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August 12, 2020

Why: Finding the Balance for Joint Design

By Douglas Squirrel ,Jeffrey Fredrick

This post was adapted from episode 124 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.


As we get to chapter 4 in our tour through Agile Conversations, it’s time to talk about joint design. In this post we focus on a common error that we didn’t cover in depth in the book: how trying to “convince” someone through advocacy fails. Using the Four Rs, we role play an ineffective advocacy-heavy conversation about tech team execution, and then revise it to increase curiosity, reduce defensiveness, and achieve greater internal commitment.

We’re reviewing the chapter about “why” and “the why conversation.” We said that the theme of the chapter is finding the balance you need to have effective joint design, that you’re going to jointly design your “why.” But there are traps along the way!

The Pitfalls of Enquiry

One of the traps is interests and positions. A very common kind of mistake to make is to talk about what you believe we should do, to advocate that strongly, and to not enquire into the other person’s interests or explain your own interests—what lies behind what you’re doing.

We’ve covered that pretty well in the podcast and in the book. There’s some fun stories there about farmers and oil wells and all kinds of interesting negotiations. A lot of it comes from the book Getting to Yes, which is very much worth reading if you haven’t. So we’re not going to talk about that one too much.

What we are going to cover is the difference between advocacy and enquiry. We often talk about transparency and curiosity on the podcast. We talk about balancing advocacy and enquiry and the kind of traps you can get into.

It’s like Scylla and Charybdis, the whirlpool on one side and the dangerous sharks or whatever it was on the other side. You’re trying to thread the needle. You’re trying to go between those two, and it’s easy to fall into one trap or the other.

One of the traps is you wind up enquiring too much. We have a whole case study in the book, a conversational analysis, in which Jeffrey actually has a conversation and then the other person also analyzed it. And what we can see is, Jeffrey does an awful lot of enquiring. He does a lot of asking, and he thinks it’s going great!

But the poor other person feels like he’s being quizzed by Perry Mason, the old TV lawyer.

That’s one of the errors you can make. But one we don’t talk too much about is doing too much advocacy, which is actually the more common of the two errors.

The Pitfalls of Advocacy

Advocacy and too much advocacy are the more common trap, especially when you’re coming in to have a “why” conversation. This is one of the cases where we’re more attached to our own ideas about what’s right.

People don’t tend to make the mistake of being too curious. That’s not the most common mistake. It can be a mistake! But the more common mistake is being completely attached to your own view.

“Too much advocacy” can happen in a few different ways: sometimes it’s actually the people who are thinking “maybe they’d listen to us” and are thinking, “yep, I need to make sure everyone has heard.” And that’s a certain type of advocacy. But it’s also the thing that we naturally fall into.

I’ll give you an example. I have someone I’m coaching, and that person has been really pushing for a particular point of view. This is a common thing. People come with “well, how do I convince my team?”

They might even say, “how do I convince my team to read Agile Conversations,” or “how do I convince my team to use these ideas?” And my stock response to that is to say, well, the very first thing is to change your mindset and to stop thinking about convincing them, because if you start with the position of “I’m going to convince them,” you will be much less curious and you will also be less transparent.

You’re going to be very transparent about your view and nothing else. None of your doubts. None of your concerns. And those are actually much more productive and helpful, even if the other person is taking an advocacy stance. It’s much more useful for you to take a more balanced stance. That’s the argument of the Why chapter.

So this person hasn’t been listening to me on that point. This person has created a situation in which other folks in the organization are concerned that this person doesn’t want to hear alternative ideas.

If you go too far in the heavy advocacy direction, you wind up in this very negative situation where it’s kind of self-sealing. You say, “I want this result. I’m going to push for it. I’m going to tell everybody why it’s a great idea. They’re going to listen to me or else.”

Then other people say, “Wow! That Squirrel guy, boy, he doesn’t want to hear anything. I’d better not bring him any concerns or doubts.” Therefore, you think you have consensus. You think you have agreement and that people are executing. And you hear grumbles, but you never hear them directly.

This is not a very safe position, although this person feels very safe in it. So the challenge I have is to come back to this person and say, “look, I think you would benefit by looking at this situation differently and you could hear some information that you would find valuable if you were more willing to enquire and you tone down the advocacy.”

The problem is, I don’t want to be a super advocate in doing that. You and I did a practice conversational analysis, where we tried it a couple of times. The first time, we were going at helping this person advocate less by advocating very strongly. That didn’t work out so good.

