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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Vickie Gray - The Core Protocols

Vickie Gray - The Core Protocols


1. This is Floyd Marinescu at Culture Con. I’m here with Vickie Gray. Vickie, would you introduce yourself? What are you passionate about these days?

Sure. So I run my own consultancy and coaching company and what I’m passionate about right now is working with teams so that they can really become skillful in overcoming some of the really common problems that teams run into, the interpersonal stuff because humans are much more complicated than code, unfortunately. And so, I like to talk to people about what is called the core protocols.


2. Okay. And what are the core protocols?

Well, Jim and Michele McCarthy who worked at Microsoft many years ago discovered that they were really, really good at getting a high performing, self-organizing team in place. So they decided to leave, started their own business, thought that they’d sell that to people. And what they discovered was they really weren’t sure what it is that was successful about what they did with teams. So they let the teams organize themselves and simply watched what they did. They turned it into a team laboratory, and that team laboratory has been running for about 17 years now, it’s called boot camp. And out of that team laboratory came the set of behaviors, the system of behaviors, of teams that are really successful and have fun and don’t have a lot of the noise and pain that other teams have. So the core protocols and the commitments are an open source set of protocols for interpersonal behavior on teams.


3. Could you give us some examples of the ones? What are some of your favorite protocols and commitments?

Sure. One of the ones I like a lot, especially when I’m first starting to talk about the core, is called Perfection Game. So for instance, I could say to you: “Will you perfect how I’m doing on this interview? Give me a score out of ten where the difference between your score and ten is the value that you’re going to give me, the ideas that you’re going to give me to make it perfect for you.” You’re going to tell me what you like and then you’re going to tell me what it would take to make it a ten.

So we stay away from “I don’t like the way you’re talking”, “I don’t like you using your hands”, whatever it is that you don’t like. Instead you say “I like…”, you know, “X, Y, and Z” (whatever it is) and then to make it a ten, you would have to stand up and do some tap dancing. So that’s Perfection Game, and I think most people get that right away because we’ve all been subject to feedback, criticism, all that kind of stuff that we react to without actually getting any value. So a lot of people find the value piece of Perfection Game really helpful.


4. So what are some of the other very important core protocols?

Right now, I think there’s nine or ten core protocols. There are additional protocols as well. The core protocols include things like Decider and Resolver. So how do we make a decision together and how do we do that really quickly without a lot of conflict. Resolver or resolution is how you resolve conflict when there is some.

Check In, which is about disclosing what we feel so that the other people in the room, or that we work with, don’t have to guess how we’re feeling. I mean you’ve probably been in a situation where someone comes into work and they’re just fuming and you can tell it and you’re wondering to yourself – well, was it something I did? Check In lets the person check in, talk about “Yes, I’m mad, here’s why” and the teammates can find out more information than they would get just by guessing. All that guessing takes up a lot of our time and energy. And so, Check In creates a specific space for emotional reactions and information and then lets you move on and continue to work. So that’s Check In.

Investigate is another protocol that is simply a way of asking about information that you may be curious about. So I could ask you, “So I’m really curious how you got into the world of doing interviews for IT.” and I could just keep asking some questions, “what” questions, what is it about doing interviews that’s really interesting to you. And you can use this on software teams when someone does something that doesn’t make sense to you. So instead of, again, instead of guessing, you ask: “So I noticed that when we were in the meeting, you were really upset about the idea of pulling back the project schedule by two weeks. Will you tell me more about that?” Instead of saying “You’re really upset about that aren’t you? You shouldn’t be upset.” - which is an assumption. Gets in our way. So that’s Investigate.

And then one of the things that I think is really key about the core protocols is the freedom – we call them Freedom Protocols. So the freedom to say: “I pass, I’m not going to do that”. “I pass on answering that question”. Or, “I pass on this activity”. To have the freedom to say no, I’m not going to do that and everybody on the team has the freedom to do that. A second freedom protocol is Checkout. So that means when I know that I’m too tired or I’m too upset or I need to be someplace else, I just say “checking out, I’ll be back in a couple of hours” - if I know that. And instead of staying in the team space and creating a lot of drama by really being incoherent; a lot of the time we think that we’re doing a good thing by staying in the space and trying to overcome, you know, our anger or our fear or whatever it is that’s making us feel upset when really the team would be better off if we just left. So, Checkout lets us do that.

