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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd on Professional Coaching and Leading Conflict

Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd on Professional Coaching and Leading Conflict


1. Would you mind, very briefly, introducing yourselves or each other? We know you but the audience might not.

Michael Spayd: So, I’m Michael Spayd, I’ve worked in the Agile coaching transformation world for about 11 years, do large scale Agile adoptions and became a professional coach about six years ago and became a professional certified systems coach, which is sort of relevant to what we are going to be talking about, I think, today and co-founded the Agile Coaching Institute with Lyssa about two years ago.

Lyssa Adkins: And I’m Lyssa Adkins, I joined up with this guy about two years ago, right around the time the “Coaching Agile Teams” book was coming out, which is a book I authored because I am really passionate about bringing a wider skill set to Agile coaches. The Agile practices and principles are wonderful and we need them and that’s not where the skill set needs to end. In order to be an effective Agile coach we need to bring in other things from outside the Agile world and allow coaches to really work with what’s on the ground, which is messy stuff. So, Michael, we’ve known each other for a while and he influenced me several years ago to go to coaching school as well. So we are both deeply experienced Agile coaches, we are also professionally trained professional coaches. And I’m in the middle, right now, of a nine month certification program in Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching, the one Michael mentioned he is already certified in. It’s a great program.


2. So tell us a little bit about that. When people become Agile coaches, like Shane and I, we probably came up because of our background and having good a knowledge of Agile, but a lot of people don’t know but there is a whole discipline behind that, what’s that about?

Michael Spayd: That’s what I said, I started at a roommate who is a professional coach actually, about seven years ago and that kind of tuned me in to “huh… there’s a world of professional coaching out there; let’s see we’re Agile coaches, but we don’t actually study that world of professional coaching, maybe we’re missing something, maybe there’s something out there that we should pay attention to”, and it was really a different world than I was used to, honestly, and then I went to the training and it was like “this is cool as heck, these guys, they’re fabulous trainers”.

Lyssa Adkins: And for me, as someone recovering as a plan driven Project Manager into this world of Agile (and Agile coaching specifically), that skill set allowed me to really make that transition from command and control to truly being a coach, truly helping other people find their own answers in a way thats sustainable for them long after I’m gone.

Michael Spayd: Coach training, actually, it’s documented that it increases your emotional intelligence significantly and I believe it increases your maturity of your leadership.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, it really did for me. Changed my whole outlook.

Michael Spayd: The systems coaching, the cool thing about that, is so when you’re an individual coach, you’re client is obvious.

Lyssa Adkins: The person in front of you, just like we’re like this.

Michael Spayd: You have a confidential relationship with them, and you are working solely for them, when you are a systems coach it’s a little more subtle, so when I work with a team, the client is not this person or the leader or this person and this person and this person, it’s actually the team, so that shows up for instance in we don’t have secrets when I’m the coach of a team, you can’t tell me something that I’m not going to tell the rest of the team, because my client is the team, does that make sense? So I have a confidentiality relationship with everyone outside the team, but not within the team.


3. So, one of the things Lyssa I just wanted to ask you, I read reading your website, you say that you’ve had a varied experience, you ran a couple of PMOs, I think that if I had known that before I read your book I think that would have given you even more credibility. One thing that I was really interested in is that you have also come from a Six Sigma background, so how do you think that has helped on your journey of coaching?

Lyssa Adkins: It hasn’t. Quite frankly, I mean that’s two different worlds, it’s like Mars and Venus. And Six Sigma is totally useful for what it’s useful for, you know high volume analysis, reducing defects; I mean that’s the type of Six Sigma that I was trained in. I know there is also Lean Six Sigma, which I have some experience in, but I don’t have a green belt in Lean Six Sigma, I have a green belt in Six Sigma. Lots of math! And it’s not at all useful in what I do now in the Agile world.

Michael Spayd: But I think it was really helpful because Lyssa came from that background and because so many other people do, I think that’s what made people resonate with her so strongly, because they saw that she was from that world that many of them are from and she made a big conversion, from that command and control place to an Agile place, which is very different.

