Zones of growth 1 – growth and delegation

I recently participated in a workshop where we discussed the growth mindset and the need to push yourself our of your comfort zone in order to learn and grow.

We spoke about the need to move out of our comfort zone if we want learn and grow. When you come out of your comfort zone, though, it is scary and you enter the “fear zone.” 

The fear zone is where you do not know what to do next, or you are not confident that you can do it as well as you want to.  This is a vulnerable place and also a tiring one, because you have to stop and think, using a lot of extra energy to focus on applying a new skill, or you have to try out a behaviour that might make you look foolish rather than awesome.

However, with persistence and deliberate practice, you will move into the learning zone, where you will convert your tentative new behaviours into new habits. After spending some time in the learning zone you gradually become proficient and what was once scary or out of reach is becomes a habit that you can apply back in your comfort zone.

Comfort zone, Fear zone, Learning zone

I agree that growth involves both conquering fear (or at least discomfort) and that it requires ongoing practice to embed new habits and capabilities rather than just trying them once. I don’t think, however that it is just a matter of pushing yourself and practicing.

I think that growth involves some skills beyond effort; like resilience, self-regulation and reflection. These things are not just traits that we are born with, but rather skills that can be taught, or learned through our own practice.

In this article I thought I would explore where I agree with the model and where it can be useful for both delegation and self-development. In a later article, I will look at where I think we should tweak the model or add a different perspective to support our personal growth and the coaching of others to grow.

Action based growth

To apply a model like this one, you can just find scary things and start doing them, but that is not the approach I would take. Instead, I would find things that seem desirable and out of reach and then start doing them.

Identifying an area to learn or practice

I looked at how to identify potential growth areas in a previous article, but we can also take a short-hand approach by asking a couple of questions:

  • What would I like to achieve here (in this role, this relationship, this initiative)?
  • How would I behave if that was really my goal?

This gives a quick baseline for what matters in a particular context. We can explore it with other questions, but the two points remain the same:

  • What would I like to achieve here?
    • Who am I doing this for?
    • What will be better as a result?
    • How will this set us up to achieve our next objective?
    • How might it constrain our future options?
    • What would I like to get out of it?
    • Is the outcome I am looking at something I think I ought to do, because others expect it of me, or is it something I really want to achieve?
    • Whose opinion matters to me – what do I think they would like to see happen?
    • Who else is involved in this – what do I want to achieve or support for them?
  • How would I behave if that was really my goal?
    • Who would excel at this (real person or fictional) – what would they do here?
    • What would I do if I knew that I could not fail?
    • What would I do if I was very brave?
    • What would I never do here – why not?
    • What is stopping me or holding me back?

Two simple questions is really enough, but the more you explore what you want and how you can go about it, the more you will flush out potential development opportunities (and clarify your goals).

Next, we can ask ourselves two more questions:

  • What am I already doing (or have done in the past) that will help me achieve this goal?
  •  What could someone else do here, that I don’t think I am good at? What new capability or approach would I love to be able to use here, if I was able to learn it in time?

I ask both questions because:

  • I think that a lot of real growth comes from finding new ways to apply or extend your existing strengths and abilities, rather than trying to fill gaps in your skillset or push through weaknesses; and
  • Of course, there are often new skills that can be learned, or new approaches that can be tried.

Finally, we set a goal by committing to something a little scary:

  • I will strive to achieve (goal);
  • While utilising (this practice or skill);
  • Because (I want to get better or be cooler or some reason).

Or something like that anyway.

The volunteer/delegate model

To practice something new, you need to volunteer to do it, or someone needs to give you permission to do it. Similarly, if you want someone to try something new, then you need to give them permission to do it and sometimes signal to them and others that they have the authority to do it while retaining your support where needed.

That leads me to a delegation/volunteering model that you might have seen before.  I made it up a long time ago, but I think a lot of others have come up with something similar.

So here it is. You create a graph with an X-axis showing “ability” and a Y-axis showing “challenge.”

