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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Doc List on Agile Stalwarts, Collaboration Culture and Teaching from the Back of the Room

Doc List on Agile Stalwarts, Collaboration Culture and Teaching from the Back of the Room


1. Hi folks this is Shane Hastie for InfoQ, we are at Agile 2014 and we’re privileged to sit down with Doc List. Doc you and I know each other, but probably some of the audience don’t, so would you mind briefly introducing yourself for us?

Sure, I’m Doc List, I’ve been doing software stuff for decades and discovered to my surprise that I’d been doing Agile stuff before there was Agile and for the last 8-10 years I’ve been really focused in the Agile Community doing consulting, coaching, training as well as having worked in a couple of organizations in lead roles.


2. And you are at the conference this year wearing a number of hats. Do you want to tell us some of the things you are doing here?

Yes, I’m the track chair for the collaboration culture and teams track, which I’m really excited about, we’ve had one standing room only session this morning already which is great. I am a presenter, I’ve done one session already with my colleague Tricia Broderick who is fabulous and I’m doing another one on Thursday. I am facilitating some of the stalwarts sessions specifically Linda Rising and Rachel Davies and then I’m also taking pictures, because Tom Popendieck who used to come and take pictures isn’t here and they know I always have a camera so they said: “If you take any good pictures, would you share them please?”.

Shane: Right! So let’s work backwards through some of those, tell us a little bit about Stalwarts Stage or sessions, they are pretty interesting.

They are. A few years ago I want to say it was three years ago - they decided that it would be an interesting experiment to see if we can pull some of the well-known names of the community who’ve been around and who have make a mark in the Agile World and just have them sit down and have a conversation and so the setup is easy chairs or a couch and the stalwart and one or two other people sit and have a conversation, like a talk show. And my job is just to keep that conversation flowing and it’s been really interesting, very different personalities, I said this time they ask me which ones I would like to facilitate so I chose Linda Rising because I think she’s fabulous and Rachel Davies because I think she’s also brilliant and fabulous and they are both friends and I’m eager to see what comes out. They give the participants a chance to sit down and have a conversation with these folks and to me the special part of that is not everybody in the audience would normally be comfortable walking up to Chet and Ron, or to Jeff Sutherland or to Linda or Rachel, and just asking questions and here they get the chance to do that and even though it’s in front of an audience there is a sense of intimacy to it because they are on the couch, so it’s great fun.

Shane: It’s pretty unique to the Agile 20XX conferences and certainly seems to be quite a successful format, so an experiment that worked.

Yes, and we’ve done it as I say every year since the first time, 2 or 3 years ago.

Shane: And you are presenting, done two sessions or doing two sessions, tell us a little bit about those.

Yes, yesterday Tricia and I presented on some of the work of Sharon Bowman who wrote the books “Training from the back of the room” and “Brain Science how to make learning stick” and we specifically talk about her six trumps, so there are six specific lessons from neuroscience, the work of Dave Meier, “Accelerated Learning” and John Medina his book “Brain Rules” about how the brain works and how it learns, and so introducing those into presenting and training so we did that yesterday which was seemingly successful, and on Thursday I’m redoing, if you will, a session called Facilitation Patterns and Anti Patterns based on a bunch of writing that I did on the behaviors that we see in meetings and events, and I created a set of playing cards that have these patterns and anti-patterns with characters, so there is the gladiator, there is a gladiator on that so forth, and there is some role play in the middle of it and it’s been really successful. Actually I had a guy comes to me yesterday and say: “I still have the deck of cards I got in your session in 2009 and I use it all the time” which as you know for a presenters is like heaven, so I’m reprising that session on Thursday.


3. And in terms of the collaboration culture and teams track that you are co-chairing, what’s been the theme around there, what’s coming out of that?

There is not so much an overriding theme for the tracks so much as what we looked for was a good balance, so my coach here is Diane Zajac-Woodie, this was her first time being a chair or co-chair, she’s done a remarkably good job and we tried to find a nice balance addressing those three topics collaboration, culture and teams because while we would like to think they all go together, they don’t necessarily always all go together, so finding a balance. Yesterday we had The Girl with the Chisel Tip Marker which is an outstanding session about graphical recording and just using pen and chiseled-tip marker to diagram. This morning the fellows from Red Gate are talking about retrospectives and how to make them better and that’s the room that’s standing room only which is an appeal, and they are completely different, and yet there is the link which is this is really all about the people working together and the culture that unifies that. So if there is a theme that would be it, it is all about the people and how they get together and work together.


4. Great, and in terms of the work that you’ve been doing and your own personal research, when we were chatting earlier you were talking about people and behavior and how this impact teams, you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Sure. This has been a journey of couple of decades or more for me. Part of what I have seen is in our culture, we have learned how to distance ourselves from our own feelings, from our own behavior and we do it frequently in the language we use, so rather than saying 'I feel like this is overwhelming' we say things like 'Well, you know how overwhelming it is when you, which separates me from owning that feeling which means then from my perspective if somebody challenges it, I can say it’s not just me, it’s everybody. Actually the initial learning in this was from my brother when he was going to college and I was still in high school and he came home from a class one time and he said: “I learned the most important thing and it was to say 'I'", and that has stuck with meand that it stuck with me now and it’s over 40 years.

So what I’ve looked at is how does that impact teams, both in the language and understanding that my behavior is my behavior and yours is yours, and my feelings are my own and yours are yours, and rather than saying you make me angry, you hurt my feelings, putting the responsibility for my feelings on you, addressing that my feelings are mine and all I’m doing is reacting to your behavior, and this relates to the work of the authors of 'Crucial Conversations" and "Crucial Confrontations", Kerry Patterson, Al Switzler and the other two guys who’s names I never remember, and other similar works which address taking ownership of our own feelings and responsibility for our feelings and our behavior, and the impact in teams then is instead of saying: “You are a jerk and that’s why I’m being an ass”, to say “I don’t like your behavior”. Now how do I chose to feel and act with that feeling, and that sense of responsibility and that sense of ownership makes a dramatic shift for people.

