New Rules for Work Labs

Circles and Soup with Diana Larsen

November 16, 2023 Diana Larsen Season 1 Episode 1
New Rules for Work Labs
Circles and Soup with Diana Larsen
Show Notes Transcript

We're joined by Diana Larsen, an international authority in Agile software development, team leadership, and Agile transitions, and co-developer of the team collaboration technique Circles and Soup. 
Diana developed Circles and Soup for teams feeling overwhelmed at work. In this conversation, Diana talks about why she created this technique, the practical applications, and potential missteps. We also discuss the use of Circles and Soup not only as a retrospective tool but as a planning activity that enables teams to recognize the scope of their agency.

To learn more about Diana and her work visit DianaLarsen.com or follow her on LinkedIn.

Episode Links


Producer: Podrick Sonicson 


Producer: Podrick Sonicson

To learn more about New Rules for Work:
Website
Labs Newsletter
Event: 2024 Intent to Impact in Austin, TX

David:

Welcome to the new Rules for Work labs, where we're rewriting the rules of work. In our lab, we glean insights from the world's foremost minds, exploring leadership, team dynamics, creativity, artificial intelligence, and more. Join us as we dissect, analyze, and incubate ideas shaping the future workplace. Stick around to learn how we turn these insights into practical activities. Get ready for a journey into the future of work. This is the new Rules for Work Labs, where insights meet action.

Elise:

