How to say “No” and preserve your relationships

In a surprising way, the pandemic has shown me what I valued underneath the technicolor zebra stripe of my google calendar. The connections I have with family and friends.

I laughed a year ago when I watched the Portlandia episode “Cancel it” (2 minute Portlandia episode). Apparently there is a tendency for people to accept any obligation in the future, despite their lack of wanting to, then using the miracle of technology, cancel it at the last minute over text. It goes to the absurd, canceling Christmas, couples counseling, even weddings. Well, it seemed absurd then…little did they know how things would change a couple of years later! 

I identify with this pattern. I tend to suffer from future time optimism – in a year I’ll have time to write that book, travel to Hawaii, save enough money to stop being busy, and really be happy. And socially, it’s hard for me to say “no” to something that is a year in the future, especially if I don’t have anything else on the calendar. Maybe I’m a closet curmudgeon?

I am wondering, how I might keep this slower pace post-pandemic. How might I keep the connections with those around us, without all the nonsense, the to-and-from wasteful travel/commuting? There was a bunch of waste that in hindsight felt like featuring it vs fixing it.

Maybe I need a special code-word with friends/family when they ask me to signup for something that I feel obligated to do, but I don’t really want to do? (e.g. “Cacao” for Portlandia fans, Oklahoma for Ted Lasso fans). 

I recently had an exciting opportunity to help with some volunteer time off for a criminal justice education non-profit. It was a great organization for a cause I wanted to learn more about. It would only be 4 hours. I worked with one of them before. A real nice guy. He gave the opportunity me to coach the MIT kids. And as a nice bonus, I would get my name on the instructor list at MIT. I anticipated the feeling of prestige, and righteousness washing over me. 

Then I thought, while that is nice, I knew it would have taken actually 8-20 hours to do it well, and given my other commitments with my day job in January, I wouldn’t be able to do the other stuff in my job well. I’d be neglecting family and other obligations. So I took a cue from Gerry Weinberg, who wrote a bunch of books on psychology and computer programming, and tried Satir’s Soft Spurn. (Virginia Satir was a famous family therapist he learned most of his psychology from, and by extension influenced the entire agile community to be more human-centered.)

I said  ‘Thanks for thinking of me. I really enjoyed working with you before and this seems like a great cause. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit for me. I wish you the best and I’ll shop it around with others…’ And I was able to find someone else for whom it did fit.

The soft spurn consists of three elements:

1. Show genuine appreciation, in words, tone, and body language (for example “I’m honored that you would ask me”)

2. Give a regretful but clear no, without excuses (saying, “Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit for me.”

3. Indicate an opening to some other relationship in the future (saying, “…at this time”). [1]

For me, #3 was an opening or concession to some other helper. It seemed to work. I preserved my existing commitments for January and maybe evened deepened my relationships by connecting my friend with another coach who could volunteer time.

And if you hear me give you that response, please know I’m honored you would ask me for help. And, while I might not what to do whatever it is you are asking me to do, I value you as a person and our relationship. I might want to do it later.

If you end up using this, please let me know how it goes for you.

[1] Weinberg, Gerry. More Secrets of Consulting (Dorset House, 1985), 77

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The Future of Work

I’m getting involved with Zerobase. They are building a 100% private contact tracing app, to preserve our civil liberties AND flatten the curve. It’s exciting, because the speed and self organization of this organization feels different. They have built the organization on the principles found in Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Team’s approach.

They have combined Shared Consciousness + Empowered workforce, rapidly bringing people on focusing on their super powers. In two weeks they are poised to launch in 5 cities. They went from 2 people to 150 in 2 weeks. Every day feels like a week.

They have all the essential ingredients from Dan Pink’s Drive. They have Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery. The purpose – To stop the spread of corona virus while retaining your privacy. Autonomy through empowered execution (mostly using slack and daily calls) – leaders who ask questions, reaffirm the meaning and purpose and mastery – aligning people to their super-powers. Since they aren’t paying salaries, they need to rapidly onboard, give people a sense of the mission. Since people may only have 2 hours a day, they need to not tie them up in meetings, etc.

