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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Esther Derby on Language, Communication and Change

Esther Derby on Language, Communication and Change


1. Hi, my name is Craig Smith, I am an Agile editor at InfoQ and we are here at Agile 2013 in Nashville in Tennessee and it’s my great pleasure to be sitting here with Esther Derby. How are you doing, Esther?

I’m great, thank you. And thanks for inviting me to do the interview, these are always a lot of fun.

Craig: I think we actually unsuccessfully tried to get you last year, so it’s good to get you this year around.



2. [...] But if you were rewriting a new version of that book now, what are some of the things that have changed, that you would go “geez, I wish that was in the book now”?

Craig's full question: I have to bring it up, most people probably when you say who is Esther Derby know you from a little book that you wrote a few years ago, called Agile Retrospectives, I asked this question of Diana and I guess that’s why I want to ask you this question now, to me that’s one of the seminal books in the Agile bookshelf, it’s a book that hasn’t really aged, that I still as a coach come across people that don’t do retrospectives very well, but if you were rewriting a new version of that book now, what are some of the things that have changed, that you would go “geez, I wish that was in the book now”?

Oh, gosh, that’s actually a tough question. I think I might emphasize different things. The framework still works because it’s based on the way humans process information when they are thinking clearly, so it’s the framework, set the stage, gather data, generate insights, decide what to do, close the retrospective, that just helps people think in an organized way, so I would leave that rock solid. I might provide some additional guidance about facilitation, because in teaching dozens and dozens and dozens of retrospective classes I have noticed that people make the same types of facilitation mistakes, so that’s something I might add, would be a little checklist “these are common mistakes and here is an alternative”. So, that’s something I’d add.


3. Most people know you for that, but actually a lot of the things I’ve learnt from you are past retrospectives and more around teams and language and those types of things, you did have a session here at the conference about the language of change, which is interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that and why it’s important?

It’s a topic I am very, very interested in and it comes out of some reading I did about metaphor and how metaphor affects the way we think, much more than we’re aware of. We tend to think of metaphor as flowery language, but it’s actually to a very large extent how our brain processes information, 98% of our thought is actually going on at an unconscious level largely through metaphor. So the typical metaphors we use when we are talking about change often get in the way, because they mask the complexity of what we are trying to do and they mask the emotional content of what we are trying to do. Once we have a metaphor going, it sets a script running and there are particular actors and particular scenarios and if it doesn’t fit that frame, we tend not to notice it.

People talk about driving change which implies to some people you have a cowboy and cracking the whip to get those cattle moving, not sure that’s helpful when you want to do complex change. People talk about Agile evangelists, what happens to evangelists, they go with the truth to save the people from their darkness, and most people don’t like to be told they are living in darkness, so it sets up some resistance. And what happens to evangelists, either they convert everybody or they get shot through full of arrows? So, it doesn’t leave a lot of possibilities there. So these are the sorts of things we often use when we’re talking about change that get in the way, because they don’t reflect the true nature of what we are trying to do. So, that’s what I am going to be talking about, both the nature of metaphor, the true nature of change and the intersection of those and what are some different ways we could language-change when we go into organizations and want to help people improve the way they work.


4. Two questions. The first one, you mentioned metaphor, and if you’ve been around as long as we have in the community, you’ll remember XP where there was the ill-fated metaphor word which people didn’t really understand, how does your use of the word metaphor differ from the original XP use of metaphor?

Well, first, let me say something about metaphor and XP. Metaphor can be very useful up until a certain point and what happens is that at a certain point you are trying to build some software that does something that isn’t contained in that metaphor and that’s where it breaks down, that’s where it gets in the way of thinking and gets in the way of building the software that will be delightful to your customers. I don’t know what the background thinking was on choosing that particular term, I think it’s often used to help people see things in a more creative way and what we have seen play out is that it sets these scripts in motion which open up certain possibilities and close others.


5. You also mentioned that there is a language change, a lot of what we are hearing at the conference and a lot of people actually attend this conference is because they’re struggling with change, I think we sometimes hide that behind “I’m struggling with Agile”, but really it’s “I’m struggling with change”. What are some of the quick tips that you can give people?

I think the biggest, the most important advice I can give people about the way we go about change is that people don’t resist change, people change every day of their own accord, they make big changes, small changes, all sorts of changes, people choose to get married, people choose to buy a new house, as I recently did, and move to a new town, people resist coercion. When we push people, when we drive people, they don’t like that, nobody likes to be pushed or driven and so they push back or they say “you don’t get to do that to me”, and that often gets labeled resistance. And once we have labeled that response as resistance, we lose most of the possibilities of learning from the people we want to engage in change.

