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Natalie Warnert: How to turn conflict into a strength

In this episode, Richard interviews Natalie Warnert, the founder, president, and executive director of Women in Agile, and an Agile Process coach at Volkswagen Financial Services. She tells us about the importance of embracing healthy conflicts in your organization to achieve real compassion and empathy between the team members. She also shares some useful tools for unearthing simmering conflicts and transforming them into a creative force. When you finish listening to the episode, connect with Natalie on Twitter and LinkedIn, and visit her website at http://nataliewarnert.com/,

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Richard 00:11
Hi friends. Welcome back to With Great People. The podcast for high-performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski. People often misuse the term psychological safety to mean the absence of conflict. But healthy conflict is necessary. We need it if we want to construct the exchange of ideas. And if we want lasting and meaningful personal relationships. In this episode, I talk with Natalie Warnert. Natalie is founder, president and executive director of Women in Agile. As well as an agile process coach at Volkswagen financial services. Natalie talks about tools that can help uncover simmering conflicts within a team and turn these conflicts into a creative and bonding force. To support this podcast, visit my website, kasperowski.com.

Richard:
Our special guest today is Natalie Warnert. Hi, Natalie, how are you?

Natalie:
Hi, I’m good. How are you?

Richard:
I’m fine. Can you introduce yourself to our listeners?

Natalie:
Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, I’m Natalie. I live in Chicago. For those of you who have known me for a little while, I’ve kind of been all over the Midwest. Started out my career in Minnesota and jumped around a little bit, but I’m located in Chicago now. I am the founder, president and executive director of the Women in Agile nonprofit organization. And I’ve been an agile coach and consultant for about the last decade here and that’s about it.

Richard:
All right. Okay. So I’ve heard of Women in Agile as a thing. I’ve played a tiny role in Women in Agile, Boston. I’m over here in Boston. I did not know that it was an official non-profit organization. Can you tell me more about that?

Natalie:
Yeah, absolutely. So Women in Agile started as kind of just a social movement and hashtag back in 2013. And ever since then, it’s grown quite a bit. And that has come to encompass local groups like the one you mentioned in Boston. And it has come to encompass some conference pairings, including one that we do every year at the Agile Alliance. This will be our fifth year. And some other conferences that we pair with. And then from the local groups, there have been, little groups that have wanted to do kind of conference pairings and things like that. So couple of years ago, as this was getting a lot larger and we were doing some of these events, we were offered some sponsorships and we needed to incorporate. So, we did. And then we filed for the 501c3 non-profit status.

Natalie:
So, been an official 501c3 non-profit for a year now. And it’s pretty exciting. And so that encompasses any of the local groups that existed before and wanted to join. Any new local groups that want to join up with kind of the central organization where we just provide support. And we helped them with meetup costs and those kinds of things. Organize some of the conferences and get some materials together for folks that want to do that on their own and provide some sponsorship there. And then there’s one other program that we have around launching new voices is what it’s called. And we do that with our conference pairings to combat the problem of the catch 22 of, I can’t speak, blog, do this unless someone gives me experience to do that, but no one will give me experience because I don’t have it.

Natalie:
And so we specifically seek out people that are interested in speaking. We pair them with mentors and give them a spot to actually speak. And then we compensate them for that too, because we think that, that’s very important. So that’s Women in Agile in a very small nutshell.

Richard:
And it’s super cool. Thanks for sharing that. And so now this podcast is about teams and awesome teams. And I’m sure you have a team story to talk about with Women in Agile. What I’d like to ask people is what was the best team of your entire life, right? And this could be one of the teams that you’re a member of today. It could be a work team, a non-work team. Any group of two or more people that you’ve been part of in your life, what was the best one of those?

Natalie:
It’s really hard to pick just one, but I’m going to do, the recent example, the ongoing example right now, and that would be, my six person board of Women in Agile. And we are a great, great team.

Richard:
Okay. So this team, the board of Women in Agile, six people, six of you. This should be easy to take yourself to the work you’re doing. And oftentimes when I ask people this question, it’s some team in the distant past. What is it about this team, when you’re meeting together, when you’re doing your activity together, when you’re working together. Could you summarize how it feels in one word?

Natalie:
I think to the underlying word, I would say would be compassion. Everyone is there for the same reason and people are so great at being those compassionate team members to each other. We know that we’re going toward the same vision. And we also know that this is not our full-time job far from it. However, it does take up a lot of time. And everyone being there is there because they want to be. There’s no compensation. We are all putting in regular 40 plus hour a week jobs. And then doing this on the side and really because we are all passionate about it and we also have compassion for each other and the community in which we’re trying to serve.

