Monday, June 1, 2020

A Whole Lot Of Nope

In light of recent outrages, there are a lot of people posting bloodthirsty things on social media. If you post bloodthirsty things, I want you to know I don't stand with you on that. I may agree with your underlying cause(s) and reason(s). But I don't want people to be killed.

I don't want looters to be killed.
I don't want protesters to be killed.
I don't want suspects to be killed.
I don't want curfew-violators to be killed.
I don't want civilians to be killed by cops.
I don't want cops to be killed by civilians.
I don't want politicians killed.
I don't want community leaders to be killed.
I don't want bystanders to be killed.

I'm not claiming that all of these things are equivalent. The only equivalence is that I want all these people to go home at night, and justice to be accomplished without bloodshed. I'm not suggesting outrage is unfounded. I'm not saying nothing should be done.

I will suggest that if escalation and bloodthirst were really the answer, they probably would have worked by now.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Speech Hacks to be More Decisive

I was in a leadership program with Christoper Avery some years ago. In that program, people would say “don’t should on yourself.

Another friend had years ago told me that “should” is the saddest word in English because it means you see value in something, haven’t done it, and probably won’t.

I embarked on a quest to get rid of some aspects of self-defeating speech:

  • Instead of “I’m sorry” say “Thank you”
  • Instead of “No thanks, I can’t eat that” say “No thanks, I won’t eat that.”
  • Instead of “I don’t know how” say “I haven’t learned YET
  • Instead of “I should ” say “I may ” or  “I would like to “.

You know, these little things make a difference for me.

The speech patterns are more decisive and confident, reflect agency and choice, and generally help me avoid shame (in myself) and appearing uncertain or indecisive.

These are just little things, and it's not magic. One a person chooses an attitude they need to find language that supports that attitude.

My speech changes support the internal decisions I've made about how I want to address the world.

I am no psychologist so I can't say why it works for me or whether it will work for you. This isn't a prescription.

If you want to try some or all of these, then go to it. I didn't originate these ideas and you don't owe many any credit if it works wonders for you.  If it doesn't work for you, well, you were warned.

If you try these hacks, then please:
  • Try them for yourself and on yourself. 
  • Do not insist that people use these terms. 
  • Do not chastise or pillory other people for not using these terms.

Does changing a speech pattern really change a person's attitudes? Probably.

Are we wandering into political correctness and the euphemism treadmill right now?
Gosh, I hope not. I'm no expert on those and see both advantages and disadvantages in those things.

I don't feel the authority or invitation to lecture you on how you should/must/shouldn't/mustn't speak. I'm just offering some things you can choose to do or not.

I'm not saying you should.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Some Covid-19 Information

Hello all.

From time to time, I will post something that is not on-brand for Agile Otter Blog at all, but is of concern at a point in time or in celebration or mourning.

Today I'm listing some resources related to the Coronavirus COVID-19.

A quick warning: there is a thin line between being informed about the virus and being obsessed with it. You should have the facts, and these sites will help you. But don't be so obsessed that you can't think about anything else. Take precautions, follow guidelines, don't be fooled by myths, don't search for miracle home cures. Take care of yourself and your family, and try to continue living a productive and normal life.

I took time out to gather a few resources for you, but I have other things to do too. May we all get on with delivering value to each other and serving our communities of practice as well as protecting our friends and family.

Don't panic. Do take precautions as recommended.

Info and advice:
Myth Busters:

Stay healthy, and that includes not having an unhealthy morbid fascination with covid-19.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Laptop "Problem"

A few friends of mine have been pretty down on people using computing devices during meetings. The very presence of open laptops, tablets, phones, etc, gives them the impression that people are disinterested and disrespectful.

You might know the individuals in question, there are a few of them and they all have some pleasant association with me in the past, they are friends, and I'm not here to talk about them. I want to talk about Curiosity Over Judgment instead.

Corporate Training

A long time ago, when I was working for a company in the great midwest, we took a class on crucial conversations. Our instructor was from headquarters and so was clearly an Important Person. The topic was clearly a Very Important Corporate Topic to have flown someone in from headquarters and cancel a day of work to educate us.

My friend had an apple device that was his exclusive note-taking machine. If one is to take notes, it's best that they're collected together, and having them on his device meant he could organize and search them and also take his entire library of notes from place to place in a pocket. The device was an Apple Newton - this was well before the ubiquity of laptops and tablets.