Another one is Intention Check. So Intention Check is when I’m really not sure why you did what you did. Let’s say you went to the boss and you talked about me and I found out from someone else. I can say to you, “Will you help me understand your intent by going to the boss?”. Very neutral, but it opens the door to get information that you may not have had otherwise. So, if I ask you, “What was your intent in going to the boss and talking about me?”, you could say, “Well, I was going to tell him that you really should be getting a promotion.”, and I’m like, “Oh! That wasn’t what I was expecting you to say.” Right? So, it really brings all of this information into the space where we’re working. Instead of having it be implicit, now it’s explicit.


5. These protocols sound like very substantial and powerful changes to the way people even interrelate. So how does one introduce this into a team, say from the top down and say also from the bottom up, if the managers don’t even know about it?

Yeah. Well, what we like to do - I mean the very best way to do it is to go to a boot camp. Really it’s a business simulation where you pretend you’re a product development team but you get to use the core protocols in this very safe and structured environment. So you get to learn, you get to see how it works, and then you get to take back that experience to your workplace. That’s the fastest and easiest way of doing it. It’s like loading the whole operating system at once. The second way you can do it is simply go to the website where the core protocols live. They’re open source so you can go and use them in your own way, in your own time. The website is “”. Open source. Try them out. See how they work. Try one protocol at a time. And our best idea is just to try modeling it yourself, start with yourself. So if you want to try checking in, you check in. If other people see that it’s useful, they’ll come and ask you about it.

Top down or bottom up, we like to say the boss should go first, but we all know how that works out, right? So if the boss won’t go first then just do it yourself. Do it for yourself because, really the environments where we live and work - most of the time tend to use us up really quickly especially in software development. Long hours, a lot of people time, and to have that time be not as optimal as it could be or not as skillful as it could be - we could be spending more time with our families or spending time doing what we love instead of sitting in a lot of meetings. So, if you want to change that, just try out the protocols.

Plus there’s a Facebook group called the Booted. You can come on to the, ask to be added to the group and just try stuff out. It’s a great place to try new protocols, learn about the protocols, and get some ideas of how to incorporate them into your workplace. There have been a lot of organizations that have just started using the protocols. Other organizations have gone through boot camp first. Some people have one person who went to a boot camp and brought the protocols in and everyone saw the value and started using them. Other people have really struggled. And so, you know, having a kind of support group like the Facebook group can be really, really helpful.


6. It occurs to me that the core protocols could apply to any organizational unit even families. It could be used for marriage counseling, for your children. I mean, this clearly started with software development, but how far are you guys taking it?

Yeah. That’s a really great question. What’s interesting is that when people start learning the protocols they see that they really are universal and they can be used in every interaction. It’s just basic human behavior, right? So people who learn them take them back to their families, they take them into their community environments, into their synagogues and churches and mosques, and wherever else they work with other people on a common goal. Kids really love Check In. Kids get emotion and they really want to share it with their parents.

Check In is a really great way to do that. They also love Perfection game. So if your kid is making a Lego castle, the kid can say, “You know, will you perfect this?” and you get the fun of trying to figure out how to make it even better and you get to play with your kid.

But you know, it’s also not just software teams - coming back to the work world. We’ve worked with nonprofit organizations, with teachers, with nurses. We’ve done public boot camps with music teachers, with software developers, with executives, grad students, a whole mix of people. And really it’s culturally agnostic so it doesn’t matter what country you live in, what language you use, really it is basic human behavior. So use it wherever it’s useful, is our message.


7. When do you use Check In? Is it – like I’ve been in meetings where it starts with Check In but it’s more of like something significant has happened in the last week or so; but the way you’re describing it, it sounds like something I -- when is the appropriate use of that?

