This is a transcript of episode 119 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
Our book Agile Conversations is nearly out (publication date is 12 May 2020)! We reflect on how we struggled with agile adoption and accountability in our teams and how we learnt to study and improve our conversations to get dramatically better results and internal commitment, eventually leading to us writing Agile Conversations to help spread the word about these techniques.
- Twitter debate with Benjamin Mitchell
- Schwarz, Eight Behaviours for Smarter Teams
- London Organisational Learning Meetup
- Weinberg on Writing
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile Hi there Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.
Squirrel: So this week, we were just in very reflective mood because after I think we calculated it was two and a half years worth of writing we have now- and writing and editing and then illustrating and who knows what else promoting. We’re finally getting a book out. Yes. Next week after our listeners listen to this. They have one week before Agile Conversations. It’s hits well, not shelves but whatever Amazon has, warehouses.
Jeffrey: The e-books will be available for download on the 12th[of May 2020]. So this is our last episode before the book is available for people to purchase and begin reading.
Squirrel: And I mean, I should say there are physical books, too. But, you know, not too many people are going to bookstores these days. So I suspect they’ll be ordering both e-books and physical books from Amazon. That’s right. Similar places. Not to privilege Amazon.
Jeffrey: Yes. So I’m pretty excited about that.
Jeffrey: It has been two and half years. And in fact, we had started on the book before we started the podcast. Yes. It’s hard to believe.
Squirrel: It’s how the title of the podcast came to be.
Jeffrey: That’s right. Because there was a time when Troubleshooting Agile was going to be the book instead of Agile Conversations.
Squirrel: That is right. We’ll tell that story. So we thought we’d just kind of tell the story of how the book came to be. And along the way, listeners will hear what motivated us to write the book, what they might get from the book tied together some of the themes that we talk about a lot on this podcast.
Jeffrey: That’s right. And I think you can start us off because the story the book actually begins with with you Squirrel.
###The Beginning of the Road Listen to this section at 01:53
Squirrel: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So back in 2007 or 2008, I was sort of coming to terms with the fact that I was a CTO. That was a new experience for me, had been six or seven years in a very small company, and we’d been growing steadily, even despite the financial crisis of that year. And I was starting to think more reflectively about what I was doing. I wasn’t hacking code together at midnight quite so frequently, so I had a little more time to think and that the team was larger. And I remember adopting some agile practises and I did it in about the worst way you can imagine.
Jeffrey: Oh really?
Squirrel: Showed up one day, said, ‘hey, we’re doing this stuff.’ And I remember the managing director, one of the founders of the company coming to me one day and saying, you know, ‘I’m not quite sure how we became like a bastion of agile techniques. I never asked you to adopt agile techniques. I said write more software and have fewer bugs.’.
Squirrel: I didn’t do a very good job of responding to that, I recall. He also said, ‘you know, this pairing we’re doing, it does seem a little inefficient. Why don’t we stop that? Then we’ll get twice as much done. What do you think?’ I didn’t didn’t respond very well to that either. So.
Squirrel: I remember some very painful conversations that I really didn’t know how to handle. They were outside my comfort zone for sure. They were definitely difficult and agile conversations. And then in 2009, when, we’ll link to this in the show notes, because I managed to find it way back in Twitter, the bowels of Twitter somewhere, I had a debate with someone.
Meeting on Twitter
Squirrel: It was kind of a useless debate with someone else. And then another guy who had never heard of before just found him on Twitter. But in it he had all kinds of interesting things to say like that. Punishing people for breaking the build was probably counterproductive. And I thought that was pretty strange because we had joke punishments that if you broke the build, you got in trouble. Silly things happened. And I thought that was a great way to enforce things. But he really thought differently. And this was Benjamin Mitchell. Who brought us some of the ideas of action science that we talk about here, the idea that it would be good to be transparent and curious. And the ladder of inference or TDD for people in other techniques that we talk about a lot. And he brought me a lot of these ideas and I thought that was so fascinating. We hired him as a consultant. I remember I didn’t quite know what we’re gonna do with him. So I just said I got money from the same managing director who said, ‘OK, there’s another of your weird ideas, Squirrel. Some of them have worked out OK. You can try this one.’ And I brought him and he said ‘what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘well, I don’t know, you tell me.’
