Book Summary: Agile Conversations

Great read, packed with a step by step process to build meaningful conversations, at the foundation of high trust, high performing environments. I hope you enjoy!

Book: Agile Conversations

The following are the passages I most enjoyed from the book Agile Conversations, by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick. All content credit goes to the authors.

Introduction: Improving your Conversations

The key to success is not only adopting practices but having the difficult conversations that foster the right environment for those practices to work.

  • Great results follow when you learn that a conversation is about more than just talking; it is a skilled activity. There is more to a conversation than what you can see and hear. In addition to what is said out loud, there is what has been left unsaid—the thoughts and feelings behind our spoken and unspoken words. As we become more skillful at conversations, we become more aware of what we think and feel, and why we think and feel the way we do. Therefore, we become better at sharing that information with others. We also become more aware that we don’t have telepathy—that we don’t actually know what information our conversational partners have—so we get better at asking questions and listening to the answers.

Improving Conversations: The Five Conversations

The Five Conversations: represent crucial discussions of the five key characteristics that all high performance teams share – not just software teams but all human teams.

  • The Trust Conversation: We hold a belief that those we work with, inside and outside the team, share our goals and values.
  • The Fear Conversation: We openly discuss problems in our team and its environment and courageously attack those obstacles.
  • The Why Conversation: We share a common, explicit purpose that inspires us.
  • The Commitment Conversation: We regularly and reliably announce what we will do and when.
  • The Accountability Conversation: We radiate our intent to all interested parties and explain publicly how our results stack up against commitments.

Improving Conversations: The Four R’s

The core challenge to improving our conversations, which is that our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs, and we are unaware of the gap. To combat this problem, we will provide a process to help you become aware: the Four Rs. We will show you how to Record your conversations, how to Reflect on them to find problems, how to Revise them to produce better alternatives, and how to Role Play to gain fluency.

  • Record. you will need to Record a conversation in writing.
  • Reflect. Reflect on the conversation, paying attention to the tool or technique you are trying to use at the time.
  • Revise your conversation to try and produce a better result.
  • Role Play. Find a friend who is willing to help, and try saying your dialogue aloud, with your friend taking the part of your conversation partner.
  • Role Reversal. Trade places in your dialogue and have your friend say your words.

Frequently, hearing your own words will give you clues as to how you can further tune the dialogue to feel more natural while keeping in place the skills you are trying to practice.

Ch 3. The Trust Conversation

Truly understanding how the business works is the most valuable learning, more productive and appealing than “employee development” trainings. It’s the rocket fuel of high performance and lifelong learning.

Creating Aligned Inner Stories

  • Trust. If I say I trust you, I mean that I have expectations about what you will do that have been met before and that I believe will be met again. When I trust you, I can use the story we agree on to predict your behavior and evaluate my possible actions, so that we can cooperate effectively. We are likely to come up with jointly designed plans that we can execute in tandem, and we can explain our common story to others so they can align with us too.
  • You will also have to give them evidence that your story is actually predictive, that it matches your actions.
  • Show others that you are willing and able to change your story through vulnerability and predictability

Applying the Trust Conversation

Use the Trust Conversation in many ways, including the following:

  • An executive leader can create a trusting relationship with employees, giving confidence to all parties that the cultural transformation is headed in the right direction without micromanagement and continual supervision.
  • A team lead can align stories with her team to eliminate unproductive infighting and debates, and instead, cooperate to meet sprint goals and product targets.
  • An individual contributor can boost trust with his peers for more effective collaboration, so he can get and give more help with cooperative activities like code reviews, estimations, and pairing sessions.

Ch 4. The Fear Conversation

An organization may suffer from fear of error, of failure, of building the wrong product, of disappointing managers, of exposing poor leadership, of any number of other disasters. Whatever its particular subject, fear paralyzes the team, inhibiting creativity and cooperation.

On Psychological Safety

  • The goal of the Fear Conversation is to discover hidden fears and make them discussable.
  • Create psychological safety and courage in your team by revealing fears.
  • Identify risk mitigations that help us reduce each of the target fears.

On Normalization of Deviance

  • Individuals are uncomfortable with an event or observation, but since others are not acting, they (wrongly) assume that everyone else thinks the situation is normal and safe, and don’t act themselves. A common fear is felt by some or all of the people involved, but the expression of that fear is inhibited by the apparent consensus of the rest of the group.
  • Identify practices and habits in your team that are unsafe but have become accepted as “how we do it here.” This normalization of deviance is a signal that there is a hidden fear to be uncovered and addressed.

On Coherence Busting

  • Coherence Busting can help us take a more curious, open attitude into the discussion that will help us discover and mitigate fears we never would have imagined. To prepare, list as many fears as you can that might underlie each of the normalized deviances you came up with in the previous section. Be as broad as possible, engaging your System 2 to imagine fears that may seem unlikely or downright silly.

Applying the Fear Conversation

Use the Fear Conversation in many ways, including the following:

  • An executive leader can enable her organization to take more risks and identify more ways to remove obstacles to achieving company goals if a culture of psychological safety allows information about obstacles and risks to flow upward and downward effectively.
  • A team lead can find out what options his team is not exploring during sprint planning, standups, or retrospectives, and what he can do to encourage more participation and creativity.
  • An individual contributor can identify fears that are stifling her ability to adopt innovations, like Infrastructure as Code (IaC) or executable specifications, and with help from colleagues and managers, effectively mitigate those fears

Ch 5. The Why Conversation

Building a Why gives our company a strategic direction that guides large and small decisions, and provides a strong motive for success. The Why you build must not only explain the impetus for your collective action as a team but be created jointly, with all those involved.

