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.


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