How do I have fascinating conversations? | Questions?

Some conversations are better than others – agreed?

Some people appear to have far more fascinating conversations than the rest of us – agreed?

Why is that? That’s the subject of this set of posts.

It’s worth a bit of a recap of where we have got to so far. In the first post I looked at some of the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations, sometimes looking at the opposite of something helps us to see the way to a positive outcome. Whilst each one of these anti-patterns were defined in the form of a person, I acknowledge that I’ve been every one of these people and I suspect I’m not alone in that. In the second post I looked at the impact of listening on these anti-patterns and in particular we looked at the power of reflective listening. I also introduced a new anti-pattern the Reflection Robot.

Imagination Time

You have been invited by a friend to a celebration. As you walk into the venue you recognise that there are people there from the various sections of your friend’s life, some are family, some are friends like yourself, some are work colleagues, there are also people there from the charity where they help out. You look around and see some people you know sat around a table, but there isn’t any room left at that table. As you look at the other tables you realise that there are only two seats left at a table where you aren’t sure that you know anybody, and what’s more you aren’t sure how these people relate to your friend. You can’t stay standing all night, so you and your partner sit down.

You turn to the person next to you and you say “Hi.”

They say “Hi.” in response.

Conversation protocol dictates that it’s your turn next. The other person is looking at you expecting an interaction.

You are convinced that the next words to come out of your mouth will significantly impact upon the rest of your evening.

What do you say? Do you make a statement? Do you ask a question? Do you play it safe and ask one of those questions that you know will get a safe response? Do you go bold and try to open the conversation to going somewhere interesting but risk looking a bit weird?

You decide to go safe “My name’s [name], how do you know [friend]?”

Inwardly you are disappointed by your lack of courage expecting a suitably safe response. There are a number of possible responses, but you know that the answer is likely to be a bit dull.

They respond “Hi [name], pleased to meet you, I’m William and [friend] and I work together. How do you know [friend]?”

This response has set the course of the conversation for the next few minutes. In the case of a work colleague my next response generally leads to quite a short conversation. When you tell people “I work at an IT Consultancy” their response is often quite short. I’ve thought about finessing the answer to this question to help people out a bit, but never settled on a set of words which enabled people to stay engaged in the conversation.

Questions are such an important part of conversations. Asking great questions is a skill. Actively listening, and asking great questions, are the basic ingredients of fascinating conversations.

What do we learn from the Anti-Patterns?

Let’s keep it a bit shorter this time, I think we are starting to get to know these anti-patterns now.

THE SOAKERS

Soakers are easy – they don’t ask question.

You ask them questions and they respond and before you know it you’ve run out of questions. If you’ve ever been the one asking the questions you’ll recognise how tiring this is.

I suspect that most Soakers can be turned around, but I don’t have a formula to achieve that and I’m rarely successful at it. What I will say is that I think that there is a link between the Soaker and the quality of the questions that we ask but I don’t want to make the questioner the one responsible for the entire interaction.

THE SMART BOMBERS

The Smart Bomber makes statements, they don’t ask questions. There’s a secondary challenge here though, quite often it’s difficult to know what the follow on question to the statement should be. The statement is so often so far from the flow of the conversation prior to it that no-one knows what questions to ask and quite often just stare at each other wondering what just happened.

THE AGENDA ENFORCERS

The Agenda Enforcer, does, at least, normally start with a question. The problem is the question being asked and timing of that question. Rather than going with the flow of the conversation that is already taking place, they want to push a conversation in a particular direction by enforcing their question into the flow.

THE DISTRACTED DISTRACTORS

Asking questions requires engagement in the conversation, if you are distracted, you aren’t going to give the level of engagement required. The question you are most likely to ask, as a Distracted Distractor is “Pardon? What did you say?”

THE NON-STOP TALKERS

One of the strange things about Non-Stop Talkers is that they do, sometimes, ask questions, what they don’t do is wait for responses.

“Do you remember when I fell down the stairs? I do it was so painful, I had to call for an ambulance. Do you remember how long it took for the ambulance to arrive? It must have been 2 hours. Did you stay here with me all that time? You did didn’t you…” I’ve put punctuation in here to make it readable, but often these people talk without punctuation.

THE GUESSING FINISHERS

I suppose that the Guessing Finisher is permanently asking question. Each time they guess a word they are really asking a question, they’ve not very good questions, but questions all the same.

THE REFLECTION ROBOTS

This is the new anti-pattern from last time. I did receive some feedback from someone who thought I was being a bit harsh on counsellors in this anti-pattern, this wasn’t my intention, actually it was the opposite of my intention. Rather than providing constructive reflection the Reflection Robot is using a reflection formula to bounce the question back without actually engaging in the conversation. The questions are there, but they are without feeling or interpretation. Good counsellors don’t use a formula for their reflective questions.

What have we learned?

The anti-patterns have told us a number of different things:

  • Some questions are more interesting than others.
  • Asking the right question for the situation is important.
  • Asking the right question at the right time is even better.
  • Even the right question at the right time isn’t always enough.
  • Don’t forget to listen to the responses.
  • There can’t be a formula for questions.

How do we know what a great question is?

This is one area where the internet is littered with advice, far too much of it to know where the golden nuggets are, so here are some observations from a mediocre asker of questions (me):

  • Be prepared – If you are going to have a fascinating conversation you need to start well. Starting well requires you to ask good questions from the beginning.
  • Be sensitive – The right question depends on the depth of the conversation. Most conversation don’t start deep, they become deep. If you force a conversation too deep too quickly it will stall. Shallow conversations generally aren’t fascinating.
  • Be natural – You need to bring something of yourself into the questions that you ask. The best quesitons are the ones that would fascinate you.
  • Be open – Yes or No answers don’t lead to a fascinating conversation. The trick is to learn to ask questions that solicit an open response. Example: “What is it that you love about your job?” generally results in a better response than “Do you love your job?” to which the answer is Yes or No.
  • Be reflective – Reflective listening is a skill and works well with reflective questions.
  • Be responsive – The best questions are often follow-on questions, by which I mean, questions that build upon the previous response.

If you’d prefer the advice of others try these on for size:

In summary I think that these two quotations will suffice:

“To be interesting, be interested.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

Voltaire

Header Image: We live quite close to some gorgeous Lancashire countryside. The other night we decided to go for an explore and enjoy the sunset. The lambs in the fields were particularly excited to see us.

It’s my Blog Birthday | 12 today

This is blog post number 2027.

Blog post number 1 occured on 4th Aprill 2005 without a fanfare and without any real content. I had no idea what I was doing back then, and I’m still not really sure, but I’ve learnt a lot along the way.

I mostly blog for myself, but I do hope that it’s of value to those of you that read it. Having said that, it is interesting to see what people do read, so I thought I would share the all-time Top 10:

  1. Office Speak: “Sharpen Your Pencil”
  2. Add a Third Time-Zone to your Outlook Calendar
  3. The British, the Queue and the Tut
  4. Office Speak: Greenfielding
  5. Count Your Blessings #120 – Short Stories
  6. Office Speak: “Can you please go on mute” – “PLEASE GO ON MUTE”
  7. Office Speak: One Throat to Choke
  8. Productive Workplace: Design Mindset Spaces
  9. The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS)
  10. “If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe…

Header Image: This lane is often part of my morning walk which is often the place where an idea for a blog gets formulated.

Axiom: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – Does age make you resistant to change?

For those of you not familiar with this saying it’s primarily referring to a reluctance to change that comes from old age. In other words, the older you get, the more resistant to change you are.

“You can’t teach on old dog new tricks” is generally referred to an idiom,  meaning:

a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.

But in practice many people treat it as an axiom:

a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true.

A conversation with a colleague got me thinking, is there truth in the saying, or is it just a rhyme that we’ve all assumed to be true and embedded it in our attitudes towards older people?

So I thought I would go on a journey of discovery because if it is true there ought to be good evidence to support such a strong statement.

