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“The story I’m making up…”

Last week at the August session of the London Action Science Meetup we started with a discussion of the phrase “the story I’m making up…” I love this phrase! It captures the process of the Ladder of Inference, but it has an immediate emotional resonance that the ladder does not.

I came across this phrase from an unlikely source: Now I’ve got nothing against Oprah, but this it just isn’t in a url that shows up a lot in my browser history! So the real credit goes to @frauparker, who is someone I clearly trust well enough to follow off into the well-scrubbed bright and shiny parts of the internet; in this case an article by Brené Brown on How to Reckon with Emotion and Change Your Narrative, an excerpt from her new book Rising Strong. The article is well worth reading but I’m going to take a look at it through the narrow lens of the action science workshops I’ve been leading.

For a few months now I’ve been leading weekly lunchtime workshops at TIM Group where anyone who is interested can join in a discussion of some two-column case study. This might be a canned case study, or one people recall and write down on the spot, but the best sessions have been when someone has come with something in mind, some conversation in the past or future that is bothering them. As a group then we try to help that person to explore how they were feeling, what they didn’t share and why, and how they might be more effective in the future. One of the common observations, and one this article reminded me of, is how hesitant the participants are to put their feelings into words. It seems we can almost always have a productive conversation by asking the series “How did you feel at that point?” followed by “Is there any reason you didn’t share that reaction?” These questions get quickly to the real source of our frustrations that are hiding back in the shadows. Bringing them into the light we find out something quite surprising: they were stories we were making up.

The article has good advice that will be familiar to students of action science and the mutual learning model, suggestions like separating facts from assumptions, and asking “what part did I play?” It also had a key action that is hidden in plain sight. Do you see it in this exchange from the article?

Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!” “I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?”

As I read the remainder of the article from the author’s point of view it was easy to overlook the role Steve played here. It was his calm empathetic question that allowed the author to reply with the title phrase: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.” I really struggle generating this kind of response, of not getting caught up with my own emotional reaction. So I admire what Steve accomplished here.

I’ve long said that “stories are the unit of idea transmission”. What I hadn’t realised before reading this article was how powerful I’d find using the word story to describe what is going on in my head. I’m really looking forward to practicing with this phrase in future conversations.

Video: Frustrated? It is probably your fault

I had great fun with my Devopsdays Amsterdam talk and the video is now online, joining the slides that I posted previously.

The last time I spoke at a Devopsdays was London 2013 (video here). That was another fun talk, and had some overlap in content, but I did feel that I tried to put too many concepts in a single 30 minute talk. My goal this time was to be much more deliberate and leave enough time for each concept. Where I ended up is a talk in three parts. Part one is cognitive psychology, how our mind generates an illusion of certainty where we don’t deserve it. Part two is Action Science and the Mutual Learning Model as a set of behaviours that appropriate for an uncertain world. Part three is the need for practice. This section uses the piano analogy and then — my big risk! — a live demonstration. A brave member of the audience joined me on stage to try applying the concepts I’d just discussed.

As you sit and watch this video I hope it is the final of section of the talk that makes the biggest impression. All the video watching, all the reading, all the learning will mean nothing if you don’t act, if you don’t practice and find the limits of your current abilities and then learn to move beyond them. And I’ll make the first step easy: Download the slides and try the exercise in the video. What would you say to Ted? Write it out and read it aloud. How did you do? Maybe you want to try again…

(Lots more great talks online at the devopsdays vimeo account.)

Slides: Frustrated? It is probably your fault

I’ve just delivered my talk Frustrated? It is probably your fault at Devopsdays Amsterdam. That means my slides must be finished! Here they are to download, and I’m looking forward to the video being posted later.

The piano analogy: some practice required

This year I’m training people in the theories of Chris Argyris, helping them to apply the concepts, and this raised some fun challenges. The challenge on my mind today is how to convince people that practice will be required before they can perform well? My current analogy is the piano.

