My perspective from 2009 AYE conference
I did attend to the full 5-day version: the “pre-conference WarmUp tutorial” on november 8, followed by the standard 3-day conference, and finally ending with the ‘post-conference full-day workshop” on november 12.
In one short sentence, I remember a friendly and fun atmosphere with plenty of focused and brain-intensive conversations (in small groups, triads, or pairs).
I finally got so intellectually exhausted that I unfortunately couldn’t take full advantage of the last day workshop... I guess the continuous english-to-french translation effort partly contributed to this result.
Everyday from 9am to 4:30pm, information was continuously flowing among hosts and attendees. The evenings then were certainly more easy-going and relaxed, but the flow never really stopped... and I definitely liked that!
This aspect had already been “advertised” on the conference wiki, and I confirm that the conference acted as a networking booster for me. I definitely thought it would be a positive side effect of this kind of event, but I quickly discovered it was actually one its core properties!
Immediately on my flight from London to Phoenix, I was very lucky to get seated next to the only other conference attendee on the plane, Leonardo Almeida. Naturally I didn’t know, until I decided to continue my progress reading “Secrets Of Consulting” from Jerry Weinberg ; my neighbour suddenly laughed, staring at my book: ”Hey! I bet we’re both heading to the same final destination! You know what? I was precisely thinking about getting my own copy of this book from my bag...”. This coincidence was just crazy! From this moment, we had long and interesting conversations about our respective experiences, concerns, hopes and ultimately our core motivations to come to this conference... This made the flight appear considerably shorter in time, and I think I have won a good brazilian friend.
At the conference itself, I then got acquainted to several other great persons, like Moto San (Japan), Udo (Germany), Tom (Netherlands), Jon (GB), Henrik and Rhaza (Sweden), Gerry (Canada), Eric, Chris, Kurt, Fiona and Marije (US)... I apologize for the persons I didn’t mention. I am very confident some of these relationships will survive the coming years.
Of course, I have to thank very much our hosts: Johanna, Steve, Don, Esther, and Jerry!We (attendees) were honored and thrilled to chat privately with you guys... I am looking forward to meeting you again soon.
Another unexpected and awesome extra was this dinner with Jerry on monday: he expressed at his first session the desire to share an evening with up to 5 conference attendees he didn’t already know, in a nearby restaurant. I eagerly jumped on this unique occasion! The subjects of conversation were varied (for a good part related to Software Engineering Management of course) ; we all knew the extraordinary author, and happily discovered Jerry, the lively person. Check out this page for more details on this dinner.
What did I get from the Sessions?
I will try to summarize hereafter what I have learned from the sessions I attended. For the most part, I won’t narrate the sessions themselves, but rather present a snippet of the information I extracted from them. It is important though to remember I didn’t suffer any long and boring presentations, but participated in activities for illustrating theories, and interactive discussions. I found it essential for all the core wisdom to sink in. Consider the following lines as a vague foretaste of the true conference content, and don’t hesitate to apply if you get the opportunity.
I already had read about a large part of the presented concepts. For these, I revised, but more importantly, the conference made me reflect upon my basics, and develop some new perspectives.
Disclaimer: this kind of conference can’t be objectively summarized in an article. On top of that, I have already forgotten plenty of details, so I will share only those that I remember at the time I am writing this post.
Day 1 - WarmUp Tutorial
The purpose of this first day was to learn or revise a vocabulary to be shared for the rest of the conference (like MBTI types, Congruence, and a few of Virgina Satir’s concepts and techniques)
The small audience (about 25 participants) helped me getting introduced gently with the event, in a very relaxed atmosphere. Steve an Don did a great job at leading the day!
Workshop n°1 - we formed triads, interview each others and each drew important aspects of his/her life (only what we felt was interesting sharing of course) on flipchart pages, and presented it to the rest of the group in a 1 minute time box
What did I notice?
- Truly International, worldwide conference
- Different backgrounds
- Mostly Agile-Oriented software people (but not all!)
- Jerry Weinberg, regularly presented as the initial motivation for attending
- Common genuine curiosity for teh science of people interactions
What surprised me?