My first thought was to try and define  the age at which you become an “old dog”? The “old dogs” idiom was likely first published in a book of proverbs by John Heywood in 1546. Which got me wondering about how long people lived in 1546. The earliest life expectancy figures I could find for England and Wales was for 1851 when, on average, women lived to 42.2 and men only to 40.2. Assuming that in 1546 it was something similar, an “old dog” would be anyone older than 35 perhaps, but definitely 40? Or perhaps I’m messing with statistics a bit too much and average isn’t such a great indicator but it’s enough to get you thinking.

Even without a clear definition of what constitutes an “old dog” I started my search for evidence. I was particularly hoping for resistance to change in the workforce.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 0
Can Teach Old Dogs: 1

Starting with a search of “resistance to change” age I was presented with a study from 2013 entitled “Age, resistance to change, and job performance” by Florian Kunze, Stephan Boehm and Heike Bruch. They investigated the correlation of resistance to change (RTC) with age but also looked at the correlation with tenure in a role and job status (blue collar v white collar). This was their conclusion:

Contrary to common stereotypes, employee age is negatively related to RTC. Tenure and occupational status are further identified as boundary conditions for this relationship.

Age, resistance to change, and job performance

Just to be clear here, when is says that employee age is negatively related it means that older people tend to have a lower resistance to change. Within the report the relation isn’t huge, but it’s there all the same, and if definitely doesn’t support the axiom. Someones job status and their tenure also have an impact on their RTC, but these correlate in the stereotypical way; a lower job status creates a higher RTC as does an extended period in a role.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 1
Can Teach Old Dogs: 1

But that’s just one study so I continued my search and ended up as the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. They published a survey in 2008 which concluded:

“late-career employees were perceived to be the most resistant to change (41%), reluctant to try new technologies (34%), and difficult to train (18%), according to the States as Employers-of-Choice survey (Fall 2008).”

Older Workers Seen as More Loyal But More Resistant to Change

So there’s certainly a perception that late-career employees are resistant to change. Treating surveys as evidence is always tricky, you have to look at the actual questions and make judgements of whether the perceptions being highlighted are genuine. You also need to look at the cohort of people who were surveyed in order to understand whether their may be bias in the data. I’ve not had chance to do this so I’ll leave the information here as potential evidence for the axiom. Another challenge with this survey is the term late-career employees, there are bound to be more late-career employees who have had a long tenure than early career employees, you have to have been around for a whole to have enjoyed a long tenure so some of this perception may simply be the challenge of long tenure.

So one report that says that age isn’t the issue and one that says that people perceive that late-career employees are resistant to change. Let’s continue our searching.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 1
Can Teach Old Dogs: 2

Another survey? This time looking at people in government organisations and snappily entitled: “An Investigation of the Difference in the Impact of Demographic Variables on Employees’ Resistance to Organizational Change in Government Organizations of Khorasan Razavi” (Khorasan Razavi is a region in Iran)

The aim of this study was to investigate the difference in the impact of demographic variables, including age, gender and level of education on employees’ resistance to organizational change. According to the results of Student’s ttest, the mean of variables in the groups of men and women is equal and there is no difference, thus gender has no significant impact on employees’ resistance to change. Investigating the results of correlation test indicated that since the significance level is greater than the confidence level (0.05), there is no correlation between the variables of age and resistance to change. In the following activity, the individuals were categorized into four groups, including under 30, 30 to 40, 40 to 50 and over 50 years old. The results of test analysis of variance indicate that the significance level is greater than the confidence level, thus these four groups are the same. According to the results of Duncan test, there is no difference between these four groups, thus employees’ age has no significance impact on their resistance to change.

An Investigation of the Difference in the Impact of Demographic Variables on Employees’ Resistance to Organizational Change in Government Organizations of Khorasan Razavi, 2016

This is a relatively small study and used a questionnaire technique, so can’t be defined as conclusive, but is another piece of evidence for the age has no impact side.

Can’t Teach Old Dogs: 2
Can Teach Old Dogs: 2

Where to next? Find another study? There’s this one: “Impact of Age on Employee Resistance to Change. A Case Study Cotton Company (COTTCO)
in Zimbabwe”
they surveyed 60 employees and concluded that age was a factor. They also highlight that other factors impacted this conclusion, such as the openness of the organisation.

