This is a transcript of episode 147 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel tells the story of an agile team faced with seemingly irresistible demands, and describes how switching to the “Yes, And” stance (originating from improvisational theatre) helped them find a solution that worked for everyone.

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The Tsunami vs. The Immovable Object

Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Jeffrey: And I’m so excited you’re fired up. You want to tell us all about “Yes and”

Squirrel: I certainly do.

Squirrel: Yes. Yes, I do. And, I have a lot more to say. So I was coaching some folks in the last couple of weeks in a really sticky situation that I’m sure our listeners will have encountered many times. The sticky situation is that the business wants a whole bunch of stuff, and so they perceive that as kind of the irresistible force rushing toward them, the tsunami of lots of things that the business wants. And they saw themselves as the immovable object with all the need to protect the team to stop this tsunami, to resist the irresistible force. And the folks I was coaching said, gosh, Squirrel, this is really overwhelming to us. We feel like it’s stuck.

Squirrel: And these unreasonable people, if they would just be different, life would be better. And so it may not be surprising to at least folks who’ve listened to us for a long time that my response was not “here’s how to make your immovable object, more immovable. I didn’t say here’s here’s how you can really resisted. Here’s how you can turn the tsunami and have it fall on somebody else.” I didn’t say that. It was much more of a judo move. So kind of using the weight of the incoming requests to turn them around. So I said here’s the technique to use and we role played this. We drilled on it a lot so that they would get the idea. And it sounded something like this. Yes, I would really like to do that set of things you described, those are in line with our business goals because they agreed the things that were coming in were valid. And those are important things to do. We would like to prioritise those, those sound great and we can think of some options for how to do that. They’re not perfect options, but there are ways that we could do many of the things that you’re describing. And here we’ve written them down for you. And we don’t think these options are perfect. We think there are some things that you probably won’t like about these options, because we’ve tried hard to come up with a method that would meet as many of your needs as possible. And we haven’t succeeded. And we’d really like to work with you on that. Could we work on the options together?

Jeffrey: Wow!

Squirrel: And this completely turned it around because the previous experience and I of course, was also helping the folks on the other side, the sources of the tsunami, the tsunami creators, and they were saying these people always say no. All they say is no. We live in the land of no. This no it must end. And I said, yeah, I can see why you would be frustrated by that, because all of the things that you have are very valid and important. And to cut to the end of the story, after we drilled on this a lot, it took a lot for them to really accept that this was worth trying and to get the language right and to work on it. This is an advanced technique. This is hard to do right. They used it and they came back and they said “Squirrel, We came up with an option. They liked option one and we changed it around a bit. And now we’re doing option one. And you know what? It’s not going to overwhelm the team. And it’s something that meets a lot of their needs and we think it’s a good idea. So we started.” And by the time they came back to me, they had already started the new sprint using those methods. So that was a story I was very excited about. And I thought this. Yes. And technique was something that you would want to hear about Jeffrey and that listeners might value.

Jeffrey: I am very excited in hearing you tell me the story. You know, the first thing it reminded me of when you talked about this tsunami coming and their job, and I like the way he said it was to be the immovable object. You know, it reminded me of the article that we had in the MIT Sloan Review on the ‘walled garden’. You know, the problem of people trying to protect their team and when they’re successful, they create this walled garden that the team lives within. It sounds like that was their aim. Is that right, to keep the team in the peaceful, productive space?

Stop ‘Protecting’ the Team

Listen to this section at 04:14

Squirrel: Well, they certainly would have liked that to be the outcome. They were having a lot of trouble getting there. But their mindset was how can we protect the team? How can we keep the team safe? And you’ll often see cartoons and things in Agile coaching, tweets and so on. I’ve seen a lot of this, that the job of the manager is to protect and shield the team. And of course, the thing that can result from that is you shield them so well that they live in a bubble and then outside the bubble, outside the walled garden where everything’s beautiful and manicured and perfect, the zombie apocalypse is going on and the crazed pull requests are stalking the land and causing chaos in every direction. And that’s often what we see. And that’s what the articles about. We’ll link to that MIT Sloan Review article in the show notes. But yeah, they would have liked to have protection for the team. The problem I had to tell them was that protection was impossible. They weren’t going to be able to create that protection. And it would have been terrible, that the results would have been a walled garden of the type I was describing if they had succeeded.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I’d like to come back to that because I think some of our listeners would probably part ways on this to be like, ‘no, no, absolutely, your job is to protect the team’.

Jeffrey: I’m with you. I don’t think that would be long term healthy. You know, I’d like to deal with that separately, though, because there is always this challenge that some people will say, ‘well, yeah, sometimes we’re not able to do that.’ And that sounds like the frustration is they didn’t see how they were going to be able to be immovable. They were going to be moved.