After a quick search I can show you a three minute video of a 14-year old explaining how a grand piano works. If you’ve got an extra minute I could share a four minute animation that illustrates the mechanism in detail. You probably already know that in a piano the strings vibrate and that produces the sounds you hear. It would take moments to strike each key and allow you to hear each note. Having invested less than thirty minutes you could understand a piano and how it works. You can’t play it, but you know you can’t play it. You were unlikely to have mistaken understanding the concepts for being able to produce the result.

Action Science seems different.

I’ve introduced dozens of people to the topic through Roger Schwartz’s excellent Eight Behaviours for Smarter Teams, a sort of Shu-level guide to producing Mutual Learning behaviour. The response is typically positive, enthusiastic even, and general  agreement they should start behaving in a mutual learning way. However they also believe that now they understand mutual learning behaviour they can also produce mutual learning behaviour. They mistake understanding the concepts with being able to produce the result. Worse, their own incompetence makes them blind to their lack of skill.

So this is where the piano analogy comes into play. Everyone acknowledges the gap between understanding and performance. I use the piano analogy to set the expectation that practice will be required. Then we begin using the two-column case study to start retraining their ear, allowing them to begin hearing the difference between Model 1 and Model 2 behaviour for the first time. And when someone is discouraged by their performance, the analogy is there again to help them have realistic expectations: “How long have you been practicing the mutual learning approach? How long do you think it should take to retrain from a lifetime of habit and cultural norms?”

Do you have a technique you use to help set expectations for skill acquisition and maintaining motivation? If so I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on Twitter.

Frustrated? It is probably your fault.

That’s the title of my talk which has been accepted to the program for the upcoming Devopsdays Amsterdam June 24th, 25th and 26th. The topics I’ll be discussing will be familiar to the attendees of the London Action Science meetup — and to the people who have been diligently reading my session notes — which is that if you want to create change you need to start by changing your behaviour.

For the past few CITCONs I have been leading open space sessions with a very similar theme: “Can’t create change? It is probably your fault”. Those sessions have been great fun, because we get to talk through situations in real time together. My challenge now is how to generate those same kind of ah-ha moments for the audience without building it together in the room.

I’m not sure how I’ll do that yet, but I’m excited to have been accepted and to have the opportunity to give it a go. Hope to see you there!

Registration open for CITCON North America

CITCON North America 2015 will be held in Ann Arbor Michigan on October 2nd & 3rd. Registration opened today with a hard limit of 150 registrations.

Why a limit of 150 registrations? Our original inspiration was Dunbar’s number, and the idea that our prefrontal cortex puts a limit on the number of people we can model at one time. CITCON is a 100% Open Space conference, and the quality of the event comes from the interaction between attendees. I’ve blogged previously that I believe selection bias is a significant factor in making these interactions successful, and I believe the small size helps as well. After the Friday night opening ceremonies, agenda creation, and social hour, you really do know at least a little bit about every attendee. I believe that helps people engage in the conversations on Saturday, and helps ensure we have good outcomes in most sessions.

If you’re not familiar with the Open Space format and aren’t sure it is for you we have several resources that can offer some reassurance. First there’s a neat introductory video that was put together at CITCON Europe 2009 in Paris. Next, for some examples of what the sessions are actually like, you can visit the Skills Matter website, where they have videos of five of the sessions from CITCON Europe 2011. Finally, and what for me would be most reassuring, is the feedback and notes from attendees from the events going back to 2006! Reading through those blog entries is like watching the evolution of industry on fast forward. Hope you can join us and add your entry to our list.

Using the two column case study

On March 25th the London Action Science Meetup held a session on Using the two column case study. In our previous session we introduced some of the fundamental ideas of Action Science, and then closed with an exercise based on the two-column case study. This time we started by creating our two-column cases, used them to identify our Skilled Incompetence, and tried to design more competent options.