A quick side note – I sometimes use this when coaching a person or team. I get them to draw this and then add different parts of their work as points on the graph showing how they relate to each other. Hopefully there are somethings that are seen as challenging (managing team mojo) and others that are straight forward (running a stand-up).  Also some people have a lot of experience/affinity to some things (working with people) and not others (understanding our products).  

This can lead to a good conversation about who in the team can help others with some tasks and also which parts of the work are more challenging. Here is a made up one for me.

Back to delegating and volunteering though.  Let’s say that I want to step up in our team and manage our OKR planning, or our KPI reporting. You and I think I am a little out of my depth, but that it is good development for me (and something you are sick of doing).  This would be a challenging piece of work, but some aspects of it would be easier for me and some would be harder.

So let’s fill out the graph together.

We agree that I can organise calendar invitations and get the templates for us to use. This is a no brainer. You can delegate that to me to free yourself up (yay for you) but there is zero development in that for me.

You can also leave me to negotiate our goals with the management team. This will suck for you though because you will not get to agree the goals. It will be good development for me in theory, but in fact we both think that I will be out of my depth, and I will get crushed like an insect (or upset everyone by demanding we fix technical debt). This is not so good either.

So what should you delegate to me?  Let’s put another image on our graph:

The ideal “flow” zone for my work

The grey shading between the lines is the perfect flow zone – I am challenged but it is within my ability to do it.  This is great delegation for both of us. I am happy to volunteer to do this stuff if:

  • I am willing to take accountability for it.
  • You will give me the authority and permission to do it; and
  • We both agree to create time for me to do it.

Perhaps we can discuss success criteria, our joint expectations etc.

The blue zone above that is also good delegation, but I will be out of my depth. We should discuss how to create “scaffolding” (support for me to succeed – you peer reviewing what I do, you showing me how you do it first etc) or we should discuss how to minimise the blast radius when I inevitably get it wrong and deliver the wrong outcome too late.

We might agree that I will summarise the data for the team, but you will also do it. I will present my findings to you and you can both review them and explain how you came to similar or different conclusions.

For both these two zones, we can go through all the questions I asked in the earlier section of this blog article. We can look at what I can build on and where I need help/practice to get really good at this stuff.

The area above the blue zone is just bad delegation. I am too far out of my depth. Maybe instead I can shadow you, or I can focus on other areas and leave this to you this time.

Below the line is still an opportunity for me to do the work, but there is less learning. In the orange shaded area, I might get something from it and maybe I can find some way to practice my new skills in doing it. However, the main reason for me doing this is to spread the work load or because it makes sense that I do these activities because they are linked to the ones I am doing for growth.

In our example, we might agree that I will review last periods results because it is part of the same job. 

Below that line can still be delegation but it is well within my comfort zone – no real learning here.  I can of course organise calendar invitations and find the organisation’s templates for us to use. This is boring work though – not growth.

Maybe we can automate or simplify the boring bits or, sometimes, maybe I can involve someone who would find this more challenging and get them to do it while I provide them with scaffolding.  Or maybe we just say – “Suck it up – someone has to do it and its your turn to take one for the team.” 

In the long run I think it is ideal for a team to use a model (or conversation) like this to look at how they can use the day to day work to support each other and grow as a team.

However it can also be great to look at your own development in terms of understanding your comfort zone and then picking some things to work on outside that comfort zone.

It will involve some fear and frustration and might involve some help or development. They pay-off though is that it can help you to turn a scary thing or something you can’t currently do into a do-able thing and then a habit.

We gave a presentation on defining a great Product Owner

Tom Angove and I gave a talk today on what we think a great product owner is.

We were at the IIBA “Festival of Business Analysis,” so there were quite a few people who knew what a Product Owner was.

I would love to say that the talk consisted or erudite guidance from the presenters and passionate, persuasive recommendations that caused the audience to take immediate action on leaving the presentation. Unfortunately I don’t have much evidence to support that claim.

What I can say is that we got no where near the end of the material we could have gone through because there were a lot of questions from the audience and also several points that members of the audience wanted to share. This made it more of a discussion than a lecture, which was great.

