Chapter 2 of Agile Conversations by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick is titled, Improving Your Conversations.  First an update on my conversation experiment from last week. Last week I wanted to review my conversations to determine if I was correctly assessing scenarios using the Cynefin Framework. There was at least one conversation where I misjudged the complexity.  Whereas the participants viewed the scenario being discussed to be complicated (the solution being a framework or best practices), I viewed the scenario as complex or possibly chaotic.  The differences in mental models made the conversation tense and ungratifying. In my mind, my failure was not recognizing the issue until I was reviewing the conversation after the fact (one of the Four Rs in Chapter 2). I think a better approach, for me, will be to assess the complexity of the scenario before the conversion in the future. Perhaps a form of conversational premortem. 

Chapter 2 begins the heavy lifting of improving conversations. This is a chapter I strongly suggest reading at least twice while you are putting the ideas into practice. The authors spend the first part of the chapter building a case for why conversations are so powerful. The authors state that through conversation “we are able to create and believe in shared fictions.” Without reading too much into the word fiction, the concept is important to understand why a leader with an engaging shared vision can affect change. Organizations without a shared fiction or vision of a better future often grind away at change for decades with some to note the huge impact they are seeking. Using Cynefin terms, a shared fiction (vision or goal – pick your terms) shifts the scenario from the chaotic to the complex. 

Conversations convey shared fiction and they also have the power to help those involved in the conversation to understand and change their behaviors. Change required being able to retrospect on the meaning and impact of conversation and then to learn to behave differently.  Changing behavior requires effort and determination – both are hard to muster for long enough to create permanent change. 

The big actionable ideas (different from the big philosophical ideas) are the  Four Rs and Conversational Analysis.  The Four Rs are:

  1. Record
  2. Reflect
  3. Revise
  4. Role-Play 

The Four Rs are served with sides of Repeat (after revise) and Role-Reversal (after role-play).  Maybe the authors don’t like the number 6. Without rehashing the book, Squirrel and Fredrick do a masterful job of explaining how to do all six of the Four Rs, I would point out to anyone steeped in agile or process improvement that the Rs are a feedback loop. If we accept that conversations are important and powerful WHY WOULDN’T YOU jump all over a way to get fast feedback? The simple answer goes back to finding the time and attention to improve. Asking someone running at 110% of capacity to find time and attention to focus on improvement will generally elicit a poor reaction. This is why as leaders (even if it is just leadership of our own minds) we need to find the time for small experiments.  

One simple experiment to consider is calculating the question fraction. A good conversation requires curiosity. I have spent a considerable portion of my career participating in formal assessments. We asked a ton of questions, for almost all of them, we either knew the answer or suspected the answer before we asked – it was an old lawyer tactic. We knew when people were a bit too judicious with the truth. The authors would not view these genuine questions (not driven by curiosity). The question fraction is the ratio between genuine questions and total questions. The higher the ratio the better in conversations. I am not always sure that all dialogs are or should be viewed as conversations – a bias on my part.   

There are several other interesting ideas I would like to explore such as patterns (page 42), but perhaps I will explore them mid-week. I am considering moving to a chapter every two-week cadence due to the density of ideas I want to consider. 

My experiment of the week:

I am going to use the conversational analysis process on two or three different types of hard conversations – my weeks are always interesting. One of the areas I am interested in contemplating is whether different kinds of conversations have different question ratios. 

Remember to buy a copy of Agile Conversations (Amazon Affiliate Link) and read along

Previous Instalments

Week 1: Logistics and Introduction 

Week 2: Escaping The Software Factory