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A dead coach is a useless coach

Picture by WouterKvGDuring our monthly consulting services meeting, an interesting conversation took place. The conversation revolved around how to show traditional organizations the benefits of going Agile.

Granted, everyone around the table was already sold to Agile so everybody was working toward the same objective. The question was how to bring traditional organizations to switch their ways of doing things in order to adopt a more Agile approach? The debate was “Should we use a big-bang approach where all the energy is put toward getting the organization to take a quantum leap?” or “Is it preferable to use small steps in an effort to bring the organization toward the desired state?”.

Some people around the table argued that to quickly gain acceptance and shock the system, it is better to take somewhat of an extreme position and avoid deviating from the goal and as such, implement the Agile practices without consideration to the context.

Others (including myself) believed that the hard position and extreme approach doesn’t help much. It typically polarizes positions and creates an environment where conflicts are frequent. Personally, I believe that small steps taken in the right direction are much better than attempting to quantum leap forward when it comes to large scale transitions.

As consultants we are called in to help organizations transition from a current state to a future and hopefully better future. We bring our expertise and our convictions to the table in the hopes that we can influence these organizations. What happens when the consultants’ perspective collides with the organizational culture, values, processes and people? Of course, it depends.

Needless to say implementing change is a difficult task and if it was easy, nobody would need help (i.e. consultants). But when consultants adopt the following approach:

  • I need to change the organization;
  • The best way to accomplish this objective is to stick to my position – no matter what – until the organization realizes that I am right (i.e. they are wrong);
  • I will be successful for as long as I can hold my position.

What comes next is usually a dead coach…

Granted, the other extreme is no more useful when the organization thinks something like this:

  • What we have been doing is exactly what needs to be done;
  • We have all the answers and we will stick to our position – no matter what – until everybody accept the current situation;
  • We will be successful for as long as we can hold our position.

What comes next is an organization that will be less (and less) adapted to its environment and a Darwinian (survival of the fittest) consequence will happen.

So what is the right thing to do?

If you are a consultant, it is always a difficult balance between sticking to your position and completely letting go. The answer obviously varies by organization but sticking to a hard position is rarely (i.e. never) a good approach to actually change an organization.

I’m afraid that things won’t go well

Image by Capture Queen ™
The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea. – Martin Luther King Jr.

Do you ever face resistance when attempting to implement a new idea or a new concept? I often notice interesting behaviors when helping teams and individuals transition to Agile. In fact, I notice strange reactions whenever there is a change management initiative underway.

In such circumstances, the first question that comes to mind is “Why is this individual afraid?“.

In my opinion, people are typically afraid for 2 reasons: they have had a bad experience in a similar situation in the past or they anticipate that the change will cause unwanted results. Either way, my approach is the same.

Being afraid is normal and is not limited to humans (for sake of this post, let’s limit ourselves to humans). As babies we learn through experience and the recommendations of our parents – the stronger the initial experience is, the longer it remains encrusted in our brain.

Let’s admit that many change initiatives have led to very negative impact for people. Remember enterprise re-engineering? What about outsourcing? Do you think people who lost their job as a result might be afraid of other organization-wide initiatives??

As change agents, it is our role to dig into the reasons behind the fears. I’m not talking about psychology, I’m simply talking about root cause analysis of the situation in an attempt to properly address the concerns. To do so, coaches must ask powerful questions and keep silence to make room for valuable information to be shared.

Once we understand the motivation or the source of the fears, we then need to be truthful and honestly tell if the situation will (or won’t) lead to the feared consequences. In the cases where it may actually lead to the expected consequences, we should engage the individuals into finding potential solutions or way to mitigate the unwanted conclusions.

911 – “I need help! I’m a people manager and my team is going Agile…”

Image by Michael RansburgIn line with a few posts I recently published (this one and this one) and following conversations with people (and managers) around me, I decided to take another stab at helping people managers transform into agile leaders. Contrary to popular beliefs, people managers in an agile context are not doomed to buy pizza for their team and getting out of their way…

One of the underlying principles of Agile is to help organizations become more adaptive and flexible in order to (more) quickly react to changes in their environment. In this context, the agile manager has an important role, despite the fact that his traditional responsibilities can greatly change.

