This is a transcript of episode 142 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Jessica Katz is an agile coach who uses curiosity and conversational skills to help agile teams perform better. She explains why you need to liberate the elephant in the room, how you can do that through nonviolent communication, and how one person saying “good morning” unlocked better performance for a whole team.

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Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: And we have a friend with us today. So this is Jessica Katz from Liberated Elephant. And Jessica, I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about you and about what Liberated Elephant is and why elephants need liberating.

Jessica: Sure thing! First, thanks for having me on. I appreciate you taking the time today. Liberated Elephant is my business. We do Agile coaching, training, speaking and a variety of other facilitation and change management work. Liberated Elephant’s focus for me has been about one of my superpowers is being able to identify chinks in the armour and really look for the unspoken things going on in the room and turning those unspoken things into spoken things and then making them opportunities instead of challenges.

Squirrel: So how would I recognise one of those opportunities? What would it look like and what’s an elephant look like when it’s caged?

Jessica: Sure, so one of the most common opportunities is the person who’s afraid to speak up and share their idea into the room. Usually a result of a fear of retribution, either socially, politically or financially. And trying to get that to be a safe space for folks to talk is really where we get the creativity anyway. So it would look like people shut down during meetings, it would look like all hands where people don’t find that they’re of any value. It would look like meetings where there’s a second meeting after the meeting and people talking in the hallway. Those would be really good examples of our fearful elephants.

Squirrel: Got it. And is that something that you find in agile teams, more or less? Is it happening more? Because we talk about it all the time on troubleshooting Agile we talk about being more curious and looking for opportunities, create that psychological safety. I’m wondering what you find. Are there particular ways that it shows up in an agile teams? Is it different than other places or is it just the same?

Jessica: I think it shows up the same in every place. I work with more Agile teams than I do not Agile teams, so by percentages, it shows that more for me with Agile teams, but I think it really shows up everywhere. I find actually one of the hardest places is in human resources because they are both responsible for the system that creates retribution and living in a system that has retribution. So it can be really challenging for folks in the human resources and legal departments and again, and for middle managers trying to figure out how to navigate that space and make it safe while not feeling safe.

Jeffrey: I’m really curious, Jessica, because I can certainly understand the kind of environments you’re talking about and I’ve come across them before and I’m sure some of our listeners will recognise them. The symptoms seem familiar. The part that surprised me is, who brings you in, like in that environment where it’s unsafe for people speak up. Who says, you know what we need is we need someone to come help us free these elephants. What’s the problem that actually gets people to finally act that they would they would contact you for?

Jessica: So typically, it’s a really bad engagement survey, several years running. Those you know, the benefit of bringing me in specifically is that I’m working on getting an environment to be safe for folks in that effort. What you do is increase engagement and then engagement results in higher productivity, higher predictability, profitability, all of those fun things that come out of engagement. So they’ll probably get engagement survey that’s really bad and be like, ‘oh, let me pull somebody in who can help coach us through this, or they’ll have gone through a recent shake up, managerial or leadership shake up and the leaders that come in go ‘Oh we have a mess here, lets see how we fix that, right? And they bring me in to sort of help coach them through that conversation and getting to a position of safety.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think it’s that there’s an issue that there’s the two elements that I can see why, like I in my head, on the one hand, the engagement survey is like, OK, we have evidence there’s a problem and we have essentially we have licence to act because we have the evidence. We have the proof here that we can hold up and say, yep, look, there is a problem and we don’t need to say, I told you so. It’s like, no, look, what do we want to do about this in a way that is current management speak fashionable to address. You know, people are running the engagement survey because they’ve the current management theory says that engagement is important. And so that means when the engagement survey comes back low, they can’t dismiss and say, well, this isn’t important, because then, well, why do we spend the money on the survey?

Actively Disengaged Employees? So What?

Listen to this section at 05:10

Squirrel: But I’d like to do something that Jeffrey often does, which is to ask not the five whys, but the five so whats’. So I’m wondering what benefit does greater engagement have? So if you have a bunch of folks who are fearing retribution, they have the second meeting after the meeting, they’re not speaking up and describing problems in their software or their delivery or their product development, so what? Why does that matter? Why would you want to fix engagement? Yes, it matches the management theory, but what benefit do you see for your clients?

