A few weeks ago I was in London for a few days to attend DareConf Mini
, a conference about people skills for the digital workspace. It brings together people from the technology space, the web in particular, but the sessions and lessons really apply to human beings generally. I ended up hearing about DareConf because my friend Karen McGrane spoke at the first DareConf last fall, and it sounded like an amazing experience. When I saw they had a "mini" (one-day) version happening in January I jumped at the chance to check it out. They also had two one-day workshops to choose from, and I decided to add that to the mix since I would already be there. It was well worth the time and expense. This is one of the best conferences I have ever attended, and the experience was perfect for my current personal and professional goals. I've already signed up for the next full, two-day DareConf
, which is happening in September (and it's half price right now, until February 17th).
I've grown from a government paper-pusher to Drupal hacker to consultant and teacher, and am now the Director of Education at Lullabot, overseeing the Drupalize.Me product and managing a team of seven people. Each step up in my journey has always been about communication in many ways, but managing a team is a specific skill set and one that I've stumbled into but haven't stepped back to make a concerted effort on. I think this is true for most people who end up in management. This year I am determined to put full effort into digging in to understanding
my role as a people manager, instead of relying on my natural communication skills to see me through. I think I'm a good manager and director. I want to be great at it. I went to DareConf looking for guidance and resources for me to become a great manager and inspire the Drupalize.Me team. I also want to provide the same for my colleagues in the Lullabot team of directors and Lullabot as a whole. They are all awesome people and I want to make sure I'm figuring out how to help them express their individual awesome, while also leading our company as a place where the sum is greater than its parts. So, with that heady goal, here is what DareConf was about and why it was the perfect place for me to land.
The Conference Day
The conference itself was only one day, but it was wall-to-wall goodness. Each session was nice and short at 25 minutes, which is a pattern I'm seeing at more conferences, and I really hope it becomes the de facto standard at some point. It's so much more digestible and the speaker has to get to the point quickly. Each speaker related the topic they were tackling through a personal story related to it, and they all wrapped up with practical advice and potential next steps we could take to explore the topic. Topics ranged from conflict resolution, coaching and mentoring, commitment, and being human. I paid attention through the whole day, and wasn't burning time working on email during sessions. It was great.
The best part of the sessions for me though was the question and reflection period after each one. In the schedule booklet that describes the sessions, there were four questions for each session, and plenty of space for writing. At the end of each session we had five minutes to reflect on the session, ponder the questions, and jot down our thoughts. It was brilliant. The questions made you think of the real application to your life, and gave me protected space to write down my thoughts, which are wonderful to have now, well after the conference is over. I'm not good at taking notes at conferences, but the prompting questions and built-in space for it meant that I took better, and more applicable, notes than ever.
I ended the day with a booklet of pertinent notes, my list of next steps that I was interested in applying when I got home, and a whole lot of ideas to digest and incorporate into my life. My short list of personal takeaways were focused on:
- Getting a 360 degree view of how people think of me versus the mask I try to project. (From Tim Chilvers session "Taking off the mask: how to lead when life feels out of control.")
- Working on communication skills for conflict resolution like "listen, reflect, clarify" and looking at positions, interests, and needs (PIN). (From Penny Walker's session "Stop assuming, start asking questions: how to turn conflict into collaboration.")
- The challenge and goal of actively working to like people you find hard to like. "I'm going to like you, even if you don't want me to." (From Chris Atherton's session "Improving your UX: how to stop being angry and start empathising.")
All of the day's sessions were live-streamed and you can watch the videos
of all of these sessions on the DareConf Mini site.
The great thing about having the workshop day after the conference, instead of before, is that it was the perfect opportunity to actually begin implementing some of the ideas from the sessions. We had a very small group of folks in my workshop, and we essentially got to define our own workshop based on the needs and interests of the people there. We started with a short intro game to get more comfortable with each other, then listed out the various topics and exercises we could potentially tackle for the day. We each ranked the topics and adding it all together defined our actual agenda for the day.
We decided on the three following major topics for the day:
- Making meeting spaces safe
- Getting Things Done (GTD) and Personal Kanban
- Conflict resolution and compassionate communication
It was a packed day with so much practical, hands-on work that I ended the day full of ideas, confidence, and new hope.
