Monday, August 24, 2009

Counter-intuitive Agile Coaching Tips

Just finished the "What Do Agile Coaches Do?" session from Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley at Agile 2009. It was a great workshop based on their new book and J. Richard Hackman's "Leading Teams".

Hackman defines three types of coaching intervention:

  • Motivational - intended to improve team or team member's effort
  • Consultative - intended to improve a team's process
  • Educational - intended to improve a team's understanding
Today's first insight is that I personally focus on educational and consultative interventions, to the almost complete exclusion of motivational intervention. I'm not interested in giving people pep talks, so clearly I'm lacking some motivational skills and techniques. Anyway, Hackman defines three key times when these interventions should be used within a project:
  • Beginning - focus on motivational intervention
  • Midpoint - focus on consultative intervention
  • End - focus on educational intervention
Delaying education until the end of a project sounds ludicrous. Wouldn't the begining be better, when people need it? The answer is to think of a project as an iteration, not a full release. Iteration start is when the team needs energy to commit to work and kick off the sprint. Makes sense that the "sprint" start is when you want to get a good start out of the blocks, huh? So the beginning is a good time for motivation after all. The iteration midpoint is when the team is neck deep in implementation and sees that not all their practices are working in their best interest. What's the solution? A small process tweak via consultative intervention. The end is the retrospective is where the whole team has a forum and opportunity to make big changes to how they work. That's the time where education on a new and unknown practice can make the biggest impact, because the team can commit to it and take action immediately. Hackman's description of when the interventions are most effective sounded fishy at first, but when viewed against an iterative process it makes sense!

But non of this is counter-intuitive coaching. The most interesting part of the workshop was our group's breakout session where we discussed coaching in the context of some manufactured scenarios from the speakers. We came up with these unique coaching strategies:

1) Coaching Through Absurdity
In my group was Alex Chin, and in order to get his team to estimate at the task level he added huge estimates to each task. These grossly absurd estimates forced the team to come back and add better estimates. Awesome idea. Next time my team won't make a decision I'm going to make an absurd one for them and wait for a reaction.
2) Letting People Fail
We spent a lot of time discussing how to guide a team down the correct path. If your team insists on walking precariously close to a metaphorical cliff, then don't waste your time each week shepherding them off it. Let them fall of the cliff once. Surely that will teach them to avoid it next time. Right?
3) Doing Nothing is Doing Something
You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Likewise, you can't force a feedback loop. Coaching is not just about knowing when to intervene, but when not to. If there is a team issue that needs resolving, sometimes you just need to get the people together and wait. Do nothing and let the team decide. The most effective way to coach is to set the stage for team emergence and then get out of the way! Agile isn't about the coach solving your problems, it's about the coach getting you to solve your own.

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