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Psychological safety and mental health in times of crisis

On the 13th of May I did a talk online. This post is about the talk, some questions, and resources that came out of it. If you want to read about the thougths and emotions before and after the talk, there will be another post later.

You can see the talk here.

The forum was Agile Testing Days US, the topic was “Psychological safety and mental health in times of crisis” and the idea was to start out with a talk and leave plenty of time for questions.

Despite having a lot of time for questions, I did not make it through all, so the first thing I will do in this post is to answer the remaining ones:

Answers to remaining questions

What is the first step to bring the topic of Psychological safety to the team that is never heard of this?
I find that a good first step is to start talking about it. Maybe say “I heard about something called psychological safety in a webinar and found it really interesting, let’s have a talk about it?”.
In general, I think this is a good way of introducing many things. Sometimes people tend to come home with fresh ideas and want to change a lot of things and the rest of the team can feel defensive. A way to mitigate that is just talk about it, and why you found this interesting. The why is essential no matter what we do.
If they then show interest, you can consider showing them Amy Edmonson’s TEDx talk; I find that is a good introduction.

Any suggestions on ways to support colleges that you know are struggling during this time? 
Show people that you care; tell them that if they need to talk, you are willing to listen. If it feels aqward to have tell them that, you can choose to just invite them for a remote coffee 1-1. A lot of the things we can see and do in the office are hard to do remote, but I find that it still works to have small conversations over coffee.
Maybe introduce a “how are you?” question in the dailies so you start discussing things like that in the team. Maybe share if you are not feeling well; take that first step to vulnerability that helps other feel safer in showing theirs.
Genuinely care for people and ask how they are, what you can do to help.

So, if it’s okay to not say something or to not feel safe enough to say something, how do we deal with others trying to engage us when we choose not to speak up?
When I work with the right to pass or not to speak up in teams, it is an agreement. When I do it in workshop, these are rules that I state in the beginning.
The way I use it, people say “pass” if they have nothing they want to share. As a facilitator I remind people “it is okay to pass”. This works because we have an agreement.
If your team does not already have this agreement, you can do one of two things: you can have a proactive approach and bring it up with the team, so that you can add it to the team agreements. Or the reactive approach is to say “I prefer not to share”.

The hard part can be if you don’t have a place that is psychologically safe, then people might not respect this. So sadly, you cannot assume that this is the case. If your environment is unsafe it takes work to get to a point where not sharing is okay, and there may be a lot of other things that need to be in order first.

How to do you deal with psychological safety with people with mental issues? Not everybody has a good mental health.
I believe that psychological safety is just as relevant if you have a mental problem as if you don’t.
Those two are not connected. People with poor mental health will have some things they need to feel safe, just as people in good mental health will have some things they need. They may be the same or they may not. It is very individual.
Whenever you start working on psychological safety in an organization or a team, one of the things that needs to be found out is what makes that group feel safe. There are some general things that you can work on, and then the rest is individual. It requires building of trust and having those difficult and open conversations.

So many good questions and these were just then ones I did not have time for.

Tips and tricks from the audience

As I was focused on speaking and I knew that people from ATD was keeping an eye on it, I did not look at the chat during my talk. Afterwards I started reading it and was pleasantly surprised to see how many tips and tricks people shared with each other, so I decided to share some of them here as well:

Entertainment
* Jackbox Games
* Some Good News SGN

Make headspace
* Limit intake of news.
* Work in the garden and talk to frogs

Work tips
*Schedule meetings to 45 minutes instead of an hour. That gives everyone a breathing space in between meetings.
* Talk in the team and with team leader about personal limits
* Video or no video; limit number of meetings a day.
* Try apologising for working in people’s homes to help them get around the feeling of needing to apologise for their kids or pets being “noisy” etc.
* Allocate time for water cooler chats and everyone can join that meeting.
*Use happiness Histogram which helps turn the mood/feeling into data and you can watch the trend over time to see where things triggered feelings or when you need to support people.

Misc
*To those interested in public speaking: read “Confessions of a public speaker” by Scott Berkun
* modernagile.org has good stuff  related to how psychological safety is a prerequisite to team success.

