Jade Meskill, Roy van de Water and Derek Neighbors discuss:
- How to deliver news
- How to help your team if they know they’re doing the wrong thing
Jade Meskill: Hello, and welcome to the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Jade Meskill.
Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.
Roy van de Water: I’m Roy van de Water.
Jade: Roy, you wanted to talk about something, but I’ll send you an invite for it. Then maybe we can talk about it.
Roy: Let’s try it this way. Audience members, we have big news about Agile Weekly, but we’re not going to tell you until two weeks from now. It could be either good or bad.
Derek: The surprise in the box, people love surprises, right?
Jade: Quick disclaimer, we have no news. You don’t have to wait two weeks to find out.
Derek: I think that I’ve seen a couple of patterns happen here. It’s the person that really gets off on the big surprise like, “I know something, and I’m going to tell you something. It’s exciting for me…”
Jade: …To withhold the…
Derek: “…To withhold the information, because I’m going to give this big surprise.”
Roy: I’ve caught myself dong that a few times.
Derek: The problem is they don’t understand that the person on the other end does not know if it means they’re getting a shotgun to the forehead, or they’re getting a $30,000 raise, and they always are going to default to shotgun in the face.
Roy: That’s Safer.
Derek: That nice two week pause of anticipation is like waiting for your cancer test results, and they don’t get that. That’s one pattern I see.
The other pattern I see is the, “I just want to tell you that I know important stuff that you don’t know, and it’s really like I just want to flaunt that,” which is another bad pattern. The other one is the, “We don’t know what the hell we’re doing, but we know we’re doing something. When we just unload and say, ‘Hey we did this crazy thing that nobody agrees with, and we didn’t consult anybody about,’ you would criticize the hell out of us that you didn’t even think about that, you just pulled it out of your ass.”
Instead, we tell you, “This big thing is coming that we don’t know what it is, and we’re going to pull it out of our ass, but it’s not going to look like we did, because we told you two weeks beforehand that we we’re going to do something.”
Roy: There’s a fourth option, too, which is we got really, really bad news, and we don’t know how to break it to you, so we’re going to give you two weeks to start some rumors, and see how people react so we can adjust our message accordingly.
Derek: I think a lot of the bad news stuff really comes down to people don’t know how to position their message. Like it’s the whole crucial conversation, fierce conversation type of thing, where instead of just being direct and saying, “Here’s what’s going on, here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know. These are the potential things I see, these are the potential things I don’t think are going to happen.” Instead it’s like, “Well, until I have all the information I don’t want to go tell somebody, because if they ask me a question and my answer is, ‘I don’t know,’ that’s going to be worse.”
The problem is if they know something’s happening, and you’re not giving them any information at all they will assume the absolute worst case scenario. I’m just telling you, if you’re a manager out there, you need to tell people something, and you don’t have all the information, you are better off giving them the information that you have available, and saying, “I don’t know” to the things you don’t know, then you are trying to hold off for all of the information to be relevant.
Jade: Or don’t tell them that you’re going to tell them.
Jade: Wait till you’re ready to, actually, tell them, and then just tell them.
Roy: Seems simple.
Jade: Must be impossible.
Roy: In a perfect world.
Jade: [laughs] In a perfect world. Speaking of perfect world, what happens if you’re working in a team, and they know that they’re doing the wrong thing? There’s some force that’s causing them to do the wrong thing intentionally, but yet they don’t seem to do anything about it?
Derek: They don’t do anything about it?
Jade: Maybe they feel powerless to refuse to do the thing they know is wrong.
Derek: I think to me it shows the lack of health within the organization as a whole. I think if you’re kind of co‑creating things with a product donor, with management, with your organization. If you see something that looks like is really damaging, or a complete waste of time you should be able to have that open dialogue. There should be trust on both sides to say, “How do we reconcile it?”
Maybe, I think, it’s a waste of time, you don’t. Maybe you can help me see that picture. Maybe I can help you see my picture. But there’s some kind of dialogue or compromise, or something that happens there.
I think when the teams get to the point where they’re like, “Yeah, this is a classic case of you go to no planning meetings, you go through all planning, and everyone is totally complicit.” Nobody says anything bad about what’s happening, and then the minute they all leave as they’re walking down the stairs or down the hallway they’re like, “This is the dumbest thing ever, this is a…” that is a huge sign that there’s something wrong.
The problem is, what it does is it starts to build up to the point where the teams just don’t care about the product. If you’re constantly being told to do things that you don’t believe are the right things to do for the product, pretty soon you don’t care about the product. Then it makes it impossible to do even the right things for the product.
Jade: How do you start to reconcile that? Let’s say you’re working with a team that’s been put in this position where they know that what they’re being asked to do is not the right thing for the product. They’re very resistant to doing whatever is being asked of them, but yet they don’t know how to address that, or how to reconcile it with the organization.
Derek: I think one of the ways that I would start to approach it is if I understood why the team felt that way, it would probably depend on what the reasoning was, and coach to that. More often than not it’s usually like, “We just think this is dumb.”
Roy: Right, they think it’s a waste of time.