Skilled Incompetence was Chris Argyris’s term for the effortless, automatic production of behaviors that led to outcomes other than what the actor desired. In the article of the same name he describes using the two-column case format to make the automatic behavior visible, so it could then be redesigned. Our group attempt was slightly different in that our goals were two fold:  first, we were helping each participant identify what alternatives they might have used, and second, we tried to identify what in those situations might act as a trigger for that automatic behavior. My theory is that identifying these contextual triggers will be helpful for “reprogramming” those automatic responses.

I won’t discuss the cases from our group discussion, but I can share three context that came up as troublesome:  disagreeing with a statement, having an uneasy feeling, and someone else trying to close off debate.

Our first context was a common one, so common that it seems innocuous: disagreement. Person A said X; person B disagrees with X. What could be simpler? The problem is that Person A and Person B might mean entirely different things by X! Consider the statement, “Yes, I’ve tested the changes in the new release.” What is meant by tested? Does that mean writing automated checks or performing manual testing? If automated, does it mean unit testing or acceptance checks or both? If manual testing, does it mean on a locally installed build, in the acceptance testing environment, or post-release in production? Or did this person do all those things and more? We could make assumptions — in fact we will almost certainly make assumptions! — but we can’t know we understand what was meant without asking. And so the first takeaway of the night was that if you disagree with someone you might first check to see if actually understand what they mean. Our re-designed statement: “You just made a statement that I think I disagree with, but I want to check I actually understand you and that we mean the same thing.” This is consistent with the mutual learning model in that we are open to learning that we are wrong and we are transparent in our reasons for asking for clarification.

The second context we discussed from our cases is having an uneasy feeling, but not having a concrete reason to justify your feeling that a proposed course of action is wrong. This can be an uncomfortable situation given that the values of the unilateral control model, our default way of behavior, include “act rationally” and “win, don’t lose”. From this unilateral control mindset sharing a feeling with nothing to back it up is a sign of weakness. But remember that our goal isn’t winning, it is mutual learning! From the mutual learning mindset sharing our feeling is consistent with sharing all relevant information. If nothing else, your conversational partner will learn how you are feeling, and can then make an informed choice how they want to proceed. Do they want to enquire into how you feel? Do they want to share some additional information they have which might reassure you? Do they want to share their own misgivings? As long as you are acting in good faith, not trying to use feelings as an insurmountable objection, we all agreed that sharing these feelings open the door to improved joint design.

The last context that came up from our cases was in some ways the most challenging:  how to respond when someone says “this is not open for discussion”? Once again we came back to the key distinction between Model I and Model II, which is the goal of controlling the outcome vs. the goal of learning. If I believe the decision that isn’t open for discussion is wrong, then from a Model I perspective I need to find a way to re-open the discussion, to have the decision reversed. But from a Model II perspective, I have the option to be curious, to seek to understand the decision rather than reopen the discussion. Going back to the Eight Behaviors I have the option of responding with something like, “I can accept that the decision is made, but I’d like to understand the reasoning. Can you share your reasoning and intent in making this decision?” With this strategy we can learn more about the interests of the person making the decision. Even better, if we are genuine in our curiosity, we just might learn something that would change our opinion!

Asking at the end of the meetup the group agreed this was a productive exercise. The two column case study format allowed us to identify areas where our communication wasn’t generating the outcomes we like. By discussing these situations with the group we were able to both come up with alternative behaviors and also to recognized the context that resulted in our original ineffective behavior. Our hope is that by continuing to practice in this way we will come to be more aware of our options and less skillfully incompetent.

To help with this process in our next meetup we will be introducing a new tool, The Ladder of Inference.

Why I Write

I’m on Day #2 of the 10 Days to a Better Blog online workshop and the assignment for today  is to meditate and write down the answer to your “why” in terms of your writing, and they even provided a nice template for the content that I’m happy to adopt as my own.

I’m beginning to define and explore the difficult question of why I write and why I want to become a better writer. Here are some of my initial and incomplete thoughts:

  • I aim to reduce suffering in the world of software development through improved practices and improved communication. I believe that the practices and mindsets that make a difference can be taught, and I believe that through writing down what I’ve learned I can reach a wider audience than I do through my working and speaking and meetup activities.