As you can see there were many good tips and tricks 🙂

Another thing that I noticed from the chat was how many people recognized what I was talking about and thereby felt less alone. Even if that is all that comes out of my talk, I consider it a success.

You are not alone; others feel this way too. Some feel different, and that is also okay.

Be kind to yourself and to others, and stay safe.

Retrospectives are boring and useless – or are they?

Way to often I hear people saying that retrospectives are useless, boring, take to long; ”Why spend an hour sitting in a circle and discussing, when we can do some coding instead?” ” It doesn’t make any difference anyway”, ”We take about the same stuff time after time after time” etc. etc.

My experience is that if this is your experience, your retrospective is not done right – do it right and get some value from it 🙂

It is very easy to have a meeting with no result; well maybe the team complain, they vent, or talk a bit and then back to work. Next week they come back and nothing changes.

If this is how your retrospective is, no wonder you don’t see the value of retrospectives. And that makes me sad.

You see: I love retrospectives 🙂

It is my favourite tool, no matter if we do agile, waterfall, or anything else. It is even valuable to use in our private lives.

Where else do we have the opportunity to take the step back and look at what we have done? The retrospective is where the team have the opportunity to dive into the process and look at things that work, and things that need to change. And not least: do something actively about it.

Abraham Lincoln said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  and that is what a retrospective is about. Our axes in the IT world are our brains and our process. We need to stop up, so we can reflect and improve; sharpen our “axes”.

My experience is that if we don’t have a meeting to sharpen our axes, it rarely or never happens. We have really good intentions, but then everyday work happens.

The purpose of the retrospective is just that: to take the time to reflect. We look at what worked, what didn’t work for us, and which kind of experiments we want to try.

There are some bare minimums for a retro to be effective:

  • There needs to be a structure
  • You need to have focus on the process
  • You need to leave with action points that you follow up on next retrospective.

It is not a meeting where you:

  • Complain
    • Though venting can be helpful sometimes.
  • Focus on who is to blame

So “how do I structure a good retrospective?” you may ask.

I am so glad you asked; just keep reading 🙂

How to run a good retrospective?

As I already say: I love retrospectives 🙂

And especially when working in an agile way.

A lot of people have heard me ask “What is the single most important thing in agile?” either in my talks or when I coach them.

The answer is of course: ”Inspect and adapt”.

Let’s jump right into it:

Make sure you book room and time in your calendars to have retrospectives, or it won’t happen. People have lots of good intentions about stopping and think about improvements in their daily life. Sadly my experience is that it almost never happens.

There are many other things that can help you make good retrospectives and many different aspects of having one. In this post, I will focus on process and structure.

There are some things that need to be there for a retrospective to be effective:

  • Have focus on the process
  • Structure the meeting
  • End up with action points (and follow up next time you meet)

The Process

It is important that a retrospective focuses on the process. The purpose is to improve your process and learn from what happened from good things and problems.

It is very easy to forget this and to start discussing who is at fault. It is not about the person, it is about the process that you use.

I personally use the Prime Directive to set the stage from the beginning. It has been around for a long time and continues to provide value.

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” Norm Kerth

It is also important to focus on process when looking at action points at the end of the retrospective.

Structure and Action Points

No matter how I facilitate the retrospective, I almost always use a structure from the book “Agile Retrospectives” by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby

It is a really good structure:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insight
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retrospective

Or put in other terms:

  1. Getting ready to go.
    The most important is to ensure that everyone knows
    • What the topic of today is
    • What the time frame is that will be discussed
    • Any particular focus if it exists
    • Who is participating
    • What the status of the actions points from last time are
  2. Looking at the information at hand.
    What happened since last time? It is important to be as objective as possible. Use whatever artefact that have been created, (in scrum it could be the burn down chart, in kanban a picture of the board every day, etc.); remember the good stuff as well 🙂
  3. Learn from it.
    This stage is about finding the significance of the data, you have gathered. Do you see any patterns? Are some things connected? Are the things within your sphere of influence?
  4. Choosing what to do until next time.
    Which experiments can you do to solve a problem, to make sure you keep doing good stuff, or just to try something new?
    Choose maximum 2-3 action points for next time. It is important that each action point is very concrete, and that there is an anchor-person for each point (this person is either the one doing the action, or the one reminding the team what they agreed on).
  5. Last point is about getting ready to leave.
    Look at the retrospective;
    • Did it work?
    • Do you need to do something different next time?
    • Does everyone know what they agreed on?
    • Does everyone know what they need to do?