Derek: There’s no value in it, it’s a waste of time. What I would generally do is say, like, hey, you might be powerless to do anything, but you can do the exact same thing that you should expect people to do from you, and that’s hold you accountable to your action, or ask you to be responsible for your actions.
What I would do is I would ask the product owner, “Why are we doing this? Can we measure that this is moving our product forward? Are we going to gain new customers if we do this? Are we going to prevent losing customers if we do this? Are we going to be able to up‑sell existing customers that we have? How is this benefiting our product?”
If they’re not able to tell that story with data, then I think you can push back a little be on them and say, “Man, you know, we would feel more passionate about this if we really knew that this was going to solve the problem.” I think that if you do that enough times, what can start to happen is the product owner has to start seeing themselves for what they are, which is hey, I’m just shooting from the hip, just saying, “Do X, do Y, do Z.”
I’m losing credibility with the team, in the same way that if the team just says like, “Oh, we’ll get stuff done, we’re going to get it done, and don’t ask us to look at anything. Don’t ask us to be accountable for our work or be responsible for when things ship,” the product loses respect or loses trust for the team. If I never do what I say I’m going to do, and never produce results as a team, the product owner gives up, in the same way the team gives up if the product owner never produces results.
Roy: But, Derek, what do you do then if you go back to the product owner and say, like, “We don’t really feel comfortable,” and the product owner says “Tough shit, do it anyway?”
Derek: I think you’re in a slightly precarious position. I’ll be honest, if I’m a developer in that situation I’m starting to dust off my resume. If I can’t be passionate and care about the product that I’m developing, and I can’t see where it’s going, I’m wasting my time.
I would be as transparent and open as possible to my manager, to my team, and to the product owner about that, saying, “I’m having a hard time understanding. You are telling me drive faster, drive faster, drive faster, and you refuse to tell me where this car is going. It’s hard for me to want to stay in for the ride. I really want to, but every day I feel like jumping out of the car even though it’s moving, so can you help me get there?”
If the person can’t respond to that, you’re working for a product owner that can’t deliver. If that’s the case, you’re working to nowhere. I think that the best answer that could potentially come out from that ‑‑ or not the best, but the most honest answer ‑‑ is for the product owner to be able to say, “Look, I’m struggling. I don’t know, you know, I don’t know either. I’ve got some other pressure that’s forcing me to do this and I don’t want to do it either.” At least at that point it’s, like, OK, now let’s go ask the person up the food chain what’s going on.
Because a lot of times I think what happens is stuff gets passed down through layers. A CEO, a CTO, somebody, sales, says, like, “This is a huge problem and you have to take care of this right now,” and they’re talking about it in a complete vacuum of information. It just goes right through the food chain all the way down to a product owner who is like, “Hey, I don’t care. My boss’s‑boss’s boss told me that this has to be done.”
It’s like, “Does that person even know anything about the product?” It’s like, “No.” Sometimes if you roll that back up the food chain, and save the large picture, and you say, “We’ve got this huge thing, this giant vision that we’re driving to over here, and we’ve been asked to make a right turn that’s going to make it so we can never get back there. Do you understand that?” The person will be like, “Oh! Well, no, don’t take the right turn, no. We definitely need to go to where we’re going.” But that conversation doesn’t happen.
I think if people don’t try to put on the brakes, and I’m not trying to say be…
Derek: …combative or like, “Hey, I’m not willing to work,” but if it really is just wasting everybody’s time, and it’s a consistent thing. It’s one thing if it’s a one off, and you’re just like, “Hey, you know, whatever, we’ll do it, it’s part of our sprint, or a whole sprint.” But, if stuff like this is coming up every single sprint, this is a symptom of a huge problem.
Roy: It’s like the difference, too, if one person feels this way versus a bunch of people feeling that way. If one person disagrees all the time, then maybe that one person has a problem. But if the entire team, each time has gone like, “This is the wrong direction, this adds no value,” or whatever, and they constantly express that, that’s when we start paying attention.
Jade: Why do you think more teams don’t deal with this?
Roy: Because it’s a lot easier to keep your head down. In my experience, when I speak up, I feel like the rest of the team goes ahead and shoots me down preemptively so they won’t be held responsible for my actions.
Derek: Enemy might come in, shoot your own soldier, something like that. Yeah, I think that it’s difficult. Some people, they’ve got a mortgage to pay, they’ve got a family to support. They’re afraid of making waves, makes them not promotable, or, fireable even. I think sometimes they don’t know. It’s in my gut, I feel like we’re just wasting our time. I’m just a little developer on a little team, part of a bigger micro [inaudible 11:32] , and I have no idea if the product owner really says this is the most important thing.
Even though it feels completely not important, maybe there’s some magical information happening out with our customers that I don’t know about, and this is really is the most important thing. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, even if I don’t understand it, even if they can’t articulate it. I think we become subservient to like, the boss said it was important, so, it has to be important. How can you question the boss?
Jade: In which case, if it really is important, a simple question of, “Why are we doing this?” should have a quick answer. But, usually it’s not the case because the problem is much more systemic than that.