Sal Freudenberg, 19th September 2018, at @FFSTechConf

FFS Not Everyone Likes Thinking on Their Feet

SAL:  Hello, I'm Sal.

I've kind of called this Don't Be Me as well, so I've created a semi-autobiographical rant about different kinds of minds and about what an absolutely shitty facilitator I used to be. When I was thinking about - I worry, I'm autistic, I worry about things a lot - and I was worrying about this conference and thinking and worrying about privilege: the privilege to be able to rant and all that kind of stuff.

I've done two slightly odd things. The first is I've create a spoken-word piece, which I've never done before, let alone written or performed one. I've no idea how this is going to go. The second thing is I'm going to start and end with a minute to's reflective silence.

We are going to have a lot of noise and voices and all that kind of stuff today. So, ready for the silence? I will set the timer, otherwise I will give up too soon, probably. Okay. A minute of silence starts now.

[Silence]. [Timer sounds ].

[ED: the spoken word piece Sal performed at this point can be found here and there is a video of the slides and of Sal speaking it here recorded at a later date]

[Silence]. [Alarm sounds].

Thank you! [Applause].

[Speaker exhales]. That was scary!

FLOOR>> I'm sure you've studied it, so my question is where does the fear of awkward silence come from, and whether one can learn to ignore it?

SAL: Ooh! Ha-ha-ha! [Laughter]. I wasn't even trying. See how good I've got! So, can you even - I mean, I'm going to answer the question backwards because my brain needs time to this about the first bit. Can you learn to ignore it? I don't know if you can learn to ignore it but you can definitely train yourselves to deal with it. Jean Beaker taught me a trick, when I was facilitating:  when you ask a question behind your back, you can use your fingers behind your back to count to ten. By the time you get to about eight, someone else in the room is going to feel more awkward than you are, and answer. Even if they just say like, "I don't know" or something, they start doing something. One of the things during the silence experiment really taught me is how hard it is as a facilitator to back off. Even if we think we're back we're being back-of-the-room or whatever, it is hard to back off and be quiet.  Practising by down thing to ten was a top tip.

FLOOR>> I would like to propose rather than clapping we give jazz hands.

SAL: I love that! I love that. Yeah. [Silence - but Jazz Hands in the room].

FLOOR>> I'm D-. My question for you is, I mean, we've all seen that, and done this sort of infantilization of playing the retrospective games or asking for the words. Where does it come from? A symptom of anxiety, perhaps a lack of respect for real conversation and discussion? Because we seem to have, or certainly a strand of agile coaching and facilitation seems to have been based around the idea of play and games, and exercises of various sorts that - and the value, I think, is questionable.

SAL: Mmm. So, I think it's come from a really good place. I think it's come from really good intentions. I think people have done things like, "I want to hear all the voices in the room" but what inadvertently that does is make it really difficult for anyone who wants to hide and doesn't want their voice to be heard. Anyone I did this morning, what if somebody asks me about what could it be like? What ideas do you have? And so I kind of, like, scribbled down over breakfast, because I know this isn't popular, but my brain really does like a deadline, scribble down what would be the good version of this so that I can share that with you if you want, but I don't know how long I'm allowed to take in answering a question? It's not very crafted, so it's definitely not spoken-word. I will use the slides to kind of help me along, if you want. Introduction. Let's imagine you're facilitating me - that would be weird. There are too many of you. It would be cool if it took a whole roomful of people! [Laughter]. I've got a prop. You can ask me later, this is the first time I've ever carried a cuddly toy around with me, and there's a good reason why and I will tell you another time and you probably don't want to hear it right now. He doesn't have a name. I feel I ought to give a name. He's facilitating me. So, I'm outside the room. The invite had it on the purpose and the structure of the meeting, and there was an anonymous type form for me to fill in, , questions and feedback or ideas that I might had. I didn't do it then so my mind needed a time to incubate. I put a note in my physical calendar, and I admit I have one because I need to tangibly see where everything is, to remember to send it in. I'm allowed to sit in my usual spot where I feel safe. And I don't even need to talk to strangers. In fact, in the invitation, you sent me a photo of the lay-out of the room so I'm not stressed about what it looks like, and nothing has changed. When we go on to gather data, I'm relaxed. Every third one, you read one out weight from the type form, and my sounds well thought-out and complete. Lots of other people's do too. When you go to gathering insight, and when we vote, I see mine up there in second or third place. And, when it's discussed, I'm interested that people have taken it in different directions and stretched it and pulled it, and it doesn't break it but it just grows. I'm sorry, I'm supposed to be doing the slides! I'm so crap! My concentration strays by now, you've left pipe cleaners out, so I can twiddle my way back without distracting anybody too much, even though I don't have an idea, I'm happy to see people covering most angles, and, in closing, we all just leave. You're keen to say it is not really the end because the Slack is open, and you know that some people will have their very best ideas the next day so I can contribute then. That's some ideas of how it could be different. Long! Go on, M-, sorry. I'm not facilitating, anything, shit! Shut up, woman!

