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Agile Conversations: Transform Your Conversations, Transform Your Culture

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A successful digital transformation must start with a conversational transformation.

Today, software organizations are transforming the way work gets done through practices like Agile, Lean, and DevOps. But as commonly implemented as these methods are, many transformations still fail, largely because the organization misses a critical step: transforming their culture and the way people communicate.

Agile Conversations brings a practical, step-by-step guide to using the human power of conversation to build effective, high-performing teams to achieve truly Agile results. Consultants Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick show readers how to utilize the Five Conversations to help teams build trust, alleviate fear, answer the "whys," define commitments, and hold everyone accountable.These five conversations give teams everything they need to reach peak performance, and they are exactly what's missing from too many teams today.

Stop focusing on processes and practices that leave your organization stuck with culture-less rituals. Instead, unleash the unique human power of conversation.

240 pages, ebook

First published May 12, 2020

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Douglas Squirrel

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5 stars
98 (36%)
4 stars
108 (40%)
3 stars
48 (17%)
2 stars
6 (2%)
1 star
7 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 36 reviews
Profile Image for Bjoern Rochel.
365 reviews66 followers
August 9, 2020
Disclaimer: I'm a past developer and architect, turned engineering manager. I've spend the last ~5 years reading pretty much everything I could get my hands on which is highly rated in terms of agile and classic management practices.

I stumbled on this book in a twitter discussion about Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow where one of the participants called this book a revelation and the element he was direly missing from Team Topologies (and a lot of other books on agile transformations). I loved Team Topologies, which obviously caused me to buy this book.

So after having read this one, what do I think about it? Honestly this is a super tough one to rate for me. As my son sometimes says: I like it and I don't like it. It's somewhere between 3 and 4 stars, not necessarily because of the raw content (which is good), but because of 1) too high expectations on my side (larger parts lacked novelty to me) and 2) of some elements felt out-of-place or in-transparent to me. More on that later. After all I decided to go with the 4 stars because the book is good and the methodics have the potential to help a lot of people.


The good:
The book expands on the ideas of Five Dysfunctions of a Team Workshop Deluxe Facilitator′s Guide Package. In fact, four of the 5 discussions are directly mappable to Leonis disfuntions. That's great, because that book also left me with a "now what?" feeling, even though I agree with the underlying argumentation. In that sense this book is more a companion to Leonis book than to Team Topologies.

It blends a lot of good insights from a lot of different sources into an easy to follow framework. Some of these influences are explicitly mentioned (most importantly Thinking, Fast and Slow and Non Violent Communication: A Language Of Compassion). However I felt a lot of deja-vu moments from other works, notably Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and several classic management books such as Führen, Leisten, Leben or the Miteinander reden. Störungen und Klärungen. Allgemeine Psychologie der Kommunikation, Band 1 series.

The great part about this book as I said earlier is the self inspection framework. I think it's a great idea and I'm surely going to give it a try in the future to see where I can improve. For this alone the book is worth buying.

The odd
It's a book about conversations, somehow in the middle though it takes an interesting turn toward 1) methodics and 2) management styles, which felt a bit out of place to me. Don't get me wrong, I'm 100% an advocate of iterative development. In fact I believe walking skeleton style development is more often than not the overlooked part of applying agile (instead of only the ceremonies) and would instantly also remove a lot of uncertainty and friction from more classic, waterfall style development initiatives. But I do wonder what its place is in a book like this? It felt a bit sneaked into the overall thread ala something that we consider important, so we put it in there (but it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with conversations).

Same is true for briefing and back-briefings. I'm a big fan of The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results. And elements of this can be also found in Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, which I also hold close to my heart. But this seems to be more management advice than anything else. A strong reminder to work iteratively and encourage the team to have creative flexibility. Again though, I wonder why it's in a book about conversations. It's more a management / leadership style topic that would have fitted into a sequel or compendium to this book and would have made it possible to make this one much more concise.

The super odd
This one is pure speculation on my side, but I couldn't shake the feeling of a hidden agenda in the book. I really wonder whether this is just my weird interpretation, which it very well could be.

It all centers around the question of "who is this book written for?". If you look at the introduction it points to leaders of transformations, team leaders, developers, team members. So that is pretty wide in terms of definition. Great, I thought. I like that & agree that especially the conversation techniques are useful for everyone. Having gone through classic management and communication trainings at my current employer, in fact one of my often repeated feedback was this: This is really useful stuff, why is this only restricted to management people and not available to everyone? So coming from that angle I appreciate that somebody wrote a book specifically not aimed at "leaders" and "management".

