do this and be welcomed without comment, I am ready to tackle my day, my meeting or my personal interactions so much more openly. If others do the same, even more so.

Why Emotions?

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions in the workplace, specifically how suppression of feelings can lead to so many  unproductive interactions and missed opportunities.  We may enter the workplace not feeling whole. We may say ‘Hello’ and  ‘How are you?’ to our colleagues. We leave part of ourselves behind, hidden. This is the norm.  We often don’t know what professional and/or personal stresses, joys, fears, sadness team members are carrying with them. We don’t have an acceptable way to switch on our emotional selves. Instead, we arrive home and vent our frustrations about work at the dinner table.
If, when we start our interaction with other people, either one-on-one or in meetings, we start with a ‘reading’ of where people are emotionally, amazing things can emerge – empathy, calmness, resiliency, and trust too. It is not that people want to hide; rather there is a widespread cultural notion that emotions and business settings are like oil and water and which we should not mix.  Yet, here is what can happen when we do mix them:

People can connect to my humanity (and me to theirs). Explicitly hearing someone’s feelings of sadness, anger, joy helps me trust a person faster, knowing him or her as a full, rich human, not just as an actor functioning in a process. Vulnerability, the willing to let ourselves be more fully seen is a great way to create trust.

Think about your current environment:

  • What emotions do you notice people are hiding in your workplace?
  • When is it good to suppress feelings and when not?
  • How might it feel to work in an environment where your colleagues welcome your emotions without judging you?
  • How would it feel to share and have others share observations, feelings, needs and requests instead of blaming, placating, and coping in incongruent ways?
  • How might bonds of trust between colleagues improve if you knew more about their past influences and their future ambitions?

Being Present: Extending Your Capacity for More Effective Communication

March 6, 2012

I once had a doctor that amazed me every time I visited her. When she entered the room, she was fully present and ready for me. She would welcome me warmly and ask about my family life. This opened up a conversational space between us that allowed a bond of trust and closeness that made me feel comfortable. In doing so, she was thinking of my person, physical and social in an integrated fashion.

Contrast this with a typical doctor’s office visit now in which the doctor enters the room, shakes your hand and says: What symptoms are you having today? or What can I do for you today? Directed questions right off the bat make me feel a little uneasy and do not allow for that feeling of mutual respect. The second doctor chose a question to elicit just the response needed to identify the supposed one problem that I came in for.

What do you prefer, an open ended question that is inviting to the larger picture or a closed-ended question that demands a specific answer? Think about the knowledge work you do or the issues you need to resolve with people: do you stop first to reflect on the larger picture of the work you are doing and the person you are interacting with before delving deeper?

No matter which knowledge industry you are in, creating interactions that are as deep, broad and open as they can possibly be is not easy. It is my belief that individual developmental coaching can help people to change their approaches to problem solving and thereby improve results in their own careers and in those they serve.  Let me tell you another short story – again in the medical field.

Recently, I had asymptomatic diagnosis of a 3.5 cm gallstone after an ultrasound. Two doctors, a general practitioner and a gastrointestinal specialist told me in no uncertain terms that I must go to the surgeon and have my gallbladder removed.  When I went to the surgeon, he told me that he would not touch me with a knife as I had no symptoms.  He was thinking about the bigger picture, where as the two others were not.

Think about how easy it is to put your trust in a specialist in a field you are not familiar with. Do you instinctively trust their opinion, diagnosis, problem-solutioning approach?  How would you know that they are considering the full picture? What assumptions do you think they are holding tight? And how can you stay in a conversation to probe their assumptions when all non verbal queues indicate they have to move on to their next patient? From the point of view of being a patient (or being a member of a software team being assessed on your performance), how do you ‘hold presence’ to ensure your views, issues, and questions are heard?

This week I have been reading Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders Through Mind, Body, and Heart. If you want to cultivate a more effective mode of communicating, you can benefit from the practices of ‘being present’ as described in this book.  An excellent coach will help you to cultivate the skill of ‘being present’ when you engage with your client and teams.

I wondered as I read this book whether the wonderful doctor who habitually invited me into a conversation about the larger ‘picture of me’ had had a good coach to help her relate to her patients. I also wondered whether she would have taken the time to make a better evaluation of my gallstone issue before sending me off to the surgeon.  Most knowledge workers, who have vast quantities of information and expedient seemingly viable solutions close at hand, would benefit from slowing down, testing their assumptions, asking open ended questions and establishing trust before attempting to solve the problems ahead of them.

As usual, I welcome your thoughts and stories!