The idea of Empathy Exercises started as a conference proposal about Agile and virtual teams.
My friend and colleague, Elinor Slomba, and I were discussing collaboration projects around Agile virtual teams. Although Agile can be integrated into virtual teams, one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto almost discourages virtual work.
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
This makes one wonder - why the fuss of virtual teams then? Why not have everyone work onsite?
Well, it isn't that straightforward. Many organizations have virtual teams simply because they offshore work, have teams located in multiple offices, or have employees working from home. Some companies need to just make it work.
Virtual teams bring their own set of challenges. Elinor and I worked closely with virtual teams and were quite familiar with what worked, what didn't work, and where the gaps were. Some virtual teams weren't successful because communication challenges ran deep (mostly around listening) and team members were out of reach - literally. These created great hurdles. But we were constantly brainstorming how to best address these challenges so people understood them and fixed them.
We would discuss writing articles and creating videos including our recommendations, ideas and advice, but we knew that may not solve the virtual team problems for people. It was dependent on them identifying their own problem within the virtual team and looking for a solution. We knew we could also have have created a case study presentation that did that too, but we wanted something more interesting.
So we created a game.
I realized that the best way to tell people how to work in a virtual team is to let them experience it. Show them. Heck, we are told in writing classes all the time, "show, don't tell." This would be a perfect opportunity - and it is the only way empathy is built anyway.
We created a simulation game, similar to Monopoly in that it would be a set of simplified Agile sprints that would allow people to complete a simulated project as a virtual team.
We did follow a process to create the game, which is a loose form of the process being used for Empathy Exercises.
Pre-step: Discuss challenges and potential for change
- Step 1: Identify prospects’ & customers’ problems
- Step 2: Identify who your customers are
- Step 3: Research to determine why the prospect/customer challenges exist
- Step 4: Research team’s feelings about prospects and customers
- Step 5: Determine situations where empathy can be built
- Step 6: Create a game that uses those situations
- Step 7: Game Play
- Step 8: Reflection and recommendation for improvements
- Step 9: Report and recommendation
- Step 10: Measure ongoing success
- Step 11: Improvements
Pre-step: Discuss challenges and potential for change
Why would someone need this game?
Let's say you have a virtual team that isn't meeting launch deadlines. Or the quality of the product is lacking. Or the requirements are half-baked and half-developed. Or the prioritization isn't working out well. This all means that the team isn't communicating well and not collaborating. They may need some help to work together better.
Step 1: Identify prospects' & customers' problems
Elinor and I used our experiences coaching and working with teams as the basis for our research - and many of our experiences were shared across a number of organizations. We saw similar patterns in our clients.
Issues we decided to address in the game:
- What it means to work in different timezones. We don't realize how team members in different timezones can impact our work. A timezone difference can mean people simply aren't available. Or early or late meetings for you. There is sometimes the expectation that colleagues should adapt their schedules to the timezone of the majority or the parent office. All of theses approaches - as well as others not included here - can have different impacts worth exploring and discussing openly.
- What it means to have team members included or excluded randomly from meetings. Sometimes when you are working in an open office environment, you may eavesdrop and hear something that pertains to you and join the conversation. That's the benefit of being in an open office - opportunities for greater collaboration. Needless to say, that doesn't happen in virtual teams. You are home alone or you are in an office with some team members who get aligned and the others in different offices aren't aligned. It's difficult to make sure the team is aligned.
- People out of reach - literally and figuratively. We have a false sense of security sometimes working with people next to us in an office. We think that because we are there, we can grab them at any moment. Except if they are at lunch. The bathroom. In a meeting. Having a smoke. Taking a walk. You get the picture. At times, you may need to talk to someone virtually and they may not be at their computer, but sometimes we will assume that they are off watching a movie, having a long lunch, tending to children or chores. In fact, that colleage may be in a phone meeting, eating lunch, finishing something up and not wanting to be disturbed. Now add a timezone to that and who knows what people are up to! It's about trust. You need to trust that your teammates are around, will be available when needed, and show up.
- When being left out feels intentional. This is difficult - but it happens. Sometimes, the person who is not onsite with a team may feel left out if not called or included in a meeting. You can't take it personally, but it's hard NOT to take it personally. But the people onsite don't notice what they are doing and don't feel the problem. But it is a problem to exclude others who should be included. There is a point where it becomes easier to be more inclusive and let people self-exclude.
