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Practices for Agile Coaching Conversations

by Ben Linders on May 01, 2014 |

Organizations can work with agile coaches for the adoption of agile. Coaches use conversations to support people in the organization to change their way of working.

Rachel Davies wrote a blog post no magic words in which she talks about questions that you can use in agile coaching. She reminds us that when starting a conversation with a coachee it’s good to check if the person feels ready to be coached:

Before we head off to our meeting, I check “Is now a good time for you?” and I’m fine to move to another time or skip the meeting. Coaching is always optional.

In her blog post Rachel describes the kinds of questions that can be used in coaching and provides example questions. Questions can be related to meetings or events of the coachee or the coachee’s team. But they can also address personal development of the coachee or any other topic that the coachee wants to talk about:

There are no magic words or special incantations that I’m aware of. The main thing is to focus on what the other person has to say and try to listen carefully to what they’re experiencing and changes they wish for.

In the blog post agile coaching Nirmaljeet Malhotra provides suggestions on what agile coaches can do when supporting organizations in the adoption of agile. He explains why it is important for a coach to connect with a coachee:

The effectiveness of a coach is driven by how he or she connects with the people being coached. In sports, a player or an athlete follows the instructions from the coach based on the trust that the end goal is to achieve the best possible result. A lot of times the player might not personally believe in what the coach suggests but follows instructions believing in the experience and knowledge the coach carries. At the same time, the coach understands the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete. This is where the connection between the two becomes critical. The coach explains the rationale behind each action that he wants the player to perform and constantly shares results that confirm improvement and progress that result in motivation to persist.

Nirmaljeet reminds us that soft skills are important for coaches:

While the methods and techniques for process adoption are critical, human skills play a much bigger role as you embark on this journey to help people see what they can be instead of where they are.

Daniel Mezick described a set of agile coaching values supported by principles. The values are defined in a format similar as the agile manifesto:

In serving our clients, we have come to value:

Creating Independence over generating billing
Championing Learning over avoiding risk
Building Relationships over building transactions
Inviting Participation over assigning responsibility

His follow up blog post agile coaching values explained provides more detail on the coaching values and principles and on coaches can use them.

Coaches can use various kinds of questions and techniques to help coachees, for example powerful questions. The agile coaching patterns wiki provides this definition:

Powerful Questions are a generic coaching technique (not just for Agile coaches) used to help elicit deeper thought and action in relation to an issue that a person or team is dealing with. Powerful questions are open-ended and typically avoid any direct or implied "right answer".

Jurgen Appelo explains what powerful questions can do for organizations:

By asking more powerful questions an organization is able to engage people’s thinking about complex issues and shift from lamenting about problems of the past to inquiring into ideas for a possible future. As coaches and managers we have to develop the organization’s capacity to be inquisitive, and learn, adapt, and seize opportunities for change. We can do that by creating a climate of discovery, suspending judgment, exploring beliefs, connecting ideas, widening perspectives, honoring contributions, articulating understanding, and sharing collective insights and actions.

Bent Myllerup described a structure for coaching conversations which helps coaches and coachees to bring focus in their conversations and find actions to carry out. According to Bent there are two levels:

A) The conversation level and B) The meta level. As coach you are constantly acting on both levels. The coachee or team is primarily on the conversation level, but will from time to time be invited to the meta level by you.

He explained how an agile coach can use the meta level in a coaching conversation:

The meta level is where you are designing and reflecting on the conversation. Here you are deciding which powerful questions to ask (…), which hypotheses to formulate and in which direction to take the conversation next. As a coach you can imagine yourself as having a third eye observing the conversation from this level and your awareness about the flow of the conversation, and the answers you get will help you make the right decisions.

During a conversation the coach and coachee can do a timeout to reflect on the conversation, evaluate it and decide which topics to address next: 

You can use timeouts when you feel the conversation is at a crossroad so you have to make decisions on which path to take next. Be humble and do not take for granted that your personal decision will be the best path. Instead ask the one(s) you are coaching and follow their choice. Remember: it is not about you! It is all about them!

You can also use timeouts to re-negotiate the contract if you realize that another topic seems to be more important.

Which practices do you use in agile coaching conversations?

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