As Matt Mullenweg says, they focus on the baton, not the runner. I am excited to share some of the lessons I’m learning from their leadership. Running a globally distributed organization with all volunteers – rapidly getting a product to market. What might happen if we ran all our organizations like this? How might embracing remote work create the kind of value and organizations that we always wanted to be in?

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Notes from Sam Harris’ Matt Mullenweg’s New Future of Work

My notes from Sam Harris’ New Future of Work podcast interviewing Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg of This is a wordpress site, btw.

Level 1 – Working Physically together

  • Watching the clock, staying there, bosses to look over someone’s shoulder. Taylorism.

Level 2 – Recreating Physical Workspace remotely

  • Doing level 1 remotely. Old models stay – in new pants, like “teleworking”, or movies were “talking pictures” before.

Above is based on the Factory Model – focus on inputs – possible to fake not working for 3-4 months. 

Below is based on the Knowledge worker model – focus on outputs – not possible to be judged by “showing up from…matt based based it on Dan Pink “DRIVE” model: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Good video here.

Level 3 – Investing in your remote space

  • SE130 Seinheiser
  • Arctis 7
  • (remove machine learning to remove background noise)
  • iOS app
  • Screen for Writing Ability…How do you apply, Interact, e.g. Slack/Tickets

Level 4 – Moving Asynchronously

  • Give agency to produce the same output with different inputs
    – 2016 relay race team – focused on baton handoff, shave seconds off the baton handoff….
  • Tap into the global talent pool
  • Follow the sun: US, AsiaPAC, Europe – 24/7
  • Decisions take longer, but they become better
  • Most meetings are terrible (Meeting for status updates, forcing people to get people in the same place in the same time, getting “reactions” vs HIPPO culture, Extroverts, Men speak more than women)
  • Moving asynchronously enables people whom English isn’t a first language, removes biases, take a walk, think about it for an hour
  • Maybe decisions take 1 day or 2, but decisions are much better than reacting in real time

Level 5 – Nirvana….Unattainable

  • Doing better than any in person work can do
  • Fun things,  Can do things that might be socially awkward or impossible in an office (e.g. puppy, health, mental well beings) e.g. in between meetings 20 squats or pushups, candle, treadmill desk
  • WordPress uses their own app to identify who has met up with eacother. (Use Zerobase for this?)
  • All org structures are tradeoffs. Optimize for Resilience. Focus on Antifragility, try to make teams super cross functional, allow them to ship/iterate. Teams of 20 should be able to ship as they did when they were 


  • Concern about Security – Endpoint security should solve this, vs access control model of security: “walled garden”, only as strong as the weakest link….Assume trusted employees don’t align with the interest of the company. Look at behaviors, what we want….
  • Managers – hard to recreate this online. Try checking in on people more often.  If they are slumped in their desk, can’t see it. Also start meetings with check-in.


  • Transparency: Zoom, Slack, a blogging platform. Something to replace email – email is nice, it’s async but it’s private. P2 is an asynchronous blogging system built on WordPress. Matt gets only private email on HR things….People ask questions for Matt with Google Alerts when people mention a topic you are interested in. Salesforce has Chatter. 
  • Acronymn API – Assume Positive Intent
    • 99% of the time they are not trying to attack you. Use Emoji, etc. Be conservative on what you put out. Write kind/humane messages as possible. Perceive that people could mis-interpret
    • Hop to audio calls right away to de-escalate things. Or de-escalate yourself. Take a few mindful moments away from the computer – be kinder to another person
    • Don’t use punctuation at end of sentences
    • Be clear what you agree to e.g. instead of Yes, say Yes, I am approving increasing salaries for these 3 hires.

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Never Split the Difference Negotiation One Sheet

As I mentioned before, I loved Chris Voss’s book “Never Split the Difference“. So much of life is a negotiation. As an agile coach, I’m trying to get adults to change ingrained behavior. As a parent, I’m trying to influence my child to change his behavior. As a customer, I want to get better service, better products. In large software companies, most managers face a dilemma of influencing other teams to help them deliver the functionality they need so they can get their job done. I’ve found Chris’ 1 sheet helpful to get in the right frame of mind before I go into a negotiation. Specifically, writing down the goal, what I want to achieve and calibrated questions are very helpful.

