This is a transcript of episode 301 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

An underperforming tech team is missing something, but what?

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

How to Increase Engagement?

Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So we’re in the middle of a series and I think I’ve forgotten where we are. So we had three different items in a sort of checklist for finding missing conversations. Where are we?

Jeffrey: Okay. We’re in the middle point. So we’ve covered alignment and we’re now on engagement. And next time we’ll cover ‘felt permission for candor’. But let’s let’s get into engagement, which is the question of do we have everyone involved in contributing to the effort? Very often, I find this is a very common symptom when I work with people that they say not everyone is engaged. This might be standups where, you know, very few people speak or they say, “we tried retrospectives, but no one said anything.” It’s a case where I have frustration from founders or executives saying, “how come no one else ever has any ideas?” There’s a lot of different ways this symptom can show up of a lack of engagement. How does that match with your practice?

Squirrel: Absolutely, and one of my favorite questions to ask an engineering team specifically, but it really works for almost any team is to ask them, “when’s the last time you talked to a customer?” And if individual engineers are not engaging with actual customers and their problems, then you’re going to get all the symptoms that we just described. And in other teams, you might find that there are other elements of the business that that that team is not engaging with. I mean, salespeople are certainly going to be talking to customers, but they might not be engaged with the financial goals of the company, or they might not be engaged with the engineers. So you want to look for evidence that your team members are interacting with the relevant people, and then using it. So it may be they’re interacting but not making use of what they’re learning. Or it could be they’re not interacting at all. I often find that both of those things are true.

Jeffrey: Yeah, there’s many different ways that engagement can be undercut. And sometimes it’s the, you know, the idea of like, well, our voice doesn’t matter or it’s not our job. Like, you know, that the other people have the job of understanding clients. And so it’s, our job is just to deliver and just do what we’re told.

Framing for Leadership

Listen to this section at 02:25

Jeffrey: And I think that sometimes can be the mindset that people have, which is why when I look at sort of the checklist for engagement, I often start with a concept I came across from Amy Edmondson, who’s most known for her work on psychological safety. But she wrote out what I found to be a really interesting book called Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. And she had a frame, a part of that book where she described framing for leadership. And the idea was that if you want to have engagement of people, if you want them to be learning, then that has to be something that comes from leadership. And the framing was the kind of a model of ‘we need to say that what we’re facing is a difficult problem’. And number one, so you’re bringing up this is a challenge. You’re being clear on what the challenge is. Now we just talked about alignment last time. So hopefully if you’ve done that you’re you’re aware of what it is you’re trying to accomplish and therefore what challenges you face. So it’s like the invitation.

Jeffrey: One, this is what we’re trying to accomplish, and it’s difficult. And second, that means that we need all of you involved. Your voice is important. You are going to have a different perspective. You are going to see things we don’t. Each of you in your different positions are going to have unique knowledge that no one else can contribute. And therefore your voice is important to success of what we’re going to accomplish. And this invitation, this framing for leadership, this invitation to engage. I find to be just an essential part of getting the team, realizing that they have something to contribute and can make a huge difference by itself.

Squirrel: Okay, and how do you actually go about that? So you’ve made the invitation. You’ve created the opportunity. What I often find is somebody will say, “thanks for the invitation, not for me. Thanks. That’s not my job. I went into computers so I don’t have to talk to people. So can I please get back to my keyboard?”

Jeffrey: Well, what I often find is that if you have this, it’s one thing to put that invitation out. You’re right, that’s certainly not enough. That’s sort of like it’s required to move forward, but it’s not sufficient. And there is that kind of hesitance from people usually what I see from that kind of hesitation, in part it’s because people don’t have a forum, they don’t have a place where they can make their contribution.

Jeffrey: The person at their laptop, you know, who are working on code, they’re not necessarily going to think, you know, hey, I’m going to pick up the phone and call a client. You know, they’re not going to know necessarily how to do that. They don’t know where salesforce is. They don’t know how to what are the accounts that they would call. There’s kind of a gap there. So I think that to follow up with this invitation is, looking to see what kind of structure you can put in place to engage people. And this is sort of in the second half, you’ve kind of made the invitation. And second, you look for the appropriate structure.

Jeffrey: Now you and I, Squirrel, we just did a series here about anarchic planning, and I think that’s was an example of the kind of structures that can get people engaged. And we can talk about things like Open Space or Lean Coffees, And there’s other literature out there that talk about structures that invite engagement. Things that come to mind, there’s a whole a website with a whole series of them called Liberating Structures, which gives something like 35 different meeting formats that build engagement. And more generally, there’s a whole area of design thinking which became popular a few years ago, and different design thinking workshop formats where you bring people together to solve a joint problem, and they have structures that invite engagement.