I particularly liked a discussion between Tom and one of the audience (Terry I think it was) when they discussed making clear to the team how valuable they were, not in generic terms, but in terms of how much it costs to have the team and why what the team does is worth more than the money invested in them. That discussion alone would make for a great talk or workshop.

However there was one answer I gave that I think was incomplete. Someone asked us “how do you measure the value of a product owner.

That is a good question

It is a very relevant question, because Tom and I had been saying that companies should get a positive return on the money they spend on a PO. We had also been saying that a good PO should be able to help teams to measure things well.

So if we claim that a PO should be good at measuring things and that we should be able to measure the value we get from having a PO, then it would make sense that we should be able to identify, demonstrate and measure the return we are getting for investing in a PO.

I gave a quick answer

I said that the problem was never measuring the value but rather defining it.

I think that is true. It is hard to measure intangible things (contribution to the mojo of the team) but easy to measure concrete things (stories completed per sprint, cars sold per month). So when we say it is hard to measure the return we get on our investment on a PO, the challenge is to clearly define what the PO contributes.

The more tangible we can be the easier it will be. But even if we end up with something intangible like “team members know what the team’s priorities are” then we can rate it roughly, by asking the team what they think.

I am glad I did not say the wrong thing

I could have given a worse answer. I could have given a specific set of measures (like these dodgy ones or some measures I have seen in performance agreements). I have used these effectively but they only really work in context.

I believe that it is easy to come up with measures too quickly, turning them into goals in their own right (See Goodhart’s Law).

“when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Goodhart’s law

Instead, I think we need to give the PO room to define what their goals are and how they can achieve them, but understanding their particular context and the most important things that they can do for the particular team they work with.

A better answer will take a lot longer

I would say generically, that a PO is successful if:

  • The product they are working on is creating value for the right people.
  • The decision makers that the PO works with are making better decisions because the PO is there
  • The team(s) that are better able to create value (enhance the product, pivot to something new, kill a bad product off) because the PO is there.

There are many factors that dictate whether the product is successful. I think the PO can add a lot of value by helping make these factors apparent, so the team and its stakeholders know the value of the product and, to be blunt, if the effort of building and supporting the product is worth committing.

However, a good PO can be trapped with a bad product (I have been and it took a while to get people to understand) AND a mediocre PO could walk into an environment where the product is incredibly successful in spite of what the PO is doing (teams I have worked with have been successful without me actually being the reason at all).

So that leaves us with some simple goals, which are only examples:

  • Better decisions
  • Easier, more efficient pursuit of value.

If those are the goals, then the next step is to ask some questions:

  • Who cares if this goal is achieved? Whose opinion really matters the most here?
  • Based on those answers, what questions should we ask on their behalf to understand if the goal is being achieved?

For example

Has the PO helped this stakeholder to make better decisions? How have they contributed to the quality of decisions being made?

Me trying to come up with a measure

Then the last step is to challenge ourselves to find:

  • The answers to the questions that we identified;
  • The evidence that supports our answers; and
  • The confidence we have in answering those questions.

This is still hard, but it is now achievable.

  • Maybe we can see a reduced cycle time in the team and the reason is quicker decisions, smaller stories and better coffee supplied by the PO.
  • Maybe we can see that decisions are more often based on external customer data (4/10 of our decisions now), the stakeholders all have a voice now, or we have created tests to validate assumptions that caused us to make small mistakes and not giant ones.

So my answer is still “the challenge is defining what we want from the PO, not actually the difficulty of creating measures once we know that.”

There was a lot more in the talk and I would love to have captured it all. Maybe you should run a conference and ask Tom and I to speak again so we can revisit the discussions.

The pull of the tangible and the pull of the past

I am supposed to be working on a talk I am doing in a couple of days. I have some time available and some rare space to think. So of course I have started reading some books on topics that have nothing to do with my talk, and I am pondering how these impact life at work in areas that are, again, nothing to do with my talk.