Jessica: Well, the first ‘so what’ is that if you have actively disengaged employees, they’re also disrupting your culture, not just your software delivery and the product you’re producing, but they’re actively bringing people to their cause of disengagement in your organisation, which means that it propagates exponentially. So that’s the first problem with active disengagement. Actively disengaged people also feel stuck and so they’re not looking for work elsewhere, which means you’re stuck with people who are actively disengaged.

Squirrel: So you’d actually like more of them to quit because they’re disengaged. And actually, if it was that bad, then it’d be good if more quit.

Jessica: You want them to either leave or become engaged or at least less actively disengaged. There’s this middle zone that happens between engagement and actively disengaged, but they’re like, OK, I can be right here. I’m not actively looking for work. I don’t actively hate my company. But if something came along, I might leave. And if something really awesome happened in the company, I might become engaged.

Squirrel: I’m not going to put myself out and do more and come up with really great creative ideas. I’m just going to turn the crank.

Jessica: That’s right. I’m just going to turn the crank. If you can get the actively engaged people. So Gallup did a poll. I’m going to I’m going to quote it wrong. So I’ll come back to that later. But there’s a poll that out there that says people, the companies that have high numbers of actively engaged folks, which means they have 14 engaged people for everyone, actively disengaged person, they see 17% increase in productivity. They see 21% increase in profitability, and they see four times as much benefit for their board members. So the ‘so what’ is that it matters, if your people are happy, so are your customers and so are your profits.

Squirrel: And for clarity, I believe that we wouldn’t be doing the podcast. We wouldn’t have written our book and everything else if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be talking to Jessica if we didn’t believe that. But what’s difficult is often you’ll find people, especially the disengaged ones, who will say, ‘well, so what? Why does it matter if I get more engaged? Hey, I didn’t find that in the Scrum book here. It doesn’t say you should be more engaged and have a longer stand up. So you’re more engaged. It doesn’t say any of that. So when I hear people say we’re trying to increase engagement, I always want to know why. What’s their motivation for doing that?

Jessica: So for the individual who becomes more engaged, they see benefits in mental health and physical health and general happiness and satisfaction in their life in the United States, one in five employees can expect to have a significant mental health situation every year, one in five. So if we can engage folks and create a community for them where they feel like they belong and they’re excited to be there, they’re less likely to have that kind of mental health reaction.

Squirrel: And therefore, we’ll have teams that get more done and fewer sick days and more people producing better.

Jessica: That’s right.

Squirrel: OK, I’m sold. Great. How do we do this? So we’ve been talking for most of the podcast about how this would be bad and we need to liberate the elephants. How do we get them out of the cages? What do we do?

Jessica: So I will say first, it depends a little bit on the organisation, but on the general whole, you really want to shift the mindset of leadership. Leadership has a tendency to value output over outcome not in every organisation, but in a lot of organisations have a tendency to to say, oh, how many widgets did you produce?

Squirrel: How many story points did you get done last week?

Jessica: How many story points did you get done? As opposed to what impact did it have on our customers? Were we making a difference in the world? Were we making a difference for each other? And their focus needs to be shifted to that outcome oriented focus. And there’s been a movement in the United States towards what they call B Corps, which put purpose over profit. So we start to think about who are we trying to be as an organisation in the world? What is our identity as an organisation and how do we connect people to that? So there’s some of that movement as well.

Squirrel: We have those in the UK as well. There’ll be a link in the show notes if people want to hear more about what a B corporation is. B as in boy, by the way.

Change Starts With Leadership

Listen to this section at 10:52

Jeffrey: So you’re saying that that the change really starts with leadership and so it’s so that means when you come in, they’ve done this engagement survey. Are they surprised that when you say, well, let’s start with you? Because what I often see is people are like, OK, we’ve done this when we know that people need change and I’m bringing you in to change those other people. And then suddenly you’re showing up and you’re like, ‘OK, surprise here, the people here are you. How did that conversation go? That sounds like a pretty tightly caged elephant.

Jessica: It is a really tightly caged elephant. There’s a benefit if people have brought me in because they’ve read the engagement survey and they really want to make a change, they recognise that change isn’t easy and that it’s messy, that we’re in the messy space of people change.

