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Those Pesky Invisible Agreements

27 Aug

The Story

One of the things I do with my clients early on is work on team agreements; basically an explicit “how we work together” document.  And, not infrequently, I get people rolling their eyes and telling me that this is too heavy and mechanical.  “Are we trying to solve a non-existent problem?” some would ask.  And every once in a while I let up, and think that “we have it together, maybe I’m just overdoing it”, and I am always quickly reminded of why.

This happened to me again this week.  Let me tell you the story of how I caught myself and my team suffering from un-agreed-to agreements, and how we’re working on the solution.

I lead one of two teams – my team is primarily focused on consulting and working with clients, and the other team is primarily focused on making our eLearning application great.  We frequently work together and cross team boundaries and have a great working relationship – most of the time.

On my team we have different skill-sets and passions.  One of the people on my team is very passionate about coding and learning new languages.  We also have an internal tool that a few of us are great at, and many of us (like me) are not.  So, based on our experiences, and our passions, and the fact that we’ll be working with this tool very heavily over the next few months, when this guy said “I’ve got an idea of how to make this better” we (his lead and I) jumped on the opportunity and asked him to make it happen.

In a day he had a working prototype.  In just over three days he had something that is ready for daily use and already significantly better than the current solution.  So you would think this is a raging success – right?  Of course not, if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

Our team member was so proud of his work that he shared it with the rest of the teams immediately so they could use his tool and give him feedback on how to make it better.  Unfortunately this wasn’t well-received.  Some members of another team became frustrated.  They felt that we have more important things to work on than something like this and they thought it was not time well spent.  They felt that our team should have involved them early on and that would have led to us putting our time to help them with what they need done – which is much more important and urgent than our project.

Getting that type of feedback hurts – especially when you are really happy with what you’ve produced.  You feel unvalued, and you can easily become angry.  And as one person described it, “this is beginning to look like politics in large organizations”.

As for me, I also got sucked in and felt that my team member was attacked and the conversation should have been with me.  I authorized this and if there is a problem then it should be solved with leaders.  (It does sound like big-office politics, doesn’t it?)  I fired off an email voicing these concerns and my anger.

I should have known better.  After sleeping on it, I saw our situation as a microcosm of what happens at work everyday.  I realized that we were behaving as if our expectations were agreements.  But they weren’t.  I was behaving like the other team had no right to talk to us about what we should and should not do – but there was no such agreement.  And, the behavior of the other team seems to indicate that they had an expectation of us checking with them before we wrote any code, and, of course, there is no such agreement.

Blame and Ownership

I had easily fallen into a trap that I’ve been in before.  I was getting upset because people were not meeting my expectations – invisible agreements.  Which led me to see them as obstacles, instead of people doing their best to make our organization successful – just as I am.  And I began to see things as “us” vs. “them” which is the bane of all large organizations.  I was blaming my peers.

But, from Christopher Avery, I learned how useless blame is – and how it can easily lead into a vicious cycle.  So, I asked myself instead, “how did I contribute to this problem?”  That led to a completely different way of seeing the problem and my colleagues.

Well, it turns out we had a bunch of assumptions about how things should be done that we never really brought to light.  Our actions lead me to believe that these might be those invisible, un-agreed-to, agreements:

  • Team A should ask Team B if they have spare time on their hands before they do something on their own,
  • Team B’s leadership should only talk to Team A’s leadership,
  • Team A doesn’t have enough visibility to know what is the most important thing to work on, they need to ask Team B,
  • Team B has no right to tell Team A what to do.

But the fact is we didn’t agree to any of these.  And this upset was not an unusual thing.  Upsets are to be expected.  How we handle upsets separates the highly effective from mediocre teams.

This wasn’t a totally bad thing, it was actually pretty good.  It told us we are transparent enough to know what other teams are doing.  It told us that we felt safe enough to disagree openly.  And, because we caught ourselves and are looking at our expectations of how we work together, it is a great example of leveraging upsets for improvement (thanks Christopher Avery!).

Personal Agility

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you’ll know I’m all about the human dynamics of software development and creating a high performance culture.  One of the best individual tools I know for this type of situation is the Personal Agility Pyramid that we created at Gemba Systems.  (I know, it is not the best name, but it really works!)

Image

Here’s how the personal agility pyramid applies:

  1.  When you have a problem or an upset, you need to start with yourself before you send that angry email or tell someone about how they screwed up and you are frustrated.  Before you do anything check your a) safety, b) respect for the other person, c) ownership of both the problem and relationship.  Do not do anything until you are in a good place here.  (I missed that one and the angry email got out.)
  2. If you are like me, when you are upset you are very clear on what you don’t want, but not so clear on what you do want.  So step two is to get clear on what you want.  For me, it was “those who do the work decide how to do it”, “let’s create some very specific expectations and re-org the two teams so that we don’t need to go to each other before we do most things”, and “before you tell me why I made a mistake, ask me why I made the decisions I did.”
  3. Now that you know what you want, that doesn’t mean that is how it is going to work. In step 3 you need to go ask for what you want.  But remember, before you go ask what you want you really need to check step 1 – you’ve got to be safe, respect the other party, and come from ownership.  We are still in this stage.  We’re talking and aware of what we need but still haven’t reached on an agreement(s) to keep this from happening in the future.
  4. Make an agreement.  Now you have a concrete, visible, real agreement.  Congrats.  You are now potentially aligned.  Agreements – especially when you are new to this – aren’t always cut and dry.  People interpret them differently and can still be misaligned.  No worries, you’ll come back here at the next upset 🙂
  5. Confront a missed agreement.  Step 5 is not addressed until the next time you have an upset and you go through the steps and realize there is already an explicit agreement in place.  Unfortunately, this is where we usually start when we are upset.  This happened when I sent an angry email without going through step #1 and taking ownership of the problem and the relationship.

I’ve found this extremely effective for problem-solving and iterative and incremental alignment.  By doing this regularly when you have an upset it really helps your team continue to get better at the mushy stuff.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on August 27, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions, Teams

 

Tags: , , , , ,

2 responses to “Those Pesky Invisible Agreements

  1. Guy Nachimson

    August 29, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I’m currently reading Marshall Rosenbergs “Non-Violent Communication”, and I was wondering if these are concepts you drew on when defining this process. The NVC process goes like this:
    0. Establish and demonstrate empathy towards the person you talk to
    1. State your observations (facts)
    2. Share how you feel about the facts
    3. State what are your needs in this context – unmet needs are the cause of the feelings
    4. Ask for what you want (or need) to make your life better. This is a request, not a demand – so if you hear a no, you use empathy to uncover what’s causing the refusal, before you choose how to proceed, hopefully towards agreement

     
  2. samadisy

    August 30, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Thank you Guy for taking the time to read and respond to this post. I’m aware of NVC – although by no means an expert. However, to answer your question, this model was most heavily influenced by Avery’s work on Responsibility and The Arbinger Institute’s work on “way of being”.

    In fact, this was originally sketched on a napkin with Ashley Johnson several years ago at a conference where we found ourselves discussing several models and looking for a way to teach people how to use them together – instead of just be aware of them.

    We had been working with our clients doing just that and reverse-engineered our stories and what resonated most to us.

    Thank you for asking – Amr

     

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