12th June 2015

#dareconf underground

Victoria Johnson
Project Manager
DareConference Image

Image courtesy of Paul Clarke

As our working world becomes more digitally focused, it’s often the case that the development of our people skills is overlooked, resulting in poor communication which negatively impacts our working relationships.

By hosting #dareconf underground, Together London aims to support those working in a digital environment in developing the facilitative and people skills necessary to succeed.

As an advocate of agile project facilitation over conventional project management, the opportunity to attend the workshop provided the chance to measure the efficacy of my own working practices against those of others.

The event - which brings together digital professionals such as project managers, user experience designers, solutions architects, and more - encourages an approach to better working through collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution. And, whilst the prospect of spending a day in a Shoreditch basement doing improvisational theatre exercises with a group of strangers filled me with dread, developing my facilitation skills and understanding more about empathy for users was too good an opportunity to miss.

Safe space

The day kicked off with an introduction by event organiser Jonathan Khan. Jonathan’s talk focused on the creation of ‘safe spaces’ within the professional environment, and that extended to the one we would be operating in for the day (a trendy bar, not a dingy basement after all).

The concept of safe spaces can be applied within environments such as the retrospective or stand-up; its intent is to reassure everyone that their contribution is welcome, valid and that they can speak without fear of reprisal or embarrassment.

Another simple technique that Jonathan employed was the use of a countdown timer to keep each workshop element on schedule. Such an obvious, yet overlooked technique, is a terrific means to keep pace and focus, one that I will be using for my own future meetings.


When time came for the talks to begin, Amy Wagner, agile coach to the Ministry of Justice, was interviewed in a refreshingly informal style by Jonathan - sat among the attendees as opposed to an elevated position on a stage or podium. This was an engaging format, and I found myself hanging onto every word.

They discussed how to effectively facilitate meetings and engage stakeholders, manage difficult scenarios - such as holding conversations when things haven’t quite gone to plan on a project - and how to conduct beneficial retrospectives.

There was much to learn from this discussion, with advice that will prove invaluable to my own processes, such as:

  • Using a neutral facilitator in retrospectives to encourage honest feedback, something that can be applied to any scenario where I might be deemed too attached to a project to be objective.

  • Initiating retrospectives with the prime directive to reassure the assembled team and encourage positive output. For those who, like me, haven’t come across this before (resulting in momentary confusion over what I saw as a Star Trek reference), you can start your meeting with this statement: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand." --Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

  • Tackling blame-game culture. I am very proud to work for a company that does not employ this tactic; however, it’s in our nature to assign blame either to ourselves or those around us. The methods Amy described encourage a collaborative culture, and that includes being mutually responsible for project outputs. Creating a better environment for conversations around what went wrong can only be a good thing, and help people feel that the objective is not to identify what went wrong, but rather what can we do better.

Following the talk, an invitation to ask questions revealed some great insights. One instance came from a delegate’s inspired suggestion around how to deal with the problem of an over-talker on web conferences (simply switch to a text conversation using tools like Slack or HipChat - you can’t talk over someone in text).


Our next talk was from Lisa Scott, Product Manager for the Government Digital Service. Lisa provided fantastic advice on how to engage stakeholders effectively and encourage an equal amount of input from everyone, especially those who are sometimes unwilling or unable to participate in stakeholder meetings.

Lisa was also able to detail the importance of being able to converse both in tech-speak and layman’s terms to facilitate dialogue between the user and the technical team. This is a role our Solutions Architects play very well at Deeson.

One of the challenges I often face as a Project Manager is aligning all stakeholders; everyone has their own ideas about how things should be done, and all of these ideas are valid. This can make for a confusing brief, so it’s critical that you bring everyone into alignment to make a controlled start. Lisa’s advice was to identify a handful of shared objectives and turn them into a high-level roadmap. This method is especially effective for agile teams, as it switches focus from small-scale deliverables to high-level goals, which is not only more manageable in terms of expectations, but also feels more positive as a process.


