Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Advanced Agile Coaching

This post assumes that you are already familiar with Agile Coaching as described in Lyssa Adkin's Coaching Agile Teams, taking an ICAgile ICP-ACC class, or having read the Agile Coach Basics mini-book on this blog. If you find the coaching mode (aka stance) of Agile Coaching interesting, you may be interested in exploring it beyond the above references. In the past that has meant reading the book Co-Active Coaching, which is one of the best and most practical Coaching books out there, or obtaining an International Coaching Federation certification.

This post is certainly no substitute for either of these options, it is simply my short take on advanced coaching techniques. If you find it interesting, I suggest you look further into Coaching in general and consider reading the Co-Active Coaching book as a good next step.

The Coaching Mode
When you are in the coaching mode of Agile Coaching, you are not working together to solve a problem; you are enabling the coachee to do all of the problem solving on their own. All of your mental energy should be focused on looking for which coaching techniques to apply and applying them.

Coaching Triggers
When you are in the coaching mode, your main job is to look for coaching triggers. A coaching trigger is a specific set of circumstances that indicate the use of one or more coaching techniques. For instance, if the coachee is wandering aimlessly, that’s a trigger that indicates using a technique like focusing, interrupting, or orienting. On the other hand, if they seem distracted, you should consider using the technique of releasing. Here is a brief introduction to eleven coaching techniques and their coaching triggers that you may find useful.

Redirecting
When you are given a direct request, such as “can you go give that team a refresher on Scrum”, always try to move the conversation to a coaching conversation. For instance: “Sure. What’s the background on this?”

Releasing
You may notice that the coachee has something on their mind getting in the way of working on their main concern. Consider bringing it out into the open with a question such as, “you seem a bit distracted by something. What’s up?”

Spectating
When you are overloaded, you may feel the need to ask the coachee to pause, slow down, or repeat information. Instead, try following along with them and allow them to pursue their problem solving thought process wherever it may lead. When things settle down, you can always ask for a summary.

Clarifying
If something the coachee is saying doesn’t make sense to you, it may be there’s something they haven’t completely thought through but they don’t realize it. Having the coachee back up and take a look at what they are saying may help them uncover a hidden assumption or a blindspot. Example: “I’m not sure I’m following you. What’s another way to explain that?”

Splitting
By thinking of a goal as a user story, with a who, what, and why, most of the ideas from user story splitting can be applied to the goals that coachees come up with during coaching. For example: “If you were to break this down into smaller pieces, what would those pieces be?”

Re-evaluating
As we go about life, we create mental models for everything: mental maps, labels, and analogies to name a few. We say things like “kind of like Scrum, but without the sprint boundaries,” “helpful,” “stubborn,” and “I feel surrounded.” If the coachee seems to be stuck in a particular mental model, having them brainstorm alternative mental models may help them find a new direction to take.

Highlighting
Very often, the coachee will express a potential solution unintentionally disguised as something else. Here are some key indicators that the coachee is skipping over a potential solution or piece of the puzzle. The coachee says…
  • Do you think I should do X, Y, or Z?
  • I wish they would…
  • I don’t get why they do X (instead of Y).
If the coachee is presenting potential options and then asking your opinion, turn the tables on them. For instance, if they ask “do you think I should do A or B” you can turn that into “Well, I may have some thoughts on that, but tell me your thoughts first.” When the coachee is deciding on an option, make sure they consider the ones that came up while highlighting potential solutions.

Focusing
Part of being a coach is taking on the work of keeping the coachee focused. That allows the coachee to follow their thought process wherever it leads without worrying about the time. If you feel they are getting off track, you will be there to check in with them to see if they feel they should continue down the current track or need to refocus. Focusing has three related techniques: interrupting, orienting, and summarizing.

Interrupting
Any time you feel that the coachee has gotten off track, or you have come across a coaching trigger, it may be time to interrupt the coachee. Here are a couple of methods of interrupting that may work for you or perhaps they will remind you of a method that you like to use:
  • Open your mouth and take a breath as if preparing to speak, but then don’t say anything and close your mouth again.
  • In as friendly a way as possible, raise a finger and say “if I may?” and give an expectant look.
No matter what, continue listening and make it clear from your body language that you are definitely still paying attention. Note that some people have an aversion to being interrupted for any reason, so use your discretion when interrupting and err on the side of being patient.

