This is a transcript of episode 275 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Are you wearing a Viking helmet, sun hat, or graduate cap? On the podcast this week, Squirrel and Jeffrey are joined again by fellow podcast host duo Russell and Ken of the “I Need to F-ing Talk To You” podcast.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

Read the previous episode in this series here.


Listen to this section at 00:11

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

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel, and hi again to Ken and Russell. Welcome back, gentlemen.

Ken: Well it’s a great pleasure to be here.

Russell: Good to be back.

Squirrel: So we should remind listeners who Ken and Russell are. They’re our amazing actor friends, so we have to explain why actors are interesting to engineers and executives. Why is that again, Jeffrey?

Jeffrey: Well, if you want to know that you can listen to last week’s episode for the detailed answer.

Squirrel: Good point.

Jeffrey: The short version was that they set up scenarios where you can have experiential learning in difficult conversations and the ability to kind of stop, rewind and try again. So you get practice and you get multiple bites of the apple with people giving you feedback and critiquing and you can see other people try and learn from their experience, which I think sounds fantastic. So we talked last time about these scenarios and how you set them up and bringing an improv actor in and how people get to act them out. But you have these scenarios in mind because of patterns of human communication and notable sticking patterns. You have models that you’re applying. Where do you start? What’s your overall model that you’re bringing to people when they’re trying to learn from difficult conversations?

Look at their Hat

Listen to this section at 01:30

Russell: Well, I think there’s a couple of models that we use. The first one is our “hats” concept, that people display behaviors in a similar way that they wear a hat: it is something that they put on and are being at that moment in time, but similarly that you can take a hat off, somebody can actually change their behavior. It’s not fixed that they can never ever change. In the hat model we have two of the more negative behaviors that you would typically see in the workplace. One of these was the sun hat wearer and one was the Viking hat wearer. The sun hat wearer was somebody with the attitude “Everything seems to be fine. Why do I need to do anything different? I like doing what I’m doing.” And whilst we don’t obviously mind if people like what they’re doing, if the person is never wanting to change because they just want to keep the status quo all the time, that’s not always a sort of healthy place for them to be. So we may need to challenge them to move their thinking from inertia into action. And then the Viking helmet tends to be the one that perhaps most comes to mind when we talk about difficult conversations, because it’s either the passive aggressive or the aggressive person. “You can’t do this, I’m not going to let you. Or else “Okay, I understand what you’re saying.” But then they go away and do exactly what they were doing before and completely ignore you. So people like that you need to have a challenging conversation with. To handle that we have a specific model called the “beef” model, which I can talk about. On the flip side, we’ve got the coaching type of conversation, where somebody is wearing a hard hat or a graduate cap. So a hard hat is somebody that knows that they need to do something different, but they’re not sure how and they need your help. So they’ve accepted that they need to change, but they need support. The graduate cap is sort of hands=off coaching, more light touch, somebody who’s already pretty capable, but you need to be able to check in and to keep on moving with them. We use our coach model with that. So perhaps, Ken, do you want to just describe to the listeners the beef model and the coach model just as an illustration of the two?

Ken: Thank you Russell, I’d be happy to do that. In doing so, I really must credit Russell with the invention of the beef model. It’s something that Russell brought to the table when we first started doing this work about a decade ago. Russell had used it in a number of different contexts in the UK, so I’m both flattered that Russell has asked me to explain his model. I’m also a little bit timid and a little bit trepidatious, hoping that I get it right.

Jeffrey: You’ll be graded afterwards, you’ll hear from anything you got wrong.

Do we have BEEF?

Listen to this section at 04:23

Ken: Absolutely. But on the other hand, I’ve been hearing Russell deliver this in every workshop for ten years, so I probably got it down pat and could probably repeat it verbatim. The idea behind the beef model is we want something that is really simple and easy to remember, even when you’re in the middle of a very stressful conversation. With that in mind, it’s the four letters B-E-E-F, so you only have to remember four things even when you’re in the midst of a very stressful conversation, trying to remember what it is that you wanted to say. The first thing you need to remember is you need to describe the behavior to the person that you’re talking to, and you need to be really clear about what the behavior is, and it should be something that’s relatively high level because as soon as you’ve described the behavior, then you’re going to be giving them some examples. The examples are where you can get specific about what the behavior is. So the behavior isn’t so much “You showed up late at work.” The behavior is “You’re not paying a sufficient amount of attention to your responsibilities at work, and an example of that is that you are showing up late to work every day, and here are some specific days in which you did that.” You might even go so far as to have an attendance log in which you’ve got a written evidence of that so you can show the person “it was on this day at this time,” etcetera. Then the second “E” in beef is the effect. As Russell says, this is really the secret sauce, because people can argue away the behavior. They can say, “That’s not really what was going on.” They can argue the examples, “Oh, well, it didn’t really happen” or “It didn’t unfold in the way that you said it did.” But one thing that’s really difficult for them to argue with is the effect that their behavior had on other people on the team, or the effect that it had on the company, or the effect that it’s going to have on their career if they don’t change their behaviors.

