Breaking The Seal (Part 2)

Reading time ~2 minutes

In my first article on “breaking the seal” I described how this pattern applies to managing WIP on teams. There’s also a work/social concept that fits the same name with a different pattern…

Name: “Breaking the Seal”, “The Lid is Off” etc.

Analogy: When you open a new pack of good coffee there’s that great smell that comes out – suddenly everyone wants a brew.

Concept: Socially, many people are unwilling to speak up in a crowd or be the exception either in positive or negative situations. Fortunately for experienced agile teams, the social norm of staying silent has often become disrupted but you’ll need to break it back open once in a while and as a coach you’ll need to find ways to introduce it.

Being the first to speak up triggers team inertia; suddenly others’ voices will also be found.

How many times have you sat in a meeting where someone uses a term or concept you have no idea what they mean but you don’t speak up? How many other people in the room also have no clue but stay silent? This might be inertia, it might be fear or just an unwillingness to appear stupid. Particularly with technical teams where your career goal may be “technical guru” – being seen as wrong or not clued up may be a sign of weakness. Having a “wise fool” on the team breaks the seal on this but needs some caution applied.

In some organizational cultures it may not be socially acceptable to question more senior staff. This really gets to me. In fact, I’ll write another post dedicated to this.

Occasionally speaking up might be risky, particularly if there’s obvious management issues. (Nobody likes to speak about the elephant in the room when the elephant is in the room) In these cases arrange with a few like-thinking peers to take it in turns to be the one to raise issues so it’s not always you. This will also ensure that you’re not speaking alone with others relying on you to take the risks up every time.

On the more positive side, the “red cards” tool relies on this same concept for group self-facilitation. Where once it becomes socially acceptable to halt a problem or challenge others the team’s self-organizing capability steps up another notch.

Practice this in your own teams – challenge yourself and your peers to ask a dumb question or plug a rat-hole at least once a week.

Red Cards

Reading time ~3 minutes

One of the best facilitation tools I own. How to get a group out of a rat-hole & back on track without personal confrontation and minimal effort.

Name: The Red Card

Concept: When a group is in discussion on a particular topic they can often disappear down “rat holes” or off onto tangents. Every member of an agile team is empowered to “red card” a conversation that they feel is going off track. The group as a whole typically rapidly decide whether the red card is warranted or not.

Usage: I ensure that plenty of of small (playing card sized) red cards are available in the team rooms. To introduce them to a team that haven’t used them before, I will usually take a large session such as release planning and introduce the concept of red cards as part of the facilitation tools and ground rules at the start of a session. What I tell the teams is:

“Whilst I’m facilitating, I tend to get drawn into the conversations and need hauling out, especially if I start ranting. Therefore the red cards are required primarily to shut me up – although feel free to use them on each other too!”

Once a member of the team first uses a red card, that’s it – the lid is off. Expect use of cards to take off rapidly. (see “breaking the seal – part 2“).

Background: Chances are this has been used before me elsewhere in the world, but this is a tool I introduced to my teams after returning from Agile 2009. During one of the evening sessions there was a panel discussion. Questions were submitted in advance and each panelist had 2 minutes to discuss. After the whole panel had their say, the audience were given an opportunity to vote. On every seat was a large red and green paddle. If we wanted the discussion to continue we voted green. If we wanted to stop and move on, we voted red.

When I got back to Cambridge I introduced it during some training I was running. I “borrowed” my eldest daughter’s red & green art straws. There were a few “hot spots” on the course where 1 or 2 attendees would lose track. We had a great team who immediately raised a red straw. They enjoyed calling each other out so much that we had red straw warfare at one point!

After using the same in a couple more sessions it became clear the green straws weren’t needed. The red ones were getting tatty so I raided the stationary cupboard for some red card instead, cut this into pieces about the right size to hold up visibly and planted a few in the team rooms. These are now the social norm for facilitators on many teams worldwide but probably not well-known outside the company I’m at right now.

Impact: Of all the tools I’ve used over the last 2 years this one seems to have had one of the greatest impacts on teams and the most viral spread within the organization I work with. Even the management team now red card each other and they don’t even have the cards in the room. Like all good verbal anchors, everyone now knows what “red card” means during discussions. Better still – even on difficult teams I’ve not yet seen anyone use red cards in a socially unacceptable way.

Try red cards out on your next big retrospective – you might want a stooge to break the seal first of all and chances are you’ll need to set yourself up as the first target but once the team have been through this once, facilitating meetings will become more of a team sport than a job for you.