The picture below shows the structure. Perform the five steps, incorporate the new experiments, and after the iteration, you have a new retrospective.

And then what?

Other stuff that can add value:

  • Have an external facilitator; it can be someone from the outside or someone from another team
  • Make sure there is room for everyone to reflect and to speak
  • Create safety for people to speak up
  • Have different kinds of retrospectives
  • Having different people in the retrospectives like other teams that  you work with.

If you follow the structure, have focus on the process, and create action points every time, you are well on your way.

There are plenty of tools out there that can be helpful in each step, and a lot of them are even available for free.

I also have really good experience with asking for help; many experienced facilitators, including myself, are willing to answer questions on twitter and email.

Good luck on improving your retrospectives – you can do it 🙂


I first wrote this blog post for QED in 2014 in Danish and then in English for Skills Matter in 2019

What are my hopes?

So it is the twelfth day of Christmas and time for my last post on hope.

It has been an interesting challenge and I am surprised that I was able to write 12 posts on hope as this is not a topic that I think about or talk about where often. Thanks Ed for the challenge.

So what are my hopes? That is a good question.

I hope that this will be the year, where I finally move properly to Stockholm.  I hope that I can find enough work here to live of it, so I don’t have to travel as much. I will still travel for conferences 🙂
I hope I will get better at selling my workshops. I hope that I will get better at having a balanced life and put resting into my daily routines. I hope I will find ways to gain energy.

I hope that my work and my conference talks will help people. I hope that leadership will start changing in more companies as we move towards leading people and not managing resources. I hope that more people will feel comfortable in their skin and know that they are okay just because of who they are. I hope that our workplaces will be more human and allow us to be humans. I hope that more people think about ethics in their work

I hope that the world will become a place of love, acceptance, respect, and tolerance. Where you can love who you want (provided there is consent and it is adults) – love is damn hard to find, so lets celebrate it. Where race and ethnicity are just another aspect of who we are, and not something that decides how we are treated. Where religion is people’s own business and we respect that.

Some of these hopes will be hard to fulfil, but not impossible. When I asked the people in my friend’s house “what do you think of when I say hope?”, the young man from day 3 said “hope creates opportunities” and that is so true.

When we have the hope, we also create opportunities for that hope to happen. We start looking for things that will help us, for signs that things are already happening, and we start taking steps towards these hopes. Maybe we even speak our hopes out loud. My friend Lena said yesterday that some of her good stuff only happened because she said her hopes out loud.

So with this last post on hope, I wish you well and that your hopes come true.

You are perfect with all your imperfections and you can do so much more than you think ❤️

Creating a space for hope

Eleventh day of Christmas and second to last blog on hope.
I felt really frustrated yesterday as I was pulling a blank on topics. I have struggled a bit the other days, but as soon as I found a headline, the words would just flow out of my hands…

The topic of today was suggested by my friend Arlene; we are both in a slack group, where one of our most important channels is called “Brag and appreciate”, so we can practice speaking up about the things that we do. Another is “Whining and ranting” where we can vent and get support, when we feel down. Each serves it’s own purpose 🙂

Yesterday when I was frustrated about my lack of inspiration, Arlene said, “…you holding a safe space gives hope.” and referred to one of the times, where I shared a story in the brag channel a while ago.

The story was about one of my 1-1 conversations. When I start up with a new team, I always start out with a 1-1 conversation with each team member; the main purpose is to create connection, so they feel comfortable with me – that enables me to help them better. I ask them about their background and what they think I can do for them and for the team – and that is the basically it. They can ask me whatever they want, and then we see where it goes. These conversations have lasted between 10 minutes and three hours over the course of the 4-5 years I have been doing them. The majority are short, and then sometimes there is much to be said… Or maybe the thing is that there is much to be heard. Some continue with 1-1s while I work with the team, and other just have the one. And both is good.

