Sunday, October 16, 2011

Communication About Design Workshop Series

Since a client of mine asked for help on communication skills in the team environment, I've been doing a short series of workshops on the topic (60 minutes each). For the first workshop, we did the [spoiler warning]: Marshmallow Challenge. Many participants enjoyed the workshop and saw how some of the teams had worked together while others had participants that checked out entirely. We talked about what it would take to work together better, to make a higher tower, and whether they've seen similar performance problems in the work environment. Normally I have everyone start this workshop at the same time, but in this instance we had some latecomers who began after they saw the final result of the other team's towers. The first two teams had built towers at 0 inches tall (it was unstable) and basically one spaghetti stick tall--and the latecomers were determined to win--so they focused on a design that would get them two sticks tall, and prevailed. Of note is that the teams that worked together by talking through and adapting their design ideas, succeeded at building something stable, while the team that had some people check out were unable to adapt their vision to something more stable.
For the second workshop, I adapted a game invented by Olivier Albiez and I--a brainstorming activity designed to show ineffective communication. We had 4 local participants and two remote (through a teleconference bridge). To make things more dysfunctional, I randomly gave each participant a 'vice card', with one of the following captions:

  • ignore it
  • criticize it
  • be defensive
  • say it's too simple
  • support it
  • rephrase it in your own words and ask if that's right
  • ask clarifying questions

We tell participants they'll be brainstorming, and that no matter what anyone else says, they're to follow the instructions on the vice card in their response about the idea.  The same vice cards can go to more than one person; they're actually just a tool to save face for anyone that has a strong personality.
We set the stage by saying we're designing a fire safety kit to be used in office buildings, which includes instructions and basic fire safety essentials. All the participants are asked to do is to list what should be in the kit and/or on the instructions. As the moderator, my job was to write down any idea I heard as the group made suggestions. As you can imagine, hilarity ensued. People argued about every idea, and they repeatedly had me change the words I'd recorded. We ran this session for 7 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of observations like:

  • we didn't get very many ideas
  • almost every idea was from the two most vocal participants
  • people on the teleconference bridge couldn't get a word in edgewise
  • few people were listening or building upon others' ideas
We did one more round, this time without the vice cards, and people were more respectful of the phone participants--but the list was basically as short as before. Why no additional creativity? Here's what we came up with: 
  • the product goal wasn't clear--was there a market for what we were building?
  • participants who were now listening said they didn't understand their colleague's ideas, and so asking questions slowed them down from coming up with new ideas
For the third round we said we'd pick what goes in the tool bag for a long bicycle ride. In the first 90 seconds one person seemed to misunderstand the task, an argument ensued and the confused person never spoke again. We discussed this in the observations step, but offending party didn't accept the feedback--saying that person's ideas were off-target and so were rightly rejected. Based on this, I think I'd need to do yet another round, or to change the topics for each brainstorming session so people would be more likely to learn what it takes to brainstorm effectively.  Has anyone here played a similar game?
Overall, I'd say I'm happy with this workshop--I was hoping to create a situation where communication broke down, and we could get people to talk openly about it. I wish we could have gotten there quicker--and so that's what I'll work on the next time I run it.

The third workshop is yet to happen, but I'd like to get this team comfortable identifying "criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling" during their planning sessions. I'd also like to set clear ground rules that prevent arguments, allow only simple explanations, and focus on moving forward (and even capitalizing on misunderstanding).

For the fourth workshop, I'll have the team quickly draw our real system architecture in 60-seconds, then ask what we'd have to change to support a real backlog item. There are two objectives in this workshop--to learn to manipulate our system architecture quickly and easily, and to learn to talk openly about new ideas. I don't know if we'll be ready for this by the fourth workshop, but I'll report back here!

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