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January 20, 2020

Agile Conversations at Parts Unlimited

By IT Revolution
Agile Conversations at Parts Unlimited

By authors Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick.

Over the past year Parts Unlimited has been busy seeking out consultants who are experts in their fields to help them address major issues within their organization. And it just so happens that we have access to four of those video calls.

Download the slides here.

Our first contact with Parts Unlimited came when Erik Reid emailed us and asked if we were available for a video chat the very next day with Parts Unlimited CEO Steve Masters. We have a lot of respect for Erik and were pleased to make time in our schedule.

That first call with Steve was an eye-opener! He was extremely direct about the desperate shape of Parts Unlimited, their failure to keep up with changes in technology and customer demand, and how they had just made headlines with a disastrous failed release. He had been convinced by Erik that without a transformation of the “dysfunctional marriage” between IT and the rest of the business, they could not survive.

Our view is that this kind of cultural transformation always involves a conversational transformation. The first step to an improved relationship is talking to each other in a different way. The challenge is that a whole bunch of cognitive biases make it hard for humans to be aware of their contributions to a good or bad conversation. And if you can’t see it, you can’t change it. The good news is there are tools you can use to learn to see your conversations in a new way, and to gain the skills required for productive conflict and psychological safety. Those are the tools we teach teams to use every day, and we could definitely see how Parts Unlimited could use them to underpin the changes they were aiming to make.

During our call, we were able to introduce Steve to one of these tools—“The Four Rs”—and to help him use it in a live situation. Over the course of about 30 minutes, we were able to help Steve analyze some conversations he’d had with Bill Palmer, his VP of IT Operations. That was enough time for him to Record the conversation, to Reflect on his part of the dialog and identify improvements, to create a Revised dialog incorporating those changes, and even do a bit of Role Play to see how things could go better. At the end of this process, Steve was ready for his call with Bill, and he was also ready to hear how we could bring these skills to the rest of the company.

And that was the start of our work with Parts Unlimited.

For the past year we’ve been excited to watch this company transform. The conversational transformation started with a leadership team offsite, which drove home for all executives the power of these skills to dramatically improve their collaboration. Over time, we’ve been extending the training through the cross-functional teams they’ve created to replace their traditional functional silos, and to embed it into the on-boarding plans for all new hires. There is now a shared language on The Five Conversations of effective teams: the Trust Conversation, the Fear Conversation, the Why Conversation, the Commitment Conversation, and the Accountability Conversation.

The results of the most recent company survey show a tremendous increase in mutual trust and respect between colleagues from where we started a year ago, and the free-form comments saw many people describe how changing conversations have changed the culture at the company. This change was most evident in the successful integration of the engine sensor project into the Service Station Direct Sales division, the first time a technology team has been fully embedded into a business division.

Watch our webinar to hear more about our time with Parts Unlimited and how you can start transforming your conversations—and check out our book, Agile Conversations.

Douglas Squirrel has been coding for forty years and has led software teams for twenty. He uses the power of conversations to create dramatic productivity gains in technology organizations of all sizes. Squirrel’s experience includes growing software teams as a CTO in startups from fintech to e-commerce; consulting on product improvement at over 60 organizations in the UK, US, and Europe; and coaching a wide variety of leaders in improving their conversations, aligning to business goals, and creating productive conflict. He lives in Frogholt, England, in a timber-framed cottage built in the year 1450.

Jeffrey Fredrick is an internationally recognized expert in software development and has over twenty-five years’ experience covering both sides of the business/technology divide. An early adopter of XP and Agile practices, Jeffrey has been a conference speaker in the US, Europe, India, and Japan. Through his work on the pioneering open-source project CruiseControl, and through his role as co-organizer of the Continuous Integration and Testing Conference (CITCON), he has had a global impact on software development. Jeffrey’s Silicon Valley experience includes roles as Vice President of Product Management, Vice President of Engineering, and Chief Evangelist. He has also worked as an independent consultant on topics including corporate strategy, product management, marketing, and interaction design. Jeffrey is based in London and is currently Managing Director of TIM, an Acuris Company. He also runs the London Organisational Learning Meetup and is a CTO mentor through CTO Craft.

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