Negotiation One Sheet

Chris Voss

  1. What are my specific goals for this negotiation?
    • Think through best/worst-case scenarios but only write down a specific goal that represents the best case.
    • Set an optimistic but reasonable goal and define it clearly.
    • Write it down. 
    • Discuss your goal with a colleague (this makes it harder to wimp out). 
    • Carry the written goal into the negotiation.
  2. What is a summary of facts up till now? 
    • Summarize and write out in just a couple of sentences the known facts that have led up to the negotiation. So you can be ready to respond with tactical empathy with your counterpart
    • Why are you there? 
    • What do you want? 
    • What do they want? 
    • Why?
  3. Labels, Accusation Audit
    • Prepare 3-5 labels that summarize how the counterpart feels about these facts. Anticipate how your counterpart feels about these facts you’ve just summarized.
    • It seems like _________ is valuable to you. 
    • It seems like you don’t like _________. 
    • It seems like you value __________. 
    • It seems like _________ makes it easier. 
    • It seems like you’re reluctant to _________.
  4. Calibrated Questions: 
    • Prepare 3-5 calibrated Questions to reveal value to you and your counterpart and identify and overcome potential Deal Killers. Effective negotiators look past their counterparts’ stated positions (what the party demands) and delve into their underlying motivations (what is making them want what they want).
    • What are we trying to accomplish? 
    • How is that worthwhile? 
    • What’s the core issue here? 
    • How does that affect things? 
    • What’s the biggest challenge you face? 
    • How does this fit into what the objective is?
    • How can I help to make this better for us? 
    • How would you like me to proceed? 
    • What is it that brought us into this situation? 
    • ?How can we solve this problem? 
    • What’s the objective? / What are we trying to accomplish here? 
    • And the Mother of all questions: “How am I supposed to do that?”
  5. Questions to identify behind the table deal killers
    • When the decision is done by committee, you want to get the support of that committee
    • How does this affect the rest of your team? 
    • How onboard are the people not on this call? 
    • What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area?
  6. Questions to identify and diffuse deal killing issues
    • People you are negotiating with are comfortable with the way things are. Change might look like they aren’t doing their job. How do you make them look good in the face of such change?
    • Pick 2-3 of these sets of question and ask together to get information that will help you identify the real issue at hand
    • What are we up against here? 
    • What is the biggest challenge you face? 
    • How does making a deal with us affect things? 
    • What happens if you do nothing? 
    • What does doing nothing cost you?
    • How does making this deal resonate with what your company prides itself on?
  7. Noncash offers
    • Prepare a list of noncash items possessed by your counterpart that would be valuable.
    • Ask yourself “What could they give that would almost get us to do it for free?”

Voss, Chris. Never Split the Difference (p. 258). Harper Business. Kindle Edition. 

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Getting More Negotiating One Sheet

I’ll often use this sheet to prepare for negotiation. It’s from Getting More. The most useful concept from this book is the idea that each sides values things differently, and unequally. If you can uncover those, you might be willing to make a trade that is fair, without the dreaded compromise.

Quadrant I: Problems and Goals
1. Goals: short/long term.  
2. Problem(s): in reaching your goals.  
3. Parties: List. Decision-maker. Counterpart. Third parties.  
4. What if no deal? Worst case?  
5. Preparation: Time, relative preparation. Who has more information?
Quadrant II: Situation Analysis
6. Needs/interests: of both parties: rational, emotional, shared, conflicting, unequally valued.   
7. Perceptions: Pictures in the head of each party? Role reversal, culture, conflicts, trust.
8. Communication: style, relationship?   
9. Standards: theirs, norms.   10. Reexamine goals: Why say yes, why say no? For both parties.
Quadrant III—Options/Risk Reduction 
11. Brainstorm: options to meet goals, needs. What to trade or link?   12. Incremental: steps to reduce risk.  
13. Third parties: common enemies, influencers.  
14. Framing: to create a vision, develop questions to ask.   15. Alternatives: to improve/effect deal if necessary.
Quadrant IV—Actions  
16. Best options/priorities. Dealbreakers. Giveaways.  
17. Who presents: How and to whom?  
18. Process: Agenda, deadlines, time management.  
19.Commitments/incentives: Especially for them.  
20. Next steps: Who does what?
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Negotiate as if your life depended on it