I realized that many came not only for practical matters in their professional assignments, but more generally to improve their lifes, help reframe their day-to-day issues in a larger picture and get a deeper understanding on how to handle them.
Workshop n°2 - The Satir Interaction Model
Human communication is not reduced to the audible and visible exchanges (words, body language), far from it... although this explicit part shouldn’t be ignored, it represents only a fraction of a complex and invisible process. This lack of understanding explains why we all have experienced or witnessed people interactions going inexplicably awry. Improving the quality of our communications requires to understand better these inner dynamics.
Virginia Satir, a renowned family therapist, has developed a very powerful, yet simple, theory involving a 7 steps process : Sensory Input, Interpretation, Feelings, Feelings about the Feelings, Defenses, Rules for Commenting, Observable Outcome.
For helping non specialists like us at least remember a few most remarkable phases, Jerry Weinberg simplified the model into a 4 steps process: Intake, Meaning, Significance, and Response.
Of course, both the reality is still more complex ; 2 or more steps can overlap in time, thoughts can loop several times before finally issuing a response... The value of these theories is the same as with all thories: to help us getting a better grasp on an infinite complexity.
If you’re new to the theory or want to revise, I suggest you take a look at this nice article from Joe Rainsburger for an introduction.
Jerry has presented those concepts in many forms in several of his books (for instance in Chapter 10 of “Becoming A Technical Leader”).
Virginia Satir has also written a book dedicated to the topic: “The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond”. (I haven’t read it, but it is said to be worth reading)
Workshop n°3 - MBTI Personality Type Preferences
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator also improves our ability to communicate and understand each others. This stands as one among several models attempting to explain why people don’t have the same reactions in similar situations, and the great value this variety can represent. It is crucial to remember this tool should never be used as a means for classifying or appraising people: this would not only be unethical, but also completely senseless.
Basically, the MBTI distinguishes 4 axes for describing personality types:
1- Where do you get your Energy from? Extravert (External) / Introvert (Internal)
2- How do you extract Information from the world? Sensitive (Facts) / iNtuitive (Possibilities)
3- How do you take Decision? Feeling (Warmth) / Thinking (Logic)
4- How do you prefer to act (Lifestyle)? Judging (Organisation) / Perceiving (Adaptability)
There are numerous articles, books and online tests on the subject, so I won’t delve into details. This is really worth the discovery though, both for personal introspection and as a team building tool.
Workshop n°4 - MBTI Temperaments
The notion of ‘Temperament’ looks at MBTI personality types from a different, reduced scope, perspective:
- SJ types are called Organizers, or Duty Seekers
- SP types are called Troubleshooters, or Action Seekers
- NF types are called Catalysts, or Ideal Seekers
- NT types are called Visionaries, or Knowledge Seekers
When interacting with your manager or a difficult colleague, you should attempt to guess their temperament and then address accordingly what you deduce could be their true concerns.
More details can for instance be found on the Web, or in Weinberg’s 3rd QSM volume: “Congruent Action”.
Workshop n°5 - Temperature Reading
Temperature reading is a technique for uncovering the state of group. A facilitator leads the discovery, and asks 5 questions in the following sequence:
1- Appreciations (positive aspect of past experiences between members)
2- New Information: any news someone might want to share with the rest of the group?
3- Puzzles: anything that puzzles one or more members of the group?
4- Complaint With Recommendation: any complaint to formulate, that you have a suggestion for? (“I don’t like this. I recommend that for fixing it.”)
5- Hopes and Wishes : what would you like to have happen in the future?
If the facilitator makes sure everyone has a chance to speak up for each question, this technique provides an explicit framework for the team to openly share information and concerns and cool down emotionally, before delving in the meeting agenda itself.
I strongly believe this activity can deliver great value when applied at the beginning of every team iteration meeting (providing that the team members buy in with the idea of this kind of ritual).
Workshop n°6 - Congruence
I like to look at congruence as both a source and a consequence of self-esteem. Congruence is a fundamental asset to effectively deal with any situation. It fosters genuine and healthy human relationships.