FLOOR>> This might be a somewhat controversial in a room of Agile developers, but I don't remember the last time I was in a retrospective that was useful! I - they're either the team isn't empowered to make enough changes make the retrospective's actions valuable to improve, like my current workplace, or the environment isn't safe enough for them to actually say what the problem is, like my current workplace! It's okay, I'm a contractor, I can leave at any time! [Laughter].

SAL: You say that!

FLOOR>> Do we need to start looking at other ways? The retrospective is always the pinnacle of improving the team over time, but do we need to start looking at other ways to do it - to get that improvement?

SAL: I would love it if there were - personally, actually, I do love retrospectives. I've framed it around a retrospective and a nice structure showing what a process freak I used to be. I don't have anything against retrospectives but I would love it if people are exploring with different things. I know that retrospectives don't work in a lot of places. I  - I'm back to being a dev at the moment which is very lush. Our team, we mob for the morning and then retrospect for 15 minutes every day. We make these microchanges. That's safer somehow because it is like a little group, "Shall we try changing the length of the timer tomorrow? Or mind-mapping in between changes at driver", whatever it might be. These microchanges seems like a much safer environment and much more kind of evolving thing than, like, everybody coming to the retrospective. It also depends who is in the room. I've seen directors coming into a retrospective, and everybody just goes - no, nothing to say! So, I would love it if people experimented with other things. I don't know what they might be, but it would be cool.

FLOOR>>:  So, I've got a lot more responses to your piece - and the topic - than I can summarise in one sentence. One significant chunk of it is this: the way I learned to facilitate retros, way back when, was as two-day off-site events, and I think the thing is - for fuck's sake, you can't run a retrospective in two hours. We've ruined it by trying to do that.

SAL: Absolutely. In Norm's book, you could be in a whole week trying to help her team to retrospect.

FLOOR>>  Basically what he just said, I hate retros. The reason for that is that, along with scrums, we've forgotten why we're doing this, and the thing with the retro is to get better at stuff, to fix stuff. Retro is one way of doing that, and I would like to sort of be able to step back and figure out what way is best suited for this team to get better all the time? And for me, sitting and putting Post-it notes on a whiteboard and then putting them in a desk afterwards is not getting better. And we're not enabled to change outside our little team, either, which is really annoying. You can change the little things that really don't matter, but you can't change the big things that do. [Scattered applause]. [Laughter].

SAL: It's interesting how this has evolved into a conversation with retrospectives rather than facilitation. Fascinating!

FLOOR>>  First off, I'm not a big fan of process anyway, so, boo to retrospectives! My question was - retrospectives. I understand that people sort of talk at different rates, and they open up at different rates as well, so, for example, you can go with having a graduate developer who is, "Oh, my God, this is all brand new, I don't want to say anything because I'm in a room with people who have been doing this five or ten years" which is terrifying. Going into a retrospective, you don't feel you can say much. Have you got any advice to help those people or help someone who is facilitating without completely taking control to help them progress, whether or not in that session, but to get them to share feedback?

