Thursday, February 25, 2021

Creating the Space for People to Learn Together

A few weeks ago, a colleague reached out to me. They looked for input on how to make a new approach successful within their domain. They knew I experimented a lot with various collaborative approaches in teams. Therefore, they asked me for advice and ideas how they could set things up in a way that teams have a fun time, people learn together, and the whole thing has a chance to become successful. Today I learned that the input was valuable to them and they included it in their concept, so I decided to share it publicly as well. Please note that I've learned a lot of this from other people who added to my own experience, like Maaret Pyhäjärvi and Woody Zuill, so lots of credit go to them.

The most important thing I learned from enabling people to learn together: creating a safe and inclusive space for learning is crucial. This starts with inviting everyone in at times they can make (considering people like parents or caretakers have a difficult life to balance and we all have a pandemic ongoing, too) and making a point everyone is welcome, no matter who they are or what they bring to the table. When we're learning together we will have to show what we know and especially what we don't know yet (yet!). This can trigger lots of uncomfortable feelings, especially if you're not used to learning together (and most of us grew up in systems where learning together was rather discouraged and this runs deep) and if you're likely to fail. Failure is part of learning (love the acronym FAIL - first attempt in learning), yet many of us first need to unlearn that failure is a bad thing per se. Make it clear it's okay to be uncomfortable, it's okay to fail and learn from it; it's not okay to make it unsafe for people to feel uncomfortable.

One way to set the scene is to set some ground rules we all agree on before starting, making them bilateral. I love the guidelines and principles I learned from ensemble programming (formerly known as mob programming), which I use in many of my workshops. See also my Miro board to introduce the ensemble approach.

  • You're in the right place if you're either contributing or learning.
  • You have two ideas what to do next or more? Bias to action, try them out both. It's a good idea to try out the one from the more unexperienced person first.
  • Use the rule from improvisational theater: "yes, and ..."; don't destroy each other's ideas but build upon each other's ideas.
  • We cannot know where people are coming from, so let's treat each other with kindness, consideration and respect.

An additional way to create a safe space is to be vulnerable ourselves, especially if we're holding a privileged position (e.g. as facilitators, hosts, experts, experienced persons). If we show it's fine to say we don't know, we're curious to learn, we learn from everyone (no matter how unexperienced they are), we set the stage and evolve the culture we want to see. Small things matter, language matters a lot. For example: "Oh you don't know that?! Everyone knows that." or "Oh but that's easy." - these messages can come across belittling and hence can cause harm. Instead we can say: "Great, here's a learning opportunity! I offer to walk you through."

To make group sessions more inclusive, be sure to hold space for all kinds of people and balance their speaking time. Loud voices that frequently talk need to learn to hold back and create space for others, quiet voices need to get the space to contribute and learn that they are welcome to do so as well. Observing communication patterns and dynamics can help immensely; some groups need more facilitation from outside, others already learned to be balance this out themselves better. Language plays an important role here as well. Make an active effort to avoid stereotypes and use neutral language (e.g. gender-neutral language; no matter the group you're working with).

To make a learning session fun and energizing, it's best to make it as hands-on as possible for everyone. We all learn in different ways, yet for work related scenarios, hands-on learning is so far the best approach I've experienced with groups. To make things hands-on, it's a good idea to take turns at the keyboard. Beware that this can be a very uncomfortable situation for some people, yet if it's safe the learning effect is massive. Also, it will allow facilitators to observe where people stumble, where they lack local setups and tooling, where they find new approaches, if they understood what the group is up to, to uncover implicit knowledge, and more. To facilitate this remotely, either work on something everyone has the same access to and they can switch easily so screen sharing alone works, or stay on the same computer and share screen control.

