This is a transcript of episode 151 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

We describe our big ahas of a weird and somehow still educational year, including insights on productivity, deliberate practise, and speed of change.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel, how are you doing?

Squirrel: I’m doing pretty well, given 2020 was one of the most difficult years for everybody on record looking back and saying we did pretty well.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it’s been it’s been a year of some milestones for us on the podcast. And we fortunately have each team to come through it pretty well. And it occurred to me that given the time of year, it might be useful for us to do a look back at 2020 and look ahead to to 2021. And so I’m glad that you were open to that idea.

Squirrel: Well, it seems like everybody’s doing it. It’s the fashionable thing to do in the last week of December. So let’s do it. And then I think what we’re planning to do, assuming we have enough material, which I’m sure we will, we always do, is to put the what’s coming next into next week’s episode. So this week is going to be what we learned, new stuff we discovered this year. And then next week will be how we’re implementing that. What we’re planning to do about it, those should both give new and exciting ideas to our listeners, I hope.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think so. I think also we would like to share with our listeners a bit about the growth of the podcast itself, because as part of reflecting and looking back, I looked at our stats and really a big thank you to our listeners who’ve now in 2020 give us 62,000 listens to our episodes, which is just a staggering number to me.

Squirrel: And given we only had once a week, so that should be only about 50 episodes. That’s that’s an awful lot of people listening out there, listening to older versions as well. But that’s reaching an awful lot of people, which is exciting.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it is. And and so we’ve seen a lot of growth this year. And because we’ve had 136,000 listens all time. So we have almost half of our listeners in this year out of our three year history. So that’s pretty exciting. I think we also look at some stats to see how does this compare with other podcasts. And I don’t know how accurate this is, but it was the first place that Google turned up for me. And I like the numbers, so we’ll go with it because that number said we would be in the top 5% of all podcasts. So, again, thank you to listeners and everyone out there who’s subscribed and who’ve told people about it. And who are here with us week after week, thank you for being part of that. That’s quite exciting for us.

Squirrel: And if you’ve picked us up in the end of the old year or the beginning of the new year, starting a podcast habit, we’re here every week and we’d like to talk to you more about troubleshooting Agile.

Jeffrey: And if you’re worried you missed something that you came in late maybe and you’re wondering, well, you know, what was the top episode of the year? We also looked at that and it was an episode we had on Software Factory to Feature Factory. So we’ll put a link to that episode in the show notes if you want to see that number one episode will boost it even more. You can go back and check that out, put a link to the transcript and to the recording.

Squirrel: It’s always fascinating to hear what people are most interested in. If I’m not mistaken. That one was from about May, which is just about when we were releasing our new book. That was the major Squirrel and Jeffrey activity, I think for 2020, certainly took up a lot of our time. And it wasn’t an episode. I think that specifically tied to the book. Maybe it is.

Jeffrey: It is. I think it’s probably the one we were doing the behind the scenes. That’s right. And this will be the one that relates to chapter one, actually.

Squirrel: OK, I remember.

Jeffrey: And for people are wondering what we mean by Chapter one or the book, then again, check out the show notes and you can see what we’re talking about here. This is relating to the first chapter of Agile Conversations, which we had published in May.

Jeffrey’s 2020 Insights

Listen to this section at 03:58

Squirrel: But we should give our listeners what we said we were going to, which is our insights for the year. Do you want to go first or should I? What did you learn most? What was the most exciting, surprising, A-ha?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I was looking back and it’s something that for me in a sense, it really reinforced something and elevated something that I already thought was important coming into the year, but it really emphasised it. And that is something that we’ve been calling the conversational dojos. And what we mean by this is a group practise session to develop conversational skills. And I think that’s been something that we already knew was important and we knew it was important because that was how, of course, you and I learned. We learned, as we discussed in the podcast in the past, we learned in a small group with each of us and two of our friends who we were practising these techniques with. And so it was very core to how we learned. And so we did advertise that, even in our book, we talked about how you might develop these skills. We said, well, it would be good to get a study group together.

Jeffrey: I think what’s happened in this year for me, though, is that the importance has really been underlined, I think part of it came about when we would talk to people who read the book, and we often found people who would say, oh, really enjoyed the book, really liked what it had to say.

Squirrel: And then you turned to me. You’d turn to me and say, “Squirrel, I think you have a question for them. And I’d say, “did you get out a piece of paper? Did you fold it in half? And did you write your conversation on one side and your thoughts and feelings that you didn’t express on the other side?” And a lot of people kind of looked at their shoes at that moment, which is interesting to see on Zoom, because you kind of see the top of the heads and that the top of their head would say, “well, no, I didn’t get around to that yet”. And I’d say, “Great, I think I see some paper behind you there.”

