Its a catastrophe – how does an agile coach respond?

In this series of articles I will provide suggestions for helping people tackle problems and “catastrophes.”

In each case I either provide some open questions or “a couple of boxes on a wall.”


I have been working with some agile coaches recently and we discussed two related problems …

  1. When you do a retrospective and people mention things that need improving, sometimes one of the items is a big impediment and you really want to get the team to
  2. Sometimes when you are coaching a person they start talking about how something really sucks and they feel doomed or overwhelmed.

In both cases you want to help people move from helpless doom to a feeling of agency (ie they feel like they can do something to control their destiny.

I have previously covered what the coach wants to do in this situation (For example in “the mysterious cheat sheet” here).

But in discussions I shared some other approaches and the crew asked if I could share links to them.

Sadly they are are really basic suggestions or they are “re-using” someone else’s approach in a different context.  So I am going to steal other people’s ideas here and show you how you can use them for dealing with “this is a catastrophe” or “this is a a big impediment, how can we quickly come up with a plan of attack”.

I will share some different approaches in a couple of different blog articles, but for now, here is the first approach.

Option 1 – use a problem statement

Let’s say someone comes and says “this sucks and I am quite sad.”

You then ask what the issue is and they say “The program office and the steering committee are totally still thinking in waterfall terms and then telling us to be agile. They tell us we are empowered and need to take accountability but they are control freaks and they won’t actually empower us.  They keep creating impossible expectations and then expecting us to use magic to somehow deliver.”

You can give them advice, but where would you start?  Or you can use your coaching skills to help them.  But here is a simple pattern you can apply.

Simply follow these steps that I stole from this website – https://www.kbp.media/problem-statement/

When talking to one person (or a pair of people)

  1. Describe the problem …
    1. Finish this sentence “the problem is “
    2. If there are multiple problems them deal with one at a time
    3. To convert this into an open question, just ask “How would you describe the problem?”
  2. Explain who is affected by the problem
    1. Complete the sentence “This problem affects (which stakeholders)”
    2. If you want to convert this into an open question, ask “Who is affected by this?”
    3. If you like you can add “Who might be involved in solving this?”
  3. Describe to impact that this problem will have on the stakeholders
    1. Complete this sentence “the impact is …)
    2. Ask “what impact is this having on the stakeholders”
  4. Describe what a successful solution would look like
    1. Complete this sentence “Whatever the solution is, it will need to (provide this; or have these characteristics”)
    2. Ask “What would a good solution look like?” Or “Let’s say a fairy waved a magic wand and fixed this – what would it look like when the problem was solved”
  5. Summarize and confirm your client is happy with the summary
    1. So I think we are saying …
    2. The problem is …
    3. Which affects these people ….
    4. The impact it is having is …
    5. And if we solved it, this is what a good solution would look like …
    6. Does that sound right?
  6. Explore multiple alternatives to solve the problem
    1. OK – what is the simplest thing you could try?
    2. What would you never try?
    3. What would you tell a friend to do if they faced this problem?
  7. Pick one
    1. OK, what do you think you should do?

OK, that should work well.  But now let’s assume that instead of talking to a single person, you have the whole team in the room.  You are running a retro and the same flood of comments came out.  You know there is something to fix but you need to understand exactly what it is and come up with a plan of attack.

The workshop version – put some boxes on the wall

When you are in a group you want to do some brainstorming rather than just hold a long discussion.  So try this …

Give everyone a pen and some post-it notes. Then draw some boxed on the wall for them to add post-it notes to.

a wall a

Now get people to write on post-it notes what the problem is.

Don’t make them perfectly define the problem.  They could add a symptom, or an aspect of the problem.  The idea is to dump rough thoughts.

Now do the same to add stakeholders to the second box.  The impacts that the problem has in the third box.  Then finally success criteria in the fourth box.

Now give people a chance to read through the post-it notes and come up with a summary of one thing that could be solved.  Have them share their summary:

  • So we came up with this summary of one thing we could address:
  • The problem is …
  • Which affects these people ….
  • The impact it is having is …
  • And if we solved it, this is what a good solution would look like …
  • What did you guys come up with?

Now get people to agree on one summary to work on.

Run through alternatives and suggestions for solving the problem.  Then vote on which alternative to pursue.

Take that core sentence or the suggested alternative and add it to your to-do list (or sprint backlog, or team countermeasure repository etc).

That’s it – try it and see how it works


3 thoughts on “Its a catastrophe – how does an agile coach respond?

  1. Pingback: Problem Statement
  2. Pingback: Problem Statement

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