The Trade Offs of Organic vs Prescriptive Agile Coaching

Episode 126

November 13, 2013



The Agile Weekly Crew discuss trying a different approach of prescriptive agile coaching to get a high performing team.

Jade Meskill:  Hello. Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly podcast. I’m Jade Meskill.

Roy van de Water:  I’m Roy van de Water.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich:  And I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Prescriptive Agile Coaching Trying a New Approach

Jade:  Clayton, you’re trying a new approach to coaching a team you are working with. We wanted to talk about that a little bit. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing.

Clayton:  A little bit of background. The team is this collection, I wouldn’t say misfits, if you’ve seen the movie “Bad News Bears” it’s kind of like that.

Jade:  [laughs]

Roy:  Wow. I have not.

Jade:  [laughs] Imagine that you have.

Roy:  Is it like “Breakfast Club”?


Clayton:  In that there are people in the movie, yes. It’s the same thing.

Jade:  [laughs]

Roy:  Is it like any of the three “Star Wars” movies?

Jade:  [laughs]

Clayton:  OK. There’s this collection of misfits and the approach I have been taking was I wanted to be prescriptive about some things. I go back and forth between organic learning or being really prescriptive. I thought I want to be kind of prescriptive because I want to accelerate things, but I don’t want to be prescriptive about stuff like process. I don’t want to say like, “We have to do stand-ups” or “We have to do Scrum” or “We have to have a product owner.”

But I thought, “What if I’m prescriptive about the principles and the values?” As far as being prescriptive goes, that has actually gone pretty well. Things like being open about what we’re working on, visualizing the work, collaboration, and all those kind of things. Then the other approach I’ve been taking that’s actually probably had the most benefit there’s two things.

One is I’m pretending like they’re already an awesome team. When topics come up, rather than saying like, “I’ll ask a question about something like, “How would a team handle this?” Rather than saying like, “A high‑performing team would do X, Y, Z,” I’d say, “Oh, I think maybe if you guys did this, that would work.” They look around. The next part that comes in is “You can do anything you want.”

I always laugh when Jade does the, “You can do anything you want, but there are consequences.” I’ve been trying to get them to believe in this kind of fantasy land where they live in this reality where they’re already awesome, and they can do anything they want. Some of the things that I’ve done on accident that have helped a lot, we set up pairing stations. One of the things that I was being prescriptive about was collaboration.

Rather than trying to work on a bunch of these different projects all at once with a bunch of different people siloing, I said, “Hey, let’s set up a pairing station.” I actually did that for them and made it really easy to use them. It worked out in my favor that no one’s machine was set up to work on any of the projects, and the only machine that was was the pairing station. I just grab [indecipherable 2:27]

Jade:  This was a team that hadn’t paired before? They were not

Clayton:  Yeah, they’d had a little bit of exposure but not really.

Part of the pairing station problem that we had was the monitors were really bad. I went out one day, and I just bought new monitors. I came back and they were all like, “Wow. How did you get new monitors? You didn’t go through IT.” I’m like, “Yeah, I just went and bought them”. They are like “you can do that”? I wasn’t trying to make a case on this but I was like “Yes, I can, I’m an adult. I went to the store and I purchased them and there was this transaction and now we have new monitors”.

It was totally an accident but that was I think the first time they saw “Oh, wow, you really can do anything, there was this thing that I thought was impossible but then you did it”. All the conversations we have been having around actual code things or technical practices or what ever, I think the barrier of that’s impossible, I have never seen that before is widdled away at this point.

They are willing to pretend now, that they can do any of these things. Anything is possible.

If You Tolerate It, You Insist On It

Jade:  What are the results that you have seen so far from this experiment?

Clayton:  They are making good choices. One of the things that I have been trying to emphasize is that concept of if you see a problem it’s your problem now. If you tolerate it, you insist on it. If you see something that you think there is a better way of doing something, then go ahead and do it. Take ownership of it.

It started out where the board was disorganized and people were saying, “I don’t understand what the board means”. “OK, then make it better”. “Oh we can do that”? So they went and made it better.

The next day “I don’t understand how the board flows, I don’t understand what projects they are”. Then someone said “I think we should color code them”. Great, go color code them.

It seems like they are doing what ever they want, but they are really doing the things that are helping them being effective. I have seen a lot of collaboration. They actually are pairing on everything. It’s kind of by necessity.

There is not one person who knows everything, so they’ve gotten so much benefit out of collaborating on the work, I think they are falling in to that as just a habit. I don’t they trying to find a way out of it. They are not just doing that because they need to. I think they are enjoying it and having a lot of fun.

The other thing I have seen is at the end of the day, they look like they are mentally exhausted from pairing all day and they look like they are ready to go home. Where before there was a lot of idle time and board thumb twiddling. That is a status quote for that organization. These guys seem like they are really engaged the entire time.

Autonomy is Largely a Matter of Perception

Roy:  It’s interesting because you brought up the fact that, from your coaching experience it sounds like this is one teams you have been the most prescriptive with, yet they seem to have the impression that they can do what ever they want.