Early in the course, the instructor walked to my friend's desk, tapped the device and said severely "Put this away."  My colleague tried to interject and explain, but the trainer would have no part of it. "Put it away now, please."

Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, my friend shut the Newton down and put it in his bag. Then he crossed his arms across his chest, sighed deeply, and checked out. I could tell he was not concentrating on the topic as much as fuming over the unfair treatment he'd just received.

The Important Corporate Topic was "crucial conversations."  Let that sink in.

The trainer who was presenting how to have crucial conversations just missed the greatest opportunity to practice and demonstrate the very tactic they were teaching us. Instead, a unilateral hard-correction command "Put this away."  No conversation about "I saw you were doing this, which led me to think that, what do you think, what will you do?" None.

Image result for apple newton

"Put this away now, please."

I approached the trainer during the next break because it allowed me to follow the rules and talk one-on-one to offer feedback.

"I noticed that you told Chris to put his device away."

"Yes, I don't need him distracted during this training. I can't believe he brought it in."

"Okay. I was thinking that maybe you didn't know what that device is and had misinterpreted it. Did you know that it's a note-taking device and he was keeping notes on the class? No? Okay, so what do you think about that?"

"I thought it was a game or something. I've never seen one of those."

"I thought that was the case. You didn't ask, either. You seemed intent on shutting it down."

"Well, I wanted him to pay attention."

"Do you know now that you prevented him from taking notes on your class? What do you want to do about that?"

"I'll take care of it."

"Thank you."

I just had my first "crucial conversations" type of talk, and it went well. I felt pretty good about it. I was waiting for the apology and explanation and change of behavior. To be honest, I was feeling both useful and a little smug as the instructor walked over to Chris's desk.

The instructor pointed at his computer bag, said "it's okay to use that now" and returned to the front of the class. No explanation, no apology, no nothing. As if it was not okay earlier, but now the class has reached a different point in the curriculum where it's okay -- no mistakes made, no assumptions, no flaws. I was dumbfounded, but at least Chris was able to take notes.

I vowed not to correct people based purely on my own assumptions.

Geepaw's Influence

I was co-teaching a class with Mike "Geepaw" Hill once. He was handling the first hour's introduction. 

He stated that one will get out of the class what one puts into it, and he expects that everyone will try to get as much as possible. 

However, he said, he expects everyone to be grownups and manage their attention appropriately and therefore he would not be policing the use of phones and computers in the room. 

He suggested that one could feel free to take notes, look up references, or whatever as much as necessary as long as they attended the classes and did their best. 

I had recently been co-teaching with another trainer who asked that all phones, tablets, and laptops be piled on a table at the back of the room. I remember feeling uncomfortable with what seemed a draconic measure to me, and wondered how students would take notes. I remembered Chris' Newton and felt bad, but didn't confront the very confident trainer at that time.

But now I was with Geepaw in Geepaw's classroom and I felt that what he was saying was right. We work with adults, they are tasked with learning, they are in charge, and there are reasons they may need a computer or tablet out. Some of them took notes, even. Some looked up references. Some were creating email lists of references and a summary of ideas for people who couldn't be there.

Some people were only allowed to be in the room under a manager's protest, because there were important things going on in their teams - releases, production crises, etc. That they were present in the room at all was a testament to their interest in the topic and their desire to learn even under these difficult circumstances. 

Rather than feeling competition from the devices, and disrespect from people using them, GeePaw gave respect and room to the attendees. I suspect they cared more because of it even if one or two of them may not have been paying full attention the whole time. 

Some Reasons You May Allow Devices In Meetings

Let's consider twitter again. Here are some of the reasons our tweeps have listed why people may have devices in meetings:
  • Note-taking (see Chris, above)
  • Remaining available to managers via text/chat/slack
  • Vision issues mean they can't see your materials except via screen sharing
  • They are struggling to attend your meeting even though other events pull at their time
  • They were invited in case they were needed, and are awaiting the need
  • They're researching (pulling up logs, databases, documents, source code)
  • They may be summarizing the meeting for people who want to be there, but can't be
  • They are asking questions of people who should be in the meeting, but aren't
  • What you didn't allow them to ask, they may be asking on a back-channel so that they can present a more complete idea to the room.
  • Neurodiverse people may need to "burn off" excessive mental energy -- using the device as a fidget cube (one US president did crossword puzzles during staff meetings while paying attention and asking probing questions)
  • Recording the meeting
  • Sketching or sketchnoting the meeting
  • Documenting the agreements of the meeting for dissemination.
  • Remaining available for some personal crisis (sick parent, children, pet, house sale, etc)
  • Fact-checking statements by meeting attendees.
  • Checking company policy where a violation seems likely
Face it, we can't tell a person's mental state by seeing them type into a computer from a distance. We are fooling ourselves when we think we can. 

