Tag Archives: Coaching

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 . . .)

Jamming in an “agile rock band” . . .

Recently I was asked for suggestions on how to go about growing a team of agile coaches within a coaching practice – knowing that sometimes communication is more effective using metaphors, I thought for a moment and came up with something that seemed to “resonate” – what do you think?

My idea was to channel your inner rock star (we all have one) and think about setting up an agile coaching practice as if it was a good “self-managing” rock band.  We all know that a good band needs a lead singer (since that’s who everyone wants to listen to); however, if all you have is a lead singer (a single agile jedi), you’ll have one voice with nothing else to back them up which doesn’t make for a musically diverse experience.  Next round out the band with some instrumentalists (guitar, bass, drums, horns – other coaches) and maybe even some back-up vocalists (newer coaches being mentored by more experienced members of the band).  Realize that each member of the band has a special mix of skills (the instrument/skill they have learned – agile examples: pattern based refactoring, single-team focus, enterprise-focus, executive-focus, CI, TDD, PMP, ITPM, SAFe, story mapping, lean, kanban, metrics, probabilistic forecasting, facilitation, games, etc), but moreover each band member has a common set of knowledge and understanding that enables them to work together – the band members may (or may not) know how to read music, but alas they have a general understanding of how their songs go (agile principles and values), and have an agreed upon goal to perform, so they can put on a performance – in “agile” lexicon, shall we call them T-shaped people.

Now we get to the fun part of the metaphor, which has caused countless “epic rock band blowouts” throughout history for which VH-1 has made countless episodes of “Behind the Music” – who is in charge?  When a rock band performs, it doesn’t have a conductor out in front telling everyone what to do as a symphony orchestra does – the band just seems to figure it out, or rather self-directs.  For a rock band to endure, the band members need to figure out how to effectively “self-govern”, learn how to resolve conflicts and differences of opinion between members that are sure to occur, and work towards an agreed upon goal of giving solid performances with some level of consistency.  None of the band members out rank each other – when it is necessary to make decisions, the band members talk things through and come to consensus leveraging the different viewpoints and experiences within the group.  Good bands also properly leverage the musical skills and abilities of their members to create a unique and defining sound.  If every song had a guitar solo and only a guitar solo with no other band members being featured, the audience might become tired of that, and you can imagine there might be a little bit of conflict back in the dressing room.  Good rock bands know how to feature each of their members when the time is right because they each bring something unique to the band, so as to deliver diverse and dynamic performances.  And let’s not forget that the lead singer can’t sing “All Night Long” (unless they are named Lionel Richie), so there are times when the lead singer leaves the stage (to change wardrobe and visit the roadies) and lets the instrumentalists jam trusting that they won’t send the audience away.

A final role needed to best ensure the band’s success from a business perspective is “a band manager”.  Let’s face it, most rock band performers are focused on how to improve their performances and want to spend their time singing or playing (new songs / new riffs / playing gigs) – if the band has to organize their own tour, that will take time away from their ability to create, innovative, improve and most importantly perform.  Hence the band manager handles the business of booking the tour and working to identify venues and audiences to which the band’s music meets or exceeds audience expectations.  The band manager helps the band maintain a proper balance of time on the road for gigs, and also time for off-the-road rehearsal and composing new music.  Most importantly, the band manager keeps the band in the spotlight where their talents are recognized and have impact, vs. just allowing the band to jam in the garage which although is great fun for the band members, it doesn’t necessarily allow others to benefit from hearing the band’s music.

That’s my idea – anyone wanna jam?