This is a transcript of episode 146 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

We look at two elements - Collaboration and Reflection - of the Heart of Agile approach developed by our friend Alistair Cockburn, and illustrate how conscious and attentive listening and reflection on emotions make a big difference for agile teams.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So what were we talking about last time? I remember being really fired up about it?

Jeffrey: That’s right. We were talking about a tweet from Alistair Cockburn, and we will, of course, link to that in the show notes and our previous podcast. And what it was is his diagram that he has around the heart of Agile and then he’d expand it out. So one of the things he’s got this diamond shape diagram, with four elements in it, and then he’s got extensions, those elements. And so we were talking about those extensions. We really liked a couple of them, especially ‘increase the quality of listening’ and ‘pause check data and emotions’, which, of course, fits beautifully with the messages of this podcast and of our book, Agile Conversations. So we were talking about why these things were valuable and why they’re in the heart of Agile.

Squirrel: Exactly, and I remember being all fired up about it. I remember getting worked up and then we ran out of time.

Squirrel: That’s right. The lead in here was you said, “look, remind me to talk about this next time the motherhood and apple pie angle”.

Squirrel: Ahh right okay.

Jeffrey: Tell us about motherhood and apple pie.

Squirrel: Exactly. Well, so some of our listeners probably outside the United States and even some inside won’t be familiar with this phrase. So it’s important to understand what the phrase is. So we’ll put a link in the show notes, as usual. And what I often hear that phrase used to describe is stuff that no one would ever disagree with so often in terms of politics. So you might be a politician. You give a speech and somebody comes away from the speech saying, well, gosh, all that politician ever did was in that speech was to advocate the goodness of motherhood and apple pie. And by taking such an uncontroversial position, I think if you took a poll, you would find a very small number of humans in the world who are opposed to motherhood or opposed to apple pie. And by taking such an uncontroversial position, you haven’t really added anything. So that’s how I always think about it. But it also turns out in doing the research for this, I discovered that there’s motherhood and apple pie day in Virginia.

Squirrel: So they have a whole day devoted to this. To the point that I’m making is that if you simply say and I know Alastair’s not doing this, but I think it would have been easy to walk away from our podcast last week with this belief. If you just say, hey, it would be good if you listened more. And if you pause to reflect, if that’s all you came away with, then, well, you haven’t read our book and you haven’t understood some of the things that we feel strongly about. And I didn’t want us to just walk away on that note, because the problem with this kind of thing is it can be just, hey, here’s some good stuff that you should do and then you’re left high and dry and very frustrated, as I often have been in this situation, reading business books, saying, “yeah, great, I’d love to do that stuff. How the heck do I do it?” All you’ve done is tell me that I can do things I was already in favour of. The problem is in the execution.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And I could see your point here, because if you increase the quality listening, it’s like, well, how would I know if I’m doing that? It’s like, be better. Well, if I knew how to be better, I would already be doing it. So there’s a bit of a gap there that I think one thing that’s interesting and we want to say is the idea is that it’s not enough to have the principle. And you and I also get frustrated, I think, in our talks sometimes that we’re worried at least I’m worried it’ll be just entertainment. We will come and talk about principles and say it would be good if you do these things, if you’re better at listening and people and had empathy. And people are like, yep, it would be better. And I agree. But they leave with no intention to do anything different. And in part is the question of, well, what specifically do you do to be different now because we’re talking about Alistair Cockburn here one of the things I think I would tie this to is the thing he talks about or has talked about for many years is Shu Ha Ri as a progression of skills. And in particular, what I like about this progression for this case is the Shu level is just tell me specifically what to do. I’m a beginner, I am just going to follow directions. So what are the directions to increase quality and what are the directions that can just follow to pause and check data and emotions?

