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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Diana Larsen Speaks to the Value of Trust, Authenticity and Forgiveness on Teams

Diana Larsen Speaks to the Value of Trust, Authenticity and Forgiveness on Teams


1. The focus for current work and research - would you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing lately?

Thank you for arranging this. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. In addition to my continuing interest in retrospectives and in helping organizations and teams and leaders be successful, I’ve been focusing in two particular areas. I’m working on a book with Ainsley Nies, another collaboration which I really enjoy. And this time we’re focusing on looking for information and stories and digging into our own experience around what really helps right at the beginning of a project or right when a team first comes together, to get them started in a really good way, looking for the processes and techniques and conditions that foster that initial kind of kick-off time.


2. It sounds really interesting. Is there any early insight that you can perhaps share with us?

One of our biggest insights is that it pays off to pay attention at that point in the project, to really give that a good start. Bringing people together is helpful. Even if you’ve got a distributed team we’ve learned that getting people face-to-face even if it’s only going to be for a short period of time (a few days or a week) before the beginning of the project sets a base for people then to be able to work together more effectively. Whether people are distributed or together, it helps them to get a common sense. Much like with retrospectives, we look for a common story, share everyone’s perspectives on what has just happened.

Bringing people together at the beginning gives a common sense of what it is we’re trying to do here. As a part of that, we’re looking at issues around chartering and other kinds of team development activities, boot camp kinds of things where people maybe gain some skills they didn’t have together, right away. So there are all of those kinds of things can help to set the stage. We are particularly looking at the need for people to really understand three areas: What is their purpose for coming together? How aligned are they around that? What context are they going to be working in? As much of that kind of stage setting as can happen, sets a team up to get to an accelerated start.


3. Is there a benefit of bringing a team together, even with a distributed team? Does that compensate for the cost? Because one of the resistance factors I certainly hear is the cost of bringing a distributed team together.

You pay one way or the other. Bringing a team together helps to mitigate the cost of miscommunications, misunderstandings, missed handoffs that can happen later in the project and are much less easy to quantify, but are costs nonetheless. You can pay a little in the beginning or you can pay a lot more later. This is what we’re fighting.


4. This is really interesting stuff. Any other areas you are working on at the moment?

I’m also very excited about some work I’m doing with a group of people in Portland who have a non-profit called "Where Are Your Keys?" and they are focusing on helping groups that have an endangered language save their languages. They’ve developed a series of techniques for learning skills that help to accelerate language acquisition and, as it turns out, helps to accelerate a lot of kinds of skill acquisition and skill building. After having been sort of a lifelong learner and a person who my whole life have been interested in helping other people learn, I am now learning new techniques for that, that are very exciting and are really opening up some new possibilities for me in terms of how to use this set of techniques to really set a container for both my own learning and for helping other people learn. It’s really quite exciting.


5. Are you going to be taking that sharing to the world?

I’m doing a little bit of that, mostly when I come to conferences, if there is a corner, like here at this conference at the, entering the Open Jam, I’m going to share... I’m by no means an expert around it yet, I’m still very much a beginning learner, but they encourage people who are learning this to begin sharing it right away, because part of how you learn is sharing it with other people. So, I’m taking opportunities to do that and I’m still learning. I’ve been learning one of the indigenous languages in Northwest U.S. tribes as a way of building my skill and it’s based on American Sign [Language] pidgin. They’ve really taken a lot of the things that people know about how to accelerate learning and figured out how to put it into one system, which is really fabulous.


6. At Agile 2010, you’re talking on trust, authenticity and forgiveness. Why?

It is much like starting a team off right. One of the things that starting a team off right does is help to begin that process of trust building, particularly for teams that have not been together before, where the team members haven’t been together before. Trust is the glue that holds teams together and it’s the difference between true collaboration and maybe coordinating kinds of activities, really moving along that spectrum of coordination through cooperation to collaboration. When we’re really working side by side, shoulder to shoulder interdependently, we do need to have that level of trust that the work we do together is going to benefit someone, that we can talk openly about our mistakes and not feel like we’re vulnerable, that we can count on the other person to contribute the things they’re going to contribute.

Without those kinds of shared understandings, getting to true collaboration is very difficult and without true collaboration, getting to high performance is very difficult. I don’t remember the exact points, but in my presentation there is some information about the impact that true trust has on things like absenteeism, turnover, all kinds of practical and pragmatic issues for organizations and teams.