Orienting
Most situations that arise in coaching are part of a bigger picture. The bigger picture influences the coachee and their problem solving approach. If you have a sense that the coachee is missing the forest for the trees, consider asking them to orient themselves to the bigger picture. For instance, asking “How does what we are discussing relate to your goals and vision?”

Summarizing
When something is clear, it can be easily described. If you find the coachee is using a lot of detail to describe something and it is still not clear what they are saying, ask them to summarize. This can help both of you to determine if there is a need to explore the topic further or pivot to another technique. Example: “That was a lot of detail, can you summarize it for me?”

Friday, November 30, 2018

Agile Coach Basics - Online Mini Book

I have been posting pieces of my Agile Coach Basics mini-book, which was initially developed for my ICP-ACC Agile Coaching workshop. This post ties them all together with an introduction as well as a list of all of the posts so that you can skip any posts you've already read. Enjoy!

Coaching in an Agile Environment
When I first understood the value of Agile, I wanted to share it with everyone. I did free webinars, wrote blog entries, spoke at conferences, joined and then ran the Agile New England meetup in the Boston area, and did everything I could to spread the word. I took the approach of teaching and sharing my experience. When people shared their difficulties in implementing Agile, I was brimming with enthusiasm to help. I leapt into problem solving mode and explained what I thought they should do. But then I started to notice that my directives often led to objections and more questions. I began to realize that in order to really solve other people’s issues I would need to actually be them, which is impossible.

Soon after this realization, I read Lyssa Adkin’s book “Coaching Agile Teams” which introduced me to a different way to think about Agile Coaching. And since that time I’ve done a lot more reading, had the privilege of interacting with a wide spectrum of Agile coaches professionally and at conferences, and worked with dozens of teams and organizations seeing what works and what doesn’t when helping others become more Agile. From these experiences I’ve come to understand that people get a tremendous amount of value out of the process of coaching itself, completely separate from any increase in Agile knowledge or ability that I may also impart to them. I have learned just how powerful and valuable the process of coaching can be, especially when carefully integrated with mentoring, teaching, and facilitating.

Agile Coach Basics Table of Contents
What is an Agile Coach?
Emotional Intelligence 
Neutrality - Coach as Mirror
Multi-spectrum Awareness - Presence and Observation
Coaching - a Coaching Conversation
Coaching Questions
What Does an Agile Coach Do All Day? Part 1
What Does an Agile Coach Do All Day? Part 2
People Do What They Desire to Do - ADKAR
Feedback and Advice

Stay tuned for additional sections over the coming weeks!


What is an Agile Coach?

There are many definitions of Agile Coach out there. One view is that an Agile Coach is an expert in all things Agile, or an expert in a particular area of Agile such as Scrum, Kanban, SAFe or some other methodology. Here is my definition, based on the ICAgile view of Agile Coaching:

Agile Coach: a servant leader that guides people as individuals, part of a team, and people at all levels of an organization towards greater levels of Agility using the skills of Coaching, Mentoring, Teaching, and Facilitating.

And here are my definitions of Coaching, Mentoring, Teaching, and Facilitating:

Coaching – using skills from professional coaching as part of a coaching conversation to help others identify and explore issues and then help them choose a path forward and commit to it. The skills from professional coaching include Emotional Intelligence, listening, presence, asking questions, and feedback. In this mode, the coach does not use any subject matter expertise, even if they are a subject matter expert in any topics that arise.

Mentoring – providing information, feedback, advice, options, examples, and illustrative experience as part of a mentoring conversation based on the mentee’s free choice. Similar to coaching, with the key difference being that the mentee has explicitly asked for mentoring and the mentor is a credible expert in the skill or role. Mentoring applies when a person has already received teaching in a skill or role.

Teaching – providing learners with new knowledge and skills and providing an environment for the learner to confirm that they have acquired the new knowledge or skill.