I feel that’s fairly complete. I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to my purpose, my mission, my Why. And thus in the Why | How | What scheme described by Simon Sinek, writing is a How, not a Why.

How to get better at writing? That’s something I’m still working on…

Excited about CITCON Europe 2015

I’m super excited about the upcoming CITCON Europe! As an organizer I’m thrilled with the strong response to the event. It is scheduled in Helsinki for September 11th and 12th and we already have 40 people registered, more than 25% of capacity in just a couple of weeks since we opened registration.

But as an attendee what I’m really excited about right now is who is registered.  When I look at that list of names I picture a lot of familiar faces, and I start to imagine a lot of conversations I’m looking forward to.

Ten years ago PJ sold me on the idea of holding an open space event by comparing it to standard conferences: “You know how the best conversations are the ones that happen in the hallways between sessions? With open space all the sessions are like hallway conversations.” Sounded good to me! And it has been in good in practice now for 25 separate events, on four separate continents. I think we have a case that there’s more than luck involved…

I think an important part of our success has been the selection bias. CITCON is held on a Friday night and Saturday. This makes a big difference in who turns up. This is an event populated by people who have given up personal time to be there. They must have enough interest, enough passion, to make the trek and to put in the time. Details in background — developers, testers, sysadmins, managers, coaches, consultants — matter less than being the kind of person who will make that personal commitment to improvement. And if you’re a person like that, being in room full of others who feel the same way is hugely energizing. I think that’s why these interesting, accomplished people come back again and again, to be part of those conversations.

Now maybe you don’t recognize those names, but you want to be part of that kind of community, what to do then? Easy, join us in Helsinki!

Starting with the Mutual Learning Model

On February 25th we held the first meeting of the London Action Science MeetupStarting with the Mutual Learning Model. My goal for this session was to describe Action Science as a discipline, introduce key concepts, and illustrate some of those concepts through a hands-on exercise. I’m going to cover the same ground in this blog post including the exercise. I’d love to get your feedback in the comments, especially your experiences with the exercise.

First, what is Action Science anyway? According to the book (see Preface) it is “a science that can generate knowledge that is useful, valid, descriptive of the world, and informative of how we might change it.” More simply, it is the science of effective action in organizations. But this is no ivory tower science, remote and theoretical. Chris Argyris as scientist was also an interventionist. To practice action science is to learn how to be more effective, to help others to be more effective, and to increase the opportunities for organizational learning.

For my introduction to Action Science we began with the Mutual Learning Model as described in Eight Behaviors for Smarter Teams. This white paper from Roger Schwartz has been my go-to introduction for people interested in improving the relationships in their teams. Formerly called Ground Rules for Effective Teams, it provides a Shu-level set of behaviors that you can use to have better, more productive conversations. It also provides the motivating mindset that must be present, the mutual learning mindset, and the core values that go with it:

  • Transparency
  • Curiosity
  • Informed Choice
  • Accountability
  • Compassion

The mutual learning mindset and the accompanying values are easy to espouse. Who doesn’t want to learn? But one of the key areas of exploration in Action Science is the gap between what people claim to value — Espoused Theory — and the values that can be inferred from their actual behavior — Theory in Use.

While effective behavior starts with the theory-in-use of the mutual learning mindset (what Argyris called Model II), there’s a common default action strategy that is used instead, the Unilateral Control Model (what Argyris termed Model I). In contrast to the mutual learning model, the governing values of the unilateral control model are:

  • Achieve the purpose as I define it
  • Win, don’t lose
  • Suppress negative feelings
  • Emphasize rationality

Read these lists again, and test these values against your own experience, reflect on your own behavior… Heading into a meeting where you think there’s an important decision to be made, where there’s something of significance on the line, how do you behave? If you are like me — and according to Argyris if you are like virtually everyone — you will act consistent with the unilateral control model. You will believe your understanding of the situation is correct, you will believe the inferences you make are reality, and you will act so that “the right thing” gets done.

