Never miss the goal twice

At the start of this year, I wanted to get back into writing. I used to keep a journal and I have maintained this blog for a long time. I was still writing some presentations and workshops at work but I missed writing entire training courses and user guides.

The problem was that I did not have a big dream or vision for a world changing novel and the people at work were not looking for a whole new agile training curriculum.

So I decided to start small and commit to writing 2 blog articles a month. It was a good goal because it was clear and it led to action. Maybe it was not a great goal because it has not led to a “value based outcome.” There was no target of boosting readership, educating people in something new or making money.

The goal has been working well for me because of a couple of things that I learned a long time ago, from books like Atomic Habits and from trying to create new habits at work.

The first is that it was simple, so I actually knew in concrete terms what to do.

It was also small. This is important for me because I am a procrastinator who can get overwhelmed by large goals. The bigger the thing the more I think I should plan it properly and the more I think I should plan it properly, the more I ponder it without moving to an experiment or small action. I have found that, for me, I need to identify a small first step to get momentum.

I also created a “forcing function” of telling myself that there was a deadline every week. People who know me, however, know that I work in bursts of enthusiasm and I can defer little things indefinitely while I take on new adventures. This is bad because I almost become immune to outstanding tasks or expectations that I am missing. For example if we stop following the agenda in our important meetings, I feel a twinge of guilt the first time, then less and then less until the “we should stick to our agenda” comments are really just talk.

So, for me there is one more thing that I need with any new habit or long term goal. I need a “falling off the wagon strategy.” This is my plan B for when I fall short of my expectations.

It may not sound good, but I do actually plan to fail. I think about what will happen when I do not achieve my (simple) goal. For me this is important, because I often have several false starts and several “work emergencies” that distract me for a short time. But once I fall short of my goal, it is too easy for me to become immune to doing that.

The strategy I used this time was “never miss it twice.”

I said that I would write a blog article once a fortnight (yay – achieved). But in fact I also said to myself that it would be a good stretch to write weekly, but if I do not, I will never miss writing an article two weeks in a row.

This gives me a stretch target of once a week, but an escape clause where I can miss it if I have a really full on week and need to take a break.

This works for me because, even if I miss a goal, I can start again. This takes the pressure off for me and gives me a greater feeling of agency/ the ability to make a choice.

It also works by tricking my procrastinator soul though. Every time I decide to miss my deadline for a week, it means that I have a hard, unavoidable, deadline next week. The thought of this hard deadline with no choice then causes me to think that I might have a full on week and no choice and that seems stressful.

Even though I have not had a stressful week, my brain decides to avoid it and the easiest way to do that is to publish a short article and then keep my options open for next week.

I don’t know if it will work as well for you, but it works really well for me – I hate being the victim of a locked in commitment next week and I am happy to commit to a small commitment this week. I am also comfortable that I can forgive myself if I miss this week, since I have my plan B … which makes the commitment this week even smaller and less intimidating.

The goal itself has not achieved a lot, other than me practicing writing, but it has actually led me to start taking on some small writing opportunities at work, because I can see how easy it is to just write something. Since my goal is simply to enjoy writing, that is enough to claim victory.

However I also find that I need to stretch my goals a little as I go, otherwise I end up with a bunch of obligations.

So it is time to either prune my goal or tweak it. For now, I have decided to tweak it.

  • I will not write AND EDIT one thing a fortnight, but not with a fixed date deadline. I think editing takes me longer than writing and often creates the best benefit;
  • I will still commit to this being done between once a week and once a fortnight, but never missing 2 weeks in a row; and
  • I will read someone else’s writing once a fortnight, so I see am exposed to both good ideas and the writing style of others. This can be a short story, SF book chapter or a piece of agile philosophy. Again it will be once a week sometimes and once a fortnight other times but I will not miss two weeks in a row.

So far it is working better than a broad wish based goal or “I wish I had time to write more.” Hopefully I will now make some time for both reading and writing on a regular basis.

Coaching tax – the movie version

I thought this was about coaching tax

Last week I wrote about “coaching tax” from the perspective of being in a coaching conversation (time on task) versus not being in a coaching conversation. This week I thought I would write an article about “coaching tax” from the perspective of the coach who is already engaged in a coaching conversation.

