Agile Conversations

By Dick Stark

Just out is “Agile Conversations,” by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick, a book that “brings a practical, step-by-step guide to using the human power of conversation to build effective, high-performing teams to achieve truly Agile results.” As many of our customers have already figured out, Agile results don’t happen because of Slack, Confluence, and Jira, or even because of an Agile framework such as SAFe. What’s required is a cultural change which involves transforming the way people communicate. “Agile Conversations” is really five conversations: trust, fear, answer why, define commitments and hold everyone accountable. Here is a short summary of each.

The Trust Conversation. This chapter boils down to one very simple phrase: in order to have a trustworthy team, you must trust them. It sounds easy, but not everyone gets it. An executive leader must have conversations with all parties, for example, about how autonomy is valued over micromanagement (and other similar concepts).

The Fear Conversation. Everyone has fears of one type or another. The RightStar sales team may fear competing against ServiceNow or not making their quotas. Consultants may fear misunderstanding customer requirements; PM’s often fear missed deadlines or going overbudget. And I often think that we all fear that our customers will not be happy with the final project outcome. Fear conversations are all about uncovering risks or fears in enough time to prevent any potential damage. For example, a team lead might have conversations with the team about potential bottlenecks and how to mitigate or eliminate a potential threat before it is too late.

The Why Conversation.  The gist of this chapter is that Simon Sinek, Ted Talker, and author of “Start with Why,” was wrong, don’t start with “Why?” And even more important, don’t impose a why decision from “above.” Instead, the collective decision must be made together as a team. See the table below which provides some examples of positions and their corresponding interests (and is also useful for sales conversations with prospects).

PositionPossible Corresponding Interests
We must release feature X this quarterKeeping up with competitors Delivering on customer promises Protecting reputation for on-time delivery
We must eliminate our technical debtDelivering quality products Keeping developers happy Recruiting new technical staff

The Commitment Conversation. A successful commitment conversation builds on the other conversations: trust, fear, and why. An important take away from this conversation is the importance of agreeing upfront what it means to be done. Like with many RightStar ITSM projects, how will we know when a job is complete? When we complete the deliverables outlined in our SOW? When we have a successful go-live? An upfront commitment conversation is critical to a successful project signoff and of course, a happy customer.

The Accountability Conversation. At RightStar, I often say that we’ll set realistic goals and then hold each other accountable. The authors define accountability as,” simply being obligated to render an account of what you have done and why.…. Accountability is akin to ownership, to responsibility, and to agency. If I am in control of how I spend my time, then only I am able to provide the information on why I have done what I’ve done, providing the reasoning and the intent behind my actions.” At RightStar, “autonomy” rules the day meaning that specific subtasks are often not spelled out. Did a salesperson meet his prospecting targets for the week? Did a consultant meet her development tasks for a particular sprint? Certainly, at RightStar things don’t always go according to plan. What matters is how we respond when that happens. Most importantly, did we apply our best judgement and how did we learn from our experience good or bad? Having accountability conversations means better outcomes for the next time.

About dick1stark

I am the President and founder of RightStar, Inc, an XTIVIA company. RightStar is a leading ITSM and DevOps consultancy and BMC Software Elite Solution Provider and Atlassian Gold Partner. My passion is customer success—whether it’s reducing the cost of service management, improving overall efficiency, or increasing end-user or employee satisfaction. Since founding RightStar in 2003, RightStar has made the INC 5000 list four times. In 2011, RightStar was awarded the prestigious National Capital Business Ethics Award (NCBEA) by the Society of Financial Service Professionals based upon RightStar’s foundation of honesty, ethics, and integrity. And in 2014, RightStar was selected by Forrester Research as one of 13 North American companies profiled in its ITSM Consultancy Wave Report. In 2019, BMC selected RightStar as its DSM North American Partner of the Year for its sales and partnership excellence. Finally, in November 2020, RightStar was acquired by XTIVIA, an innovative IT Solutions Provider. Dick is a graduate of Stanford University and a Project Management Professional (PMP).
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