Learning to Listen to Negativity

Photo by JD Hancock

Photo by JD Hancock

More and more people around me are upping their listening skills, showing more interest in hearing others' ideas, seeking feedback, and wanting to work together to improve. We're becoming more relationship-aware. It's incredibly exciting, and it's not an easy journey sometimes. Especially when we get to the area of negativity.

Negativity can be tricky. Complaints are given voice, and victim stories may be shared. Strong emotions might be present. It can become toxic. This year I've been learning to listen to negativity better, and it's been cool to connect more deeply with people as a result. I've noticed that when negativity comes up, some people shut down. Other people argue against it. They might try to put a happy face on it. For whatever reason, someone cannot listen to the negative stuff or process it, and they might have a strong reaction against it--whatever was said is confronting them with something they don't like.

Why on earth did I choose to focus on hearing negativity? Partly because I started to notice it floating around practically everywhere. And because I encountered this idea from CRR Global:

A complaint is simply a dream door.

That idea was weird enough to get my attention! Complaints are pointing to unfulfilled expectations--dreams that have not come true. The person might not have even recognized what they wanted until it didn't happen, and now it's coming out of their mouths in a way that can be hard to hear. Tune into that channel, and you'll have all kinds of information to mine for possible improvements--incredible! Listening to negativity becomes much easier in this reframing and asking questions opens up totally different conversations.

There are people who speak negativity rather fluently. They might be rough on the exterior; I sometimes think of them as the Waldorfs and Statlers of real life. And it's quite possible that they are disagreeable givers, the most undervalued people in our organizations who we should listen to more:

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

How to Facilitate a Large Open Space Event

Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Facilitating an open space event looks easy and actually involves a lot of preparation—in advance of the event and the day-of. Planning for an appropriate room setup, thinking about how to layout the marketplace, identifying enough rooms/spaces for the group size… there’s more to it than walking around a circle and explaining the principles of open space!

Jake Calabrese and I co-facilitated the open space at Scrum Gathering San Diego earlier this year, and we had many, many conversations leading up to the event about how we could make it easy for all 1000+ people to connect and participate.

We talked about how the chairs would be setup—there was even a brief question of whether or not to have chairs. We discussed having mirrored marketplaces on two separate walls to make it easier for people to see the all of the proposed topics. We debated ways to engage the full group—all the way to the person in the last row who might not be able to see across the room. And we tossed around methods to share the principles and law of open space to connect the group with the structure.

Most of our plans were thrown away the day before the event when we saw the physical space.

And all of our planning was incredibly helpful.

Facilitating an open space can feel like taking a leap across a huge valley and hoping others will do the same. It’s significantly harder when you’re talking about a large group. Because Jake and I had spent so much time talking about—dreaming about—how we wanted the open space to be, we had developed a strong alignment to serve the group. The event was not about the two of us. As we walked around the empty ballroom with its 1100 chairs, one solid wall for posting topics, and quirky square-shaped layout (it’s hip to be square?), I wondered how we were going to bring the energy we wanted into the space.* Honestly, I was worried.

We re-imagined the marketplace setup to use one wall and allow for someone to take photos of each session time easily—that enabled for sharing on the ballroom projectors and social media. Sticky notes to indicate locations for each time were created, so people could easily identify a space for their topic; this avoided the format and readability challenges of a grid on the wall and also made it easy for additional spaces to be identified and used.

Posters were colored and hung throughout the ballroom and spaces with the principles and law of open space. Logistics were redesigned and taken care of the day before.

The morning of the event, Jake and I walked into the ballroom together. People were there and excited about the lightning talks that were going to be starting the day. And my nerves calmed. We sat together in the back corner and listened to the lightning talks. The speakers were fantastic, and the group loved the humor they sprinkled throughout. The cheesier the joke, the more they loved it. I enjoyed hearing the group laugh together and wanted to amplify it. Minutes before we opened the space, Jake and I huddled together to get clear: all of the logistics and planning and details were out of our hands (we gestured throwing that stuff away), and we chose what feeling we wanted to bring in (silliness).