Jeffrey: What’s common for these different elements is that they often have this idea of everyone speaking in the room, speaking. So they they bring in a structure that allow people invite and encourage them to speak by giving each of them designated time, which is very different than what happens in a normal meeting where people without necessary skills in running meetings will tend to come in and say, you know, “okay, here’s the topic. Anyone have any ideas?” And they just sort of are relying on people speaking up, as opposed to putting a structure that helps aid people. And this gap of leaders often not understanding all the literature out there, all the available knowledge on the different structures, ends up being an impediment to putting a structure in place that supports engagement. At least that’s what I often find. How does it match with your experience?

Squirrel: We have to give a huge warning here, which is that there’s a very great tendency to do the safe thing, to do the low risk thing, and the low risk thing is to say, okay, we’re going to use structure number 42 from the list of 500 different structures. And by that means, we’re going to magically create engagement. So that’ll solve everything. It’s the same as if you just say, well, I’m going to adopt Scrum and be agile and suddenly I’ll get more software done. None of this works.

Difficult Conversations Still Required

Listen to this section at 08:01

Squirrel: So the point of our series here is to help our listeners discover where they need difficult conversations. And the difficult conversation here is exactly about the expectation that people in your team are going to engage. You can give them all the invitations and all the structures and all the opportunities you want, but what they need to hear from you is that you expect and will evaluate them on their engagement. And my favorite example of this is where I had this very crusty, difficult computer, was his best friend, kind of system administrator, and I put him on the customer service phones. And it happened that our customers were ten year olds.

Squirrel: And so he became a completely different human when he got on the phone to these actual kids, because he could solve problems for them! We were helping them with their money. So we actually had debit cards for them and so on. This is a little more common today, but back then it was really radical. And he’d have a crying child at Kentucky Fried Chicken who couldn’t eat lunch, and he would be able to solve something in the database so that that kid could actually eat. And boy, that made a huge difference and engaged him like you would never believe. Now, you may or may not have that specific success. But I didn’t get there simply by saying it’s your turn to take phone calls.

Jeffrey: Right.

Squirrel: I had a conversation with him about my expectations and about how he would behave differently than he did, say in our internal meetings, with ten year olds. And guess what? He did! So it’s not always that successful, but it’s not going to be successful if you merely say, “here we’re having this type of meeting and therefore you’re all going to engage.”

Meeting Facilitation is a Skill

Listen to this section at 09:57

Jeffrey: Right, that’s a great point. And this goes back in part, and I love your example of the difficult conversation there. One other element that I think is really important anytime you’re adopting these different formats, as you put it, the structure doesn’t isn’t the solution. It’s the start. And we mentioned in the first episode about this. We said, look, you’re going to have to have practice, which means you’re going to build skills over time. Odds are, if you have not deliberately practiced how to have these kind of meetings in the past, if you’ve not gone through the learning curve, the first time you go into something, you know that you’ve read off of Liberty Structures or the first time you try a design thinking workshop, it’s probably going to be pretty rough, right? It’s going to be it’s not going to go well because it turns out meeting facilitation is a skill, and learning how to use a certain format effectively is a skill that you need to build.

Jeffrey: Now, I think the what the anti-pattern I see here is people say, “oh yeah, that meeting style, it doesn’t work. You know, we tried it, we got everyone in the room, you know, we gave everyone their, you know, whiteboard pens and then, you know, nothing happened. So these structures that you’re talking about, these invitations to, to participate even if you go, Squirrel, even if I went and told them that I was going to review them on them and nothing happened. So you know what? This stuff, you’re saying it doesn’t work.” That’s where I come back and say, “no, we have really good evidence this stuff works. This might be the difficult part here, might be your lack of skill in doing it, or maybe the manager whose job it is to help organize a team, their lack of skill at running collaborative meetings with high engagement.”

Squirrel: And one of the crucial things is you don’t just have the meeting and you don’t just set up the structure. There’s conversations that happen beforehand.

Jeffrey: Yes, and after. How did that go?

Squirrel: Certainly.

Jeffrey: How could it be better? How do we make this better next time? There’s a one of these kind of protocols I really like is something called the Perfection Game from a list called the Core Protocols, where it says, you know, what’s the change that we could make and how much better would it make it? And it can be an example of positive engagement. And it’s in that sense you kind of get the wheel turning. People are often who’ve just gone through a meeting that wasn’t as good as they would like, often have specific ideas that could make it better next time, and that engagement in making it better helps build engagement for that next meeting.

Squirrel: There we go. Okay, so don’t just set up structures but do set up structures but do also have conversations. I think, final installment in this series on finding the difficult conversations. That’ll be next week on the next edition of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel