It is easy to talk about things in a theoretical context, free of the constraints of reality. But if you want to move people toward action, you have to make things real.

I first picked up on this when I became a full-time Scrum Master and Erik Weber was an Agile coach for my team. One day my team was in a Daily Scrum and discussing things at a high level without any real commitment or plan for the day. If you’ve ever been in a “stand-up” meeting, I’m sure you’ve heard something similar to this – “Yesterday I worked on task 1324323423, and I’m continuing to work on it today. No impediments.” Everyone in the meeting gives a similar update. No collaboration. No inspection of progress. No discussion of impediments that are blocking the team from getting things done.

But during that Daily Scrum, Erik did something different. He asked,

“When will you be done?”

That simple question resulted in more real, practical, and collaborative conversation than I had ever seen on the team in the past few weeks I had spent with them. At first, I thought that asking people when they were going to be done with something was the solution to getting real conversations to happen (although the Agilist inside of me hoped this wasn’t true), so I began to experiment to confirm my hypothesis. Sure enough, every time I would ask a question related to when something would get done, real conversations happened.

I kept waiting for the team to pick up on my new jedi-vudu-Scrum-Master-mind-trick, but they never did (or at least not that I know of). I began to think that asking a team about getting done wasn’t necessarily the cause of real conversations – there was a deeper principal at play. So I formulated a new hypothesis: making things real causes real conversations to happen.

Clarifiation: When I say “real” conversations, I am referring to conversations based in reality, with all of the constraints, crap, and joy that goes along with them. “Real” conversations differ from “fake” conversations, where “fake” conversations are the result of people being checked out, going through the motions, trying to maintain their ego, or any situation where topics are not discussed to their true potential.

I continued to test my hypothesis that making things real caused real conversations to happen. I changed the questions that I asked. I moved away from getting things done and used other “powerful questions” like:

  • What’s not clear about the plan for today?
  • What’s missing?
  • If you had to show something to the customer tomorrow, what would you show?

All of these questions had the same effect. They pulled the team out of imagination-land and pulled them back to reality. And I confirmed that asking when things would be done wasn’t the root cause of the effect – it was just one applied usage of this principle:

Making things real causes real conversations to happen.

How can you apply this principle to every day facilitation? When you sense that people are in “imagination-land” or “fake-harmony-land,” bring them back to reality by making things real.