Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The “hot seat” experiment

Difficult Conversations Workshop

Our development team recently attended a whole-day workshop about "Difficult Conversations". I setup the workshop because we were facing challenges when trying to voice concerns with each other and external departments.  The objective was to give the team tools to communicate effectively with various personality styles.

Asking a Difficult Question

A few days later, in our weekly department meeting I decided to stretch myself and give the department permission to ask me any difficult question they'd like.

To select the question, I stole techniques I learned from a recent "Spark the Change" conference I attended here in Toronto.  I took the following approach to help the team find the most important "difficult question".
  • Individuals were asked to quietly generate questions/topics (One per sticky)
  • The stickies were put up on whiteboard and grouped into similar areas of concern
  • Everyone went to the board and was allowed to "dot" a sticky with a vote
  • Individuals were allowed to vote 3 times for their favourite questions (3 dots)
Once everyone voted, the topic with the most "dots" was selected and I sat myself into in front of the team to address their "difficult question"

Here's the source material from Steve Rogalsky that introduces the science behind brainstorming and how "silent brainstorming" to allow all personality types contribute equally.

Employee Engagement and Retention

The selected topic was "How do you keep turnover low and how do you retain people?".  It was a relevant and topical question - as we just had an experienced member of the team resign. I sat down in front of the group and immediately felt awkward and uncomfortable.  Many long pauses as we tried to dig in.  It was not going smoothly.

I attempted to jumpstart the conversation with some facts on our current retention rates, how they compared historically in our department, how they compared to other companies.  I spoke to how "I felt good about where we stood" in light of a Developer's recent resignation.

Interestingly, someone from the group pointed out that I didn't answer the question.  The question remained, "how do you keep turnover low and keep good people?".  On top of which, half the room was not engaged in the conversation.  I had answers, but had no way of knowing if they were right answers.

I felt the value of the conversation diminishing.  I attempted to energize the group by speaking about the culture, changes recently made and how this was making for an engaging environment that would keep turnover low.   As I soon quickly realized that we weren't making progress, I decided to take on a different tactic.  I'd ask them what would make them quit... and what makes them stay.

Ask Them (anonymously)

Survey Monkey is a great tool to get anonymous feedback. In the end we decided to simply ask the department - "what's keeping you here?", and "what would cause you to leave?".  The following incomplete sentences were presented:

  1. Our work/life balance...
  2. Our technology stack...
  3. The work we do (i.e. user stories)...
  4. The product we are building ...
  5. Our codebase...
  6. Our culture...
  7. Our company's stability...
  8. My compensation...
  9. My advancement opportunity...
  10. My manager...
  11. My co-worker(s)...
  12. My squad/team...

The survey allowed them to select a value from 1-5 with the values reflecting how they'd complete the sentence:
  • (1) bad enough to make me quit
  • (2) not great
  • (3) okay
  • (4) good 
  • (5) so great it keeps me here

What I learned from the experience

It was clear after going through this exercise that having the right answer is not as important as having the right question.  

The results of the survey were also very insightful.  It allowed us to see what behaviours we should continue to support and what issues to immediately address.

As painful as sitting in the hot seat was - I would gladly do it again.  By putting myself out there my team recognized that I was committed to being transparent and answering their concerns directly.

For future meetings, I would revise the large group discussion to a few smaller groups of 4-7 each. This may give the smaller groups opportunity to discuss more openly amongst themselves, and allow them to speak to me more comfortably.

The most important result was in finding the right question, and allowing the team to answer safely and anonymously.

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