Jessica: And so often there’s a conversation around the change curve that people go through that it’s just like the technology adoption curve. You’ve got your early adopters. Your really excited people that want to try this. So we’ll start with people that are really excited about this. You brought me in, so you must be excited about this. Let’s start with you. You’ve got to do proving there has got to be stories that are told. Here’s what we did. Here’s how we shifted. The leadership has to start getting really vulnerable about the changes they’re personally making, not just that they’re making in the company. Which I will I’m going to shamelessly plug one of my favourite books, which is Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, really talks about the power of vulnerability and courageousness in leadership and how that’s a necessary component to start shifting that culture. So every change, even if it’s people change, requires thinking about that technology adoption curve. And leaders may be excited about it, but it’s not going to be overnight. It’s going to take time. And there’s going to be things that happen in the organisation that are unexpected for them as a result of these shifts. And they have to be ready to manage themselves through it so that they don’t backslide and pull the whole company back with them.

Squirrel: But but what if you’re being brought in by somebody lower down in the organisation or in a different part of the organisation? I imagine you have some leaders who say, ‘I like these elephants right where they are. I’m not that interested in being more vulnerable. That’s not what I want to do.’ What techniques do you have for handling that situation?

Jessica: Well, we get real honest about what’s real and what is in the power, what that person has the power to change. So the leader further down, the organisation that doesn’t have influence over the whole thing only has a span of control over their kingdom, as it were. So they’ve got to really think about where is that span of control? What’s the boundary between me and the rest of the company? How do I meet the needs of the company as they expect them and meet the needs of my organisation as I want it to be and really balance that, they become a barrier between those two. They become the antibodies of those two systems. So that middle manager becomes the antibody for their team that they’re trying to develop a culture for, and they become an antibody for the culture that doesn’t want to shift yet. And it’s draining. It’s really hard on those leaders. That’s a really hard role to play. And they are busy translating all this creativity and wonder that’s coming out of their division to an organisation that is open to it and meanwhile translating all these policies and procedures down into their organisation that also isn’t open to it.

Squirrel: We’d like you to fill in the time sheet on alternate Thursdays now instead of alternate Fridays, then they have to translate that into something exciting and thrilling-.

Jessica: That’s right.

Squirrel: To those now liberated elephants. I can see that being quite difficult. Somebody should write a book about that.

Jessica: I’m working on it.

Jeffrey: You’re describing this interesting role of these people in the middle and one thing that’s interesting about that sort of middle role that you’re describing is that because they are a connection point between different layers of the company in different strata, they often have some idea of the difference in the stories being told. So where does someone like that start like what is what is within their control? Where does someone like that begin?

Jessica: Yeah, so where we begin, typically when I’m working with someone like that, where we begin is to really lay out what’s true. And we start first with what’s true for them as an employee of this company? What’s their priority as an individual, first? So what do they value? What is important to them from a success and recognition perspective? Who do they want to be when they grow up?

Jeffrey: Okay.

Jessica: And I’m using when they grow up loosely, I’m still asking myself that question. So it’s a sort of a constant question that hopefully people are asking over and over again, but who do they want to be when they grow up? So let’s figure that out first.

Jessica: Now, let’s talk about the system you’re in. Does it match who you want to be when you grow up? If it doesn’t, how do you live in it contentedly? Or what other choices do you have to make for yourself? And the culture that you’re creating, what do you want that to be? And is that a match for who you want to become? And how do we sort of make all of those three things play well together? It does mean that sometimes you have to compromise your own values to live in the company contentedly. And sometimes it means that you have to not create as deeply a meaningful environment as you want to make those three things play together. But you have to then discuss what the trade-offs are. If I choose to enforce this time off policy, as opposed to giving all of my people unlimited time off, then what is that going to create here? And how do I work in this environment so that I can meet the needs of my folks?

Jeffrey: You started with this very personal element as opposed to formulaically, OK, well, if you’re in the middle, here’s the game plan. You know, we have the book or rather the game plan starts with a certain type of introspection. And so you’re describing a very personalised process. And I know before we started, we were talking a little bit about the talk you’ll have coming up at Agile Ireland, which we’ll come back to and have a link in the show notes for that. And you mentioned non-violent communication and taking that NVC approach it sound to me like this is kind of related here. You’re describing persons figuring out what their needs are. How does someone start that? Because I know many people who’ve said that because now it sounds easy, but actually that’s a really hard problem. OK, you know, here you go. Identify what’s really important to you.

Jessica: Yeah, so a really good question to ask is notice where somebody says ‘I have to’. So I have to go to work, I have to pick my kids up from school, ‘I have to’right? And we change them to ‘I choose to’. I choose to go to work because, I choose to go to work because it makes me money in a really lucrative way that supports my family at the level of living that is comfortable for us. OK, so you’re really choosing your family when you go to work. You don’t have to go to work. You’re choosing family. I have to pick up my kids after school. I choose to leave work on time so that I can get my children because my relationship with my children is important. All right. You’ve chosen your relationship, your children. You don’t have to. Everything is a choice. So you’re now in this company and you are here as a whole human, what’s important to you? Let’s figure that out.