Once we are “on task” we are actually coaching someone. This is the moment that we yearned for, where the insights and the self-motivated call to action comes out and the coach can sit back an marvel at the transformation that they are witnessing (and I hope facilitating it too).

Time on task involves enabling a good conversation as well as having it

At it’s best, every coaching session will lead to either a new insight or a next step that is clear to the one being coached (who I will refer to as “The Hero of the Story” or “The Hero”).

The same conversation will also lead to a feeling of fulfilment or joy for the one doing the coaching, as they watch the Hero gain new insights and take meaningful action (I will refer to the coach as “the Coach” or “the Supporting Character.”

However, in my experience, a lot of my coaching does not attain this ideal. Instead I find myself frustrated by people not gaining the insights that I want to force down their throat or explaining to them that they are the Hero and that they do not need me to tell them what to do, since I am just the supporting character in the story.

That sounds a bit vague, but I believe that I have been able to make more sense of it recently. Not all coaching (even when “on task”) is about unleashing insights. Much of it can be about creating the relationship, environment and conversation that enables the insights to occur.

That is where I thought movies about coaches might help me explain.

Movies about coaches

To understand this at an abstract level, I decided to see if there are any good movies or TV series about good coaches.

There are quite a few movies about coaches in sporting contexts (See

This is great, but I think they are a bit misleading if you want to learn about how to coach in a work context (like I do). They include such things as coaches struggling to get teams to believe in themselves and the coach also being imperfect, but by having the coach as the hero, they can trick coaches into acting as the hero.

In sports coaching (the movie version) there are a clear set of goals (win games without cheating, being happy while also winning a lot). But this is actually a problem in the workplace.

Yes – we need to build trust and yes, an agile coach should know about what agile is and have valuable insights to how to “play the game.” But this is really about consulting or teaching the team, rather than what I see as coaching.

What can we learn from these mythical sports coaches?

What I take away from these movies is that coaching is a journey for the coach as well as the team. I also think it is valuable to understand the importance of the team trusting the coach.

Both these topics touch on the concept of “coaching tax” because they consume effort that could otherwise be directly applied to helping people improve. I will try to explain that properly in my next article.

What else can we take away from these coaching guides (err – fictional dramas). One thing I like is that the coach celebrates the winning of their client or team, which is part of the joy of coaching.

One movie, “Eddie the Eagle” is good in that the coaches journey is not actually the same as the hero’s journey, but this is where there is a danger in learning from these movies.

Just like an agile coach, the supporting character (coach) has been there before and is imparting wisdom. He does a great job of stretching Eddie and of teaching him basic skills. Unfortunately both his ego and his prior experience actually get in the way.

Based on this detailed assessment (watching the movie a while ago) then I would differentiate teaching basic skills (ski jumping, Shu Ha Ri, teaching agile practices) from the actual coaching conversations where the ego of the coach is a major tax on the conversation.

There is nothing wrong with teaching basic skills and I am sure the story of Eddie the Eagle would have been less inspiring if he never learned to take off (or more importantly land with some hope of safety, I guess).

This is where I think the myths portrayed in coaching movies distract us coaches from doing our jobs properly. For the supporting character (coach), the journey should be the heroes journey of the actual hero of the story.

This means that, like a movie coach, we should demand accountability from the hero. I mean demand specifically because coaching someone who is not willing to commit to the journey is actually doing them a disservice – it leads to a lame movie and a wasted series of conversations.

But the problem is that the hero is often not (knowingly) aware of their readiness and need to go on the journey. So a valid role for the supporting character (coach) is that he/she should help the hero realise both their potential and their motivation to leave their comfort zone (or current dilemma). This is core to coaching but often involves work to enable growth rather than to realise it. Again I will discuss this in the context of coaching “tax”.

Along these lines, what we should NOT take from these movies is that the coach will be the hero, get the girl, conquer their demons and be admired by the team and the crowd. Good coaching leads to gratitude but must still leave the hero feeling like they won the victory.

Similarly – real coaching often involve the “Student becoming the master” or excelling to the point that they no longer need the coach. This is an important part of the relationship and is where the coach’s ego, need to receive an income and other issues can become an impediment.

