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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Jake Calabrese on Building Antifragile Teams and Relationships

Jake Calabrese on Building Antifragile Teams and Relationships


1. Good day, folks! This is Shane Hastie with InfoQ. We're here at Agile 2015. I'm talking to Jake Calabrese. Jake, you and I know each other. But probably there's a few people in the audience who don't. Would you mind briefly introducing yourself?

Sure. My name is Jake Calabrese, based in Denver, Colorado in the U.S. I'm an Agile Systems Coach and Agile Trainer for Agile for All. I don't know…I could go on and on, but…


2. What are you passionate about?

Well, I just came out my session. So that -- I'm still pretty fired up from that. I tend to be kind of in the middle of the introvert/extrovert. When I'm presenting, I think I go out on the extrovert scale.

Shane: Your session was about building antifragile teams and relationships.

Yes. So there's the book, "Antifragile." It has some really great insights into building organizations. So I've been looking at that concept of antifragile and looking at what does it mean for a relationship. So tying in things to a lot of -- I'm an organization and relationship systems coach. Really looking at relationships as kind of the key to Agile, which, I don't know. People have --

Shane: We talk about “individuals and interactions”.

It's individuals interactions and the first line, if you ask people what the first line of the manifesto is, usually, they go to the individuals' interactions.

Shane: Yes. It starts … and here I'm putting myself on the spot.

Yes. That's the truth. It's the amazing thing. If you ask 100 people, 95% will do the individuals and interactions. But the first line just talks about developing software by doing it and helping others do it, right?

Shane: And helping others do it. Yes.

It's that interaction. A lot of times, people say its people. Obviously, people have to be there, right? So if you take two people and you put them in different sides of a building and say, "Don't talk to each other," it's not people. It has to be about that interaction our inate desire to interact. So the idea of antifragile and the antifragile relationship is really just think about everything that we do and what happens, whether it’s, say, pair programming? Is that going to help make the team more fragile or more anifragile?

What about retrospectives, right? There's all these different things that we do. Then there's other things we do that might make the team more fragile. But every team's different. So we can't necessarily compare them but we have to -- we really have to start exploring that because we seem to be, with Agile, kind of stuck a bit in practiceland.

You could run a great retrospective, you could run a great daily standup but if that's all, it's out. You're never going to get beyond okay. Then there's a lot, a whole other couple of hours to get in the process, but there's a lot of new on a process frameworks. A lot of those are -- they're focused really just on the process. They're trying to essentially control the process in a lot of cases.

Again, it's not -- that can't be the end. It's not about that. It's got to be about people collaborating. The only way that's going to happen is if they're in some kind of relationship with each other.


3. So a term some people might have not come across is this antifragile...

Yes. Great question. So the idea, if you think about the opposite of fragile and it's kind of an odd exercise to just take your mind, if you think, "What's the opposite of fragile?" What comes to mind with you?

Shane: Robust?

Yes. Robust, right? Robust comes up. That's what people usually think. Robust, strong, things like that. But the challenge with that is that if something -- take a wine glass and you smash it on the ground, it's fragile, it breaks apart. It changes state. Something that's, say, you had a steel wine glass. I guess, a cup. Throw it on the ground, it doesn't changes state.

Just something that's strong or even unbreakable is not antifragile. You want something that actually gains from disorder or gains from conflicts. Of course, we're talking healthy conflict and not very toxic. But our immune system is something that might fit into that. We want organizations like that and we certainly want relationships like that.

This could apply, frankly, to anything. You're married, right? You and your wife, it's like, okay, how do we build an antifragile relationship if she brings up something that frustrates you or you bring up something that frustrates her, what do you do? Do you spiral down into a pit and not talk about it? No. You actually have to get into some kind of dialogue.

All the things we talked about in the talk. We talked about team alliance, which really gets to shared responsibility and creating a shared culture beyond just behavioral agreements. So as a simple example, people put on a working agreement be on time. Then somebody's not on time and they say, "Well, what we're going to do is we're going to lock the door." Like, "Okay.

