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In my years as a consultant I have seen it time and time again.  Companies with multiple sites all working together.  It is hard to bridge the gap across the miles and inevitably it shows up – The Red Headed Step Child Syndrome.  Perhaps you’ve seen it before?  This phenomenon happens when the people in offices separated by miles can’t quite see one another as human.

This is usually how I see it portrayed:

I meet people in one site in Arkansas and they talk to me about how “Michigan” has a mindset that is way off base.  They explain how “Michigan” really doesn’t understand how to get the work done properly so they need a lot of help.  “Arkansas” holds a bit of bitterness because “we” are always getting treated like second class citizens.  “Michigan” forgets us, doesn’t give us information timely, has a superior attitude, and doesn’t really care about “Arkansas.”

Then, I go to the Michigan office and meet people there who tell me how “Arkansas” doesn’t really get it.  They describe “Arkansas” having a bit of an attitude, an incorrect mindset and lacking understanding of how to get the work done properly.  They say that “Arkansas” needs lots of help to get better.

As an uninterested third party consultant, I have noticed some pretty consistent things in every situation. Once these harmful behaviors are pointed out, we work together on a cultural change that can bind remote sites together rather than continuing the divide.  Some of the common challenges I have seen and some ways companies have found helpful in resolving them are:

1) The two locations don’t think about one another as being “real” humans – The people in both locations have very similar mindsets, skill-sets, attitudes, and level of investment in the success of the company.  However, their perceptions of people they do not know personally leads to negative assumptions regarding who they really are.  Some small changes can make a big difference in bringing people together.

  • Stop depending on email for communication.  Instead, make it a point to have voice to voice calls and follow up with an email only if necessary confirming information that needs to be documented for clarity.
  • Instead of using an instant messaging system to have a conversation, use the instant messaging system to ask if they can talk for a few minutes.
  • Use video when having meetings or calls when possible.  The face to face interaction makes you remember that the person on the other side is a human who is usually quite likable.  Being able to see facial expressions and other body language brings helpful context to the conversation.
  • When having conference calls, make sure that the facilitation is equal across locations so one group doesn’t always feel like “the people on the phone.”  Make sure to have intentional conversation with the remote individuals so that they can contribute valuable insights into the conversation instead of checking out.
  • Make an effort to bridge the gap by taking time to recognize the efforts of fellow co-workers in different sites and praise them.
  • Hang up pictures of your partners in other locations so people know who they are.  Call them your partners instead of “Phoenix.”

 

2) The two locations use language that divides rather than unites.  

  • Referring to the two sites as “San Francisco” and “Chicago” or by calling them the name of their product or division furthers the divide by sending a message that we are different and intend to stay that way.  Stop constantly pointing out the dividing point and find some uniting point to refer to instead.
  • Referring to people as “resources” when talking about staffing needs or problems dehumanizes and does not create an environment where people feel valued and recognized.  Resources are things like wood, oil, water, and gas.  Humans should be referred to as “people” or by their preferred name.
  • Non-specific generalizations and rolling everyone into one bucket when talking about problems creates a negative atmosphere.  Saying “Chicago” or “Sales” when you are really referring to two specific people who happen to work in that department sends a message that the entire department is ganging up on us and we are the victims.  Talk about problems, not people.  When people are involved, be clear about who you are discussing specifically instead of talking in broad generalizations.  When you hear “they” did something, ask for clarification about who exactly “they” represents.  This helps clarify that the conflict is with certain individuals – not an entire work unit.
  • Saying “you” and “us” or “your products” and “our products” is damaging because it sends the message that we are in competition.  Remember there is no “yours and mine” or “you and us”.  We are all one company, all one team.  We are not competitors.  We are allies and partners trying to reach one united purpose.

 

3) Leadership encourages the division across sites  by reinforcing a victim mentality.

