The Personal History Exercise: A Gateway to Trust and Vulnerability in Agile Teams

Jul 7, 2024 | Uncategorized

The Personal History Exercise: A Gateway to Trust and Vulnerability in Agile Teams

Agile coaches often face the challenge of nurturing trust and openness within teams. The Personal History Exercise, as presented by Patrick Lencioni in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, offers a practical and effective approach to initiating this journey. This exercise serves as a lightweight entry into building trust and fostering vulnerability, making it ideal for teams at any stage of their agile journey.

Implementing the Exercise: Step-by-Step Guide

Duration and Setup

  • Time Allocation: Typically, the exercise takes about 30-45 minutes, depending on the team’s size.
  • Environment: Choose a comfortable, private space free from distractions.

Conducting the Exercise

  1. Introduction: Begin by explaining the purpose of the exercise – to understand each other better and build trust.
  2. Lencioni’s Suggested Questions:

    1. What city were you born in?
    2. How many siblings do you have, and where do you fall in the order?
    3. What was a unique challenge or hardship you faced growing up?

      These questions start with factual information, gradually leading to more personal revelations without forcing vulnerability. Of course you can choose any other set of questions that fulfills this purpose.
  3. Facilitation:

    1. Start by sharing your own history as an example or have the highest ranking leader go first.
    2. Encourage honesty but respect each individual’s comfort level with sharing.
    3. Foster an atmosphere of respect and active listening.
  4. Prompts and Depth:

    1. Guide the team members to share meaningful experiences.
    2. Encourage them to elaborate on how these experiences shaped them.

Example Scenario

Imagine a team where, during the exercise, a member reveals they were adopted. This revelation leads to a deeper understanding and connection, as another member shares a similar experience. Such discoveries can create bonds that were previously unseen, despite years of working together. And that can lead to more effective and productive collaboration.

The Value of Light Vulnerability

The Personal History Exercise is a gentle foray into vulnerability. Team members have control over how deep they go, allowing them to open up without feeling too exposed. This controlled vulnerability is key in agile environments, where trust and flexibility are crucial.

Facilitating Trust and Openness

  • Controlled Sharing: Members choose how much they want to share, creating a safe space for vulnerability.
  • Building Empathy: Learning about each other’s backgrounds fosters empathy, crucial for agile collaboration.
  • Breaking Down Barriers: Sharing personal histories can dissolve preconceptions and facilitate a more genuine team dynamic.

The light exercise can be followed up by more vulnerable exercises like the Life-Line Exercise. The great utility of the Personal History Exercise is as a starting point for building trust and vulnerability. People are not pushed into the deep end immediately and can still control how much they want to open up. This creates a foundation for more in-depth vulnerability and trust measures.

Real-Life Impact

Surprising Discoveries

  • Unexpected Commonalities: Team members often find they share unexpected similarities, like immigrant backgrounds or unique family dynamics, which can forge stronger bonds.
  • Deeper Understanding: Learning about a colleague’s upbringing or challenges can change perceptions and improve team dynamics.

The Exercise in Agile Transformations

In agile transformations, this exercise helps teams transition from traditional to agile mindsets. It fosters a culture where openness and adaptability are valued, aligning well with agile principles. Empathy as a key element of an agile culture can be built on these first shared stories.

Variations

Feel free to adapt this exercise. A friend of mine (an amazing global leadership coach from Silicon Valley) uses a variation of this exercise when meeting new people for the first time.

She‘ll take you for a brisk walk and ask you: “So, tell me your life‘s story in 2 min. Start from your birth.“. This prompt leads to a lightweight start into getting to know each other. The time-box combined with starting from birth prevents you from thinking too much about what professional side you want to present to her; and before you know it, you establish a meaningful relationship on a human level.

Conclusion

The Personal History Exercise is more than just an icebreaker; it’s a foundational tool for agile coaches and leaders. By encouraging controlled vulnerability and openness, it sets the stage for deeper trust and collaboration – essential elements for successful agile teams.

References and Further Reading

Agile coaches can use this exercise as a stepping stone to more intensive trust-building activities, laying the groundwork for a cohesive and resilient team culture.

Let me know your experiences with building trust in teams. Do you think the personal history exercise will help you in your work?

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Thank you for reading The Agile Compass. I’m Matthias, here to help you help those around you become agile.

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