Powerful Questions

There are many things that I’ve learned since becoming a mom… but there is nothing more powerful for me to date than learning to see the world through very young eyes.

The beauty behind a child’s approach to the world is that it is so fundamentally based in observation rather than judgement. When my daughter asks questions, she seeks to better understand what she observes. In so doing, she rarely asks “why?” but is more focused on “what?” in her line of inquiry.

From this, I’ve realized that “what?” is actually a very powerful way to question the world. Consider these examples for a moment…

Rather than asking: “Why is that?” …ask instead: “What does that mean?”

Rather than asking: “Why is she (or he) like that?” …ask instead: “What happened to her (or him)?”

Changing your stance from “Why?” to “What?” opens up your line of inquiry. You automatically move away from a place of judgement to a place of understanding. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child isn’t for every occasion… but if you are aspiring to understand and accept, it’s not a bad place to start.

Problem Constellation

Anyone who has tried to facilitate meaningful team discussion around a problem will know that it’s not easy. A common “team discussion problem” is to have one or two well intentioned individuals monopolize the conversation… leaving you to wonder, what are the others thinking? What are we not hearing or not talking about that we should? I’d like to suggest a quick and effective technique to help align the team when it seems like the discussion might be in trouble.

It’s a hack of the “Constellation” exercise… but it is focused on understanding problems, so let’s call it “Problem Constellation”.

Facilitator stands at one end of the room. Line up the team at the other end of the room facing the facilitator.

Facilitator will make statements one at a time and, for each statement, participants must take a step forward if they agree with the statement. If they cannot agree with a statement, they should not step forward. If at any point a participant cannot agree, he must stay put for the remainder of the activity (even if he agrees with subsequent statements).

During this exercise, no one should speak but the facilitator. The intention is to stop group discussion and take a moment for everyone to reconcile and become aware of his own state of mind on the problem. The facilitator then makes sure that everyone is clear on the instructions before starting with the first statement for consideration.

Here sample statements (order is important)…
1. I know that ____ is a problem.
2. I believe there is value in solving this problem.
3. I believe that ____ is the root cause of the problem.
4. I believe that ____ is the most effective solution for this problem.

At this point, it’s a good idea for everyone to take note where they are and where the rest of team is positioned. The participants closest to the facilitator are those who are in agreement with the potential solution to the problem. Those furthest away from the facilitator are the people who need to speak. Then the facilitator walks to the back of the room and begins reading the statements again, only this time, the team will hear from the people furthest away from the perceived solution.

I have found this activity to be very effective at surfacing assumptions and validating our understanding of a problem as a team. It has “quieted” the “solution influencers” for a moment and allowed relevant information to come forward. It has also “quieted” unqualified participants in the discussion… that is to say, if someone cannot attest to “knowing that there is a problem”, then their role might be to support, observe and understand rather than “drive or influence a solution”. Bringing this awareness is something that the facilitator can help to do.

I have used this technique for controversial problems as well as for teams with more introverted participants and found it to be very effective at gaining a collective understanding. The best part of it all is that the whole activity takes only a few minutes to setup and run.

Lessons in Discomfort

Once a week, I try to make it to my yoga mat and to my Yin Yoga class.  Beyond the obvious benefits of yoga, this class helps me to put into practice some important conflict management skills…

Yin Yoga is a practice whereby the student places himself in supported stretches for a length of time. So, once settled into the pose, the student connects with his breath and holds the position for approximately 5 minutes. When discomfort occurs, the student is instructed to stay in the pose and to gently bring attention and awareness to the sensitive area.   Breathing through the discomfort for the whole duration of the pose if necessary.

When I bring attention to discomfort during Yin, I usually discover that I can relax a little more and that doing so almost always brings with it relief.  This doesn’t work in every case and on some days, it’s harder to do than on others… but I have learned two things from this continued practice:

1. Shifting my position may bring temporary relief but almost always results in a displacement of the discomfort to somewhere else.

2. Adopting a mindset of attention and awareness has allowed me to stretch my body in ways that I didn’t think possible.

These lessons in discomfort are something that I try to practice every day.

When faced with an uncomfortable situation on your Agile team, try bringing gentle attention along with awareness to the discomfort. Try to resist the urge to correct or to fix. Work with the team to “relax” the situation without changing it.  Doing so will help the team to stretch in ways they may have not thought possible.