This is a transcript of episode 163 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
In the first of a two-part series, Johan Abildskov of Eficode has a conversation with Jeffrey and Squirrel about culture, transparency, curiosity, and how to use all three to adopt DevOps methods successfully. Special addition: a video version of today’s podcast!
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. This is the recording of a interview by Johan Abildskov I hope I’m saying his name right, an amazing system admin DevOps kind of person from Eficode in Denmark. And Johan wanted to talk to us as part of the Eficode DevOps conference, which we were just at, and he was talking to us as preparation for our conversation with him on stage. You missed that but you can still listen to us having our conversation here this week and next week because we had so much to say to Johan that we split it over two weeks. In this week, we’re going to be giving an introduction, so if you’re kind of new to what we talk about, at Agile Conversations and the sorts of methods that Jeffrey and I use, this would be a perfect one for you. If you need a review, also will work well for you. We’re going to talk about defensive reasoning and folding pieces of paper in half and transparency and curiosity and lots of the other ideas that we use. So with that, I’ll hand over to Johan.
Johan: Hello and welcome to this Agile Conversation we might even call it. I am Johan and I have the honour and privilege of being here with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel, who have written the fantastic book Agile Conversations. But I work as a DevOps consultant and I’ve spent much of my time in organisations and teams trying to improve how they work from both a technical and a cultural perspective.
The Importance of ‘Soft Skills’
Johan: And often, even though projects like Google’s Rework or Project Aristotle shows that things like psychological safety, collaboration skills are the key drivers of high performing teams, I feel like we as engineers highly under prioritise the soft skills, Right? And that has negative connotations. And people can tell me “Johan had you’re such a fluffy, fluffy consultant.” And because we care about being able to co-create, people can question our technical ability simply by the fact that we care about other things, than the hard part. So I’m so glad that we can have this conversation and you can enlighten me and our lovely audience on some of the tools and techniques that you’ve developed and some of your experiences, because I know that I really enjoyed the concreteness and the applicability of your Agile Conversations book. So I really like the way that we can put culture and the way that we interact as humans at the forefront of everything. So we could perhaps start with this accusation that we can be “too fluffy” or that soft skills are an inferior skill compared to the technical ways. Do we have any narratives that you talk to people about around that or anything about that?
Squirrel: We have an old friend named Mark Coleman who actually helped us with a book launch and all kinds of other stuff. Very clever guy knows a lot about product marketing of software. And Mark likes to say that the ‘soft skills’ are actually really he uses a bad word here, “really freaking hard skills.” And I really like that comment because that’s absolutely accurate. I would say that following a person whose ideas we use a lot in the book, these skills take them about as long to learn as playing tennis well. Not at a world class standard, not going to be Roger Federer, you don’t need to be, but it’s going to take you a few months of practise to get good at some of the skills that we’d like to teach. And so certainly we won’t get through it in this session. Right? And if anybody thinks they’ve come to this session and suddenly they’re going to know everything about culture, it will be natural and easy and it’ll be smooth and it’ll all be simple. Sorry. If somebody else says that, we’d like to go to that one. So tell us, what podcast, what session could we go to where we can learn that because we don’t know that. But we do know is something that’s hard, that takes lots of practise and knowledge and understanding, but that has tremendous rewards for actually getting all those things you’d like to do. Like infrastructure is code and unit testing and gosh, maybe developers and operations being together in the same team. What a crazy thing, you could call that DevOps or something. All of those things are things you can accomplish better if you can adopt these skills. But they’re not the skills you learnt about at university. Nobody at university told you you were going to have to do difficult emotional work. And guess what? That’s what we’re here to tell you you need to do.
Jeffrey: And I think I agree with everything that Squirrel just said, and I think this idea of technical skills, primary and soft skills, human skills, secondary is just a bit antiquated. I think it misses the idea of how much collaboration there is involved in modern knowledge work. Now that’s not to say that’s true for everyone. I’m sure there are people who happily spend their days working in technical isolation from one another and are perfectly productive, and that’s what’s called for in their environment. Most of the people I interact with, that’s not their reality. They in fact, they’re embedded in and part of teams. So you could say they work with people as much or more than they work with computers and technology. The difficulty is that they’ve never been taught how to work with people. And the impacts of that are significant. And as you mentioned, Project Aristotle found psychological safety has been the primary determinant of what made an effective team. So the impact we’re talking about is not a small one, it’s actually quite significant.
