This is the thirty-first in a series of podcasts where Judy interviews people who have a track record of successful collaboration.
This series is for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of real-life collaboration, especially collaboration among creative, intelligent, free-thinking individuals who are geographically dispersed. The interviews go well beyond the obvious, as metaphor master Judy Rees explores the hidden thinking that inspires collaboration that works.
Judy: Hello and welcome to the Collaboration Dynamics Podcast. I’m Judy Rees and with me today is Mark Kilby. Hello, Mark.
Mark: Hello, Judy. How are you?
Judy: I’m very well, thank you. I’m delighted that you could join me today, because you’re one of the people who I’ve known about, I suppose more than known, online for long times. When we finally met the other week, it was absolutely excellent. You’re even more wonderful than I thought you were.
Mark: Thank you.
Judy: Would you like to introduce yourself?
Mark: Certainly. I’m one of those strange roles called an Agile coach. I help organisations with their Agile transformations. I have been doing it for a number of years since 2003 – so about 12-13 years now. I’ve been in software for much longer than that. In the last 2 years, I went from a consulting coach on the road back into an internal position. So, I’m full-time employed now for wonderful company called Sonatype.
One of the interesting things about Sonatype is we are completely distributed, as you and I discussed before. We all work out of our houses using these Agile project methodologies. It’s been a wonderful experience. I enjoyed it very much. It gave me the opportunity to meet you. I’m glad to be here as part of that.
Judy: I’m actually fascinated by how distributed teams are making that work for themselves. That’s part of why I wanted you to be on this call.
Mark: Yeah. Something tells me we are going to have more conversations on that.
Judy: I hope so. For you, working in that way with Sonatype, would you regard that as a collaboration?
Mark: Absolutely. For those who are not familiar with the process, Agile is extremely collaborative. It’s heavily dependent on collaboration. But what’s unusual about my current situation is most people in the Agile space, with the Agile profession, would say, “The only way it works well is face-to-face.” However, we’re finding it also works very well in our distributed environment. I think actually one of the reason why it works well is because we’re using Agile and because of our collaboration.
Judy: One of the recent interviewees on this podcast was saying, “It may not be so that Agile is better online than it is face-to-face, but the point is when you’ve got a distributed team, you need Agile even more than you did before.”
Mark: Absolutely. I’ve been on traditional, what is sometimes called waterfall teams, that were distributed. Oh, it was not pretty.
Judy: What kind of things happened?
Mark: Basically, all kinds of miscommunications and crossed expectations, and very easily getting siloed. One of the tendencies that can happen working online is, as I know you are familiar with it, it’s very easy to sit in front of your machine and tune everything else out to focus on your work. But that’s when you can get into trouble, if it’s a longer project, or if you do have other people that need to be involved in the work. What Agile says is you should find a way to involve those people as often as possible, perhaps even daily.
With our Agile teams, they are actually communicating with each other throughout the day both synchronously and asynchronously, and also reaching out to our sales and marketing teams, and even customers as part of that. What I’ve seen is with what we have now from a technology infrastructure standpoint, we can reach out to the people we need to reach out to, and collaborate in a moment’s notice, just as if we were face-to-face.
Judy: When you personally – not you as a group, but you personally – when you are collaborating at your best, you are like what?
Mark: As I shared with you before we started the podcast, I had listened to a few others, and the first time I heard you ask that question to somebody, an image popped into my mind I had never considered before.
When I’m collaborating at my best it’s almost as if, if you can imagine, just a very quiet pond in the woods. There’s a gentle rain that starts to happen. You see the drops hitting the pond. The ripple start bouncing off each other and forming new patterns that weren’t there before. That’s what collaboration is like for me when I’m at my best – ideas bouncing off others and different things. It excites me, gives me a great deal of energy just to even think about the image.
Judy: So, a very quiet pond in the woods, and a gentle rain, and the ripples forming new patterns that weren’t there before.
Judy: Is there anything else about that very quiet pond in the woods?
