The Gift of Time, the Relative Rule, and Clean

Posted August 1, 2014 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Clean Language, Conference, Uncategorized

I bought The Gift of Time at Agile 2014 conference. It is a nifty tribute to Gerald Weinberg written by many of his admirers (Fiona Charles, James Bach, Michael Bolton, Esther Derby, Bob Glass, Naomi Karten, Tim Lister, Johanna Rothman, and Dani Weinberg) for his 75th birthday a few years back.

I read Michael Bolton’s chapter, called ‘It’s all Relative’ on the flight home and was amused to find here several references to Jerry famously using the reply ‘Compared to what?’ to search for more information from his interlocutors (to their great surprise).

Michael Bolton who at first was really surprised by this question, then came to realize its incredible usefulness, and created the aptly named Relative Rule:

A description of something intangible, as ‘X’, really means ‘X to some person at some time’.

In software, that rule can be applied to so many concepts; quality, purpose, done, tested, etc.

Having just presented on Clean Language at the Agile2014 conference, I mused that Jerry’s ‘compared to what?’ was a relatively ‘clean’ question – one extremely useful to software development field that can be used along with the standard clean questions from David Grove that I taught in my workshop.  In clean questions, we have the core questions  ‘(and) that’s X… like what?’  to get more information about a word. We also have ‘(and) what kind of… X is that X?’  Additionally, we have, ‘(and) is there anything else about X?’  There are other questions about size, location, resource, time, significance.  [X is a word or phrase, taken verbatim]

The notion in Clean Language is that you cannot assume to know the meaning someone else prescribes to a word, phrase or fact. Only the person who uses the word has the context/meaning of their word precisely.

The underpinning of the clean language mindset is that we don’t interpret words using the ‘generally accepted’ definitions of words in daily use, but rather inquire further using clean questions as to the nature of the meaning for the person using the word.  Of course in a software development setting, we couldn’t do this all the time nor to every word we encounter, but we can strategically apply it when there is ambiguity. (In the case of clean language therapy, the whole session would consist in fact of clean questions)

Next time I present this topic to a software development group, I will add Jerry’s question to the arsenal as a special clean question of Jerry’s.  And I’ll spend a bit more time talking about Jerry’s life work – summarized so nicely in ‘The Gift of Time’.

I did ask my audience at Agile2014 how many of the 60 attendees were /NOT/ familiar with Jerry Weinberg. I was stunned and really sad to see about 3/4 of the audience raise their hands.

Hopefully I gave my audience not only the gift of clean questions and listening, but an avenue to more exploration via my very brief mention of Jerry’s influence on me.  I certainly think sharing more about Jerry’s life and work could benefit the software development community greatly.  And I will certainly attempt next time – incorporating some clean questioning exercises for scenarios one might encounter at work.

P.S. And it isn’t altogether surprising, btw, that both Jerry Weinberg and David Grove (discoverer of Clean Questions) studied with Virginia Satir…. that line of influence still intrigues me.

Do you have 18 second team members on your software development project?

Posted July 24, 2014 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Clean Language

I am presenting a workshop on Clean Language questions and listening at the Agile2014 conference coming up next week.  Why might you want to come? Well, because an 18 second team member might not be the best team member.

Management guru Tom Peters says, if you are 18 second manager, you’ll need to focus on strategic listening so your business doesn’t fail.  The 18 seconds refers to a study done of doctors who are there to diagnose your ailments – and that is the average amount of time doctors let the patient explain what’s going on, before they give a diagnosis.  We all know how many software projects fail for hidden assumptions, and imperfect interpretations. One could say: if you are an 18 second team member, you’ll need to focus on ‘clean listening’ so your software release doesn’t fail.  So let’s get better at that on our agile teams. Read the rest of this post »

Anticipating a new experience – my reflections

Posted July 15, 2014 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Uncategorized

… and when I was 12, arriving in Burundi for the first time, as we were driven from the airport, the embassy staff accompanying us offered this to me: ‘It’s dark now, you can’t really see what’s around you. How about you go write down what you think it’ll be like tonight. Then tomorrow as the day unfolds, you’ll be able to compare notes’.   This is what I am thinking of now as I prepare for my first big agile conference in Orlando, both as attendee and speaker.

My session – Clean Language Questions for the Aspiring Agile Learner: Advanced Listening Skills – is in the first slot on the first full day of the conference.  I don’t know how that came to be, but I definitely think it is fortuitous. Doing it when my energy is high, right at the start is perfect.
I’m glad to share a topic that was first introduced to me by an agilist from Korea, June Kim. I’m glad Agile Alliance is willing to take on topics that are not ‘purely’ agile, but may lead to great agility!