Facilitation – using specific tools and skills to help an individual or group efficiently discover, explore, and choose options for producing a specific outcome or set of outcomes, without directly contributing or allowing one’s own preferences or biases influence the outcomes.

Next: Emotional Intelligence and the Case of the Self-Conscious Scrum Master

Feedback and Advice

As an Agile Coach, a large component of what you do is to provide feedback and advice in some way shape or form. And, in order to stay in sync with those that you coach, you are of course open to feedback and advice on your coaching. Feedback and advice are very similar. In both cases you are providing information which you believe the recipient is unaware of. This brings up one of the first issues with providing feedback and advice; while you may think that the other person is unware of the information you wish to provide, they may actually be very aware of it. Here are a few reasons why people ignore the information that others provide to them:
  • The information seems wrong or doesn’t make sense to them
  • They haven’t figured out how to act on the information
  • They are aware that some people feel they should do something differently but they aren’t interested in doing it
  • They don’t care enough about the issue to make a change
In the case of feedback, the recipient is often unaware of the impact they are having on others. In the case of advice, the missing information may be given as part of feedback or it may be expressly requested by the recipient. Feedback usually starts with an observation, advice may not. With feedback, there may or may not be suggested next steps included. In the case of advice, suggested next steps are the advice.

Here’s a simple example. One day, I made a mistake in buttoning up my shirt and I hadn’t looked in the mirror before heading to work. I got a couple of funny looks from co-workers before one kind soul let me know that my shirt needed some adjustment and suggested that I look in a mirror. In this case, pointing out that there was an issue was all that was needed. Looking in the mirror I could see quite plainly that I had made a mistake buttoning my shirt.
Let’s map this out:

Knowledge gap: I didn’t know my shirt was mis-buttoned
Observation: “your shirt is not buttoned properly”
Impact: looking unprofessional
Potential next steps: re-button the shirt properly

In the case of advice, it may be that a person knows that they are missing some information and are looking for ideas and options for next steps. Here’s an example involving advice. A manager approaches the Agile Coach for a team and says “I thought the whole idea of Agile was that the team would make more decisions on their own, but they still ask my opinion on decisions that I think they should make on their own. Do you have any advice?”

Let’s assume that the coach takes the manager through a whole coaching conversation and the need for advice remains and that it maps out like this:

Knowledge gap: the manager can’t see that they continue to countermand many of the decisions that the team tries to make on its own
Observation: “Last week the team decided to release, but you told them you didn’t think the customer wanted a new release, so they didn’t release.”
Impact: “Right after that happened, as they were about to make another decision, one team member said they should ask you what you thought before making the decision.”
Potential next steps: “One option to consider is to let them make more decisions, even if it isn’t what you would do, unless you think a decision would create a major problem.”

When making an observation as part of giving feedback or advice, remember to make the observation in a neutral way.

Feedback Tips
Here are some tips for maximizing the chance of feedback being well received.
  • Opt-in – ask for permission or respond to a request
  • Timely – provide feedback and/or advice in as timely a fashion as circumstances permit
  • Safe - in an appropriate environment with a chance for interaction – not a “drive-by”
  • Credible – limit yourself to areas where the receiver sees you as credible
  • Good will – make sure the feedback and/or advice is sincere and intended for the recipient’s benefit
  • Conversational – rather than focusing on a piece of feedback, consider starting a conversation on the topic in general. It may turn out that the recipient is already aware of the topic and is looking for ideas.
Receiving Feedback
All feedback can be useful feedback. Even if an observation feels wrong, hurtful, or ill-intentioned, there may be information in the feedback that you can use. Just because information was delivered poorly doesn’t mean it is useless.

The first step in getting value out of feedback is to just receive it. You don’t have to agree with it to acknowledge it. For instance, rather than saying “that doesn’t make any sense to me” you could try saying something like “I hear what you are saying.” If you feel your emotions rising, consider saying something like “that’s a lot for me to absorb. Let me think about it and I may follow up with you.” You don’t have to respond right away.

You can use most of the ideas about giving feedback in reverse. If someone says something that feels like a judgement, you can ask for a specific example.

