Creating a Culture of Learning

“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” – Socrates

For Agile teams to meaningfully embrace change, they should also embrace a culture of learning. This idea is not unique to Agile, Lean also explicitly makes mention to the importance of learning by making it one of its’ principles.

So what can we do to create a culture of learning on our teams?

I would suggest that while it’s important to encourage learning and to create learning opportunities on the team, doing so may not be enough to truly embrace a culture of learning.

For this to happen, we first must first create the capacity for learning on the team. This means honouring the time and energy that it takes to set aside our own agendas and then divert this time and energy to learning. It also means allowing ourselves to acknowledge and dare to speak three simple words: “I don’t know.”  This can be tricky because we don’t often reward or encourage a culture of “I don’t know” in our work and personal lives. It’s unlikely that Socrates would have climbed high up the corporate ladder with his approach of “I know nothing”.

So if you are seeking to create a culture of learning on your team consider…

…do you ever hear team mates asking for help?

…is it ok for the team to acknowledge what they don’t know?

…do we honour learning on the team in the same way we do “solutions” and “results”?

The key here is to be able to accept what we don’t know and then move on to “what do we need to do to learn?” while being comfortable with the reality that we may never have perfect answers.  However, by not acknowledging what we don’t know, we risk buying into answers that don’t deliver value.

True Leaders of Change

“Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?” – Obi-Wan

One of the strengths of any Agile team is how easily the team can collectively embrace change. Conversely, this can be also our biggest challenge to remaining Agile.

In order to truly collectively embrace change, the whole team needs to opt-in.  This can be a rather daunting task for Agile leaders out there to facilitate. But there is something delightfully simple that I would like for us to consider.  For this, I’d like to invite you to watch this brief talk from Derek Sivers ( https://sivers.org ):

https://sivers.org/ff

Agile coaches out there will no doubt identify with being the “lone nut”. I certainly do. But until I had seen Derek’s talk, I don’t think that I had truly appreciated the importance of that “first follower”. These early adopters are the people who..

…acknowledge when you are making sense. They are engaged listeners.

…raise concerns when you aren’t making sense. They are competent thinkers and have the respect and courage to speak up when they feel it will add value.

…try your ideas and add to them. They are true collaborators.

As Derek points out in the video, these first followers make room for change and transformation in others. They make change possible for the rest of the team. Sadly, as Agile leaders it’s all too easy for us to focus on those who won’t join in the movement… in fact, we can spend a lot of energy trying to support and help those who may never “get up and dance”. So much so, that we risk taking for granted those first followers who do have the courage to meaningfully lead change on the team.

After all, it’s worthwhile remembering, Obi-Wan wasn’t the real hero of the story.

Standup Is About Commitment, Not About “Giving Status” – The Story Continues…

In honour of Coaching Agile Teams (@CoachAgileTeams) generous cross post of my tiny blog, I thought that it would be worth putting together a follow-up to the original post Standup Is About Commitment, Not About “Giving Status”.

As you can well imagine, the story for my team didn’t end with reformulating the Standup as a commitment based meeting.  Here’s a sampling of some of some changes we’ve made to this meeting that have helped to keep us accountable…

1. We renamed “Standup” to “Team Commitment Checkpoint”.  Which sounds trivial, but it helped us to reconnect with the idea of commitment on a daily basis.

2. We mixed up the order of “who speaks next” and even allowed for “anyone to speak first”.  Previously, we would stand in a circle and take turns. Starting with the person next to the “highest ranking leader” and ending with this “highest ranking leader”. We used different techniques for this… from tossing a ball around to clapping and pointing to calling out the next person’s name. At first the team felt a bit self conscious and silly doing this but something interesting emerged from this simple self-organizing technique. It helped to create a shift in focus. One day, people stopped “talking to the leader” and started “talking to each other”.

3. We challenged our engaged listening skills with an exercise. First we would go through each person’s commitment(s) for the day, then we would go through the whole process again; in the same order, only this time we would verbalize the commitment of the person who spoke before us. Initially this created some stress on the team but, as we worked through the exercise together, we learned to relax and work together to remember what everyone committed to for the day.

4. We are currently in the process of connecting with what makes a “good commitment” and are aiming to develop a few protocol checks to ensure that we are all making “good commitments” on a daily basis. Maybe there’s a future blog post in that… stay tuned.

One more thing…  every day during Team Commitment Checkpoint (or TCC as we have come to call it), I make a point of sharing an “Agile Moment” with the team.  Often these are small quotes or “aha-moments” that I have had as I connect with the Agile community around the world on a daily basis.

Initially I was pleasantly surprised to note that the team seemed to appreciate these small gifts from the world of Agile… getting a few nods and the odd: “Nice”.  As time went on, I even got a few questions and the occasional: “I’d like to talk about that some more after this meeting”. Then, one day, I received the biggest gift of all from a team mate: “You know, I’m trying to put the Agile Moment you gave yesterday into practice…”

And so in turn, to the Agile community out there around the world and to my wonderful fellow team mates…   thank you for being such a source of inspiration and for helping to put these Agile moments into practice 🙂

A Retro on Retros

It seems clear to me that a lot of us out there don’t like retrospectives.  Ok… maybe you are an Agilist and you actually love them (me too)… but I feel pretty safe in saying that this feeling is not shared by all the members of your team.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately and it seems to me that this “not liking” aspect can be broken down into two categories.

Retrospectives make me uncomfortable.  Examples of this would include: “I have trouble speaking up in a group setting.”; “I  have difficulty seeing different points of view especially when they are at odds with my own.”; “I don’t want to create conflict or hurt someone’s feelings.”

Retrospectives are unproductive.  Examples of this would include: “I prefer to focus on my core work than retrospect. That’s where I feel most productive.”; “What we talk about at the retro is less important than what I’m working on right now.”; “We talk and talk, but we don’t actually do anything.”

I would say that most participants in a retrospective will identify to some degree with the “uncomfortable” and / or “unproductive” views of a retrospective.  Rather than viewing this as a problem to solve, I would suggest that these “dislikes” are an opportunity for the team to explore with curiosity.  So consider…

Making retrospectives comfortable. Consider on a personal and team level: “What needs to happen so that everyone can engage with the activity?  What are different ways that we can share ideas, sample different points of view, and be at ease with different attitudes on the team?”

Making retrospectives productive. Consider on a personal and team level: “What needs to happen to make these gatherings productive? Are we talking about the most important problem impacting the team’s ability to deliver value?  If not, then what will it take for us to do that? How do we hold ourselves accountable to our decisions and actions coming out of the retrospective?”

If the retrospective is generating some dislike on your team, then perhaps the time has come to have a Retro on Retros?

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.