Coaching Agile Leadership

Photo by Marco Verch

Photo by Marco Verch

Leaders make a decision, change has been announced, and the agile coach wasn’t involved—what’s their reaction? Having talked to coaches all over North America at various agile conferences and open space events and heard their thoughts on management in general, it seems like the reaction is this:

  • If the decision clearly supports agile and the teams, the coach is elated and does a happy dance

  • If there is any doubt of the above, the coach is frustrated, angry, or depressed

Ouch. It’s tiring to be mentally recasting managers as friend or foe based on their decisions. And exhausting to think of them as villains or buffoons majority of the time. There’s this notion that persists—if only they (management) would get it (agile), then the culture and team issues would sort themselves out magically and a choir of angels would sing. Ok, maybe not the angels. Rainbows and unicorns would appear.

Agile coaches tend to be on the side of the teams, which somehow means they are against management. I don’t know if that’s serving us or organizations well. Is the safety to fail meant only for teams or for the organization? If we are to support culture change, what is our role in being a coach for the organization as a whole? Is that possible? Management implies privilege, which is not something to ignore. Those with privilege can be blind to it, and others may need real assurance to speak truth to management.

I just finished reading Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell. Campbell coached a number of executives in his unique style that included hugs, cursing, confidentiality, storytelling, and asking questions. He undoubtedly had a significant impact on those around him, and the description of his work didn’t always match my understanding of coaching. One thing was crystal clear though: he was a champion for those he coached and the executive teams to which they belonged. Who are we choosing to be if we do not champion those we coach?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

When DevOps is Inflicted on Business

Photo by Pacheco

Photo by Pacheco

Most organizations I visit have accrued technical debt and genuinely want to improve their technologies to better serve their business and their customers. The challenge is: how? Architectural and infrastructure improvements may be needed, new practices and skills may be required, and it’s hard to see where to fit in these efforts with business requests. Oftentimes IT projects and technical stories manifest. In many cases, transparency of development efforts decreases when this happens and leads to greater conflict with business stakeholders. Teams can feel caught in the middle as managers try to provide “air cover.” The use of a war-related metaphor here feels not-so-great.

Transparency is one of the early benefits of an agile approach; it is evident in the Focusing Value zone of the Agile Fluency model and enables organizations to better collaborate and save costs as they focus on business results. When IT chooses to invest more heavily in improving technology and the way they work to reduce defects and increase productivity, it can look like a slowdown. Teams may spend time on things that business folks don’t fully understand; their effort increases as they introduce new tooling, make architectural improvements, and adopt new practices. The development costs of new features can skyrocket. Good IT managers help insulate their teams from undue pressures to deliver and meet timelines—pressures that can cause teams to abandon improvement efforts. Great managers recognize the additional challenges being placed on product management and partner with business to keep focusing on value and learn to ship more frequently to customers.

Scrum describes the Product Owner as responsible for “optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs.” When the effort of a feature is significantly increased by technical improvements, the Product Owner’s job becomes harder. And their role was already difficult! I’ve seen tensions shift and conflict become more productive when organizations learn to look at the product more. Looking at the product more means looking at status reports or release plans less—graphs and words miss the full truth and make it harder for us to find alternative ways to deliver value sooner. Inspecting the product (or the Increment, for Scrum aficionados) generates conversations about customer benefits and value; teams learn more about what customer problems may need to be solved and can think of new ways of doing so. A stronger understanding of value can be the key to a team figuring out how to deploy multiple times a week—or even a day! System resiliency can increase as a team learns more about potential risks. Plans to release to production are adapted as real conversations about the current state of the product unfold.

Investing in adopting DevOps or making technical improvements doesn’t have to be at odds with focusing on business results. Inspect the product, not the status reports or release charts. Build on the transparency and collaboration of agile methods.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Mentoring is not Cloning

Photo by lorigami

Photo by lorigami

Years ago I attended an Agile Scrum Immersion class. My mentor was the instructor, and I’d been looking forward to learning how he taught the class; I hoped it might reveal new ways of explaining concepts or leading activities that would make me a better teacher.

He was incredible at creating a safe learning environment, engaging students, and telling stories. His energy was infectious as he dramatically explained how the Agile Manifesto came to be, jovially walked through Scrum in his own poetic yet plainspoken way, and imparted to us signals to be wary of in our agile journeys.