But reading it, I wondered. Most the example dialogs involve team leads, VPs, C*-level execs. Very few of them were actually on team level. Combined with the methods and management advice of the back briefings, I suspect that this book is much more management oriented than it would like to admit. And if that assumption is true, it breaks one of its own core rules: putting motivations out there in the open and being transparent about its intentions. Which would be a pity. At least for me it feels biased and undermines its core arguments.

Overall I would say the content would have been better of if

* the examples were taken from more different levels (effectively being more geared towards all levels in an agile endeavour, including the lower ones)
* the management and methodic part would have been split into a compendium/sequel
Profile Image for Krzysztof.
70 reviews5 followers
April 18, 2021
It's a solid book on communication... in software development teams... for managers and executives.

It's a kind of a missing manual giving practical solutions to more theoretical books (e.g. Nonviolent communication or Radical candor). Authors use 5 dysfunctions of a team as a framework to propose 5 types of conversations to overcome each of the dysfunctions. Each type has some specific tools to use, examples, and a case study. The book is neatly organized and easy to jump to the specific section in case of emergency.

Technical audience
A lot of metaphors, tools, examples will be hard to digest for someone who hasn't been working in a software development team (e.g. TDD for people or a walking skeleton). Some practices like scoring schemes for different conversations also seem to be added to appeal to more analytical readers. All examples come from technical teams in start-ups and scale-ups. If you are a digital products builder, you'll easily recognize the situations described in the book. If you work in any other field, you might be wondering more what the conversation is about than how to make it better.

Leadership angle
As the book progresses it becomes more about leadership than about communication. It describes managerial practices and theories, provides examples of difficult conversations at the organization's top (highly unlikely at the dev team level)... and most solutions are not a result of the successful conversation as much as a change in attitude, leadership style, or development practices. This is not something bad... just a bit misleading considering the book premise (that transformation is not about processes and practices but how we communicate).

Overall I enjoyed the book but felt a bit underwhelmed when I finished it. At the beginning of the book, the authors build up expectations that don't seem to be met in the end. It's all good, but I was counting on more generic tools and solutions. The book is very specific for whom it is intended for and will work with technical leaders (4-5 stars). I'm afraid it may turn off anyone else (2-3 stars).
Profile Image for Mark Coleman.
1 review1 follower
May 12, 2020
I’ve spent much of my career trying to establish a system for improving collaboration within and across software teams and yet always achieved mixed results. Agile Conversations is the book I wish I had read many years ago! Jeffrey and Squirrel have brought together their many years of experience to create this accessible and practical guide. It’s a must read for executives, technical managers and technical staff who want their teams to be more productive, and better at responding to change.
17 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2020
This is a remarkable book. It wants us to be curious and vulnerable, to embrace fear, build trust, cede control over why, and make meaningful commitments, all as necessary precursors to a culture of healthy accountability. The explicit goal is to fix broken company dynamics, and the techniques it describes require self-reflection and reform. The book is written with clarity and confidence that come from years of experience living, analyzing, and fixing the kinds of problems the book addresses. The subject really is, as the title says, conversations, and the authors provide many examples anyone working in Agile software will recognize easily. Their primary tool is a set of simple scoring procedures to identify conversational problems and successes. The procedures are so easy that two pages suffices to summarize them all at the end, but they target habits of mind that are not easy to undo.

Squirrel and Fredrick don't pitch it this way, but in some ways Agile Conversations is a self-help book. You have to improve your own behavior to take advantage of what the book offers. I may find myself practicing its techniques outside the office as well. In fact, I'd say most of the friends whose company I most enjoy already have some of the qualities the book recommends. The authors don't make such grand claims, but Agile Conversations could change lives.
May 12, 2020
This is a really important book. As someone in a non-technical field, I found that the lessons and example conversations hit home in a way that transcends industry. This book makes a compelling case of how to best interact both up and down the chain of command, and I will be applying its lessons liberally. Would recommend for anyone who wants improved relationships but in and out of work.
Profile Image for Łukasz Słonina.
122 reviews17 followers
February 24, 2021
It's about conversations in teams, organization. You would learn why any "Agile" transformation would fail if people are still working in software factory.
Many conversation examples with analysis and solutions how to improve. Author covers five conversations, where each build on previous level:
1. The Trust conversation
2. The Fear conversation
3. The Why conversation
4. The Commitment conversation
5. The Accountability conversation
Unless you improve on Trust you won't reach to Why or Commitment level.
Profile Image for Assaph Mehr.
Author 5 books385 followers
February 21, 2023
An excellent resource full of practical advice on affecting organisational change.

This book is about the art of the conversation, about how to affect change in your organisation through better structured, more aware conversations. The cross-over with product management is immense. Not only are product managers supposed to work with a cross-functional dev team and through the breadth of the organisation, product management in itself is 90% communications. Even though a lot (80%, believe it or not) of that communication is listening and some of it relates to coherent writing and creative visualisations, the tools that Squirrel and Fredrick present for improving the conversations you have internally are just as applicable to dealing with customers. They'll come in useful at any time when you want to achieve better alignment and success.

This doesn't mean it's going to be easy (there's never a silver bullet), but with some internal work this should set you up with increases self-awareness and tools to manage communications. This will be useful no matter who and how you work with other people.
Profile Image for Brian Roberts.
14 reviews1 follower
May 13, 2020
An instant classic. Combines practical advice with theoretical information on improving your conversational skills in order to more effectively work with others. The book applies this to the agile software development domain, but can be applied to other areas of life.

I have personally experienced the seismic shift in culture at a company that can occur when applying these techniques; and the joy and ease . (I worked with both Squirrel and Jeffrey at a previous company.)

(Full disclosure: I received a time-limited advance copy of the book for review and immediately purchased my own copy.)
Profile Image for Thanasis Polychronakis.
2 reviews3 followers
July 21, 2020
Agile Conversations was a revelatory book for me. This was a book I had to study, not simply read. Through research backed theory and practical examples, the authors managed to produce useful and actionable advice on how to better our communication skills. This book gave me reason to start a study group and practice the art of conversation. Using the practical examples and workshop items available in the book, I am able to keep practicing with my group.

On the corporate level, I can appreciate how these new skills will enable me to be a more effective leader and a more efficient employee. What helped with that, was the book helping me realize that it's not the other party that "doesn't get it" or "doesn't understand me", but it is me doing a poor job explaining my fears, my concerns and my viewpoints. Agile Conversations provides a solid framework on how to ensure there are no misunderstandings or communication failures between the parties involved, which makes all the difference in the success of an enterprise.

This is a book I'll keep getting back into.
Profile Image for Horia.
79 reviews9 followers
May 21, 2020
Are you a simple team member or an executive leader and you feel some pain in your organization? This book will give you a direction towards finding a solution for it.
The solution will come from a blend of the "5 dysfunctions of a team", "crucial conversations", "nonviolent communication" and agile applied to the IT context. The text is concise and clear, with plenty of real-world examples. The references at the end are plentiful.
This book just became my reference "how to work with people and have a great workplace" and I'll be re-reading it often
Profile Image for Niklas Heer.
76 reviews9 followers
November 1, 2020
I enjoyed this book a lot. It is not only relevant for people working in an agile environment. It gives you great techniques to improve your conversations in a lot of different scenarios. Overall a very helpful book with great ideas mixed with stories.
2 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2020
A very hands-on guide on the most important aspect of anything agile related: how to interact with people. This book gives me practical tools for effective conversations, and also the courage to seek out the most difficult and most valuable ones!
May 14, 2020
Packed full of wisdom, this book distils smart and practical advice into an easy to read guide. These guys really know what they are talking about.
Profile Image for Emilio A..
1 review
April 22, 2020
Authors do a great job at diving into what I believe are the core concepts needed for a productive culture that is based on trust, empathy, and proper execution. Highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to improve productivity whether individually, team based, or organizationally.
Profile Image for Andrei Gavrila.
44 reviews
April 27, 2022
While interesting and full of some good ideas, I think most people would be better served by skipping this book. I found less than 20% of what was said captivating, putting me in a deep state of reflection or having aha moments.

I would recommend reading a summary of the book better.

The things that I liked to most about this book were:
1. Think about certain types of conversations. They can be of help in various states that individuals or groups are.
2. Don't try to rush certain conversations until groundwork hasn't been done. There is no point in having Why conversations if the people around are afraid.
3. By changing our conversations and the quality of our conversations we can change our culture

3 reviews
June 10, 2020
I shifted from a developer role to a manager role. This gave quickly the insight it's all about the people. This book boosted my knowledge, gave new insights and learned new techniques. I was completely enlightened when I started to practice techniques from the book.If you have ever had the feeling of mastering a programming language, mastering conversations/people can give you exact the same feeling even when you only scratch the surface. And just like with programming languages, you're never done as it keeps evolving. Conversation is such a valuable skill that can be used everywhere, even outside work! An amazing and unique book!
Profile Image for Ivan Khokhlov.
9 reviews2 followers
September 26, 2020
The five key attributes of high-performing teams:
1) high Trust,
2) low Fear,
3) clear Why,
4) definite Commitment,
4) and solid Accountability.