Collaboration Cards

Listen to this section at 04:39

Squirrel: Sure, well, we have lots of them, and you can listen to our previous podcast on this topic, and we could go into the detail. What I’m interested in is what’s Alastair’s answer to that? Because I know Alistair. I know that he would not simply say, ‘oh, yes, go and listen and you’ll be better thanks very much and goodbye’. He wouldn’t do that. He’s not a politician.

Jeffrey: You’re your instincts are correct. And in fact, he has created something called collaboration cards. And this is something he’s been talking about for many years now. And the intention was then to take the elements of collaboration and break it down into individual playing card size directions that were steps you could just do. You know, here are the concrete steps. You could pull them out like moves and say, I want to get better at this. I’m going to go ahead and follow this card and it would be moving you on the right direction.

Squirrel: And he’s been talking about it for years, apparently, but somehow I’ve missed it. So I was very glad that you found this and reminded me about it and told me about it, because these are great. These are not motherhood and apple pie. These are specific things you can do, like say something honest on the edge of what you think is allowed. That’s a thing you could just go and do now. It’s painful to do, might not be fun or easy or simple, and you might screw it up, but it’s an action you can take.

Squirrel: And if you did it, you’d be collaborating better and relevant to our topic of improving the listening, for example, is this idea of ‘enquire, don’t contradict.’ That’s a great one, because we’re always talking about increasing your enquiry, being more curious. So here’s a great card that tells you some specific things to do and tells you an interesting thing. I’m not sure I necessarily agree that not contradicting is is great, but it’s a good thing you can do. So you could go and try out his cards. And I think he even teaches a course on this, doesn’t he, Jeffrey?

Jeffrey: That’s right. We’ve come across the idea and I came across a tweet where he said he was breaking down his class into half day elements. I think it’s his advanced Agile course he’s breaking down in half-day elements. And one of the half days was focus on collaboration cards. So and I’ve seen in researching for this episode, I went and he’s mentioned things on and off. So I’d be curious, Alistair, what the latest is. I also found So clearly he was working on it being an order form that we could order from, but it’s not currently up there. I’m fortunate. I do have a pack, not with me within arm’s reach at the moment, but we had Alistair in at TIM a couple of years ago and so we were able to get copies of the packs of cards. And I really like this idea. What I really value about it is that he’s taken the time to distil this down into distinct moves, into distinct steps that people can practise. And the other thing I like about the card artefact is you can share it with other people. Where you can be overt about what you’re doing. I’m trying this move right now. I’m trying to enquire, as you said, or I’m going to try to listen intently. My goal for this meeting is to focus on being courteous or something of that nature. I like the idea of being public about what I’m doing, being transparent about what I’m intending, because I think that both helps people understand my intent. And also they can give me feedback later, saying, you were trying to do this, but, maybe it didn’t come across as well as you might have liked.

Squirrel: Yeah, yeah. Jeffrey you were trying to be curious, but when you pounded on the table and shouted that wasn’t quite so courteous, maybe you could do better on that one. So that kind of feedback I’ve always found very helpful that I can only trigger it if I share with other people what I’m attempting to do.

Shu Ha Ri

Listen to this section at 08:31

Jeffrey: Now, one thing here, though, because you were quite fired up and thinking I was upset. I got a little bit fired up myself, but for a different reason, which is I want to put some of the pressure here on the listeners and the Twitter readers and people out there who are in the world of consuming these things. Because you and I often talk about the problem of cargo cult elements where people will just pick up some ideas from somewhere else and apply them without reflecting, without trying to localise them. They’re just looking for the magic recipe. And then there’s this element of motherhood and apple pie. Sounds like we’re seeing two different things here. I think that’s the challenge is. It seems like we’re getting contradictory messages on one hand we’re saying it’s not enough to just copy what other people are doing. At the same time, we’re saying, oh, look, if you’re going to go develop new skills, then they’re going to be a phase where you’re just doing what people say. You’re just applying these moves. And I think there can be an element where it feels like we’re contradicting ourselves, well, which is it?

