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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Laura M. Powers On Communication Chunking and the Joy of Influence

Laura M. Powers On Communication Chunking and the Joy of Influence


1. Hi everybody my name is Todd Charron, I’m an Agile editor here at InfoQ and we are at the Agile 2014 conference, and today I’m joined by Laura M. Powers. Hi Laura! Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure, well I am currently working in a small company doing sales and business development in the Agile consulting, coaching and training space, Agile Learning Labs, but I’m educated as a Mechanical Engineer. Started my career as a diaper engineer no kidding for Procter&Gamble, went into solder joint reliability for HP, did all kind of things and eventually took the advice of someone who said there is a little startup in the South Bay in California and I should go work for them, EBay, and after that I had the chance to do some investing, some real estate work and eventually decided that I really wanted to go back into High Tech and I discovered Agile, fell in love and here I am.

Todd: Excellent, so you are speaking at the conference that's one of the things that brings you here, and your session was on Communication Chunking, so maybe tell us a little bit about what that means.

Communication Chunking has to do with the ability for someone to size the pieces of information that they share with someone, so that that person can hear what is being set. Now everyone always talk about how 55% of communication is body language and 38% is tonality and only 7% is words, but what I like to ask people was when was the last time you designed a product only using body language, and it doesn’t work. At some point you got to use words and your ability to target and use words effectively impacts how well you heard and understood.

Todd: Interesting, so what are the different chunks I guess…

So there is basically, chunking down with you Todd, basically there are 3 kinds of chunks, there is chunking up, which is taking someone who might be perhaps down in the weeds a little bit and moving up and to looking at a bigger picture, and you ask questions like for what purpose, for what intention, what is an example of this, so you might talk about a car; chunk up to transportation. Chunking down, the second kind, is exactly the opposite and that’s going from the big picture down into the weeds, so you might ask: “Can you give me an example of that, how was that specifically done” just more detailed kinds of questions. It’s an invaluable questioning technique for people in High Tech, if you walk into a meeting and someone says the build system is hosed, you need to know specifically how the build system is hosed to be able to fix it, and chunking down will help you to get to that detail. And then the last kind of chunking is a lateral chunk or a segue or a subject change, and that’s where you help someone by chunking up what’s an example of what you are talking about and then chunking down to change the subject. So for example we could be talking about Ferraris and your latest Ferrari and how wonderful it is and I’m just dying of jealousy and I need to change the topic, so I might think Ferrari that’s an example of what, cars, and then I could say: “Hey Todd did you know that I’m planning to buy a Tesla by the end of the year” and now we are off on the subject of Teslas or I might think, Ferraris what is that an example of; really wonderful things that come up of Italy. “Hey Todd did you know that next year I’d really love to go to Italy, have you ever been to Italy, where should I go in Italy”, and now I’m not like dying of jealousy about your Ferrari, we are talking about Italy.


2. So how might somebody use this in kind of coaching?

So you know I’m thinking coaching, the answers lie with the people that you are coaching as much as they do with you, I mean really probably more, so the real beauty in coaching is to have a rich set of tools that allow you to ask those questions. So for example if you are working with someone who’s super, super focused on the details of only one solution that you might kind of wonder if that’s the place you want to go, you might chunk them up to ask: “So what is the purpose of that or the intention of that particular solution” and as you understand their perspective on that, you might be able to ask follow up questions to broaden the horizon for them of what else they could do. From a chunking down perspective, that is super valuable in situations that might be a little bit more of a executive coaching or sales situation frankly, where I go in sometimes and I’m talking to an executive and their perspective on Agile is its rainbows and glitter and unicorns, and it’s just going to fix every problem that they ever had, and my goal is to chunk them down to how specifically would you know that your Agile transformation has been successful, tell me more about the specifics of what you will do, how you will know when you get it, because then I will either write a proposal that exactly gives them what they want, or tell them that maybe rainbows and unicorns really aren’t that Agile, so kinds of things like that.

Todd: So often we find in Software Organizations and Development Organizations, you mentioned kind of the big pictures or stuff, so often on the business side there is a lot of very high level chunked stuff, they're way up there, and of course technical team members come in and they are very chunked down on the details sort of things, so how do you kind of bridge that gap with groups like that, kind of help them communicate.

So I think that the role of a coach is often kind of the sherpa of the organization and from a linguistic perspective their goal is to take someone by the hand and kind of guide them to a common point of the conversation, so sometimes that's talking to the executive and helping then chunk down a little bit to share their vision in more concrete terms with the team, and honestly sometimes it’s helping the team look at a bigger picture, look at that intention by chunking them up. And I know sometimes engineers will look at that and say: “I don’t really want that, I’m all about the details” and then I ask them: “Would you like to make some more money?” because there’s research that shows that people who can chunk up and speak in big picture language when necessary make statistically more money.