Squirrel: So we looked at each other for a while and then figured out a few things to do that have since become part of my consulting practise for sure. But they were very early versions. Then I started to learn about these techniques and the ideas of Chris Argyris and how you could actually apply the methods by investigating your own conversations. And that’s what forms, for example, Chapter two of Agile Conversations is a description of a refined method and much better thought out than I had then. But I started doing those conversational analyses that let me learn from conversations like the painful one I had with the managing director. At that point, that’s when you enter the story, Jeffrey, because I brought Benjamin along to the conference, you run along with your friend PJ. And that was, I think, an eye opening experience for you, if I remember right.
Jeffrey: Yeah, it was very interesting. It was. It was CITCON 2011. I remember in London, that was an interesting year. It was our second consecutive year in London, which we’ve never done before and since the CITCON two years in a row in the same city. But I had just joined TIM and I was in the middle of moving from California to London, and I really didn’t have the brainpower to figure out hosting and everything like that and organise conference organisation. So we just said well can we do at the same place? We were at the Wonderful Skills Matter office for second year. And so I was excited about joining TIM. I was excited about moving to London and I was very excited to be at CITCON in Europe with this bunch of people who I knew and including yourself, of course. And, you know, I had known each other since the first CITCON in London, 2006. And so when when you showed up with this person, Benjamin, I was very interested to meet him. I remember talking to him and the line that sticks with me from that first meeting was Benjamin saying something along the lines of, ‘you know, you’re very strong in advocacy, but I’m not hearing a lot of enquiry.’ Which really stuck with me. On the one hand, the ‘you’re very strong in advocacy’ was was praise in some extent. But it was also saying, you know, you’re also not listening.
Jeffrey: And and it’s funny because I looked back at that and it’s the kind of thing that I have since tried to help other people with who are often rise to leadership positions. And I think this has happened for me, in part because I could be articulate and make a strong, compelling case for why doing something was a good thing to do. And I could appeal to people’s interests and say, for example, around something like agile to align the story with their interest.
Jeffrey: But it was very much the case where I started the conversation with the end in mind because I thought I had good ideas that people would benefit from.
Squirrel: Which was my approach when talking to the managing director. Of course, this pairing stuff is great. Look at all the benefits. It’s wonderful that no enquiry about why that was troubling for him.
Jeffrey: That’s right. So we didn’t have a hugely extensive conversation there in November of 2011. But it did stick with me that this was something that made me feel like there was a skill that I was lacking and that it would be good to gain. But I didn’t really know a good way to do that at the time. So it kind of went on on the back burner for me. And it wasn’t until you had an idea the next year that really took us forward, which is you you proposed a study group.
Forming a Study Group
Squirrel: Indeed. So Benjamin and Jeffrey and I and one other person, Waseem, who we had all worked with or encountered, got together, I think it was every couple of weeks we planned it or maybe every month. I think it was every two weeks, at least at first. And we we tried doing conversational analyses. That was the main thing we did. And we’d all encountered Benjamin. We’d all found the ideas interesting that hadn’t really studied them, hadn’t really got deeply into them or really applied them. And it was that repeated practise that got us really at the skill level that we are today at least that’s true for me, because by regularly applying a kind of fearless lens to our conversations, did we learn things? For example, I had one where speaking of advocacy and enquiry, I came into a conversation thinking, well, I’m just going to tell this person what they did wrong. And then once they realised that they’ve done it wrong, they’ll do it differently, and the person halfway through the conversation turned to me and said, ‘Squirrel, can I be honest?’ I said ‘Oh, yeah.’ And it turned out that I had created the situation and told him to do the thing that he was doing that was, ‘wrong’. So I remember bringing that conversation and an analysis of it to the study group and learning a ton from doing that. It was, as you say, Jeffrey, learning was horrible. I had more tools for the next time that happened, which was very helpful. And we did this for several years, really religiously. Every few weeks we would get together and somebody would bring a case of conversational analysis. The kind we talk about it in the book. And that was the the birth of the four R’s, for example. We gave it a name later, but it was where we’re doing the recording reflection, revision and role-play.
