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3 responses to every agile question

“To learn how to be responsive; what does that mean? The ability to both tell people the answers to questions about agile AND the ability to ask a question that prompts introspection with the person you’re talking to.”

– Niall McShane (Author)

Anyone can deliver agile coaching; you don’t have to be an agile coach. Agile coaching is simply helping others adopt agile practices and associated mindsets. Your job title could be a Product owner, project manager, experience designer or a software developer but you can help answer questions related to the way of working; agile coaching is everyone’s job.

I first got interested in the topic of responsiveness when I was mentoring, training and deploying 60 agile coaches as part of a large agile transformation initiative. My job as the head of the ways of working academy was to build the organisation’s internal capability to deliver agile coaching services across its 30,000 employees. At the time I was dealing with experienced expert agile practitioners as well as people just starting on their agile career (beginners).

An alternate pathway

As I went about recruiting, hiring and developing agile coaching as a capability, I started to notice a tension in the agile coaches I was training over an 18-month period. This tension I call the expert-beginner paradox.

On the one hand I wanted agile experts who has all the answers to agile questions their clients posed. On the other hand I saw my beginner agile coaches who were hungry to learn, had open minds and although were not as confident they demonstrated a “softer” style when asked agile questions, they were more curious and listened more than they spoke.

Why is this a paradox? Well agile coaches need to be able to provide answers to people’s question on the way of working BUT they also need to be able to listen well and understand their clients concerns re the change to agile. I noticed that quite often these two responses to agile questions were at odds with each other. Sometimes an agile coach needs to confidently provide a solution when asked an agile question whilst on other occasions they need to stop and deeply listen. Below is an illustration that portraits this paradox by way of two conversation pathways. The expert tells or shows the client the answer; whereas the beginner will open and hold the space for a deeper conversation.

the expert-beginner paradox results in two choices

Respond versus react when asked an agile question

This idea of responsiveness at the point of decision encourages the person delivering agile coaching to pause, reflect, and choose a response instead of reacting habitually. Habits are great short cuts to solutions; they save us energy and support us to navigate our way through the world, but they’re not always helpful. For example reactively always being the expert when asked a question sometimes leads to a poor outcome.

If part of your role is to help with the adoption of agile there will be times when you are asked an agile question to which you do not know the answer OR your answer is not accepted by the person who asked for help. It is in these situations where you may encounter problems if you react habitually by providing a solution to the agile question. In these situations, the better response would be to open up a deeper conversation in order to understand where the person asking the question is coming from.

A short case study

Consider the Product Owner who believes that coming to the retrospective is a complete waste of their time. Imagine you’re the agile facilitator for the retro and have the job to ensure the entire team attends. You have no power over the PO, you cannot “make” them attend the retro; what do you do?

Telling them that the scrum guide says they should go to the retrospective is not going to work; the other response is to stop, consider the PO’s position (empathise), and ask them some open questions to explore their reasons for not wanting to attend. During this type of conversation, the agile coach is making “space” for the PO’s opinion to be heard. Sometimes this is all that is required; they feel heard and will start to then consider your opinion (and maybe attend the retro).

It is beyond this small post to outline my full thinking on this topic; I only wanted to introduce the idea of responsiveness when in an agile coaching conversation. Join my little email list to learn more about my upcoming book on this topic.

The third response

Oh and I’m sure you’re now thinking, wait a minute Niall what is the third response that you mentioned in the title of this post? Ok, let’s get into that. One of the more disappointing observations I have had with agile coaches over the years is the amount of times I see them do nothing when they should have said or done something as a response.

“The third alternative response is to do nothing; remain silent.”

Doing nothing sometimes is exactly the right thing to do but more often than not it is an opportunity not taken advantage of. Novice coaches (and even some experienced ones) often let coaching opportunities pass them by. This is sometimes due to lack of confidence but usually is because the coach thinks it is best said privately. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that it is usually best to coach-in-the-moment and strike whilst the iron is hot and NOT wait until later to provide your agile coaching. Of course, there needs to be a balance to how and when we deliver coaching tips or provide advice but my point is that often agile coaches let the opportunity pass and fail to respond when the need arises.

If you want to learn more about this model, here’s a little video:

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