Jeffrey: It sounds like you’re really picking up on autonomy there. You’re saying you actually do have autonomy. So anything that you’re doing must have been a choice.

Jessica: Right.

Jeffrey: And that’s going to be really uncomfortable for people.

Squirrel: Because then it’s your fault as well.

Squirrel: So if you’re miserable in your job and you’re not taking care of your kids, then that’s your fault and you need to do something about it. That might be somewhat terrifying thing rather than simply blaming your employer or something like that. I had a very interesting conversation with someone this week. I’m thinking I’m going to recommend that you listen to this podcast because he was trying to figure out exactly that. He first approached me for career coaching within his company. And it turned out that actually the thing he was most interested in was figuring out whether he belonged there. And so he was trying to do exactly this kind of thinking. Obviously, that’s what was encouraging me to do. But I didn’t have a framework like you have. So I appreciate that idea of rephrasing the ‘have to’ as choices. And that gives you a guide to what choices are you making? Do they match? If they don’t match, change them. If they do match, that gives you a guide to what you’re actually trying to do. I think that could be very useful for lots of our listeners.

Jeffrey: And it reminds me of something we’ve quoted a few times with Mark Coleman, and his is a phrase that he did in one of his talks, which was, “doing this is going require difficult emotional work”. It sounds like you’re near, I was to say, broaching that subject. But no, you’re more leaping directly in.

Squirrel: And what’s amazing is no one tells you in management school or an MBA or when you study computer science, you’re going to have to do difficult emotional work. But it turns out you will.

Jessica: Yeah, and quite a lot of it.

A Tale of Miscommunication

Listen to this section at 19:43

Jeffrey: Maybe it’s a good time to transition to that. Can you tell us a little bit about the talk that you’ll be doing, tell our audience a bit about what’s the subject you’ll be talking about at Agile Ireland, and then maybe you can tell us an example of how they might, how that comes to play in the real world.

Jessica: Sure. So the talk I’m doing is Creating Boundaries, Practising Curiosity and Making Requests. It is deeply landed in non-violent communication. And I’ll first say that I’m going to define a boundary here. So a boundary is where my consent and your agency run up against each other. So that is boundary, t shirts coming. That space is where boundaries are. And we’re really trying to embed the idea that consent is a thing in our workplaces as well. So an example of where I’ve used this, I got brought in as a coach to work with a couple of people who were having trouble getting along. There was clearly a rift in their demeanour with one another and their ability to work together. And it all came out of a really simple miscommunication. So one person would come in in the morning and say good morning. The other person wouldn’t respond. And this created this feeling for them that they were being excluded or weren’t liked or weren’t wanted.

Jeffrey: Right. At this point, they’re being snubbed, right?

Jessica: Yeah, that’s what it felt like to them. To the point where if the other person’s car was in the parking lot when they came into work, they feel sick to their stomach.

Jeffrey: Because they know it’s going to happen. They can they can see the future.

Squirrel: And they know why as well, it’s because the person doesn’t like them and is snubbing them and is making their life difficult.

Jessica: Well they think they know why.

Squirrel: They don’t actually.

Jessica: So their managers called me in as a coach to help them, which was great because that meant they had the safety of not inside their performance evaluation, non-hierarchical, all of that. So they brought me in and I talked to each of them individually. The person that was coming in and was feeling sick to their stomach, their story was, I’m being snubbed and it makes me feel unwanted and I need to feel connected to the people I work with, it’s a need. I talked to the other person and they were like, no, I was just in the middle of work. I’d already gotten started. I was in my flow and I didn’t even notice they walked in the office. So it wasn’t that for me. I don’t know what the problem is. And so we really talked about that. OK, here’s the story that you’re telling yourself. What’s the emotion you’re having? Well, I’m frustrated that this is even a conversation.

Jessica: So we got to have a discussion once we worked together and really pulled out the stories they were telling themselves, the BS in their head, the emotions they were feeling and then the things they really wanted. And then we pulled them together and had a conversation with that structure in mind. And the one person requested, ‘hey, if I walk in, will you just just say hello? You can even say hello I’m in the middle of something, but just say hello to acknowledge my existence. That would be great.’

