Monthly Archives: January 2014

Agile coaching via “office hours” . . .

I am getting ready to try a coaching experiment and see what happens when we take a trip back to college and see if the idea of “office hours” can be used to provide effective agile coaching for teams.  Since this is an experiment (and I have no idea what will happen), I figured I would write something about it first, then I can write a recap about what actually happens.  Of course no cheating is in play, where I alter my hypothesis knowing what the outcome is.  For reference, my first office hours session will be on Tuesday, 1/21/2014 (so this post on 1/20/2014 is before the truth is known).

A bit of context:

  • Office Hours (from college) is a scheduled time when professors or teaching staff make themselves available to answer questions, review assignments, go over problems on sample exams, etc – basically, if you need help, you can go to your professor’s office at a set time and receive assistance – assistance is typically provided in a first-come, first-served manner – although good professors and teaching staff have been known to do something to survey if there are common questions when there is a large group, for which discussion or review topics may be prioritized.  As a former teaching assistant in college myself, I will propose that office hours (in the collegiate sense) are event-driven – at the beginning of the semester, nobody shows up; however, by the end of the semester just before the final exam, the line can be all the way down the hall.
  • In my professional context, Daniel Pink (in “Drive”) mentioned the idea of hosting office hours as one of his 3 steps towards giving up control – rather than summoning people to come and meet with you, provide an open door and allow those who are interested or are in need to seek out guidance.  I like this parallel for coaching self-managing agile teams – rather than management assigning a coach to work with a team because management thinks that a team is struggling, make a coach available and then allow teams to decide if they want or need to seek out advice to help them improve.
  • At various agile conferences, I have been to a variety of coaching clinics and been impressed at the quality of discussion and information that can be obtained in a short coaching session (either small group or 1-on-1) – suggestions of experiments to try, or perhaps a metric you can use to measure the effectiveness of your own experiments – bottom line: effective coaching and guidance can be provided without a complete understanding of one’s context.
  • In terms of environment (since that’s a component of the experiment), I work in a development office that has a few dozen projects and development teams – not every team has easy access to a coach – I have a strong suspicion that a few folks are going to show up, but I don’t think that the entire office will show up (if that happens, we will have a problem) – then again when I was a teaching assistant for a Computer Science class with 200+ students in it, office hours rarely had more than 20 visitors (even right before final exams).

A few motivations:

  • “Agile office hours” is an attempt to make coaching available to any and all interested teams, knowing that not all teams have easy access to a coach.  It is unknown how effective the information and guidance provided will be since it will be based on a very limited set of information (the questions and information people bring with them to office hours) and the complexity of work being done in our office is much greater than that of a course curriculum grounded in a common syllabus that is well understood by the professor and teaching staff.  I think some topics like metrics to measure team risks and/or progress could be common topics that will be easy and effective to discuss in a mixed group; however, challenges related to specific teams, and coaching on how to handle conflicts of opinions within teams will be more challenging in an open group setting.
  • My intent with “agile office hours” is two-fold seeking to provide some benefits to both myself and also to those requesting guidance.  I get a lot of questions and requests for coaching help around the office – I receive these requests in varied and ad-hoc manners (some spoken, some Email, etc).  From “lean systems”, I’m hoping agile office hours will allow me to better control the inputs to my coaching queue, as it encourages inputs to the system at a time when I will be able to respond immediately.  I also hope that office hours provides better customer service to those seeking assistance – folks who come to office hours can receive information and guidance right away, vs. sending me an Email and having to wait for me to see it and respond (which can take a day or two – I get too many Emails).

How things will work – I hope:

  • Folks interested in assistance (with current challenges) will show up – office hours are focused time to discuss challenges and how to overcome them within team.   I hope that others who come to office hours for guidance may also be able to provide some guidance to those in attendance.
  • We will have a quorum, but not a crowd (I don’t have that many chairs and/or space) – if we have a bit of a crowd, I suspect we’ll use a Lean Coffee board to identify questions and then use dot voting to find the highest priority topics to focus discussion and time on the topics that provide the most value to the group.
  • If we get into a specific discussion for a project or team, we’ll table that discussion from office hours (unless those are the only folks at office hours), and rather setup a focused coaching session with that team for a deep dive on the issue.  I also hope that full teams don’t come to office hours (again, I don’t have that many chairs) but rather send a representative or two for a preliminary discussion to get a few initial ideas and which in turn perhaps sets up a focused team coaching session (where the whole team can participate without the chair restriction).
  •  I’m hoping that office hours could work well with retrospective outputs – perhaps a team had a retro and identified an issue or challenge – office hours could be used to help brainstorm an experiment to work to overcome the challenge, ideally so there is something to reflect on at the next retro.
  • Most important, relevant and useful information is provided to those that have questions allowing them to improve.

That’s enough ideas and hypotheses to get started – next we’ll see what actually happens (to be continued . . .)