  • Most conflicts arise due to a communication breakdown.  People don’t generally try to create problems.  They usually just don’t know that what they are doing is causing someone else frustration.  Instead of allowing people to be frustrated and see the problem as a people problem.  Help them see that it is probably a communication problem. Arrange a time to talk and clear the air and get some agreement regarding how everyone can work together more successfully going forward.
  • Attempting to be supportive sometimes perpetuates the mentality that “we” are being treated unfairly by the other group.  Supporting frustration by agreeing that the other group is not helpful or that they don’t understand “us” or that they always treat “us” like the “Red Headed Step Children” enables poor relationships to fester. Instead of supporting by sympathizing, support by correcting people when they use dividing language and remind them of the mindset of unity that you are trying to develop.  Work with them to break these beliefs by sharing these concerns openly with their partners in remote locations to create a better working environment.
  • Check your attitude.  Be friendly and always assume positive intent.  Recognize when you are making negative assumptions about people’s motivations, tone of voice, and attitude when reading emails or instant messages.  If you are assuming negative intent it is time to pick up the phone.  Teach others to do the same.  When you hear them “reading” an email with a snarky or negative tone – point out the assumptions and ask them to pick up the phone to facilitate better communication with the other person.
  • Don’t allow anonymous feedback.  Anonymous feedback is not actionable because individuals can never get to the root of what is causing the problem to figure out the best way to move forward.  This only creates an environment of mistrust and builds walls.  The person receiving the feedback is left wondering who they offended and why that person couldn’t speak truthfully to them.  Instead of getting in the middle and delivering an anonymous message, coach team members on ways they can approach the subject themselves or offer to facilitate a conversation.

The key to bridging the gap between locations is to remember that the people we don’t work with face to face are not the enemy.  The enemy is a dividing attitude.  Once people can recognize their co-workers as real people they usually begin to see them differently.  Focus on bringing people together rather than allowing them to remain divided.  It’s bad enough when people are separated from our co-workers and supervisors by miles…the last thing they need is to keep making it worse when change is possible.

What other ways has your company bridged the divide between locations?  I would love to hear about your experiences.

 

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This is the glass door I ran into on my first morning in a new office.  Five minutes after I arrived.  And I had to laugh at myself!  “Way to go brainiac.  Good thing no one was watching that one.”  Then I giggled.

Messing up, making mistakes, looking stupid in front of others – these are things that often cause people to put up walls around themselves as a means of self preservation.  No one wants other people to look at them and roll their eyes.  No one wants to be “that person.”  Unfortunately, the need to self preserve hinders a team’s ability to be transparent, take risks, and share ideas openly.

As a scrum master or coach we need to be aware of the human nature that says, “protect yourself,” and help develop a culture of safety so team members can learn to trust one another and bring out the best in one another.  Part of the scrum master’s role is to help the team have the best communications possible.  Safe discussions in a team happen when everyone’s ideas are valued and respected.  Great ideas come forth when no single idea has to be the winner.  Instead of allowing people to fight for their position like there is a trophy at stake, teach them how each person can contribute to the ideas of the others and build the best solution for the problem at hand so everyone can win.

Facilitating brainstorming sessions can help a team to foster the ability to throw a bunch of thoughts together and safely come up with the best solution possible.  Help them dream a little using post it notes, index cards, or white boards since all of these are easily disposable.  No ideas are out of bounds.  If you had no constraints how could you solve this problem? Everyone throw out at least 3 ways we could solve this problem – include at least one logical, one risky, and one fun resolution.  This is your timebox – Go!  Once every serious, crazy, risky, and logical thought is on the table the team can review them all and dream and laugh together.

The premise of this method is that no one holds too tightly to any ideas.  Having them throw in multiple resolutions that include the outrageous and risky along with the logical helps them to have contributions that they know we may decide not to use.   What can be really amazing is when an idea that the contributing person thought was dumb or outrageous is just what the team needs to move forward.  Using this process teaches the team to put every option on the table.  Then, sort through those to see what pieces they can put together or add to in order to solve their problem.  The ones that don’t fit into the best solution just get set aside and the best solution wins.

Don’t underestimate the power of laughter.  An individual who can laugh at themselves can learn that they don’t have to prove that they are the smartest person in the room.  A team that can laugh together can dream together safely.    A team that dreams together relies on the collective wisdom of the whole.

Oh … by the way… this … is the second door I ran into … on the afternoon of my first day!

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To many travelers this just looked like a moving walkway in an airport in Philly, PA.  To me, it looked like exactly what I needed!  Exhausted from being on the road and meeting a bunch of new people over the past few weeks, the thought of having this thing hold the weight of my bags and help me get across this big airport was very comforting.

After my amazing, but slow ride I started thinking…these walkways are like Scrum Masters!

Sometimes agile teams need a little bit of help.  They get stuck in the same cycle of thinking when trying to solve problems and can’t seem to move forward.  The scrum master is helps them by asking powerful questions that cause them to think in new ways.  They gently lift them up and help them move successfully from one place to another.

Sometimes the team has things blocking their path.  The scrum master jumps in and starts clearing the way for them when they don’t have the power or energy to move forward on their own.

Sometimes teams don’t know how to collaborate well and just communicating among a bunch of personalities gets to be a heavy burden.  Scrum masters remove the burden by facilitating scrum events and helping to ensure that everyone on the team has an equal voice.