Like the Baader Meinhoff Phenomenon, when I read a book about something, I start to see everything as related to that book. I recently read the book Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz, and this book is no exception. I highly recommend it, and it’s fun to use its tips in personal and professional life. I have started to see how so much of my life is a continual negotiation. 

Similar to Getting More, another negotiation book I like,  it focuses on the emotional factors that influence a negotiation. Unlike getting more, it has some unique and useful tactics that have emerged from the rough and tumble world of FBI international hostage negotiation. Reading the book, I realized my type is an accomodator, so I can apply the tips specifically for my type.

Here are some nuggets I took from it…

First, most negotiating advice is wrong. In Fisher and Ury’s famous Getting to Yes which was the seminal book from the 80’s Harvard Negotiation Project world, the goal is to remove emotion from the negotiating table. You look for the “win win” solution, insist on objective criteria, focus on interests, not positions. I used this process myself, I liked it because it was a methodical problem solving approach, and worked with logical problems and logical people. However, if there were underlying issues of values, emotions, respect, fairness, gender discrimination it tended not to work super well. I never realized why.

After reading this book, I realized it is because it assumed we can get people to act rationally. In a hostage negotiation situation, they most definitely are not. And as Tversky and Kahneman uncovered in their seminal work of behavioral economics Thinking Fast and Slow, people behave irrationally all the time. For example, people will pay more to prevent a loss than to achieve a similar gain. I always buy every insurance certificate in the Game of Life, even though I know the chances I’ll come out ahead by my auto and fire insurance is low. I like to avoid losses.

So, rather than try to protect us from the Freuidian Id (our instinctive self), smart negotiators use emotions to achieve a good outcome. This may sound manipulative. In some ways it is. As Voss says, how many of us know that $1.99 is a scam, and yet how many things in the world are priced at $2.00? We still allow ourselves to be “taken” by this deal all the time. And yet, the far worse scenario is that you don’t negotiate, buyers and sellers don’t make an exchange, the real estate deal isn’t done, the hostage ends up dead, the relationship is broken, the war is started. So negotiation is important.

And yet, if you take a stance that the other side as the enemy rather the situation – it can help uncover unexpected solutions to a difficult negotiation impass. For example, my son wants 30 minutes of iPad time in the morning. We have 15 minutes to leave for school. I mirror “you want 15 more minutes of iPad time”. Yes, because I don’t get a lot of time at night. I label “It seems like you really value iPad time”. Yes. I ask, “how am I supposed to do that” (calibrated questions). He suggests, what if I get all ready and I can do it on the bike. I say OK, that’s coming off your time at night. He says OK. 

So, if you are empathetic, use mirroring, get the other side to share what they really need, vs what they are asking for – you can come up with a creative way to get their needs met (get respect, money, 30 minutes of screen time) and get your needs met (not pay too much for a hostage, let the other side save face, get to work on time). It’s not a “soft” strategy. Much like Sun Tzu’s art of war, it’s about how to be smart about managing conflict without having to use your power overtly. Sort of a Judo of business negotiation. 

Here are the specific tips.

