This is a transcript of episode 182 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel explains how a telephone emoji helped a coaching client and we discover how codewords help build trust.

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Listen to this section at 00:13

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. You were telling me a really fun story, by which I mean we were reading your Twitter feed together.

Squirrel: As usual.

Jeffrey: I’m really enjoying you sharing your insights there. There was one that stood out to me, perhaps because I it’s the first tweet I’ve seen from you with this new method that had an emoji in it.

Squirrel: It may be the first time I’ve used an emoji in a tweet.

Jeffrey: What made you resort to emojis on Twitter?

Stories of Success

Listen to this section at 00:50

Squirrel: Well, it was that someone else was using an emoji! I was coaching someone—along with you, actually—who was able to improve their relationship. We always talk about how important it is to improve relationships in order to get better outcomes from your Agile team, so I was teaching them to do this and they came back to me and said, ‘Squirrel! Things are a lot better with this person! In fact, one way I know they’re better is that we’ve stopped having endless debates on Slack. We’ve developed this shortcut so that when we’re not getting anywhere,’ doing what you and I would call duelling ladders: just arguing about what what we believe and how we should act and not getting into what we should understand about each other, ‘We realize it’s time to phone each other and we use the telephone emoji.’ You know, I say something, you say something, I say something back, and you go telephone emoji, and that’s the trigger for us to get off Slack and onto the phone. I thought that was such a great summary of how these people had achieved a better relationship, and the symbol of that was a kind of codeword. In this case actually a code-emoji.

Jeffrey: I love that story. It’s so succinct and so often I’ve experienced this retrospective, ‘yeah, this is the point where we should have gotten off Slack.’ So often it is only hindsight where I see I could have leveraged that Alistair Cockburn principle that you want warmer, real time communication for higher bandwidth communication.

Squirrel: We’ll link to a diagram from Alastair on this.

Jeffrey: We talked about it also in our affordances episode as well. What I also like about that story is the symbol is at once obvious, it’s a very literal symbol, but at the same time it’s also, as you say, a codeword. Maybe a little bit more code-y was the other example you mentioned. Apparently you’ve had someone else who had something simpler? ‘You’re on step Q.’

Squirrel: Exactly. Again this is a tool developed by a pair of people. This different person who I was coaching shared that they tended to get confused by a specific other person. They said ‘he tends to tell me every single detail of something when I’m still stuck on step one.’ So he said, ‘now I can just say we’re on step Q.’ The code word ‘step Q’ is shorthand for their aligned story that sometimes the other person confuses the person I’m coaching, and they need a way to get back on track.

Artefacts of Trust

Listen to this section at 04:14

Jeffrey: I like this kind of shared culture. It really does show the idea in the subtitle of our book, ‘transform your conversations, transform your culture.’ This is a great example. What you see here are embodied culture. These code phrases and specific emoji use are cultural artefacts that you can find and recognize as reflecting a specific cultural experience. I’ve experienced them before, this story about the slack emoji reminds of when we first started practising some of this communication stuff at TIM. We were using Roger Schwartz’s paper Eight Behaviours for Smarter Teams. Someone took the time to go ahead and put those rules into our Slack bot, so in a conversation you could reference the rule. Then later people were using the number emojis as a way of saying, for example, ‘in the spirit of rule one, I am going to state views and ask genuine questions.’ Rather than having to spell out all of that, you could just say ‘rule one’ or emoji number one and then say your thing and ask your question. It was like a hint to people of what you intended, what you mean. This is the ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ of a text conversation. What strikes me about this is that these things have evolved out of the relationships on the team. It’s a sign of a healthy team that they are growing these things together. Many people talk about the value of long term stable teams. One of the things that is valuable to that is it allows people to build a backlog of shared experiences. Then these shorthand things that we’re describing, ‘you’re on step Q’ or the telephone emoji, they are symbols of adversity that the team has overcome together.

Squirrel: ‘Remember, back when we used to have these terrible debates on Slack? Isn’t it great that we have the telephone emoji?’

Jeffrey: Exactly. It’s both something that you reach for and use, a helpful thing right in the here and now, but it’s also a reminder of the problems that you’ve had in the past, for which it is the solution. In that sense you have this additional bond and you’re reinforcing that bond and connexion through a sort of secret language. You’re reinforcing the fact that ‘we are part of the same tribe.’

Squirrel: Exactly.

Jeffrey: The thing about this is that you have this very positive sign of these stories that have been shared with you, but we’ve recently been dealing with various clients that are facing struggles related to this. They may have these elements, but they’re under various kind of pressure. So I think it would be good for us to talk about this next time and go into what the challenges are when these teams feel that this sort of intimacy they’ve developed is under threat. What’s interesting is I’ve seen some come under under threat from two opposed forces, growth and loss. Let’s talk about that next time. What do you say, Squirrel?

Squirrel: That sounds fantastic. The follow-up to this one will be where we talk about how teams might grow and lose and what happens to their shared language then. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.