Maybe tv shows are better

There is a TV show called “In Therapy” which is about a psychologist helping people. There are some good lessons about listening and not owning the client’s outcomes, but there are two problems with this show if you want to copy the approach of the main character (the therapist).

Most importantly, the show is about a psychologist helping people with serious psychological trauma and issues. Ie people who are in therapy. Because of this the most important lesson for coaches like me (and probably you) is DO NOT DO THAT.

Do not attempt therapy with your client, instead help them find a real psychologist who knows how to manage therapy. The best we can do with serious psychological issues, is, I think, Psychological First Aid and support to take the step of asking for help.

As a coach you can be a friend or colleague but not a therapist and if you are a friend then you will help someone find the right help, rather than trying to be the hero, reading your book on pop psychology and fumbling through someone’s real trauma.

There is a second lesson, not as important, but still worth learning. The Therapist in the show is on his own journey and tries to deal with it on his own. However (without giving away too much) he is a flawed person like the rest of us.

I am similar to the main character in that I like to solve my own problems and I often don’t think about asking for help. If you think about it though, if you are a coach and you really believe in the value of coaching, you would not only be open to being coached, but be eager to access it.

This is where you get to be the hero of the story and you can learn from others.

The best movies on coaching

The best movies on coaching are (I think) probably fantasy movies or martial arts movies. They have the coolest coaches and the coolest action scenes.

Unfortunately, the coach is never the main character and often, the coach/mentor dies so that the hero can rise up and engage in great acts of heroism.

I am not too keen on being the coach who is killed so the hero can rise up, but I am keen on being the witness who watches someone (or a team) grow and then get out of the way.

Sometimes the coach is a super-guru who is kind of the team leader (like in Mutant Ninja Turtles with some rat guy or X-men with Charles Xavier) but the coach is not the star. In fact their team often go against their advice or find themselves having to solve their own problems. I guess this is where the Leader as Coach can work, where the leader is off leading or teaching or managing budgets to pay the rent while the team are tackling the adventures.

My favourite coaching movies are

  • “Star Wars” with a hero (Luke and maybe his friends) and a couple of coaches who are right for the hero at the pivotal moment in their growth (Obi One and Yoda); and
  • Karate Kid (with LaRusso as the hero and Mr Miyagi as the coach)

In both of these movies (or series or platforms or entire enterprises) the coach is understanding and really believes in the hero, even though the hero is often hopelessly short of the mark.

The coach somehow manages to be cool while remaining a supporting character. More importantly they balance teaching with positive reinforcement and reality checks so that the hero can go on the journey.

The coach bathes in the hero’s glory and stresses at their challenges but never takes ownership of them and never loses sight of them.

These (admittedly fictional) coaches spend a lot of time enabling the hero to grow and appear at the right times to create a safe place where the hero can reflect, practice, be vulnerable and gain strength.

So what

There is a possibility that I got a little off track there, which is a “tax” that I have to manage when I coach. I have to fight myself sometimes to focus on letting the person I am coaching (the hero) have the conversation, while I help them make sense of it rather than telling my own war stories or talking about coaches in movies).

Unfortunately if I spend 40% of the time with a hero (coachee) talking about movies then there is only 60% of the time left to actually get to the insights and the next steps. It is like I am paying 40% tax on my time.

So that is where I should focus next – how do I minimise the “tax” I pay when coaching so that the maximum focus possible goes to growth, insights, courage to act and so forth.

Sadly our time is up and that is the end of the session. Hopefully I can remain on task a little more of the time on our next session.

Do coaches pay tax (part one: time on task)

I love coaching

I like to believe that coaching has a really positive impact on the person being coached. At best it is a “generative conversation” that leads to either new action or new insight. I have heard this summarised as discovering what is “next or new.”

When coaching an individual, the conversation is one sided because it is all about, and all for the benefit of, the person being coached. This differs from collaborative problem solving where both participants share the burden of thinking, listening and talking. It also differs from normal conversations over coffee which are often a free exchange of ideas or an experience of feeling connected to another human, without any agenda.