Richard:
I want to know more about this word, compassion. What does that mean for you?

Natalie:
Well, I take it to mean empathy in some way, because again, when you’re working with a group of volunteers and everyone has their own lives and their own jobs, things get busy. They get super busy and sometimes deadlines go awry. Sometimes someone disappears for a few weeks. And it’s really easy to get super frustrated with that. And I know that, I’m not the best person at not getting frustrated about those types of things. But the way that the team really comes together is, they help to hold everyone, myself included accountable for really modeling the values that Women in Agile has. And understanding that there is usually an underlying reason, it’s usually a good reason, right? Assume positive intent.

Natalie:
And so having that compassion for what other people are going through. And then I just liked the word compassion because it has passion in it. Right. And I think that passion is so important for people’s types of work that they do. And if you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, right, that doesn’t make coming to work or coming to meetings every day, an enjoyable thing. It’s just something that you kind of have to do. And I don’t think that’s a life that a lot of people want to live. So that’s kind of what compassion means to me and why I think it so accurately describes this Women in Agile board team.

Richard:
Alright. Okay. And this Women in Agile board subjectively, objectively, how do you know this is such a great team?

Natalie:
Well, objectively, we try quite hard to actually formalize the things that we’re doing. This small experiments that we are running and put some actual metrics, baselines, goals in place. So we can objectively look at the results from, okay, we tried to do this thing. We sent out this particular email campaign. We launched this new program. Here’s where we were, here’s where we are. Right. Let’s compare those two. Did we meet our goal? Did we make an impact? What’s measurable about that? What’s objective? And so, it’s partially the effectiveness, right?

Natalie:
Subjectively I would say, I don’t know. It feels good. I don’t want to say it seems easy, easy is a super subjective word. That’s what pops into my head. It’s definitely not easy. And I think that, that’s why it’s good. I think there’s, this could be kind of both objective and subjective. There is actually a good amount of healthy conflict on the team. And so we’ve gone through cycles. And I don’t think that the Tuckman model is extremely accurate because, it’s not a forming, storming, norming, performing. It’s forming, storming, more storming, a little bit of norming, storming, again, like maybe performing. And then you add a couple of people it starts over.

Natalie:
And so, being aware of that and having the space for healthy conflict has been super, super important. And subjectively at various points, someone may have, if they were listening in on a call or something and been like, Oh, there’s some tension here. But I think that we all respect each other enough that we’re okay with that tension and we can resolve it in the way that it needs to be resolved. Whether it be, right at that time. Or later someone does some reflection and is like, oh, maybe I need to apologize for this. I mean, I’m speaking for myself. I know I have to do that all the time.

Richard:
I love this idea of healthy conflict. I’ve been pondering this for the last couple of months, healthy conflict. And people sometimes misuse the term psychological safety to mean there’s no conflict.

Natalie:
Right.

Richard:
I don’t know. What’s the tool you have, or what’s an example of a conflict and a healthy way to resolve it? Do you have anything you can share on that?

Natalie:
Sure. So we, as a board, we’re in some of the forming and storming cycles that you’d go through. And there were a couple of things that were kind of plaguing us. I don’t think we had all ever met face-to-face at that point. So that was interesting. I had worked with a couple of the people I knew. So I knew everybody because I had kind of initially formed this board. But the rest of the board did not know everybody. And I wouldn’t say that any of us had really close relationships. So in retrospect, looking back, it felt like we were all kind of tiptoeing around each other and that wasn’t healthy conflict. Because there really wasn’t any conflict. And if anything happened, we would kind of just ignore it when it got to be healthier.

Natalie:
I was realizing that there were a lot of underlying feelings and people didn’t necessarily trust each other. So this team didn’t start out as being this awesome high-performing team. We started out like any other team, when we’re trying to figure each other out and figure out what we’re trying to do. Build an organization at the same time. But one of the things that we did that I think really fostered some healthy conflict and some vulnerability was we did an exercise that I call name your trigger. And I wrote a blog post about it a few years ago. But essentially said to everybody, okay, think about something within the workplace or within interactions that really triggers you. And it makes you just crazy, annoyed, angry, whatever it may be. Think about that. How do you react when that happens? Right. And we actually, each kind of talked about that just in the things that we were going through within the organization.

