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.

Inviting Others to the Community

Photo by Timo

Photo by Timo

Working with leaders has given me a deeper appreciation for how hard change can be in an organization. Alignment can be a struggle, and leaders often feel isolated as they face challenges supporting new practices and changing the workplace. Introducing leaders to the larger agile community provides them a sense of comfort. “It’s not just us,” I’ve heard. “Wow, I recognized some of the problems we’ve already solved.” Hearing others’ stories connects them to different thinking than their day-to-day office holds.

Some of my favorite user group moments have come from seeing managers excited about ideas they can take back to their workplace. Maybe they take photos of slides as a presenter speaks, animatedly whisper to a colleague sitting nearby, or send a text to coworkers not present—they’ve gained a morsel of wisdom that has unlocked something new and want to make it real. We’re headed in the right direction, we need to watch out for this obstacle, or we need to try this new thing—they leave thinking and feeling differently about their work.

Witnessing leaders share their stories and give back to the community continues the transformative effects. Authenticity captivates the group. Leaders own their agile journeys, claiming their successes and failures along the way. Learning happens for the leaders who are sharing as well as the listeners, strengthening the group’s bonds. By the end, we recognize one another as being part of the agile tribe.

This was originally published as part of a longer article at Apple Brook Consulting blog.

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.

Letting Go of Control to Be a Better Leader

Photo by Sebastien Wiertz

Photo by Sebastien Wiertz

Stop micromanaging. No more command and control. Trust the team.

But how often do we talk about what it's like to give up control? It can feel wrong to let go. It's risky. It forces us to question what's important to us. It causes us to really think about the character and competence of those we're supposed to trust.

David Marquet believes leaders are needed at every level of an organization, which requires looking at leadership differently:

So when you find yourself holding onto control, ask yourself how you can create an environment for greatness and develop leadership in those around you. How can people make decisions as if the CEO was behind them?

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.

Creating Agile Environments and Transforming People

Photo by James Walsh

Photo by James Walsh

Back in June, I visited the Chihuly museum in Seattle, and during one of the short videos, the artist talked about how he wanted to transform the Citadel in Jerusalem with his exhibit so that people would be changed by being in it.  It struck me as incredibly ambitious and intriguing.  How can we change people by transforming the environment?  In agile, we often start with team spaces and post information radiators.  These affect how people interact and what they focus on—a great place to start.  But what would it look like to create an amazing workplace that changes everyone who enters it to become better versions of themselves? 

When I am coaching managers on creating more agile environments, they learn to look beyond the physical space to see how existing processes, structures, and values are affecting teams’ ability to deliver the right results.  It might mean redefining roles, introducing new practices, changing hiring and incentive policies, and using different vocabulary.  It takes vision and commitment to envision the potential future and do the hard work of making it real.  Like an artist painting a watercolor, the agile leader adapts his approach based on the results of his previous actions while staying true to his vision.  All of this to create an amazing workplace—the kind of place that he might not have seen firsthand, perhaps a place unlike anything else in the world.  Why?

To create something beautiful that helps people move past their differences.

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 Essence of Servant Leadership

Photo by Jon Wilson

Photo by Jon Wilson

My peers and I hold what we call "Monday morning growth sessions."  It's our community of practice (more about that in my next post), and this week we focused on a quote by Andy Stanley:

Leaders fearlessly and selflessly empower leaders around them as well as those coming along behind them.

That quote inspired some great conversation in our CoP, and I have been thinking about it throughout the week.  What does it inspire for you?

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.

Good Practices Gone Wrong

Photo by grahamcartergc

Photo by grahamcartergc

There's a danger in taking best practices too far and applying them at the wrong time or in the wrong situation, and it's a big challenge for leaders who are struggling to advise teams--the leaders are also learning what works and what doesn't while the teams are learning. 

As an example:

User stories are commonly used in Agile organizations, and they are often estimated in story points.  A team estimates each story in its product backlog, and knowing the team's velocity, we can predict when the work reflected in the backlog will be done.  At the beginning of a project, the team knows the least amount of information about the work itself--they will learn more as the project progresses.  There is value in estimating the product backlog before the project starts and estimating the team's velocity as an initial estimate for the project, but it's just that: the initial estimate.  It will be refined as the project progresses and the team learns more about the work.  When estimating the stories at the beginning of the project, it's common for some of them to be epic in size--in fact, that's good.  Epics can be broken down later when the team has more information, so they put a larger story point size on the epic for now as a high level estimate.  But if estimating stories is good and breaking them down into smaller stories is good, wouldn't it be good to break down all of the epics from the start and estimate those?

Not necessarily.  Are heads going to roll if the estimate is wrong?  The team has to spend more time and effort trying to break down those epics at the beginning of the project, and remember, this is when they know the least information about the work itself.  How likely is it that the stories will not change drastically by the time they get to those stories in the product backlog?  Or that the stories will be needed at all?  Epics help keep some of the details vague so the requirements can emerge later.