Clayton:  I heard a conversation that they were having with someone on their team where they said “It’s really awesome, we just get to do what ever we want”, which is really not the case. If they got to do what ever they wanted they would probably be doing something different, but because I am able to guide them along with their principals, if there is an idea and we’re using a decider, so everyone is trying to support the best idea.

So when something comes up they are in the habit of saying “OK, I have this idea.” Make a decider or proposal and it passes. If something maybe needs to get tweaked a little bit, we can just make a new decider, and alter it a little bit. Or we can investigate what that behavior is, and get their intention. One example that came up the other day was, they didn’t want to have a rule about [indecipherable 5:48] overproduction code.

I think maybe normal coaching stuff would be like, “This person wants to go off and do their own thing, because they [indecipherable 5:55] “ In reality it was, “I want to have more time to learn by myself. The best way to learn is to actually do the work.” “OK. That makes sense.”

They wanted to go home, and to do the work on their own to learn. Many other people in the team thought, “Hey, that takes away an opportunity for me to learn.” We were able to negotiate some way, to talk about how we can satisfy all those needs on the team.

It’s like the team is doing what they want, but they are still sticking to the principle of overproduction code is paired collaborative code.

What Happens If We Just Pretend

Jade:  What do think has been one of the most powerful ideas that you’ve tried out? You talked about pretending. What’s one of the other things that you’ve done, that you think has allowed this team to be able to enter into this new reality, and just accept it?

Clayton:  A couple other things that have been really powerful, we snapped them out of the current environment I guess. The very first day that we were a team, there was a lot of [indecipherable 6:55] about, “Why we had formed this as a new team?”

“What were doing here,” and “Why did I get picked to be on this team, and not these other people?” I said, “I’m going to go on an adventure, and go to Michael’s and buy some supplies to make a physical board. Who wants to come with me?” This was 9:30 or something.

There were two people that looked at me strangely like, “You are going to go where? But it’s work time?” We went, and it’s stuff like that. Like those little moments, where I’m just modeling that behavior of reinforcing that, “You can do whatever you want. You can make the workspace better or the work better, or how you are doing the work, better.”

Those are the kind of things that have the biggest wins.

Jade:  You took on the authority of, “We can just do this. We can go wherever we want. We can do whatever we want, right out of the gate?”

Clayton: Yeah. Because from my perspective, obviously my boundaries as a consultant are much wider than theirs are, at least their perceived boundaries. I tried to maximize that and be super vocal about it.

Normally, I probably would have done the Michael’s anyway. I wouldn’t have said, “I’m going on an adventure. Who wants to come with me?” Just that kind of thing…

[background noise]


Jade: That was the Jenga board that just…

Clayton: Oh, probably. [laughs]

Jade: The life size Jenga that just crushed.

Roy: That was my fault. I may have built the Jenga tower up to the ceiling.


Vanilla Prescription Goes a Long Way For Most Teams

Clayton: Anyway, being just the person who is really being this outlandish “I do whatever I want” type of person, but very, “I’m not doing anything that’s totally crazy.” It’s stuff to them seems crazy. As far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty vanilla stuff.

Jade: The idea that they believe they can do whatever they want, is very interesting. In that, you’ve put them in this sandbox, where there are boundaries, and there are constraints to what they are doing. That are totally outside what their normal behavior is.

You’ve set some very strange expectations on them. They don’t seem to feel like those are even there. It’s completely invisible to them, that those things are even happening.

Clayton: We had one word they were stressing about going to a meeting. They thought that all five people had to go to this meeting. I said, “OK. I don’t want to go to that meeting.”

They looked at me like, “You have to go. You are on the team.” I said, “I don’t want to go to this meeting. I don’t care about it. I think anyone should be free to go, or not go. Whatever decisions get made, you have to go along with those. If you guys go to this meeting, and make some choice, I’m fine with that.”

I think that kind of stuff is like, “Whoa! That’s crazy. You would not go to a meeting, and then be OK with what other people said. You don’t want to have your hand in the cookie jar and micromanage me?” That was a crazy experience.

Roy: One of the freeing things about that, it sounds like it removes all excuses. I’ve dealt with quite a few teams, and we are like, “We are in a meeting the whole day, we can’t leave. They are wasting my time, and I know that I’m not even necessary, but I can’t talk to my manager about it.”

All those excuses are gone. It’s just like you don’t go. I’ve talked to a lot of people about that. They are like, “Whoa! Maybe in your fantasy world, you can just get up and leave from a meeting.” I tell them, “No. Just get up and leave.”

Roy: They don’t believe it, I wonder why not. Why do your people believe that [indecipherable 10:02] ? Is it because you are modeling the behavior?

Clayton: I think the two things that I’m using for that type of thing is, I’m saying that all I care about are results. I don’t care at all about effort. If you put a bunch of infrared in…

Jade: You are done.

Clayton: …you are done.