Jeffrey: That’s right. We were role playing in the group and that was hugely helpful. You say that I think it was, as you say, also in a sense, a horrible experience, a strongly learning experience where you say you haven’t heard this before. You know, there’s a bit of jargon which is ‘learning is the detection and correction of error.’ And oh, boy, did I have a lot of errors. Your ‘You can’t be honest story.’ My equivilant, I think there’s a couple things that come to mind. But one that sticks with me the most was showing up one night with a case and we would rotate whose case we were doing. So you knew in advance? Some of the cases we would and sometimes we’d say, all right, we’re going to do Jeff next time we’re bringing mine in. I was a bit disappointed and I said ‘well, this is really the only conversation I could think of. And I think it went pretty well. So I don’t think we get much out of it.’ We have 45 minutes, an hour later, we’re still picking it apart. And I was thinking, I was so. So wrong. I was so wrong.
Jeffrey: And I think for me, that was the moment where I really internalised how difficult it was to judge this, my own performance in real time. It really required, you know, doing the work, laying it out on paper and then taking a critical eye to it. As soon as I had done that with the group I had created the case, but I hadn’t really analysed it till we were all together and seeing it on paper. Suddenly it was like, wow, this is a different person. What’s this person doing? And that was really what drove from me that my subjective experience in the conversation was really a terrible guide to how good my performance was relative to the values I was trying to espouse. And I know for me, when we wrote the book, especially the conclusion we talk about how to keep learning. And we try to advocate for people to form a study group. It was really this experience with yourself and Benjamin and Waseem that was really the strongest motivation for me. And then that’s actually something I took forward later. For me. Into into TIM was I ended up introducing this,
Squirrel: We should say, for new listeners TIM is a company, it’s the one where I had the conversation with the founder and [the company] which Jeffrey later joined.
Jeffrey: Right. And I’m still there today. So TIM an Acuris company we introduced first. The way we introduced this more broadly was that we at the time we had a management study group that would once a month read some article and when we read the article we’d say ask the question of ‘Do we agree what it means?’ And then if we believed it was true, what would we do? And finally, the question is, well, what are we actually gonna do? And we introduced the paper by Roger Schwarz, which at the time was called Ground Rules for Effective Teams. And I think now the title is Eight Behaviours for Smarter Teams. But it’s the same paper and it lays out these eight behaviours for effective teams. And we read that as a management group and said, ‘actually, yeah, we think this is very useful and could help us be a better department.’ So up till now, I had really thought about this for myself as an individual. And it was a personal skill. And now introduce it and the management team in technology decided, and product development. So this is something we could use more generally. And so we we shared that white paper then with everyone on the team and had discussions about how we were going to try to collaborate better using these principles, things like joint design, so that if someone had a good idea rather than coming in as you and I, Squirrel, may have done in the past and try to just convince people and advocate for it. We could actually have a discussion of did we see the same problems? What kind of trade offs do we value? And then, you know, could we design a path together? And that really took off and became very effective within the department.
Squirrel: We’ll link to that Eight Behaviours white paper in the show notes. And meantime, I had left TIM, so I was wandering off working in different companies. I eventually became a consultant and worked very tactically in lots of companies and applied a lot of this knowledge and trained people in bits of it that, Jeffrey, you took it even further within. TIM group and elsewhere. What happened then?
Starting the Meetup
Jeffrey: Yeah, well, I think it was, you and I, we’re still in touch quite regularly in this time period talking about the skills and how to use them in different places. And I eventually got inspired that I wanted to have more of this small group discussion. And so I started a meetup which originally was called the Action Science Meetup, because that’s where all this theory from Chris Argyris comes from, his label for it was Action Science,
Squirrel: A terrible label if you want to get people to adopt your ideas, you’ve got to come up with something more meaningful.
Jeffrey: For me, the name isn’t that terrible in conversation, but as a label it’s not very helpful for people.
Squirrel: It doesn’t tell you much. Yeah.
Jeffrey: One of the people who came to the meetup said he like the material. He said the problem with the name is that Action Science sounds a lot cooler than it really is. So that meetup is now still exists. But it’s called the London Organisational Learning Meetup, in part because I’m now looking more at trying to advertise more about what the ends are, which is to have a learning organisation rather than the means, which was action science.
Jeffrey: And we’ve expanded what we reviewed there to other things like on-violent communication (NVC) or the LEAP method and various other techniques and things we can do, but we do have as our core, the four Rs, as you mentioned earlier, we will take different frameworks and say how can we apply them to our conversations and our interactions to build, an organisation that really embodies learning? With the idea that learning is the key attribute of a company, the ability of a company to thrive and in different environments it’s a function of how quickly it can learn. And so at the same time, this was happening. I also at this point was part of the TIM executive team, I was CTO and made essentially the same case. Our business is changing a lot and we should be collaborating better. We should look at if we can change the principles by which the company as a whole operates. And we said at the same time, if we want the company behave differently, it’s going to have to start here in the executive team. We are going to have to adopt these eight behaviours if we want the rest of the company to do so. And so we started that in about the middle of 2015.
The Beginnings of a Book
Jeffrey: The executive team, we reviewed Eight Behaviours. We did some training together, and then started using them ourselves. And then we could see how much that was helpful for ourselves through the conversatios now to make decisions about how to run the company and then from there later, then publicise the rest the company and train the rest of the company on this. And I’ve been very happy that it really lived up to the sort of organisational learning to be able to roll this out to a whole company. It’s really interesting, people will talk about the differences in language that they hear within the company having internalised this and many people who leave say that what they definitely want to do is take these eight behaviours with them to other companies and people who’ve left say how much they miss them and want to try to spread them more. And so that was, I think for me, a lot of the motivation, having had this success and seeing how we could really dramatically change the culture to say, how could we help make this happen? And I think you and I were then talking more about that, about how we could do this more widely.
Squirrel: And that was when we started searching for a publisher. Didn’t have any idea how a business book might get published. But I had heard that it was a good idea if you were a consultant to have a book. And this was the most obvious area that we could really contribute in between you and I. And we’d both seen the value of this as I’d been using it tactically. And you’ve been using it strategically. We’d seen it over and over again. Make use changes for organisations. It was a massive value that we could share.
Jeffrey: And I think your experience at this time was really interesting because on the one hand, we had very complementary experiences because I was in a position as an executive sort of making it, official that this is what we’re doing and could be there for a long time and make systemic change. You could go in and make radical impacts and companies and very quickly-
Squirrel: And then get out, modus operandi as a consultant, get in, do my thing and get out. So I got a very broad experience of many different companies.
Squirrel: Which added so you had very deep experience at one hand and of course many before that in your previous lives. But I had the kind of experimental petri dishes to try things in.
Jeffrey: And I think that for a lot of- hopefully some of our listeners will be in a position where they’re executives or leaders of some sort and can introduce it. But I think it’s really in a sense, your experience should be heartening for a lot of people that you could be the only person who’s aware of these techniques and yet still they were valuable. I think that’s a really important message for people that, even if you’re the only one in the organisation who’s learnt it, you can still use it very effectively.
Squirrel: It certainly can work and it doesn’t necessarily need to take as long as we did. If listeners are following along carefully with the time line. You’ll notice that from the time I first heard about it, to, when we were starting to write the book is eight years. Does not necessarily take eight years to get skilled. You can do it faster than we did. The good news is that there’s a lot of things you can do to accelerate and you don’t have to make the mistakes we made.
Squirrel: But it was in 2017 that we got introduced to a publisher and that publisher suggested that our title should be Troubleshooting Agile because publishers often start with what people want to buy more than what you want to write. My preferred title at the time was Sprinting in Place, which I still think is a great title. Maybe I’ll use that for something else.
Jeffrey: And I think we may have even shared a first draft chapter with people at CITCON with that title.
The Beginnings of a Podcast
Squirrel: I think we might have done that. Sounds about right. And that’s, of course, when we started this podcast you’re listening to right now, which is called Troubleshooting Agile, because our thought was that if we had a greater platform, we would be more attractive to publishers. And we had already been talking, you and I, Jeffrey, every couple of weeks for years and years. And it’s very natural just to turn on a recorder. So we did episode one back in 2017. You were writing a very early version of Sprinting in Place then, and we got a lot of material kind of written down.
Jeffrey: I think to say I was writing a book at that point would be overstating it. I was inspired by a book by Gerald Weinberg where he talks about writing. He talked about something called the Fieldstone Method. So I did write about 34000 words, but I don’t think any of them- I’m not sure very many of them made it into the book. But it was collecting little stories and vignettes, the things that we want incorporate. I think for me, the podcast has been very helpful because it has allowed us to talk through and think through ideas. And there were times where I might be stuck writing a chapter. And so I would suggest it as the podcast topic of the week. So, that after after we talked about it, I knew what I could go.
Squirrel: Right, exactly. Because we didn’t know what it was until we talked about it. That was a very effective method. There was one reason I remember I don’t know if I ever told you this, but one reason I think we did talked about at the very beginning, ‘I said, Jeffrey, we really should be writing stuff, but it seems like that’s tough. It seems like we can talk about it. So maybe we should just talk about it and we could. I actually had the vision that we might actually make the transcripts of our talking. Then that would turn into the book.
Squirrel: It’s not how we wrote it, but that was my initial thought that I had.
Jeffrey: Yeah, three years later, we’re actually starting to create transcripts on our website that our listeners may have noticed that we’ll begin to start creating transcripts for some of the recent episodes. I don’t know how many that the backlog will do, but we’ll least get some of them out there.
Squirrel: That’s the idea. We have a very talented person who’s doing all the transcribing for us.
Squirrel: One thing been very helpful for me about about the podcast and in leading the book is that one of the ideas in the podcast has been this idea of troubleshooting and the idea that people are they have symptoms and they’re looking for solutions to those symptoms, they’re not sure what the core problem is.
Squirrel: They’re certainly not seeking to improve their conversations necessarily. They’re not waking up in the morning thinking, gosh, what I really need to do is have a better conversation today. They think, my God, we’re late again.
Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. Why aren’t things better in some definition of better? Why is this taking so long? Why is this so painful? And then to be able to talk through the connexion from, you know, you’re seeing the symptom and here’s what we’ve seen as possible causes. And then here’s how the conversations that you would need to go, start addressing them. Because unless it’s something where it’s something you’re doing by yourself, it’s probably to require a conversation.
Squirrel: Indeed. And that’s what the rest of the book does, of course, is to take different symptoms and problems and to tie them to conversations like trust and fear and commitment and accountability and describe to you how you can use those techniques to solve the problem that you see.
Squirrel: That connexion wasn’t clear. I remember very clearly that we were having a conversation with the publisher. And Jeffrey, you were on the bus. I remember. So for whatever reason, you were delayed. And I just remember hearing the bus starting up and then making its nice bus noises and the announcements and so on. And we were making out every fifth word or something from you because the coverage wasn’t great but we were discussing what we should call the book and how we should bring it together. We had thought of another book called Difficult Conversations, and we were trying to figure how to propose that book.
Jeffrey: And then you said, well, gosh, we should just write one book and it should be called Agile Conversations. And now I have to get off the bus. And I said ‘that sounds great’. And that was the proposal that actually got accepted.
Jeffrey: Oh, that’s right, I forgot we were at that time, we were we were discussing already writing a second book before we’d finished the first.
Squirrel: Ambition is not a bad thing.
Turning Words into a Book
Jeffrey: That’s right. Let’s bring these two together. I think it’s probably around the same time that then the structure of the book came together and the five conversations format. And that was your inspiration in part because of your anger.
Squirrel: I’ve told the story before I won’t bore our listeners. But the brief version is that I read Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by Patrick Lencioni) many years before, and I was eagerly waiting for the part where Lencioni was going to tell me what to do. It’s like, oh, yeah. This is a dysfunction. This is a deflection. These things are broken. Great! What am I going to do? And there was nothing. I threw the book across the room, wanted my money back.
Squirrel: So we went through and our five aren’t quite exactly the same as the five dysfunctions, but they’re closely related. And the thesis of the book was we can tell people what they can do about each of these problems. They probably know they have these problems. They don’t know how they’re linked to the burning issues of the day that are keeping them up at night. Well, we can make that link for them. We can tell them practical things they can do. That’s when frantic writing commenced. We switched publishers to I.T. Revolution, who is now our publisher. And they said, well, yeah, maybe we’ll publish it in 2021. We said we think we can get it ready for you by July. They say, well, give it a try. And we did make it.
Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. We did. So that was last year. This time last year, we were we were frantically writing and making good progress. And you would think I would have thought that, you know, the hard part was done at getting that first draft of the book.
Squirrel: Oh no.
Jeffrey: That that was pretty hard.
Squirrel: Yes, it was.
Jeffrey: But I think it’s fair to say that there was still a lot of work to do from that point as we went through the various stages of editing, the developmental edit. And I’m trying to think of now the three stages copyediting and proofreading. A lot of work and a lot of help for IT Revolution to get to this point. And now we’re just oh, man, we’re so close. It’s less than two weeks away.
Squirrel: Yeah! I keep telling people. Yeah, you can read the book in just a couple of weeks. Here’s this technique. I’ll tell you about it. But soon you can read Chapter four.
Jeffrey: That’s right. And hopefully people will get as much value out of these techniques as you and I have gotten over the years. And that’s really what I would love to see. That’s the hope that I have. One of our advanced readers who’s on the Conversational Transformation Slack channel and people can join us there if they’re interested in hearing more. And also, if they’d like to discuss the podcast, there’s now a podcast channel on that Slack instance he reminded me the last time he and I spoke in person about four or five years ago, we were in London and near St Paul’s by the Thames. And I was excited. Saying like ‘these are really important. More people should know about this. It would make a big difference. It would really help people.’ He reminded me of that conversation as he was reading the advanced copy. I’m like, oh, right. I do remember that conversation. And I’m very excited by the idea that we’re almost there in just a matter of days. People will go and get their copy the book and hopefully begin solving some of these problems that they’ve been having.
Squirrel: Well, that’s certainly what we’d like to have happen. So if listeners would like to hear more about that and learn more about the book, you can do that at ConversationalTransformation.com. And we’re looking forward to having it out to you and getting lots of questions from you and discussion about it. As Jeffrey mentioned, we have a Slack Instance and we have advanced readers and other folks like that. And if you are interested in any of that kind of stuff, just have a look at the website or get in touch with us. You’ll find email, Twitter, all those kinds of good things. I hope this history of writing the book has been helpful. Maybe if you’re thinking of writing a book. This is proof that it can be done. It doesn’t have to take eight years. You probably could do it faster. Learn a few things from things we didn’t do on the way. And we also, of course, hope that the book is helpful to as many people as possible. We’re trying to spread the word about how you can troubleshoot agile by having better conversations. And of course, we’re going to continue coming every week. Don’t be surprised if we talk a fair amount about the book over the next few weeks because we’re interested in promoting it, spreading the word, getting lots of people talking about it. So, Jeffrey, we’ve talked about going through some of the chapters and discussing the ideas, some more practical topics coming. And if you don’t want to miss any of those things, then hit the subscribe button or whatever it is that you use to make sure that you know that pretty much every week, every Wednesday, there’s going to be a new podcast from Jeffrey and Me. And we’ll be talking more about Troubleshooting Agile, Agile Conversations and whatever else comes our way. Excellent. Thanks, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.