- UX team is not always included. This is my personal pet peeve because I am a UX strategist. UX professionals are usually included in projects when they are present in the office - people will pull a UX professional into a conversation and then they start sketching. But this doesn’t always happen on a virtual team - especially if you are new to the team and trying to fit in. See the previous bullet. The fact is that people aren't used to working with you and - sadly - out of sight, out of mind. And it can feel intentional when it isn't. But frankly, it shouldn't happen in the first place.
- The disappearing product manager. I have heard too many developers complain about product managers disappearing, not to be found. I have then seen and heard product managers who disappeared for a day or two looking beat up and emotional because they had to defend their product - like to even exist as a product. Or to get budget. Or to be a priority and get something launched. Or work on a change in company strategy. The product manager has a hard job and sometimes the developers don't empathize because they don't know - and sometimes knowing would be so demotivating that they are kept uninformed. And the cycle continues.
In addition to these issues, Elinor and I saw some general Agile issues to address:
- Prioritization. Sometimes this can be challenging for a virtual team. Sure, we all know that the team sets the prioritizations each planning session, but that may not be what's really happening at people's desks. Sometimes on teams, team members will make their own decisions about priorities and not communicate that. Needless to say, that's not a factor for success.
- Collaborating with a team and how that does or doesn't work virtually. Every team is different in how its team members collaborate. They find their own vibe. They find the tools and approaches that work best for them. Sometimes teams need help; sometimes teams naturally "get" it.
- How to build a virtual team. There are ways to bind a team together. Sometimes, team members need time to get to know each other personally. The team may need to be encouraged to have social calls and online social activities to help with bonding.
- Tools and stories - how things get done. Again, every team has their own approaches and methods, but they need to find what works for them.
There were other issues as well, but we decided to address these first.
Step 2: Identify who your customers are
In this case, we knew the audience - developers. We worked with them every day. If we didn't do this work already, we would have had to research the personas of a development team.
Step 3: Research to determine why the prospect/customer challenges exist & Step 4: Research team’s feelings about prospects and customers
I included this in the description of Step 1 earlier. Again, our past experience with teams informed us of what we may want to highlight in the game.
Step 5: Determine situations where empathy can be built
We identified some core issues where we needed to build empathy amongst people working on virtual teams:
- You don’t know what is really happening with your team members. If you look at the list above, that’s really the core issue happening. In an office you have a false sense of security that you know what is happening with your colleagues. You need to learn to trust your team.
- How to get people engaged who aren’t always seemingly available. It is easy to blow off team members on a virtual team. And it is easy to believe that team members don't want to be engaged if they are living in a different timezone. However, that's often not the case. They are simply not available - and schedules on all sides need to be more flexible to accommodate everyone.
- Misunderstandings. Listening is probably the most important communication skill to have when you are working virtually. And not listening to respond, but listening to understand. This is hard to do until you experience it. It is easy to think you can listen to people in the background or multi-task. But you can't if you want a successful virtual team. You have to listen to others and understand where they are coming from. Here is a post about listening.
Step 6: Create a game that uses those situations
We decided to create a simulation game (similar to Monopoly) for virtual teams - model of what it would be like to create a mock ecommerce site in 3 iterations plus a planning iteration if you worked "virtually." We would see how far the teams get and whoever finishes the most stories is the winner. The object of the game is to learn what happens when you work on a virtual team. There are blindfolds to simulate what it means to be out of the office. Earplugs would help simulate when you don't have a phone. There are rules for roles, timezones, a product manager corner (to simulate those all day meetings), gameplay - even a timer/clock.
If you would like a walkthru of what we have so far, let me know!
The remaining steps?
We have had interest from Agile leaders and groups in testing the game. Feedback so far: “People are not talking about this enough! Can't wait to find out more!” and ”Challenge is current. The content is interesting.” Nearly 100 people signed up to play at the Agile Leader’s Network in Dallas but the weather that day was severe, and we had to cancel. Since then, the game has been refined and simplified. Now, it is even more ready for roadtesting!
Regarding the team...
Elinor has been a great partner on this project. Her work as a curator continues to deepen, and we have mutually agreed that I will take this game to market. She provided a lot of inspiration and many of the ideas along the way.
Elinor’s purpose is to help grow great ideas. She finds work for artists outside the traditional arts world and helps businesses solve problems by hiring artists. As a result of her events and trainings, creative entrepreneurs learn to talk to each other more easily, use each other’s models and build value across domains.
And a quote from Elinor about the game:
"I am honored to have worked with such a smart and dynamic colleague on the Proof of Concept phase for this project. Gearmark is well positioned to take this thing forward, and I can't wait to see what happens next."