This month, we're tackling overwhelm at work and exploring effective strategies to manage it. Today, we're thrilled to share the Circles and Soup technique with you. Developed by Diana Larson and Esther Derby, it's one of the simplest, most adaptable, and powerful techniques we know for helping a team get unstuck. Now to run Circles and Soup, you draw three concentric circles, representing various levels of control. Direct control, influence, and external factors, or that's SOOP. By categorizing what's overwhelming them into these circles, teams gain clarity on what they can control, and where they need to use other strategies. We're excited to have Diana Larson join us to delve into the nuances of Circle and SOOP. Diana, when did you come up with Circles and SOOP and can you talk about Oh gosh. What you saw, what, why did you develop the activity? This is back in the DEM recesses of time and it was really a collaboration between Esther and I. We introduced it in a training for people who wanted to learn to facilitate retrospectives as a, as a possible way to go. And then I wrote a blog post about it and the rest is, as they say, history. It's gone many places in many ways and, but yeah, it's all over the place now. So it's, it's gone on to new ideas and some people prefer to do it as a column thing. I like doing it as circles. Let's talk about, let's talk about that, the different formations, not just in terms of how you can set it up, but also you mentioned that it came from a retrospective. We had a particular need in a retrospective to figure out where the accountability really lie. And because teams often, often think that they have less agency than they actually have. And so we wanted to make that clear. And we also wanted to make clear that for things that over which the team didn't have agency, that's not a reason to just throw up your hands and say we're victims. That there are still actions the team can take. And that was the part that we added. Identify who could make a difference in this particular issue that we're looking at. Or this particular set of issues. Actually it was because there were a lot of issues to deal with. And so mapping out where is the locus of control for all of those issues. And some of them were within the team's control and some, uh, and that's why I like the embedded circles because it simulates the fact that a team is embedded in a larger system and, and some of those things the team actually does have control over. They actually can do something about those things. And sometimes even if it's a very small step, that can be the most important because it It begins to build the team's muscle on, Oh, there are things we can just decide to do something about. And then, and then it goes on to look at the influencing circle and the soup circle. And the soup comes actually from David Schmaltz, who talked about the organizational soup. No matter who we are in the organization, there's a certain amount of things that none of us have any control over and that we just have to recognize that. Diana, when I met you last time, when we mentioned that we wanted to look into circles and stoop, you said, Oh my goodness, the one thing that I get the most thank yous for is this method. Yeah. And then you shared a story about how that plays out in practice. Could you tell us that story again? So that story, I have a lot of circles and stoop stories. In that case, the realization was that the issue that was bothering them the most. Actually did come from the suit. It was from someone else's behavior, uh, vice president's behavior coming in and asking for special privileges in the middle of already planned sprint. Even though the, the group was working as a team, the VP would go over to one of the senior engineers that they thought were their particular buddy and they'd say, could you just do this thing for me? It's small. I'm sure it's small. Could you just do this thing for me? And, and it was, it was an interruption. It was a distraction. It was causing them to miss their sprint goals because. This was happening on a reasonably frequent basis and, and the team felt powerless around it, annoyed and irritated as other things as you would be. And so they, they looked at it from a circles and soup point of view and said, this is something over which we have no control. So the, we can't make it not happen, but we can do the action we can take is to change our response. And so they worked a little bit brainstorming some different ideas and they decided that what they could do is have a policy that as a team, every team member, if they got that request, a request like that, that they would say, sure, I'll be happy to do this. I need to get the sign off from my product owner. And deflect that request back to the product owner, the product owner was part of this discussion and said, absolutely, I'll take it. I'd rather have that than what's going on because it was keeping them from meeting their goals as well. And so that after that, when the vice president came in, the person who he came to, they would say, yep, this looks interesting. I just need you to, I, my commitment is to do what the product owner tells us to do. So. If you'll just go get their approval, then we can get started. And then the product owner could have the conversation about what was the impact of that kind of interruption and could make the call. Maybe this was actually a more valuable thing than the thing they were working on and could be curious and, um, all those things, but then ultimately decide, Oh, we need to terminate this sprint and do this other thing or. I'm sorry, but you're going to have to wait till maybe we can incorporate this in the next sprint. So it freed up the team from having to try to have those conversations that they really weren't expected to have. And, and just the, just visualizing it in that way, helped them to figure that out. And so you can, of course, do retrospectives once anything has begun, technically, you can, you can look back on it, but. Can Circles and Soup be a planning activity to maybe de risk something if you're going to be going out and doing some kind of a stakeholder analysis? Potentially. It is a planning activity. The team in the retrospective is planning their improvement action, right? Right. And so, and, and maybe beginning to implement it. It, it is that, it's a planning activity on that scale of being embedded in the retrospective. And if the activity that you're talking about is embedded in a larger world, here's what we've been doing. Here's our best ideas for what we want to do going forward. Um, and making that decision about how we're going to do that. Yeah. Particularly if there are multiple parties involved, multiple influences involved, the team that's going to implement this thing, here are the things that we know are under our control. And so we can just decide. But there probably are things in, in that scenario where they need to go influence some folks. And then we talk about persuading actions or recommending actions. Teams can't control the outcome of those, but can, they at least have some, some possibility of influencing through those kinds of actions. Take the taking to lunch action sometimes works really well for taking to lunch and taking the lunch strategy I like that or taking to a bar with particularly good alcohol Strategies what I'm taking to the golf course, whatever it is. It requires some analysis of This person or this party this group that we're trying to influence What do they find credible? What do they need to make their changes? And so on. So, certainly in a stakeholder, I mean, you would do some