SAL: So I think, first of all, the idea that it is just graduates that don't would not to talk is an interesting one.

FLOOR>>  It was an example.

SAL: I think there are plenty of people who are just contemplators who do need time to this about things completely and fully, and to have ideas well formed before they are ready to share them, and I don't think it's grads. I really don't think we should aim for everyone to be homogeneous. I don't want grads to come in and say how do we mould you from being, like, to being to someone who wants to speak out in meetings all the time with your quick-fire ideas because maybe that's not how you work, and that's okay. My job as a facilitator is to offer you different ways that you can contribute that you are happy with, like email me stuff anonymously up front, or one of my friends was coaching, and she did what we called like a slo-mo retro, where they had some walls up for two weeks in a building, and you could go and write things up. You've got to be a bit ready for honesty if you do that, like completely anonymous walls and that kind of stuff, but the insights they got were really deep compared to the, "Lets think on our feet" kind of insight. I think rather than focusing on how do you change the person, focusing on how do we support you as you are?

FLOOR>> [Inaudible] quick question on the slide?

FLOOR>> I was thinking the exact opposite of what was said, unfortunately. Your description of these two ways of thinking kind of on your feet and more slightly reminded me of divergent and convergent ways of thinking. When started a project, you want to start of - then a conversion phase where you're evaluating. To make good decisions and come up with new ideas you have to do both. To do that really, really well, you have to be involved in both. Everybody has to do the divergent thinking and the convergent slow, silent bit. Can we think it's possible to think in terms of how we enable people who aren't naturally good at one to one or the other to do them, or to change the environment to make it more easier to do those things?

SAL: First thing, does everyone have to do both? Every single person have to be involved in both bits? Why? I'm curious. I don't know the answer. I'm interested to understand why that might be the case.

FLOOR>>  Because I guess you want to have as many eyes on things things as possible as many eyes and brains contributing and you don't want to have anyone excluded from any of those stages.

SAL: If that's not what their brain does, like great at having loads of ideas and not great at pulling stuff together?

FLOOR>>  Can we help them to be?

SAL: Do we need to help them to be? I think it's a similar question, a similar thing about actually do we want to change the way that people's brains work, the things that they can do to fit them in with our process, or do we want to change our process to incorporate different kinds of minds? My preference is for the latter rather than the former.

FLOOR>>  Right.

SAL: What you were saying about divergent and convergent thinking, some people can do both, and both quickly. Some can do where it takes ages, some can do quick and slow and the other way round, and some people have a preference for one way of thinking. We need to rethink our facilitation to encompass all of those. And it's hard, which I think is the other reason that we don't do it. It's hard : how do you create an environment for all these kinds of brains? If we don't do it, we are excluding some of the finest minds in our industry, and that's a fucking travesty.

FLOOR>>  Sorry.

FLOOR>>  [Inaudible]. I'm D-. I work in a company currently that is so into this, like, extroverted style, strong facilitation to the point where it is almost comedic how much we do it, and one thing that I only now realise is kind of problematic where some people in my company are starting to call this pattern where everyone writes on Post-it notes, people stick it up on the wall, and people are referring to this as the Beautiful Mind Pattern. I'm going to be giving some feedback on that.

SAL: Sorry, did I say that publicly! Oh, my God, if were your brain isn't like that, it is ugly. Fuuck!

FLOOR>>  I guess my question here is everything looks like a nail when you've got facilitation as your hammer. So one thing that we started intro expecting on recently was of course people are not all neurotypical, people have different ways of approaching problem- solving. What do we do? Less - developer workshop and scroll safe.

SAL: People who aren't safe aren't going to say they're not safe! Of course they fucking won't.

FLOOR>>  Have we done a disservice by outing the people?

SAL: Harsh facilitation isn't working so let's do a harsh facilitated workshop on how it isn't working. How is that going to pull more people in? Really interesting. Yes, so entrenched, they can't see the cycles. Okay. Thank you. Thank you for letting me rant. Amazing!  

[Applause].