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July 22, 2020

Conversations: How to Improve and Why You Won’t

By Douglas Squirrel ,Jeffrey Fredrick

This post was adapted from Episode 121 of the Troubleshooting Agile Podcast.

Continuing our tour of our new book Agile Conversations, we come to our chapter on the foundational method for conversational analysis, the Four Rs. We briefly explain the value of conversational analysis, and share our observation that even highly motivated people who know how much it can help their agile teams find it hard to actually pull out a piece of paper and do an analysis. The reasons for this are very similar to the reasons we need the analysis in the first place—our cognitive biases fool us into thinking we don’t need the help, others do.

So where do we start? How do we start understanding how we can improve our conversations, so our agile teams are actually successful, and get out of the feature factory?

Chapter 2 of Agile Conversations starts by talking about conversations. This is sort of carrying on from Chapter 1, we end by making the case that conversations are fundamental to how humans relate to each other, that they are conversational beings. You can read more about that in an excerpt that’s up on the IT Revolution blog, titled Conversation, Humanity’s Secret Weapon, and that gets into some of the ideas about why human conversations are different, both good and bad. Good, in that we have this amazing power to talk about things that don’t actually exist. This is very different than all the animals out there. A lot of animals can say something like, you know, beware of that lion. But they can’t say something like, beware of this fictitious thing that I’m just making up now. There’s no way to do that. And certainly for humans, our ability to talk about things that don’t exist in the physical world is a huge advantage. However, we also have flaws that come along with it. It’s those flaws that show up in our cognitive biases, which are what we’re looking to overcome. And that’s how in chapter two we end up talking about the strengths and weaknesses of human conversations to lay the basis that they actually need improving: that our naive way of approaching conversations isn’t sufficient, that we’re misled by our hardware. This is where we’d reference typically, the classic book on this, which is Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which tells a log about cognitive biases and where they come from.

So what do we do? How do we get our hand on conversations?

The Four (Six) Rs

Well, of course, we need the four Rs. That’s our technique for analyzing conversations, making them a first class element of your Agile process. Just count along with me, here are the four Rs: ecord, reflect, revise, role play, repeat, role reversal. (So there are actually six of them. But they are the four Rs. We wrote the book, so we get to mix up our maths.)

The idea is that if you make your conversation an object of study, you’re going to have to have something to study. So you have to record it. Then you’re going to have to reflect on it just like you might on your code, or on your processes, or something else that you’re studying as part of your agile development process. You’re going to repeat the revision of that reflection. Once you’ve reflected, you’re going to revise your conversation and improve it. Then you’re going to role play it, and you might reverse the roles during your role play.

Those are the six steps. And conveniently, we recorded a whole podcast on exactly how to do the four Rs here.

But the basic idea is you need a piece of paper, you need to fold it in half and you need a pen. That’s all the elements that you actually need. And then a lot of patience and willingness to go through the horrible process of learning. 

As much as people like learning about it, the really challenging part is it doesn’t work unless you actually do it. That means picking up a piece of paper, folding it in half, and writing words on it until your brain hurts. That’s the process.

It’s kind of like writing a book. You know, you have to write words. And then eventually you’ve written enough of them and you give them to a publisher and they print the book for you. But there’s this difficult part where you’re actually doing something. And it’s so easy!

We’ve seen this as people started to read the book, now that it’s out. There’s this huge resistance to actually doing the work. And part of the inspiration, referring back to last week’s discussion and the one before about how we got here, was our direct experience of first not doing it, and having horrible results. And then, actually every few weeks getting together with others and sitting down to go through an actual conversational analysis.

Why Case Studies are Easy

Doing it live is important. And yet, as easy as it is, it’s something that I don’t habitually reach towards, even though I know how to do it. Because there’s some resistance, there has to be some real impetus. Now there are occasions where I do it when there actually is a situation that I’m really stuck on. So I have developed it as a tool in my toolkit, and I’ll reach for it when I really feel the need. But a lot of times even though I know I would improve from doing it, I don’t do it habitually.