We started in the center square, did not walk around the full shape, and then Jake followed his instinct to engage the back of the room by running to the back edge of the group. And I shocked him by running to the other side to engage another part of the group. In the moment, it was the only thing that could have happened. There was a group wave that was electrifying to be in the center of. We referred to the principles and law of open space that had been printed in the conference programs. The process to populate the marketplace was explained, and we got out of the way. I have never witnessed a group—especially one so large—be so organized and thoughtful in announcing topics. There were two microphones setup, and a line formed at each; they naturally alternated speaking without outside facilitation. It was beautiful.

With the marketplace populated, it was time for lunch. We’d been worried that the group would lose energy going to a break right away, and it didn’t seem to mar the day. Jake and I nearly face-planted into our meals as our bodies crashed from the adrenaline high we’d just experienced. We had been well-used in service of the group.

*If you find yourself wondering how to bring energy to a room, the secret is in the people in the room! I’d worried myself silly because I’d been sitting in an empty room the day before. The warmth and enthusiasm of real, live humans is far easier to work with than a room full of empty chairs.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Appreciation at Work, Feedback, and Gift Giving Go Hand-in-Hand

Photo by Laura LaRose

Photo by Laura LaRose

Years ago, a colleague encouraged our coaching group to take a quiz to discover our language of appreciation—it’s similar to love languages and applies to work relationships. It was little surprise that my primary language is gifts. A number of the Scrum Masters I’d been coaching had received some kind of token gift from me to express thanks or cheer them on. And quite a few of my Improving coworkers have experienced deliveries of flowers, cookies, balloons, and other items in recognition of their accomplishments and milestones.

Recently I shared an article on social media about anonymous feedback. Feedback is a tricky beast—the word can cause the same panic as a bear suddenly crossing our path. It is often something we dread, whether we are giving feedback or receiving it. I’ve found anonymous or third-party feedback difficult because it creates weirdness in relationships. Where ignorance may have been bliss, there are now eggshells to walk around. My friend Ann-Marie had the most brilliant response to the article:

Giving feedback is giving gifts and it's best to receive gifts in person!

Asking for feedback can be scary, and it’s often considered impolite to ask for gifts… and yet it’s a beautiful metaphor to reframe feedback. If you can tell someone what you want to become or achieve, they’re often happy to help you. Gifts of potential blind spots, words of wisdom, and resources to explore may abound from that opening. Imagine what a gift exchange of feedback could look like! What if you could have a day of feedback gifts to boost you up as if it was your birthday? That sounds amazing.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Games for Learning - Paint the Story Point

Photo by Andrea Passoni

Photo by Andrea Passoni

Relative sizing is a common agile practice—and often misunderstood. I facilitated a short workshop for team that was confused about story point estimation and velocity and used a game to illustrate how they work.

The game materials are simple—flip chart paper and markers. I love games that don’t require special equipment!

The game is paint the story point. It’s an easy game to lead, and the team had fun playing it. The game allowed us to talk about how story points can be used to indicate relative size, track velocity, and forecast completion. We met our learning objectives. What was really cool were the unexpected learnings:

  • One team member commented that relative sizing their backlog items can be challenging because the requirements are unclear—it’s like not being able to tell if a shape is a square or a star. In our discussion, the team realized that defining acceptance criteria better would help them.
  • For the activity, the team worked in two different groups, which brought up discussion about comparing teams based on velocity. We talked about the downsides of doing so and the troubles that come from comparing teams.
  • The team brought up that they have many dependencies on another team in their project, which impacts their velocity. We compared it to sharing markers across the two groups, and they recognized that they could explore how to better collaborate with the other team.

Thanks to my colleague Nirmal for suggesting this game to me. And a tip from him if you’re going to play it: be careful not to provide thick markers to the team because they’ll color the shapes too quickly.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

It's Hard to Get Better without Changing

Photo by Jim Cortez

Photo by Jim Cortez

It's hard to get different results if you're doing the same things over and over. And yet it's difficult for organizations to learn and work differently, despite the desire for better results.

A new introductory video about Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) was recently posted, and it's a great overview of the framework. Besides describing how LeSS works, it also has an important message halfway through:

Introduction to the LeSS Frameworks

Yep, change is going to be needed if you want agility. It makes sense, and deep down inside, we all understand that. In the moment though, change might not feel right. Or desirable. I am reminded of a quote from Edgar Schein in an interview:

Anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all.