Conclusion?

That makes it 2 for and 2 against and perhaps that also makes it time to stop. Is this simple scoring mechanism sufficient? The first study is by far the largest with 15,243 participants and should carry more weight than the COTTCO one with 60 participants, but they weren’t asking the same questions so it’s not as simple as that. What can we conclude in this confusing landscape? There’s enough evidence to question the validity of the axiom and to question the use of age as a reason for resistance to change.

What about the other factors?

Whilst doing this research I was most struck by the idea of the other factors, particularly length of tenure, openness and role status. Whether someone becomes resistant to change as they get older, or not, would be something that was difficult to change. If it’s a biological condition, and I’m not saying it is, then it would be very difficult to change. If, however, the perception that late-career employees are resistant to change is primarily driven by factors, other than age, then organisations should take that very seriously indeed, these are things that organisations can and probably should change.

Organisations need to ask themselves whether they are creating, for themselves, individuals who are resistant to change and if they are, then what is the cost of that conditioning? Whilst I doubt whether organisations are consciously creating people resistant to change, they are creating organisational environments where that is the result.

Header Image: These are The Kelpies in Falkirk Scotland, taken on a recent visit. I left a few people in the picture so you could get an idea of the scale.

I’m Reading… “Humility Is The New Smart – Rethinking Human Excellence In the Smart Machine Age” by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig

Everywhere you look technology is changing how we do things and what we do. While this change already feels dramatic the reality is that it’s only just begun. There are many estimates about how significant this change is going to be, the latest one was published in the UK, this week, by the Office of National Statistics: Automation could replace 1.5 million jobs, says ONS. To be clear about the statistics here, this is 1.5 million jobs in England (not the whole of the UK or GB) and represents 7.4% of jobs. The slight irony of this report is that it is accompanied by a ChatBot which will tell you about which jobs are at risk, thus demonstrating the levels of disruption already underway.

Society is on the leading edge of a technology tsunami. Advances in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, virtual reality, robotics, nanotechnology, deep learning, mapping the human brain, and biomedical, genetic, and cyborg engineering will revolutionize how most of us live and work. Technology will be able to learn, as well as teach and program itself. We call this next big step the Smart Machine Age, or SMA.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 1). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

As with any change, we have a choice, we can either ignore it, or we can recognise it and respond. Once we recognise that a response is required the next sensible question is “how?”

  • How is the change going to impact me?
  • What skills am I going to need for the future?
  • What skills is my organisation going to need for the future?

It’s these questions that this book is speaking into by arguing that we need a new mindset and new behaviours.

They argue that the way we think isn’t suitable for the SMA:

Mental models guide our thoughts and actions and predispose us to behave in certain ways. They can help us simplify the world and operate efficiently, but they can also be limiting and destructive when they’re like concrete bunkers, blinding or repelling us from ideas, facts, or perspectives that challenge our views of the world. Many of our mental models are stuck in ideas and perceptions originating in the Industrial Revolution. The SMA is a new reality requiring new ideas and rules.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (pp. 33-34).

What’s the route to these required mindset changes? Humility:

What ultimately is needed to thrive in the coming SMA is this kind of openness to perceiving and processing the world more as it is and not merely as we believe or would like it to be. That is what’s at the heart of our definition of Humility. In the SMA, we all will have to acknowledge the need to spend less time focused on “big me” and instead balance our competitive spirit with a collaborative spirit, because critical thinking, innovative thinking, and high emotional engagement are all team sports—“big us.”

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 60). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

The book then goes on to describe a set of NewSmart Behaviours that will enable us to make this mindset change and to create a posture of humility:

  • Quieting Ego
  • Managing Self: Thinking and Emotions
  • Reflective Listening
  • Otherness: Emotionally Connecting and Relating

The final section of the book broadens these ideas beyond purely personal changes and focuses on the ways in which these changes are impacting teams and the changes to the ways in which we lead the NewSmart Organisation.