I've had some teams recently. "This is our plan. We're going to lock the door." It's like, "Okay. So how is that working?" If you think about it as an experiment, what's your hypothesis - that the person's going to show up on time, right, but have they been? No they stopped coming? Okay. So I don't think -- I think you could stop that experiment now and move on to another one but we don't actually -- just as humans, we don't actually spend much time being educated or thinking about how we're going to actually -- how we're going to deal with conflict, how we're going to deal with how we want to be.

Some of the questions that we talked about in the session, one of the questions that I like to ask is, "How do you want to be if somebody violates the team alliance?" Not what you want to but how do you want to be? Sometimes I ask teams and they're like, "Well, I want to be curious and I want to be compassionate." Somebody in the session said, "I want to have grace." That's a great word. So I actually talked with somebody about grace yesterday.

But if the group is saying, well, how I want to be at these times, I've asked teams and they're truly -- they're just not quite there yet. They're going to what. "Well, what we would do." Well, hold on, hold on. Let's step back a little bit and say, how do you want to be? Do you want to be mad? That's legitimate. If you want to be mad or you're frustrated, it's okay. But we've got to really kind of think about that kind of next piece.

We talked about those kinds of things. We talked team toxins from John Gottman's defensiveness, blame, contempt, and stonewalling. We talked about those. We did a big exercise with everybody. I had them all moving around the room, picking their favorite one to use in stress, which is a lot of fun.

A lot of these stuff comes from, there's some psychology aspects to this, certainly professional coaching, collect coaching, systems coaching from a company called CRR Global who does systems coach training. It's just fantastic. A lot of fantastic things that we're just trying to pull together to help people really get beyond -- it's the whole fake thing that I -- not the fake thing but the catchphrase on Twitter, "Be Agile." "We need to be Agile. Stop doing Agile."

But it's true. I mean, you get, I mean, you guys experience that yourself. So we just got to get beyond that just, "Oh, it's just the practices." It's like if that's -- I mean, maybe that's good enough for the moment for you but at the point that it's not, you've got to work for the next kind of thing. Go deeper.

Shane: It's all about these building software, building products is a collaborative activity by a group of people. Certainly, what I see is collaboration is key. If people don't communicate, don’t collaborate and don't have good relationships, it fails.

Yes. I mean, it's almost silly that how much of that stuff gets ignored. There's some great books and some great information out there on collaboration. I actually think the closing keynote is about collaboration, in fact. But there's so much out there and there's great things on it. But it's -- I think there's times when, and this isn't -- no judgment about any of the books or anything, but there's a time when just saying collaboration isn't sufficient because sometimes we say it -- it's like saying, you go on Twitter and somebody says, "Have courage."

Somebody says “I couldn't do that. I couldn't talk to my boss or I can't stand up in a meeting”. It's like, "Have courage." Well, you have a mortgage payment, right? You're paying for a house. You have family. I don't think that's sufficient. It's really a -- it's a copout.

Shane: Yes, it’s a platitude.

Yes. It's like, "Whatever." So, "If everybody would just collaborate, be transparent, have courage," I mean, I guess if that works for you, great, but most of -- 99.9% or really 100% people I talk to, that's not enough because they need to actually start getting in tuned with themselves, tapping into their emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and even relationship systems intelligence, which is the idea that the system or the culture kind of has its own intelligence.

The kind of the analogy that you've got. Paul, Ringo, John, we've got the Beatles, the individuals in the Beatles and then you have the Beatles. There's a big difference between those things. So what would the Beatles do versus what Paul do? Very different answers to those questions. So looking at those kinds of things and believing that the system itself has some wisdom, believing that the culture itself has some wisdom from all the people that have put that into that.

Working with that and, again, going back even to emotional and social intelligence, those are critical things that if you -- it's kind of like do you start with collaboration or do you start with kind of personal mastery? Then start to work on group mastery and -- those kinds of things that feed collaboration. They've got to all tie together.

Shane: Cool. Some interesting questions there. Jake, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. It's been really good and enjoy the rest of the conference.

Thank you.

Dec 14, 2015