Through clean language coaching, I’ve been able to reclaim myself from a time when I was more exuberant and open, learning and thriving on the environment and possibilities around me.  When arriving in Africa at the age of 12, I was very excited. I had images in my mind, and yet wasn’t sure what to expect.  I felt bubbly in my tummy – warm, and simmering anticipation. Just as I knew the few following years in Burundi were to be full of adventure and new connections, I also know now that my foray into Clean Language will be all about learning and it will last for years and be equally adventurous.

As a few folks have noted yesterday in a twitter conversation, there is a debate about whether professionals in IT who don’t take ownership of their own learning are just part of a system and can’t reach beyond its hold, or whether they are practicing ‘learned helplessness’ and could choose to do something different.  I do know that once you have found something you like, you will pull your head out of the sand and go for it. There is no uncertainty here.

Aside from my own conviction that clean offers everyone something to take away, I’m also buoyed by the fact that there are proven uses of Clean Language already in businesses, in IT, and in other domains where people need to collaborate at work.  I want to use clean language and systemic modeling in the coaching and facilitation work I do – more frequently and more deliberately than I do now. And I want to share it.

When I am not doing agile coaching at Santeon and preparing for my talks, I am also working on a book with Sharon Small who is the first certified clean language facilitator in the US. The book is modeled after the ‘Who is agile? book’ (which by the way, is free today) that I helped Yves Hanoulle produce in 2012.  This new book will be called ‘Who is using Clean Language, anyway?’  It will be a similar community book – of interest to those who want to explore clean language and its related methodologies.  You’ll be able to find out how clean language is changing lives of people around the world. I hope to have first draft out by Agile 2014, with about 10 folks in it. It is so exciting to follow one’s passion.

For those coming to my session in two weeks, I look forward to sharing and am glad you are coming! Yay!  And now, before I forget, I suppose I’ll have to start writing down what I expect the conference will be like now, so I can compare notes after…applying my learnings from a distant past…. and well….a very ‘agile’ thing to do.

Book Review – From Contempt To Curiosity

Posted April 6, 2014 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Book Review, Clean Language, Dialogue, Effective Meetings, Listening, Organizational Change

Caitlin Walker has written a brilliant book recounting her own 15 year journey with Clean Language as applied to groups – a compilation of stories illustrating the models that she developed along the way which she now groups together and calls Systemic Modelling. This work builds on the work of others as well – the originator of Clean Language, David Grove, and his original modellers, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, with whom Caitlin trained and learned. She acknowledges these and many others who assisted her in her consulting practice, Training Attention, along the way. There is a nifty appendix of the major influencing works at the back.

The title of this book hints at the fact that the places that Caitlin took up work using her models were usually starting from a place of high dysfunction, disarray, miscommunication with silo’ed and competitive subcultures or inappropriate reward systems. Her aim in each new engagement was to bring her learning, tools and Clean Language to create the lasting conditions for change – collaboration through questions, curiosity, modelling and metaphor. It is a compelling journey of hope.

Each story elaborates how she had her cohorts broke new ground in the application of Clean Language in a specific group setting. The breadth of settings includes schools, business, IT, recruiting offices, and university. Each chapter covers the context, constraints, the current situation, the desired outcomes, the training provided, the documented progressive learning and experimentation, as well as cautionary tales of each endeavor. The Systemic Modelling techniques are introduced chapter by chapter as she developed and refined them: (not in any particular order) Clean Feedback, Clean Scoping, Clean Set Up, Developmental Tasks, 5 Senses, Drama to Karma, Metaphors at Work, and When You’re ____ at Your Best. There are wonderful illustrations throughout to help clarify concepts that are introduced and there is no shortage of sample Clean interactions so that even a novice or someone not familiar with Clean Language can get a solid grasp of the possible applications by the end of the book.

I have read most of the Clean literature and this new book is a fantastic addition to the catalogue. Addressed equally to the Clean Facilitator as to the potential customer interested in Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling for groups, the stories are accessible, smoothly written, and also compelling. Indeed I think this book has a very broad audience. Consultants, executives, and coaches involved in organizational development, communication, culture change, and engagement issues will find this an inspiring guide to a refreshing, revolutionary way to create the conditions for change in group and business settings. What I (and many of my colleagues may) appreciate with Caitlin’s approach and the rich contribution of David Grove’s Clean Language applied here – is the intent to lay the foundation, train folks, and have the resulting behavior changes remain sustainable – basically, for the Clean Facilitator – to work oneself out of a job successfully. Caitlin shares all the stories, even ones that over time, did not quite sustain as well as she hoped – since even those were fertile material for analysis. Why did they not stay sustainable? What were the systemic issues at play? Turnover in leadership? Amidst those are some fabulous success stories and you will relish them all.