I was reading “What Philosophy can teach you about being a better leader,” by Alison Reynolds and others.

The theory

They raise a point they call “Tyranny of the tangible” that I think of as the pull of the tangible.

In their research the authors found that when leaders are executing their strategies, 89% of them do one of just 3 things:

  • Restructure who reports to whom;
  • Change who is accountable for what; or
  • Introduce new processes to make things run smoothly.

This rings true for me, but is it an issue?

The authors are into empowerment, or the sharing of power. They distinguish this from “delegated authority” which is giving people power within boundaries of the things you control.

In fact, they suggest that people in authority should be granted that authority by the people they lead/serve rather than assuming authority and granting some of that to some of the people that they lead. If that is the case, then empowerment in not just giving people the scope to execute your wishes, or organisational goals. Empowerment is about giving people the power to actually define, negotiate and execute the agenda themselves.

That thinking aligns really well with some of the ideas in “Leadership is Language,” by David Marquet an (possibly my current favourite) “Alive at Work,” by Daniel M Cage.

The lived experience

So – I am holding the fort as a temporary manager for a team of designers and I am wondering how I can add value to them.

I am a great bureaucrat so, honestly, I feel confident that I can remove some organisational impediments that distract the team and help the team gain momentum from other organisational processes and administrivia. In other words, I can help them to use the organisation’s current structure to better deliver value and work better as a team, without needing to change that structure.

But working together as a team involves humans interacting together. I am lucky that this team are good at that already, but what if I want to lead them rather than just be a senior administrator who removes red tape for them?

Well in theory I can take control and delegate work to them, but sadly they understand their work better than I do and they are certainly better at their craft than I will ever be. They will likely delegate the supply and demand admin to me, but not the design standards and expectations. They will also maintain their own relationships with stakeholders, creating a level of organic work management.

That is OK though, according to these book. Instead of defining my accountability, I should let the team discuss what the team needs and make sure everyone has a voice. Then, assuming they have the right information, they will work out how their team should run and then delegate some things to me to run for them. I will be the “leader” but only because they give me the authority.

Of course – that assumes that the team has the right information to act on. So maybe part of my job is to make sure they are well informed and have access to good, credible information for design.

That is a bit different to a traditional view that the boss gives me authority and I then delegate some of this to others.

So far so good – back to theory

So far so good- what does that have to do with the three approaches that leaders fall back on?

Well, this team is working well together, but it is a small team. As more people join or more teams interact, then the interaction becomes more complex. As the interaction becomes more complex, leaders (rightly) fear losing control.

Interaction among peers, frenemies, teams with different goals and people with different views is a complex adaptive system and it is hard to predict and control from the top or centre, because of, well, complexity and the adaptive nature of agents in the system sensing, learning and adapting.

I won’t go into complex adaptive systems here, but the way the whole system works is based on intangible, or at least invisible, relationships between people and things and the changing actions taken by the many people who are in the system.

The average leader (ie me) will see that things can get out of control and struggle to see how they can control intangible, ambiguous things.

Being human, they will look for something tangible that they can take control of in this sea of chaos (or innovation, it is hard to tell). They will therefore try to control the interaction, sense making and activity of the team(s) by “fixing” the structure (Who reports to whom; who is accountable for what; and the processes for both making decisions and getting things done).

Good plan – but this control of only part of the system involves change, which can create anxiety, passivity and dependence, according to the authors. People know the new structure, process and accountability is coming/mostly defined, but they are either still trying to make sense of it or they are trying to work out if what it means to them, even as it the new structures, processes and accountabilities take shape.

That bit aligns with the SCARF model which I have encountered in some of the books from David Rock, “coaching guru.” SCARF tells us that if you are creating any of the following, people will turn defensive rather than generative:

  • Status – threatening their current or future status
  • Certainty – creating a feeling of uncertainty
  • Autonomy – threatening or questioning their autonomy
  • Relationships – threatening relationships or their quality
  • Fairness – creating a perceived risk or issue about fairness.