Interests, not Position

  • Distinguishing positions and interests during conversations can often help you and the rest of the group avoid getting stuck in unending and fruitless debate. If you see hardened and opposing positions emerging, or if you feel your position is becoming immovable, aim to identify and share the reasoning and the interests that led to these positions.

Combining Advocacy and Inquiry

  • Asking genuine questions will help us understand how others see the situation, allowing us to come up with new solutions together.
  • Remind yourself to include your own observations and ideas in the conversation.
  • Be transparent about your own view and curious about the other persons’ ideas

Applying the Why Conversation

Use the Why Conversation in many ways, including the following:

  • An executive leader can explore technical or product contributions to team purpose and organizational goals that he might not have considered on his own.
  • A team lead can provide effective guidance to her team on topics like which technical shortcuts to take or what features to prioritize, using agreed and well-understood team and company goals to explain her decisions.
  • An individual contributor can bring his experience of testing, deployment, and/or coding to bear on changes to team process or direction, producing better decisions with his and others’ internal commitment.

Ch 6. The Commitment Conversation

A commitment should be more than a promise—something you make with conviction and knowledge, and execute with creativity and skill.

Agree on Meaning

  • Identify key words and phrases that are liable to be misunderrstood.
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
  • Recheck those definitions at the start of each Commitment Conversation.

On Commitment > Compliance

  • Keep each commitment as small as possible
  • Use a framework that makes it easy to deliver your small commitments over and over.
  • Compliance is doing what you are told.
  • Compliance fails exactly when the process isn’t stable, when creativity is needed, when the team needs to identify and overcome unknown obstacles.
  • Compliance without commitment is just going through the motions.
  • Compliance is showing up; commitment is engaging with your whole self.
  • Compliance is filling the space; commitment is participating.

Applying the Commitment Conversation

Use the Commitment Conversation in many ways, including the following:

  • An executive leader can align the work culture among multiple departments, like Engineering and Sales, by expecting believable, easily tracked commitments from each, and tracking progress on those commitments.
  • A team lead and her team can make commitments such as sprint goals and build-measure-learn targets with confidence and enthusiasm.
  • An individual contributor can participate in defining commitments and contribute to their fulfillment.

Ch 7. The Accountability Conversation

What do we mean by being accountable? We mean simply being obligated to render an account of what you have done and why. Accountability is akin to ownership, to responsibility, and to agency. If I am in control of how I spend my time, then only I am able to provide the information on why I have done what I’ve done, providing the reasoning and the intent behind my actions

Avoid Naive Realism

  • This is the view that we see the world objectively and without bias, and further, that other people will come to the same conclusions as we do, based on the same observations. When we adopt this simplistic view of the world, we see less need to communicate and certainly see no requirement to render an account

Leverage Directed Opportunism

  • The results of friction are three gaps that arise in our attempt to convert the outcomes we desire into plans, our plans into actions, and those actions into the outcomes we intended
    • The knowledge gap is the difference between what we would like to know and what we actually know.
    • The alignment gap is the difference between what we want people to do and what they actually do.
    • The effects gap is the difference between what we expect our actions to achieve and what they actually achieve.

Align through a Briefing, Cement with a Back Brief

  • Brief: In a briefing, one person communicates her intended outcome, provides constraints within which that outcome should be sought, and describes freedoms available during execution. By providing the desired outcome and its associated freedoms and constraints, the person providing the outcome is being accountable. They are providing information only they can provide, such as priorities and the trade-offs they value.
  • Back brief: the “back briefing” led by the executing party, is meant to describe how it plans to achieve the desired outcome and to confirm that this plan matches the original outcome, constraints, and freedoms. This accounting for what people plan to do and why they plan to do it—this sharing of reasoning and intent—ensures that there is alignment across all parties.

Radiate Intent, Progress, and Success

  • Share the current state. “We are trying to…”
  • Describe plans and intended outcomes. “We are seeing …..”
  • Alert to obstacles. “It’s possible that … We’ll know by ….”

Applying the Accountability Conversations

Use the Accountability Conversation in many ways, including the following:

  • An executive leader can render an account of her strategic actions to those in her organization, helping them align with product and company goals.
  • A team lead can brief team members on actions like testing a new feature or performing a penetration test, and have confidence in accurate execution through back briefings.
  • An individual contributor can discover internal commitment and drive by seeing that his peers and managers view him as motivated and capable, perhaps by trusting him to try a new library or experiment with a creative redesign.


On the road to developing the five key attributes of high-performing teams: high Trust, low Fear, clear Why, definite Commitment, and solid Accountability.

None of the Five Conversations ever end. After you build Trust using TDD for People, you will need to keep aligning your stories as circumstances evolve and your view of the other person changes. After you define a clear Why with Joint Design, the market or your company will shift, and you will have to rebuild another Why. You and your team will want to discuss Accountability with each other throughout your time together, rendering meaningful accounts over and over as you fulfill your commitments to each other.

I greatly enjoyed this book, full of simple and humane techniques to construct and engage in meaningful conversations with others. All content credit goes to the author. I’ve simply shared the bits I’ve enjoyed the most and found most useful.

Cheers ’till next time!



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