Focus on Results While Demanding Excellence and Continuous Improvement

Clayton: I’m saying all I care about is results, but I’m also saying that I demand excellence, and that we should be continuously improving. Maybe you were getting results last iteration, but now let’s get more results, or better results. Let’s do more.

Those two things are the two edges of the sword. I’m not worried about them becoming lazy and saying, “We’re getting results. We only have to work four hours a day and we just kick back.”

We value excellence. We value continuous improvement. There’s always something you can do better.

Jade: How would you have somebody else who would like to try this approach, what are some of the tools in the toolbox that you think they need to pull this off?

The Power of Core Protocols Ask for Help and Decider

Clayton: The core protocols have been very helpful. I’ve been really trying to get them to use Ask For Help. I have been trying to stress to them that they can do anything if they just ask for help. Ask for enough help and you can do anything you want.

Decider has helped a lot. I’ve personally been using Investigate and Attention Check to try and uncover some of the second or third level reasons why they think they can’t do something or why they have some problem with this.

That’s helped me to uncover some things and then make proposals to solve those problems. The core protocols have been very helpful. The biggest thing for me is modeling that behavior, not only just telling them.

If I were to tell them, “You can do whatever you want, it’s up to you. You’re all powerful” and then I left, that’s what they’re used to. That’s the manager coming in and saying, “You’re self organizing!” and then I leave and I don’t reinforce that.

Telling them that stuff and then being in the physical space with them, and helping them when they asked for help, and then showing them, like with the monitor thing. Even though that was unintentional that worked out totally awesome.

Jade: It’s because you were living out the thing you believe, right?

Clayton: Exactly. I don’t want to wait. It’s frustrating. From my perspective, I went slow on that. I stalled when I probably shouldn’t have. I should have done something else. I waited a little too long.

From my perspective, that was probably bad behavior in terms of slowing things down just to be comfortable.

Roy: But from their perspective it was so fast.

Clayton: “This rebel without a cause, he went and bought monitors!”


Roy: He popped his collar.

Clayton: I was like James Dean there.

Roy: Go into Michael’s to buy crafts, supplies, and monitors.

Jade: Pretty rebellious.


Jade: What’s next for your experiment that you’re trying here?

Defaulting to Breaking a Sweat Asking For Help

Clayton: The next thing that I’m going to try is, I’m going to really try to get them to use Ask For Help as a default. They just participated in a Hackathon. I told them I would help them with whatever they wanted, but they had to ask for help.

That was the only way they could interact with me. That was frustrating for a little bit.

Roy: For you?

Clayton: No, not for me, they were mad about that. I had to keep saying, “Are you asking for my help? Did you use the protocol?” They got better and better and better. I really would like to reinforce that enough so that when they get stuck with something, they have no problem asking for help from anybody.

Right now there is something that is in their work queue where they need to go talk to somebody to get access to a repository of files, and they’re stuck. I want the light bulb to off to be able to say, “We should go ask that guy for help.”

“Hey so and so, I’m going to walk over to your cubicle and say hey, will you help me get access to this?” I bet you that would work. That’s not what they’re used to. That’s not the way of doing things.

They’re used to sending an email and wait, and go through all the polite channels. My next experiment is to see if we can use Ask For Help for almost everything.

Jade: One last thing. How have you dealt with the urge to rescue them when you see them doing dumb things?

Clayton: That’s been really hard, especially during the Hackathon. That was really difficult. The one thing that I found was really helpful is I would just try to ask questions about stuff.

One of the questions I asked for the Hackathon was, “That looks really cool, where can I go see it?” or, “Can I send that link to somebody?” Then it was, “No, you can’t. It’s not on the Internet.” That’s too bad.


Jade: That’s rough for a web app.


Clayton: That triggered, “Will you help us set it up?” Sure, I’ll do that. I think that’s back handed rescuing, so I probably need to stop doing that too. Fighting the urge to rescue, I don’t think I’ve figured that out yet.

Jade: What do you think would have happened if you were rescuing them all the time?

Clayton: I would have been this linchpin where they wouldn’t have been able to do anything without me. I certainly don’t want to be in that position. I don’t want the team to be non functioning after I leave.

I think if I were to rescue them the whole time they wouldn’t have learned a whole lot. There’s a whole bunch that they learned. I think they really have grown as a team by being frustrated.

I’ve seen people sitting there by pairing. Someone says, “I really am frustrated. I don’t understand what’s going on.” The other person says, “Let me finish.” Those are the kind of things that if I were jumping in and saying, “Let me explain it to you” they wouldn’t have that shared experience as a team.

Being frustrated and getting mad at somebody that you’re pairing with, those are such big building blocks.

Jade: Having that good conflict?

Clayton: Exactly. One person has to slow down for the other person, and having the discussion of how did we get here, and all that stuff.

Jade: Awesome. Hopefully we’ll hear more about how this progresses with your team. If you guys have any different or exciting ways that you’ve interacted with the team and helped to get them to high performance, we’d love to talk to you about it.

Look for us on Facebook, and we’ll catch you next week.


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