Shane: It would be quite uncomfortable for some teams.

Yes it is, and the trick for me is to introduce it gently and to ask questions. And of course as a coach I do ask a lot of asking of questions but rather than to say: “Wait a minute, is he responsible for you feeling hurt? Or you are responsible for you feeling hurt, because you could choose to not feel hurt, you could chose to ignore that, what would you do if you did that? How would that look?” “He is not doing his share”, “ok good, now you can choose how to behave and how to feel, what would you do with that?” So being as gentle as possible, I’m not always gentle, people who know me will tell you I’m not always gentle, I described myself as a freight train recently, which is when I feel passionate about something you probably don’t want to stand in front of me because I’m just going to go all over you. I manage that when I’m coaching and address it much more gently. But yes, you are right, it can be very threatening and very frightening and it’s a big change. When people get it I can always see it, there is that moment of revelation, of realization, and “maybe I can choose how I feel and therefore maybe I can be in control of my behavior instead of reacting I can respond”.


5. One of the things that you do as well is training and you are talking about Training from the Back of the Room and that stuff, you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Yes, to me it’s all connected, I mean in the sense that as an Agile Coach you can’t really do coaching without some training and training is insufficient by itself, and so for me it’s all part of the package, and so integrating the work of Sharon Bowman; I love her work, I love her, she is a remarkable human being, adding that into the mix and try to figure out how do I create the most effective learning experiences for people, so that when they walk out of the training experience it’s something that they really internalize as opposed to sitting and listening. So the session that Tricia and I did yesterday, we talked a lot about the fact that stand and deliver doesn’t work.

Classic pedagogy is the least effective means of imparting knowledge and experience, the more interactive it gets, the more powerful it is and more effective it is and actually the more fun people have, that’s part of it as well because people have fun, they will probably retain it and all the little stuff from Sharon Bowman’s work like her six trumps, one of which is “writing trumps reading”, and I emphasize for people take notes and people will say to me: “No, I don’t ever want to go back and read my notes” which is fine because the purpose of notes is not to go back and read them. The purpose is that the whole activity of physically moving your hand and thinking about the letters and words and how to put them together, totally reinforces the learning in ways that nothing else really can; a lot of interactions, so my trainings tend to be far more interactive than most. In addition what I discovered is that if I introduce this into an example, let’s say I have a class that it’s designed to be primarily lectured and I introduce these kinds of activities - because John Medina in his book Brain Rules, says: “The human brain cannot pay attention for more than 10 to 20 minutes at the time”.

So you just don’t lecture for longer than that, what I do is I take an existing class and after 8, 10 minutes whatever, I find an interesting breaking point, I’ll say: “You know what, let’s stop here, get a partner and talk about what you think is the biggest problem with this or what you could do with this or whatever it is” it doesn’t really matter because it gets them engaged and talking. And so without redesigning the class, just by introducing things like that, it completely changes the tenor and the experience of the class. So I enjoy training a lot, I can be exhausted, I can have travelled, I walk into the room, I look at the people, take a deep breath and I find myself nonstop for the rest of the day, because it’s just so much fun.


6. Cool, so you said classic pedagogy does not work, so why do we use it?

So we came out of the factory model, we had a lot of people and we wanted to educate them all relatively quickly, so this come out of the early 20th Century, largely, and while it goes back beyond that we turned it into education factories, such that most of us have had that one or two teachers who we say: “Man that teacher was fabulous” and almost without exception those teachers did it a little differently, they didn’t just stand and deliver, they engaged as we had conversation, we had activities but they are always the exception because the academic community has bought into “I’m a star and my job is to stand here and deliver to you the brilliance and the experiences in my brain” as opposed to my job is to craft an experience that when you walk out you are going to say: “I want to go back and do that again” and that’s always my goal.

I want people to walk out of the room and say: “I want to go back and do that again, I know I just took the class, I don’t care, it’s so much fun, I had such a great experience”. Unfortunately our educational system has got bound up in this, now what’s happening is the private schools and the charter schools are embracing different approaches, the Khan Academy, there is a school in…, are you familiar with Khan Academy?

So Khan Academy was started by a guy named Khan and his nephew was trying to learn Math and he started putting some stuff together on a computer to help his nephew learn math and he kept expanding and people found his site and started embracing it, and the idea is that, it’s a simpler but more engaging approach to learning Math and there is a school in Maine that changed their Math Curriculum, and what they do is they have the kids do the, if you will, the classroom work at home on their computers on the Khan Academy, and then when they come to class they effectively do the homework where they can engage with other people and have the teacher to answer questions. So they reversed the model, so that the teacher is no longer just standing there and say: “Ok, here is Algebra, here is x+y=z” and let’s all do this, and now go home and figure it out on your own; rather it’s the learn it at home and come in to get the questions after it. So we are seeing some changes in that as well as in the professional corporate training market, but it’s still an uphill battle.

Shane: And certainly I’ve seen a lot more of that Teaching from the Back of the Room time stuff.

Yes, in fact sessions I’ve looked at here and I’ve been in a bunch of them far more interactive and engaging some of them this year than last year and last year and the year before, that whole mindset is spreading.

Shane: Doc thank you very much for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today, it’s been great to catch up and look forward to see where this goes!

Thank you very much Shane!

Oct 25, 2014