For every best practice, it's important to know why it is a best practice and when it is best applied.  Some of that will come through trial and error, and some of it can come from reading and talking to others outside your organization.

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.

Introverts and Leadership

Photo by Craig Damlo

Photo by Craig Damlo

I read Susan Cain's Quiet over the summer, and while it was an interesting book, I found myself disagreeing with some of the points it made.  I consider myself to be an introvert, but I have no issues sitting in an open team workspace, for example.  My main disagreements stem from the way Cain used the term "introvert."  As Judith Warner noted in her New York Times review

For one thing, [Cain's] definition of introversion — a temperamental inner-­directedness first identified as a core personality trait by Carl Jung in 1921 — widens constantly; by the end of the book, it has expanded to include all who are “reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.”

The truth is, researchers are finding that introverts make better leaders than extroverts because they're more likely to listen and pay attention to what other people are saying.  After I was elected Regent of my fraternity chapter in college, I had emailed a brother from another chapter for advice; he told me, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak."  Those words have proven helpful.

As an introvert, I often find myself comfortable staying out of the limelight, but I do consider myself to be a leader.  I identify quite a bit with these words from Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, "I am driven by great work and seeing people do incredible things and having a part in that. So it’s more of a feeling inside that drives me, not a public recognition that drives 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.

Visibility of Leadership

Photo by Fr. Dougal McGuire

Photo by Fr. Dougal McGuire

I've been thinking about how visible the leadership of an organization needs to be in an Agile Transformation.  What does it mean for an executive to delegate the transformation to his direct reports or a PMO?  Esther Derby pointed out years ago that:

The dictionary definition for delegate is “to commit or entrust to another.” Every time a manager delegates, there’s the possibility to build commitment and trust or erode trust and engagement.

Managers—because they are human—won’t do it perfectly every time. When that happens, managers can maintain trust by owning the part of the miscommunication that’s theirs. 

But how are managers and above recognizing their missteps as they are learning their new roles in the organization?  We often focus on agility at the development teams because it's easier to understand what needs to change, but managers may not receive feedback as regularly as team members.  Agility does not happen only at the development team level.  Or only in IT, for that matter.

I love the idea of trusting others and allowing decisions to be made at the lowest levels of the organization as possible--these are good things to see in an Agile organization.  But leaders need to be visible in order for employees to understand the culture change going on around them.  Change can be scary, and it doesn't help when those at the highest ranks of the organization are like the Wizard of Oz--rarely seen but often talked about and quite mysterious.  The Wizard of Oz is just a man, and while Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion all possessed what they had been seeking all along, it was recognition from the Wizard that helped make it real to them.

Culture change cannot be delegated, and it requires courage to move past "prescriptive agility."  Leaders can do a lot to remove fear and instill courage just by being more visible to employees.

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.

Leadership Link Round-Up

Photo by Angela Cirrone

Photo by Angela Cirrone

I am having difficulty falling asleep tonight--I blame it on the holiday weekend that affected my normal sleep schedule--and it's technically Monday morning.  So what better time than now to focus on Negativity.

The "negativity bias," or bad feelings are stronger than good - An older post by Gretchen Rubin, whose book Happier at Home I just finished reading.  It's important to recognize that we are all subject to the negativity bias and may need an "area of refuge" to lighten our mood.

How Much is Negativity Costing You and Your Company? - Jon Gordon points out the importance of creating a positive environment rather than focusing alone on removing negativity.  And "when there is a void or gap in communication, negative energy will always fill it."

How to Deal with an Energy Vampire - More from Jon Gordon.  He's such a positive influence--his first tip is to love the Energy Vampire.  He makes it sound easy, which I appreciate since we're talking about people.

Latest Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes - For those extreme cases that are beyond the "Energy Vampire" types, Bob Sutton shares his tricks.  His "biggest and best lesson" is to "escape if you possibly can."  Wise words.

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.

Leadership Link Round-Up

Photo by steve_lynx

Photo by steve_lynx

Today's theme is: Praise, Rewards, and Motivating Others.

Linking Agile to HR Theory - A look at the Agile Manifesto and various theories about people and teams.  By reviewing the people side of projects promoted by Agile, the embodiment of many established good principles are evident. Projects rarely fail because the technology does not work; projects usually fail because of people issues. Finding ways to improve the people side of projects, even if they appear counterintuitive, pays huge dividends.

For Best Results, Forget the Bonus - Alfie Kohn sums up the motto of the American workplace as, "Do this, and you'll get that."  She goes on to explain the problems with rewards.

The 6 Rules for Rewards - Jurgen Appelo gives us rules for rewards that help avoid the problems with cheating and gaming rules that Kohn pointed out above.

10 Questions and Answers for Managers about Praise -  What is praise, why is it important, and a few simple rules on how to give praise effectively.

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.