The first challenge is to be congruent with yourself: make your thoughts, your words, your feelings and your acts all aligned. For instance if you feel angry, appear so and say so! For all sorts of reasons, we can often be very prompt at disguising or distorting our genuine feelings. This attitude invariably acts as an energy drainer... I guess as a first step out we could all try to recognize when we fall in such situations (more difficult than it looks!).
The second challenge is to be congruent with the situation. This roughly means:
- be aware of the variety of potential actions (always try hard to find 3) in front of a given situation,
- don’t get blinded by the system,
- think ‘out of the box’!
Yet another perspective of behaving congruently is to consider and balance the requirements of 3 distinct components: Self, Other and Context.
Most typical incongruent behaviors found in nature are:
- Blaming (ignoring Other)
- Placating (ignoring Self)
- Loving / Hating (ignoring Context)
- Super Reasonable (Context only)
- Irrelevant (ignoring everything!)
This is a wide subject, explored in depth in Jerry’s book “Congruent Action” (vol 3 of the QSM series).
Day 2 Morning - Managing Change (Steve Smith)
Every person, every organization has to deal with change. Virginia Satir has developed a model for helping people better handle changes in their lives. This session consisted in a game, illustrating the Satir Change Model.
The change process can consistently be decomposed into 5 steps:
- Late Status Quo (how things were before)
- Resistance to a new, foreign element (sudden external pressure, new competitor...)
- Chaos (people have accepted the need for change, but can’t organize effectively)
- Integration (people have discovered a “Transforming Idea”, that will help organize)
- New Status Quo (the transforming idea has been turned into a new working standard)
You can find more material in Steve’s excellent article on this topic.
Day 2 Afternoon - Saying No that really means No (Jerry Weinberg)
How difficult it is (at least for me) to turn down an offer, reject a proposal, or refuse to take one more “very urgent” task in charge!
Jerry alloted the afternoon for that thorny, though universal, subject. Here are some interesting quotes I extracted from that session:
When asked a question, never begin your answer by arguing. Choose between
- just tell your point,
- don’t close the door and ask for more time.
Know your bottomline BEFORE your negotiation meetings.
Don’t necessarily engage, but take it as a joke “ (grinning) Why not? All is virtually possible!”
If you’re the field expert and you know something’s not feasible, make this clear and stick to your point!
Make a rule of refusing any deal if someone pushes you (like “You have to decide NOW!”, “There’s no choice!”)
Deal directly and only with the person in charge (that is in a sufficient position of power)
Don’t set a trap for yourself (you want to say No, but to be kind you say you’re OK if the other is ready to change something...)
Check people around you to see if they can say No (ask unreasonable questions) => good test for trustworthiness
Day 3 Morning - Make the Changes you want: Finding Organizational Levers (Esther Derby)
When you begin to notice that your team or your organization develop bad habits, what strategy can you develop to produce effective countermeasures?
According to Esther, 3 main factors drive patterns* in organizations: Containers, Differences and Exchanges. (definition of pattern in this context is “repeated behavior that has meaning over time”)
Containers refer to anything that hold focus. There are 3 main categories of containers
=> physical containers, like buildings, floors, rooms, clusters of desks, cubicles, but also VCS repository, bug tracking system...
=> organizational, like functional groups (developers/DBAs/testers/marketing/support...)
=> psychological, like social groups, cultural affiliation
Differences in gender, age, proximity, inclination, sense of urgency... can all trigger behaviours and distort working relationships in human systems.
Exchanges occur between containers AND within containers, of material and immaterial goods (resources, communication, energy, knowledge, ideas...)
The technique begins with listing those 3 kinds of factors in your current environment. Then, you’re ready for identifying what actions you should take for stopping the development of the bad pattern, and replace it with a better one:
- think about which factors or combination of factors in your list is likey to reinforce the unproductive pattern, and look for missing ones,
- could you add a new container or remove another to help?
- look at the timing of the exchanges: is there something you should change here?
Day 3 Afternoon - Beyond the Org Chart Illusion (Jerry Weinberg)
Clear disctinction between “Process Description” (diagrams, that you happen from time to time to follow - if ever) and Process (actual actions performed)
This session was a time for picturing our perspective of our working organization on flipchart pages, following a Virginia Satir technique for family therapy. Weinberg guided us step by step in the process, and finally drove a group conversation on two pictures from 2 persons from the same organisation (the drawings were surprisingly very different!).