This means that when coaching, the coach is a thinking partner and not a guru. The coach focuses on listening while the other person (the thinker) expresses and explores their thinking. It would be great if the coach could interpret and explain that thinking, like a psychologist, or ponder it and give wise advice, like a sage, but this is not coaching. In coaching the thinking partner hears what is said (or often not said) and reflects that back so that the thinker can see what their thinking looks like. This involves listening, questioning and summarising but not really any problem solving. The result is that the thinker can observe themes, insights, gaps and biases in their own thinking, allowing them to either understand something new or to find the motivation to move to action on something they have already decided that they should do.

This is a great thing to be a part of, whether you are the coach or the thinker.

Unfortunately, as a coach, I do not get to spend all my time actually in these great coaching conversations.

Like all other jobs there are things that distract me from the actual coaching. Some of these things are just bureaucracy or distraction (unnecessary waste) and others are necessary to enable the actual coaching to occur (necessary waste). I measure these roughly by looking at my “time on task.” I will discuss time on task in this article.

Even when I am coaching someone there is often a portion of the conversation that is not about growth but rather about other things. These include banter (saying good morning), mindset tax (dealing with people having a fixed mindset), building trust to enable robust conversations and thinking traps (catastrophising or getting stuck in a way of thinking that inhibits insight). These are all part of coaching and dealing with them is an important part of the job. However they are often the things stopping someone from fully exploring the “new or next” results I get excited by. I loved the term mindset tax when I heard it, so I have stolen the term to create a more generic “tax” that I will call “coaching tax.” I will cover coaching tax in my next article.

Coaching tax – the frustrating thinking effort that we go through to enable insights

Time on task

I often think of “time on task” as a good measure of whether I am adding value as a coach. Time on task is the percentage of time I spend coaching, rather than going to management meetings, talking to other coaches about coaching, setting up coaching engagements, reviewing Jira data to find the insights to share with teams etc.

If I am spending more time “not coaching” than coaching, then it is harder to have an impact than if I am fully on task, coaching and sharing insights.

So if I want to be effective, then I want to spend my time either enabling my coaching or actually coaching. The rest of the time I spend is potentially wasteful.

A simple way to assess this is to just look at your diary for each day of the week. For an external coach I guess you need to look at the time assigned to a client, but for me these days my entire diary is basically my dataset because I work as an internal coach. Look at what time is spent on interacting with people to coach them and then look at what time is spent not doing that. This gives a simple ratio that you can call time on task. You will never be 100% on task but you can consciously monitor it and experiment with how to improve it.

A slightly more nuanced view

Some things though are kind of on task. This could include observing the person or team I coach in action or it could include assessing the data they have about the tools they use to track their work (product metrics, Jira data, Product Board, OKR things, SLA’s, Zendesk, bugs and issues etc).

Tracking this work is necessary for coaching teams and sometimes individuals. In fact one of the challenges of remote coaching (being online or in a different office) is that you may not have sufficient access to data and the observing people “in the wild.” It is possible to coach without this insight if you are working only as a thinking partner, but it is a significant constraint if you are meant to be designing training or making recommendations for improvement. In fact it is like looking out a window or a video feed when observing a sunset – you get a picture of things but you do not get the full nuance and majesty of the experience.

Then there are other things, such as comparing notes with other coaches and updating management so they have some faith in what you are doing.

These things are necessary, but I am not sure if they are purely on task because insight comes from interacting with the coach and these are examples of the coach gaining perspective or interacting with others. They therefore represent the potential value of coaching but not the realisation of it.

So I guess you could look at three things if you want to optimise the focus of your coaching:

On task (coaching)On task (context)Not on task
Drop in session with Zac
Running retro
Delivering feedback to Kim
Planned coaching with Marie
Run course on listening
Reviewing Jira
Observing sprint
Interviewing stakeholder
Self development
Attending all-hands
Updating management
A fictional table of time on task

At some points in the coaching journey I will be deliberately on task (gaining context) and at other points I will be on task (actually coaching someone).

A more nuanced look could also dig into how much of my on-task time is with a particular team (the web team or the management team) or person (the scrum master or the tech guru). You could also split it into a more deliberate look at where you spend your time versus where you see the potential leverage of spending your time. I do this with my own, very basic, model that I shared in an article a while ago.