Mark: Yeah, a good question. I think for me, it says that there still has to be the right conditions for collaboration. I guess in that stillness, there has to be an equality – everyone participating at the same level. I think maybe that’s what the pond represents for me. They can drop information in as they need to, or as they feel they need to contribute. Some drops are maybe more frequent than others.
It’s funny – as you said that, I thought that there might be cases where that stillness can be disrupted, and the collaboration can be disrupted. As I think about this, it’s tied very much to our remote or virtual workspaces that we are in now. There’s a tendency to be disrupted, to have too many things going on, just like a gentle rain in the pond turning into a deluge. It’s too much going on. You can’t see the patterns, because there’s so much hitting.
I think the information that we can get from our virtual workplaces can be like that. We have to look at how we set the right conditions for that collaboration. And I think that applies as much in face-to-face as it does to online connections. How do you make sure you are connecting with the others in that collaboration? How do you set those conditions?
Judy: When it’s that gentle rain, and you need to stop that gentle rain from turning into a deluge, what needs to happen for gentle rain like that?
Mark: You need to control the flow. Actually, everyone involved needs to control the flow. It’s interesting – as you asked that, it reminded me of some of the more traditional facilitation training that I have went through early on in my career. And a lot of it was about the facilitator controlling the meeting. I think it’s not quite right for the kind of collaborations that we have now. It’s more everyone feeling connected. The facilitator is still responsible for checking in on that, but you might think about what working agreements you might have in place, so that people are connected.
As a more concrete example – one thing that I’m always very conscious of in an online collaboration is no matter what tool I’m using I always have some sort of back channel. There’s quite a bit out-of-the-web written on back channels. I also have a blog post on my side. But the idea is you always have some easy-to-access communication channel, so that if all the rest of you technology fails, you still feel connected with the rest of your group. That’s what a back channel and collaboration is all about. I always try to make sure there’s at least that connection.
Judy: That connection that stays even if everything else goes wrong – what’s the relationship between that back channel and controlling the flow, which means that there’s gentle rain rather than deluge?
Mark: This is where it gets to a more individual nature in collaboration. I haven’t thought about that before, but in a way with some of the work I do now and others that I know in the online coaching and facilitation space, there’s a meta-collaboration. It’s making sure that not only people feel connected, but they are able to have some control over the collaboration.
A little bit of that is really getting to know different participants in the meeting. And sometimes that’s harder if it’s the first time you’ve met them. But if it’s a team you’ve been working with for an extended period of time as the facilitator, or team-lead, of if you want to say Scrum Master, a coach, whichever, you want to take the time to get to know the individuals and understand what’s important for them, and also exploring a bit of your world and metaphor, because I’m very curious as a way to better tune in to my team-mates. But also not just for the facilitator, but for each of the team members to understand what each individual needs, and how they can help control the flow of information that they have, some control over the collaboration.
Judy: Absolutely. I was talking to somebody this morning about how using clean language, we can get people to understand themselves and how they work, and also share that information with their colleagues, and the colleagues get to understand how they work. As a result, you get a “beautiful web of interconnectedness” – it was the metaphor this morning’s person used. For you, when you understand and they understand that kind of stuff, then they have more control themselves over the collaboration.
Mark: Oh, yes. Not only control for them, but they have more of an ability to help others in the collaboration. One of the key ideas at Agile is to have self-managed teams or self-organising teams. To have that, there has to be an understanding of what are each individual’s strengths, what are their weaknesses, how they recognise those and how they support each other in moving the work forward leveraging each other’s strength.
In understanding each other in a collaboration, whether it’s in the moment or extended looking for is somebody having problems with the work, is somebody having problems with the information, and how we can help him out with that. Tuning into that minimally as a facilitator, but really trying to get each of the team members to tune into that is where you get those just right collaborations, the gentle pond with the drops falling just the right way and making some very interesting new patterns.
Judy: When the pond is just like that, those interesting new patterns, where about are you?