Even if the feedback doesn’t make any sense, there may be something for you to learn. Look for patterns in what multiple people say to you over time. See if you can find somebody you trust to help you make sense of the feedback you are receiving.

Stay tuned for more posts from the Agile Coaching Basics mini-book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

People Do What They Desire to Do

A good word for an Agile Coach is “catalyst.” According to Merriam Webster, one of the definitions of catalyst is “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.” The main idea of coach as catalyst is that you are helping to bring about changes that might happen anyway, but are more likely to happen with the addition of your insight, inspiration, and ability to shine a flashlight on potential areas for improvement. Your influence will increase the likelihood and pace of change.

A striking example of this happened on an engagement where I had the opportunity to kick things off with a series of interviews with the leadership. I always ask just two questions in discovery interviews: “what do you see as the issues and what do you see as potential solutions?” This always brings up lots of useful information. In this case, those interviews involved a series of statements that formed a chain. I heard “I’d really like to do A for the Agile effort, but I need B first” and from another leader “I’d really like to do B for the Agile effort, but I need C first.” All I had to do was to observe to the group during the follow-on workshop that between the 8 of them, they each needed something that one of the others was willing to do. The result was an amazing start to their Agile Journey and today, a few years after that workshop, they are now a mature and thriving Agile organization.

The ADKAR Change Management Tool
A useful tool for being a catalyst is ADKAR. ADKAR is an “individual” change model. That is, it is a useful framework when working at the individual level as opposed to the organizational level. It can be used with any number of individuals, but when trying to make changes at the departmental, division, or organizational levels, it is best to combine ADKAR with something like the Kotter change model.


ADKAR is an acronym for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. The main idea of the model is that people are more likely to make a lasting change when they are aware of the need for the change, they themselves desire to make the change, they have the knowledge of how to make the change, and they are reinforced (supported) in their journey to make the change until they have gained the ability to make the change.

There is always something that an individual or group wants to do and will do with the right support, you just have to help them find it. By thinking of yourself as a catalyst, you can help surface those potential changes using ADKAR. It is important to remember not to look for things that others want to do that align with what you want to do or to push others towards things you think they should want to do. You are working to find and accelerate the potential that is already there.

Coach Past Your Involvement
Acting as a catalyst reinforces the idea that the changes that will encounter the least resistance and stick are the ones that people want to do, choose to do, and actually take steps to implement. Changes that people undertake that require constant propping up, by you or others, aren’t real changes, they are temporary detours and people will revert back to their old ways when the props are removed. By thinking about what will stick when you are not present and being a servant leader by focusing on what others want, you are also more likely to avoid influencing others with your own preferences, biases, and personal point of view.

Use ADKAR as a Guide
Raising awareness, increasing knowledge, getting organizational support (reinforcement), and finding ways to give people the time to grow their skills (ability) all increase a person’s desire to implement a change. By leaning on ADKAR, next steps will become more obvious to everyone. If there are things that you are aware of that your coachees are not, work to gently raise their awareness. If you start leading people down a path that they don’t see, you will encounter strong resistance. Resistance is a good indicator that you are on the wrong path. You may feel like you know what needs to be done, but if a coachee doesn’t see what you see or doesn’t choose to take a certain action, then it isn’t the right path for them to take, no matter how much it seems like the right path in general.

Building Ability Requires Support ( aka Reinforcement )
Let’s say there is a team that has become aware of the connection between lack of well factored code and supporting unit tests and quality issues. They have a desire to learn how to do Test Driven Development, but they have very little knowledge or ability to do TDD. They believe that they will increase their velocity by increasing quality if they start practicing TDD. They believe that if they hire a TDD coach for a month they will be able to double their velocity, but that their velocity will be unpredictable while they are learning. The team proposes the TDD coach to their manager and the manager approves. They now have the support to build the ability to work in a new way. Without that support, it is unlikely that any effort by the team to learn and apply TDD would stick.

Next: Feedback and Advice

Monday, November 26, 2018

Multispectrum Awareness

As a coach, you are most effective when you are completely tuned in to and focused on what is going on with others while self-managing your own emotions and behavior. Two important aspects of being fully tuned in are presence and active observation.