  • Use a Late Night FM DJ Voice – low with downward inflections for things that are not up for debate. e.g. We’re going to school at 7:00 am. I added an orange to your lunch. 
  • Use Mirroring – repeat the last three words the person said. It’s oddly mechanical, but it almost always works. 
  • Use pauses – after naming an offer, be silent. 
  • Use Tactical Empathy – Label the emotions of the other person
  • e.g. “It seems like you don’t like agile very much”
    • Empathy is being able to identify the point of view of your counterpart, and then speak that point of view aloud
    • Make a commitment to understanding their world
    • It’s not agreeing with it
  • That’s Right!
    • Look for a “that’s right”. Especially with Assertive people, this will open the door to a great deal.
    • Avoid “You’re right” – they will never follow through on you being right
    • Your goals is really to get them to solve their own problem
    • Avoid “yes” – the guy across the table will find a way to weasel out of the deal later
  • Use calibrated questions to say “no
    • How am I supposed to do that?
  • Look for black swans – these are unknown unknowns that give you leverage in a negotiation – these can only be discovered in face to face interactions. 
  • Leverage – what gives you power in a negotiation
    • Negative: Do it or I take something away you love (your reputation, your family, etc) – plays on loss aversion
      • “To get real leverage, you have to convince them they have something to lose if you don’t do a deal”
    • Positive: Do it and I’ll give you something you want (a car, a phone, a house, a raise)
    • Normative: Do it and it will support one of your values (religious, identity) e.g. if they use Christian language, label “this seems like an issue of stewardship for you”
  • Bargaining
    • Get them to name a price first
    • Then talk persistently about non-cash offers
    • Ackerman Method – plays on the psychology of making the other side feel like they are getting every last drop.
      • Start by offering 65% of your target price (you can do it by mentioning a range, or referring to an extreme anchor) e.g. “At Harvard they charge $2500 a day per student”.
      • Using lots of calibrated questions, get them to  85%
      • Then to 95%
      • Then finally, 100% (but offer in non-round numbers – $105.17 vs $110 – makes you seem very analytical, and that they have squeezed every last drop from you
      • Offer a gift, something that inspires reciprocity
  • Noncash offers
    • Ask yourself “What could they give that would almost get us to do it for free?”
  • Prepare a negotiation one-sheet
    • If you panic, you fall to your highest level of preparation
    • Here is the Black Swan group’s “one sheet” (this is Chris Voss’s consultancy)
    • This is what they give their hostage negotiation clients to prepare. 
    • I also have one that I use from “Getting More”, I’ll share that in another post
  • Fair is a four-letter F word
    • Use it positively (that’s fair)
    • Avoid using it negatively, e.g. “that’s not a fair offer” because it puts the other side on the defensive
    • If someone offers you an unfair offer
    • People do all sorts of irrational things to achieve fairness, look at Iran and it’s self defeating quest to enrich uranium, it’s lost billions in oil revenues – but if India and China can do it, they reason, why can’t Iran?
    • If someone lobs the “we’ve given you a fair offer”, you can either say “Fair?” then a long pause, or “It seems like you are ready to provide the evidence that supports that”.
    • Try using it early on in a negotiation “I want to make sure we’re treating you fairly at all times, if at any point you feel I’m treating you unfairly, please let me know and we’ll address it.” This sets you up as a fair negotiator, above board, a reputation you want.
  • Beware of “yes”
    • There are three kinds of yes’s
      • Yes – I hear you
      • Yes – Counterfeit – I am saying yes but later will find a reason to back out
      • Yes – Commitment – The real deal, they will change their behavior, and follow through on the agreement
    • To get to the real “yes” Don’t 
  • Learn to love “no”
    • No is the start of the negotiation
    • Try to evoke a “no” in order to make the other person feel in control, 
    • To restart a negotiation, no can be more powerful than a yes “it seems like you’ve given up on this project” (you are mislabelling a reality to get them to say no, so you can start the negotiation again)
  • Pay attention to those who will influence the deal, those who aren’t there
    • Many deals are killed by people not present at the negotiation
    • Even when you don’t know who they are, you can ask calibrated questions to address these “behind the table deal killers”
      • How does this affect the rest of your team?
      • How onboard are people not on this call?
      • What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area?
  • There are three kinds of negotiators and depending on what type you are dealing with, specific tools work better for them
    • Analyst:
      • See themselves as realistic, prepared, smart
      • Want to collect facts and information
      • They hate surprises
      • Their goal is to reach the optimal solution
      • See silence as an opportunity to think
      • Tools: Use labels, use data to explain reasons, don’t ad-lib, use data comparisons to disagree
    • Assertive
      • See themselves as honest, logical, direct
      • May appear harsh, aggressive, emotional to others
      • Cares about being heard
      • See silence as an opportunity to talk more.
      • Tools to use: Calibrated questions, mirroring, summaries labels, get them to say “that’s right”
    • Accommodative
      • See themselves as personable, conversational, relationship-focused
      • Others see them as friendly, too talkative
      • They are likely to give something up first 
      • May overpromise, give something they can’t deliver
      • Interpret silence as anger
      • Likely to withhold objections now to preserve the relationship
      • Tools: use what and how questions focused on implementation