Just like writing a book is easy. You write the first word, and then the second word, and then the third word, and when you get to the 50,000th word, you stop. That’s how you write a book. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Having written one now, we’re painfully aware that that’s not how it works, and that’s not how writing a conversational analysis works. What do you see as the major barriers? What are the hard parts? It’s not putting pen to paper! It’s not physically writing.

And it’s not the time, unlike the book. What I found with the book is there’s a lot of it? So you might go and have a day of writing and think, ‘Wow, that was great!’ And you know, you’re not almost done, or at least I wasn’t almost done.

Whereas a conversational analysis should take–once you’ve practiced once or twice–under 10 minutes to write down. I usually have an ah-ha moment that’s going to change how I approach the conversation within five or 10 minutes. And even when I’m teaching it to people who’ve never done it before, we’re able to get through and get really good results in maybe 30 minutes. So even learning it doesn’t take much time.

But it is hard. And I think there’s a couple obstacles to it. The first element is that I don’t think people feel like they need it enough. I think this goes back to the cognitive biases, which is when people come across this they really understand how it would be very valuable–for everyone else. It would be really important for other people to know this. And I’ve seen this very consistently! If I’m talking to people who are individual contributors, they say ‘you know what, my boss should know this. I’d really like the executive team to do this and understand these techniques.’ And then you and I, when we have talked to various executives, what’s their first response?

“Get the team to do it! Yeah, great come and train them.”

We do this frequently. And we’re very glad to do it. But we also say, “well, it’d be great if you learn this too.”

Yeah, that’s right. And so there’s this obstacle, the question of motivation. What is your motivation that’s going to carry you through to doing it? Now, we gave a hint that one of our motivators was the fear of letting other people down. If we’ve made an agreement that we’re going to show up and each bring a case, well, then if I don’t do it, I’m letting other people down. And that’s one of the reasons that we advocate for people to find other people who you’re going to practice with, because doing so will help give you that motivation.

And then the second part of motivation would be do people feel like they have a serious enough problem? I think the people who have embraced and have been more willing to do it are people who were feeling a certain level of crisis. They felt like they were in a situation that was untenable. It was a “Well, I’m desperate. If I don’t start, if I don’t change the situation here or if I don’t change the dynamics around me, I’m going to have to quit—or I’m going to have to fire this person. It’s gotten to that point where I’m out of other options, and I’m out of time. Something is going to have to happen.” As much aversion as people seem to have towards actually writing things down and actually reflecting on the conversations, when they have something else that seems worse, they’re able to do it.

The final piece is that once people do it, I’m not sure it necessarily feels good. As you often like to say, ‘learning is horrible’. And what you have to do is confront that you screwed up the conversation! So even after you’ve done one of them, and you said ‘yeah, that only took 10 or 15 minutes, and I really learned something valuable.’ It doesn’t necessarily make you think ‘Boy, I can’t wait to do that, again. That sounds super.’ That’s a barrier I think people also have–even if they’ve got started–to the continuing practice, which is what you need in order for these behaviors and these techniques to become natural. It’s hard to force yourself to do it.

Searing Insight


Our friend, Benjamin Mitchell, who we’ve credited in the past about getting into this, he has a brilliant phrase that I really like. He says that “when you do this, you have these moments of searing insight.” Searing being the very important word there. S-E-A-R, like what you do to a piece of meat.

It’s powerful, it’s a real ah-ha. And the question is, are you open for that? Are you the kind of person who seeks that? Do you want badly enough to be better such that you’re willing to have these moments of searing insight?

It’s a little bit like the adage around working out: “no pain, no gain.” I don’t want to push that part too hard, this is not some sort of machismo thing. But it’s really the question of, again, what’s my motivation? Am I willing enough to go through something that’s uncomfortable–to discipline myself to actually do the work?

For me, I’ll say what the motivation was that has led me to be able to do this–and I have done more of this practice on my own. Especially in the early days, when I was practicing all these techniques, and what’s kept me doing it in, for example, the monthly meetup, is the idea that I want the problems I’m having to be my fault. Because if they’re my fault, then there’s something I can do. There’s something that I could change to make it better.