The brag was about how baffled I still become, when people, I have just met, show immense trust and tell me quite personal and sensitive stuff. This was after a quite emotional and sensitive talk.

The thing is that I listen and care. That is mainly what I do. It does not sound like much, but it is to some people. They may rarely have someone, who gives them their full attention and just listen to them. At least my experience is that when I listen, people speak. I hold a space, where the person can safely talk even about things that are uncomfortable.

I had to ponder a bit about how that gives hope; I guess it is because people find that space, where they are okay, where they can talk about anything, where they can be.  And when they are listened to, they see hope. Hope that they can be helped, that they can help themselves – or just hope that everything will be okay. I am actually not sure, and I never considered that I created hope; in retrospect I do see the hope in people, when I create a space. Then it does not matter what kind of hope it is.

You may also create hope for people without knowing it.

Running out of hope

It is the tenth day of Christmas and I am running out of hope. I mean topics; I am really struggling to find something today.

I can’t really run out of hope because I do not have hope for many things…

Well I hope I don’t panic tonight when I fly back to Stockholm – so much wind…

And that will be all for today. Since I lack inspiration, I will let it be, and hope for a better result for tomorrow. It feels like cheating, even if Daniel says that it is about taking care of myself. So I better do that.

The sound of hope

Ninth day of Christmas, ninth blog post.

I was struggling with finding a topic for today and asked Daniel again.

I found the suggestions that he came with somewhat silly, like “what does hope taste like or sound like?”

And then I started thinking. Does hope have a sound?

No it doesn’t; it has many sounds.

The sound of the phone ringing when you are expecting a phone call from a loved one, and hoping it is them calling.  The sound of the ring tone, when you are calling and hoping the one in the other end will pick up – or maybe not pick up if you are scared of the call. The sound of a slot machine, when you are hoping for the big win. The sound of a key in the door; of footsteps, laughter… They can all be sounds of hope.

What does hope sound like to you?

A new hope

Eight day of Christmas and the first day in 2020.

Today’s title came up a few days ago, when my friend Daniel was helping me figure out what to write about. His help was an association exercise.

  • Daniel: “Ok hope is green, what do you think about when I say green?”
  • Me: “Yoda”
  • Daniel: “What does Yoda have to do with hope?”
  • Me: “A new hope”
  • Daniel: “And what was the learning of the movie?”
  • Me: “Damn it, I can’t remember; I am a bad geek”

And so I did not use it, but the title seemed perfect for today. We have started a new year, and with a new year come new hope. Many people use this time as a way to start over or to start or stop something: the all-famous New Year’s resolutions.

Most resolutions fail like in this great cartoon by Lunarbaboon; maybe because we set way too ambitious goals? Maybe because we have “should” goals instead of “what” goals? Maybe because we do not plan them?

I am not sure, and most likely it differs from person to person.

I think the goal being to big and us wanting to achieve it too fast plays a big part, so maybe we should stop making goals and make visions instead? And then do the smallest step that will take us in that direction? At least it is worth a shot 🙂

Helping hope along

Seventh day of Christmas and the last day of the year 🙂

While slowly getting ready to dress up and celebrate the transition to next year, I will write the last post of this year.

Today’s topic is suggested by Karina, who is the big sister of my oldest friend, and my chosen family 🙂

Interesting enough it reminded me of the great keynote by Stephan Kämper about luck – and helping luck along 🙂

You can always hope for something, but hoping is not always enough to make things happen.  Hope can be helped along by actions – big or small.

As I wrote about yesterday, we have been helping hope along throughout the ages by sacrificing so that the gods would grant us our wishes – in whatever forms those gods or deities were.

The hopes we have today are mostly not about the same things – though in some cases they are. Farmers hope for good weather and great crops; potential parents hope for fertility so they can have the children, they long for. And they help the hopes along. The farmers fertilize the crops, water them, weed, cut of branches of trees so the rest can grow even better fruits, look at weather forecasts etc etc. The potential parents may measure ovulation cycles, if they struggle to get pregnant, or they might get help from our medical systems (which in my part of the world to some extend is free).