So, how to start with these. I recommend starting by using calibrated questions. Try to get the other side to solve your problem for you, without saying no. Let me know how it works for you!

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3 tips for debriefs on your team

RAF Pilot Walking Away from Hawk Aircraft in Silhouette

My sister’s partner, Adam, recently shared the original Top Gun article that inspired the movie with me. It reminded me of my father. My father was a RIO in the F-14 in the seventies and eighties, and later taught at Top Gun. He passed a few years ago. I think about his life, his service to his country, and what, if anything, I can apply to my life. Despite being around him, visiting his office, going on “tiger cruises”, he didn’t talk much about how he went about his work.

The article mentions the debrief after the “bad hop”. I coach teams and leaders to build better software, and, I’m always on the lookout to borrow (OK, steal) metaphors that can give us more of an edge. Project, sprint, iteration retrospectives are often the highest leverage catalysts for change. However, I wondered if I could take some lessons from a pilot’s debriefing for this.

A 2015 HBR article by Doug Sundheim lays out the simple format of these reviews.

There are four key questions:
1. What were we trying to accomplish? Start by restating the objectives you were trying to hit.
2. Where did we hit (or miss) our objectives? Review your results, and ensure the group is aligned.
3. What caused our results? This should go deeper than obvious, first-level answers.
4. What should we start, stop, or continue doing? Given the root causes uncovered, what should we do next, now that we know what we know?

The three things that really help me with these are:

1. Start with Objectives

The key part of this that is different from how I usually run sprint, kaizen, project retrospectives is starting with the objectives over starting with question 4. In Scrum, we start with the “sprint goal” so this is built in. If using a flow based model, the objective is something you need to be explicit about adding into your system. OKR’s can work, or a milestone, or an operations review. The key bit is starting with what you ALREADY agreed was the goal so that things don’t drift off into discussions on the meaning of life.

I’ve seen this often where we argue about what to change, and it’s only until we bubble up one level to discuss what we’re trying to achieve, that we realize where the alignment problem is. Is it Predictability or Innovation we’re after? If you don’t know, you’re not likely to solve it at the “Keep, Stop, Continue” level. If we can start from common objectives, we have greater chance of finding tactics to achieve.

2. Make it routine

The current program I’m leading, we stopped the cadence of the overall (cross team) retrospective. We experimented with doing them after standup, when there was time. Individual teams do it after planning, usually. However, we never ended up doing them. Now that we’re operating in a flow based model using a Kanban system, we identify tickets (features) that are challenged. The question is when to set aside time for debrief.

For pilots, briefing occurs 90 minutes before a flight. Debrief within 30 minutes after. Using the analogy of a post flight debrief, we could set a rule that whenever a feature is moved from “to verify” to “done”, we schedule a retrospective within one day. Or after the feature is live with data, we review.

On the other hand, as Don Reinertsen says, cadence helps lower transaction cost [2] making small batches economically feasible. So, if we schedule each debrief on demand, the cost of getting everyone aligned is higher.

So, now we are experimenting with retrospectives on a biweekly cadence with debriefs and post-mortems on demand. Stories are queued up for discussion, in advance (flowing off our kanban board to another board where we will have improvement meetings). I’m looking forward to what we learn from this. I expect we’ll have better attendance, however I also worry we won’t talk about the “good hops” that happened and why.

3 Make it safe

In the Sundheim article, he explains how the Army teaches you to “leave your stripes at the door”. Bourke in a similar article discusses how fighter pilots will leave off their name tags and rank insignia during debriefs. Why all this attention on safety? Not only is it good for morale, it’s essential to create a learning environment. In an environment where you are fighting for self preservation for your ideas, hide mistakes, and point the finger on blame, you won’t learn. Your lizard brain will take over. As the two year project Aristotle showed at Google, creating psychological safety also correlates strongly with the highest performing teams at Google.