A Role Reversal Role Play

We were doing one of the techniques we talked about in the book, which is role reversal. So we were not just role playing, but reverse role playing.

So Jeffrey will play the role of Squirrel, and Squirrle will play the role of the client who is having probem with too much advocacy. We’ll call him Norm.

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): So, Norm, do you have a minute?

Squirrel (as Norm): Sure. What’s up?

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): So I’ve been talking to people in the organization, and I think there’s a problem here that you really care about. It’s that there are some people with concerns and fears about the project, but they’ve decided to not bring them to you.

Squirrel (as Norm): Well, they’re bringing them to me all right! Man, you know, I’m hearing–kind of indirectly through the grapevine at least–that they’re changing the plan! They keep going off the plan that we’ve agreed to. We’ve agreed on the plan! They just need to execute the plan.

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): So…OK, what I’m hearing you say is that people need to execute the plan. And I think the thing is, though, if you have people who want to execute the plan–but they see problems–I think you’d still want them to bring them to you. Isn’t that right?

Squirrel: (as Norm): No, because they’re probably technical problems. You know, the kind of stuff like the ‘it’s not going to work operationally,’ and you know, ‘we can’t do every bit of it,’ and there’s some technical thing like ‘it doesn’t work on Android devices.’ Look, I’m not interested because they need to solve it! We’ve made the executive decision to follow the plan, they just need to go sort out the problems. I don’t need to hear about it. What do you think? Do you think I’m gonna go program in Java? That’s not going to work.

We’ll stop the role play there.

What we saw was Norm just got more and more defensive, and I was modeling the way Norm reacts to that kind of advocacy. It really doesn’t work for Norm. And that’s one reason I said you should call Norm “Norm” is because it’s normal to react in that way. That’s a normal human reaction to strong advocacy.

You can see it on chat shows. You can see it on political debates. Somebody is taking a position. It’s a very strongly held position. They advocate it over and over again and they kind of try to bash down the other person. The other person either continues to push back at the person or they give up.

In this case, Norm has been advocating so strongly that people have given up. And it reinforces Norm’s view. Norm gets more “my way or the highway” the more you advocate.

This is interesting, because it reminds me quite a lot of something from David Burns, in the Feeling Good podcast. He has this podcast on team therapy and he talks through different approaches for a therapist to use, and he often has people write in to say, “thank you, Dr. Burns, your material is great, and I want to know how I can use it to help this family member.” You know, “I think my husband needs help,” or “my daughter needs help,” and “I want to know how to help them.”

And the first thing he says is, “OK. Your desire to help is part of the problem, and when you go and try to push help onto them, you’re going to create resistance.”

And that’s very much here, in the case where I was Squirrel, I was trying to help Norm. And I was pushing my help on to Norm for something that Norm hadn’t asked for help with.

Even though he is in need of help, he sees it less and less the more he’s pushed. Advocacy was generating resistance in the same way that Burns talks about the resistance from the desire to help.

Returning to the Role Play

So let’s reflect, one of the Four Rs from the book. Based on our reflection of our earlier role play conversation, what we need is some more enquiry in there. This is just making Norm more and more defensive. So we need to try it again with more enquiry.

David Burns says to instead use what he calls the “five secrets of communication.” And in particular, the enquiry there is part of it. “Tell me more about how it is for you.”

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): So Norm, do you have a minute?

Squirrel (as Norm): Sure. What’s up?

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): Okay. I want to talk about the plan and some of the concerns I’ve heard from people on the team.

Squirrel (as Norm): Yeah! If they’d quit changing it, that would help.

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): Your view is that the problem here is that people keep trying to change the plan?

Squirrel (as Norm): Yeah, we agreed to it, we made it very clear exactly what we were going to do, and they keep changing it into something else that isn’t what we agreed.

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): That’s interesting that you all agreed it, and that people keep trying to change it. That seems very strange.

Squirrel (as Norm): Yeah, I agree!

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): Can you tell me more about that?

Squirrel (as Norm): Yeah, we had an executive discussion, and I assume and believe that my team is capable, and they went off and canvassed their groups, and they all came back and they said, ‘yeah, we can do this. This is the way to go.’ And I said, excellent. There we go. Let’s do this! I don’t know if I did a perfect job explaining exactly why? I had to clean it up afterwards, but they basically got it. They all agreed to do it. And now every time, every time I talk to people, either within the teams or the executives, I hear, ‘oh, we can’t do it this way. We’re going to change this. We’re gonna do the other way.’ I’m just spending all my time playing catch up, making sure we stay on track. I’d really like to stop doing that!