Presence
When your attention is focused on the here and now, you are “present.” When your attention wanders away, you are distracted. When you are distracted, you will miss valuable information.

You don’t need to be present all the time. It is perfectly fine to daydream or let your mind wander. But when you are facilitating a meeting, teaching a workshop, or coaching someone, it is vitally important that you be 100% present.

Here are some things you can do to become more present:
  • Breath in normally, then exhale slowly
  • Sit calmly for a moment doing nothing. Notice what is going through your mind
  • If something is distracting you, take action to remove the distraction. For example, make a note, set a reminder, or do whatever you need to do to get any internal distractions “out of your system.”
  • Look around you and think about where you are
  • Think about why you are doing whatever you are doing. In the case of reading this, why are you reading it?
  • Focus on the here and now and let everything else fade away
Active Observation
Active observation is the act of observing everything in the environment in a neutral and intentional way. Rather than observing events, making judgements, and then remembering and replaying those judgements, active observation focuses on observing what happened as literally as possible and without judgement.

Active observation includes a full spectrum of inputs: what is being said, the emotional overtones, body language, movement, and interaction with others and the environment. Active observation also includes layering in the context of what’s happening, such as the influence of recent events on people’s current behavior. The hard part is tuning in across all parts of this spectrum of inputs at the same time.

One day, while attending the standup meeting of a new team, I was feeling frustrated. I was thinking about how terrible their standup was and could only think about how they must not have paid attention in training. I was wondering why they couldn’t do this basic ceremony when other teams that had been in the same training were doing just fine. Then somebody asked me a question and I realized I had no idea what the question was. I had lost my presence. I apologized and muddled my way through the rest of the standup.

When I was distracted and judging their behavior I was unable to see the two issues that were really going on. In order to really absorb as much information as possible and to understand what is happening around you it is important to develop the skills of Active Observation, Emotional Intelligence, and being present.

Active observation draws on and reinforces many other skills. Active observation makes it easier to understand another’s emotional state in order to better practice social awareness and self-management. And by practicing self-management, one is more likely to maintain a good rapport with the coachee(s) and to be more present. When we are truly in the moment the skills of Emotional Intelligence, Presence, and Active Observation build on each other holistically and become indistinguishable as separate skills.

The next day, I made a conscious effort to focus on what was actually being said and what was actually happening. I realized that everyone was doing a “readout” to me personally and most people seemed distracted when they weren’t reporting their status to me. Having them treat their coach as a project manager was a familiar problem and I knew how to handle that, but I wasn’t sure why folks were so distracted.

At the end of the meeting I gently mentioned that folks seemed distracted and I asked if there was something going on in general that I might not be aware of. I learned that there were actually two “teams” in this “team” and so half of the people were disinterested half of the time. That was another familiar problem that I knew how to solve. At least half of the job of being an Agile Coach is understanding what is going on. Active observation is a powerful tool for helping you get to the root of the problem.

Next: Coaching - A Coaching Conversation

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Coach as Mirror - Keeping Your Own Opinion and Judgement Out

A foundational attribute of an Agile Coach is the ability to be neutral. Whether you are observing, thinking about what’s happening, or talking to another person, make sure you are thinking in terms of the coachee’s own values, goals, and vision. Make sure you are not filtering what you see, what you think, and what you say through your own preferences, biases, desires, and values.

Neutrality includes using descriptive language instead of judgmental language, using non-judgmental body language and tone, putting all decision making in the hands of those you are coaching, and holding back your own opinion unless it is specifically requested or given after an appropriate request for permission. It means that even when you have a strong opinion on a topic, you find a way to let it go rather than communicating through your tone and body language that you think things should be going in a different direction. Genuine neutrality is a tall order and takes time to master.

Think of it as a mirror. The coach is able to observe what is happening and then play back their observations in a way that the receivers see what the coach has observed instead of “seeing the coach.” Coachees can “see the coach” when they see the coach’s observations as tinged with the coach’s biases and not reflecting reality.