Squirrel: For people unfamiliar with NVC like me, I don’t know it very well. A request is a special thing. Right? It’s a thing that you’re making as part of the framework you make in a particular way. And it’s not just going,’hey, would you do this, You jerk?’

Jessica: Absolutely, a request has to have three things to be a true request. One, it has to be clear, concrete, positive actions has to be something people can do instead of something people don’t do.

Jeffrey: They can’t say, ‘don’t ignore me.’.

Jessica: That right.

Jeffrey: My request is that you not ignore me.

Jessica: Right. That won’t work. It has to be ‘my request is that you say hello to me in the morning.’ Right. It has to be immediately actionable so it has to be something people can do really quickly as opposed to something that will take months to get to. And it has to be negotiable. It has to be a yes or no or counteroffer as a response. The minute somebody is uncomfortable with anything but yes, then it’s a demand and not a request. And we’ve then broached into where your agency and consent are not to play. So we worked on that and the request was just that the other person would say hello. And the other person’s counteroffer was, if I miss it, if I’m so deep in and I miss it, you just assume I’m busy. So that was what they worked on. And then they made a point to as a result of that conversation, you know, the person who wasn’t saying hello didn’t want somebody to feel sick to their stomach coming into the office.

Jessica: So then they became a much closer set of people. They broke down the barrier that was happening for them. They were able to work together. And then they also did things like for lunchtime, that person would come over to the other person and say, ‘hey, we haven’t had a chance to catch up today. Do you want to go to lunch?’ And so those sorts of reach outs started to happen and the connection started to be created.

Squirrel: And I’m assuming then that didn’t just help those people to feel better, which was a very good outcome. That’s something that you’d like to have. But it had business results. So it had a result for that team functioning better because suddenly those people were chatting at lunch and would discover problems and improve their collaboration. That’s what I’d expect from my experiences that would have.

Jessica: Yeah, that’s true. And I’ll tell you, the biggest business impact was to the rest of the team. The rest of the team then didn’t- I mean, they could all sense the tension. They all knew what was happening. So the rest of the team then could take a deep breath and relax and everybody could be in the conversation together and it would flow more easily.

Jeffrey: That’s a fantastic story. I love how you go from something so simple as good morning to impacting the entire team and behind it was really the inability to discuss the stories they were each telling themselves.

Jeffrey: And so if they’d been able to have those conversations, it really could have been very simple. And in the end, it sounds like it really was rather simple once they had someone with the skill to help them through it. Frequent listeners will know that for us, talking about conversations as a skill as in something that you need to practise. It does not come naturally, despite all the talking we do does not mean that we have the skill of conversation. So our listeners will recognise key words of jargon there that I’m throwing. If they’re interested in your talk and on the subject, where could they learn more about it?

Jessica: So that will be at Agile in Ireland on October 30th. ALI, if you’re looking for it online, you can also find it on my events calendar with links to the conference if you want to attend the conference. The conference is a fully virtual conference this year, has some really amazing keynotes.

Squirrel: So our listeners anywhere, not just in Ireland, can easily get there by turning on their computers.

Jeffrey: I was going to say and for people who want to hear more from you or are interested in what you’re talking about and you’re writing and want to follow you, what’s the best place for them to follow you? Where can they learn more about Jessica and her liberated elephant?

Jessica: The best place to follow me is on LinkedIn. I have a Twitter handle to you, but I just crosspost from LinkedIn over to Twitter. So follow me on LinkedIn. That’s the best spot. And you can also go to and check out the event’s calendar to see where I’m speaking and teaching.

Squirrel: Sounds fantastic. That’ll be in the show notes as well. In case you’re having trouble, as I often do, between liberated and other forms of the verb. So Liberated Elephant singular. That’s the place to go. But don’t bother writing that down. Just go look in the show notes and you can find Jessica and all kinds of fun things for her.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much, Jessica, for being on troubleshooting Agile. We really enjoy it. When people come and give us a fresh perspective. I’m going to go use that ‘have to’ into choices mechanism. I’m sure I’m going to use that this week. So thanks very much for sharing that with our listeners. Of course, listeners who are interested in talking to us some more can find us on And we will have our events and Twitter and all the same kinds of things on there to find us. And we like it when you hit the subscribe button, because then you can hear interesting folks like Jessica and even us every week on troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey and Jessica.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.

Jessica: Thank you.