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May 26, 2020

Gene Kim interviews Agile Conversations authors Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick

By IT Revolution

Gene: Are we really that bad at talking to one another, and why do you think that is?

Squirrel & Jeffrey: Actually, we are really skillful at having conversations! We are proficient at concealing our real thoughts, saving face for ourselves and others, and avoiding awkward questions. Unfortunately this defensive approach undermines learning and cooperation, and so produces results quite different than what we intend. This combination of effortless behavior and the wrong outcomes is something Argyris called “skilled incompetence”.

As for why, that’s a very important point. We don’t display this behavior all the time, only when we actually care about the outcome. When we don’t care, we don’t see different opinions as a threat, and so we don’t engage in these defensive routines. However, when we do care, certain “cognitive biases” in our brains are triggered. An example is naive realism, where we believe we see reality objectively and correctly, that others will see the same thing, and therefore if they disagree with us they are ignorant, biased or irrational.

When this is our mindset, of course our conversations are unproductive!

Gene: For many, it might feel strange to write down their conversations. Why does it matter? What’s wrong with just recording it and listening to it later?

Squirrel & Jeffrey: If our readers are willing to make an audio recording and review it later, that would be great! However a lot of times important conversations happen when we don’t expect them, and I wouldn’t want people to skip doing a conversational analysis because they didn’t have a recording. The good news is that you don’t need a recording of the conversation, or even to remember it in detail, to learn from it. What you need is to do the work, to do the reflecting and revising that are at the heart of the practice.

If you do have a recording of the conversation, doing an analysis requires more than just listening to it. Having the words fixed on the page allows you to analyze them in a way that you can’t while they’re swimming around in your head. When the words are in your head, your cognitive biases come into play; when the words are on the page your brain sees the words as if they were being spoken by someone else—it enables “self-distancing” (which is different from social distancing!). We are very good at spotting mistakes by other people, so this self-distancing is an important step in analyzing the conversation more constructively.

Also, with audio, it’s harder to score the conversation and improve it. For example, in chapter 2, we ask readers to circle question marks (for curiosity), underline unshared thoughts (for transparency), and cross out their words and replace them with improved phrasing. This is much easier on paper than in an mp3 file

Gene: You talk about 5 Conversations which are the key to building agile conversations. Explain the 5 conversations and why those 5.

Squirrel & Jeffrey: We wanted to give readers a step-by-step approach to building a high performing culture. With that goal in mind we chose our five conversations partly in response to Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which does such a good job describing how a team fails and such a terrible job telling you what to do about it. We were also drawing upon decades of study and experience, and connecting all the dots. 

The result was five key conversations. 

Our experience is that you can create a progression in cultural improvement through improved conversations. Start with the Trust Conversation to create the foundation for effective collaboration. Trust allows you to have the Fear Conversation, which you need to make space for creativity. Having honestly made fears discussable, the next steps are the Why Conversation and Commitment Conversation to align everyone on the same set of strategic and tactical goals. Finally the Accountability Conversation ensures we stay aligned and co-ordinated.

We don’t mean to imply these are once-and-done conversations! To go back to earlier conversations as needed isn’t failure, it is making good use of the skills you’ve developed and keeping the relationships working well.

Gene: In DevOps we talk a lot about psychological safety. I see improving the way we speak and understand each other as a key step toward this goal. How can managers or team leaders encourage and enable this practice at their work?

Squirrel & Jeffrey: Great question! Psychological safety is one of the distinguishing features of great teams; in fact Google ranked this as the number one factor that makes teams successful. And one of the first things leaders can do to encourage psychological safety is to raise the question with the team: Do we have psychological safety? That is, are we comfortable having productive conflict between our ideas? Or, do we fall into the failure modes of either unproductive conflict between individuals, or avoidance of conflict? 

The idea that we actually want a certain type of conflict is weirdly both counter-intuitive and yet simultaneously understood by everyone. When we ask people “what’s the best way to make a decision as a group?” we always receive a variation of the same answer: we should get input from everyone, hear what they think is the best decision, and use the diversity of information to make the best decision, which might be different from what any individual proposed when they came to the room. In the abstract we understand the value of testing different ideas against each other. When it gets to real decisions though? We’re back to the skilled incompetence we discussed earlier.

So the role of the leader then is to be aware of these dynamics, to build their own skills for productive conversations, and then help the team build those skills. And you build those skills by having the conversations. Very concretely, the first step is building a foundation of trust using the Trust Conversation techniques, then working with your team to identify institutionalized fears that may be so habitual that they have faded into the furniture (“normalized deviances”, to use Diane Vaughn’s phrase). Next, you use our Coherence Busting tool to unlock creative responses to those fears, and finally you use Joint Design to come up with mitigations for each fear. There’s lots more, including step-by-step instructions and example conversations in Chapter 4!

Gene: You speak a lot in your book about how this is a process, that you must practice long and often to really improve. How long does it really take before you start seeing results? How long does it usually take to master the art of conversations?

Squirrel & Jeffrey: We like the analogy with learning to ski—like an effective conversation, skiing isn’t a skill we are born with. It requires effort and practice to learn. Even so, you have early, meaningful results, like your first time making it down without falling over. But you don’t feel really at ease until you’ve spent several days or weeks on the mountain, and there are slopes that will take years to master. 

Similarly, when you start improving your conversational skills you should see some results immediately, in your first few conversations, as you begin to learn more from others (through curiosity) and share more of your own views (through transparency). Doing so will feel unnatural at first, and as you continue you’ll become more fluent. The journey itself is rewarding. As you gain skill you’ll become a lot more attuned to the diversity of challenges that arise in different conversations. Just like with skiing and similar skills, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing your work pay off, of successfully navigating obstacles that formerly would have seemed insurmountable.

And as for mastery—after ten years of work, we are still discovering new ways to improve with every conversational analysis. So check back with us in another ten years or so and we can tell you whether we have become masters yet!

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

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