Until we know for sure, we have only our assumptions.


It is possible, of course, to take the presence of devices in a meeting or training as an affront to one's ego -- "they aren't paying attention to ME" -- or as discourteous disinterest. One is free to do so. Some people do so routinely. 

It is also possible that someone at your meeting is "untending" the meeting, paying no attention whatsoever and doing their daily work in your office instead of theirs: physically present but mentally remote. It's also possible that there's a reason for that. 

But this issue is a classic case where we can value curiosity over judgment. Maybe it's unfair of us to assume that the device indicates some particular mental attitude (generally one of disrespect) in the device users when we really don't know what they're doing or why. 

Its too easy to let ego defenses and Fundamental Attribution Error take over, as it did for our instructor (and I think for my friends who objected so strenuously, citing disrepect) but that may be as counter-productive and destructive to relationships when we do it as it is when my corporate instructor did it.

Maybe we ask first, judge second?

A little curiosity over judgment can go a long way, as can some Geepaw-style respect for the people we work with. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Disciplined Breaks, Two Years On

I described Disciplined Breaks here in 2017.

Sometimes people ask me how that's working.

I wish my answer was more confident and assertive, but what I can say is "it works great when we do it."

I use Disciplined Breaks in all of my training and coaching engagements, and often in conference talks. It works. 100% of the time it works. It works so well that people feel like they're cheating. They feel guilty for not being tired.

When I'm not there to enforce it, the teams practice it sporadically at best. When they work solo, few of them ever continue it (even though it works 100% of the time).  Worse, when I work solo, I also sometimes "forget" to do it. Yes, even though it works all the time.

We are talking about human beings and their sense of sufficiency and power and their work ethic and competitive, go-getter training.
Disciplined Breaks is a behavioral skill, and all behavioral skills (especially formal disciplines) are hard.
We are better at this when it's a special circumstance, an event like training or coaching or mob programming for a week. We're better when we support and remind each other. We're better when it's clearly expected of us. We're better at it when someone in charge expects it of us.

Lacking some external drivers we tend to be inconsistent -- not just students, but coaches and me individually.

Here are some patterns we see:

This is typical non-break-taking behavior. People feel that they have to be nose-at-the-grindstone at all times so they take no breaks and grind through the work all day long. Because they're lacking the energy to do their best work, they have to stay at it even longer to get similar results. 

As often as not, they make mistakes. When they go home and have some sleep they are refreshed and they realize what they should have done 4 hours into the day yesterday; which they couldn't see at the time. And they discover the mistakes they made, and fix those. 

They don't take breaks again (nose at the grindstone!) so they're tired by the time they've finished fixing yesterday so they'll have to work twice as long and hard to get their work done today. Maybe they'll do overtime.

When I follow this pattern I can tell how slow and depleted I am by 3pm. I'm aware of being unproductive and "slow" fairly early in the day. I can't concentrate. I'm antsy and have low impulse control. I'm easily distracted. I forget to keep track of my work, my learning, and the time of day even. I'm sort of lost and adrift and trying to force myself to be so.

Why do I even do it? I think it makes no sense to totally break discipline like that. And yet here we are. I have those bad days. I used to have nothing but.

So here is an intermediary pattern:

Here someone takes breaks in the morning or into the afternoon and they are surprised to realize that the breaks work and they're still energized at 2pm!! Since they still have energy, they reason, they don't really need a break so they skip it.

As a result, the energy level that was created by taking breaks is destroyed by not taking breaks, and the work becomes less energized. Now a break is needed for recovery.

We shouldn't need recovery breaks. We take breaks to avoid being tired, not to recover from it.  

But once we're tired, we'll need a bigger break to recover. This is the trap that most people fall into: you end up taking breaks in arrears -- only once you're depleted. But you have to ask yourself, why ever be depleted? What virtue is there in being tired and grumpy and slow-thinking at work?