This book is an excellent guide with plenty of examples on how to have the right conversations with your colleagues, but also outside of work. The attributes listed above are all important, and we must continuously nurture them with everyone we engage in order to have either a productive work environment, or a happy relationship outside of work.

A highly recommended read, and the author has done a great job at identifying a much missed niche.
Profile Image for Chris Austin.
64 reviews2 followers
January 31, 2022
An exceptional book that I'll be keeping on my desk while I navigate a few potentially difficult conversations. I expected to like it, but ended up appreciating it far more than I expected.

I've read many books on communication, and many books on agile and other variants (including the full XP set back in 2000-2001), but this still had very useful notes.

I'll likely add a few post-it notes for things that I want to focus on, and plan my approach for key conversations while I practice and internalize the ideas.
23 reviews
January 25, 2023
Some of the techniques explained in the book could definitely help me improve communication on difficult topics within my organization. I suspect I'll have a hard time finding time to reflect and practice but even more challenging for me will be to remember the content of verbal conversations.

Finally, I wish the author introduced a "cheat sheet" section at the end of the book resuming all the techniques covered. This would allow me to refer to it directly instead of having to skim back to find the Ladder of Inference for example.
Profile Image for Lukasz Nalepa.
132 reviews13 followers
January 28, 2023
The book is quite good and puts a big emphasis on underrated part of agile mindset - here in the form of proposed conversations reflecting the concept of "Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni. Probably I would get more out of the book if I would use it exactly as intended - as a practice guide, but I haven't had the opportunity nor time for such measures. I must admit though, that having those guidelines, proposed "tools" and mindset ... well in mind, does seem a valuable takeaway from this lecture anyways
Profile Image for Jari Pirhonen.
386 reviews10 followers
September 16, 2020
The book shows a technique to learn and practice trust, fear, why, commitment, and accountability conversations to avoid defensive reasoning mind-set. I agree that honest discussions and debate are important especially in agile way of working and it's difficult to avoid fear, uncertainty and doubt if communications fails. It's just hard to believe that development teams would start focusing improving personal communications. Hope so.
9 reviews2 followers
November 28, 2021
A lot of actionable tips in here, along with examples that aren't _too_ contrived. I really appreciated the attempt to make the recommendations for progress objectively measurable via "scoring" of conversations on various metrics - this is more than I'd do for the average conversation, but having a way to track and measure a behavior is a prerequisite to improve it, and conversations don't naturally lend themselves to this.
Profile Image for Manouane Beauchamp.
67 reviews4 followers
April 1, 2021
Livre très mal structuré et écrit. Vouloir le lire revient à vouloir courir sur un plancher couvert de pièces Légo. Concernant la discours et la parole, je suggère les deux livres suivants :
• Georges Gusdorf : La Parole (Speaking dans sa traduction en anglais)
• L. David Marquet : Leadership is language
Profile Image for Abby Epplett.
258 reviews1 follower
March 21, 2022
The authors use plain language and description to explain their use of conversation alongside the Agile method of programming. The conversation chart and examples of conversations made the system easy to understand. The book was slightly long and may have benefited from cutting a few conversations, as it felt redundant.
Profile Image for Vaidas.
85 reviews1 follower
July 19, 2022
Liked the ideas and examples, although the assertion that everything was well after each type of conversation was improved is a bit childish.
For me it captured nicely what development of a product should look like in a modern workplace - communication with genuine interest, curiosity, respect and accountability.
Profile Image for Dovydas Ceilutka.
43 reviews7 followers
November 1, 2020
The advice in this book is so relevant that it almost feels like the authors know me and my challenges managing a software team. The book is methodical, well researched, has a strong and complex (in a good way) message with concrete practical suggested exercises to follow.
Profile Image for Marco.
25 reviews10 followers
January 27, 2021
Feels a little bit like an update on Lencioni's "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team". I liked the focus on conversations for each of those levels and a more detailled analysis. Interesting approach of using TDD for conversations.
In general, not so much new but a good summary of existing concepts.
Profile Image for Srinivasan Nanduri.
357 reviews10 followers
January 8, 2022
A very good read on driving meaningful conversations in modern IT projects. Developing the five key attributes of high-performing teams as described are the key: high Trust, low Fear, clear Why, definite Commitment, and solid Accountability.
79 reviews1 follower
February 1, 2022
A good Agile book, with some great examples of how to improve your conversations, using great techniques, such as the ladder of inference, and non violent communication. I found it a little exhausting after a while.
Profile Image for Federico Fregosi.
50 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2020
The book is interesting and well written even if I feel the "cultural dimension" of these conversations has been completely forgotten, purely focusing on the technical bit.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 36 reviews

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