Johan: Excellent. Thank you. So one thing that I noticed that Squirrel you said and feel free both Jeffrey and Squirrel too, to catch my question here, you call it difficult emotional work and Jeffrey you also kind of touch it. We have learnt to work with these things. I’ve had the privilege of participating in a conversational dojo where we did some work. And the promise that we were giving is that that learning is painful or learning is uncomfortable.
Jeffrey: Learning is horrible. And I should clarify this, that I get a lot of pushback from people when I say this. They say, “oh, I love learning” as someone clarified, well means you probably love reading. There’s a difference between learning something new and the kind of learning that happens in the conversational dojo. And I should say, what’s the conversational dojo? It’s a place where we practise the skills from the book Agile Conversations or more generally, conversational skills. So just like you might have a coding dojo and a coding kata, we are doing a conversational dojo with conversational kata’s where we will analyse our conversations a certain way with the idea of learning how to do better. Now the thing is that when we are learning about our contributions to conversations, it can be painful because we’re not just learning a new fact about the world. We’re learning something about ourselves and generally something that we didn’t believe was true.
Jeffrey: And I think this is this is what makes the work difficult and painful when it’s being done successfully, and it’s also why people maybe avoid the work. I often give the entree to this topic. I might have a talk, for example, where i would say something like “Are you frustrated? It might be your fault.” And the reason for that is because people generally, when they think of frustration, they look at the locus of control as being outside themselves. “I’m frustrated because of them. I’m frustrated because of those people over there.” And when we do the analysis and we say, “well, what’s your contribution?” People often say, “oh, actually, I’m doing a lot to contribute to what I’m claiming to be frustrated by. So I’m still frustrated. But now it’s actually because of me” and that is kind of a painful and uncomfortable moment.
Squirrel: Jeffrey, it’s also a wonderful opportunity, too, because it’s the opportunity to do something about it. Suddenly you can take action. And so I had someone I was coaching earlier today, actually, and she said, “oh, yeah, boy, there’s something wrong here.” And I said, “yeah, isn’t it wonderful to find out that it’s your fault?” And she said, “no, it’s not.” And then I said, “But what does it mean?” She said, “Well it means I can do something about it.” So I said,” excellent, that’s where we want to be.”
Jeffrey: And that’s the choice, really. And I think this is maybe a good point to make, which is what we’re talking about is really clearly optional. You don’t need to learn these conversational skills. You don’t need to look at your contribution. It’s quite fine if you choose to remain frustrated, I’m not going to blame people for that. It’s a much safer alternative. You know, I don’t need to look at my own contribution, I can just blame other people and we can sit back. We can all talk to each other and say, “you know, aren’t we great and wonderful and isn’t the problem with those people over there.” And we can feel good about ourselves. And if what’s important to you is feeling good about yourself, then you can prioritise that. If you want to prioritise being effective in a team then I would advice something else. If you want to be effective in a team that I would advise, you do learn these skills despite the discomfort. The challenge though is that people won’t recognise the fact that they need to learn these skills. And I think this is what makes this a very hard sell. People generally agree that culture is important. People agree that psychological safety is important. And they think that there’s clearly if we’re going to have effective conversations, we want to hear from everyone. And they believe that they already do this and they believe that they’re good at it. What we’re here to tell you is that you’re probably wrong. And if you haven’t deliberately studied it, you’re probably bad at it. And the reasons I would say that with some confidence is because I’m going to assume that you’re human. For those of us who are listening, who are not human, I’d love to get in touch and hear about your experiences but it’s not the one that we’re familiar with. We’re experienced with human problems and typically human problems that suffer from things like cognitive biases. And that leads to predictable types of behaviour. The way I can think about it is actually people are very good at conversations for addressing all the problems they can see. The problem is cognitive biases mean there’s some things we cannot see and that’s where the problems persist, is in our cognitive blind spots.
Jeffrey: The skills we teach are about how to see in those places that you haven’t seen before. And when you do that, you see things you haven’t seen before and you see mistakes that you’ve been making all along but were invisible to you. That’s the kind of learning this horrible moment like, “oh, I didn’t think I was doing that. I didn’t think I was one of those people. I guess I am one of those people because here that’s what I did.” And that’s that’s the challenge. The good news, though, is that this is a learnable skill. You can learn to see your conversations differently and all it takes is a piece of paper and a pen.