Sadly, altering who reports to whom, who is accountable for what and what process they follow probably risks hitting multiple parts of that model – triggering a defensive response rather than a collaborative and innovative one.

Probably not a great start.

I can see why we might try to put in place the right seeming things but if the issue we are ultimately trying to fix is about interaction and collaboration, or if our goal is greater empowerment AND accountability, then inflicting negative emotional drivers on all the “agents in the system” (ie the people) seems the worst possible road to victory.

This is what the authors mean, I think, by the Tyranny of the Tangible. Leaders, being human, try to latch onto the tangible things that they can control, but in doing so they create multiple intangible barriers to interaction, empowerment, confidence and momentum. Ironically triggering the outcome that they feared, causing them to repeat the cycle.

Instead, leaders should focus on building trust, communication between people and similar intangible things. At least that is the theory – I assume some clarity around structure and accountability is needed.

Lucky for me, my ignorance of design excellence and my lack of authority as an interloper mean I can avoid the trap of the Pull of the Tangible with my designers. Luckily also, people in and around the team are happy to collaborate together to come to the right outcomes and create the right structures.

Unfortunately, though, it means that I need to find another way of leading the team. Or more accurately, finding out from them and their stakeholders what leadership role I should be filling, based on what they choose to delegate to me. It sounds more like I am doing a job application or negotiating my role in the team rather than being the boss.

But what about the pull of the past?

So, my approach is not entirely clear, but my first steps should involve understanding the multiple perspectives of the member of the team of those they work with. Then I should probably facilitate a healthy conversation about the value and the niche the team can fill and help the team members to craft their jobs according to the current organisational context (system) and their own strengths and desired growth areas. In theory this will align to the real value proposition of the team and be in harmony with other teams they work with.

Sounds good to me – that is straight out of the book “Alive at work.” It also aligns with the things I have often done as a coach, consultant and leader.

But that brings me to another risk.

What is working now is working the way it was designed to work, but the way that things are working is inherited from the organisation the way it was a few months ago, when I was not leading the team, some of the team members had not yet joined and the organisation was a little smaller (we have been growing quickly).

Our rapid growth and our ongoing rate of change mean that the team is, at least subtly, different to what it was a couple of months ago.

This is where the Pull of the Past comes in.

I have been around a long time now and I have a lot of experience in many of the aspects of the work we do. That is great, because it means I have some answers to things that we face now because I have seen them before. Or more accurately, I see the challenges I face now as being similar to the things I faced in the past.

I am a big believer that we underestimate the strengths we have and that we often have solutions that we have tried in different contexts in the past that will work well in facing the challenges we face now.

However, you might see a dark side here too. Our experience is a double edged sword. I have seen teams adopting agile, but mistaking the new ideas they encounter in a new way of working for tweaked versions of what they already do rather than a significant change to the way they work (see Moving away from agile, the wrong lens). If it happens to “them” then it could happen to us.

I have also seen teams trying hard to adopt improved ways of working or really focusing on changing direction, only to revert to old behaviours when under pressure.

This is not change resistance, nor a lack of insight. This is because our habits are ingrained and we are not aware of them. When we are under pressure our minds grasp something tangible (what we have done before) and run with it. It is a survival approach when we face a threat, but it means we get tunnel vision and keep falling back on old ways, even to the extent of documenting a business case for a decision that has already been made (which I have done).

A coach I worked with, called Pat Reed, really drew this to my attention as something that coaches (and I guess leaders) need to continually battle (see I did not saw slow down now to speed up later).

Pat called it the “pull of the past”. When moving forward into a new and different future, need to constantly and deliberately remind ourselves of the future we want to be in, and recognise when we are acting our way back into the past that we are comfortable with.

So I run too risks here when I “listen to the voice of the team”:

  • The first is that I only half listen and therefore hear what aligns with my past experience. The flip side of this is that there is also a risk that others will hear a different message based on their sense making and history. The result is that listening to the team turns into listening to past versions of ourselves agreeing to things without actually understanding each other.
  • The second is that under pressure, which we all are, we will all automatically fall back on what worked in a different time in a different place. That means we will seek a future by replaying the past, which someone is quoted on the internet as saying is madness, or bad or something.