Change often involves un-learning what we already know and learning something new. Thinking and behaving our way consistently into a new understanding. While this can sound scary and intimidating, it is possible to have established relationships to help us learn and develop our capabilities together--I've found it helpful to have friends on similar learning paths as me who I can turn to for support. Sometimes the best support is someone willing to listen as we work through the messy, confusing process of change.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Time to Think Together

Photo by Michael Yat Kit Chung

Photo by Michael Yat Kit Chung

Sometimes I find myself stuck over-analyzing a situation and wondering what to do next. If the system or situation I'm considering is understood well-enough, the next step should be clear. Or so I tell myself. When it is not clear, I am often reminded that others need to be involved in creating the next step--I only have a fraction of the information available to me. Inviting others to reflect and plan based on what we collectively know typically yields a better result too.

The benefits of inviting others to create and support change has been on my mind. I've been reading Margaret Wheatley's articles on organizational change, leadership, and relationships, and there are a lot of science references in her work. It's intriguing. And this passage stood out to me:

A simple means to support and develop relationships is to create time to think together as staff. Time to think together has disappeared in most organizations. This loss has devastated relationships and led to increasing distrust and disengagement. Yet when a regular forum exists where staff can share their work challenges, everything improves. People learn from each other, find support, create solutions, and gradually discover new capabilities from this web of trusting relationships.

Having worked in a number of organizations, I have seen how pressed people can be for time during the work day--it can feel like there's not enough time to meaningfully engage in conversations for regular events like sprint planning or retrospectives. I have yet to meet a team who can have a real retrospective of a 2-week sprint in under 30 minutes, although many have tried. It can be even more challenging to have time with those outside of the scrum team. When calendars are full and only small time slots are available with everyone, it is easy to feel defeated. Create the regular forum for thinking together, and over time, it may grow. And everything will improve.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Starting an Agile Center of Excellence

Photo by Stuart Rankin

Photo by Stuart Rankin

Let me first say: I don't love the name "Center of Excellence." This is not about starting a group that has a monopoly on excellence or good ideas with an organization. Just the opposite--this is an entity that helps the organization become more excellent, which includes spotting internal excellence and promoting it.

Regardless of what you call it, an Agile Center of Excellence is meant to be a helpful, consultative group. Not a strict instrument of governance or compliance. While the group may help define mechanisms to promote transparency about product and team health, there is real danger in a COE becoming the internal compliance police.

Digging in further to the idea that an Agile Center of Excellence is a helpful, consultative group that helps an organization become more excellent, the vision of this entity is important. I've found it helpful to use an elevator statement format and Jason Little's strategic change canvas to gain alignment on the group's mission.

Another big challenge in starting an Agile COE is defining success criteria. What are the measurable results you are seeking? Why is this group being established? We often start thinking about the activities or services the COE will provide and how to measure them. I think of those services as the how. Measurements of these activities are our leading measures. I urge you to go deeper: what are the business outcomes wanted that are fostering the COE's genesis? The really important stuff that's probably harder to measure and will take longer to change: increased customer satisfaction, cost savings, more revenue, shorter time to market, etc. What is the reason for agile in the organization?

Why is it so important to define success criteria like this? It hinges on changes from people outside of the Agile Center of Excellence, which feels risky. And it is. Because it means that the Agile Center of Excellence is connected to the organization and must respond to its needs. The COE's success points to the why of the organization's change. I find that it enables--perhaps requires--the Center of Excellence to change, evolve, and pivot its offerings in order to continue helping the organization. It allows for agility by the group, which I think is important for those wishing to further enable agility. How cool would it be to see more Agile Centers of Excellence like that?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

The Co- in Co-Presenting

Photo by Lynn Gallagher

Photo by Lynn Gallagher

After posting about co-presenting and referencing Barry’s blog, my friend Chris Murman teased me via twitter in his good-natured way. There’s more to be said about co-presenting, it seems.

