A Few weeks ago while attending a Coaching Agile Teams class I heard one of the instructors (Lyssa Adkins) make a reference in passing to “signal to noise” ratio in reference to our ability to communicate with others.  Her comment intrigued me because I’d never heard that phrase before, so I started to do some investigation.

Signal-to-noise ratio (abbreviated SNR or S/N) is a measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise.

Signal-to-noise ratio is sometimes used informally to refer to the ratio of useful  information to false or irrelevant information in a conversation or exchange. For example, in online communities, off-topic posts and spam are regarded as “noise” that interferes with the “signal” of appropriate discussion.
 

Signal-to-noise ratio is defined as the ratio of the power of a signal (meaningful information) and the power of background noise (unwanted signal):

SNR =  Power of the Signal / Power of the Noise

The higher the SNR the less noise is in the conversation.   For example, a conversation that had 15 sentences on topic (signal) and 3 sentences off topic (noise) would have a SNR score of 5.  But, a conversation that had 15 sentences on topic (signal) and 23 sentences off topic (noise) would have an SNR score of .65 and would more than likely be a less clear and effective conversation.

Signal-to-noise ratios in conversations often go down when people feel the need to qualify their comments with explanations.  These explanations, while intended to convey clarity around the message, often lead to confusion because they make conversations harder to follow.

Another signal-to-noise ratio killer happens when people attempt to clarify questions by stacking other explanatory questions on top rather than just letting the question stand on its own merit.  Questions become less powerful when the listener has to sort through multiple questions and determine which one to answer.  The reason people stack questions is driven by a fear that their original question was not clear or that it needed to be justified.  It is better to just ask one question and trust that if the listener needs the question clarified, they will ask for clarification.

One skill that coaches use to combat the signal-to-noise ratio is bottom-lining.  Bottom lining is when you strip all the extra words out of conversations, sentences, and questions and speak to the essence of the message you want to convey.  Bottom lining uses fewer words and creates a higher signal to (lower) noise ratio.  Because there is less noise in the conversation it is easier to follow and remain engaged.  It is proven that the most effective questions generally contain 3-7 words; so,  asking questions in this bottom line manner the questions actually become clearer and easier to answer and thus, more powerful.

One exercise you might try while learning this skill is to tell a story in 1 minute.  This exercise helps you learn to sort through all of the details you could tell and forces you to speak to the essence of the story with only the most important information.

Another way you can practice this skill is to review emails and other written correspondence before sending them and determine how many words you can pull out by rephrasing.  What information is not really important to the main point of the message you are trying to send?  Can you bottom line the information into 3-4 bullet points?

I encourage you to practice this skill and pay attention to the difference it makes in your conversations.  Notice if some of your monologues start shifting to dialogues.  Keep in touch and let me know what you learned through the experience.

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(This post is by guest blogger, Kenny Barnes.)

For our latest retrospective, I created a jeopardy board using JeopardyLabs – Online Jeopardy Template.   I used a mix of Agile related categories (Scrum, Agile), items related to the team [Working Agreements, Sprint (more details below)] and something the team is really passionate about (Star Wars).  It took about an hour and a half to come up with the questions/answers and setup the board.

To play the game, the team drew numbers and broke up into two teams.  The teams then took turns picking a category and amount.  If the team picking didn’t know the answer, the other team had an opportunity to answer and take the points.  We ended with a final jeopardy question related to Star Wars that saw one team answer correctly for the win.

Now you might be asking yourself, well this is cool but how did you come up with an action plan or discuss any team issues?  Well the Sprint category took care of this.  The “answers” in this category had both teams, regardless of who selected it, come up with things that worked well, didn’t work well, wins to celebrate, etc.  Each team had two to three minutes to come up with the answer to these questions.  We then had each team give their answers and we discussed them.  The $400 selection was what do you want to try this next sprint.  We had a great discussion and came up with our action plan.

The team really enjoyed playing the game and the change of pace it offered.  They definitely want to do it again next quarter.

Rubber Duck Productivity

Posted: November 6, 2015 in Uncategorized
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Today, one of our team members taught me about rubber duck productivity.

This was an experiment where people found that they were more productive when they kept a rubber duck on their desk. When they encountered a problem they were having trouble solving they would talk to the duck and tell the duck the problem.

In the course of explaining the problem to the duck they would usually discover the solution. Thus, being more productive than just trying to solve problems in the reaches of their own mind.

The moral of this story: Talk it through with someone – quit trying to solve it on your own!

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A common belief is that the difference between coaching and managing is simply asking questions rather than giving orders.  I used to believe this.  Instead of making decisions for my teams and telling them what to do I would ask them questions and get them to derive their own solutions.  I thought that meant I was coaching.  But the more I got into coaching the more I really wanted to make sure I was doing it right and being effective.  So, over the past two years I have invested in myself and in my craft.  I have learned everything I can about professional coaching and gotten mentoring by master coaches.

What I learned through the experience is that coaching is ALOT more than just asking questions.  In fact, through this experience I learned that professional coaching skills (and a ton of techniques and coaching models) can mean the difference between being adequate or being excellent for a scrum master, agile coach, or agile manager.