Jeffrey: And it was really funny to me because we put a lot of work in the book and I know as I was writing it, I really had the image of people, you know, sitting down and doing the work as they work through the book. The way that we laid out the exercises.

Squirrel: We even had the massive debate with the publisher. I forgot about this til just now we had this massive debate with the publisher about how to print the dialogues in the book. And the underlying assumption I realised about that was that people were going to not only read the dialogues, but write their own. And the publisher had an opinion which was different from 40 years of social science practise, which was to put the left hand column on with the thoughts and feelings and have the conversation on the right. And the publisher said it should be the other way round. That’s how we think of it. And we said, “yeah, that makes sense, but nobody does it that way. So we need to do it”. But the assumption was that people would be engaging with it in that way. They weren’t. That’s the thing that was most surprising about having worked all this time on this book, assuming people would be reading carefully, would be looking at these dialogues, learning a lot from them and making their own. And a lot of folks did the first part reading and learning, but didn’t do the practise part.

Squirrel: And so the order of the columns made less of a difference, I think, than we thought when we had the debate.

Jeffrey: As I say, as an A-ha I’m a little bit embarrassed because it’s an example of not learning from my own experience, in the last week I’ve actually read two books and they each have various exercises in them to do as a reader. And I’ve not done the exercises as I’ve gone through the book, you know, layout. I can now do this here. And I said, “well, I’m going to go and read all the way through and eventually, I’ll go back and do the exercises. So my expectations for for our book. Didn’t match my own experience as a reader, which I think with a little bit more reflection. Should have been a tell, however, and this is what’s exciting about it, and this is why I think it’s worth mentioning is we have had tremendous results with people in the dojo format, and this includes people who’ve read the book and also people who’ve not read the book, people who’ve just shown up at a public dojo and don’t know anything about it.

Jeffrey: For people don’t know. I run a meetup called the London Organisational Learning Meet Up and we have twice a month public conversational dojos and sometimes people will show up there having just chosen the meet up, it seems almost at random that just it showed up on Meetup. They thought it’s an interesting and so they came and those people are able to come in, into the session and will drive in and start doing the practise. And even though they don’t have any the context of the book, they find it very valuable. And so we get very good results from the actual hands on practise that when people just come in and start doing it. So the idea that the value of people having group sessions where they will have other people who are interested in practising and the value, you can learn from each other, hearing other people’s attempts to apply the 4 R’s to try to develop their skills, hear their attempts to revise their work and to of course do the role play. Hugely, hugely beneficial. And so it’s been great to see that but that was probably my biggest surprise of the year.

Squirrel’s 2020 Insights

Listen to this section at 09:08

Squirrel: There you go. And that leads rather nicely onto sort of my biggest a-ha, the thing that I realised most, and it’s less to do with our book and the conversations and dojos because I had the same learning as Jeffrey from in those areas. But I had an even more substantial learning in my own business, my business of consulting with lots and lots of different organisations, over 100 at last count.

Squirrel: And that, I think has and Jeffrey I was wondering whether to include it. But you were encouraging me to include these insights because they apply to how my clients make change and improvement in their organisations. And guess what? That’s probably what our listeners would like to do. If you’re here for troubleshooting Agile, you probably want to make changes in your organisations.

Squirrel: And the probably the biggest realisation for me is one that’s been ongoing for a while. It’s an ongoing process. When I first started as a consultant about six years ago it’s now getting on to. I found that the organisations I was working with were slow to make changes. It took a long time for me to figure out first what was going on in an organisation, even a very small one. I specialise in start-ups. So they’re they’re quite small and I’m moving into somewhat larger organisations. But still, it’s at most a few hundred people in the organisation that I tend to typically work with. But still, they took a long, long time to make changes. Even though everybody wanted to make the changes. Everybody was feeling the pain. They all wanted to do things differently. Still making the actual change took a long time, up to a year in some of my first client engagements and quite substantial contact time with me. And if I flash forward to now, what I found in 2020 was that I can get that time very substantially down. It’s been trending downward, but I’ve got it down even further. So now, with contact of maybe a few hours a week at most and all through Zoom, I’m not leaving my house.

Squirrel: There’s nothing happening here in Britain that takes me away. So all through Zoom in a few hours in a week and in the elapsed time of about two months, I’m getting very, very substantial changes larger than the ones that I was working on in my early consulting career and seeing really lasting improvements, very substantial changes to productivity and output and morale and lots of other things. And that’s astonishing and gratifying. But it is quite an insight to think. If you think and Jeffrey you’re one of my inspirations for this, you’ll often say things like, “well, if you can’t think of three examples, think of 20.” And another one that I like that I’ve stolen from you is, “well, if you’re having trouble getting it done next month, what would stop you getting it done tomorrow?” And then if you list all the obstacles to getting it done tomorrow, sometimes you can find out that you can, I have a great example where one of my clients had a project that had gone on for at least a year. One of these zombie projects had never finished. No one was sure when it would get done, that kept getting delayed. They’d called in some other consultants to do a very detailed project management analysis, and they had concluded it would be done sometime in 2021, like June, and if you really hurried up, you might get it done in February.