And I prefer that! I would rather have it be my fault than someone else’s. Because if it’s someone else, then I’m kind of at their mercy. They may or may not go learn these techniques, they may or may not change. And if I have to be dependent on them, I really don’t like that. This is a very personal thing for me. I really want something where I can have some control, and I want it enough that I’m willing to go and do this difficult thing, and look for places where I’m screwing up where I could be better.

And guess what, even today, after all the practice I’ve done for years and years when I go and do a case study, I have no problem finding more problems, more ways that I could improve. And that’s my motivation to keep doing these.

There’s a good book on how to form habits and how to get yourself to start flossing, for example, which is not the most exciting or thrilling experience. It’s not exactly searing, but it certainly doesn’t feel great. That book is Atomic Habits by James Clear, and I’ve found that helpful for some of the habits I’ve wanted to create. One of the things I do remember is that if you show people who want to break a habit–they want to get in the habit of not smoking, for example–if you show them the negative results, if you print on the package pictures of lungs full of smoke and damage thereby, they tend to smoke more. And the reason is that they feel anxious about it and what do they do when they feel anxious? Well, they smoke.

So what I like about yours is that it’s a positive reinforcement: it’s that you’re thinking of something that you’d like to have happen, which is you’d like for it to be your fault, and you’ve managed to train yourself to think of that as positive, and then that prompts you to do the action. So looking for a prompt, listeners may have different inspirations. Looking for a positive one I think could be very helpful. Certainly for me, going to those regular sessions we had, and when I was able to go to the London Organizational Learning meetup–which we’ll link to in the show notes–that was a positive thing: ‘I want to participate here. I want to be part of this, I want to learn along with my friends.’ And that was a positive motivation for me.

And that LOL meetup has been helpful for other people as well. Now, at the moment, we’re doing it virtually because of the lockdown, but we will at some point go back to a physical meetup, and we know that not all of our listeners will be able to join. So we won’t always have that available as a motivation to help people make sure they do the case. But we have some ideas about what we can do for our listeners who want to improve and need that sort of commitment device.

The first thing you can do is, while we’re still on lockdown, you can look up the London Organizational Learning meetup. You could be in London, New Zealand or London, North Dakota, or, you know, someplace that isn’t this London, and I’m sure Jeffrey would welcome you.

The other we haven’t developed too far yet but we’re going to be announcing it on our Slack instance and on our mailing list—you can join both of those by looking in the show notes and

We’re thinking of doing some live practice: having people bring cases, bring conversational analysis, and teaching some of the techniques live. We’re not quite sure what that’s going to look like or how it will work. We’ve alluded to it before, but I’m pretty strongly motivated to get that up and running within the next week or so. So have a look on Slack. If you’re not in our Slack instance, join it. If you’re not on our mailing list, join it. And there’ll be some announcements about that quite soon.

Our warning here is that you need to be clear what your motivation is, are you clear? We’d love to have you message us and tell us what your motivation is, to help you improve. That or if you’d like, you can go ahead and mail us and say that you’re going to stubbornly refuse. Yes, you like the theory, you just want other people to do it instead. So let us know one or the other. Which side do you fall on? Do you think this is something where you are actually going to do the work? Are you going to do the practice? Or are you just here for the entertainment, and you hope other people improve? Let us know! I’d be very curious to see where our listenership is on this point.

I suspect some people will fall in between those two and that would be interesting as well. So the way you find us as I mentioned, is on and goes there too so don’t feel like you have to write it down as long as you can remember. Any of those get to us. The show notes also have contact information for us on Twitter, and email, and all the other fun ways that you might want to get in touch. And of course, we also like it if you come back next week, so hit the subscribe button on whatever tool you’re using to listen to us. This is number 120, I think if I’ve counted correctly, so we’re likely to be around for a while. We’ll continue going through the rest of the book with lots more exciting techniques in future weeks and looking at your questions as well.

Listen to the full Troubleshooting Agile podcast here.

- About The Authors
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Douglas Squirrel

Coauthor of Agile Conversations

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Jeffrey Fredrick

Coauthor of Agile Conversations

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