Todd: Interesting, so then everybody should always be chunking up all the time, fascinating. So how does one kind of identify or know when is the appropriate time, particularly if you are in a meeting to know that, maybe I should kind of help them chunk up or chunk down, or become kind of a trigger where we know it's time

A really good trigger it’s probably frustration, either on your part or you might see it on faces of someone else, you know the meeting ostensibly has a goal, you ostensibly are moving towards making a decision or doing something in that meeting, and if you are stuck, that’s the point time where it’s very useful to look at, ok here we are, are we moving or are we kind of just sitting still in the water and what can I do to unstick that. And sometimes you ask a question and you’ll just get this blank stare, people just don’t know, you’ve ask them a question and they don’t know, and an awesome follow-up is then to say: “Todd I know you don’t know, but if you did know what would it be?” and the cool thing there is you are actually speaking to the persons unconscious mind, and you are giving them the ok to make a guess to daydream a little bit because I know you don’t know for sure, this is just a “Hey, what might it be?”, and then they unstick and you are back to the races.

Todd: Interesting, so for chunking up and chunking down seems fairly straight forward as far as chunking goes, the lateral trunk seems a little bit like magic.

You know it does, until I think at some point you just have to let go and let it happen, because people naturally do it. It really is just a subject change and it’s very, very useful. I was in a meeting recently where a group was working on a marketing plan and they had started talking about Twitter and had really identify how they are going to do the Twitter plan, what the Tweets were going to look like and honest to God they were down to counting how many of the 140 characters were left. But that wasn’t the goal of the meeting, the meeting was supposed to be talking about marketing in general and I saw one of the people in the meeting very effectively do a segue or a lateral trunk, they said you know: “This is great social media with respect to Twitter, what other types of social media should be talking about” and that just it like woke the group up that all of the sudden they were talking about blogging and they were talking about video blogging and they were talking about Facebook and they were off to the races. So I think part of it is kind of understanding you go up and you go down and then after that the real art is knowing how to do it, so that you don’t go up too high and move from Twitter to Ferraris for example, probably wouldn't help your meeting that much.


3. If that is the art of it, how does one get good at the art of it?

So, specifically in terms of trunking? So part of it is knowing the questions to ask and we’ve kind of talked about that already. The other part of it is a self awareness because everyone kind of has a natural set point in terms of the level of specificity that they use in their language. My husband and I have a joke that he is so detail oriented and I will ask him a question and ten minutes later he'll look at me and go: “Oh, that was one of the times when you are asking me what time it was and I’m telling you how to build a watch” and I’ll say yes. So first step is really to become aware of your level of specificity in general, and then to practice and in a workshop that I do I help groups practice with that by just story telling where one person is talking about a vacation, their latest Agile Project, anything really and there is someone else who uses their thumb to say: “Ok, chunk up, chunk down, change the subject” and then the speaker's job is follow the lead of that person and to move the conversation and when I do that as a demo I’ve done it a million times and I have to tell you every time I end up someplace else, I could start telling you about living in France and end up on the Moon, I could end up with what I did in college, I’ve ended up with what did I have for dinner last night, you really don’t know. But that practice helps you become more fluid and moving from one level of detail to another and then that helps you facilitate other people doing the same.


4. And so now the questions that you mentioned, you don’t always necessarily have to ask those questions out loud, sometimes you can ask them to yourself, is it correct?

Yes actually, you could ask them to yourself as well if you were noticing that a lot of time people get feedback on, your information is always so detailed, help me to see what the big picture is or other people get feedback that I don’t understand what to do with what you are saying, you could ask those same questions of yourself and help find that space that the other person can hear you, good point.


5. So now one of the other things that you kind of hinted on there was basically on coaching and when coaching begins, so when does coaching begin?

I think and this is a personal opinion, I think coaching begins with the first contact with the client. I’m trained as an engineer but I work currently in sales and business development and when we get a lead from Google Voice or our contact page on the Internet and I call someone, I’m immediately looking: a) for how can I add value to this person even if they never ever engage with us again and b) what is it that they need and how can we help. And I think that one of the most important things that anyone who talks to a client can do it at any point and time is set the expectations realistically, help that person find value and meet their goals and if that’s with you awesome, and if it’s not then it’s best served by helping them find another option that will get them what they need.


6. How does that, work itself out on sales and say you have an organization that is getting a bit larger and you might have a sales team instead of coaches as your front line, what would you do in that situation?

That’s a little bit how Agile Leaning Labs works because mostly I do the sales and business development and other people are doing the coaching and the training work, and I’ll say God bless Skype because what I often am doing is talking to a client on Skype with a word document open and I’m taking extensive notes trying to capture what they are about, what their goals are as cleanly as possible and as part of our engagement process one of my responsibilities is to really ensure that the client is looked after, is once we have a plan for an engagement with a client , I will meet with whoever is actually going to do the value fulfillment if you will, so they hear from me as much as possible in the words of a client what it is that they are looking for or what their objectives are and how we could best help them. So yes, that’s tough.


7. Right, so I mean obviously from your background you can provide some of that coaching when you are listening to them, is that something that sales people should perhaps look in to, the idea of being able to coach a little bit, even if they are not experts in the subject at hand?