Squirrel: Yeah. And if needed, they were going to be I suspect I don’t certainly don’t know this, but they would likely have been moved out. They would not have stuck around in the roles they were in had they continued with an absolute no immovable object approach. That’s usually what happens if you if you say no that firmly to your boss. You don’t stick around in the role that you’re in.

Jeffrey: Exactly. And it was that part which reminded me of something else, which is we recently did talk to CTO Craft, another link here for the show notes, we talked about How to Talk With Your CEO and Other Mysteries. And the first thing we started with there is how important is to get on the same side as your boss, as your CEO, and how different that is for CTOs. This is often something that they’re not aware of. And because they often fall into this this role of feeling like they need to be saying “No” because they can see all the problems with the requests. And so rather than saying “Yes and…” they might say “Yes, but” maybe they don’t go as far as “No”. But they will say, you know, “but we’re going to have a problem then with a technical debt” or “but it’s not going to scale” or “but we have other deadlines”. ‘Buts’ which are effectively become noes and can have the same kind of dynamic.

Squirrel: And that was why I trained these guys very carefully and we drilled on it a lot to say “yes and”,it’s hard. I kept catching myself saying “yes, but” because it’s a very natural English phrase to say “yes, but here’s a different view.” And so when you say “yes and” you’re opening yourself up to something else, very much as you were telling me Jeffrey as people do in improvisational theatre.

Supervillains and Cats

Listen to this section at 07:23

Jeffrey: That’s right. And another link here for the show notes is that this “Yes and” is something that comes across, I heard of it once is the first rule of improv. But I may not have that exactly correct. But the idea- and the idea was you were told that to accept whatever comes to you.

Squirrel: Oh, Jeffrey you forgot to tell you I have become a supervillain and I have a cat here and I’m stroking it. And I’d like you to join my plan for world domination. Could we talk about that after the podcast?

Jeffrey: And if I say ‘yes and’ we can continue, I love your idea for world domination. In fact, do you have a newsletter? Because I’d like to sign up for it.

Squirrel: Sounds perfect. I’ll get you signed up afterwards. And listeners, you might want to join as well. Perfect. So there’s our little improv to throw everybody off.

Jeffrey: By contrast, if I reject what you say and try to redirect it, it falls flat. If I say that’s not a cat, it’s a dog that then interrupts the flow that doesn’t go anywhere.

Squirrel: Exactly. And the reason it interrupts the flow is because suddenly we’re not on the same side. We’re not aiming toward the same outcome. If you say, hey, we’re going to head for taking over the world, or even if you were to play along with it and say yes, and I’m a superhero, I’m going to come over to your house and foil your evil plan, that would work, too. That would be a ‘yes and’ because you’re coming along into my reality that I have created in this improvisational fantasy and you’re participating in it. In the same way and this is why it’s a dangerous technique. You have to be careful. You’re joining the other people, the source of the tsunami in this case or whoever it is that you’re saying. Yes. And to your joining them in their world and you may not agree with their world. So you have to be careful. You have to genuinely join them. You have to have genuine common interest, maybe partial. You don’t have to be complete overlap, but you have to be able to say, “yes, I do agree.” And if you’re not genuine about that, it’s not going to work as in your switching my cat to a dog. It’s going to fall flat.

Squirrel: Yeah. That part you just said there, you need to genuinely agree, really reminded me of David Burns, we’ll link to the Feeling Good podcast. He has something in his Five Secrets of Communication. The first thing he has is called the disarming technique and the disarming technique. He talks about when you’re being attacked unfairly, that the proper way to respond is to find the truth in what the person is saying.

Squirrel: Jeffrey, I forgot to mention you’re always late to the podcast. I can’t believe you’re always late. And it’s really annoying me. And I think you should stop being late.

Jeffrey: And so I should say something like, ‘you know, yes, I can see that I am really annoying you in my lack of being on time is impacting you and, you know, that’s one of many flaws I have.’

Squirrel: Please tell me more. Yeah, exactly.

Jeffrey: And you tell me more about the impact that’s had on you.

Squirrel: Yeah. And in fact, I was late for this podcast, so I was intentionally attacking Jeffrey in an unfair way. But with his very good disarming technique and his advanced skills, he’s able to say, “well, actually, there’s some truth in what Squirrel is saying.” There’s not very much because I was a pretty unfair attack. But I wanted to illustrate it for listeners that you actually have a remarkably different conversation and you can break through very quickly all kinds of difficult positions if you’re able, genuinely, to find the truth and what the other person is saying. But this is hard. If you’ve just started listening to us and you just started practising these techniques maybe start with curiosity and transparency first. Start with one of the easier ones. But this one used well, can have remarkable effects.