I sometimes formalise this coaching breakdown in a coaching agreement, though I like to keep the “time on task” measure among the coaches because I always seem to be embarrassed about how little of my time is spent at the pointy end of actually coaching someone. Maybe that is something I should focus on in the future, but in my defence I do actively manage it and I use it to nudge myself to being deliberate in gaining context and getting to the actual coaching conversations.

My simple coaching model – sometimes “coaching” is not pure “coaching”

Using these rough ideas I find I can be more deliberate with where I spend my time. Even when I am right on task though, not every conversation turns out the be “generative” leading to great insights about what to do next or discovering something new.

So I will tackle the topic of “Coaching Tax” next week.

Moving into the Learning or coaching zone

We sometimes talk about moving out of your comfort zone so that you can really stretch yourself and thereby grow more.

Moving out of your comfort zone can, however, be a bit harder than we make it sound. But why is it hard?

Overcoming inertia

One reason is inertia. We are not making the deliberate choice to stay stuck in our ways, but actually we are kind of used to doing things the way we do them now. Being good people we decide to make a change, but thinking about the change actually kicks off a series of reactions in our brains.

A slightly simplistic view – a tug of war

When we start thinking about doing something, our mind focuses some energy on working out if it is a good idea, but there is also a lot more going on.

Different parts of our brain calculate:

  • Whether this seems like something to move towards (food) or away from (a monster);
  • Whether this will bring a dopamine hit (playing a fun computer game);
  • How this relates to the kind of person we see ourselves as (or at least ourselves in this role right now); and
  • Whether we need to make a choice at all.

Where our brain suspects that their will uncertainty (ie change) and effort (ie growth) then our brains release some helpful cortisol, to cause us to feel unpleasant and move away from the perceived effort, or they might drop in some pleasant distractions so that we don’t have to worry about all this effort and uncertainty right now.

All this can cause inertia and distraction, that we might perceive, in a moment of guilt, to be a lack of will power or a poor attitude. In fact though it is our brains juggling things constantly to decide how we can survive in the moment and possibly thrive later on.

The more we make something seem like a big deal, the more brain power we use to assess it and the more our brains decide to help us avoid dealing with the whole the big deal. That is unless we can find a way to turn the challenge into a game, or a fun sounding adventure.

Surprisingly though, there is one very well researched technique that often helps to get us started – committing to only a simple, small sounding step.

Some examples are:

  • Rather than committing to go to the gym, commit to put on your exercise clothes. After that it is likely to be easier to take the next step, and then the next (See “Atomic Habits”, by James Clear); and
  • Rather than trying to get something right, start with a messy first attempt, or a Sh***y First Draft, according to Michael Bungay Stainer in “Getting Started“.

There is, of course, more to it and you can find out a lot more about the validated research if you read “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock or “Helping People Change“, by by Ellen Van Oosten, Melvin Smith, and Richard E. Boyatzis. But that sounds hard, so I recommend just finding a simple thing to do to get started.

The Pomodoro technique

A very effective way to get yourself to focus on learning and new habits is to commit to focus for a short burst of time, before taking a break. This is known as the Pomodoro technique and it is both simple and effective. You literally set a timer for 25 minutes and try to focus 100% on doing something. Then take a 5 minute break and repeat.

I use this for completing admin tasks (not a challenge but boring) and for learning new things. I also use it to blog, but I often find myself deciding not to take a break when I get into the zone when writing.

Increasing your awareness

One reason for not adopting new approaches or trying new things is that we are too busy to notice when we are going back to our old habits.

It is hard to pay attention all the time so I often write myself a “not todo” list for the day or a “try to do” list. A more effective way is to define when you will stop to pay attention and deliberately try a different, less comfortable approach using what I call habit cards. These are really just some thinking patterns I stole from some good coaching books, written on a card or in a notebook to help prompt your memory.

Zones of growth 2 – managing the journey

My last article, I suggested that we should move out of our comfort zone in order to learn and grow. I looked at how you can target specific areas for growth and then volunteer for scary adventures that take you through “the fear zone” and into a longer term learning zone where you continue to grow (or where you can use delegation to encourage others to do the same thing).

I think that leaving your comfort zone and facing your fears in order to generate real learning more is good, but I don’t think the model I shared is complete. This article looks at the same challenge through a different perspective.

A different perspective (and model)

I encountered another learning model when my daughter was in kindergarten, and it has stayed with me ever since.