Sometimes it’s difficult to summarise a book into just a few words. For me, this book is itself a summary, it’s chocked full of many interesting and valuable ideas, but isn’t sufficient for us to become NewSmart. In no way is that a criticism, I’m not sure that any book could be sufficient, reading a few pages on Reflective Listening or Quieting Ego isn’t sufficient to change behaviours that we’ve built up over decades (for some of us). Those few pages may be sufficient to get us started on our journey of becoming NewSmart which, itself, would be a great achievement. Sometimes the most difficult part of a journey is to work out the starting direction.

This book draws an a number of books that I’ve already read so there were, for me, times when I felt like I was going over old ground. Again, this isn’t a criticism, it’s great to see ideas proliferate beyond the boundary of a single book.

Humility Is The New Smart includes many Reflection Time sections and a couple of Assessment Tools I found these some of the most valuable parts of the book, taking the time to contemplate the next steps and to dig a bit deeper into the mindset or behaviour being highlighted. I contacted Ed Hess via twitter to see if these were available as a separate document, but unfortunately they aren’t. I wanted to be able to annotate my thoughts and conclusions, which isn’t easy to do in a small area in a book.

In conclusion: The world we live in is changing it’s time to get prepared, and this book gives a great summary of how to develop.

Header Image: Today’s picture is of the Blackthorn blossom which is currently brightening up my morning walk in the fields near to my house.

How do I have fascinating conversations? | Are You Listening?

Are you a good listener? I can be a good listener, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect that most of us struggle a bit.

Every conversation is an exchange of ideas, with some exchanges being deeper than others. A conversation usually requires someone to be talking, but it’s not a conversation unless someone is listening. Even then, someone talking and someone listening isn’t a conversation that’s just a speech, to be a true conversation the role of talker and listener has to change. Most people don’t struggle with the talking side, the struggle is with the listening part.

In the book “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age” Edward Hess describes it like this:

You may think that you’re already a good listener. I (Ed) thought I was, but after truly digging into what it means to listen “reflectively,” I realized that in fact I interrupted people frequently to finish their sentences or to put forth what I thought was the answer. I often was creating my response in my head while people were still talking. In fact, I was a very poor listener. I did everything wrong. I listened for cues as to whether I had an opening to make my point. I “read” people to accomplish my objectives. Most of my conversations had a personal objective. I was not into casual conversations that I considered idle chitchat. I looked at a conversation in most cases as a transaction—as a vehicle to accomplish something. My mind wandered a lot when I “listened.” I got bored, and if I didn’t actually interrupt, I fidgeted and lost eye contact with the speaker. Winning, looking smart, and telling what I “knew” to advance my cause were my only purposes in listening to others. Today it’s embarrassing to write that. I was a piece of work. I was an awful listener at home and at work.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 116). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

In the book Hess goes on to describe the characteristics of “Reflective Listening” something that the book regards as a core skill for the future workforce:

To be a good listener you have to be totally focused on the speaker with an open mind. You have to listen in a nonjudgmental way, with the only goal being to try to understand what the other person is saying before you prepare and deliver your response. Good listeners ask questions to make sure that they understand before responding, or they paraphrase and repeat back what they believe that the person said and ask if they’ve understood correctly. Good listeners then reflect, and as Bourne explained to me, they “try on” the other person’s idea to see how it would feel if they believed that, too. Taking the time to slow down and try on a new idea and see how it feels is what we mean by Reflective Listening.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 117). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Is this second description you? Or do you identify more with the first one?

Whether you call it Reflective Listening or not, I suspect that many of us can think of people who embody this kind of listening – but they aren’t the protagonists in our anti-patterns.

Listening and the Fascinating Conversation Anti-Patterns

Let’s take a look through the anti-patterns that I outlined last time and see what they have to tell us about listening.

The Soakers

For a fascinating conversation to occur it’s important that both of the people are playing their part, talking and listening.

The problem with The Soaker is that they only have one mode, talking. They respond to questions, but they aren’t in any sense, listening to the person asking the questions, nor are they asking reflective questions of the other members of the dialogue.