Now, I’m on a mission and a journey to mentor scrum masters in learning coaching skills and show them how to apply them in real world scenarios with agile teams.  As an agile coach I have the unique opportunity to develop scrum masters in a way that I have never seen done before and I’m excited and humbled to get this opportunity to invest in the careers of a great group of people.

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This week I was particularly impressed with a method used by a Scrum Master to help his team understand which stories on the backlog were “ready” and which were not.  It’s amazing how such a simple technique can bring the transparency needed to help a team prepare for a successful sprint.  His technique is to use colored stickers as markers on the ordered product backlog hanging on the wall next to the team’s scrum board to indicate the state of the story.  If the story is not groomed it gets a red sticker.  When the team begins grooming the story and has made pretty good progress but isn’t all the way in line with the definition of ready yet, he changes the sticker to yellow.  Once the team has completed grooming the story and it meets the definition of ready, it gets a green sticker.  This green sticker is an indication to the team that the story is fully groomed and ready to be pulled into a sprint.

Prior to sprint planning, he works with his product owner to ensure that any stories she has ordered towards the top of the backlog that are potential candidates for the next sprint are in ready state.  If a story is not in ready state the team does not pull it into a sprint regardless of where it is on the product backlog.

This scrum master is inspiring those around him with simple yet profound ideas and ways of creating growth in the team and product owner.

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This week I was walking past a conference room where a Scrum Master was preparing for the team’s retrospective.  I had to stop and take a picture because I really loved what I saw.  Here are a few of the things that really impressed me:

  1. The team’s improvement plan from the last retrospective is represented. This helps to solidify the value from the last retrospective’s suggested improvements.  By circling back around and discussing the team’s experience with the past action plan it helps the team to measure to see if the changes actually impacted their ability to become higher performing.  This also helps the team intentionally create ways to ensure that they act upon the plan they create because they re-evaluate how they implemented them and if the changes need to be adopted as part of the working agreement or if they were not valuable enough to continue.
  2. It is creative and fun.  You don’t need to be an artist to draw pictures for a retrospective.  In fact, I’ve found that scrum masters who can’t draw well but do it anyway have the most success!  Being willing to really put yourself out there when you know there’s an obvious lack of talent shows the team that you are willing to bring your full self in order to help them grow.  It helps to foster trust and relationship because you aren’t hiding your weaknesses from them.  The lack of drawing skill usually becomes a fun joke for the whole team as they try to identify what your pictures represent.  (In this retro the big joke was, “What in the world is the monkey doing?”  Answer= He’s pulling the elephant’s tail and frustrating him!)
  3. It uses the coaching skill of metaphor. This picture represents the teams experiences through the last sprint.  It helps the team to look at the sprint from multiple perspectives.  The perspective of positive things like things that specifically are helping us to do well and be better and things we want to celebrate.  It also helps the team get real about what’s frustrating them and what is really holding back their growth and progress in areas.  These perspectives take the team deeper than just what went well and what didn’t.

Presenting at agile 2015

Sunday, as I got on a flight and headed to Washington, DC for Agile Alliance’s Agile 2015 conference, I was looking forward to spending a week with other like-minded people who believe in living the agile values and principles and who are investing in themselves and in others to grow in their craft. I anticipate this conference all year because I love the full saturation of agile. I love the networking and new ideas. I love the opportunity to see what others in the industry are up to and to learn from them. And I love meeting new people who teach me great things!

Allison Pollard and I were given the opportunity to present a coaching topic called “Change Your Questions ~ Change Your World” this year. It was exciting to see Allison again and partner with her on this great topic and it was an honor to invest in the agile community at large.

Mornings were filled with “Lean Coffee” which is a facilitation game for having discussions about a range of topics with a group of people who self organize for the purpose of learning and communicating. So many coaches, scrum masters, product owners, managers, software engineers, and quality engineers had such great input and valuable perspectives to share. I had a ton of take-away items from the “Lean Coffee” sessions including ideas about new books to read, ways to manage workflow, how to inspire others, how to develop curiosity, and about interviewing techniques.

One particularly interesting thing I am bringing back from the conference is the use of improv with agile teams. I learned multiple improv activities that help agile teams learn valuable lessons and it completely blew my mind! I’m also bringing back a card game called, “The Product Owner Game” that helps product owners learn to balance cost and business value in order to select the most valuable features and user stories to work on each sprint. I attended a session on user story mapping that provided a great exercise I’m going to be able to walk through with product owners and scrum masters to help them learn this technique and bring it back to their teams for quarterly planning improvement.

There were multiple sessions about coaching in the midst of culture transformation and organizational change. One particularly interesting session provided me with a new tool called an empathy map that I can’t wait to use! Sessions about conflict and toxic environments provided exercises to help people discover their own triggers in order to learn how to deal with them in a healthy manner. I learned how to create an influence map that helps you look at an organization in a way that provides insight to areas where coaching can have the largest impact. I learned a new coaching model and attended a session on executive coaching that was fascinating. I learned from master coaches how to sharpen my professional coaching skills specifically for use in an agile environment and I learned more about how to take a coaching approach to mentoring.

In all this was one of the most successful learning weeks I’ve had all year. The return on investment for this conference was incredible just in the things I’m bringing back to the organization to help others grow. There are many ways companies can invest in its people to help them grow in understanding of agile. In my opinion, Agile Alliance’s Agile 201X conferences gives one of the highest rates of return of any conference I attend.