Its a catastrophe – the doctor’s office

I have been publishing a couple of suggestions for dealing with “catastrophes” and also “minor impediments” with agile teams.  In each case I either shared some questions or put some boxes on a wall.

In the last two articles, I stole someone else’s simple approach and re-framed it as a problem solving or “catastrophe” re-framing approach.  But this time I thought I would share an approach I came up with myself – I call it “The doctor is in.”

Firstly, let me explain why it is called “The Doctor is in.”

When is the doctor in?

In agile theory (and the theory of all high performing teams), the team is stable and everyone is in the team full-time.  But with many of the teams I have coached, some core people are only there some of the time.

For example the Product Owner is actually working with 3 or 4 teams and is only available some of the time.  Or the IT MQSeries Integration Specialist (tech guru) is working on our project “2 days per week” but also working on 4 other projects 2 days a week, which does not add up.

I found that saying someone is available “when needed” or “2 days a week” always led to trouble.  So instead I would say “when can they be available?”  Then I will book those times in as a meeting.

So rather than being available 2 days a week, I might say the product owner is booked in

  • For the planning, retro and show case; and
  • 2 times a week – Tuesday at 10-11am and Thursday at 2pm-4pm.

They can drop by any time but we don’t plan on that.  We can also email/snapchat/snail mail/ Slackify them whenever we want but they will delete all communication and never respond.

Instead we create a doctor’s office (ie book a desk or meeting room).  Then people can come to the office when it is open.  If needed we can also create a waiting list of patients, or more often a waiting list of issues.  I usually create an issue list based on my “risk register for lazy teams” and then I show when they are closed.

If people come to see the “doctor” during the allotted times then they can all come together and hear things once.  or they can come one at a time for a private visit.  But the team can only use the allotted time and then anything else goes untreated until the next session.

Teams learn to either guess (and check later) or wait and they usually start making much better use of the bottleneck doctor.

If there is an emergency, of course, the team can ask for a house call from the doctor but doctor’s often don’t do this, or they get grumpy.

The team coach as doctor

A team coach is usually meant to be there observing and listening and stuff all the time.  But I am often part-time with a few teams so I create my own “coach’s office” in the same way I have other stakeholders set up a doctor’s office.

I don’t usually dress in scrubs or carry a stethoscope but I do treat the office as a doctor would.  I let people come and visit as individuals or groups and then I give them a “consult.”

The approach with one or two people

When people come in I say hello and then get down to business, asking some doctor like questions

  1. What is the illness you have?
    1. People don’t always appreciate me mentioning an illness so I disguise the question. I ask “what ails you today?” or “what is the problem/challenge?” or even “what should we talk about today?”
  2. What might be to blame for it?
    1. If there is no illness to cure then I just relax and have a cup of tea
    2. Assuming their is a problem to solve though, then I want to know what created it.  I don’t want to just hear about the illness itself or I will just treat the symptom rather than the cause
    3. Often people are blaming themselves or some other person, but this is not helpful to a doctor, so I want to find out if there is another cause.  So I keep re-framing things until we can blame something other than a person.
    4. I could ask “what is the root cause” but I find it more useful to ask “what can we blame that on?” or “what else might have caused it? or “how did we get there?” or “what was happening immediately before you started experiencing hour long stand-ups?”
    5. The main trick is to find something you can agree to blame the problem on.  Because it is the “blame” or “cause” you want to address
  3. What cure could you try?
    1. Once you have a blame or cause, then try to get the patient to suggest their own cure.  If you can’t then you can recommend one.
    2. Ask “If this is the cause, what could you try that would help address it?”, “What else could you try?”.
    3. If they are stumped then say “I think this might be something we can treat – try doing this …”
  4. What are the consequences to be aware of?
    1. Coaches sometimes give recommendations but don’t consider the consequences.  Doctors always warn you of possible side effects or things to consider
    2. Discuss what side-effects might result from the cure (potential challenges, things to look out for, tips and suggestions for success).
    3. Maybe dosage is the wrong word, but maybe discuss how people can apply the cure and what follow-up might be required.  For example “turn on the sprinklers after 10 minutes in the stand-up twice a week to see if people end the meeting sooner.  Come back next Tuesday for the Doctor is in session and let me know how it is going.”

So that’s it.  They leave with a cure to try and hopefully they apply it successfully.

Working with a group – put some boxes up on a wall

If you have been reading these articles then you might have noticed a pattern.  I often just find some space on a wall and let people work through their own problems.

Anyway this is the approach for working with a group.  They might have come to your “doctor’s office” or you might have made a house call to their retro.

Either way, hand out pens and post-it notes.

Then put 4 box shapes up on the wall:

a wall d

Have people come up with the illness itself or the symptoms of what is wrong.  This could be as broad as “let me know the challenges you have had last week – put them on post it notes and then stick them in box one.”

This could also be as specific as “you asked me for help with the long stand-ups  epidemic scandal catastrophe.  Before we start curing it though, let’s explore what it is.  Can you all put your issues or perspectives on post-it notes and then put them up in box 1.

Then have people look at box one and see if they agree.  next they come up with what they can blame the problem on (yes I actually use the word “blame” but some people prefer a less emotive word like cause or contributing factor).  These all go in box 2.

Now we agree on one or more blames to try to remove so the illness goes away.  Don’t try to gain consensus here because it can be time consuming and does not really matter.

I know it seems like we should agree on the cause or blame but all we really need to agree on is the next step, or cure, so we can act together.

Whatever the blame, we want people to agree on the cure

Have people put suggestions for cures that we could try in box 3.  Some may require a lot of work and some might be trivial. Some might cure everything and others only treat some aspects of the problem.  But its good to throw everything into the box.

Now have people agree on one or more cures that they will try.

Finally, have people put their ideas for consequences into the final box. This might include challenges, things that need to be done, things we will have to give up or lose if we try this and evening the remaining issues that will not be addressed.

Finally, have people agree that action plan or at least take the recommended cure and consequences into the next planning session.  Hopefully the team will try the cure and it will do some good.

Again that’s it.  You don’t need a doctors degree or complex plan of attack.  Instead just get people to agree on what they will tackle (the blame) and what they will do about it (the cure).  Then let them go deal with it.

Hope that helps – try it yourself and let me know if it works.


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