You through a ball against a wall and the wall bounces the ball back. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not a fascinating game of tennis.

There are times that no matter how hard you try as a listener, your correspondent isn’t going to make the grade required to turn the conversation into a fascinating exchange. The danger with that statement is that we give up too early on what could, given the right questions from us, become a fascinating conversation.

The Smart Bombers

These are the people who destroy the flow of a conversation by exploding a statement-bomb in the middle of it.

Smart Bombers are not listeners, they have something to say and they are going to say it even if it’s only barely connected to the conversation that’s already underway. The only thing that they are listening for is a gap into which they can make their statement, and they don’t always do that.

Listeners aren’t statement makers. Listeners ask questions.

The Agenda Enforcers

The Agenda Enforcers, those people who insist on a conversation following their set agenda, are sometimes good listeners, but more often than not they aren’t listening at all.

There are times when a conversation needs to follow an agenda to get to the required outcome or the needed interaction. In these instances, the Agenda Enforcer needs to be listening to the interaction and to keep it going in the required direction. These aren’t generally fascinating conversation, but sometimes they can be.

Where Agenda Enforcers generally fall down is in their need to control the dialogue too tightly. They often do this from the start. Many of us will recognise those situations where a discussion is taking place between members of a team about a subject only for the Agenda Enforcer to enter and say, “Right then, progress update.”

Everyone in the room is thinking “You mean the progress we were just talking about and the progress you’d understand if you’d only just sat and listened for 10 seconds.”

the Distracted Distractors

Many of us are so easily distracted that the slightest thing will drag us away from an interaction.

Listening isn’t a passive activity, it requires effort and focus – it requires attention. The Distracted Distractor’s lack of attention is still communicating, it’s communicating on many levels but probably the loudest thing it’s saying is “I don’t care about this conversation.”

Listening says “I care about this conversation.”

There are practical things that we can do to reduce our level of distraction, removing the primary distractions being the main one.

I, like many, get distracted by screens, so I try to remove them from the situation. When I get home in an evening, I place my iPhone in the study which, for me, is conveniently by the front door. The aim is for it to stay there all evening. This weekend we were at some friends for lunch and I wanted to be as engaged as I could in the conversation so as soon as I entered the house I placed my phone and keys in another room on a shelf and set to silent (the phone). When we do things like this it doesn’t take us long to forget that the screens are even there, we are just as easily distracted from our distractions.

the Non-Stop Talkers

I don’t think I need to say much here. Those people who won’t stop talking are only listening to one person and that’s themselves.

Listening in these situations isn’t easy and there are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the Non-Stop Talker is expecting far too much of our ability to retain information. If we are given too much information in one go we simply shut down. The other reason is, and it’s difficult to admit this, we get bored.

I’ve not, yet, found a good way of breaking into a monologue from the Non-Stop Talkers. Even when I have managed to interrupt it’s generally resulted in them returning to their monologue quite soon afterwards.

The Guessing Finishers

Let’s start with a positive statement for The Guessing Finishers – they are listening to the conversation; you need to listen to the beginning of a sentence if you are going to finish it for someone. The problem is that they are impatient listeners and that’s not good listening. Finishing someone’s sentence is not reflective listening. Great listening requires patience and time.

I have a friend who had a stroke some years ago this impacted her speech and her ability to recall words. Sometimes she does need help with a word, but she’ll ask if she does. Having a conversation with her can take a long time but what she has to say is always worth listening to.

When we are tempted to become a Guessing Finisher we need to slow down and to listen.

A New Anti-Pattern

Having reviewed our existing anti-patterns it occurs to me that we need a new one when we think about listening:

The Reflection Robots

I’ve done a couple of courses with the aim of building my listening skills. Each of these courses focused on a form of reflective listening based on a number of techniques. This anti-pattern comes out of a caricature of those sessions.

You are sat in a small room where there is some occasional furniture, but the most obvious furniture is two armchairs occupying the middle of the room. They are strategically placed at a 45-degree angle with a small coffee-table between them.