Lyssa Adkins: And you know this thing about Agile is that once we get these practices and these principles and values into an organization, it actually asks people to change, it asks them to change pretty dramatically and I empathize of course with that journey because I came from, like really I mean, 100 million dollar programs, 18 simultaneous work streams, 5,000 line gantt charts, I mean that was what I knew how to do prior to Agile. So I know what it’s like to make this transition, even though logically and intellectually I can say Agile is better it’s still hard to make the behavior and the mindset changes. And so that’s why professional coaching was so important for me to get that skill set because that’s the skill set that actually helps people change. Teaching louder or trying to convince them more, actually doesn’t help them change.

Michael Spayd: May set you back actually.


4. The session you gave at the conference, certainly Craig and I both attended which is why we are both sitting in here. Tell us a little bit about it.

Michael Spayd: Well, it was called “Leading Conflict: A Systems Intelligence Approach for Facilitating Conflict as Leaders”? I can’t remember the subtitle now! Oh well! Oh good, thanks Craig!


5. “Leading Conflict: A Systems Intelligence Approach for Conflict Facilitation for Leaders”.

Lyssa Adkins: OK, so that was a big mouth full. Yes, you got it. So that’s the thing about this, is that when we were just talking about that relationships systems coaching. Organization and Relationships Systems Coaching; it’s coaching the whole group at once. It’s helping the group get in touch with all the intelligences that are available to it but that are mostly underground, so that they can have more of a view and when they get that view, guess what, they self-organize beautifully.

Michael Spayd: So this is something that we collaborated with CRR Global who created this organization and relationship coaching program. We developed ten leadership competencies that are systems oriented leadership competencies that are in the book that I’m writing right now called “Coaching the Agile Enterprise” and we took a perspective on conflict in this session, of thinking about it as a systems issue, not an individual issue, not the leader as a conflict arbitrator or resolver, or decision maker or a mediator, but as a facilitator of a process, of a change process, that’s both a diversity process and a change process on a team.

Lyssa Adkins: It’s a symptom of something trying to emerge, like a better thing trying to happen, we call it a positive change urge, that’s what conflict really is, yet we didn’t learn in school and we certainly didn’t learn in most of our families how to work with it, and so as adults we’re kind of getting this remedial education now about how to be in conflict productively on teams, because Agile teams certainly do bring it out in people.


7. Right view, as I said to you it was something that didn’t even hit me sitting in the class, but has now been walking around with me for a couple of days afterwards, can you explain that to us?

Michael Spayd: One of the things about what we call the right view to take when thinking about conflict as a leader is that a system has a lot of hidden information in it, which is in the form of people that don’t say what they really think or you don’t know what’s going on for them or what their position is or whatever. And so having processes that help reveal that are very useful to a system to self-organize better. A slogan that CRR Global actually invented that we’ve adopted is “everyone is right… partially”. So that leads us, if we adopt that as a team and as a leader, it’s like “ha, so this person is sort of annoying to me, what they’re saying, I don’t actually agree with it or like it, but there is something that’s right in it, I need to be curious and find out, be open to that”.

Lyssa Adkins: And so when you have that perspective, that right view, as a leader who finds himself in the midst of conflict on one of the teams they’re leading, you can get a lot more curious and say “ha, hang on, I don’t have to shut this down, instead what is trying to happen, what’s the clue this conflict is trying to give us, let me do something with the team to help them get more intelligence about it so we can see”.

Michael Spayd: That is so against the grain I think that we have as people and members of a team of “oh gosh, we don’t like conflict, it’s uncomfortable, we need to shut it down or we need to resolve it quickly and get it over with”.

Lyssa Adkins: Or ignore it.

Michael Spayd: So seeing it as useful information and like “oh, cool, something is trying to change here, I wonder what it is?”.

Lyssa Adkins: And sharing that right view with the team as well. “OK great, we’re in conflict, cool, this is a natural part of the process for any good team, let’s get into it!” You know, I mean it’s a totally different view.