I guess it's human nature. We would rather skip prevention, and then if we get sick we can have it cured. After all, we might not get all that sick, and maybe we can avoid both cure and prevention by just not succumbing to illness. Which is poppycock, of course. Human beings need maintenance -- either preventative or curative. But one of those is plannable and predictable and manageable. It's just hard to get past "I'll just push on, I'm sure I'll be fine. Or if I'm not fine, I won't whine about it."

Of course, when traveling and consulting "I can rest when I get home" is the thought. But that means we'll focus on work and ignore homelife. Not healthy either. I should come home in condition to participate as a family member, husband, friend, neighbor. So that's also silly once we examine it.

I usually get this pattern "rest when tired" pattern after I've fallen into the pattern of working without breaks for a little while.  Returning to Disciplined Breaks requires me to shift my mindset back to taking breaks in advance of work as a preventative measure. Before I shift back to prevention, I mistake my energized state as one that doesn't need rest, rather than one that comes from having rest. An easy mistake to make. Being human is weird.

This is clearly the better pattern:

Again, back on schedule. We take the breaks so we're energized all day long. We don't skip breaks because we realize that they are to maintain the energy level. We don't need to be tired to take an energy-maintaining break, so we stay full of energy all day long. And the next day. And the next.

Maybe not on the weekend. Maybe I'll just rest when tired. Or maybe not on vacation, because there's so much to see. Oh, wait. That's the all-red pattern creeping back in. Darn it. Humanity is a tough skill.

When I stick with the last (all blue) one, I am energized all day. I have good interactions, and I tend to do good work. I even end the day with a list of things I learned and new insights about working.

When I don't, I don't.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Coward's Confrontation: Leadership fail

I want to introduce you all to a term:

Cowards' Confrontation: a rule made in order to avoid having an uncomfortable conversation with an individual, which rule is either selectively relevant or selectively reinforced (or both).

So, for instance, a 15-person team exists of which only two people ever eat at their desks. One has a cold sandwich and carrot sticks, but the other brings tuna and shrimp freshly heated from the cafeteria's microwave oven.  The team has been bothered by the fragrance of the daily seafood and the residue left in the trash can.

The team (or a manager at the team's request) makes a rule that there will be no eating in the workspace.

Our sandwich-eater ignores the policy with impunity. After all, this person knows that the policy was about smelly seafood and doesn't apply to them. Nobody, team member or manager, says anything.

The seafood-eater notices the sandwich-eater's scofflaw behavior and returns to their desk with food one day. They are confronted with "you can't eat here; you know the policy."  This is upsetting because sandwich-eater has been eating at their desk. The seafood-eater now feels singled out.


"We're sorry," say the other team members, "if it were up to us it would be fine, but you know the rule."

This is the Cowards' Confrontation. Selectively-made, selective-enforced policies that allow people who are afraid of a confrontation to control the behavior of another without actually admitting to being upset or asking them to change.

When you are making team agreements or rules, beware. Don't be the coward cowering behind the Cowards' Confrontation.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Is It My Fault You Can't Handle The Truth?

Image result for you can't handle the truth image

In the past year, I was introduced to the idea of hyper-rationality. I think it was under another name (to be given shortly) and as part of a presentation by George Dinwiddie on, of all things, estimation.
It was a funny place to be introduced to ideas from psychology and family therapy, as well as organizational psychology and collaboration, but there it is.

It is nice to be smart.

It's extra-nice to be right. It is wonderfully nice to be right, smart, rational, and helpful to others.

Sometimes we put too much emphasis on being right, and sometimes we can be right in the wrong way.

Hyper-rationality is a state of being excessively or inordinately rational. It is a belief in rational truth as an unassailable fortress, that being correct is all that matters.

For instance, the feeling that if I am right or I am telling the truth that you have no right to be offended or upset.

When people are acting hyper-rationally, they often expect to be respected and appreciated for having the superior argument, the more data-backed answer, the provable theory. But this seldom happens.

I'm not going to explore any kind of moral, rational, logical relativism here. That's a different topic. I'm not suggesting that whether gravity or physics or hexagonal architecture are "true" are a matter of personal opinion. I'm not even playing with the idea of "personal realities" here.

The fact is that being actually, provably, data-based, research-backed, iron-clad RIGHT is sometimes not the most important thing.

"If the truth bothers you," one may say, "then you are overreacting or overly sensitive." This is a declaration of irresponsibility. It is the hyper-rational way of saying "I am not accountable for any damage, upset, or embarrassment I may cause."