stakeholder analysis along with that. You would pair the circles and soup with that stakeholder analysis. Okay. These are the things that we need to influence. These are the people that we need or, or the groups that we need to influence in order to make that happen. What, what kind of action do we need to take there? And then understanding them to your point, what is it they're trying to get done? You have to have empathy in order to persuade them. I, I, I actually use circles in soup in a couple of different, um, programs that I lead and we use it exactly for what you just described. So you've got this vision of the change that you want to see in your organization. Which aspects of your vision can you realize on your own? Which ones do you think you can influence? And then what's in the soup? Same thing with decision rights, right? What are things we own the decision for? One of the questions I have for you, you know, is in the influence side, is people understand what they don't own, right? They're like, okay, this isn't ours. It's out there. They will say, say, but they're not clear who might own it. And if you ask around, nobody is. So do you have any stories or experiences of things falling into the soup where nobody will pick them up? And that's what happens. If who influences this is so unclear, then it becomes a soup item. And we just have to figure out how are we going to internally deal with the fact that we have no control here. And how are we going to respond when these kinds of things come up? We encourage people to start with the things that are under their control first. Because that helps that particular group build some muscle around choosing how we're going to improve and or choosing our next action. And getting clear about that among themselves and when they get stronger and stronger for that, then they are going to maybe one of the things that they control is how much they understand about the broader organization. What do they need to go and learn about the broader organization so they can have a better idea about where different kinds of influence come. And it's one of the things that we know is like power dynamics are tricky. And there are some times when you just can't, there are powers at play here, but you just cannot figure out who's pulling the strings. My personal view would be, if I find myself in that position too much of the time and I can't figure out, What the broader system actually is holding, that would be an indicator to me that I might want to start polishing up my resume. Another, uh, contribution that I made is liftoff financial chartering, and we talk about figuring out the team context. What are the parties that the team as a whole needs to interact with? And then in the, in my newest book, we talk about co intelligence. And I don't know who to go to for this, but who on the team might have a relationship with the people to go and do this. So it begins to foster that kind of exploratory mindset within the team members. About we can figure this out, but we have to stop it. That has to be a planned activity. We have to like, no, we're going to have to spend some of our energy on that. I think I heard you say earlier on in the intro, the big aha is just how much more agency teams have than they thought before they did the activity. Yeah. What is a, a misstep, somebody who maybe hasn't done this before, who is new to Agile, is new leadership. What are some missteps people might make in playing Circles and Soup? Yeah. One misstep, there are people who will map everything out on the Circles and Soup graphic and then stop there and not take that next step into, okay, there are these three different kinds of actions that we can move into here. Which one are we going to choose? And then that kind of goes back to an old Miss Retrospectives in that you can just list out all the things that are annoying you or list out all the things that you're happy about and then walk away and they will somehow magically take care of themselves. So you can fall into that trap with circles and soup as well. And, and taking on things that are too big. I'm going to go to that taking on actions that are just too big that we don't break down small enough to be able to accomplish. In a reasonable amount of time that will help us feel successful that we accomplished it. So that might be this afternoon, or it might be within the end of next week or the end of the month or whatever that is, but we need to have some sense of the timing about how long is it going to take us to do this so that we can know when we've accomplished it. And so there's that, uh, some slicing, this is Agile all the time, slicing things down into manageable pieces. But then the other one is about that, is discovering that you have taken on too much. Or that you misidentified the per, the people you want to influence, or you misidentified the energy the team has to actually move into action among themselves on the things that they control. And that, of course, is an opportunity for learning for the facilitator and for the team. Oh, last time we took on this thing that we thought might take us three days to do, and that caused us to not follow through on it at all. Let's not do that again. Let's, let's figure out a better way of slicing these actions or whatever that might be. Those are three ways I think that facilitators can trip up, but they're all recoverable. You just say, whoops. I saw whoopsie earlier from Elyse. Um, okay. So. Let's not do it that way again. Let's figure out a new way of approaching that. You've still got to learn some things from it and mine those things that you can learn from it and then continue moving on. I don't believe in beating ourselves up for when things don't go exactly as they, as we thought they would. There are many, many things that can shift between our intention to do a thing and our following through on a thing. And we just have to be, we live in an emergent world. Yeah. That's a really a good point because you do an activity like this and you get a very pointed set of actions that you might go take. And then I don't know, maybe as soon as when you leave the meeting room or the next day or the next week, something comes up and you're constantly juggling these priorities as they come up. And so I suppose it's easy to lose focus. It actually is a nice segue to why we wanted to look at this particular method. So contextually, one of the things that. What I'm encountering is actually senior leadership, executive teams, VPs, that kind of level of folk talking about how so much is going on right now. They're being priority whipped, they're overwhelmed, and they will say things like, we're literally trying to stay alive. And I don't think they understand the meaning of the word literally, but it must feel incredibly overwhelming. In terms of managing overwhelm, what would you pair Circle and Supes with to help these teams use this as a tool for pruning and prioritizing? I think one thing is to realize that everybody's in the soup. The soup just may be different. If you're on an executive team, you may be trying to influence the board or some customer segment. And the soup is the industry or the marketplace that you're in. And there's that scaling effect of when, as we move to different groups that have different horizons, planning horizons or site horizons, whatever, then the nature of those circles is going to change. And for those folks, some of the parties that they need to influence may be outside of their group, or maybe. people that they would otherwise be, you would consider that they would be influencing. So they need to influence the