Jeffrey: Are we supposed to be treating this like a Shu level practise where I’m just doing the thing that I’ve been told? Or is that the same thing as Cargo culting? I have my view, but I’m just curious, how does dilemma strike you? You know, this this potential paradox on what we’re saying?

Squirrel: It’s a good one. And I’d have to think about it a little bit. It strikes me that if you expect that by merely copying the master, you will be able to defeat the master. This is going back to the karate analogy that this stuff comes from. Right, from martial arts, where you’re the Karate Kid or something like that, doing the wax on, wax off for those of our listeners old enough to have seen the movie where where you’re doing that kind of Shu level activity, you wouldn’t expect to be a master. You wouldn’t expect to be able to play scales sounding exactly like your piano teacher and then be able to play in Carnegie Hall. So it strikes me that it’s a very good step to take to start, but it’s part of your learning. You wouldn’t expect to be done after doing the Shu level activity. So I’m usually pretty happy when somebody comes to me and says, yes, I read your book and I folded a piece of paper in half and I actually wrote some conversations down and I changed them. If they didn’t do it perfectly, I’m not too fussed because then I have something to build on, then I can coach them and help them. And I’m kind of excited that they can make progress. And there are lots of different ways they can do it once they get that practise under their belt. So I’m more on the Shu side. I’d say go ahead and Shu for a while, just don’t expect that you’ll be a concert pianist afterward.

Jeffrey: So I think the Shu level, ‘do the thing’ is absolutely important. I think for me the element is sort of magical thinking, which is some people say, well, I did those things and how come I’m not getting the results? So like, I went and I practised my scales, in fact, I did it for a week and yet I’m not a proficient, I’m not a proficient performer.

Learning is not Instantaneous

Listen to this section at 11:49

Squirrel: Unrealistic expectations like that are never going to get you very far in any discipline where there’s any skill. And that’s our whole point, is that conversations, improving your Agile performance, all of these things are skills you can practise and you start by practising the basics, but then you have to move on.

Jeffrey: Exactly. And I think this is the point that I wanted to get to, which is that the amount of time it takes. So when people say, look well you know, we tried stand-ups and they didn’t work for us or we tried retrospectives, they didn’t work for us. We did the stuff in the XP book, we tried TDD. But, it just it was slow and awkward. We tried it for a whole week. And I just don’t think this TDD stuff makes sense for us.

Jeffrey: I think what people are missing is the level of effort required that these steps that we’re laying out are valuable and if you do them, you will improve, but you’re not going to be mastering the skill in a small amount of time. It’s going to take some extended effort to get the result. And that’s true whether these are individual level practises, as we’re talking about here, increasing the quality of listening, or if they are department wide process things. We’ve adopted Agile, we’ve adopted scrum, whatever that means for you.

Jeffrey: And then people don’t expect there to be a learning curve or they don’t expect to put in extended energy of deliberate practise to improve. What I’ve got in the habit of with the company I work with at a TIM and others when I’m coaching people is I will often say ‘we should expect to be bad at this’. You know, we’re starting this we’re doing this practise for the first time. We should expect to be bad. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad practise. It means we lack skill. And so when we struggle, this is something I will come up with a lot of times a reformulation. So if someone says, for example, “large meetings don’t work.” I would say, can we recast that and say we don’t currently have the skill to have large meetings productively? That framing is very different because one of the things it says is, ‘well, what are those skills? Who are the people who know how to do that? Can we go learn from them? Is there something we can do?’