So, in the valley where your boss is already wearing flip flops to work? One thing I do is to borrow a trick from Henrik Kniberg from Lean from the Trenches. He moved his retrospectives to a room where there were only chairs and a whiteboard, no conference room table. [4] It’s strange but it seems to help reduce the finger pointing. The second thing I do is to remind people at the beginning of the meeting that it’s about the process, not the people.

If the folks are new to this, an explicit exercise might be in order. I’ve run secret straw polls ala Ester Derby and discussed Norm Kerth’s Retrospective Prime Directive in pairs. You need to be aware of how much safety is in the room, how much power distance exists and adjust your approach accordingly.

So how do you do debriefs?


[2] Reinertsen, Donald G.. The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development (p. 10). Celeritas Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[3]By DefenseImages, CC 2.0 on Flickr.[4]Henrik Kniberg. Lean from the Trenches (Edward Kraay) (Kindle Locations 747-748). The Pragmatic Bookshelf (358158).

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How to pick a mentor

I would not be where I am today if it were not for a few key people who took time out of their busy schedules to help me in my career. Some of them helped me when I wasn’t even sure I needed help. Some helped when I knew I needed it. I would guess that most of them had a deep seated–almost sacred–calling to grow and develop others. They did not do it to help themselves or further their career.

In a world where we are obsessed with “what’s in it for me” mentorship is clearly different stuff. Sure there are the much touted “teach a man to fish” or succession planning benefits. While these benefits probably exist, I know intuitively when someone is taking a fake interest in me. Humans can sniff out disingenuous motives like BO in a movie theatre. If people are changing jobs every 2-4 years, the motive for developing someone need to come from a long term intrinsic motive to help others, because you find joy in this. Or else it’s easy to be disheartened with developing others when the person you mentored leaves for another company.

A couple of years ago HBR published an article about gender imbalances in top jobs at corporations. They discovered the missing ingredient was not mentorship, or coaching, but sponsorship. This means someone who is not trying to improve you, but someone who will advocate for you when you are not there. Who is your advocate?

So when you are looking to grow or learn something new in your career, it is important to pick the right mentor. But how do you go about it? It’s a bit like dating. You want someone you respect, someone you trust and someone who likes you back.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who is doing what I want to do? Maybe 5 years from now.
  • Who shows an interest in you? Who listens to you?
  • Who do you respect? Who inspires you?
  • Who has a record of following through on little commitments (showing up to meetings on time, doing what they said they would do?)

Make a list of four or five people.

Next, you need to see if they are interested and available to mentor you. This is a bit like asking someone out on a date. Most successful people are more than happy to help out someone else. But they may not be aware you have this desire. The thing I’ve done usually is take them out for dinner and ask them to tell me about how they have gotten where they are. Be curious. Ask what books they read. Ask who mentored them. Be natural and friendly, as an equal not a subordinate. Then when they give you a suggestion, like read this book or talk to this person, follow up and schedule a meeting to share what you have learned.

How about you? Who has mentored you? How did you end up in that mentor/mentee relationship?

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The 5 coaching kata questions to ask as a manager

To coach someone (or yourself) to learn the Toyota Kata, there are 5 simple questions.

1. What is the target condition?
2. What is the actual condition now?*
3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
4. What is your Next Step? (next PDCA/experiment) What do you expect?
5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

* Ask these questions to reflect on the last step, because you don’t actually know what the result of a step will be!
1. What was your Last Step?
2. What did you Expect?
3. What Actually Happened?
4. What did you Learn?

These questions are designed to help line managers learn to apply the improvement kata in their organizations. The benefit of applying the improvement kata are more adaptability for your team, an ability to create new solutions to unforseen problems. As a ScrumMaster or manager, you can ask these questions every morning at standup, using a visual control like a Kanban Board or a Card Wall to evaluate short cycle experiments.