Mark: I’m just looking out over the pond, appreciating the patterns, appreciating how some of the things that are forming out of that collaboration never could have been planned. Just by bringing the right people together in that collaboration is where you’ve been setting the right conditions, as we’ve said before, is getting some of the amazing things to emerge out of that.
Related to that, I’m a big fan of open space technology, if you’re familiar with that. Just for your audience, if they are not, essentially open space has actually been around for about 30 years. The idea is how you bring a group of people together for a day, two days, three days to discuss a theme that’s important to all of them, maybe even critical to all of them, but not have an agenda? Let the criticality of the issue drive the agenda. In the first day, they come together and forget what topics they need to discuss, when they need to discuss them.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve been facilitating a few. It always amazes me what patterns you see at such meetings. One of the patterns you always see at the end is the people who’ve experienced it for the first time are just amazed at how much they’ve got accomplished, how much they shared. And they want to do it again. How many times have you been in a meeting or a conference, and you said, “Yes, I want to do this again”? That’s the kind of patterns I love to observe and love to try to help make happen.
Judy: There’s something in there about the right conditions for that to happen. I’m reminded about a comment that was made on a feedback wall in the event we were both at in Berlin recently. Someone said that the open space that they had just done was the first open space session they’d ever been to that didn’t suck. That shocked me, because every time I’ve experienced open space I thought, “Well, that was really useful and interesting, and so much better than I expected.” And here was someone saying the opposite. My suspicion is that the previous occasions when he’s felt the encounter sucked presumably didn’t have the right conditions.
Mark: Yeah. I’ve heard that as well from other folks. When I asked them about their experience, not getting too much into open space facilitation, but just asked them about those conditions, it was exactly the case: “Yeah, we kind of tweaked this, and we modified this, because we didn’t believe that this would work.”
Sometimes you just have to take something like an open space event for what it is. Sometimes you just have to go with something that you haven’t tried before, but you’ve heard works well, rather than trying to modify it upfront. People often try to do this with Agile, and that’s where you get some failed Agile projects. People say, “Well, yeah, the time box thing is good” or “Yeah, the self-organising team idea sounds good, but I really feel we need to tweak this.” That’s where they get into trouble as they start messing around with those conditions that have been designed to really get the collaboration work well, to really get the teams to high-performing.
The tricky thing is if it’s an experience that’s brand new to those collaborating, it’s absolutely critical to make sure that environment is just right. Whether it’s an open space event, or a team going into Agile for the first time, you really want that facilitator to hold those conditions as much as possible to be ideal. Sometimes it’s not, but as best as you can, so that the team can really feel the collaboration, really feel the energy of that collaboration, just like you’d feel the energy of the raindrops on the pond. There’s a rhythm even in the chaos.
Judy: It’s interesting from clean language point of view. I’m sure I’ve told you that the way I’ve got into this whole virtual facilitation thing was getting into clean language. When I first got into clean language, everyone was saying, “Clean language is such a physical, such a visceral experience it’s got to be done face-to-face. It’s all about the energy between the facilitator and the client, and you can’t generate that if you’re not in the same physical space.”
Myself and my then-colleague were saying, “Never mind you can’t. We think you can. And not only that. We think you must.” Because people can’t always be in the same physical space. And we figured out how to generate that kind of energetic connection, even over the phone line.
It wasn’t an instant thing. The first couple of times we tried this, things didn’t work. I suppose this is a similar process about taking Agile into a distributed team. How do you tweak the conditions such that it works online without being one of those people who tweaks the process so that it doesn’t work anymore?
Mark: That could be several more interviews. We’ll try the short version here. As part of it, you’ve got to understand who are the individuals on the team, what’s important to them, why in the world they are even choosing to work this way. Actually, I did that with the first team I came to work with at Sonatype. I just wanted to understand how they got there, what was important to them to work this way, and what they got out of it.
As part of that, I listened very carefully to each one of them. Then I asked them what was missing. Sometimes that can be very simple. Sometimes it requires a little more work. But if you listen to the teams, you listen to what the individuals are looking for, then again as Agile leader, or Scrum Master, coach, if you start moving the conditions to help the team find those things.