So I prefer to talk about it as how people are responding and this is something that Dale Emery helped me become more aware of years and years and years ago that there is actually a huge amount of information in that response. It may be that people want to do what you are asking of them, but they don’t know how to get from point A to point B, it may be they feel that their workload is just growing and they can’t figure out how they are going to make this change while they are being asked to deliver. People talk about we have to change the tyres while the bus is running, that’s hard, so people may be having that experience, they may not trust the person who’s asking them to make this change, they may have a better idea, so there is all sorts of information that we can take advantage of to make the change more successful if we don’t label it as resistance or just call people no-no’s, resistors.


6. [...] Is that something that you see as a software profession that we are making any real inroads into or do we still have lots of problems in the way we communicate with each other?

Craig's full question: I guess that’s something that you’ve been talking a lot about over the years, in the Agile community, really that whole language, you were talking about the language of change, but I know I’ve sat in some of your sessions and learnt a lot even just about the language of how to talk to customers and how to talk to other people, is that something that you see as a software profession that we are making any real inroads into or do we still have lots of problems in the way we communicate with each other?

I think humans have lots of problems in the way they communicate with each other, I don’t think it’s unique to our profession and I think in some ways we are building more awareness and becoming more conscious of how we use language because we are having to speak a different language because of the way we do our work, so I think we are becoming more aware of it and I know that there are some sessions at this conference on non-violent communication, which is very interesting work and it talks about how the way we label people is often an act of violence because it diminishes them and makes them less human then we think of them as the label, so I think the awareness is definitely coming up in this community and there is a lot of work to be done in the world at large.

Craig: One of the other things you are here at the conference talking about, but has also been something you have spent a bit of time on, is something called designing your environment for Agile success, which if you go to Esther’s website you can see front and center.

Yes, it’s the picture right on the front.

Craig: So, tell us a little bit what your thoughts are there because it looks like some interesting work.

Sure. I think we are all living with a whole suitcase full of legacy assumptions about organizations and how we should organize people to do work and those are not serving us particularly well in knowledge work, but because they are so widespread, most companies take these practices off the shelf because they are considered very standard and normal ways to do things and what often happens is they end up with structures and policies that are not aligned to support creativity, to support productivity, to support engagement at work, so anytime there is a gap between what people say they want to accomplish, we want collaboration, and the structures and policies that are in place, that gap fills in with cynicism and fear. So what I work towards is understanding where there is alignment, because that will show up in the day to day functional dynamics of the way people go about their work, and where there are gaps, where there is a misalignment, because we have a policy that may have worked at one time or a structure that may have worked at one time, but isn’t working for us now. So, I help people see where the leverage points are to choose policies, to choose guidance, to choose structures that support what they really want to do, to close those gaps, get rid of cynicism and fear, unleash productivity in the work place.


7. Is there anything particular that you see in organizations, is it fear of asking the question or is it that people don’t think it’s their job to ask the question in trying to find those gaps or do people come forward and say “this is a problem” or are there things that are more hidden and you have to point out?

I think a lot of times people, as I’ve said, took these off the shelf and they are just considered so normal, they are so much part of the environment that people don’t examine them. I mentioned briefly that I had moved this year, I was talking to someone yesterday who moved from England to Australia, I didn’t move that far, I just moved three-hour drive away from the town that I’ve lived in for a long time, and I’d lived in this house about 25 years longer than I thought I would and I had a lot of stuff to go through and things I’d forgotten about, things I hadn’t looked at for 15 years and some of them I remember “this was really useful at one time, I really made good use of this”, and others “I can’t imagine why, how did this fit into my life”. And I think that happens in organizations, too, that we accumulate things that may have seemed like a good idea at one time, they were solving a particular problem, but they are no longer serving us. So part of it is like going through that closed and saying this suit’s got to go, this isn’t doing for us what we need it to do. Part of it is that, taking a fresh set of eyes and looking at the legacy assumptions, figuring out if they still fit and choosing new guidance, new policies, new ways of organizing that better allow us to deliver value to our customers, that unleash the productivity and creativity of the people that we’ve hired to do this work.