In one of the chairs is seated a person (you decide whether it’s a man or a woman, both are applicable) who is wearing safe casual clothes. Around their neck is a decorative scarf (I have no idea why these people like scarves so much). Their back is straight, their legs are bent with knees together and their hands are placed palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on their lap.

They beckon you to sit down, which you do. You’re not quite sure how to sit and adjust your position a few times before accepting that you are now as comfortable as you are going to get. Without realising it you are now sat with your back straight…your legs bent and knees together…and your hands are, yes, palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on your lap.

The person in the chair 45-degrees from you tilts their head to one side and asks in the softest voice you’ve ever heard “How can I help you?”

You then go on to explain that you’ve been feeling a bit glum recently.

They respond by saying in a voice that sounds like marshmallow “What I am hearing from you is that you are feeling a bit glum at present, is that correct?”

You reply that they understood correctly, and that the glumness had been continuing for some time.

They respond by stating in a cotton-wool tone of voice “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness has been continuing for some time, is that correct?”

You look at them and ponder whether Alexa would ask better questions, but you continue. You explain that you think the glumness started when you were recently upset by an incident with a close friend.

They respond, with their head still tilted at the same angle “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness started when an incident with a close friend occurred, is that correct?”

It’s then that you realise that you are paying for this.

This is not reflective listening, this is not a fascinating conversation, this is interacting with a robot.

How do I learn to listen?

There are some techniques to listening and some practical things that make listening better. There are a number of good articles and many good books available to help you understand these techniques. I’ve picked a few:

What you will understand from reading each of these articles is that there are techniques to help you become a good listener, but that truly great listening is a skill that requires practice. You’ll also notice that listening skills are linked to other of the so-called “soft skills”.

The great thing about developing the listening skill is that there are so many opportunities to practice. Imagine how far you could get if each conversation you had was just a little bit better than the one before.

I’m off now to find a scarf and to practice holding my head to one side.

How did that make you feel? 😉

I’m Reading… “A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility” by Mark Schwartz

In summary: IT leaders want to be regarded as real business leaders, to be invited to the top table, and they are told that they should act in a particular way to get that seat at the table. Mark Schwartz argues that that the traditional approach is completely the wrong way of going about it in a world that is changing rapidly.

I’ve read a number of book on the changing landscape of business and, in particular, the radically changing role of technology within businesses. You may call this change Digital Transformation (personally I think that we’ve passed the point of meaningless for that particular term).  This is a book for the people who are being expected to lead through that change:

A Seat at the Table

“I’ve read a number of books on IT leadership and how to be a good CIO. None of them mention the major change of the last two decades: the rise of Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. I’ve read plenty of books on Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. None of them explain the role of IT leadership in an Agile world. The two domains are evolving separately: the field of IT leadership continues to frame its problems in its same old ways, oblivious to the deep changes brought on by the Agile revolution, while the Agile world, ever suspicious of management, proceeds as if it can manage without the involvement of IT leaders.”

The most common thought I had while reading this book was: “Yes, that’s it! I’ve seen that.” This was particularly true throughout chapter 2 where Mark outlines the history that has resulted in the situation that many organisations find themselves in and the behaviours that continue to reinforce this situation. This is a situation in which IT is regarded as separate from the business and is handled by contractor-control methods that spawned the whole outsourcing market in which I have worked for many years:

Thus, a distinctive way of thinking about IT was born, and has determined the course of IT since. First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The armslength contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.

There are many challenges with this approach, not least the challenge that a contractor-control relationship requires a level of stability and certainty that IT is not and should not be in a position to predict. Don’t get me wrong here, there are facets of IT provision that should be contracted, that’s what the who cloud change has been about, but that’s not where the business value is and that’s where the IT leaders should be focusing. Rather than subscribing to the “IT and the business” contractor-control model, Mark Schwartz sets out a different approach based on Lean and Agile thinking. I’d be reproducing the book if I tried to summarise all of the different ways in which Mark sees this playing out and that’s not the point of a quick review.