Jeffrey: I like that. Like you said, they might say, “I wasn’t that late.” “Well, because you were late, I had to do this. I wouldn’t have had to do that if you were on time.” I also like that you bring in the shadow of the future here. “If this keeps happening, it’s going to have this impact.”

Ken: The final piece of the beef model is the future. But in this context, we’re talking about once you’ve gotten them to accept that they need to change their behavior, then comes “This is what I want you to do next.” How I want you to go about changing your behavior and how I’m going to hold you accountable for that. That may be as simple as “You’re going to do this, and I’m going to check in with you in a week’s time to make sure that you’ve done it, and we’ll reevaluate your progress at that point.”

Jeffrey: Very good. And this beef approach, you’d use with both the Viking hat and the sun hat? So the people who are resistant either passively or actively, is that right?

Ken: That’s correct. It’s also something that you can use with the other two hats we described, the hard hat and the graduate cap. For instance, you may have an employee who’s done something really well. Russell often talks about catching people in the act of doing things right. Russell, why don’t I pass the baton over to you and get you to pick up that lovely quote that you use.

Russell: So if you think about predominantly the beef model’s to pick up people that are maybe on the dark side in that hard hat or sun hat: they need to accept that they need to do something differently. Once you’ve done that, you can then sort of flip them over into now taking a more “coach” approach. But as Ken was saying about catching people doing things right, if you wanted to you could use beef for a more positive conversation. You talk about the behavior that was great that you saw, the examples that were great, the effect it was having that was so good on others, and what you’d like them to continue doing. So it’s sort of multifaceted. We tend to focus a lot on dealing with the challenging situation, but you can also use the same model to reinforce positive behaviors as well.

Squirrel: It’s surprising how difficult it can be actually to give somebody effective praise, and it can actually be something that’s threatening to the person. I’ve given praise which the person really did not accept and which they found difficult. So I hope that you sometimes help folks improve in that area. Everyone thinks it’s easy to praise. It’s actually quite difficult.

Russell: Yeah, for sure. Not everybody wants to hear or people won’t won’t hear it because they feel awkward or they feel embarrassed. They can easily dismiss it, “Oh, we don’t need to worry about that.” If they do so, they’ve lost that learning that you really do want them to do more of this because this is excellent, you know?

Squirrel: Exactly.

How to COACH

Listen to this section at 09:09

Russell: Then if you’ve got people onto that lighter side, the hard hat “ready to give it a go but needs some help,” which is the more hands-on coaching, and then the more light touch graduate cap, already pretty established. We use something called the coach model that Ken and I co-developed. Again this is a format for having the conversation, same as the beef model is a format for four things you need to cover with somebody if you’re having a challenging conversation. The coach conversation we’ve upped the game: it’s five this time. We’ve got current situation: getting the person to tell you about what’s going on for them and what’s working, what isn’t working, what’s the outcome that they desire, what is it they’re looking to achieve? That gives you a chance also to give that check back when you’re coaching somebody: is that really what they want and is it going to solve the problem that they think they have? So that’s something to have that sort of gut check with them. The “A” in that model is about the actions possible. So that’s the brainstorming part where you can brainstorm with somebody. “You want to be more confident at public speaking because you’ve got a talk that’s coming up and your boss had told you in the past that you hadn’t done very well. So what possible actions could you take to improve it this time?” This is where you mentioned the “yes, and” approach is super helpful rather than the “no, but.” We want ideas, the “yes, and” allows people to keep on building one idea on top of the other. And then the critical choice is with all these ideas, which one or several are going to be the most effective to use to meet the outcome you desire based on the situation that you’ve got? It might be that there are three quite simple steps the person might be able to take. Then is “How do I hold you accountable for doing this?” So again, it’s making sure that it’s future-orientated, but also there is making sure that the action actually takes place and there’s no sort of backsliding. One of the things we find with the graduate cap and the hard hat wearer is if you’re not managing the situation with them—they’ve accepted they need to do something different, but you don’t help them do it—what happens is they can start to slide back into the negative: “You know what management is like around here. They expect you to do things and then they never give you the support to do them.” So hopefully that gives leaders the tools to recognize the type of situation they’re going into, which models to choose to use, and it might be that they’re going to use the beef first and then they’re going to use the coach model in what could be separate conversations.