In his new role the agile manager needs to acquire or develop these abilities:

  • Adapt your leadership style: Every team reaches a certain level of maturity and the agile manager’s leadership style needs to be adapted to the context of his group.
  • Make yourself available: Your team members will need help and they will need to turn to someone they trust. Make yourself available and keep an open mind when problems arise so you can actually do something useful for them.
  • Help your team remain focused: Well jelled teams tend to become enthusiastic about what they can accomplish and sometime lose focus and get distracted by shinny objects – this is especially true with software development teams. In his role, the agile manager can greatly help his team members keep their focus in order to achieve their objectives.
  • Secure resources: In every traditional organization, departments are typically assigned a budget to provide a certain level of service and as such, the self-organized team rarely has the maturity and visibility to obtain the budget it needs to protect and grow the unit. The manager remains the best spoke person for his team since he has developed the political abilities to influence people around him.
  • Become a consultant to the team: Develop your credibility as an expert in certain areas and make sure to bring that value to your team members. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t show up at their meetings unless you are invited.
  • Guard the team from disruption: Once the self-organized team demonstrates a high level of performance, others around will notice and are likely to request activities, tasks or special projects from the highly performing team. The manager must then block disruptions and maintain the team’s focus in order to remain productive.
  • Be a spoke-person and do marketing: The team will want to achieve a high level of performance and once it does, recognition from others is a likely contributor to their motivation. The manager is an position to promote the success of his team – and indirectly his own as the manager of a highly performing team. If you believe “marketing” to be inappropriate, think again. After all, the manager delegated some of his authority to the team and as such deserves to get recognition.
  • Increase communication and visibility: A lot happens outside the team. The manager has to bring the information about the organizational threats and opportunities back to his team. Sometime even gossips can be useful information for the team.
  • Prepare the team for the future: As the team undertakes some of the traditional management responsibilities, the manager can spend some time actually preparing the team members for the career development, especially if some of the members are interested in developing their management expertise.
  • Offer to help with retrospection: The team is typically very focused on their activities in order to achieve the objectives that were defined for them. As a consequence their retrospection are likely to focus on short term, immediate challenges they are facing and much less about the long term. The manager may offer to facilitate meetings geared toward the future.
  • Grow the team members: Observe the team in action. In collaboration with the individual team members, determine which area they wish to develop in order to achieve their career goals and support them by coaching them.

Overall, in such a context the agile manager needs to start focusing on a strategic perspective as opposed to a very tactical one which is often what managers do despite their many promotions over the years.

The change is likely to be positive not only for the team but also for the manager himself – only if he develops enough self-confidence and courage to start operating this way.

Are we coaches or do we offer coaching?

As I was heading back home, I wondered – is coaching something we do or the way we are? So once I got home, I looked up the definition for both words (coach & coaching) and came across Visual Thesaurus (image below).

The reason I was wondering is that when I meet people who “do coaching”, they always say “I’m a coach”. I’m not actually disputing that they are (or aren’t) coaches, it’s just that I wonder if they have assimilated the coaching role so much as to BECOME coaches. Maybe it’s simply like someone who defines himself as being an accountant, an engineer or a clown when in reality it is because their day-job is accounting, engineering or clowning.

This leads me to wonder, if accountants stop doing accounting after 5 pm, does it mean coaches stop coaching after work hours? It seems to me, based on the many coaches I personally know that very few actually stop coaching – that’s almost a way of being – coaching the kids, sometime the spouse, some of the friends and so on.

Should we call ourselves coaches only when we are on duty or is there a better name to describe bipeds who provide coaching to people around them?

Personally, I have decided a while back that I do not define myself as a coach. Coaching is simply a tool for me – a very effective one, I would add – that I use to help people accomplish their objectives.