Back in 2009 I co-chaired the Coaching track at the premier Agile Software Development conference. Most speakers submitted one or two detailed proposals. One very experienced practitioner submitted 18(!) single-paragraph proposals. Our track committee was puzzled; some members were incensed! Opinions ranged from “dominating” and “spamming” through “more work for us” and “how can we treat everyone fairly” to “this could seriously raise the quality of the program.”
More recently, I led a development team’s iteration retrospective as their external coach. When the discussion touched on the topic of code reviews, I started to offer an opinion about their observed effect on other teams. Midway through my first sentence, someone raised his hand abruptly and said, “Can I ask you not to give your opinion?” I stopped cold.
Every day, you interact with other people both socially and professionally. Some are your team members, others are far removed. You share information, make suggestions, and seek agreement. Chances are, every few days someone will behave in a way that leaves you scratching your head — or wondering, “What’s up with that?!” In that retrospective, my instinctive thought was, “How rude, and in public!” My next thought was, “I’m probably looking rather stupid right now.”
The critical thing, when that happens, is what you DO next. Whether I found this offensive to me or detrimental to the team — and even if that’s true – I had a responsibility *to the team* in that situation: to emerge from the retrospective with decisions. It wasn’t about me, my opinions, or that team member. Shame, justifying, and blaming wouldn’t be helpful here. My in-the-moment response was to respect his request, and the retrospective continued.
Beyond taking responsibility, there’s empathy. That means thinking, “I wonder what’s going on for that person to make him behave this way.” What’s often harder to process, or believe, is that the other person considers his behavior *the best recourse* in the current situation. It’s doubly hard when you seek buy-in for an exciting idea, and you encounter a lukewarm or negative response.
In the case of that retrospective, I could translate the best-recourse belief into the thought, “What could preventing me from sharing my opinion achieve for him, that’s worth interrupting me mid-sentence?” In that moment, I was too stunned to do that.
However, when there’s more time to think, assuming best intent is very useful. After discussing “the case of the 18 proposals” with my track committee, I wrote to the person, asking about his intent. In turns out that he believed he had such a wealth of information to share, he wanted to make the committee’s decision-making easier. In the other case, the person sought me out afterwards to apologize and explain that since his team hadn’t quite confronted the divisive matter of code reviews, he didn’t want my opinion to color anyone’s.
Norm Kerth, whose 2001 book on project retrospectives has guided many early Agile teams, offered this belief as “The Prime Directive” of retrospectives. No matter what we observe, he said, if we truly believe that people operate from a place of best intent, we’ll amplify our collective learning. If you don’t already include this ground rule in your retrospectives (or other potentially sensitive meetings), try it, and make sure it’s upheld. I’m looking forward to hearing how it works out for you.
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