other teams in the other departments that they need to work with to, to make things happen. So I hope. Hokey pokey, up, down, all around. So, one thing that we haven't mentioned yet is no matter how many things a team puts into that circle of their things they directly control, only a couple of them at most go out as immediate actions that we're going to take. So that's one thing, is making sure that we aren't trying to do everything all at once. We're not trying to boil the ocean. We're just going to warm up this one little teacup full. Right. So that's one thing. Another thing, Circles and Soup, I've seen it show up in so many different guises and places. There are, as Dave was talking about, you might, you might pair it with some stakeholder analysis activities. You might pair it with some technology awareness, some knowledge of new technologies that are coming down the road and what strategies or tools is the team using to stay current around the technologies that are most relevant to what they're trying to accomplish. I think what I heard in there is you can map it out, but you still have to take action, which is one, all right. If it's in our control, who's going to do this and by when. So if it's the influence, all right, now we might need to do some stakeholder mapping to understand the stakeholders that we need to influence and our points of leverage with them, whether that being people on our team that are close to them, or do we know what their goals are or what their struggles are, what their hopes and dreams are and going, getting, and then going, okay, now who's going to take so and so to the bar or out to lunch. Or write up the paper that is, that is our set of recommendations. Or then you've got things like for the larger soup, critical uncertainties or other ways in which you can do some basic scenario planning to go, okay, given that we have no clue, um, in this complex environment about what might influence us, what are some things we might have in our pocket? Yeah. And in that kind of instance, I would go to some of the complexity theory things and, uh mm-Hmm. In Aven we talk about take designing safe to fail probes. Right, and those kinds of things, and there are nudges. What's the next nudge we want to try? And really think of those as experiments. We can hypothesize what might happen, but then we need to analyze how far off we were in our hypothesis, because odds are, it's not the action, it's not the kind of response we're going to get. But it, yeah, that requires a lot of open minds. I love the idea that Circle and Suits can start to open minds, right? Because you've got, as a really simple method, uh, we can control this and we can take action. We have influence over this. We have, we have the coupons for the bar, let's go, and this is outside of our control. We need new skills for responding to things that are outside of our control. And then maybe you get into complexity theory. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's good if the facilitator has some understanding of that because then they don't have to explain it to the team, but it helps them, it helps guide their facilitation around, okay, let's not do this as a hard and fast action. Let's design this as an experiment. And that's sufficient. Do you ever get any pushback on the name, Diana? And I ask that as somebody who On Circles and Soup. Circles and Soup. What's that? We're a professional organization here. Like, we don't Oh, I get that pushback on all kinds of things. Yeah. So this is actually something that people ask me about all the time. How do I do more of this game playing or these activities? I understand the names, but so yeah, what do you do? Does the group you're working with even need to know it has a name? Right. I think that's it. Right. Here's the next thing we're going to do. We're going to map out our levels of control. And we're going to look at where our issues fall and when we're going to figure out what actions we want to take. There you go. That's it. That's it. Yeah. I talk, depending on the context, if I'm talking to C suite, I'll call them zones of agency. They love that. I'm sure they love that. The C suite loves Stephen Covey, so you can say, get up. But we're going to try a different version of this thing from, I forget what he calls them, but it's something like that. I've seen it called Circles of Control, which I also imagine C Suite would like a lot more. Yeah. Yeah. I just, I find that, I find the whole world control to be silly in this, in the current, the current nature of reality. Circles of the illusion of control. Awesome. But I think that's a skill that a lot of people who facilitate do these things for a living they need to have is, how do I rename this because it's just as much about selling it in and how do I get this up on the whiteboard as it is about doing it properly. Yeah. And it, and you use, you want to use the language that people use wherever you are. And that's the other thing we get about, Oh, I can't mention the word agile in my organization. Then don't just say we're moving to a more collaborative approach. Say we're moving to, um, a strengths based teams, figure out what's going to fly. Names don't, in that way, names don't matter that much. And. Names have enormous power, so we need to be careful where we use them and where we don't. We've learned that from George Lakoff's work in Metaphor. So, we want to be sure that we're using language that fits the context that we find ourselves in. And that's hard, particularly for... Peripatetic facilitators who aren't part of that organization. I find that very often asking someone in the organization, what's the best way to describe this here, Uh, can be helpful. When I'm new to that system and I don't have that background, well then I have to rely on translators. And people are, yeah, people are usually pretty willing to say, is this what you want to do? Yeah. Okay. Let's call it this. Let's talk about it this way. Mm hmm. And as somebody who's a model creator, I, I often get those questions. It's what if I don't want to call it the Retrospective Framework? What if I don't want to call it the Agile Fluency Model? Whatever, whatever, Team Chartering Model. It's no, call it, I have no attachment to those names. I have no attachment to the name Agile. And it's all on the journey. It's all on the path to creating workplaces where. Better things happen for everyone concerned. And Diana, if people want to follow you or learn more about Circles Soup, where should they go? I have a, on my website, dianalarson. com, the blog post about Circles Soup. You can also find me on LinkedIn. If you do a search on my name with software or Agile after it, you probably are going to find me. Thank you for giving us a little background, best practices. Pitfall avoidance and how to sell it in, which I think, yeah, you know, a lot of people just really need help with that. Thank you, Diana. My pleasure.

David:

Thank you for joining us in the lab. We appreciate our guests for contributing to the thoughtful discussions on the future of work. A quick nod to Padraic, our behind the scenes maestro, for making each episode possible. If you've enjoyed the ideas we've explored today and want to put them into action, check out our companion newsletter at labs. newrulesforwork. com for the practical activities and additional resources. Don't forget to subscribe, rate, and leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. Your feedback is the catalyst for our ongoing journey into the future of work. Thank you once again for joining us. We'll see you next time in the lab.

Podcasts we love