Conteneo Blog

Anonymous Participation: Collaborating Safely on Sensitive Topics

Posted by Luke Hohmann on Oct 9, 2017 6:00:17 PM

We have released fully anonymous participation for
organizations that need to increase safety when tackling sensitive topics.

Today I am announcing the release of an important feature in the Weave platform: Fully anonymous participation. It isn’t often that a single feature deserves a newsletter and a blog post, but given the state of our society and the reality of what many people experience in their organizations I feel it is important to share this feature and its implications. I'll outline a bit of the history around this feature, why we implemented it and some of our hopes as to how this feature can help organizations thrive by enabling them to tackle really hard topics.

 

The History of Weave (and a Pivot)

Weave originally started as a market research platform to help Agile organizations better understand their customers and create richer, more actionable data faster than surveys. We don’t need, or want, anonymity in this use of the platform, especially when researchers are following the ethical guidelines outlined by the Qualitative Consultants Research Association (which Conteneo does!).

Over time, though, the use of the platform quickly pivoted into a powerful tool for internal collaboration and engagement. Instead of using Speedboat and Sailboat with customers to understand how to improve products and services, we found that internal Agile teams were happily using Speedboat and Sailboat for retrospectives. Similarly, portfolio managers renamed Buy a Feature to “Fund a Project” to improve the selection of projects and allocation of resources, and strategic planning teams transformed and extended Prune the Product Tree to become Prune the Future for strategic planning. (learn more about Sailboat/Speedboat, Buy a Feature/Fund a Project and Prune the Product Tree/Prune the Future).

These applications of the platform were fully supported with participants who were comfortable being identified, with obvious benefits: facilitators and teams could collaborate better and create more actionable results when they could identify the participants and engage in thoughtful discussions on portfolios, roadmaps, backlogs and many other topics.

Platform Improvements Revealed a Hidden Need

As part of our ongoing pivot from a market research platform to a broader collaboration platform we extended Weave to allow facilitators to give participants access to forum results by implementing a set of improvements to how we obtain and verify email addreses. These were well-received because now it meant that facilitators could easily share results with participants. 

However, there was a catch: After we implemented these improvements, we started to get urgent requests to support anonymous participants. Specifically,forward-thinking facilitators told us that they were using Weave to address extremely sensitive topics such as diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the very real challenges that many organizations face when they grapple with the deeper values of Agility (such as dealing with so-called “leaders” who exercise authority through “command and control” practices or organizations who struggle to adopt Scrum values).

These facilitators were using Weave because they knew their employees wanted a genuine conversation about the issues – not a simplistic “morale survey”.

We had previously received a few requests for anonymous participation, but these faded as facilitators realized they could “fake out” Weave by asking participants to use fake names and email addresses. This was a crude workaround, and the improvements we made to email handling invalidated that workaround. More importantly, participants reported that giving any email address, even a fake one, made it feel that they were being tracked and that their feedback could be used against them.

Change of Heart Leads to Change of Requirements

Every Product Manager knows that when multiple customers tell you how they’re implementing workarounds on your product you have a clear opportunity for improving it. But, every Product Manager has a responsibility to manage their product towards the vision they’ve established. Simply put, I really struggled with the idea of adding anonymous particpation to Weave.

Some research in organizational behavior (What Anonymous Feedback Will (and Won’t) Tell You, from Harvard Business Review) suggests that anonymous feedback can have negative effects, especially when an organization is striving to tackle complex subjects. And anonymity can, in much more rare circumstances, give participants freedom to treat each other poorly (which, in our experience, rarely happens). Sometimes, though, you have to throw out the academic research, especially when it is based on what employees want to avoid: surveys.

I was also concerned that support anonymous participants would run counter to a number of Scrum values that I hold dear, such as openness, respect and courage

I talked this over extensively with our Customer Advisory Board and our Certified Collaboration Instructors. Through these conversations I became convinced that I needed to extend Weave to support anonymous participation and that anonymity can be a means supporting, not detracting from, Scrum values, by giving participants a safe context for deliberation. 

Weave Security Options.png

It sounded simple to implement, but it wasn’t: we had to rethink the process of joining a forum, authenticating facilitators and refactor a good chunk of the code that manages sessions. We also had to find an acceptable solution to security (we did – anonymous forums are secured entry through a password controlled by the facilitator). That’s OK – we’re Agile. Refactoring is what we do and our dev team are masters at it.

With Great Power...

I'll conclude with the following thought: It pains me to realize that not every company strives to operate with the same values of openness, inclusion, diversity and collaborative decision-making as Conteneo. Indeed, some of the practices at large established companies and unicorns alike that have recently come to light are downright horrid. Through reflection I’ve come to realize that this was among the reasons why I resisted extending Weave to support anonymous participation.

But once I got past my own feelings and truly embraced the pain that many people experience in their workplace, it was easy to move this item from the Dreamlog of our customers to the top of our backlog and get it Done, Done. Accordingly, we’re proud that we have extended Weave to support enterprises who need anonymity to create the safety they need to obtain the high-impact data they need to thrive.

 

Topics: Agile, Innovation, Strategy, safety, diversity and inclusion