Jeffrey: I cheated in that I prepped for this conversation by actually reading your book, and I recommend it. You outline these models here: hats and the beef model and the coach model. I want to ask you a little bit about this last hat, the graduate cap. For context here, I think I could make some parallels to the situational leadership model which we’ve talked about in the past and how people move from being resistant, to willing but unable, able but uncertain, and finally able and know they’re able. That’s the graduate cap: you have someone who’s now eager and interested, is my understanding and please correct me otherwise, I’m looking for guidance here. What I want to focus on is that in my experience managing managers and coaching managers, this is one of the most difficult areas, one of the last skills for people to develop: how to work well with the smart, motivated, intelligent, high amperage people. But it’s not expected to be a difficult conversation. These are often people like rising stars, star performers, they have reputations, maybe. But why would that be difficult? What’s difficult about talking to these high amperage people? And tell me if I’m categorizing the graduate cap correctly, what makes someone a graduate cap and what makes it difficult to have a conversation with them?

Difficult Genius

Listen to this section at 13:33

Russell: I think you’re absolutely right in terms of if you’re going to overlay one model on the other, I think that translation works pretty well. A graduate cap is somebody who has demonstrated that they know how to do something. They can be a self-starter, they can manage something on their own. They don’t need you there all the time as their manager. But they do need you there in the background. When I used the phrase “light touch,” check in at various points to see, is it still going okay? Are there new challenges that have come up? Is there anything that they need in terms of support? But also we use this example in the book, there can be a difficult conversation where somebody has experience and has done very well, but it doesn’t mean they know everything and it doesn’t mean that they are going to be able to do everything. So you get this where people sort of run before they can walk, or you know, and they’re escalating too fast. “I did this really good marketing plan for this project. So actually I’m going to completely rewrite the marketing strategy for the company because I think this would be a great idea, wouldn’t it?” And you’re like, “No, because that’s beyond the scope of what I need you to do.”

Squirrel: We have this in software where somebody decides to rewrite the entire program, so we know what that’s like in the software world too.

Russell: Yeah, and that’s exactly the thing. The difficult part in some ways there is trying to rein somebody in whilst still maintaining the positivity about what they’re good at. That’s where the challenge comes in, because the person often is saying “But I know how to do this. I’ve already got the track record. Look at all the positive testimonials.” One of our examples came from one of our broadcasters here in Calgary who was saying junior reporters who’ve broken 1 or 2 big stories end up wondering, “I’ve already broken a couple of stories locally, why am I not on the world stage as a great reporter?” Well, there’s other things for you to learn as well. So that’s where we got that original idea of having to rein people in who are quite talented but haven’t quite necessarily mastered everything, because do any of us ever get to a stage where we’ve mastered everything?

Jeffrey: Is there a particular type of pitfall you find people run into in that scenario? I expect they come in with a lot of fear. “How would I talk to this person? They’re a star performer, we want to keep them. How do I find that balance of correcting them and keeping them?”

Russell: I think one of the pitfalls is sometimes they can be a bit overawed by that person’s record. “I don’t really want to say no to them on this because they are one of my best employees, I couldn’t bear to lose them.” There can be a reluctance to deal with it because somebody is really good 95% of the time. It’s similar to when you expect they’re going to be really problematic and difficult, so you won’t have the conversation because we don’t want to have a conversation with somebody who could be difficult with us or aggressive or something like that. But on this case, it’s like, “Well, I don’t want to lose them, so perhaps I’ll just let them do it.” The problem is if you let them do it, their scope creeps and then everything that they do is going over and above what you want, and you can start getting the problems where they then intrude into other people’s work areas or overstep boundaries that you want to have, and you’d want them to work collaboratively but they now think, “I don’t have to because I’m the greatest and I can just do it all myself and ignore everybody else.”

Jeffrey: That’s the origin of the title of your book, right? If you if you leave these things unsaid, eventually you reach the breaking point and all you can say is “Okay, I need to f-ing talk to you. There’s no alternative.” But that’s the result of not having addressed this earlier.