Absolutely, and you know a lot of it has to do with excellence in sales has to do with again asking the questions and not necessarily knowing what the answers are and a lot of the questions are really generic things along the lines of what is it that you are looking to achieve what objectives what, how would you know if this is going to work for you and recording what it is that they are looking for. So I think anybody can learn to ask those kinds of questions, capture the answers and I have to tell you every client believes that they are totally unique with the most complex product ever, the most difficult organization and the most technical debt, everything is really, really difficult but in reality there is a lot of similarities and you can see it’s almost like Agile Sales Patterns if you will, that would be a good name for future talk, so Agile Sales Patterns, so there are certain patterns that just emerge and from that then you can coach them, help them and kind of point them in a direction that might serve them the best.

Todd: Interesting, I think you have a future book, but it is interesting because even when you describe it as every single one thinks that they're unique, that’s already the first pattern and they already fall into that.

And the art of the Agile Sales is helping someone to still feel that they are special and kind of unique and also that there is a comfort that they have some similarities with other people and that they aren’t truly out there all alone blazing something all by themselves, so there is a little bit of safety in numbers as well.

Todd: Yes, for sure, so you mentioned that you spent a lot of time in sales, doing sales now and we were talking a little bit earlier about some of the things you learned there and one of the things that you mentioned in the description during the session, came up into the session, was the idea of NLP. Now as we discussed, for some people it’s a very polarizing thing, so tell us a little bit about what that means to you and how you use it in kind of how that polarization kind of plays in as well

You know it’s really interesting because I’ve had people with an absolute straight face tell me that they don’t believe in NLP or Neuro-Linguistic Programming and that’s kind of like saying you don’t believe in gravity because basically what you are saying is that you don’t believe in communication, so at its heart NLP is around how you communicate with yourself and with others and that communication then creates your perception of what reality is which then really influences what your reality really is like, and some people are concerned about where does my reality stop and your reality start and could I manipulate you? And I think that can be a valid concern, I mean there are certainly people who have used linguistics for good reasons and maybe some not so good reasons. I got into it when I first started learning sales because I was given scripts and told just use the scripts and as an engineer I needed to understand why did these scripts work and that led me to NLP and studying how to say it the way you want it and not to focus on the way you don’t want it, how to basically create my own scripts so that I’m saying something that I am congruent with that I authentically believe and frankly I can’t sell something if I don’t believe it, so when I tell you that you should do Agile because it is the most effective way to do product development that I found thus for, I’m absolutely congruent with that and any tool including NLP that helps me say that I think is awesome.

Todd: Nice, so what do you say the people that feel like kind of it doesn’t mean anything at all that it doesn't actually work in any way shape or form.

I would say it makes me think of one of the laws of NLP is the law of Requisite Variety and that says that the person with the most behavioral flexibility would be able to lead or control the situation, and that sounds pretty scary until I point out that the person often with the most behavioral flexibility is probably the 2 year old in the grocery store, who is throwing the temper tantrum over wanting a box of cookies. They are willing to do whatever it takes and have the most behavioral flexibility to get their box of cookies and honest to God, there is time when I’m ready to buy the box of cookies if the mom's not just to get it to stop. So if you take that perspective into a linguistic perspective, if I can help people solve their problems because I have lots of tools in my tool belt from a language perspective, I have the most language behavioral flexibility, I think it’s pretty awesome.


8. So what’s up next for you?

Well so what’s up next for me, I ought to be saying that I’m going to Disney World but I’m already there. So what’s up for me next, I am heading back to California at the end of the week and we are finishing the last quarter for Agile Learning Labs, doing a lot of training in Scrum and Agile Coaching and things like that there, and I’m starting to put together a Joy of Influence workshop with a partner more specifically based around language and influence in general, not specifically just for Agile.


9. What does Joy of Influence mean?

So this is a bit of a homage to Rich Sheridan and Menlo Innovations, he recently published the book “Joy Inc.”, keynoted at the Scrum gathering and I heard it in there, I was just so inspired by this idea that we should be looking at how to create workplaces that inspire joy within the employee base and from that we will do the best work, we’ll have the most satisfaction in our clients, I mean all goodness comes from joy I think from his perspective, and a partner and I had been talking for quite some time about how do we create an influence workshop that help people influence rather than sell, the idea of influencing to achieve your goals, your beliefs, help you achieve what you are up to in the world, and we had both seen Rich and we were talking about what is it that we want for people to resonate with, and my partner Jay said: “Well, I think we should call it Joy of Influence”, because it’s not a job, when you connect with someone and you help them hear your thoughts and they can decide to be persuaded or not persuaded, and at the end you still have great rapport with that person and they are happy with the process, so instead of that feeling of manipulation, that feeling of this being a job, this is all about creating something that is a joy to share what you are up to. And it all goes back to the origin of the word Influence, so from the Latin, I’m going to mess it up, but the Latin root has to do with flow like a river, and when influence truly flows, it’s you are not pushing it, you are not forcing it, it just happens, and that’s what we want to create, is that type of joy for people.


10. And so now if somebody wanted to learn more about that topic in particular or just about you in general what you up to, how would they find that out?

So that particular workshop, you can go to the not the second but very soon because we are getting that website up, the first workshop in that series will be in October, or you can contact me at and I’ll be happy to help you.

Todd: All right, thank you very much for doing this with us!

You are very welcome, this is great!

Dec 03, 2014