My version of co-presenting is this: two people standing and speaking on a topic together with both people sharing their thoughts and experiences naturally—playing off one another and the audience. This is not the “I take this section, and you take that section” version of co-presenting. While my co-presenter and I will often talk about where each of us might want to lead and share a great story or an interesting model, we’re both involved throughout the whole presentation with the group and can change things up on the fly. That’s what makes it exciting. Two people working together in real-time to share their wisdom with an audience requires trust.

Sometimes a presentation starts with a co-presenter, and we find a topic together. Other times I start with a topic and recruit a co-presenter who can contribute to the presentation a cool perspective. And once in a while, I have a fully baked presentation and see someone who is ripe for a speaking opportunity and invite them to join me.

Chris Murman happened to fall into the last category.

There was someone else who I wanted to co-present with so they could get public speaking experience, and we came up with a rough topic together. He wasn’t sure how much time he could commit to working on the presentation, and I assured him that I could handle the work and have him tag in at any time—everything would be ok. And as the conference date approached, he told me that he wouldn’t be able to join me. And that was totally ok. I had done everything possible to make this opportunity work, and it just wasn’t in the cards for us.

Coincidentally, around that same time Chris and I run into one another at DFW Scrum. He’s been struggling to accepted as a conference speaker, and he wanted to know if I could help him. Chris has had the unique experience of trying to deliver too fast in an agile environment, and we’ve been friends for years, so my answer was clear: ABSOLUTELY. “Want to co-present with me in January?” I asked. He said yes.

Chris is a fantastic co-presenter, and he brought a new dimension to the material that hadn’t existed before. And when he arrived at the conference, he shared that he’d been accepted to another one. On his own. With his fresh view on agile. That’s when I knew: 2016 was going to be the year of Chris Murman. We kicked off his conference journey together, and he’s been rocking it ever since.

Sometimes we stand on the shoulders of giants to get our start. Co-presenting can also mean discovering that we’ve each had the power to present all along. Being together just made it more fun.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Learning and Agile Fluency

Photo by Luis Miguel Justino

Photo by Luis Miguel Justino

Maturity is a tricky word. It implies judgment and a sense of lacking in the less mature. How mature are your friends and family members? Any of them child-like? Or childish? Any less-than-responsible people come to mind?

Talk of agile maturity suffers similar judgments--that teams who are not mature "don't get it" and just need to do X, Y, Z to improve. Ouch.

The truth is that team performance is a function of the environment, and the amount of agility needed will vary from one organization/product/team to the next. The Agile Fluency model by Diana Larsen and James Shore articulates this well to help leaders consider what learning investments might be needed for a team based on the outcomes that are wanted.

Steve Holyer taught his Fluency by Design workshop this August in Dallas, and it uses the Agile Fluency game. The learning was incredible--and I was already familiar with the model!

My team invested in technical practices early and was still on the brink of getting fired for many sprints: the cost of maintaining existing features and the "learning curve" cost of learning practices threatened our ability to deliver a feature each round. And we'd treated one business practice as a low priority item to invest in last each round only to discover huge benefits that could've helped us in the game if we'd focused on achieving it earlier.

It's easy to be short-sighted in making time for learning. It's a bottleneck in software development, and there's rarely a convenient time to learn. The Agile Fluency game helps people understand how much learning can be involved in transitioning to agile methods, and it has me wondering how we can create more immersive learning environments for teams--creating "study abroad"-like environments for teams to develop fluency in new ways of working.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Growing New Speakers through Co-Presenting

Photo by mezhen

Photo by mezhen

Public speaking can be terrifying. I remember my hands shaking as I gave a prepared speech in the seventh grade. My notes were visibly moving and showing my nervousness in the front of the class. Two boys in the front row were trying hard not to laugh.

Thankfully that experience feels like a lifetime ago. Thanks to nudges from coworkers that boosted my confidence and provided me ample opportunities to develop as a speaker, I'm now comfortable presenting to audiences of nearly any size.

Over the last two years or so, I've been more intentional in helping others become more confident speakers and get experience presenting at conferences. It's been super-fun and rewarding. Barry, one of my co-presenters, wrote about his journey as a speaker. He's one of my favorite people in the world, and I'm excited to be co-presenting with him again soon at Agile Arizona.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.