I remember a student asking a question, and I started thinking about how I would answer if I was leading the class. And then listened as my mentor spoke to his experience before agile and after. His answer was quite different from mine—I did not have equivalent pre-agile experience. That was the moment I realized I would never be my mentor. We could both certainly teach and coach, but our approaches would be different. Our own experiences would inform us in our work. To act like his clone or mimic his style would actually be detrimental—I’d be a fraud.

After presenting at the Dallas Agile Leadership Network recently, a friend told me she found herself thinking, “I want to be like Allison” for my ability to engage with an audience so naturally. Flattered, I knew immediately she would not be exactly like me. Another notion came to mind too: she would never be me but could channel her “inner Allison.” There have been times when I’ve sought to be more easygoing, extroverted, or authoritative and found help in thinking of role models of those qualities. I reflected on what they do that I admire and figure out where that may already live within me. I can try it on and practice being more of an external connector, for example. Engaging with strangers and warming up an audience for a talk. It reminds me of years ago when I first attended a swing dance; my best friend walked me up to someone and asked him to dance with me since I was new. I have no idea how red my face might have been in that interaction, but I learned quickly how to approach strangers on my own. Building that capacity has served me well in many areas now.

We learn so much about ourselves in relationship with others, and we can inspire each other to develop aspects of ourselves that might remain dormant otherwise. Borrowing from one another and trying new ways of being without full-on mimicry. Whether we are mentoring someone or being mentored, we must remember that cloning is not the goal. Personal learning and development is.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Agile and Metrics – Measurables or Miserables?

Photo by alev adil

Photo by alev adil

Years ago, I talked to a COO about helping his organization adopt agile, and he asked about metrics. How would he know how teams and products are performing? Part of the desire for agile was to address their current lack of visibility into the teams’ work and to establish KPIs across IT in particular.

What metrics could the COO expect to see? Great question. Agilists often talk about using empirical process control—namely transparency, inspection, and adaptation. Yet we’ve seen issues arise when metrics that are useful at a team level are exposed to managers and stakeholders outside the team. Unfair comparisons of teams and assumptions about how to intervene can pop up. Education about the metrics and how to use them can help. Recognizing what kinds of decisions and support may be needed from those outside the team may encourage tracking and discussing additional metrics.

Ken Howard and I created a presentation about metrics a team might find useful and metrics executives might be interested in; it’s called Agile by the Numbers: How to Develop Useful KPIs and was a popular session at AgileShift in Houston. Slides are available online here. If you’re interested in us presenting for your group, please contact me.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

The Not-So-Funny Team Toxin: Sarcasm

Photo by clement127

Photo by clement127

I am reflecting upon work groups that are unproductive. And noticing that the problem isn't necessarily the people or the work--it's in their interactions.

Is there such a thing as a sarcasm hangover? I don't know how else to describe it. For me, it's like this: you're in an environment where people frequently make sarcastic jokes, and you might come up with a few zingers of your own. Later you feel a malaise and “off” compared to your normal pleasant self.

A while back I was at dinner with a group of friends; we hadn't all been together in a while, and the back-and-forth quips started flying across the table. A few had edge to them. The next day I was bothered by it and reached out to one friend in particular to talk about it. I realized that while I like all of these people, I didn't necessarily like myself when we got together and made sarcastic jokes like that. In theory, it would be nice to see everyone more often than once or twice a year. In my heart, I knew I wouldn't pursue it if that was the way we would act. Part of me can be a real jerk, and that's not something I desire more of.

Some people view sarcastic jokes as harmless. It's prevalent in pop culture. However sarcasm is an example of toxic behavior--behaviors called the four horsemen of the apocalypse when it comes to relationships. A toxic behavior that begets more toxic behaviors if we are not aware.

Yikes! Those jokes don't seem so funny anymore.

The experience of being in work settings where sarcasm is the norm now hits me differently. I see the verbal jabs and feel the pointed edge. I imagine pink slime slowly coating us and amplifying our negative emotions like a scene from Ghostbusters 2. If we are to spend any meaningful time together productively, our awareness needs to be raised. We make jokes to avoid uncomfortable truths. What's going on under the surface? How do we need to be with that? What support is wanted?

If your team’s productivity isn’t what you want it to be, look at what's going on between people and listen to how they joke about each other and their work. Sarcasm may be a signal of deeper issues.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Onboarding an Organization to Agile Practices with the Agile Fluency Game

Photo by Allison Pollard

Photo by Allison Pollard

I have seen great results in using a board game to onboard teams, leaders, and even new agile coaches to agile practices. Running the Agile Fluency Game™ with teams and managers has enabled clearer understanding of new ways of working and sparked rich conversations about adopting new agile practices.

