CHOW #24– Mindful Conversations

Even after three months, it hurt Archana to think about the heated conversation she had with Jessica (“Jessie”) – once her best friend. As a supermom managing family and work, weekends were extra special for Archana. Only then was she able to put work out of her mind and spend quality time with her husband and two-year old daughter. But, in the past three months, her mind kept going back that conversation even during weekends.

Here is the background on how it all came about.

Archana worked as a senior developer in a software development organization in Chennai specializing in developing e-commerce platforms for the retail industry. Over her eight years with the company, Archana had worked on a variety of modules, giving her a comprehensive knowledge about the entire product. In her visits to Boston (the company’s US Head Office), the Product Owner, Bill Campbell had seen first-hand Archana’s significant strengths in product knowledge and commitment to quality & target dates. Archana’s considerable technical strengths and helpful attitude also made her the favorite go-to person for the project team in Chennai. Archana prided herself on developing an empathetic connect with all her team members (although, she felt that some team members occasionally took advantage of her empathy!).

During the last performance review six months ago, Archana’s manager had told her that it was time for her to assume greater responsibility commensurate with her experience. So, he made her the people manager for the predictive analytics project team. However, he also wanted Archana to continue her technical work since people management alone did not need more than 20-30% of her time. Archana’s manager also moved Jessie from her role as a Test Lead to the role of the Scrum Master for the same project.

Archana and Jessie had worked together on projects earlier – usually Archana in development and Jessie in testing. They got along famously and were usually seen together during breaks, company socials and so on. Their interests were very similar and they hardly disagreed much on anything at work or outside. Over time, they considered each other their best friend and confidante. They both looked forward to working together again in their respective new roles.

All seemed to go well in the first few sprints for the new product release they were working on – to develop predictive analytics features in the next generation e-commerce platform with ambitious goals for taking the product to market. The technical challenges were significant and Archana found herself being entirely sucked into the thick of development and guiding the team leaving little time for her people management role. Thanks largely to Archana, the team somehow managed to deliver the planned stories in the first four sprints. However, at the start of the fifth sprint, Jessie, Archana and the project team did a task-based estimate of effort and found that there was no way they could complete the number of story points as had been achieved in the earlier sprints. There seemed no way out except deferring some stories to later sprints.

Jessie decided that the best way forward was to get the entire team involved in discussing the situation with Bill Campbell (Product Owner) in Boston and brainstorm possible options. As expected, in the evening video conference, Bill’s initial reaction was one of surprise, frustration and anger. He just could not understand that the fifth sprint posed such insurmountable problems after the success of the four earlier sprints. Some key product features were part of the fifth sprint and needed for a mid-release product demonstration that Bill had committed to his senior management. But Jessie and the team stood their ground that they could deliver only about 80% of planned story points and nothing more. At his wits’ end, Bill asked if Archana could go over to Boston asap and work from there to meet the original sprint goals. In his view, she would be that much more productive since he and other technical experts would be right there to answer queries and resolve issues for her. Archana responded by saying that she would have to check with her family on whether she can go away for four weeks. She said she would get back to Bill the next day.

The video conference with Bill Campbell ended at about 9 pm. All the team members left for the day except Archana and Jessie. What followed was a tirade from Jessie on how Archana could behave the way she did during the call with Bill Campbell. Jessie accused Archana that all she was interested in was to find on-site opportunities for herself and it did not matter what she (Jessie) and the team felt. Archana tried to defend herself saying that Bill had only thrown up an idea for her to work from Boston and she (Archana) had only reacted to his question on her availability. Was that a terrible crime, she asked. If Jessie did not want her to go, she was ok not to go. But Jessie did not seem to even listen to Archana’s point of view and kept on repeating that Archana was selfish and had violated team norms. Archana was completely taken aback by Jessie’s emotional outburst and had no clue about what had upset her so badly. Archana and Jessie kept arguing for what seemed an eternity. At some point, they both kind of gave up and there was sudden silence. After a long pause, Jessie said that Archana could do whatever she wanted and left for the day.