Ironically, I am a coach, working with designers. We are all trained professionals in listening, questioning assumptions and co-creating value. We should be the best place people in the world to build (design) and awesome team of happy people adding value at all turns.

However I guess I need to focus on:

  • Bringing enough structure to make sure the organisation’s processes are helping the team and not being cumbersome. I am good at that though and the people in the organisation are keen to help.
  • Ensure that the team has the right access to good, credible information and to the resources needed to excel at what they do. This will take time and effort, but seems doable.
  • Remembering that authority is being delegated upward, since I am not the right heir to the team, but rather a usurper, until the rightful king appears. I should be good at that, since the name James actually means Supplanter, replacer or usurper 🙂
  • Helping the voice of the team and stakeholders drive the interaction and therefore value created by the community. That will take some time and focused attention.
  • Avoiding the pull of the tangible and the pull of the past to facilitate forward momentum. That will take me real presence and practice, since I have many distractions going on at the are part of my other role.

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So staying focused will be important

So much for taking a short break from writing my talk, to sit back and relax. I better get back to drafting my talk, as soon as I have a cup of coffee, of course.

After that, I will consciously focus on the task at hand.

I see coaching values as a “problem” which is why I am so passionate about it

A problem is (also) a question to be answered or solved. Especially by reasoning or calculating

Cambridge Dictionary – https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/problem

I love problem solving I love to help others to learn to solve problems. But there is a problem with this. When I say problem I often mean “a puzzle to be solved” or “a thing to understand” but I think what people hear is:

A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.

The first thing that came up when I googled “meaning of problem”

This is a bad starting point if I tell people that I want to focus some of my coaching on values. Firstly I hope that “value” is the opposite of “A matter regarded as unwelcome.”

Worse yet, I think people sometimes expect that I mean “I want to teach you some good values,” which sounds condescending if not actually insulting. Most people I coach have a set of values that they have built up over many years and that are the right values for them. They don’t really want me to act like a priest who is preaching salvation and calling on them to forsake their sins of waterfall thinking or individual accomplishment or something.

Yet, there is also a problem if I claim that I will not be involved in arguing for values, such as “people and interactions over processes and tools” or “If you claim to do scrum you should include the value of transparency” or even “Kanban thinking means never passing Sh*t on to the next guy – stop and fix it.”

So there is a problem (unwelcome situation) when I talk about agile coaching because I am referring to two completely different things:

  • Helping a team understand the values I believe in (agile goodness, respect for the diversity of the team); and
  • Coaching the team to understand their values and build on the diverse views (values) of the team.

So when I say “I will help you adopt an agile approach” I mean is quite complicated. I mean that I will share with you an approach to work that is based on clear values and assumptions. I will not claim it is always the best way to get your work done (though I do have a bias here); but I will claim that if you operate in a context where these values and assumptions are well aligned to your team, your environment and your aspirations, then I will help you solve the problem puzzle of how to build a way of working that is both empowering for your crew AND optimised for success in that context.

This is something I am passionate about and that I think will create great value for your crew IF you understand the values and assumptions that we are basing everything on. For example

  • You trust your crew and honestly want them to be empowered and accountable;
  • You crew want to learn and grow;
  • The work you do cannot be perfectly defined at the start, but rather the way you work must have learning built into it;
  • You and your team can define what “value” is and your definition will match that of your customers
  • or something

That might be agile coaching, but is it “coaching values”?

My hypothetical questioner

What about coaching values then?

Now we enter difficult territory and I am not sure if I am aligned with other agile coaches and their teams. I think agile values are good, but I do not think that coaching values means teaching people to have the same values that I have – that is the work of an agile missionary.

When I coach people though, part of what I hope to help people with is to help them to find resonance. I also want to have “generative conversations” where I act as a partner to help them understand their own thinking.