This technique pictures on a workable map how you perceive your working place. From there, you can think more comfortably about the nature and origins of your problems, notice important interactions and systems, and look for what to do next. This was fun and insightful!
Day 4 Morning - Structuring your Conversations (Johanna Rothman)
Unless you’re an ermit, you hold conversations many times in a day, with your spouse, your children, your colleagues, your managers, your clients, your friends, and even strangers on the street...
When it comes to professional life, we may have to convince, to negotiate, to brainstorm or just to gather data.
The quality of the gathered data largely depends on our ability to build a relationship through the conversation. Johanna has shared with us her strategies for consistently achieving that purpose. We explored her framework through little workshops in pairs. I won’t expand much on the explaining the full framework here.
Here are a few quotes of wisdom extracted here and there from the session:
- Physical connections (like handshakes) allows the emergence of emotional connection
- Always give your undivided attention for at least one minute, and smile (be engaging)
- Find techniques to stay present, practise active listening
- Be aware of personal boundaries
- Don’t ‘confront’ each other face to face around a table
- Look for energizing common grounds (builds up a conversation)
Day 4 Afternoon - Don’t Let a Four-Year-Old Run Your Life (Jerry Weinberg)
Jerry explored with us the intricacies of the human nature, by running a live interview with a volunteer from the assistance. I had read several times about the theory in some of his books, but I just wasn’t able to make it practical. This live session, I think, has allowed me to go past my doubts and give it a serious try on me...
Lets review quickly the theory (you’ll find lots more in his books of course):
Detect when you notice you resist something and you don’t know why. Some survival rule might be at work!
4 year-old is an age where kids begin to try to make sense out of the world.
Survival rules are old programs from this age that “haven’t been updated”: it feels almost like you’re going to die if you break them.
Here are a few examples of survival rules:
- I must always do a perfect job
- I must never ask for help
- I must be liked by everyone
- I must never be angry
Unfortunateley, such “programs” can’t simply be erased and replaced by others. Instead, Jerry (and Virginia Satir, behind the scene) suggests to just try to transform them gradually (starting by introducing some exceptions to the rule), and let time to the idea to really sink in between each step.
Let’s take one of my own strong survival rules, and apply Jerry’s transformation steps:
1/ State the rule precisely: “I must always solve problems of people around me”
2/ Change ‘must’ to ‘can’: “I can always solve problems of people around me”
Is this true? NO
3/ Change ‘always’ to ‘sometimes’: “I can sometimes solve problems of people around me”
4/ Select three or more circumstances when you can follow that guide:
“I can sometimes solve problems of people around me when:
the person has explicitly asked me for help,
I have time to do so,
I am motivated to help,
I am sufficiently qualified on the topic.”
At first sight, this progressive transformation might not look as interesting as it really is... just give it a serious try, and let me know how it worked (at worst, it should open a small breach in your rule... which should then appears a little less oppressive).
Day 5 - Collaboration Tools For Leaders (Esther Derby & Johanna Rothman)
We shared this full last day with Esther and Johanna.
Provide a focus in your meetings: hang a big sheet on the wall with the following informations:
- Outcome / Objective: What do you want to get out of this meeting?
- Agenda: Which steps/activities will we go through to attain that goal?
- Roles: Who has a special role in the meeting? (facilitator, scribe, domain expert...)
- Rules / Working Agreements: What behaviour do you want, or don’t you want, from participants during the meeting?
The Kaner’s Participatory Decision Making Diamond Model provides a very useful practical support for guiding a successful meeting progress: you can find more information here (Kaner’s book review). I think I vaguely was aware about this multi-step approach, but I began to really understand and appreciate it through this practical workshop.
We ran multiple activities from the book on a few real-life examples, from the divergent to the convergent zone, and ended up with a concrete action plan. The simulations were accompanied with numerous precious feedbacks from Esther, Johanna and the whole group.
Again, please don’t believe the conference can be summarized only by what you have just read in this article. I have highlighted a few theories, quotes and events particularly interesting to me, and I realize it might give a false, over-simplistic view of the conference...
Participate to the next and check by yourself!