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Personas as tools to help in difficult situations

During the process of working in software creation, conflict is normal. Conflict, if well directed, is the key to achieving much more than you ever could if everybody just agreed on one single person's ideas.

However, directing conflict towards a healthy dialogue is a tough job. Sometimes you feel disoriented, and need to rely on methods and patterns so you don't end up joining the crowd in their bat-shit crazy. So here are some ideas, represented by personas you can "wear", to help you get the best out of stakeholders and teams.

The waiter

It’s friday night and you're our with 2 of your friends. You go to a restaurant that has awesome food, so obviously it's packed! After a short while, a waiter comes and drops menus on the table and leaves. You and your friends look at the menus, take your picks. The waiter comes back. Each friend announces their choice of food and beverage: "a special sauce burger and a coke, no ice" — the waiter nods — "a double decker with no onions. Can you put extra bacon? And I want a Stella Artois". The waiter nods again. "A pack of fries for me, crispy onions and bacon. Also, I'd like a steak, medium-rare. And a diet coke, on ice". One more nod.

How confident are you the waiter got everything right? How confident would you be in comparison if, by the end of the order, the waiter listed all the items so you can confirm if the order is correct?

When we are talking to someone we need to collect information from, there is a very curious phenomenon that repeats itself: the provider of information will be restless unless the listener confirms their understanding by repeting what they heard. This tecnique helps in the following challenges:

  • if a stakeholder doesn't trust you or your team to do what they asked for
  • if a stakeholder changes their mind (and the scope) frequently, but without admitting their change
  • if a team or team member uses confusing technical language to distance you from the solution they want to implement
  • if anyone gets the impression that you don't listen or that you easily disregard what has been said

The flight attendant

You are 10.000 ft mid-air. The plane starts shaking and the lights go on. The sign to fasten your seatbelt glares overhead. At first, you hear other passengers giggling when a more abrupt move takes your breath. You hear the pilot say "we are entering a turbulent area, please fasten your seatbelts and remain seated". As the minutes pass, the giggles die, and you hear the muffled cry of a child. Your eyes move around, and you exchange some looks with frightened faces. This is not normal, is it? Is the plane going to crash? Has something gone awfully wrong?

Suddenly, a flight attendant appears. They look calm and poised, with a gentle smile. Looking in your eyes, they say "we are going through a little turbulence, but it should be over real soon. Would you like me to bring you some water?"

There are moments that, even if the plane is indeed going to crash, the sprint is going to fail, the client is going to cancel the contract or whatever disaster you might have in mind, allowing your team or your stakeholder to panic will not prevent the plane to crash, nor will help any of the passengers. In fact, maybe if people don't panic, the survival rate might go up drastically, given they'll be able to follow the security instructions.

This means that, sometimes, even when you know the whole project's going to hell, you must put on a flight atendant smile, and say everything is going to be alright. Then maybe you'll have a fighting chance for making this work. This technique helps in the following challenges:

  • When a stakeholder doesn't trust the team and keeps checking in on everybody
  • When the team has suffered in the hands of previous clients/POs/managers and is jumpy when questioned
  • When there are conflict inside the team and you have a strategy in place to work them out, but everybody is anxious
  • When you are in danger of losing a contract, but the team needs to keep on working steadily

The nurse

The review was a disaster, the aforementioned plane has crashed, the sprint failed and the whole project went to shit. You are in hospital, and when you open your eyes, you see someone taking care of your bandages. They realize you are awake, and explain you were in a plane crash. That you might feel pain and discomfort, but it's a plane crash after all, so it's very normal to feel this way. They make sure you are cared for, and able to rest and heal faster.

When a disaster happens, the team will be very disraught. They will feel beat down, like failures. At this point, it's no use doing an autopsy with them to figure out what went wrong. Leave that for 1 or 2 days from now. At this moment, they need to heal, and being there for them and providing empathy will make them heal faster and avoid that pain from turning into an attempt to find blame. So buy a pizza. Use the retrospective for teambuilding dynamics. Make sure everyone gets to go home and rest. Talk about different, non-work-related subjects. Make jokes. Help the mood to lighten up and your bond to tighten up. Doing a post-mortem when the hurt is partially healed will run more smoothly and productively. This technique helps in the following challenges:

  • a sprint fails badly, with great consequences to the product
  • the client bursts out in the review and blames the team
  • the team is facing problems and finding scapegoats instead of trying to find a solution together
  • an important release date was lost

I really hope this proves as useful to you as it has proven to me. Sometimes we need to lean on patterns we can recognize to deal with unforseen or difficult situations, and these personas have helped me a lot in that sense.

Naturally, you will find that these are not the only personas you can use. So far, they are the ones I use the most, but you can find new needs, and build new personas. If you do, and you would like to share your experience, I'd love to hear about it.

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