Squirrel: Well, I think lots of our listeners will have encountered that.

End of the Rope

Listen to this section at 18:27

Ken: Yeah, it’s a very common trait that we put it off and we put it off and we put it off for all the reasons that we’ve described, until it gets to the point where you simply burst out. As we say in the very first paragraph of the book, “I need to f-ing talk to you” is a horrible way to start any kind of conversation. So you really have to make that choice really early on and be really proactive. Is this an issue that needs to be addressed? If so, fix it. Is it an issue that can be lived with? Then stop bitching about it and live with it.

Squirrel: It would be wonderful if everybody were able to live by that. But I think the key thing which we’ve talked about in both of these episodes is that you rehearse the decisions, the thinking and the stuff you have to do improvisationally and on the fly. Figuring out am I on the beef model, am I on the coach model? Do I have a hard hat, if I’ve got a sun hat…those decisions are things you have to do without much warning and without much prep time. So you need the prep time way ahead of time, which is why I think your approach and your workshops are so interesting and innovative. You get actual actors in there so that you can practice with people who are performing as the folks with whom you’ll need to do this. That sounds like it’ll be really interesting to all of our listeners.

Ken: I think it’s really important to recognize that every time we do one of these workshops, the participants will lay out everything that they want to say using any of our different models that we’ve just talked about. And then they’ll come up to have the conversation. As Mike Tyson said, everybody’s got a plan until you get hit in the face. As soon as the scenario starts, the actor will say something that they weren’t expecting, and then they’re like, “Oh no, now what do I do? What do I say?” And they’ll often be caught out in a place where they don’t know where to go next. And so that’s where the high octane role play with a live actor in front of an audience really comes into play because it’s at that point that you really you come to realize it’s not just about the preparation. It’s about using the preparation as a launching pad or a trampoline, so that can then begin to improv comfortably in the middle of this conversation and respond to what’s being said to me.

Jeffrey: Which means like, actually listening to the other person and what they have to say.

Russell: Absolutely. One thing we close our workshops with to illustrate a learning point is using our improv artist as an example, because participants will often say, “Oh, they were fantastic,” which they are. And you say, “Yeah, the reason they could do that is because they had prepared for the scenario. If you looked at not just the notes that we’d given, but the notes that they wrote for themselves, it wasn’t a blank sheet of paper and the assumption that they could just improvise from there. Some participants will come up and say, “I don’t need any notes, I’m just going to improvise.” And they get part the way and realise, “Oh, I’m not sure what to do now.” Well, you can improvise because you’ve practiced and thought it through and the experience of having done it on the workshop gives you that preparation. That takes it right back to what we were saying the last time we were here, with the origins of some of this coming from work with the police and emergency services and the military. That’s why their training is that way, so that people are prepared the first time X happens, they’re not totally thrown because they’ve been through it in a simulation. I know this is what is likely to be going on around me. So I have the confidence and the experience to be able to manage that. Same with the workshop, “I’ve been in the workshop and done this and I could deal with the uncertainty and I could improvise based on my notes. So when I come in to do it for real, I’ve had the experience to draw on.”

Jeffrey: I think that’s a perfect closing point there: we have these models. The models are wonderful. You can learn them, but you don’t really know them until you’ve had the experience. These are skills that require practice. It’s like that quote you had from someone you were coaching, Squirrel: “I feel like I just had a kite surfing lesson, but I never got wet.” But that is not how you learn how to kite surf. You’re going to require getting wet. If you’re learning to play piano, you’re going to hit a lot of false notes. If you’re going to apply these models, you’re going to have a lot of missteps. You’re going to have to have that experience of failure, of finding the errors, finding the mistakes of your delivery and correcting it and learning from it, before you can actually say that you’ve learned how to do it. So I think your approach for it is fantastic.

Squirrel: This is a message we’re giving our listeners all the time: rehearse, practice, revise, learn more, be ready. I think you’ve given us a very good example of how you can do that in quite a sophisticated way. But even if you can’t do it in a sophisticated way, if it works for people who have to deal with hostage negotiations and fires and other disasters, the engineer who’s been a day late on a project seems to pale by comparison. You probably can manage doing some preparation for that, and we’d certainly encourage our listeners to do that, whether or not they have the trained actors that you bring. But certainly they should also get in touch with you because sounds like you do wonderful things that could really help a lot of our listeners. That’ll all be in the show notes. Thank you to Jeffrey, Ken and Russell.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.

Russell: Thanks.