Natalie:
And so mine was, the one I can think about is, one of my triggers is spelling errors and grammar errors in emails and that kind of thing. And it just drives me crazy. And I explained the background of why that was. I was like when I was a kid, I was just harped on about this and I struggled with it. And so it became really important to me now when I see it, I react because I am thinking, okay, you’re in a hurry, you’re being sloppy. And then I kind of take that to the next level saying if you’re being sloppy here, are you being sloppy somewhere else. And kind of talking through that and saying, and how I react to this is I’ll react a little bit passive aggressively. Or I might email someone else and be like, hey I noticed that you spell this and this wrong. Can you make sure that if we were sending out an official email, you’re running into spell check. And people might get upset about that.

Natalie:
And so just talking about, here’s me at my worst, and this is what I do, and this may be how you’ve seen it manifest. And so we all went through that. And I think after that, understanding, not just this is the trigger, but understanding this is where it came from in my life. And the experience that I had leading up to this. And then this is how I react. We kind of all got those things out. Then we were like, okay, it makes a lot more sense. Some of the things that we’ve been tiptoeing around with each other, because yeah, we kind of knew something was up, but didn’t necessarily know what it was. And we kind of came up with just some simple ways to remind each other that, hey, when you’re feeling triggered, right, I’m noticing this behavior. Or maybe take a second and take a couple of breaths or whatever it may be.

Natalie:
And I think that was a really healthy way to talk about some of the conflict that we’d been experiencing. But also get to know each other better and establish that it’s okay to be vulnerable and build up some trust around. We’ve shared these things that are fairly personal and they’re not at our best, but that in and of itself does build a level of trust.

Richard:
All right. I love that activity. And I know in the future to make sure I double check everything before I email it to [inaudible 00:13:42]. What are some of the other concrete behaviors that you use together on this team that lead to its success?

Natalie:
Yeah. I mean, checking in constantly on working agreements. I know that seems really simple, but another thing that I think a lot of groups struggle with is expectations that they have of each other. And some of the things, especially being a completely remote group and we only meet virtually, once or twice a month, we obviously have a lot of things we need to go over in between that time. And so things like, okay, if we put something on the Slack channel, right. And we tag it with this, that means you’re expected to respond within 24 hours. Otherwise things would kind of just go off to the wayside. Or if you want someone to do something, put a comment here. Or this person only likes email, those types of things.

Natalie:
And another thing that’s really important, I think in teams and I said trust, but I’ll take it one step further than that. Really the trust to be autonomous and to decentralize things. So when we started the organization, we kind of had appointed each one of us to one of the programs. However, I’d be really interested if my board listens to this or I should say the board, they’re not mine. But with having this organization that I was so invested in and I came up with a lot of the ideas and put some of the things in motion. A lot of other people did things too. But kind of being looked to as the leader, I found myself sometimes being more of the hippo, the highest paid person’s opinion, except I’m not paid. And when we kind of divided up the responsibilities for things, and delegate it, and started to really decentralize, which in and of itself is what allowed the org to grow. Having that trust for folks to be autonomous between all of us was super important, right?

Natalie:
Everyone has great ideas, but even if someone does something the way that you wouldn’t necessarily do it, we’re all so kind of integrated. These programs overlap quite a bit. Just allowing that to happen and not necessarily feeling like you have to step in and give your opinion every time. I mean, this is something that I continually struggle with. But trusting that they have a vision. We share those visions obviously, but they’ve thought through these actions. And even if it’s not exactly the way that you would have done it, that’s okay. And I think that’s something that a lot of folks struggle with because, everyone does things their own way. Everyone has their own standards for spelling, or how things are done, or how things are messaged. And so, just having that trust and giving that autonomy to each other is really important. Especially, when you have a leader that, it’s kind of their baby. So yeah, those are a couple of things I think that are really important.

Richard:
All right. Now how about some advice for listeners? How could they reproduce some of this team’s success?

Natalie:
I would definitely encourage you to try the trigger activity. I’m guessing we have show notes. We’ll put some links in the show notes for that post, where I talk about that. But you can kind of modify that as you need. And it’s just a really interesting activity. And I think it just really helps to build some of that relationship very quickly. It’s something that can be done at a retrospective. It can be done in a half an hour, if you need to. I’d say maybe take an hour because people like to talk, at least I do.

Natalie:
I would say another thing is, think about decentralization of decisions, and of responsibility, and delegation. And really think about what needs to be centralized and what does not. That’s something that, as this organization, like I mentioned, I mean, if we wouldn’t have decentralized things, local groups are essentially completely autonomous. We support them. We will help them. We do some community of practice type calls, but otherwise they’re free to run as they wish. We love the idea of sharing. We love to help wherever we can, but we don’t put a lot of centralized stipulations on them. And so, I think as you have organizations and teams, a lot of the things that are very difficult about that is the traditional hierarchical structure that can lead to micromanaging. And then the circles of trust around that, oh, we let you make this decision once it didn’t go well, so now we’re going to do it.