8. If people are interested in doing this, there is a model that gives you a leg up to the things to look for, right?

Yes, I have over the years, through my work in many, many organizations, developed a model that I work with when I go into an organization and I’m helping them understand what their current dynamics are, because you always have to start from where you are, you can’t just copy something that somebody else did, you have to know where you are and you have to know something about what you want to create and then you design what will help you.


9. What are some of the things you particularly look for?

Every company has some similarities, because as I said we have this legacy thinking about structures, very often we have departmental structures, business analysts, even though companies say they are Agile, we have business analysts, we have developers, we have testers, so sometimes I see that which is not conducive to collaboration between groups, sometimes I see policies that are very focused on individual accomplishment and task accomplishment versus team accomplishment, so those are a couple of the ones that show up a lot, but every group is unique and they have their own special issues and their special gifts, because every organization that I visit, even the ones that are having struggles, are also doing some great things and have some great people. And more great people, that if they weren’t being hindered, would rise to the occasion and do a great job.

Craig: We talked about language and we talked about the environment, how does this all wrap up either at the enterprise level and also at the team level, how do they differ if you are coming in at either angle, because some people are really focused on enterprise agility and some people are still down at team level agility.

I think you have to work at many levels. You have to work with individuals, because we are talking about some pretty significant shifts in mental models about how development happens and how teams work, you have to work at the team level, because those are the groups that actually are building the software and delivering value to the customer, and then you have to work at the management level and the organizational level because that’s where the responsibility for creating the flow through the organization is and for the vertical decision making. So I think you have to work at all levels, if you are going to really accomplish a significant change that’s going to stick. I think in some ways it’s analogous to the shifts that have gone on in Lean, where people just have to shift the way they look at the organization. We are used to looking at individuals and task accomplishment and we have to look at how the work flows through the organization, how we support people to do great work. That’s not easy, it takes time.

Craig: One of the other things or one of the other hats you have worn at the conference this year, you were a track chair for the Collaboration, Culture and Teams track.

I was, and you were a reviewer for me.

Craig: I was, and you were also trying to do that I believe as you were moving house, which is even more of an accomplishment.

Well, yes.


10. I guess given that ties into the things you do, how have you seen the conference in relation to that track or that discussion about collaboration in general?

Well, someone said to me, oh, I think it was you, that I look at these interesting sessions and they turn out to be sessions that were on this track. So, I’m really pleased with what I’ve been hearing from people who have attended sessions on the track that you and I worked on, I think that this community really values that, on our track we actually had more submissions than any other track, which says to me that this is something that people explicitly value in this community, which is gratifying for me.


11. Given that you’ve been in this space for so long, do you think we are making inroads in that discussion and are you seeing that depth of variety that you’d like to see around this topic?

I think we are making a lot of inroads, it think the level of conversation about creating humane workplaces and supporting teams is richer and deeper than it was ten years ago, there is no question about that, the other thing that I think is quite interesting is someone made a comment to me, the first day of conference they mentioned that half of the companies that were here were companies over a thousand and the interpretation that was made by the person I was talking to was “oh, we’ve crossed the chasm” and I think the word has crossed the chasm, the word Agile has crossed the chasm, but the values and the understanding about how we need to create environments that are conducive to teams working well together and producing great products and great services, I’m not sure that message has really crossed.


13. If people want to start on that journey, do you have any tips for that reorganization, where they should start?

Start where you can. That’s it. People look for the perfect place to start and it’s different in every organization, so one of the things I do when I work with people is I talk about where we want to be and then we work backwards looking at if we wanted this to be, if this is really what we wanted, what would have to be in existence? And then we work back from that and say what would have to be in existence for that and eventually we find a place where we can start, usually several places we could start and that’s where we start and then we observe what’s happening, we support the areas that are working well and continue to take observations because you can’t do this sort of thing in a deterministic way, it’s not a step by step process. So, you start where you are, start where you can.


14. Good advice. So, if people want to know more about your work, Esther, where is the best place for them to read more about these topics?

You can always visit my website,, what an original name, but if you know me, you can find my website, I’m always happy to hear from people. So, if you have a question about this interview, feel free to drop me an email, I always love to talk about this stuff and share ideas about it., you can find the email on my website, I’d love to share some ideas with folks.

Craig: Excellent. Well, it’s been great to catch up with you, Esther.

Yes, it’s been wonderful, thank you so much for inviting me for this interview.

Craig: Thank you for your time.

My pleasure.

Feb 21, 2014