Squirrel: So my question was, why couldn’t we roll it out in one site for one group of users next week? And it turned out we could and they didn’t quite make next week, but they made the week after that and it went live in early November for everybody. So they were massively ahead of what everybody else thought could be done. And it was that paucity of imagination, everybody just assumed that you had to do it in the slow and clanking way that they had originally got going. Then it turned out there were a number of shortcuts that would let them compromise in other areas and they could get done much, much faster. So that was the the cheering realisation for me was that you can make these changes a lot faster than you think. And the key for all of that has always been having good conversations, difficult conversations, dealing with the issues that really underlie the problem, rather than trying to add yet another Agile ritual or changing the colours on your burn down chart.

Steep Mountains and Successful Organisations

Listen to this section at 13:23

Jeffrey: I think that’s a great story, and I think that message of, you can make change faster than you think is a great one. And of course, everyone should have some experience that from 2020 in the sense that I know a lot of companies had debated about whether or not they would allow remote working. And somehow in early 2020, all over the world, companies figured out how they can make remote working work. So it’s good to know that you can do it when you need to. It’s also in your experience, and I like your experience as an example of not just from necessity, but when you decide that it’s necessary, you can do something dramatically different and get rapidly different results. I think that’s an exciting message for people to hear.

Squirrel: But we should be careful about that message. I think it’d be easy for someone to mishear you. It’s not simply by deciding it, and it’s not simply by having a once in a generation force of nature appear, forcing you to take the action. I predict that the companies that are really successful at making remote work work for them are the ones who had difficult conversations about it. Are the ones who dealt with the perhaps the lack of respect for offshore workers who handled conflicts about how support would be managed or what IT they should have or something else like that. They handled those issues by confronting them and looking at them and addressing them in the way that we advocate all the time by having the difficult conversations. Those are the ones with my clients that I’ve seen be successful. Those are the ones who’ve made that change and made it really stick. The ones who have simply said, “OK, well, as soon as it gets back to normal, we’re just going to go back to everything we were doing before. And we are bearing with it, we’re allowing the technology team to work from home because they’ve always wanted to. And we’ll let them now. But, boy, we’re going to get them back in the office the moment we can.” If that’s the mindset and you’re not dealing with that underlying resentment in that example between the business and IT, then I think you’re storing up real trouble for yourself and you’re not going to be successful. So it’s not simply by kind of force of will or force of nature, but by dealing with the difficult conversations, that’s where you get the successful change.

Jeffrey: That’s a that’s a great clarification and it’s something that reminds me of a conversation I’ve had people in the past where we talked about what it means to have a steep learning curve, which is you get done quickly, but it’s like climbing a mountain. You can get to the top quickly but it’s going to be a lot of hard work.

Squirrel: And it might be hard to breathe when you get up there and might be good to bring along some oxygen, make some plans for how you’re going to operate at the new level because you can get there. But staying there is equally difficult.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think that’s that’s a great point because I think a lot of people think the idea of a of a shortcut means that things are easier. And I think one of the ideas of the intensity of the work that you’re doing, it’s that you’re actually embracing the hard work and getting the hard work done quickly because you’re working on it as opposed to putting it off.

Squirrel: And that’s what I always tell my clients, is you’re going to be tired after you talk to me and you’re going to have an awful lot of homework. There’s going to be a lot for you to do. And I’m tired, too. I have to take a nap after one of those because it’s very intense what I’m doing to help an organisation change that quickly and involves an awful lot of difficult conversations and addressing those underlying cultural issues. But the benefits are very large. You just have to be willing to undergo the costs.

Jeffrey: Because I think there’s a link here between our two stories, which is you can get the results if you’re willing to do the work.

Squirrel: Indeed, so maybe, that’s our lesson for 2020, and next week we’re going to talk about how we’re applying those lessons, what you and I are going to do differently and what our listeners might be doing in order to apply that underlying lesson of doing more work. So you might want to make sure you plan a nap after next week’s episode. It’s likely to have some homework and some hard work for you.

Jeffrey: Well, I think that sounds good. I can’t wait to get to it.

Squirrel: Excellent. Well, thanks to our listeners for coming along and listening to us. And we always like it when you hit the subscribe button in whatever application you’re using so that you can listen to us again next week and you can always find out more about us and get in touch with us at We’ll see you next year.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.