A Client Story
Squirrel: And the ability to fold the piece of paper in half, that’s the other important thing. If you could you have that much origami skill, you’re in good shape. I have a beautiful example of this, which I’ll just share really briefly. I had a phone call just before coming on to record this with you guys. This phone call from one of my clients in San Francisco. And she was phoning to say, “I’m frustrated with my developers. I’m not getting the right thing from them. I want to do better. I want to use Jira better.” That’s where we started. And I said, “could we roleplay for a minute? Could you just be the developer? I’ll be you.” It only took us like two lines of exchange. I said, “I’d like to build this feature.” And she as the developer said, “Sure.” And I said, “gee, it sounds like you might be sad developer. Is that is that right? Are you feeling sad?” And she said, “Wow!, I could never do that. That’s completely different. What would that be like? I could say that to a developer.” We were off to the races. So that was the type of practise and learning that you can get from studying your conversations, making them a first class element of your development toolset something that you can work on and improve.
Squirrel: And we’re talking all about how horrible it is. And it takes you as long as to learn a game of tennis. There’s amazing moments of searing but painful insight that you can get very quickly. So that’s the upside.
Actionable Advice on Beginning Your Journey
Johan: That is very interesting and I think that you spark so many thoughts and reflections already, even though I’ve acted with you both through your book and your sessions. So it’s fantastic. So one thing that I just want to address there, Squirrel, or ask you to elaborate about this, because one of at least the cornerstones for me and I think for many of us is exactly what you capture in that tiny, tiny exchange, which is about both psychological safety, the space to be able to take interpersonal risks. But also we have this kind of thing where trust is built in years and lost in seconds or something like that, where at least for me, part of the border or first roadblock around this is daring to take that risk or feeling like ‘how is the right steps? What is the best first steps to be able to work around this where you perhaps don’t have all the skills and the teams or the awareness, or the reflection?’ What are the first things you do, is just noticing and saying I think this conversation has gone a bit amiss and then let’s just walk out or something, what are some of the things that we can do?
Squirrel: I’ll tell you two very basic things that you can get started with, things that anybody who’s listening to us, watching us could immediately implement. And then I’ll tell you, a third one is a little more challenging because I just feel like throwing in a third one.
Squirrel: So the two are, first of all, say what you see. So if you observe something and I modelled it in that very, very brief example and the brevity of the example is important, that you can get a tremendous amount from a tiny piece. We also get one piece of paper, fold it in half, so you’re using half of it because you don’t need very much. And in that tiny example, I observed something just from her role playing. I mean, she wasn’t actually the developer. Of course, she was role playing to help me help her. But in being the developer, she exhibited being sad. She exhibited all the signs, looking at her shoes and speaking with a kind of depressed sound, she sounded sad. And so I said what I saw, that was the first step. “I observed that you might be feeling sad.” If I’d been in a in a different situation, if I’d been seeing her rather than on the phone. I might have said, “and you’re looking at your shoes and I noticed that your voice is a little quieter.” So I’m observing things that a video camera would record. That’s the first part.
Squirrel: And the second part, the second action is I’m asking a question. So those two elements just in that in that one example captures two of the key things that I think are really helpful, which is observable data. What can we work with? What can each of us see? And then curiosity. Does this match what you see? There are many other explanations for speaking in that way. ‘I’m feeling deferential. You know, I’m kind of scared of you. I’m concerned that you might not respect me. I’m feeling very excited to meet you. And I’m a very shy person. So I’m looking at my shoes and speaking quietly.’ There are lots of explanations you could come up with and having genuine curiosity about what matches the facts that you just noted using the first point to ask questions about then gives you a really great basis for having a trusting relationship. ‘Yes, we both agree that you’re feeling sad. Now, let’s see if there’s something we can do about that, because I like you and I’d like you not to be sad. How could I help you with that?’ So the investment is not massive and the kinds of changes you can make, like asking more questions and saying what you see are are small interventions, they’re habits to get into that have tremendous valuable results, as they did for this product manager from me from San Francisco, and had her mind blown by a couple of lines.
Jeffrey: And the thing is, because what is she saying? She’s saying basically “we have this team and there’s some dynamics on it that aren’t quite right. I’m not getting the results I want. I’m not quite sure what to do.” And that sort of frustration that people might feel that things just aren’t quite right on their team. They’re not getting the energy dynamics, drive, collaboration, whatever it is. I think generally people are very good at sensing the dynamics and they can just say, am I happy with the dynamics I have or not? And now the problem is, if the answer is “not” this is I think where what we talk about is very different from what you’ll find in most Agile books or the DevOps books or even DevOpsDays talks, DevOps conference, things that will talk about culture. And they say how important culture is and you need to collaborate but then they say, “well, yeah, and you collaborate by getting everyone colocated or if you’re on Zoom, then you have virtual coffees and you need retrospectives.”
Squirrel: I just found it here on page ninety two of the Scrum book. Here it is, hold a retrospective. Do it this way.
Jeffrey: Exactly. You know, and if and if that’s not working, try a liberating structure and you know, and so try these things do do these different things. And here’s the cookbook. And the problem is these actions sometimes work. And you know, that’s not a problem. That’s good. Sometimes it works. You just put people together and, you know, human nature comes and they work things out. They’re sharing the problem, they’re sharing their ideas and everything just works and that’s great. But the problem is sometimes it doesn’t work and we lack generally a theory about what’s gone wrong. It’s like things are going wrong. But I don’t know why there was that team I worked on that was great and it had very different interactions. But I’m trying the same things with the same standups, with the same retrospectives, with the same planning meetings, the same thing. I don’t understand. You know, I’ve just seen the people. It must be a problem with the people. And that’s that’s not it. The problem is, is about this issue of human nature and understanding that for whatever reason, you were able to have the good dynamics before and not now. But you can change the dynamics as long as you can learn to see them and understand them. So and that’s where Agile Conversations comes in. We lay out five different conversations that are important for any high performing team, the trust conversation, the fear conversation, the conversation, the commitment, conversation and accountability conversation and one kind of builds on each other.
Jeffrey: And all these actually are built on a foundation. In Chapter two, we lay out the core skills of just being transparent and curious. Like, just start with that. When you start to have this theory and I think this is what we bring into this as we bring in a theory about human interactions, not that we originated it. We picked up from other places, Chris Argyris, chief amongst them, a business psychologist theoretician, who noted that humans, when there’s a potential for threat or embarrassment, will react with a defensive mindset, defensive reasoning. And it’s this defensive reasoning that inhibits our ability to speak up and say what we see it interferes with us connecting with people. It interferes with us having a positive dynamic. We suddenly, when we’re in this defensive space, our limbic system, kicks in fight or flight or freeze and so we maybe we say nothing or maybe we argue what we think is right. But without listening to the person or we just accept what they say even though we’re not happy with it, we kind of go along. We don’t share our feelings. We don’t bring all we know. We don’t bring our full selves to the situation. And when we’re not bringing our full selves, we’re not going to have those joyous, fantastic dynamics we can have on the best teams. So that’s in my view, that’s kind of what’s at stake here.
Jeffrey: And this is why I’m so excited about it, because I’ve worked on some great teams, I’ve had some great dynamics. And my experience was if other people could experience that, they would never settle for anything less. And that’s what I would like to do, is I would like to have people have that kind of experience to not settle for less and to learn how when they’re not getting it to have those fantastic dynamics, which really, in my mind always comes down to what are the conversations that you’re having or not having amongst the people on the team?
Johan: Thank you. That’s just, again, so many profound things. I’m trying to keep up desperately. Thank you so much.
Squirrel: OK, well, that’s the end of this week’s recording, this piece of the interview with Johan Abildskov from Eficode. We’re going to be returning next week with the rest of the interview. There’s lots more that Johan asked us about. Lots of very interesting topics. So please come back next Wednesday where you’ll find us talking about all these topics.
Squirrel: If you have questions, thoughts, concerns, if you want to check us out further, have a look at Conversationaltransformation.com. That’s the website where you’ll find our Twitter and email and, I don’t know, carrier pigeon, anything else that you can get in touch with us with. And we’d love to hear from you. We like hearing from our listeners. Thanks. And we’ll see you next week.