This is not a call to be an emotionless monotone non-human machine. Embodying neutrality while remaining human and personable makes it an even more difficult skill to master. Being aware of the need for neutrality and the value of neutrality is the first step towards mastering neutrality.

Here are some guidelines for being neutral that you can apply when observing, thinking, or talking with others. These examples assume that the information to support the neutral statements is available in order to make the neutral statements:
  • Specific, measurable
    • Instead of “the customer intent is more clear” try “the who and why in these stories is very clear”
    • Instead of “the standup was way too long” try “the standup ran to an hour instead of the expected 15 minutes”
  • Neutral, non-judgemental
    • Instead of “I didn’t like their style” try “they spoke too fast for me and seemed upset”
    • Instead of “I liked their approach” try “their specific examples helped me”
    • Instead of thinking “that person hogged the floor” try “the group ran out of time”
    • Avoid words and phrases such as “good,” “bad,” “wrong,” “off the mark”
  • Avoid speculating on intentions
    • Instead of “I know she doesn’t want to be here” try “I notice she showed up late”
Next: Multi-Spectrum Awareness - Presence and Observation

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Case of the Self-Conscious Scrum Master

As an Agile Coach your success depends on helping others succeed. Sharing your Agile expertise will help them achieve their goals, but first you will need to leverage your interpersonal skills in order to uncover and understand their goals and motivations.

The better your interpersonal skills, the more successful you will be as an Agile Coach. We all have some level of skill with the various interpersonal skills needed as an Agile Coach. A good starting place for further mastery is to review these skills and employ them intentionally as you interact with others.


Emotional Intelligence
One of the most important set of interpersonal skills are the four skills of Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to successfully navigate the muddy waters of human emotions. That includes self-awareness of your own emotional state, social awareness of the emotional state of others, self-management of your own emotional state, and creating and maintaining good relationships.

An interesting experience I had when working with a manager illustrates the four parts of emotional intelligence. This particular manager was also the Scrum Master for the team that he managed. He invited me to his standup, but was very self-conscious about it. He said “I know it isn’t the best idea to have a Scrum Master that is also a manager, but I think it is working out ok.” I acknowledged what he said, but didn’t add my opinion.

Social Awareness
This is awareness of what is going on with others. The surface level of social awareness is fairly straightforward, though it requires intention. By simply paying attention to other people’s words, tone, and body language, one can get a decent sense of how they are feeling and how they are reacting to whatever is happening.

The manager ran his standup like a staff meeting. He would call on each person, comment on what they said, and then offer “suggestions” that were clearly more than suggestions. The level of engagement from the team was close to non-existent. More than once people had facial expressions and body language that expressed feelings of disappointment and disapproval.

After the meeting, in private, the manager turned to me and said “that was horrible, wasn’t it?” I told him that from a purely process perspective, the standup meeting had served most of its purpose and asked him what made him say what he said. He shared his observations of the team member reactions during the meeting, which matched my own observations.

Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is a combination of paying attention to what is going on in our heads and considering how our emotional state and behavior play a part in the emotional state and behavior of others.

I asked the manager about why he might have been running the standup as he was and his understanding of what a good standup looks like. He demonstrated a remarkable amount of self-awareness about how his behavior had impacted the team and had a good understanding of self-organization. He just hadn’t had an opportunity to see the difference between what he hoped for and what was actually happening.

Self-Management
Self-management is taking advantage of being in the moment by changing your own behavior based on your social awareness and your self-awareness. When you see somebody reacting in an unexpected way, your self-awareness kicks in and you consider how your behavior may have had a part in that reaction and then take steps to change your behavior.

The next day, the manager explained to his team that he wanted them to run the standup on their own and his only requirement was that they finish in 15 minutes and leave follow-up for after that initial 15 minutes. It took them a few tries to take advantage of their new found freedom, but soon they were sharing with each other and suggesting follow-up actions. I didn’t see any eye-rolls in that meeting and their engagement was through the roof compared to the previous standup. I could see the manager catching himself a few times, but his desire to “have a real Scrum team” won out and he only interjected when the team was getting off track.