Recently I’ve been working in an organization undergoing an “Agile 2.0 transformation”—they’ve had Scrum teams for a long time and are seeking the next level of agility. By learning and adopting DevOps, Extreme Programming, and lean product management practices, teams can achieve the release at will capabilities that the organization desires. A few teams have transformed already, and I’ve witnessed as an agile coach how overwhelming it can be for teams at first with so much to learn.

To help educate teams and reduce anxiety about new practices, I’ve facilitated the Agile Fluency Game with teams right before they start working with an agile coach. Playing the game creates clarity and insight on what the team might learn from the coach and the benefits of new practices. One team’s members had a wide range of agile experience—from folks who were brand new to agile all the way to seasoned practitioners who had been in high performing XP teams. Playing the game as a team, they read the agile practice cards, asked questions, and made tradeoff decisions about where to invest their effort. They learned from one another about agile ways of working and what they each value when it comes to quality, communication, and delighting customers. The team bonded as they played and realized there will be a cost to learning in their work; they gained confidence in how they will handle real-life tradeoff conversations as a team.

In another case, a group of IT managers played the game as a team, and we ran longer than scheduled because the game was going so well. They achieved the highest score I’ve seen yet! After celebrating their wise decisions and “win,” they wished that their leadership would play the game. Conversation centered around the challenges their teams face—right away the managers recognized the differences between the greenfield starting point of the game versus the legacy code and maintenance their teams encounter today. They noted how different the game would be if it started with a setup closer to their teams’ current reality—and agreed that their decisions about which practices to focus on and when would be quite different.

Initially I ran the game with a group of new internal agile coaches. They lost their first game quickly. Surprise! Balancing agile practices and feature delivery was harder than they thought. Their agile experience hadn’t yet exposed them to many of the technical and quality practices. Playing the game a second time allowed them to better comprehend the connections between the practices and see how they can work together. I gained a lot as their agile coach-mentor in observing how they interacted with one another and facilitating the game debrief conversations. We found a meaningful shared experience and model that we could reference in coaching discussions.

After facilitating the Agile Fluency Game with so many different groups, I’ve grown to appreciate how agile beginners and seasoned practitioners alike feel better prepared to engage with an agile coach and learn new ways of working after 90 minutes of fun and discussion. Onboarding an organization to agile through a board game—it’s like magic.

Agile Fluency is a trademark of James Shore and Diana Larsen

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Be Agile Week is Coming - March 11-17, 2019

Agile helps people and organizations to achieve awesomeness by optimizing flow, accelerating innovation, and enabling people to experience happiness at work. Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild has proclaimed “Be Agile Week” in March to coincide with the Agile Open Arizona event. Attend the week of certifications, workshops, and conference in Tucson to learn how to deliver value faster to customers and experience friction-less collaboration. Or act locally in your community by doing something kind, specific, and socially impactful that could have global implications.

During the week of March 11, 2019 through March 17, 2019, share your actions or experiences on Twitter at @agilealliance or @agileopenaz and be sure to use #BeAgileWeek in your posts and tweets!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Does agile coaching lead to better business results?

Photo by Dan Gaken

Photo by Dan Gaken

Companies have general goals in mind when they hire agile coaches. Reading through RFPs and talking with leaders, it initially sounds like adoption of agile practices across teams is a goal of its own. A leap of faith that improvements in agile practices means better organizational outcomes will be achieved. Investing in agile coaching may seem worthwhile enough from that viewpoint.

The Agile Coaching Institute’s whitepaper includes a section on “What Business Benefits would an Internal Agile Coaching Capability Make Available?” It says a strong agile coaching capability means it would be possible to:

  • Enhance product delivery flow throughout an organization.

  • Scale safely by ensuring the agile coaching role is filled by someone whose skills and gravitas are a match for a given team/program/organization.

  • Ensure team performance by starting up strong teams, resetting teams when needed, and disbanding teams that cannot sustain the desired level of performance.

  • Create a sustainable Agile capability that lasts long after key players move on.

  • Reduce or eliminate reliance on external agile coach consultants.