The reason I’m excited about the Coaching Kata is that I think in the agile community we are stuck in the “tool age”. As coaches, we look to things like Lean Startup, Business Model Canvas, Kanban, SAFe, Innovation Games, Cynefin as “the new innovation” that will keep us relevant with our clients (and well fed). We copy a solution what another consultant is doing, not understanding the thinking process they used to develop that solution. The solution might not fit the context. I fall victim to this thinking. It’s the hammer in search of a nail that Weinberg warned us about.

And as coaches we often accuse our teams and clients of applying “cargo cult” agile practices, standups, tdd, atdd, copying each other’s practices, but not understanding why they are doing them. Then we wonder why we hit a wall with our agile adoption efforts. This is a problem because we also see teams not get the sustained continuous improvement from agile methods. They have gotten an initial sugar rush of improvement by doing something new. A hawthorne effect. By studying the team, you see an improvement. But after that, they hit a new plateau of performance.

In the lean transformation community, they have a similar problem. A factory will install lean tools like just in time manufacturing, andan cords and kanban systems. They deploy lean problem solving tools like kaizen workshops, value stream mapping, A3 problem solving reports, and standard work. But the real change is modest or not observable.

Is the answer then to eschew any new idea, to “go it alone” and develop everything custom? How will this scale? For the answer, I look again to the lean manufacturing community.

In recent years with work by David Mann in Building a Lean Culture and more recently Mike Rother, the Lean community realizes that it’s not enough to deploy some tools to achieve sustained improvement. You need to change the thinking that managers and team members. How do you change someone’s thinking? Enter the kata.

A kata is a pattern, routine or habit. Originally from martial arts, it’s about training your brain and body to automatically respond in a specific way. By practicing the routine, you get create new neural pathways that reinforce behavior. By practicing the improvement kata daily, you get to change your behavior, which changes your thinking.

Is there a danger that Kata will be the new practice or flavor of the month consulting offering? Yes. How do we avoid this in ourselves and our teams? Don’t sell the “kata”. Instead, encourage you and your team to develop a daily habit around asking coaching questions, directed toward a common challenge or vision, and build in visible and observable feedback loops using experiments to get better.

Arne Roock developed the Kanban Kata as a way to do this with Kanban Systems. The same with double loop learning, OODA loops, etc. Applied in the same spirit of curiosity and exploration, it could achieve the same result. You are using the scientific method to improve your ability to improve.

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Your stance towards learning

In Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata, he describes the approach that managers and executives have towards PDCA as a management system. Quote:

“If we assume that at any time anything we have planned may not work as intended, that is, that it is always possible that the hypothesis will be false, then we keep our eyes and minds open to what we learn along the way. Conversely, if we think everything can work as planned, then we too easily turn a blind eye to reality.”

This describes the difference to how traditional management looks at any improvement program like Lean or Agile, and how Toyota views it. Traditional management tries to control our adoption of Agile or Lean and “install” the process for improvement, expecting that it will go as planned. In Toyota, they expect that there hypothesis for improvement could be wrong. This informs their attitude towards setting targets, goals or any hypothesis. It’s similar to how Ries views validated learning in “The Lean Startup”. It’s possible that your hypothesis in your business plan will be disproved, which is why we measure our progress with validated learning. This stance towards learning or knowledge is a fundamental shift. And I find I need personally to challenge myself each day to really observe. To go and see where work is done. To be a learner, not a “knower”. As Ohno said:

“We are doomed to failure without a daily destruction of our various preconceptions.”*

In one sense, this is extremely difficult, unnatural. We are taught through our professional lives to credentialize ourselves, to establish our knowledge and rightness of our plans. To assert control. And in another sense, it’s very familiar and natural to return to a childlike wonder and awe of the world around us. My son reminds me of this. He is a natural scientist and explorer, always asking why. Always testing his hypothesis, whether a spoon will fall on the floor for the thirty third time at breakfast, or how a leaf tastes. We are natural explorer’s and scientists. So, what is keeping you from a positive attitude toward learning and exploration? How can you remove those impediments? Any ideas out there?

*Quote From John Shook, P.C.

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