The broken record technique

In agile teams, people give each other feedback all the time. Sometimes it is feedback about things that can be done better and often it is about expressing gratitude or pointing out something that was done well.

In fact I would say that good feedback is one of the things that drives agile teams forward. Without it, teams can get burnt out, burning through an endless backlog without seeing the progress they have been making.

Sometimes though, agile teams can also start suffering from group think, talkfests and unhealthy conversations. This is where a technique called the broken record technique comes might come in handy.

I say “might come in handy” because it might also not come in handy, because the broken record technique can be annoying and is used more to press a point home than to demonstrate that you are listening.

The ideal time to use this technique is when either:

  • You have given feedback or contributed a point to a conversation and you feel unheard; or
  • You are a coach and you see someone in the team trying to contribute to a conversation but being ignored.

The technique basically involves repeating your message calmly but persistently when someone tries to argue with you or reject your idea without listening. It is good because it makes a point without adding energy to a conversation that is starting to escalate.

It is also good because it requires very little energy on your part, beyond the discipline of not engaging in any escalating conflict. In fact this is key to using it successfully. You must remain calm and keep repeating the message with a flat voice. Do not raise your voice, do not alter you tone to make it interesting, just keep it flat, direct and generally boring.

Let me give you a classic example from a time long, long ago:

My mum
James, you punched your brother and now you are going to lose your pocket money
A younger JamesHe punched me first and he should get into trouble
Mum
I will speak to him separately – nevertheless you punched him and now you will lose your pocket money 
James
Come on, I hardly touched the little wimp
Mum
Nonetheless – you punched him and now you will lose your pocket money
James
Fine – but it is not fair
Mum
Nonetheless – you are going to lose your pocket money
An argument I could not win

But would you really use this approach when talking to educated, sensible adults. Let me give you two more examples and see what you think.

Coach
You deployed your story with known bugs in it, but we agreed in our definition of done that all bugs get fixed first. A customer has complained. 
Other personThey were pretty minor bugs
Coach
We agreed in our definition of done that there would be no known bugs 
Other personIt wasn’t really worth spending 2 hours fixing something so minor
Coach
We agreed in our definition of done that there would be no known bugs
Other personMaybe we should change our definition
Coach
Maybe, you can raise that in the retro. In this sprint we agreed that there would be no known bugs
Close to a real conversation that I once had

That doesn’t seem too hostile to me, but you might disagree. The next one is a bit more extreme and is thankfully not a real conversation that I was in.

Coach
When you call me “little dearie” in front of the team it makes me feel as though you are belittling me. It makes me feel really tense 
Other personReally, that’s just how I talk. I use that term a lot around here and nobody else minds
Coach
They probably don’t, but it makes me feel really tense 
Other personWow – you are kind of sensitive. Do you often get upset easily
CoachNot usually, no, nonetheless when you …
A confrontation or just a point that was not being heard?

While I do prefer listening and mutual respect, I have used this approach a number of times and it has worked well for me. It can come across as a little confronting, which is actually the point I guess.

What do you think – is this a helpful approach or is it counterproductive?

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