7. I think you might have partially answered this, but are there any high points out of your talk that you can share with us?

I’ve talked about trust before and some of this presentation I’m doing today contains some of that material, but there is also some new information that’s come on. I’ve recently been reading a book called Extraordinary Groups by Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan. Geoff has been working in this area of group dynamics for a long time and Kathleen Ryan is co-author of a book called Driving Fear out of the Workplace. The two of them have come together to study 60 groups of people that have self-identified as "extraordinary." That was their experience and their results they felt were extraordinary.

They studied these 60 groups and they came up with what those groups had in common and much of that depends on their levels of trust, much of those elements that they discovered. So that’s new information. And also the content around forgiveness, which has not been a field of study so much anymore. Now there are groups of people who are beginning to study the role of forgiveness and what impact that has both on individuals and on groups. So, we’ve incorporated that as well and I think that’s going to be new and interesting to folks.


8. Why is this so important in Agile teams versus other teams? Or isn’t it?

I think it’s important in any workplace, whether you are working as a team or not. When I’m working with other people, I certainly look for context where we get started well and where we build a container of trust as we go along, because that always makes the work more effective and more pleasurable. That’s good for anybody, but I think when we’re talking about Agile teams we really are talking about a degree of collaboration between and among team members, between the team and their customers, the product owners, the rest of the organization. It’s like it becomes not just nice to have, but critical.

If we really want to get the benefits of working on self-organizing teams, we have to pay attention to the fact that we’ve got to be growing trust over time and knowing that we’re not going to have that in the beginning. So we have to use the techniques and create an environment where we can begin to get at least the basic level of trust we need to get started, just for everyone just to buy in and say "Yes, I worked with these people on this team." That in itself is an act of trust. We need that level to get started and whatever we can do to set a context for that and then we have to keep building trust over time so that we can get to the place where we can be really high performing.

When we are working in a self-organizing team kind of environment, that becomes critical. Where other places it’s great and certainly they benefit by it, it may not have the degree of criticality that it has for Agile teams.


9. How fragile is this trust building process?

It depends a lot on the team and it’s easy to break trust and then hard to rebuild it, which is part of why the concept of forgiveness comes in. That’s one of the elements in re-building trust - all or both or at least one of the parties to be able to say "I can put this behind me and move on and create a new relationship with you." Trust can be kind of fragile; it also can be quite robust. A number of folks have talked about the concept of the emotional bank account or the emotional credits where if you and I have had a long and satisfying working relationship and built up some strong trust over time, you might be able to do something or say something that gives me pause, but I will then look at the rest of our relationship and say "I’ll give you a pass."

He probably didn’t mean it that way. Whereas someone else who I don’t know so well and don’t have the same level of relationship credit built up, I might not be so charitable. That might break that trust quite quickly. There are instances where trust is quite fragile and has to be carefully nurtured and other times where it’s more robust and can withstand a little more. But we still need to know how to repair when it’s broken because it’s so essential for working together well.


10. The third term in that title that you have for your talk - "authenticity"?

That really is about bringing who we are to work and being able to share who we are with the people we work with. That also has an impact on trust, because if I have a sense that there is something about you that you are withholding, I don’t know what that is and it becomes much more difficult for me to fully trust you. And, from my side there may be some things I want to keep private, so it doesn’t mean that we have to be as some people say "full open kimono," but we do have to be able to sort of extend that trusting. There is a great quote in my presentation from Ernest Hemingway that says "The best way to know if you can trust someone is to trust them and then see what happens."


11. Authenticity seems to almost go counter to what we see and most people’s behavior in the workplace in terms of the masks or the personas that we present to the world, that is.

Authenticity doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to completely display ourselves to everyone we work with. But it does mean that our actions need to line up, need to be congruent with what we say we’re going to do - that any actions we take, any work that we do with someone needs to come from a real place, a place where we’re not playing games. A lot of workplaces sort of foster that "I’m not ever going to show you any of my vulnerabilities because I don’t know what you are going to do" and that’s basically mistrust and it gets in the way of getting things done.

It has an impact on effectiveness and it has an impact on efficiency. There is sort of the touchy-feely side of this but there is also a very pragmatic side and that’s what appeals to me about it. It’s just very pragmatic to build a place where people can be authentic, can trust each other and when, for whatever reason that trust gets broken, they know how to forgive each other and they can move on. Those are three very important qualities for a team’s success.


12. Success it’s all we’re about.

That’s right.

Oct 19, 2010