It was a model that the teacher used to encourage the kids to try things that were challenging and to build the persistence and resilience to keep trying until they succeeded at something that was difficult (but important) to learn.

3 different zones

There are 3 zones in this model:

  • The comfort zone (green, in the centre) is where we are relaxed and comfortable. Things happen easily. We do not need to focus very hard and not need to expend much energy.
  • The stretch zone (Yellow, just outside the comfort zone) is where we stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. The stretch zone is where we need to try new things, experiment, and practice with things we are not yet comfortable with. This means we need greater focus, and it requires more energy.
  • The stress zone (Red, just outside the stretch zone) is where our emotions over-ride our thinking and we get stressed, scared, angry or anxious. This requires a lot of energy, but it undermines our focus, since we are more focused on protecting ourselves from danger than we are on learning.

When my daughter first explained this model to me, I assumed that being in the stretch zone was the best, because it would generate the most learning – kind of like being in the “Goldilocks learning zone.” However, my 6-year-old daughter explained to me that this view was not correct.

According to my daughter’s teacher, who had far more credibility than me, all the zones can generate learning. The idea is to recognise which zone you are in and then apply the right tactics to either benefit from being there or move to a more useful zone.  I am not sure if she explained it exactly like that, but this is how I interpreted the explanation.

Applying the model to our teams at work

I don’t think my 6-year-old thought in terms of EQ, presence, or mindfulness, but the model is quite a simple one to use when trying to increase your personal awareness.

Let’s look at each in turn.

The “stretch” zone

We spend much of out life running on automatic, but if we are on automatic then we are unlikely to pause and think about how to apply a new lesson or practice a new, as yet unfamiliar, habit.

Trying something new means pausing and reflecting on what you want to do and then focusing on how to do it. It also means that you are likely to make mistakes or get stuck.

Teachers tell kids to consciously focus on either listening to a new idea or completing an exercise to practice how to do something new themselves. This is the same for us at work; we need to pause and focus on the task at hand to learn new things or get better at the things we are not yet comfortable with.

Set your mind to the task at hand

So, the first skill we need to learn is the ability to pause, plan and commit to our plan.  

Let’s look at the same example I used in my last article. I am going to facilitate our teams OKRs (goals) for the first time and you are there to help me.

If this is something that I know how to do, but am a bit daunted by, then I might just need to sit down with a cup of tea and plan out my approach. If this is really hard for me then we might sit down together and break the problem down. We might walk through the steps to take, the risks and challenges that might arise and go through different approaches to attack the problem.

Build in a recovery and resilience strategy

We often start with good intentions and with a strategy to try. Teachers and kids go a step further though and I think this is something we can learn from them.

When you are in the stretch zone, you will fail a lot, make mistakes, and sometimes get completely stuck. In each of these cases we need to have tactics to help us move forward. For example, kids are taught something like “step one is to ask the others in your team, if that does not work, try to see what you are missing and if that fails then ask the teacher.”

The tactics change depending on the task, but part of the planning for the lesson if for the kids to plan out their strategy and tactics for tackling the problems that will no doubt arise. Feeling prepared means that when they hit a challenge, they feel a sense of agency and keep persisting.

The same thing should happen at work when we are stretching ourselves. Rather than just pushing ahead and using sheer will power to succeed, we should anticipate that we will need to deal with getting stuck or going off track etc. The plan might be a simple as agreeing a few check-ins to get support or it might involve learning strategies to cope with the feelings of getting stuck.

Comfort zone

One of the strategies to deal with getting stuck (and with procrastinating) is the “Pomodoro technique,” which involves focusing intently for 25 minutes and then taking a break for 5 or 10 minutes.

Taking a break could also be called “going back into your comfort zone.” 

The comfort zone is where you are not stretching yourself and you are not trying hard. This could sound like you are slacking off and I certainly did that at school.

However, it is also where we recharge our energy and where our brain processes a lot of things subconsciously.  Teachers build this into their lessons, and I do the same thing as a trainer.

It is not just about taking a break though; it is also about letting your brain process things in “diffuse mode” which is a fancy way of saying you stop focusing and let your brain wander. Letting your brain wander, sleeping or doing a relaxing task all allow your brain to find connections between different concepts and to work out where your new lessons fit in. Without doing this, you will not remember how to do the things you are pushing yourself so hard to learn.