I desire nothing more than fostering workplaces and school learning environments in which folks exhibit curiosity towards one another, exploring problems and solutions in a safe way, taking collective ownership and pride in their work. Other authors and thought leaders have addressed well the need for learning organizations in works such as Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline or created models such as Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference. And while I admire those models, none spoke to me with the hope that they could be widely disseminated or fairly easily learned by a broad cross-section of people and industries. Caitlin has given us a concrete, laid out foundation for systemic change at an organizational and group level, based on concrete practices and the foundation of Clean Language. As I work towards my own vision for success as an agile coach with IT groups and organizations, I am very committed to sharing, utilizing and, training on these models.

The book is sturdy with all glossy paper. It won’t mind getting a spill of water or wine on it. Those who like to annotate in pencil or pen straight in their books may find that annoying, but I like the quality of the book. I hope to take it around and share it liberally with folks who are interested. There will soon also be an ebook as well as audio book available. Most major Clean Language literature books, by contrast, are not available in either of those formats.

Thank you Caitlin Walker, and all of your collaborators, for bringing these stories and your journey to us in such wonderful detail.

Prevention *and* Build Quality In – how can we help stem teen suicide?

Posted March 6, 2014 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Uncategorized

Last night, over 1000 people gathered in the auditorium of our local high school to learn what it is the school and school system and their partners will be doing to respond to the rash of suicides that has plagued our school as well as surrounding schools in recent years. At our school, we have had three in each of the past two years – two just last week.
This picture shows everyone introducing themselves.

2014-03-05 19.23.08

I was skeptical that this event would meet my needs. The invitation email made it seem like the evening would be a ‘one-way street’ of information to the parents and audience members. Aside from the introductions shown in the picture and some interaction in the cafeteria at the end, that is the way the evening largely played out.

Who came? The media, the Superintendent of Schools, School Board Members, many community mental health service organizations, representatives of several foundations concerned with suicide, and student representatives from a group called Active Minds. The evening started with formal introductions, statements of intent to engage the community, recognitions of the school leadership, staff, and teachers.  This felt like armor.  I was hearing too much left brain analysis/problem solving and needing more that leaders show vulnerability and emotion. I wanted connection from the heart.  I felt alone in this sea of people – surely similar to the way a quiet teen might feel navigating the halls of a 2000 person high school.

To help allay fears of parents, Dr. Panarelli, Director of the Office of Intervention and Prevention, described how the crisis counselors are actively engaging with the students, seeking out and making themselves available all around the school. She asked us to not talk about each incident as being part of a pattern or naming the school as somehow different, as this would make the kids feel bad. [Note to self: this is hard to do]  She asked us: do your kids have 3 adults other than parents that they feel they can talk to if they or others around them are experiencing emotional difficulties? None of this made me feel reassured. I tried to empathize with these presenters. After 6 suicides in two years and many more within the county as a whole, they are visibly taking on a big communication and mobilization effort. The goal is so much bigger than any one person or organization. Kudos to everyone trying.

Jesse Ellis, the County’s ‘Prevention Manager’ (as if this could be managed), said he will leave no gap unfilled. He will be ‘sure’ we will be successful. He will coordinate activities, invite parents to participate.  To me this is exactly the wrong message. We don’t need a false sense of we’re in control now. We need to model that we may not prevent the next one, but it won’t happen without us putting forth our best effort. We need to show our own vulnerability and not be shamed when we fail. Then he cautioned us that while he doesn’t want to use stats, he did want to share that we are on a good track compared to the rest of the state. This statement made my heart sink. It also seemed incongruent and impersonal. I don’t think he meant it that way. He is coping with the aftermath, trying to make sense. This is my most liberal interpretation.

The students from the Active Minds Club spoke next. They have had mental health awareness training. They provide yoga classes to reduce stress after school. They listen non-judgmentally and provide emotional support.

After the representatives spoke, we filled out survey cards with our suggestions, inviting us to share our contact information and ideas. I wrote down that I would help facilitate an open space event to allow more interaction, connection, dialogue and community involvement. We were then invited to visit the cafeteria where we could take fliers and information with us. It was too crowded, but there was a lot of energy. I made sure to visit the Active Minds booth. I was very impressed by the listening skills of the 4 student reps as I stayed to chat with them for a few minutes. I will encourage my son to check out this organization especially as it is largely thus far a college campus organization. I signed up to help them and to attend their meetings in the coming months.