Be intentional about how the group navigates, i.e. who knows the next step to go, who keeps the big picture in mind. Whoever navigates has to think and speak out loud, and practice how to communicate well. They explain the intention behind the next steps; if that does not help yet, then location and details can help; yet the intention why we go this step is crucial for learning and sharing the mental model. If you combine the navigator role with being at the keyboard (usually called the driver), this can be a lot of cognitive load for this person and all others might easily loose track. If you split this task from the keyboard and have the driver taking instructions and taking care of implementation details while the rest of the group navigates, this can work well in mature teams where they learned not to speak over each other and give each other space; yet people new to this might not do too well. If you have the driver at the keyboard and another person practicing the navigator role, taking input and suggestions from the rest of the group, people have a good chance to learn together. At first this might feel artificial and slower, yet it allows for more thoughtful thinking, clearer communication and deeper learning. Things will speed up naturally. Having an expert on the group who knows a lot more than others (might be you), you can consider to take over navigation from time to time to unblock the group; yet you can also consider to navigate the navigator instead of navigating yourself, which is once again a learning opportunity for them.

Making things fun is a tricky thing. Learning itself can be fun already, learning together with great people as well, just as solving a tricky problem. So might be that fun evolves naturally given the structures you provide. One approach you can try in addition is to gamify the session, especially if you'd like to run more of them. However, beware not to make this competitive and compare people within the team or teams with other teams. Instead, have the whole team work together on a goal (as they're also supposed to in the real case), and measure something that matters to the group (they can set their goal themselves so they have a say and are invested). After the first session they then have historical data they can compare themselves to after the second session. We can only compare ourselves to ourselves in the past as no one else shares the same context; and if we do so we can make our own learning more visible and tangible. After all, practice does make all of us better.

A few more things: it's a good idea to start with why we do this, why it's an important investment, what's the desired outcome. Make it clear this is part of work as learning time is part of working time. Depending on the length of the session, allow for good recreational breaks where they are not supposed to work on anything else but take a real break for body and mind. Depending on the length, allowing snacks might help as well (especially as people have different eating habits and needs).

Hope this helps. :)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Ensemble Is the New Mob

Back in 2017, my team gave "mob programming" a try, a collaborative approach to product development that was new to us back then. We made really good experiences so that I started to spread the word and introduced more teams and people at my company to this social approach. I started giving workshops and talks about it, I initiated cross-team groups learning together using this approach, I enjoyed any opportunity in my free time where I could hone my skills in a group, I even joined the program team for the Mob Programming Conference to get practitioners together and gain new ones. Always talking about a mob, only interchanging the activity depending on where our focus was: mob programming, mob testing, mob documentation writing, mob presentation crafting, and so on.

Over the years, the concept became more known across teams at my company. Mental models of what it entailed differed, yet people acknowledged that solo work or pairing weren't the only options, they realized you can also get work done synchronously in a group setting. They saw benefits and several people built upon the idea and tried the approach in various contexts, from learning settings to solving a real problem at hand, from on demand initiatives to a full time working mode.

Beginning of February, one colleague from another team shared an observation with me. They noticed I was speaking about an "ensemble" these days instead of the "mob". They were curious to learn about the background of this switch and if both terms referred to the same approach. It really made me smile - what a great learning opportunity! For everyone who might have had the same question, here's what I answered.

Both terms "ensemble" and "mob" refer to the same approach. People had been looking for a replacement term for many years to get rid of the negative connotations of the "mob" which was perceived as problematic. Many people had been appalled by the term "mob" and hence didn't want to give it a try. Thinking of bullying or lynch mobs, the term is triggering trauma. Since last year we now finally have a new term that's a lot more inclusive: the ensemble. It's already been taken up and lived by many leading experts like Emily Bache and Lisa Crispin. The term was found by Maaret Pyhäjärvi and Denise Yu and you can read more about the origins in Maaret's blog post introducing the ensemble.

Personally, I made the switch in September 2020 when giving my talk "A Story of Mob Programming, Testing, and Everything" (nowadays "A Story of Ensemble Programming, Testing, and Everything") for the Agile Testing Days webinar series. This is the talk where you can hear my own take on why the terms you choose are impactful and how changing our language can reduce harm.