The third and final talk of the day was entirely different in its tone. Charlie Peverett, Head of Digital Strategy at Neo, spoke about both professional and peer-to-peer coaching. He gave an honest account of his own career journey and of feeling at times that he was in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing, something that most people can relate to. It was through his own experience of being coached that he came to realise how changing his approach can make such a significant difference to your professional outlook.

Charlie admitted that his initial experience with a coach made him feel like he was being attacked, but that he quickly came to understand that asking tough questions is necessary to identify where you are now, as well as where you want to be.

He cited the GROW coaching model as being of particular value. This is a simple method that asks:

G - What is the GOAL?
R - What is the REALITY?
O - What are the OBSTACLES?
W - What is the WAY FORWARD?

Charlie’s key point around this method is that you do not need to be an expert to employ it - anyone can apply this to any scenario without prior knowledge of someone’s role or positioning.

Whilst professional paid coaching options are available, you do not necessarily need to find budget for this, only time. Charlie himself takes an hour out each week to meet a friend for coffee, and they take it in turns to coach each other. I think this is something that could have benefit for workers in all sectors; taking time out to process things, continually question, improve, and identify attainable goals.

The workshop

The workshop, led by Jonathan, covered the themes of accepting and adding to suggestions, using non-violent communication to resolve conflict, and facilitating in group scenarios without dictating or controlling them.

I have attended a workshop on non-violent communication before with Jonathan, and at the time I struggled with some of the principles. Repeating these in a larger group made me realise just how much I had absorbed from that session, and that I had already made positive adjustments to my practices.

In one exercise we were asked to plan a picnic in the form of a series of improvised role plays. First, we should suggest something to bring, and our partner was to then reject the suggestion outright with a reason. This was much more fun than I had anticipated (with the additional perk of me trying to explain scotch eggs to an American delegate).

The next set of exercises had us repeat the scenario, only this time saying yes grudgingly, and the third saying yes with extreme enthusiasm. These felt much more uncomfortable, and we agreed that saying yes unwillingly felt worst, but it was what most of us tend to do in our working relationships.

This is where Jonathan introduced us to the concept of saying, “Yes, AND,” instead. The mood change when employing this technique is striking, as was clear by the noise level in the room.

While many of these improvisational exercises do not translate into reality, the theory behind them does. They encourage acceptance, collaboration, and support of your peers, and in doing the exercises you come to acknowledge the negative elements of your own approach. This can prompt some fairly immediate adjustments, which is where the showing empathy element of the workshop becomes effective. Being able to consider how someone might be feeling, and what they might need, allows you to carefully tailor your requests. Not only does this enable you to increase your persuasive powers but, like the facilitation techniques and the stakeholder alignment strategies, it feels more positive, and more productive.

In conclusion

I would strongly recommend this workshop to anyone working in the digital sector and elsewhere -  the techniques presented are universally interesting and useful. If attending this is enough to simply show where you might be inadvertently using violent language, or adding words like “just” to a sentence where it might undermine someone, or realising that you are busy solving problems on other people's behalf rather than coaching them towards their own solutions, that is enough of a breakthrough to significantly change your working approach for the better.

What I learnt at #dareconf underground

FACILITATION is still preferable in my role to management. I see my job as enabling a multi-skilled team to do its job without blockers, with the right information, and with adequate time and materials - not to dictate in any way how things should be done.

Showing EMPATHY is not only important to users, but to your colleagues. Being able to look at and question the root of a request or someone's behaviour gives you better insight as to how to respond. This gets better results for you, as well as improving your relationship with them.

COACHING is not just for the professionals. With a little time and the will to improve, anyone can apply coaching methods to help others as well as themselves.

POSITIVITY BREEDS POSITIVITY. It’s pretty simple really, but the workshop demonstrated that using more positive language generates a more positive response. This can trigger an upward spiral effect: you are happier, your colleagues are happier, and most importantly, your client is happier.