Some key stand-out thoughts for me though:

Planned Approaches v Agile Approaches

Planned approaches may have given us a perception of control, but that control was just an illusion. There were always too many unknown factors to really have control. Using Agile approaches allows us to continuously correct the course as we discover things helping us to navigate the unknown.

Enterprise Architecture in an Agile World

There are many fascinating insights into the role of Enterprise Architecture in a world where Agile is the way to deliver.

I have said that we need to stop looking at IT delivery in terms of projects and products. With what, then, shall we replace them? I’d like to suggest that the enterprise architects have had it right all along. We manage an enterprise-wide asset with an “as-is” state and a “to-be” state. We groom this asset in perpetuity—as the company changes and develops—by adding, removing, and improving its capabilities. We try to build into it agility and options, risk mitigations, and usability. The totality of our IT capabilities is an economic asset that will be used to derive profits or accomplish mission, and we might as well just call this the Enterprise Architecture.

As architects we need to move quickly away from our roles as the occupiers of the “land of the template zombies” and step into our new role as members of the business community who manage the IT economic asset. I wonder whether the term “Enterprise Architecture” is already too closely aligned to the “template zombies” to be redeemed, but that’s just the title and it was never really about the title.

Risk

We need to think very differently about risk, risk logs have never worked. Our plans require us to accurately predict the future, and we’ve never managed to that either. The way that we control risk is to make changes as circumstances develop. Creating experiments to help us understand how to navigate the risks is going to be the new skill that we all need.

Build v Buy

Mark makes an argument that the cost of building used to be so high that at always made sense to buy. The problem with buying was that you never quite got what you needed; you either got more than you needed or you got something that was only an 80% fit for what you need. This has all changed as the cost of building has reduced because of capabilities like micro-services which allow us to build something that is a 100% fit for what we need by plugging together a number of preexisting elements from cloud capabilities.

My personal perception is that this change is already taking hold – I’m seeing a lot more building going on.

The Role of the Senior Leader

Within this framework of change Mark outlines a new role for the IT leader, a role that has changed from be an enforcer of the contractor-control model to one whose role is to create an environment where self-managing teams can thrive. Mark summarises this change in a number of new roles:

  • Driver of Outcomes – taking responsibility for business outcomes.
  • Manager of Uncertainty – dealing with uncertainty has always been a part of IT leadership.
  • Steward of Assets – three critical ones the Enterprise Architecture asset, the IT people asset and the data asset.
  • Contributor – by being technical.
  • Influencer and Salesperson – stepping up to the “Chief” role.
  • Orchestrator of Chaos – businesses are complex systems that require a level of orchestration to truly sing.
  • Enabler – enabling activities rather than controlling them.
  • Independent Remover – “The best thing that a manager can do is to help the team do what it knows how to do by removing impediments.”
  • Manager of Managers – helping to manage other managers into an Agile mindset.

Conclusions

There’s a lot of focus on IT teams becoming Agile, but that’s only going to make a small change in most business. The real challenge is how a business becomes Agile, and that’s going to require a different kind of IT leadership.

This is a book I’m going to be coming back to.

Header Image: This is Lindisfarne Castle from Lindisfarne Harbour which is looking great after a number of years being surrounded in scaffolding for a renovation. 

“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to…”

“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them.

A senior executive’s job is to manage risk. We often interpret this as reducing or mitigating risk. But really the executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them. Since all action directed toward the future is risky, the executive must decide which risky actions to take and how best to take them. Investing in the stock market is risky, but if you want to earn a return, you have to do it. You balance risks and returns, and choose investments.

The simple reason that the contractor-control model of IT breaks down is the presence of uncertainty. Plans are made with an eye toward the future, but the future is largely unknown. Thus, rigid adherence to a plan cannot be effective—at best, the plan is valid only as long as the assumptions it makes are valid. The seated CIO is the one who tries new foods—well, if they look edible.

The presence of uncertainty is the simple reason why Agile approaches work better than plan-driven approaches—it is also the reason why a good IT leader will often have to make “wrong” decisions. An IT leader adds business value by adopting an intelligent attitude toward risk.”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility