This post describes the first day of my Bringing Distributed Teams Together series (read that first to see the larger context of this post).
Using combinations of clean language, active listening, conflict resolution models, and directed questions from the facilitators, all the team members were able to gain empathy and understanding for each other and learn some very useful communication techniques. We all created individual “Rough Guide to Me”, and to agreed on a shared vision of how we work.
I asked Paul Field to advise and facilitate the first day of the distributed teams onsite. My brief to Paul was to use the day to help all the team members to work more effectively together, and be able to move towards forming a high performing team.
Before planning started, Paul asked for some more concrete and measurable outcomes. With some probing from Paul, I came up with the following:
- more positive interaction from all participants during planning and technical meetings (I was concerned that communications were too one-sided)
- more informal and ad-hoc communication outside of formal meetings (as would be expected when people are comfortable with other and able to emphasise with them)
- more distributed decision making (I’m betting that better knowledge of everyone’s interests, drivers and concerns would help team members to propose solutions that would work with everyone)
Paul strongly recommended that the team work towards developing a shared vision of how we all work together, which struck a chord with me, and we added the following as a desired outcome:
- A shared team vision for how we work
After a number of meetings, Paul and I had settled on a day structured around learning a set of soft skills that would help the team work effectively, and using those skills to learn more about each other and to help develop our team vision. Based upon the plan for the day, we also brought in a second facilitator: Marian Way, an expert in clean language workshops.
The success of the day depends upon both internal team interactions as well as how the teams interact with the wider organisation. As such, I invited other people closely associated with the teams, so that we ended up with:
- 2 development leads (that includes myself)
- 7 developers
- 1 enterprise architect / subject matter expert
- 2 business analysts
- 2 product owners
- 1 production services representative (that it, IT operations)
There were 15 people in total, plus the 2 facilitators.
The first half of the day was devoted to learning some aspects of clean language that would help us later in the day. I was fascinated to see how Paul and Marian introduced the subject: by example.
We started with the “clean set up”. This involves asking everyone 3 questions:
- For today to go just ad you’d like, it will be like what?
- And for today to go like that, you’d like to be like what?
- What support or resources do you need?
These questions are designed to help prepare all the participants to understand their goals, and to put them in the frame of mind to enable them to reach their goals. Once you learn the technique, it can be done quite quickly as preparation for any meeting.
Next, Paul instructed us all to “see an elephant”. A nonsensical request! Paul and Marian used a combination of active listening and clean questions to elicit statements from us. We learned just how each participant had very different thoughts about that particular question had. It emphasised just how different everyone was in interpreting a question (we discussed the ladder of inference later in the day). Through repeated demonstrations of the technique, and a challenge to all of us to gain insight into the techniques they were using, and to allow us to try it ourselves.
After this, we started work on one of the main products from the workshop: every individual created a “Rough Guide to Me”. We didn’t complete it in one go, but filled in various sections at points during the rest of the day. The sections were:
- When I’m working at my best, I’m…
- My ideal team is like…
- My patterns…
- How I become #!#!#!
- What’s important to me…
These rough guides can be shared with everyone, allowing a really transparent view into each persons preferences.
The afternoon centred about getting a shared vision of our ideal team. We started with our own vision of an ideal team from the “Rough Guide to Me”. We were each asked to finish of the sentence “My ideal team is like…”. The very structure of the sentence invites us all to create a metaphor for our individual vision. We were also asked to draw a picture to represent our vision (this was a cruel and clever trick, as we later found out). The metaphor I came up with was this:
My ideal team is like the staff in a busy kitchen in a high end restaurant
I’ve been watching Masterchef lately, so I liked the kitchen metaphor. I thought that there were a number of parallels between a restaurant kitchen and software development:
- Good chefs are skilled craftsmen (like good software developers)
- Different chefs have different skills, all the kitchen workers must cooperate to produce the end product
- Value is delivered to the end user in small increments (of delicious and beautiful plates of food)
- Feedback cycles are short and obvious (you’ll hear quickly if the diner didn’t like their food)
The next part was very interesting: we formed pairs, and were asked to come up with a joint team vision. This was an act of negotiation. We were reminded to use the clean questions as taught to us in the morning. Most pairs were able to synthesise their visions into something that both could subscribe to, but not everyone. One pair in particular didn’t negotiate effectively. Rather, one member didn’t like the suggestions from the other, and refused to abandon any aspect of their individual vision. This was something Paul and Marion were counting on! (by getting us to draw a picture, they made us become more attached to the vision that might otherwise have been).
Conflict! Paul and Marion were able to use this as an exercise to teach us about the Karpman drama triangle:
With an awareness of our roles in the drama / conflict, we are better able to understand a way out. Using a conflict resolution model, the members were able to reach a mutually acceptable consensus.
With 8 pairs of people now having a joined up vision, we then repeated the exercise of forming a joint vision. Each pair joined up with their neighbours to negotiate on a vision that all 4 people could accept. Then we did it again: the 4 groups of 4 joined formed 2 groups of 8, and then once again we finally combined the vision for each group of 8 into a fully synthesised cross-functional team vision.
Our final vision is both nonsensical and awesome: it involves a rocketship bank with bee chefs. The value comes from how the team arrived at a shared metaphor, the understanding of the negotiation process to get us to the metaphor, and the values that go into defending the aspects of the metaphor that are important to each of us.
Everyone said that they enjoyed the day. It was fun working together on the team vision. A number of people said that they learned some skills that would radically change how they communicated with others. Others looked very thoughtful. It’s too early to say if the desired outcomes will all be achieved. I’ll share any insights become evident to me later.