Jeffrey: And I think the key here is that it comes from being open to what the other person is saying. And I think the hard part is it’s not a simple technique of parroting back with the person said and saying, “yes” it’s something deeper. You have to listen and to go beyond what they’re saying, beyond the position that they’re saying to what their real interests are. In NVC (non-violent communication) I would say it’s something like listening for the need. So someone is describing something and what you’re listening for is the need that they’re expressing, not simply the words that they’re using.

Squirrel: That NVC is Non-Violent Communication as always link in the show notes.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And in online communication, they were talking about, you know, listening with your whole body and there’s listening not just with your ears, not just the words, but listening with your whole body to what does this person really expressing? And it’s in that finding the “yes and” in your example, one things that when you were describing it was going back and in part saying yes, are these things that we value and yes, we would like to get those things that you value. Yes they’re aligned. And we have some concerns.

Squirrel: And not even just focussing on the concerns.

Squirrel: Here are the options. We can see some ways to do some of it, and our options are imperfect. So you have to get all three elements. Yes, I agree with you. We’re aligned and here are some options. Here are some ways that I’m showing that we’re aligned and I would like some help in improving. Would you like to join me? Can we get on the same side here? Can we both be instead of firing tsunamis and immovable objects at each other, could we work together in the same direction?

Jeffrey: Yes, and that and that was something when you’re taking something here, and this is why I was excited to talk about this also, because you’ve taken something, principles that I have heard of and I’ve used most often in the context of brainstorming. And so there’s an element here that I’ve used. “Yes and” in brainstorming, explicitly as a rule, which is you can’t say ‘No” to people, you have to respond with a ‘yes and’ and build. And it’s also in spirit something I’ve used when using the six thinking hats. Where as an example of parallel brainstorming, the power comes that people are all pulling the same direction. And therefore, the things build on each other and so and you’re bringing that in when you say come in, not just with your concerns, but with options. And I really like that proof of evidence that you’re on the same side.

Squirrel: And your options really don’t have to be very good. So your options could be, look, I can see a way for us to do just one of the 17 things you’ve asked us to do. That’s as far as I got. But I would love to do two or five or 16 or 17 of them. And could we work together on that? Because I’ve got this far. I got as far as one.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Squirrel: Can you help me?

Jeffrey: And what you’ve done here, is made a great dynamic in the group that you’ve gotten on the same side of the table, which is the goal. And that was what we talked about in the CTO Crafting is you’re trying to make it. We’re on the same side now looking at the problem together. What’s really different about this is I’ve said that I’ve seen these kinds of dynamics before. What was exciting to me was you introducing it in this scenario where rather than being brainstorming was essentially people can use it in a place where they feel a bit afraid, where it felt unilateral, where it felt demanding and they were struggling for a response. And that’s just not a scenario where I have thought to introduce before in this sort of. Yes, we’re all clearly going to go off into space to do brainstorming. Yes, we’re doing this thing, this generative process together. But I really like how you translate it very directly into taking what could be a confrontational discussion and making it this generative one, making it that kind of creative space that you want to have, because that is the goal, right? We should be trying to be the kind of open and creative routinely, not just when we make special brainstorming time.

Squirrel: And that’s what led me to it, is I kept hearing them saying these are great ideas. We’d love to do all of these ideas. There’s just not capacity to do them. And we just have to keep saying no. What we need to do is say no more firmly. So they really hear us. If we could just say no to all of the ideas and get a chance to get on top of things and grow our team a bit, then we’d be in better shape and we could do something because we agree these are great ideas. I kept saying, “just start with the agreement, stop starting with the no, start with the agreement. Start with the yes. And then instead of saying ‘but’ which leads you back into the disagreement, start with the and.”

Squirrel: And that’s how I got to the improvisational technique that we talked about today.

Jeffrey: All right, I think that’s a fantastic story, and I thank you for sharing that with us.

Squirrel: Sure. Well, I enjoyed telling it and I hope it’s helpful to our listeners. They know how to find us. It’s at You know,, the name of our book also works so you can get to the same place. So whatever you can remember, come and find us. Send us a tweet, send us an email, get in touch with us by fax machine, whatever works best for you. And of course, we also like it when you hit the subscribe button because that means that you’ll come back and listen to us again. So whatever app or tool you’re using, hit subscribe. We’ll be back here again next week. We’re at something like 144. We have no intention of stopping. So come back and hear some more ideas from us and we’ll see you next week.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.