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): So it sounds to me like you’ve been surprised, because your view is that everyone had bought into this, had all agreed to this, and now everyone seems to be not bought in.

Squirrel (as Norm): That’s exactly right.

Jeffrey (as Squirrel): Do you have any idea why that is?

Squirrel (as Norm): I wish I did. I would sure like to know how we could stop having this endless discussion of this plan. I want to execute the plan we agreed on.

Jeffrey (As Squirrel): Ok. So it sounds like that is something that you’re interested in, if we could find out why this is happening and why people keep trying to change the plan rather than implement it. That’s something that you’d find valuable?

Squirrel (as Norm): I absolutely would.

All right. Let’s go ahead and stop there.

And this is what we were looking for in this role play: finding a way to get to a position where Norm would be open to some discussion.

Longtime listeners may know the sorts of things that we’d start discussing next, and it’s there in the chapter about using joint design, adding your own egg to participate in the discussion, and creating internal commitment. At that point, we’re in a position where Norm is saying, “yes, I would like some help.”

You’ll notice the contrast from the first role play where Norm was stuck in his defenses. “I don’t want anything. Just stop!” He got more and more defensive and more and more disturbed about it.

Now, Norm is saying, “I’d like to do something about it.” And that’s an opportunity to add some advocacy while continuing to enquire.

“Well, Norm, there’s actually something we could do about that. How about trying this? Here’s the theory behind it. How does that match with your thinking?” And that may or may not work, but the sticking point is getting past Norm’s defensiveness.

We starting the first discussion with the problem coming in with the idea of advocating first. “I understand the problem. I see what what needs to be done to fix it.” And then simply “how can I advocate for my position?” The change that we got, and needed, was understand more about how Norm saw the situation before moving ahead.

This is a good example of using conversational analysis to look at a future conversation. Practicing helps find a way to get past the traps.

There’s a fun principle here called the “Fredrick mirroring principle,” which says that if you’re seeing something that someone else is doing, like too much advocacy and being too strong minded and not being curious enough, the thing to do, the preplanned action to create in yourself, is changing your own action so that you do more of the thing you’re suggesting the other person do! And that is paradoxically very successful at creating a situation that will allow you to help the other person to change, if that’s appropriate for them.

These cognitive biases that lead to unproductive behavior are so ingrained, they’re so natural, that we’re making these kind of mistakes all the time. And so it’s a fair principle that if you see someone making a mistake, you’re likely making the same mistake at the same time.

Start by fixing your own mistake, because that will help the situation even more than explaining to the other person how they could fix theirs.

Genuine Curiosity

So what we’ve done here in our role play is we’ve shown an example of a “why” conversation. We’ve figured out problems that we can share. We each have a reason to move forward now, as opposed to the sort of idea that most people would have of a leader providing why. Walking in and making a big sales pitch, a big rah rah speech. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. Here’s why it’s important” and really winning over the crowd.

Instead, we’re saying it’s more effective to get people on board, to have them be part of a conversation, and this is where the phrase “adding your own egg” comes from. Have each person feel like their concerns are part of the plan for where you’re going. And crucially, that they’re genuinely part of it.

In our example, Norm has actually been part of this discussion and said, “yes, I want some help. I would like this to stop. I would like to do something different.” The fact that we’ve found a place where Norm wants help means that we’ve had an invitation to take some steps that might help. Norm will be much more likely to be bought into those, rather than kind of bashing Norm into submission, which is exactly what Norm is doing to everyone else.

Keep in mind, even though we had an idea of the problem, we started with what we want to avoid, some sort of mock joint design. Where some leader reads our book and they think, “ah yes, I need to make sure it feels like they’ve added their own egg. I know what I’ll do. I’ll have everyone list their problems and then I’ll bring out my solution that I’ve predesigned. And I’ll ignore their problems and I won’t change my design in any way. I’ll just nod sagely and pretend to listen, and then when they all shut up, I will present my plan.”

Do not do this! This is this is guaranteed to fail spectacularly.

The difference is that genuine curiosity is something that is incredibly persuasive to people, that people really respond to it. A sort of mock curiosity will have the opposite effect. People will, if they feel like it was all a game, react very negatively. And in fact, even if you’re genuinely curious, there is still a concern that people might perceive what you’re doing as a game. So it’s important to go out of your way to make it clear that you’re genuine, because it is very easy to be trapped in our own position and to not really be curious.

- 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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