Inside my company, I haven't been actively advertising the term switch. I just continuously used ensemble as the new one; sometimes adding "formerly known as mob" to make it easier for people to know which approach I was referring to. Given this, I was really happy when my colleague asked me about the term ensemble, appreciated my explanation, and shared they will introduce the new term to their team in which they frequently use the approach.

Language allows us to express ourselves, and it shapes the understanding of our world. Language matters. Changing my language to the term ensemble is a little thing to do for me and matters a lot to someone else (kudos to Gitte Klitgaard for such wisdom). So, ensemble it is.

Monday, February 8, 2021

On Writing

The last years taught me that writing supports my thinking process. It's helping me both reflect and craft something new. I'm writing things down as they come, making my thoughts tangible and visible so I can iterate on them more easily and also spot patterns I might have missed otherwise. I see this when taking notes in meetings, when preparing for conversations, when facilitating workshops - nearly everywhere. Visualizations help me with this as well, yet I find myself drawn to words in the first place.

Beginning of last year, I started journaling at work, writing down everything that I felt was noteworthy for the day, that kept my mind busy, that inspired me, that triggered new insights. I'm gaining a lot of value out of the process of taking these notes and having them as a reference. They allow me to free my mind by offloading some thoughts, they show me on hindsight what worked and what not and how I felt in certain situations. They are the source of new ideas.

While I wrote a lot more at work, I did not blog too much. Well, last year was a different year for everyone, so maybe I shouldn't interpret too much into it. Yet the observation stays: I journaled more in private, I blogged less publicly. That doesn't mean there wasn't anything to write about, I have lots of topics that still wait to be composed into a blog post.

Another observation is that lately I blogged more on personal challenges. Well, last year I stopped my personal challenge in favor of a way more important topic. So, I mainly stopped writing blog posts as well, besides a few exceptional ones.

And then there's the fact that I have a tendency to write lengthily walls of text. I write blog posts mainly for my own learning, yet this tendency oftentimes makes me feel sorry for those taking the time to read through them and hoping it was worth their time. Yet as soon as I start writing, it's hard to stop and shorten the text, make it more concise and more easily digestible. Mostly it takes more energy from me to cut things down than to write them.

In addition, last year had a toll on everyone. As I'm very privileged I was surprised to see the impact it had on me as well; I cannot even begin to fathom what it still means to others, and how life is right now for people. One thing that showed for me was the reduced amount of energy available. While taking everything a bit slower after a time when I constantly overdid things was a good idea, I nowadays still don't have the same capacity back as before. Any kind of little thing like receiving yet another message adds to my mental load and on some days, they simply feel so overwhelming that I procrastinate with responding while feeling bad about it. Note to self: that's not helpful, as I keep this mental load with me this way instead of getting rid of it.

All this led me to blog less and less. Which would be totally fine, I can stop blogging any time and pick it up again any time, it's my own blog after all. However, the above is also preventing me from writing more frequently and sharing what happened - and so much happened that would be worth reflecting and sharing on this medium. The less I posted (and hence practiced blogging), the more I found myself hesitating again to sit down and take note of my thoughts and experiences, for my own learning and by chance they might be valuable for someone else as well. Practice is everything and makes hard things easier, step by step. I watched my old fears came back, like that people will see that I'm actually not where they expected me to be. However, one of the things people told me was that they appreciated me sharing just wherever I was, they could relate with authenticity and not being the perfect super skilled smart expert who knows everything already and never fails. All in all: I want to share again what's going on, and that includes when things are not going well or according to my hopes. That includes difficult feelings about my own work, my role, my skills and everything. In the end, this pays into my mission as part of fostering a culture of inspiration.

So now I decided to try something new for me: write a short text and then stop. Short one-page posts on one topic. Similar to my journal at work - which by the way is an amazing resource what to write about - just elaborating a bit more. No need to cut things, just choose a small thing to share, write and then stop. Just revise what's already written and then publish. I'll try this out and see if the outcome indeed will be more frequent blog posts and hence more reflection and experience sharing.

Writing supports my thinking and keeping things short will allow me to do it more often.