I submitted a talk to the North America Scrum Gathering this year that made me a bit nervous. It was entitled – Why the World Needs More Prescriptive Agile Coaches. And I was intentional with the title.

I’ve felt for quite a long time that agile coaching can be too soft, at least in the beginning with Shu-level (beginning) agile teams. Coaches are taught to never TELL teams what to do or be forceful in any way. At best, they might “hint” at a tactic or solution, but the real learning and evolution is “up to the team”.

Consider this the default coaching stance for the majority of agile coaches.

And while I understand it, I wanted to get the audience thinking differently in this session. And yes, see what the outcome might be. Does it resonate well OR do I get some tomatoes thrown at me was the question.

Dojo format

One early decision I made was to adopt a Coaching Dojo format for the session. I’ve never really attended one of these, so it was my chance to explore the format as a facilitator.

I first heard about Coaching Dojo’s around 2010 when reading something that Rachel Davies had written on the topic. In that period, from 2010 to 2012, there were quite a few dojo-ish experiments run at agile conferences.

Then, at least from my perspective, the technique lost some momentum. You don’t hear about it much today.

In my session, I adopted a Triad-based version that Michael Sahota shared about. In it, there were three roles: Client, Coach, and Observer. Think of the client as being the coachee or seeker and the observer as being not only observer but note-taker and giver of feedback.

We also rotated the roles as each Triad switched from one coaching scenario to another. We wanted to amplify the engagement and gain different perspectives by doing so.

This dojo technique worked beautifully in the workshop and I’ll be using it more and more as a teaching environment for coaching techniques.

Some Coaching “Tools”

In the workshop, I went over a few tools that I thought might help attendees:

  • We explored the importance of context in ALL conversations
  • I shared the 9 Coaching Roles that Esther Derby and Don Gray reference
  • Took a quick look at the Shu-Ha-Ri and Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, as team maturity is one of the more crucial contexts.
  • We also explored Crucial Conversations and I shared some stories with folks about the importance of the 1-Thing.
  • And finally, we wrapped up with Co-Active Coaching & Lyssa Adkins – Powerful Coaching Questions. I used a workshop by Deborah Preuss to illustrate a solid list of potential questions.

All in all, I think the tools discussion was helpful in setting the stage for the workshop Dojo breakouts.

Some of the more “Popular” Scenarios

I pulled together a set of ~18 scenario’s to “seed” the discussions. I was pleased that most folks found something in them to inspire their Dojo interactions. Here are a few of the most popular scenario’s, or the ones that had the most triad’s discussing them.

#5) You’re the ScrumMaster of a team who has recently adopted Scrum. One team member is really struggling to work within the team. They are negative, belligerent in meetings, and increasingly disruptive. Another team member has pulled you aside, literally begging you to do “something”. What to do?
#8) Your team is uncomfortably quiet. They simply don’t engage in nearly all of the Scrum ceremonies, the daily Scrum being a exception. The worst is retrospectives, where nobody seems to care or engage or take action. What to do?
Follow-up Context: If you did take action, it wasn’t effective. So look beyond your first two approaches. What would you do next? Is this an opportunity to be more prescriptive to Core Scrum?
#11) As a coach, you suspect several teams are becoming complacent or even regressing in their agile efforts. Velocity is declining, ScrummerFall is increasing, and quality (defect escapes) seems to be on the rise. You’ve raised this in several retrospectives, but the teams still seem to be in stasis. What to do?
The teams in question here had a long run of engaged, continuous improvement. So is it congruent to allow them “a break” from improvement? If so, how do you then reenergize their efforts?

Key Lessons Learned

At the end of the workshop, we debriefed the scenario conversations and the most used strategies.

  1. Seek permission to coach or provide feedback first. Is the timing right?
  2. Ask more open-ended questions and listen deeply to all forms of communication;
  3. Have the courage to discuss the root issues, getting them “on the table”;
  4. We learned that context mattered a lot and that the coach needed to explore before commenting;
  5. Starting from a prescriptive perspective wasn’t always a good approach. Starting softer and then “hardening” was better;

The most universal learning was one of – “meeting in the middle”. That is instead of a confrontational or prescriptive approach, or the more common soft coaching stance, the most effective coaching conversations ended in the middle of that spectrum.

Wrapping Up

Leaving the session, I felt like it went very well. The session survey’s showed that attendees really felt it was valuable. I avoided getting tomatoes and everyone achieved the balance in coaching stance that I was hoping would occur.

But the most valuable thing that happened from my perspective is that everyone got a chance…to coach. There’s nothing like practice in a safe environment and real-time feedback to make us better.

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

References

Here is a link to the slides from the session and another link to the coaching scenarios. IF you decide to run this workshop yourself, as a few others have, please acknowledge us as the original source.

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