We also have different hopes today: maybe we hope to find a new job, to win the lottery, to lose weight, to make that discovery in science that will make us famous, that the earth will become a better place.

All those hopes are great, and they will not happen unless we do something. We will never win the lottery if we don’t buy a ticket; we will not make a discovery unless we put in work; we will not make the world a better place unless we do something about it.

What does it take to make the world a better place?

Well that depends on your definition of a better place; just remember that it is okay to do small things as well 🙂

Recycling can help the environment, smiling at someone can help a lonely person, giving a lift can make someone’s life easier, knitting socks can help homeless people… There are plenty of options to make the world a better place if we take the actions.

Remember:

If we all do things that matter little to us and a lot to someone else, we can make the world a better place

Me at age 9

Happy new year to you and all your loved ones. Let us help our hopes along so they may come true.

Hope and sacrifice

Sixth day of Christmas – and today it was hard to find a topic; I have been surprised about how easy it was the other days.

After some contemplation I realised that I had been reading about hope many times today. I went to Moesgaard Museum today with two 18-year olds; it is a marvellous museum that has great exhibitions – not only do they have the items of the past, they also tell stories that make the things come alive. If you are ever in Århus, I recommend going.

First we went to the special exhibition on Pompeji and Herculaneum that were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvio in AD79, and hope was everywhere. Hopes that were about the disaster: The hope of escape, the ship that was sent out in hope of being able to save the people, the hope of protection your kids. All hopes that were not fulfilled as people died on the spot from burns, toxic gases, or ashes… And there was the hope of the daily lives: the baker’s hope of becoming a mayor in the city, or the hope of fertility of the land and the loins, which was helped along by having phallus around the house… Something you would not see today 🙂

As we moved through the exhibitions of the first humans in Denmark, of the first farmers, Vikings, bog man from the Iron Age, there were elements of hope everywhere. There were tales of sacrifices in the hope of better future, better crops, better health, better luck in war; sacrifices of food, people, dogs, pots, necklaces, weapons… the list goes on and on… Did it work? We will never know; all we know is that people in many ages throughout history made sacrifices to gain hope…

I wonder if we do that today. And if we do, what do we sacrifice? Time with loved ones in hope of a better career? Time in hope of money? Career? A better lifestyle?

What do you sacrifice? And is it worth the hope you gain?

Removing hope

Fifth day of Christmas and still going strong. Well maybe not strong, but at least I am sticking to producing a blog post about hope every day. So far is has worked out that I got inspiration somehow during the day. And though the posts may not be profound, I still hope that they will cause some reflection and contemplation.

Today it will be about removing hope.

The inspiration came as I was going through my expenses. For several years I have supported a bunch of charities with money every month no matter what my financial situation was. I have come to realise that I will not be able to help everyone and that some of the charities are closer to my heart than others.

But it pains me. I know that some of the charities are really struggling and they need the support. And as I was looking for email addresses to tell the organisations that I will no longer support them, I look at the messages saying how supporting them creates hope for people. Which makes me feel like I am now removing hope, and that gives me a knot in the stomach. I am removing hope from bullied kids, sick kids, people in need.

That sucks. I also know that I have helped them over the years and that I can use the money to help in other places. I gave up supporting hospital clowns, Folkekirkens nødhjælp, and julemærkehjem. All really great causes – as many charities are.

I kept two charities:

  • “Verdens skove” (World’s forests) that helps protect and grow forests and vegetation in Denmark and abroad. Originally they helped only in the rain forest, but now they also help locally.
  • And TUBA – terapi til unge og børn af alkoholikere (Therapy for young and children of alcoholics); this therapy is not covered by the state and I know from experience how much that is needed, so this is personal to me.

I have the same problem, when it comes to helping people: I find it extremely hard to say no to people, if I know that I can help them, that I can make them feel better about themselves, that I can listen, that I can give them hope. And yet I must learn to say no to some.

I can’t help everyone, so all I can do is hope someone else will help where I cannot.