Great question. Usually a company that’s using the protocols will check in first thing in the morning - at a bare minimum. So that just kind of sets the tone for the day. People can say, you know, “I’m mad, I got stuck in traffic”, “I’m afraid because I think I, you know, made a mistake on my tax form and I’m afraid the IRS is going to come back and get me”, and “I’m sad because my son is going through medical tests and we’re not sure what the outcome is going to be and we’re sad for him because he’s going through a lot of pain. I’m in.” And that could be the information that you give to your team at the beginning of the day. So they get a sense of kind of the stuff that you’re going through without having to rescue you, without having to, you know, come and tell you how much they are sorry and all the rest of that kind of stuff. They have that information; you’ve given it to them, now we can move on.

Now if I want to ask you for help with what’s going on with me, with what I’ve checked in about I can do that. “Will you help me with this problem with my tax form?” But again, that’s a separate protocol, that’s the Ask For Help protocol which is actually I think one of the most powerful and one of the most difficult to use.

Coming back to Check In, you can use it anytime your emotional state changes. Thinking about the protocols as an opportunity to help your teammates understand where you’re at, to disclose what you think, feel, and want. Anytime you think you need to disclose that information or you want to disclose it, just check in. And it doesn’t have to be a long drawn out activity. So let’s say you’ve just had a meeting with the boss, it really made you upset, you’ve come back into the team space and say: “I’m mad and I’m in.” And then they understand why you’re stomping around and throwing things - and it’s not them.


8. What happens when you need to release, you know, next week but everything is blowing up? How do the protocols come to make things feel okay and what other war stories do you know of?

Right. So, got a deadline, got to ship and everything is going - to wherever it’s going. The protocols aren’t necessarily going to make it feel better - but they’re going to make the process less painful. So one of the things we say it that it reduces the signal to nose ratio. And when you have a really tight timeframe, the last thing you want to spend your time doing is being in a lot of meetings, which is typically what happens when your product shipment is late or threatened. The project managers start coming by more and more often asking you for progress, where are we at with our deliverables and all you want to do is just keep coding, right? So what the protocols do is give you a quick way to make a decision, “Where are we at, where do we need to be, I propose, okay, thumbs up let’s go take action.” How do we perfect this? What’s the next best thing that we could be doing right now? Asking for help is another great one. So, not just necessarily asking for help from your teammates but maybe there’s someone you can pull in from another team to help. That’s a self-organizing activity using the core protocols - just go get help, just ask.

Sometimes when we get really caught up in product delivery, we believe that we’ve just got to keep plugging away as hard as possible for as many hours as we can do it and we stay up until 2:00 in the morning. And I don’t know how many times I stayed up until 2:00 in the morning trying to code, working on the same sub routine for hours. I come back to it the next morning after having a good sleep and I fix the problem in ten minutes. Same thing can happen simply by asking someone else for help, “Will you come and look at this code, right?” So those are just some of the things that the protocols can help with.


9. What is the intentional development protocol?

One of the protocols is called the Intentional Development protocol. It’s not in the core, you learn it at boot camp, but essentially it’s kind of the granddaddy of Agile. It says essentially work on one thing, get it done, and then move on to the next thing; and that can be really, really, really hard when you have a deadline. However, if you’ve been doing that all along, you’ve been shipping iterations, shipping sub products all along, then as you keep working towards that one next best important thing, you know that you’ll have something to ship. Even if it’s not the complete product, something will be shipped at that deadline. And that makes a huge difference for a team that is continually late because they need to have all the features or they need to have, you know, some finished product that was determined nine months ago. So, that can be really, really helpful.


10. So we’re here at Culture Con where I guess the idea of the day is that culture is going to be the next big thing for Agile teams and Agile. Can you talk about this movement and what it means and is this going to be the next big thing?

I really love this direction that Agile is taking - to be more about culture. I think the principles of Agile really align beautifully with this common API of the core protocols. So Agile is an application just like Scrum, Kanban, anything else that we use. And I see the core as kind of the API in between them. I think together, all of those things can move from being just about software, just about software development, into the larger context of the organizations and the communities even, and even the countries - dare I say it - the nations, the world that we live in, because those principles are so easy to understand and see the value of. If we can find a way to bring that into our culture in general, I think it’s going to be a tremendous value to everyone.


11. So any final words for the InfoQ community?

Sure. I think, you know, in the end - they’re free, they’re publicly available, give them a try, pretend they work. Thousands of people, hundreds of teams all over the world, what’s to lose?

Dec 20, 2012