My mum was in fact my first agile coach

January 18, 2017 · Coaching Coach Agile Scrum

During my teens, one character trait my mum showed, invariably made me flip out: her tendency to over analyze things. She had the incredible talent to pull out the philosophical thoughts, psychological trends and behaviors behind any (of my) situations or anecdotes. This made me so mad.

"Mum, I just wanted to tell you about my day, not perform a psychoanalysis!"

Fast forward twenty years, I must admit two things:

  1. I inherited this way of thinking
  2. This is one of my biggest assets in my day to day job

*bad loser tone* "thanks mum..."

My mum is a speech therapist. She has worked her whole life with kids. She would probably see it differently, but from the stories she told, I would have describe her as a family councilor, working on family problems that were only revealed by kid's speech... or lack thereof. It's impressive what effects the lack of recognition from a role model or a dominant-dominated relationship between parents seem to have on a kid's growth. To name only two. Fix the system first, work on the symptoms later. Sound familiar?

It's only a few years ago that I realized this inheritance. And I have been trying to play catch-up with my mum's skills ever since. I often joked that if I ever went back to school, that would be to study psychology. It's never been more true. But I won't go back to school, that's certain. I left the university with this one thought and I still stand by it:

School was finally over, time to start learning

Jumping in on a project as an Agile Coach is easy. There is a set of tools you can always rely on: the Scrum guide if you are doing Scrum, the Agile Manifesto and your experience. And why is it easy? Because people tend to tweaked those methodologies long before they understood it. I've already spoken at lenght about this tweaking effect in my posts Scrum, but you're doing it wrong!!! or The mysterious case of the anti-Agile Scrum, so I won't diverge about it here. The thing is, this makes it very easy to spot the differences between the "cannonical version of what they say they are doing" (e.g. Scrum or Kanban) and what is actually being done. And based on this, you can start asking questions.

But don't misunderstand me, it doesn't mean I will inflict that platonic ideal on them. That would not fit the company, the people or the situation. But it makes the first step easy: observe the "discrepancy" between what you know and what is there, and ask questions. Then you can sprinkle a bit of visualization, transparency and communication on it, and you certainly made a solid entrance. But that's only the beginning. Those are the low-hanging fruits.

When you've gathered those low hanging-fruits, what then?

Then starts the real fun: Working with people, going up the "ladder" and acting on management or even "C-Level Executives", changing the organisation itself or tweaking the parts of the methodology that do not fit the system you are in. Not to forget creating a sense of ownership to the people doing the work, and not just ownership of the work itself, but ownership of the thinking process about the way they work. I don't remember where I heard this sentence, but it is immensely true:

You know you've done a good job as a coach when you've created a coach that can create coaches him/herself

That's where skills - like those I inherited from my mum - comes into play. Then you have to start (over)analyzing things, paying close attention to networks, relationships, tone and even words. In my interview with Vasco Duarte for the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast, I told him I try to "measure all the things". The word "measure" can be misunderstood. By this I mean that I write as many things as I can. All the things that occur to me, that I find interesting, odd, out of the ordinary etc. But also the benign things, the things that right now don't make sense being written down, but that might in retrospect help you ferret out a trend. This is when understanding of intent and different lecture on reactions and political finess are required.

This is very much newland for me. I've done it on a few projects already, but it still feels like groping in the dark & experimenting more than following a playbook. Maybe there is no playbook and I'm idealizing those veterans I revere, that seem to have an answer to everything... but that's where I am putting some of my energy right now, in getting those things written down to try and raise myself from this "I kind of know what I'm doing" state to "in this situation, I know X and Y usually work".

Here are some sample discussions I find having with myself day after day. Why did she chose this word? If I mention this, how will she then react? Why did he interpret this question this way? If I ask him about it, will he feel smart-assed or helped? Hey, that's the second time I head this passive-defensive word in the last 10 minutes... is there something there? How can I find out? ...

And that's where the true coaching begins...

Anybody been there? Done that? Am I on the right tracks? Wait, no, I don't want to know... unless... yes go ahead, do tell me. Oh boy I have so much to learn...

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