I’m looking forward to the opportunity to step into a scrum master role for a while where I can have direct impact on the success of a few teams.

 

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While working in Burlington, Vermont these past two weeks and experiencing temperatures as low as -14 I have learned some things about inspecting and adapting.  The first day I was here, I inspected my toes and they were freezing so I adapted by buying wool socks.  Then, I learned the next day that wool socks work better if you wear them under cotton socks.  I learned to adapt to my environment by layering clothes in order to stay warm.

By the end of the first week I wasn’t so cold anymore.  It is amazing how quickly I was able to adapt when I changed my focus from how miserable the cold was to how warm layers of clothing can be.  In short, I chose to set down my victim thinking about how freezing I was and pick up my victorious thinking about how comfortable I could be.  I didn’t like my situation so I changed it!  Complaining about it wasn’t making me warmer so I did something productive instead and got warm.

As a professional coach I often encounter people who are stuck.   They have problems that appear to be the thing currently holding them back from what they really want in life.  What they can’t see is that every problem they have is in the past.  Whatever has caused the problem has already occurred.  It’s over.  It can’t be changed.  Focusing on the problem isn’t the answer because you can’t change the past.

My role in the life of my clients is to help them see that the best way to get unstuck is to start right where you are today.  Forget about solving the problem.  Instead focus on what success looks like.  Find the one change you can make to move towards the place you want to be and start moving in that direction.

If you are cold, stop focusing on being cold.  Instead, take a step back and ask yourself how warm you want to be.  What can you do to move in that direction?

If you are unhappy in your current job or financial situation, ask yourself what happiness looks like and what steps you can realistically take to move in that direction.

If you are confused, ask yourself what confidence would feel like in this situation.  What do you need to build that confidence?  Who can help you?  How can you help yourself?  Take a step in that direction.

We all encounter circumstances we hate.  Stuff happens.  But we don’t have to let stuff determine our destiny.  We can move from a today that caught us off guard into a future that we determine and control.  Sometimes today’s stuff is just what we need to project us into a tomorrow that’s better than we ever imagined.

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Okay, so the truth is that this picture is not me.  It’s not even Vermont – where I happen to be working and freezing right now!  It’s my cousin Theresa and it’s in Illinois.  She is standing on her Dad’s frozen pond and loving it!  When I saw her post this picture on Facebook all I could say was, “That is so cool!” But other people who viewed the picture were saying things to her like, “Get off there!” and “Are you nuts!” and “OMG you are scaring me!

Experiencing great things in life sometimes means taking risks.  Without risk we will never be as innovative as we could be because we’ll always be playing it safe.  Some people are afraid of taking risks because with risk comes the possibility of failure.  But, mature agile leaders and teams will recognize that failure doesn’t have to be bad.  We learn things through failure that we would never know if we hadn’t tried and flopped.  We learn what we never want to do again and what changes we can make to create a better team or product in the future.

I was really impressed last week when I heard the leader of a new group of people I’m working with talk about risk and failure.  He said, “No one has ever been fired here for making a mistake.  We want you to be innovative.  Sometimes that will mean failure.  If we don’t take chances we’ll never be the best.  You will make mistakes.  We all have.  Just learn from them.  If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t trying hard enough.  Push harder.”

I heard a story about how this same leader handled a major mistake.  A brand new employee (less than a week) pressed the wrong button and brought the entire network down for the company and all of their customers.  It took them a while to figure out how to fix it but eventually they were able to get everyone up and running again.  Customers were angry and the entire ordeal was costly.

The next day this new employee was called into his office.  She was shaking in her boots because she knew that inevitably she would be fired for such a huge mistake.  When she entered his office he looked at her and said, “What did you do?”  She tried to explain and was petrified.  When he realized how scared she was he stopped her and said, “Don’t be afraid.  You aren’t in trouble.  I want to know how you figured out how to bring down the entire system with one click. You exposed a huge vulnerability that we need to address.  Great work!!  This is awesome!  Because of what you found we can make sure this will never happen again.”

You sir, are my hero.

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As an agile coach I get the opportunity to have mentoring and coaching sessions with scrum masters who are in a rut.  They usually have tons of potential but don’t know how to take the next step forward.

In order to facilitate these conversations, I use the popular coaching model GROW.

G – Gather Data

R – Reality Check

O – Obstacles and Opportunities

W – Way Forward

Throughout the conversation I shift from a position of mentor to a position of coach in order to help the scrum master gain perspectives, come to conclusions, and create a plan to move forward.

During the Gather Data portion of the session I step into my role as a coach. I ask them questions that will help us both understand how they see the role of scrum master and where they believe they are presently.  We talk about where they think they are strong and where they think tPerformance Coachinghey are weak.  We also talk about where they would like to see themselves in a few months and in a year.