Natalie:
And then you never get out of that circle. And so it’s kind of continuing to really push yourself on what can be and what should be decentralized. And, if it makes you feel a little bit weird about that, and if it’s like, oh, well maybe that shouldn’t be decentralized. Chances are it probably still could be and should be. There are some really good agencies out there that kind of help you to make some of those decisions and really determine what can be delegated and decentralized. So I think that’s another big one. And then with the working agreements, do the exercise around working agreements and really agree. Here’s what we all expect of each other. And we are going to hold each other accountable for this. I think a lot of groups start out with working agreements as a good idea, but I think a lot of times they get posted on a Wiki somewhere and forgotten about.

Natalie:
And, I think that actually going back to those on a frequent basis specifically if new folks are added to the team. Or if the team has been having some conflict that’s maybe not constructive. Going back to those working agreements, reviewing them again, saying, are we still all in agreement of this? And even having some specific word, like a trigger word or a reminder word, when someone’s doing something that’s not adhering with the working agreements. Just as a quick reminder versus actually completely calling someone out and stopping a meeting. But, let’s say you look over and I’m on my phone, which I do all too often. And you just say in the middle of a sentence, hey, Natalie phone. And I’m like, Oh yeah, I’m going to put that away. So things like that. And it seems simple, but in practice we get very caught up in things and it can be difficult to do that. So how do we make it easier? And how do we make it safe, that psychological safety to be able to do that. And that all comes from the building relationships, and the trust, and the vulnerability.

Richard:
All right. Thanks for all that advice. Is there anything else you want to add? Anything you’ve been thinking about lately? And obviously Women in Agile is one of your passions. Any other passions, anything else you’d like to share?

Natalie:
Well, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about, and it does have to do with agile and Women in Agile, I am starting to work on a book around what nonprofits and social movements can learn from thinking like a lean startup. And so it’s going to use Women in Agile as a case study as to how we did some of these things to decentralize the movement and really allow it to grow the things that we still had to keep our hands on. And the lean startup and product cotta experimentation route that we took for a lot of the things that we do.

Natalie:
And so I think the really interesting thing about looking at a nonprofit or a social movement versus a for-profit startup is, there’s a few different things. First and foremost, we really, nonprofits and movements really don’t have money. Startups have some seed money and venture capital or investor money from their founders. Nonprofits don’t, not usually anyway. And so when you look at those experiments, really, how do we make these experiments as quick and as lean as possible? So we know that we’re going in the right way. And secondly, again, the movement or nonprofit type things, they’re usually looking at a different type of problem. It’s not a traditional product, whether that be a software product or a physical product, it’s more of a service, but it’s looking to change some usually societal status quo or condition. And so that’s very different. Because a lot of people don’t think about that in the same way. They don’t think about leaders of those things as innovators, which they are.

Natalie:
They don’t think about running experiments on it. Because it’s, what are you experimenting on? Well, we’re experimenting on what we can change at various levels of society or whatever it is. And so I’m going to write about how we’ve used some agile principles, some lean startup principles, some product cotta principles, to experiment on changing some of those status quos. And obviously societal changes are much larger and take a lot longer to make. But with the advent of various technologies that allow sharing and decentralization more than we’ve ever had it before, that really has expounded these types of movements. So we can say, yeah, #Womeninagile, we could also say, #MeToo. We could also say, #Fridaysforfuture and #timesup. All of those different types of things that are these social movements. Some of them have changed into nonprofits, #BlackLivesMatter, which is a nonprofit same with Women’s March. And so following those trajectories and you can too kind of thing.

Richard:
I can’t wait to get my hands on that book. Okay. Now, if listeners would like to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Natalie:
Everything is pretty much under my full name, actually. I’m on the web at nataliewarnert.com. I am on Twitter of course, @nataliewarnert. And Instagram, all that stuff. And then for Women in Agile, we are online at womeninagile.org. We’re on Twitter @womeninagileorg. Also, on Instagram @womeninagile. We’ll type all that up. And there’s plenty of ways to get ahold of everything through there. So pretty pervasive out there.

Richard:
All right. Awesome we’ll add links to a lot of these things in the episode [inaudible 00:23:57].

Natalie:
Sounds great. Thank you for having me. This was wonderful.

Richard:
Oh, thank you so much. I’m thrilled. I’m ecstatic. I’m so glad you could join us today. Thanks so much, Natalie.

Natalie:
You’re welcome.

Richard:
Hi friends. Thanks again for listening. And remember to support this podcast, visit my website, kasperowski.com.

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