Archana was drained physically and emotionally. She felt that she did not understand even her close friend under these circumstances. How her usual empathy had failed her, she thought.

The next day, Archana sent a mail to Bill Campbell with a copy to Jessie that she would not be able to go to Boston due to personal circumstances.

After that, Bill Campbell took up the stories that were beyond the capacity of the Chennai team and got them done by a crack team he managed to assemble in Boston. So, from his point of view, he did make the fifth sprint successful and the mid-release review with his management went very well.

Back in Chennai, the relationship between Archana and Jessie cooled considerably. They just kept up the façade of working together but clearly uncomfortable. Neither of them was inclined to re-visit their earlier conversation.


  • What is your analysis of the episode described above (what contributed to it, how it could have been prevented etc.)?
  • Now that the episode is over, as a friend/coach of both Archana and Jessica, how would you help them be more mindful of what had happened and help them in resolution?

Suggested solution:

Solution approach for Challenge of the Week #24 – Mindful Conversations (from the perspective of an Agile coach)

Firstly, while analyzing the CHOW to come up with solution approaches, people had questions on things that are “unstated” in the situation description. Our response was to ask them to just make reasonable assumptions. For example, one question was whether Bill Campbell (Product Owner) was even aware that significant overtime was needed to complete the four earlier sprints which were “successful”. Bill’s apparent surprise with all the challenges in the fifth sprint implies that he was not aware. So, how come? Should he not be aware? What about the transparency that is so essential in the Agile team? Another example is whether Archana’s empathy vis-a-vis team members was making them overly dependent on her – impacting self-organizing. So, there are a few of these threads that need to be explored by an Agile coach in addition to the main stand-off between Archana and Jessica.

The initial dilemma for the Agile coach is probably whether he should do anything at all regarding the situation between Archana and Jessica. The rationale being that it between people who were close friends and they would sort this out by themselves even if it does take time. But then, three months have passed without either Archana or Jessica making a move. So, it is advisable for the coach to broach it with either one or both of them – one-on-one and see their reaction. If the coach can initiate a 1-on-1 between Archana and Jessica that would be the first step in alleviation. In this context, the coach could bring out the mindfulness aspect and have each one of them mentally re-visit the episode using the framework “content of the episode”, “feelings involved” and “identities involved”. Archana can use the framework to relate the episode as herself and then relate again putting herself in the shoes of Jessica. They both need to appreciate aspects of each other making them realize their dissimilar but valid stances and aspects which are in the category of “Just Like Me”. It may be worth noting here that, for Archana, she perceived the episode to be attacking her self-identity of being an altruistic leader willing to go the extra mile – all the way to customer site! – to help with a critical challenge faced by him. From Jessica’s point of view, may be her identity as Scrum Master with the responsibility to assist the team in following Agile in spirit was under attack – by Archana appearing to go against the team’s decision (prior to the discussion with the Product Owner) not to budge in terms of sprint goals not being achievable.

Also, during the episode, Jessica and Archana (to some extent) seem to have reacted in a knee jerk manner to the perceived stimulus. They can be advised on how and when to hit the “pause” button in such charged situations and ask themselves if they were jumping to conclusions and being unduly judgmental.

Some of the other threads that can be pursued by the Agile coach are:
– Clarifying roles and expectations from the manager of Archana and Jessica (with 20-20 hindsight!)
– Making the above clear to the team as well who probably were confused about when Archana was wearing the manager hat and when she was wearing the Technical Member hat
– Getting the development team and the Product Owner to re-visit:
o Priority setting of features – should some of what was targeted for sprint five not have been in earlier sprints (if they were so critical)? Or did some requirements emerge? Or priorities changed for the business stakeholders?
o The pain of getting the work done by an onsite team for sprint 5 and integrating it back into the flow for following sprints as part of learning & improvement in sprint 5 retrospective

A useful reference on mindfulness is the best seller: “Search Inside Yourself” by Chade-Meng Tan, HarperCollins (in particular, see Chapter 8, page 219 on Difficult Conversations).

Hope you liked the CHOW! Look forward to your comments…

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