Michael Spayd: That’s why we took the position of being like a facilitator which people don’t normally associate that with leadership as being the facilitator, but for us that’s part of the maturity of leadership and the kind of leadership that an Agile organization needs is a facilitative type leader. And a coaching type leader.


8. So how does the leader, when coming across seeing this conflict which is giving us information about change needs to happen or change wants to happen, how do they channel that positively rather than allowing the conflict to become toxic to the team?

Michael Spayd: Great question.

Lyssa Adkins: I’m glad you said toxic because that sends my mind into a certain place. One of the things the leader can do is, until the team starts doing it themselves, be able to call the team on toxic conflict.

Michael Spayd: Because what you want to create, we talked about this in the talk as you know, is you want to create a container in the structure within which the work happens on a team, like it’s culture and it’s agreements and stuff, you want that to be a really pretty positive place. You want a lot of good feeling in there, because the research shows that that leads to higher productivity and sustainability.

Lyssa Adkins: Now positive doesn’t necessarily mean “oh, we all love each other, it’s all hearts and flowers”, positive really means “OK, we have a positive attitude, that, this is normal, we are going to get through this and we have some structures in place that we can fall back on in order to actually get through it”. And so one of those structures comes from someone named Howard Guttman, that CRR Global, which is the school we are trained in, Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching, big mouth full, one of those pieces is something called conflict protocols, so literally, this is one of the things a leader can do as a facilitative leader, literally before the conflict ever happens “we’re going to talk about conflict”.

Michael Spayd: And we are going to make some agreements about how conflict goes when we are cool headed before we are hot headed. So that we use the protocols when we’re hot headed.

Lyssa Adkins: So one of our protocols maybe through this conversation that leaders are going to facilitate, the team may decide one of their protocols is going to be something like “24 hour rule: bring it up or drop it within 24 hours”. So then, later, when the leader walks into the team room and people are going at it about something that happened two months ago, the leader would say “hang on, we have a conflict protocol about bring it up within 24 hours or drop it”, and then they would ask a powerful question. The question might be something like “and what makes this one different?”.


9. So, one of the things I really liked about those protocols is, there is an Agile practice been going around for a while, which is the social contract, that teams use, but the problem that Shane and I have seen when coaching teams is that people don’t really give it a lot of respect. It’s a good conversation to have when you form, what I think I really like about this is that it is something that will live.

Lyssa Adkins: It’s active, only if the facilitative leader makes it so though. And that leader can be the Scrum Master on the team, it can be an Agile Coach, it can be a manager, it can be director, who knows who’s doing the Agile coaching in the organization, but whoever it is, this is the skill set that we think is most useful for them.

Michael Spayd: And a lot of what it is, is it’s not enforcing it, that’s not what a facilitative leader does but it’s bringing it up and confronting it. “So it feels like we just violated our agreements, would you all agree or do you see it differently? And ok if we did, what are we going to do about that”?

Lyssa Adkins: And see how there is a neutrality in that, there is such power in neutrality instead of getting all wrapped up in that “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to solve it” and having that anxiety drive us. Instead we take that right view, get into a mindset of “Huh, I wonder what the change urge is here?” which allows us to be in that neutral position, which is very powerful and really helps the team move themselves forward.

Shane: Wow! That’s amazing, some great stuff.

Lyssa Adkins: Great stuff.

Craig: Just remember, right… partially.

Lyssa Adkins: Right, everyone is right partially.


10. What’s next for you two?

Michael Spayd: Well, one thing that’s next for me is completing this book, “Coaching the Agile Enterprise”, which is bringing a lot of this stuff that we’ve been talking about today into written form. We’re talking about leadership, about coach as new type of leader, about how organizations change, about how leaders work, how leaders develop and the maturity required. Part of why Agile organizations are not Agile yet is the leaderships are not mature enough yet for it to happen. So talking about all those issues and that is both feeding by and fed by our curriculum and the classes that we are developing.