This time is important because it causes the scrum master to think about things that they often have not considered prior to the conversation.  In my experience, I find that when people are in a rut it is because they have no vision for the future and no plan to get there.  They simply don’t know what to do next so they just keep doing what they’ve always done.

When we shift to the Reality Check segment I step into my role as mentor for a while and I give them my perspectives of their current performance.  I point out areas of where they are doing amazing things that they don’t even realize are amazing.  I tell them about the potential I see in them that they can’t see.  I also point out areas where I see opportunity to move to the next level.  I fill gaps in their understanding of the role and help them to believe in themselves so they will be ready to move to the next level.  Then, I get their feedback on the things I shared and help them get clarity around where they believe they are and where they want to be.

I shift to coach again as we transition into the Obstacles and Opportunities part of the session.  This is the part where the scrum master does some heavy lifting.  One technique I use is to give them some sticky notes and a marker which are some of my favorite tools of the trade.  I give them a time box and ask them to write down what they see happening with their teams that they, as scrum master, have the power to impact and help change.  I also ask them to write down the things about themselves they want to change.

They hang these items on a wall where we can look at them together and I ask them questions to help them clearly define what things they have the power to impact and what the obstacles are that are standing in the way of change.  We talk about ideas they have for helping the team grow and what success looks like in each of the areas.

When I see that the scrum master has created ideas about what they can do over the next couple of months to improve themselves and help the team become higher performing we shift to the Way Forward portion of the session.  During this time, I remain in my coach role and ask more direct questions that will move them to action like:

  • “Which options will have the greatest impact on the team?”
  • “Which options appeal to you the most?”
  • “What will you commit to in order to move forward?”
  • “What will you do first?”
  • “When will you start?”
  • “How will you hold yourself accountable?”
  • “Who do you need to help you implement this plan?”
  • “Will this plan bring you closer to the place you define as success?”

At the end of a successful session the scrum master has a plan to work with over the next few months.  They are invested in the plan because they develop a clear vision of where they are headed and how they will get there.

As a coach, I can have a vision for what success looks like but my vision isn’t what’s important.  What’s important is helping those I coach understand how they define success.  What is critical is that I support them and help them figure out how they can take practical steps towards their goal.

I can’t force people to see what I see or to desire what I desire.  I can’t tell them what success looks like.  I can’t make them do what I believe will bring them to what I think is success.

I have to help them discover what they really, really want and how they will get there.  My role is to inspire them to imagine a different tomorrow.  My job is to help them find the courage to change.  My desire is my mission:  To leave them better than I found them with each encounter.

A few months ago as I stopped to check in on a team during their daily scrum and I saw something really interesting happen.  This team was co-located in a team room and were all sitting around a large conference table working collaboratively.  There were two large whiteboards on two walls of the team room and one wall held a large scrum board.

When it was time for the daily scrum one member of the team said, “It’s time for the scrum,” and started making open handed stand up motions to everyone encouraging them to rise from their seats for the “stand up” meeting.

The team all rose from their chairs and stood in position looking at one another and proceeded to answer “the three questions” diligently reporting the status of the work they were responsible for completing.

Again, a few weeks later I experienced a repeat of the same behavior from another team.  They were all working collaboratively in a room together when someone announced that it was time for the scrum.  Everyone stopped collaborating.  They stood up in their places around the table and began to give their status on the three questions.

Why is this behavior strange to me?  My question in response is, “In these circumstances, what value is standing adding?”  I know that there is a common teaching that teams should stand during the daily scrum because this contributes to the ability to keep the meetings short.  I’m not opposed to this opinion.  What I am opposed to is doing things that simply don’t make sense and contribute to waste.

The purpose of the daily scrum is for the team to collaborate and to make a plan for the next 24 hours.  I believe that pulling the team together to collaborate, especially if they can gather around a white board or a scrum board and actively discuss the work they are planning that standing adds value.  By not sitting down to have these quick planning sessions and holding them as stand-up at the white board or scrum board and collaborate sessions they stress that this is intentionally a quick brainstorming and planning session.  Sitting and camping out has the potential to turn a quick planning session into a much longer event.

But, for a team who is already actively collaborating to stop collaborating just to stand up and start giving a status report — this is an anti-pattern.  Or for a team to stand up and face one another when there is a white board and a scrum board that would enhance collaboration – standing up is simply wasted effort and quite possibly an example what many call cargo culting.  i.e. They don’t understand the value of what they are doing.  They are just doing what they have seen others do because they like the results they have seen others get.