Agile fables · Capability growth

Jason’s coaching journey. The mysterious cheat sheet

The mysterious cheat sheet

In this long read, we continue to learn about Jason and his experience as an agile coach.

In this episode Jason and Sonja stumble on some useful tips for coaches when they stumble on a coaching cheat sheet left behind by one of the ancient coaches and they learn some great tips to use when coaching.

The story continues

Jason and Sonja were in a cafe, ordering coffee and discussing the latest foolishness that their agile team was being subjected to – the launch of the new “Spotted Fly model”.

People were going to be in tribes, which would apparently result in better motivation and higher productivity. But neither Jason nor Sonja thought this was going to work.

On the bright side, they had been given show bags, containing a “Spotted Fly Tribe” cap, a book about the spotted fly that lived in Asia somewhere and a new pen. Jason was completely unimpressed by this but Sonja had insisted that they wear their new caps, which she thought were hilarious.

They picked up their coffees and sat at a table.  They discussed their mutual amusement at the most absurd parts of the launch agreed that the highlight had been the CTO, who had said he was looking forward to being the “Lord of the Spotted Flies.”

The comment made both Sonja and Jason think of a book about tribes that they had both read and wondered if anyone would tell the CTO that it was not a helpful reference.

But what was really consuming Sonja’s attention at that moment was the fact that the café table kept wobbling.  This was something she found really annoying.

Sonja put her coffee and her new “Remarkable” tablet down on the table, causing the table to move. The table wobbled and her coffee spilled on her tablet. That was annoying.

Sonja had just finished cleaning her new gadget when Jason accidentally bumped the table leg and the table moved again, spilling Sonja’s coffee a second time. For some reason, Jason’s coffee seemed impervious when it wobbled but failed to spill.

The Spotted Fly roll-out would no doubt cause great suffering to several hundred people before it ended, but that problem could wait.  A wobbly table was much more urgent and, right now, much more distressing.

Sonja tore some pages out of her spotted fly book and bent down to see if she could jam them under the table leg.

After a little while the table was stabilized. But as she sat up, Sonja noticed something.

It was an old piece of paper that looked as if it had previously been stabilizing the table. It looked like it had come loose, making the table wobble.  It started with the words “Dear Augustine” and Sonja unfolded it, wondering if there was anything interesting in the note.

Sonja read the first paragraph out loud

Dear Augustine, I hope you find this cheat sheet useful.  It contains some simple tips for helping coach people when they are struggling to deal with difficult decisions.  Yours, Harry Stotle.

That was odd.  Harry Stotle was a famous agile coach from long ago.  He was famous for getting developers to actually test as they built early software, rather than just testing it all at the end.

“Quality is a habit,” Jason quoted, remembering one of famous sayings, “Not an act of desperation at the end of an endeavor.”

It still amazed Jason that a coach could get developers to really, honestly test everything thoroughly as they went.  Harry Stotle had been a genius.

“This is a list of coaching tips,” Sonja said, “They can’t really be from Harry Stotle can they?”

There was no way that a lost document from Harry Stotle’s time could have found its way to the cafe floor where Sonja and Jason drank, but it was certainly interesting reading.  Sonja suggested they try the tips out with the issues they were facing.

Tip 1 (10 10 10)

Sonja was coaching Jason with an issue he was facing – “the stupid idiot things managers were doing

Sonja asked Jason if he was struggling with anything right now.  Jason said that he was wondering if he should just quit and leave, or stick around and try to help the teams through what was happening.

“OK,” said Sonja, “How would you feel in 10 minutes if you quit now?”

Jason said he would be thrilled and would tell Jo, his boss, everything he really thought.  Then he thought about it and he decided he would also feel a bit guilty.

“How would you feel in 10 months?”

Jason said that he would regret not giving it a go

“How would you feel in 10 years?”

Jason laughed and said that he would not even remember it.  Then he thought that he might have regretted it if he did not give it a go.

The “10-10-10” questions are explained in just enough detail to be useful  in this interesting link and also in a great book called “Decisive,” if you are interested.

Tip 2 (coach a friend)

Sonja read further into the cheat sheet and found the second tip, which was called “coach a friend.”

“So you could stay,” suggested Sonja

Yes, Jason decided but he still didn’t know what to do about all the stupidity that was annoying him

“If you were coaching a friend who was in the same position,” Sonja read aloud, “What advice would you give him?”

Jason pondered the question.  He decided that what he would advise his friend to do was to talk to his boss honestly about his concerns and then ask to work on components of the change that he did really believe in.

The coach a friend question is designed to take the heat out of a decision or issue and help someone take a step back to consider what they would do.

Tip 3 (what would your hero do?)

Sonja nodded and then went straight into the next tip.

“What do you think Buffy the vampire slayer would do?” she asked

Jason remembered the old TV series.  Buffy would complain to her friend, totally make horrible mistakes and then somehow stumble on the right thing to do. Then she would win and forget all the mistakes that she would make.  She would also slay the Lord of the Spotty Flies and uncover a secret plot by and evil team of scrum zealots, then slay them all

“What would Harry Stotle do?” asked Sonja

Sonja continued to ask similar questions, running through a few different characters until Jason got a bit annoyed.  But by going through what different people would do, Jason was able to safely consider multiple alternatives without having to commit to them.

By considering multiple alternatives, Jason can shift his focus from the issue to the impact it is having and the actions he can take.  This puts him in control and gives him the ability to focus on what he can do moving forward.

Tip 4 (talk around)

The fourth tip was a strange one.  Harry suggested that the coach stop asking about the details of the issue and to ask about things related to the issue instead.  In particular he suggested asking questions with numbers in them.

“Maybe its some kind of ancient agile numerology,” suggested Sonja

But Harry suggested they give it a go

“How often do you think about this”, asked Sonja, “once a day, once an hour, once a week?”

“In your top 5  or 10 issues that you are dealing with, where does this one rank?” asked Sonja

“”If you had to rate this out of 10, with 1 being trivial and 10 being really important, how would you rank it?” She added

“If there was a more important issue, what would it be?” She added

Jason answered the questions, though they were a bit odd. Surprisingly after a little while it dawned on him that the problem was not that management were doing something stupid, it was that he had proposed solutions that had been ignored.  He was also worried that he was going to be blamed if things didn’t work, but he had not had a say in what he was being asked to commit to.

“Actually the problem is that I didn’t get a say in this and now I am not sure what I should focus on,” said Jason, “It not that the ideas are stupid, which many of them are, its that I’m overwhelmed.  I don’t know where to start.”

These questions may seem strange, but they are designed to give someone a chance to zoom out from the issue and let their brain ponder it, without being distracted by trying to define it perfectly before tackling it.

Sonja pushed the table and it did not even wobble.  This was an even greater victory.  So Sonja felt that this was turning into a great day for coaching.

Jason started to ponder his next move.  Sonja, meanwhile, was wondering how the mysterious cheat sheet had ended up right there at the exact moment when they needed it.


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