If I could pick an analogy for this whole school effort, it seemed to me like a lot of Quality Control at the back-end of a development process. ‘We know there are depressed kids, let’s make sure we catch them before they commit suicide’. I wanted it this: ‘We imagine the source of suicides is that kids are many times unable to express and share their feelings, their fears and their vulnerabilities. They do not have role models for this. To succeed in raising mentally healthy adults, we need to start in the elementary schools, modeling and teaching empathy, emotional intelligence and resiliency’. I wanted to hear things like: We’ll be introducing Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violdent Communication in elementary school.’  This would be akin to ‘building quality in’, in software terms, not inspecting for failure at the end.

Yet still, I praise everyone who showed up last night. Bless you all.

There is a lot of work ahead. I just pray one or many of us will be there in support, at just the right time, for the next kid who needs it.

Building Bridges through Curiosity

Posted February 20, 2014 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Clean Language, Listening, Organizational Change, Teams, Uncategorized

This blog post is inspired by two case studies, one using ethnography and one using Clean Language – both to improve company resilience and success over time.

An international company (Tesco) recently used an innovative ‘ethnography’ approach to help turn around poor financial results. Their goal was to infuse diversity of thinking by having managers at international locations become ethnographic observers outside their own country at other Tesco locations.  This would help the observers and observed become more aware of their own local cultures by exposure. It spread ideas that worked and helped to meld the culture. You can read about it here.

That Tesco project posited that positive change can come from these steps: perceive what happens in another other work environment, uncover restrictive assumptions through questions, and explore both the new and home environments in new ways. The primary questions used were: What’s familiar? What’s surprising? What do I want to learn more about?  Training folks to be curious by enlivening their senses, taking them out of their environment and teaching them questioning skills can indeed be useful in building bridges.

While reading this story, I made immediate associations with the Clean Language group work that Caitlin Walker and Nancy Doyle, from Training Attention, have undertaken to improve interpersonal understanding in teams and groups. I recommend you read about this adaptation of Clean Language for organizations here.  Similar to the ethnography study, Clean Language and Systemic Modeling for organizations use questions to surface the way people operate and think of their life/work/environment. The Tesco experiment involved moving people to new environments to stimulate new thinking. The Clean Language work more simply involves only exposing internal thought processes and intentions to one another within a team or organizational structure. In both cases, the goal is to help folks learn how to reveal information which isn’t readily available or in their field of awareness. This increases the communication bandwidth for mutual understanding and reduces conflict.  In addition, with Clean Language Systemic Modeling the goal is that peers co-coach each other and fold Clean Questions into everyday work, conversations and meetings. Long term, there is no dependence on the Clean Language trainer. The process promotes new relationships and emergent knowledge within the organization.

That sounds great in theory, right? But where has it actually worked? I learned recently about a case study of a small software development company that Caitlin trained 10 years ago. This company provides tablet solutions to pharma labs to track their lab/research work. For ten years, this company has required its employees to learn and use Clean Language and Systemic Modeling. You can learn more about it here. It has had stellar results in bridging all kinds of communication gaps. Communication between marketing and developers is vastly improved. The marketing staff, now widely using Clean Language questions, make sense (inquire more deeply) about a complex and changing market and learn much more about their potential customers before ever proposing solutions. These bridges have in turn enabled the company to rise above its competitors in what was then a crowded field, all while keeping a relatively small corporate footprint.  There are many other domains in which Caitlin and others  applied Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, including: Police, Health Care, University students, troubled youth, to name a few.

Does this spark your curiosity?

Clean Language and Systemic modeling build understanding and rapport via respectful listening and inquiry. Clean questions are particularly good at focusing attention on the words and thoughts of the person being questioned. This is because the questions do not promote advice or content on the part of the questioner. They are ‘clean’ in that sense. Here are a few of the basic questions:

  • What would you like to have happen? (intention)
  • What else is there about X? (probing for more info)
  • What kind of X? (probing for metaphors)
  • X (or that)  is like what? (probing for metaphors)

In these questions, X is the exact word or phrase used by your interlocutor. There are an additional 6 questions that inquire about location and time/space.  Extending this into organizational work, the Systemic Modeling techniques involve selective use of what Caitlin calls ‘Clean Setup’ , ‘Clean Feedback’, ‘Modeling Time’, ‘Diversity of Perception’, ‘Modeling Positive (or Negative) States’ among others. While I won’t go into detail here, these Systemic Modeling questioning tools are used in conjunction with Clean Language in groups.