That sounds like waffle when you think about it though. So let me start to be a little more concrete.

When I ask people what their goals are in being coached, they often tell me what they think their goals “should be.” This might be what their boss (or parents) told them that they should aspire to. It might be what they think a leader or a product manager SHOULD be like.

But if I coach someone to be someone else, who is not aligned to who they really want to be, then we are working together to create “Dissonance” or an unwelcome state of affairs where they way they naturally act is not aligned to the way they think they should be acting. This means they must spend valuable brain power (attention) on second guessing how another more ideal person would act.

This is again preaching rather than coaching. If I am coaching, in what I think is its pure sense, then I am helping the person (or team) uncover their existing strength and potential and finding a way to nourish that potential so that the person can flourish.

I don’t want to help you to survive here in this company, by becoming what people currently expect of you, I want to help you thrive, and hopefully find a way to do it here.

Me – more than once when I was ear bashing people I have coached

Great – but what does that mean. It means that I want to start the journey by helping people separate three versions of themself:

  1. The “should be” self – where they feel that they are expected to meet the expectations of someone else (a boss; and industry view of what a leader should be)
  2. The “want to be” self – the person they want to become more like as they continue to grow – the person they really want to see when they look in the mirror
  3. The “need to” self – clarifying what they need to do to achieve a goal or outcome and then deciding if it is worth the journey. This is more often seen as the current self on the journey that might be overwhelming them (or boring them out of their brains).

This is where values come in. If people are not at least partly clear on THEIR values, or the things they see as important to them, then there is no way to separate the should be self, based on someone else’s values and aspirations, from the “want to be” self, based on their own values and aspirations.

This is the first, possibly greatest puzzle that I love to help people begin to solve.

If they are not clear on their real values, people will still have those values, but they will often feel stress (coaches say either experience dissonance or lose self regulation as their emotions override their thinking).

Without a coach, or at least time for some reflection, a person will often overcome their dissonance or emotional override by falling into a thinking trap (denying the problem, blaming others, catastrophising) or through adopting a cognitive bias (assuming that because they are a good person, what they did is right, or assuming that another person is wrong because they are from the wrong group). Both these approaches kind of work in their way, but they constrain the person from flourishing.

With time to reflect, some encouragement and ideally some competent, compassionate coaching, I think people can instead suffer a little stress in a way that the stress highlights a road to growth (good pain) and that leads to greater resonance (alignment of thinking, action and the environment I guess).

If people do get a chance to see and reflect on their own thinking and they can then achieve resonance then they can act more quickly, be happier with what happens when they act and start to feel more confident in tackling future problems (puzzles).

That is something I am very passionate about – helping people clarify their own thinking and recognise their own strengths and potential so they can better tackle the problem (puzzle) of how to move from frustration to growth.

This is also something that is a problem (unwelcome situation) in that I am sometimes unclear myself on whether I am currently “coaching” as in helping build a way of working based on core values and assumptions or “coaching” as in acting as a partner for people to find the internal strength and growth to become great problem (puzzle solvers). Worse, I suspect that when people ask for or agree to “coaching” from me they don’t really realise what I am inviting them to participate in. They either want me to solve problems and give solutions or they actually want me to leave them alone so they have time to solve their real problems and not have to humour me with discussing how agile they should be.

So that is the reason I am passionate about coaching and values, that is the real problem I want to partner together to solve (as in solve a truly satisfying puzzle) and that is the problem (unwelcome situation of confused goals or expectations) that I think now I need to deliberately deal with with in order to create space for when I coach.

In fact I would say that “being someone who helps others identify and solve their most important puzzles” is one of my more complex values.

I have no idea whether these thoughts make sense to you and whether you share a similar view of the puzzle of coaching. I would be curious to know even if it is not the case.

When is ignorance better than clarity?

I strongly believe that coaching teams (and leaders) is a great idea. I think an agile coach can do a lot more than increase velocity with a team or have decent stand-ups. 