“Well… maybe. But so what?”, I hear you ask. The implication of the unilateral control model is limited learning; I am listening only to formulate my response, only speaking to persuade. It is defensive relationships; you know that I’m acting to get my way. It is reduced opportunity for double-loop learning; we are unlikely to question our norms, goals and values when we are struggling over whose strategy to use. Now perhaps in your context these implications don’t matter. But in teams that want to excel, companies that want to innovate, organizations looking to evolve, we can’t afford to lose learning opportunities. And on a more personal level the defensiveness engendered by the unilateral control model is ultimately unpleasant to live with.

“Okay, I’m convinced! Are we done?” Actually, now we are ready to try that hands-on exercise I mentioned at the start. It is a variation of the two-column case study, tool for exploring and understanding our behavior in stressful conversations, the kinds where it is difficult to produce mutual learning behavior. To perform the exercise you’ll need three items: a full page of lined paper (A4 / 8.5 x 11), and two pens, preferably blue and red. You’ll also need 15-20 minutes and a desire to learn more about yourself. Do you have everything you need to begin?

Prepare by folding the paper in half vertically so that you’ve got two lined columns on either half of the paper. Now think of a difficult conversation you’ve recently had, or are expecting, or a have been putting off. At the top of the page on the left hand of the fold write (blue pen) a sentence describing what you would desire out of that conversation and on the right what actually happened or what you fear would happen. Then in the right hand column write out the dialog as you remember or imagine it. (If this was an actual conversation don’t worry about remembering exact wording; for this exercise the sentiment as you remember it is more valuable.) There isn’t much room on the half-page so this process should only take 5-10 minutes and capture the essence of the exchange. Take the time to write out the dialog now, on the right hand side, before proceeding.

Once you’ve captured the key dialog on the right hand of the paper turn your attention to the left hand column. In this column write down what you expect you’d be thinking and feeling during the conversation. This could be what you are thinking as you formulate your words, this could be your feelings in reaction to theirs. This will likely take less time than the right hand column, only 3-5 minutes. Take the time to fill in the left hand column with your thoughts and feelings before proceeding.

Red pen time. Take a read through your dialog and circle in red every question you asked, every occurrence of the question mark. Write this on the top of the page on the right hand side as the denominator of a fraction. Next, review all those circled questions and count all the genuine questions, every question asked with a real interest in learning something from the answer. A genuine question is not a statement in disguise: “If the team feel they need the time isn’t that good enough?” When you’ve counted the genuine questions write that on the top of the page as the numerator of your fraction.

Red pen time, part two. Look through the left hand column and circle every thought or feeling that did not appear in the right hand column, that is the thoughts and feelings that you did not express. Write a fraction at the top of the page which is the number of unexpressed thoughts/feelings over the total number.

How did you do? In our meetup session the total number of questions was low (0-2) and the number of genuine questions even lower (0-1); very little red ink on the right hand column. The left hand column, by contrast, looked like it was bled upon. Most of the thoughts and feelings were not expressed. Now consider those lists of values again and compare it to your marks in red. If we espouse curiosity, why do we ask so few genuine questions? If we espouse transparency, why aren’t we sharing our thoughts and feelings? This gap between our espoused theory and our theory in use was clearly exhibited by the exercise in the meetup. Being aware of that gap is required to start with the mutual learning model.

What’s next? Experience and reflection has shown me that while I believe the mutual learning mindset is better, it takes effort, real mindful willful effort for me to produce it. But unilateral control behavior? I can produce that effortlessly! I know how to persuade, how to influence, how to build consensus. I know when to press my point and when to back off to avoid conflict. That sounds good, but if our intent is to learn this instinct leads me in the wrong direction. It is a symptom of what Argyis terms Skilled Incompetence. The good news is we can unlearn our incompetence and learn redesign our conversation. Starting down that road is the where we will head in the next Action Science meetup, March 25th. Hope to see you there!