Book Review: Agile Conversations: Transform your conversations, Transform your Culture — A book to…
Book Review: Agile Conversations: Transform your conversations, Transform your Culture — A book to pay attention to!
Lately I have been spending a lot of time thinking about culture and what type of environment as a leader I naturally gravitate towards building for my teams. In a timely fashion, the folks from IT Revolution (publishers of the priceless gems from Gene Kim ) kindly asked me to read upcoming book Agile Conversations: Transform your conversations, Transform your culture written by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick. While in a later post (hopefully), I’ll dig into how I see culture and what success looks like from my perspective, I will dedicate this post to the book without removing the element of surprise that this book will bring you once you read it.
Are your teams or company following all the right ceremonies for delivery (whether Agile development, Lean, Devops, etc.) and still feel that teams are not executing to their fullest potential? Then you should definitely give this book a try.
The book is divided into two very distinct parts. The first part lays the foundation with explaining the ideas and theories that make up the conversational tools that the authors go through during the second part.
The authors start by going back to the roots of how people and their execution were defined and seen in the 1990s when software factories started becoming more mainstream. The authors do a great job at explaining how Frederick Taylor went on a crusade to remove process waste and inefficiency by identifying that the most effective way that an organization could execute was with top-down direction and training people to do things the one ‘right’ way. This method, of course, did not consider innovation and that people feel are more productive working in environments where they can be fully creative, take risks, and where lessons learned from failures are celebrated.
Once you have allowed Douglas and Jeffrey take you down memory lane and enjoyed a bit of the history lesson there for how feature factories (or sweatshops) came about, the authors do a great job at explaining the origins and definitions of the most common software development methodologies (Agile, Lean, and DevOps). These three methodologies have defined the culture, execution, and mindset of most organizations that build and maintain any type of software products or technology projects. They are the underpinning of today’s economy as software continues to eat more facets of the world.
The Four R’s
The authors then define the technique that carries throughout the book for how to measure the success and learn from our conversations. We are all humans, therefore, we have natural tendencies for behavior when conversing with other people. These could be on either on the defensive or productive side and create a distinction between what we do and what we say we do. To measure and improve this, the authors lay out a methodology for capturing and learning from our conversations called the Four R’s: 1) Record, 2) Reflect, 3) Revise, and 4) Role Play. They also include additional steps such as Repeat, Role Reversal and identifying your conversational triggers. All these steps are meant to help us go back to a conversation that we believe did not go as intended and identify areas of improvement by following the steps defined by the Four R’s.
Now to the actual conversations…
The second part of the book focuses on the five core areas that organizations must establish to achieve execution and dynamics success. These ares are 1) Trust, 2) Fear, 3) Why, 4) Commitment, and 5) Accountability.
Why is that? (see what I did there?), it’s very clear that in order to drive transparency and curiosity, teams must establish a level of Trust. Going back to the unconscious reactions during conversations (defensive or productive), people naturally will gravitate towards defensive or just not act at all if there are unspoken Fears. Without a proper Why conversation, teams will be unable to draw out opposing views and build a culture where everyone participates in the definition of the concept. Lacking the prior two concepts will make it extremely difficult to achieve Commitment, especially if the situation feels threatening or embarrassing (i.e., technical or security debt). And finally, teams will fail to learn from wins and failures if they are unwilling to be Accountable.
The fascinating detail of this book is that within each of those conversations, the authors present some pragmatic frameworks for how to solve for each and I’ll briefly dig into each:
Trust: The authors make a good point that in order to gain trust, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and predictable. Vulnerability evens things when having hard conversations with others. Being predictable in the sense that your actions quickly reflect your words makes you a trusted person. In addition, the authors also bring to light Argyris’ Ladder of Inference which is meant to help you by not driving to conclusions too quickly. The authors do a great job at tying The Ladder of Inference to Beck’s test-driven development (TDD) and provide examples for how to measure/score your conversations.
Fear: The overall premise is that in order for teams to elevate their trust and improve executions is in an environment where there aren’t any hidden fears. The Fear Conversation chapter goes into details for how to discover those hidden fears and make them discussable. The authors make mention of Coherence Busting to overcome the tendency of jumping to conclusions (pattern here) as well as building fear charts. This chapter was interesting to me particularly because it talks about how fears manifests in group environments by explaining the concept of pluralistic ignorance and how people naturally avoid to be the first person to communicate fear in group settings.
Why: This I’m a big believer of. I’m a huge fan of getting to the Why of things as it distinguishes wants from needs or as the authors call out interests from positions. This chapter details how to combine advocacy with inquiry to allow you to be curious about other person’s perspectives (even if conflicting or contradictory) while transparently sharing yours. The authors introduce the concept of Joint Design or also called ‘Add your own Egg’ coined in Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting. I agree with the authors’ point that setting an environment where people are invited (as many as possible), genuine questions are being asked, opposing views are welcomed, decision making is communicated early, and discussions are time-boxed can get teams to disagree and commit.
Commitment: This is where the authors really get into execution. How do you get teams to commit to work? The authors do a great job at describing that first keywords and phrases are identified and their meaning is agreed to. Everyone must be speaking the same language in order for commitment to hold true. Love the concept of the Walking Skeleton coined by Alistair Cockburn where teams define the repeated patterns (iterative next steps) with follow-ups at the end of each iteration where commitments are measured against delivery and lessons are learned and applied to the next iteration (which drives accountability). Overall, the authors make a great point about achieving commitment versus driving compliance. This personally stuck with me as being a security leader, I’ve always preferred to build environments and culture where commitment is prioritized over compliance. But commitment cannot be achieved if there is lack of trust, high fear, and the why hasn’t been properly explained in a way that people have participated in defining the how.
Accountability: The authors introduce the concept of accountability but not in the sense that we are all used to (negative sense). Accountability in the context of this book is about teams owning their actions and the lessons learned from those. The accountability conversation is presented as a way to radiate intent so everyone concerned with your work can provide feedback and/or assistance while driving efficiency and empathy. In the chapter, the authors contrast Theory X and Theory Y where one believes that more management is necessary for proper execution while the other believes that people want to be engaged and that they are hungry for ownership (respectively). Of course, Theory Y drives a culture where Trust, lowering of Fear, Why, and Commitment are nurtured and grown. Finally, the authors clarify that in order for accountability to exists, teams must have a process for briefings and back briefings to talk about the work that is going to get done and present the work that got done. Luckily, most agile methodologies already have ceremonies for this.
In summary, the book addresses the core cultural values that I personally believe are critical for building successful teams and organizations. The book itself is a quick and easy read and the authors do a great job at explaining each concept with example conversations where things did not go as intended followed by versions of the conversation that showcase how applying each concept can improve the outcome of such conversations. Highly recommend everyone to read this book as culture is something that we all have to be actively involved in regardless of position within organization.