As someone posted in one of the Clean Language groups I participate in, Clean Language is  also ‘simple’, ‘accessible’ and ‘sustainable’. If you want to read books, or other blogs about Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, you can learn about them via resources (books, blogs, DVDs) that I have collated here.

Why did the case study about Clean Language affect me viscerally? The case study caused me to reflect on my own past, in particular a collective team failure (losing a contract re-compete). For years, we had had our heads buried in our ‘own’ analysis, our narrow context and our problem solving work for our customer.  We did good work, not excellent work. But looking back, I see that we were all missing a sense of curiosity about ourselves and about the way the environment evolved (or stagnated) both internally and in the competitor/customer ecosystem. Knowledge work is not just a reflection of the work processes and structures we put in place – this can lull us into a sense of ‘having things covered’. Knowledge work is deeply rooted in and affected by the way people think and how broadly they think and enquire about the world around them. To change from status quo or to ensure survival, we may need to become aware of how it is that we think first. We need to pull from what may be subconscious current thought processes, make them explicit (exposing assumptions and contradictions), ask for new outcomes and then re-structure our models based on what we want (our intent). This can be done – internally and sustainably – with the help of Clean Language questioning and modeling via coaching and training.

Promoting a culture of inquiry as a way to ensure long term corporate resilience is nothing new. But Clean Language and Systemic Modelling as a tool is very new and quite intriguing.

Finally, curiosity and questions that work well are driven by a fair amount of ‘intentionality’. Here are some examples of intentionality that I have developed:

1) I have an intention to learn; therefore I may request that someone  ask me ‘cleanly’ about what I am like when I am learning at my best. And as they help me develop my conceptual landscape using Clean Language questions, they will help me increase my self awareness while also learning what works for me.

2.) I have intention to support the work done by my team; therefore if someone disagrees on some matter, they have some information that I don’t, and I want to find out  what else there is about that view that I may be missing. I then ask them ‘clean questions’ to reveal their thinking.  This enables them to be heard and understood and contrasts with normal arguments and discussions that might ensue when I reassert my own views. Instead, I learn (my intention is to learn after all) an alternate view, which then may help expand my own thinking.

3.) I have the intention to be aware about things evolving outside of my immediate work and home life – to stay curious; therefore I will inquire and ask more outside my normal channels using clean questions. This might be markets, customers, peers at other companies, former colleagues, neighbors, chance encounters in public places.

The nice thing is that no matter where I would like to exhibit this curiosity, the same Clean Language questions and Symbollic Modelling techniques can be used. In brief, these techniques are few and simple, though not easy.  Learning to use them, honing your listening, being aware of your intent and  faithful to your curiosity take time and practice. The reward is in the discovery of new landscapes of possibilities! For organizations, the reward is growth, awareness, and better flow of communication.

Dream Girls

Posted November 30, 2013 by Andrea Chiou
Categories: Coaching, Listening, Personal Growth

Christie and meMy daughter graduates from college (Franklin College, Lugano, Switzerland) in May, I see her following closely in my footsteps of many decades ago. Reluctant but ready to step beyond the classroom, she wants to explore! She loves learning foreign languages and meeting people from around the world. Her major (International Relations) isn’t necessarily immediately marketable (as mine wasn’t – German Literature). She may choose graduate school eventually. She’s anxious about what she will do next but she has dreams. Whatever the path, I have confidence it will all work out. It did for me under similar circumstances. I tell her that.

She comes to me, I think, because I listen. I don’t give advice. Sometimes, I tell her what worked for me. Or I might say, follow your passion. She has some practical ideas, and some wild ones, like moving to China to teach or work.  Oh, that sounds so very familiar. To my surprise, it is unfortunately not as easy to do now as it was in the 1980s. I don’t tell her my preference or what she should do. I think she keeps coming back to me because of that. I give her thinking and reflecting space – what Nancy Kline calls a thinking environment in her book: Time to Think.

As I listen to my daughter, I reflect on my own feelings and my journey. I am still evolving in my career. I’ve made it to where I am through hard work. And I keep moving towards my goal: to be an excellent agile or kanban coach,  facilitator, trainer, and change agent. I read, I learn, I write a bit, I connect with people. There’s some uncertainty. But I’m ok with that. I keep the dream alive by working towards it. That’s what I want her to do too.  Dream girls!


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