I also read a lot about different approaches to coaching and like to hone my craft as a coach so that I can become an expert coach. Sadly though, I often remember my father’s old joke that the definition of an expert is that they come to know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.

So I sometimes questions when my expertise in coaching is helpful in setting deliberate coaching strategies with teams and when it is helpful in just observing and responding to what is happening, to help others make sense of it all.

Sometimes coaching a team is entirely reactive, such as when I get asked to observe a team as they work for a sprint, or I get to come and run a single workshop for the team.  I like to think I can add value here because I am an outsider and I bring a lot of ignorance with me.

I also bring some wisdom and experience about what other teams have done and about what works in different standardised approaches. These things help me to share ideas with the team, but I still think that my ignorance is under-appreciated. 

When any team is working toward improvement, they have a lot of local knowledge of their history, their goals, their wins and their setbacks. They also have more expertise than they often realise in their craft (say, coding or running experiments).

However, this expertise allows the experts see answers quicker and to apply existing approaches to problems without needing to stop and think.  Coming in without the shared history that the team might have does have its advantages.

The advantage I bring could be called “a fresh perspective” but I think that is a misleading term.  A fresh perspective implies that I have something new to add, but what I often add is an observation, without judgement or even an understanding. It is not an outside perspective but rather a reflection of the team’s existing understanding. My dumb questions and summarising of what I hear and see allow the team to step back and see what they are doing more clearly.

I might ask “what does you designer do?” when the answer is likely to be “they design things” or I might ask why a goal is important to the team, when everyone has already been in a discussion about the importance of the goal. 

My ignorance is a superpower, because as much as the questions are ignorant, they are also free from the many assumptions that a good team will make before and during their conversations that they are having.

So, my coaching goal here is just to reflect what the team are saying and ask questions that nobody else would be ignorant enough to ask (or maybe “free enough from preconceptions” is how I might phrase that on a resume).

However, offering ignorance as a service is not as popular as I would like it to be.  There is often an assumption that an agile coach should be able to assess the team, make some decisions about where there are gaps or opportunities and then set some clear goals to work toward.

This is a minor dilemma for me because I do see the value of going beyond ignorance and to start understanding what is happening at a deeper level. For example, being able to notice bottlenecks and their recurring causes can come from spending some time with the team. The coach is still curious but no longer truly ignorant.

In fact the team might notice that the coaches questions are changing a little at this point. They are still asking both clarifying and probing questions but the balance might be shifting from clarifying to probing. If you are not familiar with these terms, you can read this simple explanation https://global.indiana.edu/documents/global-perspectives/clarifying-and-probing-questions-handout-step-2-define.pdf

But then we might go one step further and move from sharing observations about the team’s interaction and flow of work, toward assessing those things in detail and sharing interpretations. 

Now we might analyse information in detail (cycle time, team interaction) before consolidating our understanding and sharing our conclusions with the team.  This can be valuable and I think it is what a lot of teams (and their leaders) are looking for when they have a coach.

But the new value of coach driven analysis and direction setting might be coming at a cost.

The team gains greater clarity in identifying key areas for improvement, the coach gets to provide some concrete advice to the team and the leadership team get to see evidence of how the coach is adding value. However the team and coach might cease to question their preconceptions and assumptions as closely (since they are now shared assumptions) and the team might delegate some of the ownership of their improvement journey to the coach.

I suppose that teams need different things at different times, so there is a place for both the advice of the coach and their curiosity.  There is sometimes a need for someone outside the team to provide erudite analysis and outside experience. At other times, there is a need for the coach to avoid stepping in to guide the team forward to what they know (assume?) is a better place to be.

Ideally, for me, the role of the coach is to help the team to develop the curiosity and the skills to ask their own questions. In practice though, sometimes there is a need (or at least a desire) for the coach to provide a more detailed assessment of the team and their current performance, so that they can recommend and drive towards a better outcome for both the team and their stakeholders.

I wonder where the balance is for me with the people I am working with at the moment. Perhaps it is a good time for me to turn my ignorance power back on and start to ask myself some questions about my current assumptions as a coach.