Not Responsible For Broken Windshield

It reminds me of the bumper stickers on trucks saying that vehicles must stay back at least 200 feet because the driver is not responsible for damage done to other vehicles by falling rocks.  It's nonsense of course. The sign on the truck does not let the company off the hook.

The sign tells others "I am irresponsible. Whatever damage I do to you is your problem."

When people claim that they are just telling the truth and can't be blamed, it is likewise nonsense. We are always responsible for the words we speak and the actions we take. We're not let off the hook just because it's true.

Sometimes we crave the irresponsibility of Being Right.

Virginia Satir talks to us about being congruent and reminds us how our communication has different layers of meaning.

Even if my words are accurate, rational, and true, the way I deliver them may color that truth with an entirely different message.

Sometimes that message delivered with our "truth" is "screw you, I don't care what you think." That message is never helpful.

There is the term that Satir used, and which I hinted would be revealed. That term is "super-reasonable."

This is described by Andrew Fogg as:
A super-reasonable person discounts himself and others and respects context only. He frequently knows lots of information and works solely from a logical or objective perspective. He says to himself things like “Everything is just a matter of logic, emotions are a waste of time” and “I must be more intelligent and show how intelligent I am.” Physiologically this stance is rather dry! The super reasonable person only respects the context, while disrespecting themselves and others.
This is explained well in an article at Satir Workshops, using a simple three-part circle diagram as a key.

The three chunks are Self, Other, and Context.

The same icon/diagram is used in this lovely sketch describing coherence and imbalance, which is from the 1972 edition of Virginia Satir's book Peoplemaking (original by Barry Ives, modified by Charles Lambdin to work better in this blog):


Here you see people discounting the needs of the self, then the other, then both the self and the other, then all of the above. Finally, you see the Leveler who is considering all of these aspects and is likely to be successful in collaborations.

Super-reasonability ignores the humanity of an interaction, assuming that facts and intelligence are all that is needed to make it all work out.

Often when "objective truth" is presented in a conversation, it is given as a reason to NOT do things one is requested to do, or a reason that other people should do as they are told by the truth-teller.

In this case, it is a power move.
It is a trump card, an argument-ender, a sockdolager.
It is closer to "blaming" than to "super-reasonable" in such a case.

If the message is "screw you, I'm right" then likely you're not offending people with the truth but by demeaning or disregarding them.

All people in positions of power (bosses, managers, consultants, public speakers, recognized experts) need to be careful. When you find yourself in this position, it's time to pause and think more deeply; being right is not enough.

The truth-teller in this circumstance has been met with a request or a need, and rather than attending to the need or aligning with the person who has come asking, the truth-teller is instead asserting dominance/superiority and shutting down the conversation.

Why would anyone not take offense at that?

"I'm just telling the truth" is a mask frequently worn by callous self-centeredness.


That describes a great number of bad interactions I've had in the past. Having worked so hard to learn many things, I felt it important to deliver my well-studied truths -- more important than to care for the needs and ambitions and goals of the people around me.

I said some things not only because I thought they were true at the time (and may have been), but because they gave me a shield from the upset of the others -- my own "stay back 200 ft" sign; my own "get out of responsibility free" card.

As Michael Mendis described it:
"we flee from what we fear, so it can be concluded that hyper-rationalists fear their irrationality and seek to escape from it by taking refuge in an excessive and exaggerated devotion to 'reason.'"
Sometimes we try Being Right to protect ourselves from our own irrationality, from engaging with other people's needs, and so that we can avoid dealing with the emotional and irrational side of other human beings (a side just as scary in them as in ourselves).

But it's still there.

Data doesn't make us less human. It should be used in service to humanity rather than as an escape.

If we have an objective, context-free, helpful truth then why can't it be offered in a way that respects and honors other people?

Why must it be a conversation stopper/winner, rather than incorporated into the context of the interaction that is focused on meeting the goals of all the people involved?  Why can't it be helpful rather than off-putting?

Truth does not have to be delivered bluntly and brutally.
There is a tradition of "speak the truth in love" to consider.

A better example of helpful truth-giving is from Randall Monroe (AKA xkcd):

When you think that others are being hyper-sensitive, perhaps it's a good time to consider whether you are being super-reasonable.

Some questions to consider:

  • Are you hiding behind rationality? 
  • Are you discounting your place and the other person's place in the interaction? 
  • Are you trying to take a shortcut that is not helpful to your collaborators? 
  • Is it important to you to "win" the conversation?
  • Are you using rationality to escape responsibility?