Squirrel: Got it. Well, and I certainly agree, that’s something I often do with my clients, is to encourage them not to say these broad sweeping generalisations, especially if there is evidence that somebody has made it work sometime. I mean, we can’t build a time machine. I’d kind of buy that because there’s nobody out there who is routinely building time machines. But if somebody says “we can’t hold stand-ups.” I have to question that because I have evidence that there are people who hold stand ups and find them productive and find them helpful. But we might be depressing our listeners, because they might be thinking, gosh, now I have to do all this hard effort. This sounds like, I’m going to have to do a New Year’s resolution is going to be like swearing off doughnuts or something that’s going to be painful. And that’s true. But the good news is that you can make improvements relatively quickly. So Argyris, the guy who came up with a lot of the social science underpinnings of some of the ideas we talk about described the time it takes to become proficient as about the same time as it takes to play a not so bad game of tennis. You can imagine that being measured in months. It’s certainly not in days. You couldn’t go to the court, hit a few balls around and suddenly take on Roger Federer. That would not happen. But you could imagine practising every few days for a few months and playing a game without embarrassing yourself. And that’s the kind of level of effort it takes.

Squirrel: For example, I have a client who’s just been doing so wonderfully well and making such a huge transformation in their business. And we’re about six weeks in and they are becoming proficient at some of these techniques that we talk about and they’ve been having a huge effect. So you don’t have to feel that this is something you’ll be doing and painfully struggling with, you’ll be in Shu mode for many, many years. You might be, but if you work hard at it, if you put in effort, this is something you can master in a little while. But it won’t be overnight and you certainly won’t get there by simply adopting the motherhood and apple pie approach. Yes, these are great things. We are in favour of them. We’re in favour of listening. Now, let’s go back to what we were doing before.

The Growth Mindset

Listen to this section at 16:23

Jeffrey: I’m struck by one thing. I happen to be reading a book right now called Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, I believe is the name. And in it they were talking about the feedback can be painful and it’s something we talked about before, learning can be painful. Learning can be horrible when it’s about yourself. And that’s one of things that can make feedback so difficult. However, one of the things that they were talking about was a growth mindset versus fixed mindset, and that the idea of learning and growth is less painful if we have a growth mindset. They were talking about the original experiments that Carol Dweck did that led to the concept of a growth mindset, which was taking children and giving them increasingly difficult puzzles that got more and more difficult. And the odd part was that some of them, most of the kids got discouraged and would stop, but some of them would be really excited by the challenge. And they clearly had different mindset. And that’s kind of what was the insight that led to the growth mindset. And then they found that they could have children have different responses to difficult puzzles based on the mindset that they would give them. So if they said, “Oh wow! You solve that puzzle, you’re really smart.” That was one way to prime them, that was priming people with a fixed mindset, but if you said, “Oh, you solve that puzzle, you worked really hard on that.”

Squirrel: You really persevered.

Jeffrey: You really persevered. Exactly. You’re priming them with a growth mindset. And then if you followed up by asking them, “would you like a harder puzzle or an easier puzzle?” The people who you’d primed with a fixed mindset would ask for an easier one. And the ones that you primed with the growth mindset would ask for a harder one. So I think that’s the last insight for me in the last challenge that i would put out to listeners, which is, as you hear us talking about these skills. You hear us talking about pursuing these things with practise. I would say, I think you will find it easier if you adopt a growth mindset, this is the idea when I would tell people, look, we should expect to be bad at this, but we should also expect to be better if we work hard and persevere and collaborate. We will solve these problems. We will improve and we’ll be able to see that improvement and that feeling that improvement will feel really good. And if we get the idea where we like that process, we begin to enjoy the process of challenging ourselves, finding our limits and improving along these skills. Then we get a positive feedback loop and that will really sustain us through those periods of struggle, as we do struggle to adopt and master new skills.

Squirrel: There you go. Well, I certainly have been trying and I know you have Jeffrey to be priming our listeners with a growth mindset that sounds like a very helpful thing to do and also priming them to actually go and do some work. Don’t just adopt motherhood and apple pie, don’t just agree and nod, but walk away from this podcast with something new that you can do. If you’re looking for what that might be, you can have a look on You can get in touch with us there. You can see videos from us, other podcasts, lots of different things. So have a look there. And of course, we like it when you hit the subscribe button, because we’ll be back next week to prime you with more ideas. And we’d love to hear from you again. So hit subscribe in whatever app you’re using.

Squirrel: Thanks Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.