Relationship Management
Relationship management is what gives emotional intelligence its full potential. Practicing self-awareness, social awareness, and self-management can help to create and maintain good relationships, and good relationships reinforce self-awareness, social awareness, and self-management. To put it simply, the higher your EQ, the better your relationships will be and the better your relationships are, the more people will share with you about their internal emotional state and the more people will help you when your EQ is failing you in the moment.

In the case of the Scrum Master manager, the EQ that he demonstrated in the second standup had an immediate effect on his relationships with his team. I could tell from earlier 1-1 conversations with team members that they already appreciated him as a manager. In listening to their conversations with him after the second standup it was clear that his actions of involving an Agile Coach and making adjustments that they appreciated were just the latest reasons for appreciating him.

The Key to Emotional Intelligence
I’m not saying that just by being present I usually get the kind of result that occurred with the manager. It was his personal interest in doing the right thing that made him hyper self-conscious. It is that heightened awareness that I want to highlight. By consciously paying attention to others he was able to realize that something needed to change.

The key to emotional intelligence is to be in the same frame of mind as the manager. Practice reminding yourself during any interaction with others to ask the following questions until it becomes second nature:
  • How am I feeling and behaving?
  • How are others feeling and behaving?
  • How are my feelings and behavior affecting others?
  • How are other people's feelings and behavior affecting me?
  • Based on the above, should I do something differently in order to create better outcomes?
  • Am I acting in a way that is good for all of the relationships involved?
Next: Coach As Mirror - Neutrality

Monday, November 12, 2018

An Example Agile Coaching Conversation

Initiating a Coaching Interaction


Imagine that a manager comes to you and asks:

Manager: “could you teach my team how to use planning poker?”

It may be that there is a perfectly good reason for the team to learn and use planning poker. On the other hand, by following the coaching process, you may learn that the real issue is that the manager thinks the estimates that the team is coming up with are too large. In that case, teaching the team planning poker (when they may already know it) is likely to aggravate the team and leave the original issue unresolved.

Start with Relationship Management

One factor that contributes to the quality of interaction is the rapport you build with those you are coaching. In any interaction, make a conscious effort to contribute to that relationship. It can be as simple as doing a quick check-in and/or engaging in small-talk. When somebody approaches you with a coaching request, it can be tempting to dive right in. Not only does pausing to build rapport contribute to the relationship, it also gives both of you a chance to pause, become present, and focus on the coaching conversation. You may even discover some useful context for the problem at hand. Let’s see how the conversation that started with a request to teach a team planning poker might play out:

Coach: “I’ll have to check my schedule. How have things been going?”

Manager: “Things are pretty good in general, but this team has really been a problem. They are consistently behind and I’m starting to lose sleep over it. Anyway, I need to go, can you take it from here?”

Issue Identification

In the example, the coachee is trying to end the conversation before you have had a chance to do any coaching at all. Your goal is to get a coaching conversation started. A good tool here is to use a coaching question.

Coach: “I’d be happy to teach them planning poker, but I feel like I’m missing some context. Can we back up a moment? What precipitated this?

The question “what precipitated this” has started a coaching conversation. While the coachee has presented you with what may actually be the problem and tried to delegate to you what may be the solution, it is better to go through a process of identifying the issue, even if you end up in the same place you started.

From the conversation so far, you have surfaced that the team is “consistently behind,” that the manager is “starting to lose sleep over it” and that he would like you to teach the team planning poker. Planning poker may or may not be connected to his statement that the team is consistently behind, but losing sleep indicates that it is very important to the manager that something changes to make things better.

Manager: “well, I don’t think they are doing planning poker right because their estimates always seem to come out too high and then they don’t get the work done in time.”
From this answer, it seems that the manager may not understand the purpose of planning poker or may not understand the use of story points (or both). Let’s try another coaching question.

Coach: “I hear you saying that this team doesn’t get their work done in time. How would you summarize the high level problem here?”

Manager: “actually, there’s a lot on my mind. The real problem here is that as a company we seem to have lost the ability to make our customers happy. I guess I was just thinking that the deadline issue was low-hanging fruit.”

Aha! Now we are getting somewhere.