Taking a break in your comfort zone is also a chance for your brain to recharge. You burn a lot of energy when you do things like prioritising your day, focusing hard on listening to others, tackling a complex problem etc.

If you were a sports person then you would build your stamina and you would push yourself hard when you need to, but you would also take deliberate breaks to allow your muscles to recover. It is exactly the same with mental work; if you really push yourself for a while, you will start to see diminishing returns. You will learn less, you will struggle to solve complex problems and you will perform less well.

Teachers structure their lessons to give kids a break. We often structure our day to pack as much in as possible. Kids learn fast and (some) adults burn out. So a key skill when stretching yourself in your stretch zone is to take a break and spend some time in your comfort zone to recover your energy and to give your brain a chance to process all the stuff you that is causing you to stretch.

Of course – taking a break does NOT mean checking twitter, checking slack, checking emails, jumping into a meeting where you need to focus. It does mean having a coffee, catching up with a team member without an agenda, going for a walk etc.

With practice, you can learn to recognise when you need a break from being in the stretch zone. Even without this you can insert deliberate breaks or opportunities to do non-challenging things during the day.

Stress zone

I remember being told to focus more and try harder at school. I don’t remember being told to feel less stressed and to stop trying as hard. Maybe I was a relatively low-stress student, or maybe there is a part of my education that I missed.

When I entered the workplace though, I did learn about EQ, self-regulation and not burning out. I am not sure when I first encountered this, but it was early on.

My daughter learned to notice when her chest started to feel tight or when she was starting to feel anxious. Then she was taught some focused breathing activities like breathing in an out as she drew a square, or as she ran the finger from one hand over the fingers on the other hand.

This is something I think we should do more of at work too. If we can learn to recognise when we are starting to “lose it” or “shut down,” then we can take deliberate action to tackle the problem.

The stress zone is not where you really want to be if you are trying to learn new things, but strangely it is still a place of learning. For example, if you can start to notice what happens just before you get stressed, then you can start to recognise your own triggers. These triggers are the things that people do or that happen around you that cause your emotions to hijack your thinking.  If you start to learn what those things are then you not only learn how to respond to them better, but you often find an opportunity for growth in that space too.

The stress zone serves another purpose too, which I think schoolteachers only touch on slightly.  Sometimes we feel stress or anxiety because something is in fact wrong. Something that represents danger or at least a cause for concern.

We are not facing a “learning situation” that we should learn to adapt to, we are picking up warning signs that we should pay attention to.

Hopefully in your work you are not actually in danger of snakes and crocodiles appearing in the board room and attacking you halfway through a meeting. However, there might be situations where someone is being less than honest, where people are themselves being evasive because they are out of their depth, or you and the team are experiencing bias or group think.

You might not be experiencing danger though, you might just be missing something in the problem you are trying to solve, that is actually very important.

In all these situations, it would be an amazing superpower if you could pause and reflect on what set off your instinctive stress response.

While I don’t have the spider senses of spiderman, I do believe that when I learn to recognise my body or mind starting to experience stress, there is a lot to learn by pausing and reflecting on what caused it.


Growth at work comes from leaving your comfort zone and experiencing some anxiety in order to try new things and practice new habits. However, it is not just about being uncomfortable, it is about building the confidence to operate in your stretch zone and also knowing when to stop and recharge or when you are no longer stretching yourself but rather stressing yourself.

This is where coaching can really help – not just from a professional coach, but even from a fellow traveller, someone in your team who also wants to grow and who can support you while you support them. The process of supporting each other will not just increase your chance of succeeding in a new skill but also help you and your friend to become more resilience and more attuned to opportunities for growth.

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.

And a quick ad from our sponsor (me)

As a side note – if you are in Sydney and are a great design lead, this is a team that needs a talented design lead and we are on a great quest. We would also love to speak to you if you are a designer who want to join us on our quest too. We are on a journey, so you won’t be walking into the perfect designer role at Google or Spotify, but we have the right people and the right destination, so you will be joining a great and fulfilling quest.

Just look review our career page and send a resume, or ping me for a chat.

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 –

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

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.