How to solve conflicts and improve the company culture?

Younito Man
Marcel van Hove

Marcel van Hove

Agile Coach, Visual Facilitator & Trainer Co-Founder Visual Friends

In the Visual Friends Radio Insights, I would like to share with you some experiences I have in my daily life working as an agile coach and visual facilitator. My name is Marcel van Hove and I hope you enjoy this episode called “The whiteboard dance”.


A couple of months ago I was working with two teams. One team was the front end and the other was the backend team. The backend team builds services that the frontend team would consume and build a beautiful user interface on top of it.
They were located on an open floor plan probably not more than 50 meters away from each other. Normally they would walk over to the other team if they had questions or need help.

One day things were a bit different. I noticed that when I walked past the frontend team they were a bit nervous and looked at me like they wanted to talk or needed help. I came closer and started chatting. It turned out that the new backend service didn’t behave as expected and even worse they were under pressure to release that day.

Because they were running on a tight schedule negative behaviour appeared that normally wouldn’t happen. The frontend team started blaming the other team for building a crappy API.

I walked over to the backend team to have a chat with them and explained what had just occurred to me.

As it turned out they already knew about the problem and had a clear answer for it. They didn’t agree that the problem lay in their API and it would behave as expected.

So here we are, the frontend team thinks they were provided with an API that does not meet their requirements while the backend team believe they have implemented a more than capable that has been integrated incorrectly.

At this point, you as the leader are at an intersection. One direction is labelled “The Blame Game” and the other direction is called “Road to Greatness”.

If you drive down the road of the blame game your teams will learn this behaviour and repeat it again and again. Long-term this behaviour destroys any company and makes it a miserable place to work.

I think most of us know that path. Things get escalated and you waste time in unproductive meetings where everyone tries to protect themselves. People act based on their reptile mind. If you’re strong enough you might attack – If you are weak you try to survive.

I ask you – independent of your role in your organisation – to step in and follow me on the “Road to Greatness”. I believe doing something great every day in a company will nurture the right behaviour and change the company’s culture in the long term for the better.

So let’s get back to our story. I said to the backend team, “Guys, We have two opposite understandings of the same services – We need to get together!” “Who can come around and help?” I only asked for one or two people, but actually, the whole team stood up and walked with me over to the other team.

If you walk up somewhere with almost ten people you have an impact. They immediately stopped working and were surprised but happy that we took them seriously. I didn’t wait for an introduction and asked for attention:

I walked up to the whiteboard. Luckily, almost all the walls in the office are whiteboard walls so that we don’t need to drag someone into a meeting room.

Of course, I do a terrible job trying to explain the picture but often it is on you to get the first lines and boxes up on the wall. With that, you break the ice and set the right attitude and positive energy. People from both teams corrected my drawing and helped to finish the picture.

Let us pause here for a second. How is the situation now different to 15 minutes ago?

Before, we had two teams not talking to each other. Now we have two teams helping me draw the problem up on a whiteboard.

That is the beginning of a dance and this dance is about
• Pruning out any negative emotions by parking them on the wall.
• Keeping a positive attitude by focusing on the drawing.
• Creating a comprehensive picture on the wall so that people can ask each other questions.
• Preparing the team to take over again and passing the pen on to the teams.
• Creating options to solve the challenge.

It is a dance because no matter who steps on whose toes you keep on smiling and moving forward. You, as the person drawing, set small impulses that guide the group to draw the next line.

I start this dance as a neutral facilitator in front of the whiteboard by drawing the first lines and boxes. From here both teams help each other. It is like they would shake hands and agree to dance together. (Shaking hands is what I learnt to do before you dance with someone. At least when I went to classical dance school more than 20 years ago.)

Now, both teams throw great ideas at the whiteboard and create the picture on the wall to get “one shared understanding”. And whenever someone steps out of this agreement and steps on someone else’s toes you, as the visual facilitator says, “Thank you, let me park this here on the wall.” But you don’t cut off, this would disengage them from the dance.

Back to the story and what happened next. We were standing in a half-circle in front of the board. We got the situation mapped out and very soon some people started creating ideas about what the reason for the misunderstanding could be. Then they grabbed their laptop, opened the screen and had a look at the data structure underneath and bang: They knew what the problem was. They solved it and released on the same day and by the way, at this point, they took over driver seat again and were in charge of the dance.

So why was this interruption and drawing together so important? I think the answer becomes obvious when you think about the options you have. You can either talk about the problem and document it and much later come to a meeting. But when you come to that meeting the problem has already become bigger then it actually is. The costs of delay have increased so that a lot of attention is on the topic. Additionally, you lost an opportunity to create a real connection between two awesome teams.

Most of the time, problems in IT are just little communication gaps that need to be closed. If you have this understanding stopping two teams from working and bringing them together is the right choice. Especially when you want to build an awesome company where people are not just good, they’re really great. They really rock the show and they build something awesome.

I hope you enjoyed this little insight into my world. And if you found it useful, please jump over on iTunes and subscribe. Give us a rating, share it with your friends, write us a comment that really helps us to get the word out and make more people aware of the bikablo drawing technique.

Additionally, if you think that person is really interesting and should be on the show or you have a request to talk about a topic – Please write me an email and I will get back to you.

I wish you a great rest of the week whichever office you draw on a whiteboard. If you think you can’t draw: I run monthly training in Australia, New Zealand and Live Online via Zoom. If you’re in Europe and listening to that there are monthly training in German-speaking Europe as well as in London and other cities. If you can’t find a bikablo visual facilitation training close to you, just write me an email!

Things to read from here:

Stop the line principle explained by Eric Ries
What visual facilitation is about?

Marcel van Hove

Marcel combines agile team coaching with visual thinking. Marcel believes that a group of people drawing together on a whiteboard can change the world. He loves high-performing teams and therefore coaches teams every day.

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