Goal Setting

Once the coachee has identified the issue that they would like to work on, the next step is to turn the issue into a goal. In some cases, the difference may only be semantics, but reframing an issue into a goal can shift the perspective from dealing with an energy sapping problem to investing in achieving an exciting goal.

Coach: “How could you reframe the issue ‘we’ve lost the ability to make our customers happy’ into a goal?”

Manager: [after thinking for a moment] “I think the Product Manager is also frustrated, but I don’t think they realize how good this team has been at partnering with product to better understand customer needs and come up with novel features that delight customers. They are just focused on getting what they want by a certain date. I think a good goal would be to help the Product Manager better understand what this team can do.”

We’ve come a long way from the manager’s initial request. And if we had stepped in with suggestions right away or made assumptions about what the problem was, we might not have ever gotten to this point. Of course, not all coaching conversations will end up with the coachee solving their own problem, but if we don’t try, we’ll never know. And regardless of where we end up, by following a process that includes coaching questions and active observation, we will surface lots of useful information that will come in handy if we need to move to another mode such as teaching or mentoring.

Uncovering Options

At this point, we could step away knowing that we’ve already provided a lot of value to the manager, but we’re not done yet. The next step is to uncover options for achieving the goal.

Coach: “what options do you see for achieving your goal?”

Manager: “I could go and talk to the product manager directly, but I don’t think he sees me as business minded. I could mention my idea to the product owner, I think they worked together at another company. I could also suggest that he talk to a customer that was on the verge of abandoning us until this team partnered with them to come up with some really awesome new features that then also led to a whole new market. Now that I’ve laid it out this way, I think the best bet is to talk to the product owner about setting up a meeting between that customer and the product manager. Thanks! This was really helpful."

This is actually just a fragment of a full Agile Coaching conversation. I've kept it short to fit into the format of a blog post.

Next: Coaching Questions

Coaching Questions

Coaching Questions are open-ended and non-leading. They should be appropriate to the stage of the coaching process you are in. Here are some that I have found useful.

Initiating

  • What are you thinking about?
  • What’s on your mind?

Information Gathering

  • Let’s step back for a moment. What precipitated this?
  • What’s the background on this?
  • How would you summarize the issue?
  • What makes this something that needs to be addressed?
  • How does this fit into the big picture?
  • Why is this top of mind for you right now?

Expanding

  • Tell me more.
  • And?
  • What else?

Identifying Potential Outcomes

  • What will success look like?
  • What would failure look like?
  • And what would you like to have happen?

Exploring and Discovering Options

  • What options do you see?
  • What paths do you see to achieving your goals?
  • Who or what else could you leverage here?
  • What’s the [ bravest / craziest / least likely to work /most fun / most surprising] approach to try here?
  • If you have a hero that you think would be relevant in this situation, what would they do?
  • What could you apply here from similar situations in the past?
  • What would you do if you had a magic wand?

Focusing, Narrowing, and Planning

  • What’s your recap of the options we’ve discussed?
  • How do the various options we’ve discussed stack up?
  • Out of the various options we’ve discussed, what are you leaning towards?
  • Tell me your next step and when you will take it
One way to get used to using open and non-leading questions is to try “question of the day.” Pick one or two of the coaching questions above, or a question that you have used in the past that is open and non-leading. Try it in conversation throughout the day as appropriate. Try a different question every day. After a while, the questions will become a natural part of your coaching conversations.

A quick activity to get your mind started down this path is to play the coaching question game. Here are four potential questions. Guess which are coaching questions and which are leading, closed, or both. Answers follow directly after.

Questions

  1. What’s the background on this?
  2. Do you think they need to have more focus?
  3. What’s the best way for me to take this off your hands?
  4. What makes this something that needs to be addressed?

Answers

  1. What’s the background on this?
    Good question
  2. Do you think they need to have more focus?
    Closed: has a yes/no answer. Leading: assumes a need for more focus. 
  3. What’s the best way for me to take this off your hands?
    Leading: assumes the issue should be delegated.  
  4. What makes this something that needs to be addressed?
    Good question 
Next: What Does an Agile Coach Do All Day? Part 1