Making Meeting Spaces Safe
Regarding making meeting spaces safe, we discussed "status" within a group, and the fluidity of status that can be used as a tool. Throughout the day we did a lot of exercises using improv techniques to feel the perspectives and interaction norms we need to identify, both in ourselves and others. We got to really feel the energy changes, both positive and negative based on very real human ways of interaction. We also discussed ways of disrupting the normal, assumed status of people in a group to encourage collaboration. This led us to talking about a range of "games" to be used to accomplish this, largely based on the book Gamestorming
. I have a visceral, negative reaction to playing games, but the motivation and implementation we were addressing was pretty non-threatening to me and got me excited about the possibilities there. Through this we also talked about handling people with high status who end up dominating a space and not leaving room for everyone to collaborate. One last big piece of this for me was the general discussion of making real, human connections with people and linking this together with Chris Atherton's session on actively working to like people. Having the fully human context of your work interactions with people makes a world of difference. It's something I know from working in the Drupal community for so long, but bringing the importance of this into the daily workspace was a very good reminder for me. It's an easy thing to let slide or not even be aware of, but it changes everything.
GTD and Kanban
I was curious about the GTD and Kanban overview because I had a grasp of the basic concepts for these, but I've never actually read the books, or taken the time to understand how they both work, or how they would work together. I feel like I'm pretty good at keeping my tasks on track, though I perennially feel like I don't have enough time to do everything on my list. We covered the basic ideas, and then true to the whole day we applied this by writing down some of our own real tasks and working through GTD and Kanban with them to see how it works, as well as raise questions and concerns about them that we discussed as a group. I've been inspired from the workshop to explore GTD and Kanban more on my own, and it's definitely helped me be more focused and organized with my tasks, work as well as personal. I'm still not a 100% convert to these methodologies, but I feel like the overview and practicing with these has let me tease out some more concepts and tools that work really well for me. For example, the default GTD contexts has always confused me a bit, but I've now sorted out what kinds of contexts work for me, and find that it is already helping me. I'm even writing this post based on my GTD lessons, with a context that gives me a handy list of things to do when I'm offline with my laptop (like being on airplanes).
The last major theme of the workshop had us turning our attention to conflict. This is an area that I strongly shy away from so I was glad to be "forced" to really dig into it. We went back to more role-playing and improv work to understand perspectives, and see the impact of the way we use language to either encourage or discourage understanding and collaboration. We then each picked a real conflict in our work lives to role-play with the other attendees, and we talked it out. It was the hardest part of the day, by far, but also very enlightening. It made me realize how much hard work I need to do here, as well as gave me some confidence that I can tackle these issues with humanity and honesty. It gave me a lot to think about and work on.
Closing the Day
We wrapped up the workshop by having everyone share three next actions we would take starting the next day. One was something we will start doing, one was something we would stop doing, and the third was something to continue doing. After having spent a full day diving into the practicalities of being human with this group, I had no reservations about sharing where I was and the things weighing on my mind. In case you are interested, here are my three next actions:
- Start using "listen, reflect, clarify" which is a way to slow down conversation and work towards understanding. As Penny mentioned in her session where she raised this, many people spend the time someone else is speaking thinking of what you want to say, or "re-loading" and not actually listening. This is a simple method (though harder to actually apply regularly) to listen to what someone says, reflect what they have said back to them to confirm you got it all, and then ask a genuine question to clarify their point further.
- Stop using "yes, but." This came from an exercise where we made plans with a partner and used three different sentence structures. The first was to simply say "no" to all of their suggestions and explain why. The second was to say "yes, but" to indicate we'd go along with it, but we weren't thrilled about it. The last was to say "yes, and" which was a fun way to get the idea juices rolling. Afterwards we discussed that "yes, but" is actually the most depressing and dangerous of the three reactions, as it most erodes the trust in the interaction.
- Continue the connection with my team. I feel like I have a good rapport with my team, and generally at Lullabot we work hard to communicate well. One thing attending this conference taught me was how much we do right at Lullabot. I plan to keep that good energy and effort going, and make it even better over time.
Overall I felt inspired, and I realized how much we do right at Lullabot and Drupalize.Me. There is always room for improvement, and I have plenty of work to do, but there was also a lot of affirmation of what is going right to be had as well. Such a great conference, with really wonderful people, all muddling through this together. I can not WAIT to go again in September.