As a coach, I found myself wanting something more from the business benefits of agile coaching since I am often helping organizations grow internal agile coaches and form an internal agile center of excellence.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet with a potential client who was interested in engaging an agile coach. Knowing that there are multiple coaches and organizations who might be able to help them in this area, one of their asks was for case studies because they wanted to know the results other clients had achieved. Reviewing a compilation of client engagements and the results was like going through an old photo album and feeling nostalgic about happy pastimes. Agile led to real benefits for those organizations like cost savings, increased revenue, and improved employee satisfaction. An agile coach would not have been able to guarantee those results from the start but knowing what’s possible and what would be meaningful for the company can allow for a better coaching plan.

An emphasis on adopting agile practices without an understanding of what an organization is ultimately trying to achieve feels (at best) short-lived. Agile coaching is more likely to be successful with a clear objective and an understanding of how teams’ increased capabilities will benefit the organization. Without that, agile coaches and sponsors alike can lose sight on whether practices are really generating better results or not. And that’s too bad—for the company and for the coach—because we all want to be successful in the long run.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

A Retrospective for End of Year or Project Reflection

Photo by AdNorrel

Photo by AdNorrel

How do you help a team reflect on learning and change over a long timeframe? I recently facilitated a retrospective for a team that had deployed to production after six months of development effort. Over that time, the team membership changed, impediments were discovered, and new technologies were learned. From the outside looking in, I sensed it had been a long and bumpy journey for the team. To help them reflect upon that journey, I first asked what they wanted to get out of the retrospective: the consensus was improvement items for themselves and learnings to share with other teams that are on similar technology journeys.

With the goal of the retrospective clarified, we were ready to move into the next retro activity. I asked them to imagine that the team was a spaceship. The spaceship had just completed its mission. I tasked the team members to individually draw pictures of their spaceship. What does it look like now? How damaged is it? What upgrades did it receive in its journey? Drawing took nearly 15 minutes as individuals added more details and iterated on their designs. Keeping with the creative spirit, I asked the team members to reveal their pictures on the count of three while also making the sound of their spaceship landing. It helped maintain a light and open tone as we then looked for commonalities across the images. We captured the similar themes on the whiteboard and further processed what they meant for the team.

As a facilitator, I noticed areas that the team spent a lot of time discussing and others that did not get mentioned; my role involved inquiring about the unspoken topics that seemed to be in their blindspots. Retrospectives on longer timeframes—even when a team has regular retrospectives—need an objective facilitator to notice what’s being said and what’s not being said to help the group gain a fuller understanding and learn.

A simple metaphor of a spaceship finishing a mission unpacked a lot of ideas and assumptions about their experience as a team delivering a project, and we could use it to talk about what future capabilities would be desired or future missions—the possibilities are endless on how this retrospective can be adapted to your teams!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Envisioning Success for Agile Coaching

Photo by Carol VanHook

Photo by Carol VanHook

What does it mean to be successful as an agile coach working within an organization? I don’t think the answer lies in how many people are trained or how many agile teams are operating. It’s not in the average maturity of the agile teams or in their velocities.

A colleague and I were talking about having an organization’s agile coaching group come together to brainstorm what success looks like and then create a strategy for how to achieve it. The idea of running a “remember the future” activity was floated—it’s a great activity that I’ve used in other scenarios. When a group taps into the energy of a desired future, new and vivid ideas can be produced. Yet I’m hesitant to say yes to it in this case.

My fear is that when agilists are asked to imagine what the future organization looks like after successfully adopting agile, they envision the same collaborative culture regardless of the company’s current state, its values, and its needs. Agile’s not a destination, but if we’re asked what the ideal looks like, I think we dream about the same place regardless of what company is our starting point. That feels weird. And while each person’s vision might differ slightly, I think it would be saying more about their personal values than the company itself.

We often get caught up in the culture we’d like to see and lose sight of the business results that make the coaching investment worthwhile.

I find myself wondering how else we can envision where the organizations can go with agile coaching support—to see beyond the culture or behaviors. Johanna Rothman’s question, “What business outcomes do you want to see, in 30, 60, 90 days?” is a fantastic one to me to accomplish that. The shorter time frames generate varied ideas of what might be possible and most beneficial. Focusing on smaller goals also feels more congruent with the agile and lean approaches we promote.

Ultimately, the answer of what success looks like connects back to what problems agile was meant to address for the company. And we need to spend more time having conversations with sponsors and stakeholders to understand success rather than hearing “agile” and saying, “I can do that.” I want to hear more success stories resulting from agile coaching in 2019, and it starts with a clearer vision of success.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.