Concrete example – with that first team at Sonatype, first thing I heard was, “We’ve been doing Scrum for about a year, and it’s okay. But the meetings last really long.” “Really? That’s interesting.” The first thing I did was how we can make these meetings as efficient as possible.
There were some long planning meetings, other long meetings. We got many of the meetings down to 30 minutes or less. The stand-ups that should usually be no more than 15 minutes, we got down to 5-7 minutes. After a while, I asked them how that was working for them. They said it was pretty good.
Then I got to the point where I started asking, “Could you guys run these?” I said, “You really don’t need somebody here to run this, do you?” They started to actually take ownership at some of those meetings. They started making some of their own changes. As part of those conditions, I asked “What it is that you guys need to make this collaboration in the moment successful? Whether it’s a stand up meeting or a planning meeting, or a review of the work, of an iteration, what do you guys need to make it successful?”
We’ve got some of those conditions set up for some of the teams. And that can change over time as well. Part of my role as an Agile coach is to pay attention to those changing conditions, and whether there is something else that I can help the teams with, so that they get back to those optimal conditions to do what they need to do and deliver what they need to deliver in their collaboration.
Judy: That’s interesting. I’m wanting to ask you – in that process that you’ve just described, what happens to the pond and the gentle rain? If you think back to just when you started with Sonatype, how was it? And I’m going to assume the optimal conditions generate the very quiet pond in the woods with the gentle rain. What changes in or around the pond when conditions are less than optimal?
Mark: That’s a great question. I’m thinking of all kinds of different answers right now. I’ll try to keep it brief. Having grown up in the woods or ‘sticks’ of Florida I’m very accustomed to paying attention to the environment. If you look at any pond over time, you’ll notice that conditions will change. Something will come in the environment, something will move out. Sometimes that will help things strive, or it can actually kill things off.
It’s the same way with our teams and how they collaborate. There’s always some sort of change happening. Sometimes it’s slow and subtle, sometimes it’s quick and surprising. As the leader or coach, it’s how do you help the team adjust for that, so that they can get back to those optimal conditions.
Judy: Oh, there are so many other questions that could follow that. And with one eye on the clock, I’m realising that we should be drawing this to a close.
Mark: Yeah, I wondered there were going to be multiple conversations.
Judy: I want there to be more of these! But before we finish, is there anything else that you would like to say about that pond?
Mark: If there are other leaders out there, that are either working with Agile teams or considering how to get their team more collaborative, think about the team overall as a living breathing environment. You are the keeper. You are the trustee of that. You’ve got to maintain that equal system.
Not only the Agile coach is, but even the executives that I have met and worked with that are either rapidly building up a division, or a business, or maybe it’s a brand new start up – the ones that I find successful these days are very good eco-system builders. They are very good users of eco-system, they understand that. That’s always something I try to coach or mentor new coaches – to pay attention to that eco-system. Don’t assume that you have the right solution. Pay attention to what that eco-system needs, and see if you can help provide that.
Judy: Beautiful! So much to think about that. Before we finally bring this to a close – if people want to find out more about you, about what you’ve been talking about, getting in touch with you and so on, who would you like to hear from and how can they find you?
Mark: I’m always happy to talk to those who are just coming into Agile or looking to getting to the Agile coaching space, or anybody dealing with distributed teams. That was one of the reasons why we met at that event in Berlin. That’s my real passion right now. It’s how we really improve the collaboration at these Agile teams in the distributed environment.
The best way they can reach me is to connect with me on Twitter as @Mkilby. I’m often on there. You can reach me through my website – markkilby.com. And you’ll also see some blog posts on some of the distributed facilitation techniques I use, and also links to some of my work at Sonatype right now, because there are some more blog posts on the Sonatype site. Markkilby.com is the easiest way to get to that information and to reach me.
Judy: Excellent! Thank you very much indeed.
Mark: Thank you, Judy. I really appreciate it.