Lyssa Adkins: We’re about to hit the thousandth person that we’ve taught in the ”Coaching Agile Teams” class in the next couple of weeks here. And that’s a huge landmark for us, we’ve been teaching that class for about two years and we’ve put a second class out in the world last year called “The Coaching Stance”, which is that immersion into those really important foundational professional coaching skills. And then what’s really next, kind of the R&D thing going on now, is a class called “Leading from the Next Level”, which is bringing Systems Oriented Leadership and Coaching to Agile Coaches and we debut that class in November. And that class is the one Michael mentioned at the beginning thatwe partnered with CRR Global, the people who invented that Organizational and Relationship Systems Coaching thing and they actually co-teach it with us. That’s part of why we’re called an institute, is that we bring in the experts from outside the Agile world in their own discipline and they co- teach with an Agile expert. And so we are excited about bringing the different kinds of coaching into this world, because we need it badly.

Michael Spayd: The other thing we have going on is working with some of the certifying organizations within the Agile community and trying to create a more commonaility between them, we don’t want to align with one over the other, we want to be neutral, we want to influence the conversation about what are the skills and competencies that an Agile coach should haveand how can we make Agile coaching more of a profession. So we are working with that.

Lyssa Adkins: Because we really do believe that Agile coaches are really in the best position to be these transformation agents, like this transformation that Agile tries to kick off in an organization, unless we have people on the ground who are skilled in that, it’s going to be hard for that transformation to actually happen. So we see them as that, and we see them as the leaders of the future. So we are providing all kinds of things to give them the skills and mindset changes that will support that.


11. So do you think, obviously the book was very successful, I know every Agile Coach, including myself, everyone I know.

Lyssa Adkins: Man, it’s amazing how successful that book has been, you know it’s still in the Top 10, it’s like more than three years out now, it just got translated to Chinese, I just had my hand on the Chinese version for the first time yesterday.

Michael Spayd: That’s interesting and different.

Lyssa Adkins: That’s going to be huge, anyway I’m just excited. There was a question in there, what is it?


12. I was going to say I think part of the reason it was successful is there is no real other literature out there. Scrum Masters and developers and testers, they all have their own thing, really your book and a couple of others that are around, they are the only ones that cover that. I’m thinking though and the kind of things that you were talking about, have we even moved on in the last few years since that book has been completed? Is the types of things that you are now training the next level for us to go to?

Lyssa Adkins: As a community we have not moved on much past the content in that book yet. Now there is a whole group, like a close tribe, close to us that absolutely has, which is why we are developing those other courses and very quickly people who come through a “Coaching Agile Teams” class move to the other more advanced stuff very smoothly and a huge number of them do.

Michael Spayd: I have a slightly different take on that which is that I think that the thinking and the conversation has gone to a different place but the competencies is not there for it to support it yet. So people are starting to talk about organization culture and models for that and leadership development..

Lyssa Adkins: And we are getting serious about organization agility, what does that look like at the organizational level? It’s not just about executives having standups, in fact it’s not about that at all, so that conversation is happening but yet we do not have the skills to make it real. And that’s where we’re focused.

Michael Spayd: The competence to support that. But it’s logic error, it’s natural that thinking precedes the ability. So it’s a good sign to me that conversation has moved and now we need to support it with being able to actually do it.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, it feels like that’s what’s trying to emerge in the world, not only in the Agile community but in the world, if you look at what’s happening with organizations and the environment organizations find themselves in.


13. Because I think most people who become Agile Coaches, for the most part probably just fall into it, so the type of model that you’re trying to set up, I’m assuming that what you are trying to set up is a bit of a stepping stone so if they come through the “Coaching Agile Teams” and then up to build their knowledge?

Michael Spayd: Yes, though honestly, they need to do other things before they get to us and they need to do other things that are complementary to what we do, we have a piece of the puzzle.

Lyssa Adkins: Not the whole, remember everyone is right partially. We have a partial piece of the answer.

Michael Spayd: We have a specialty, I think we have a framework that shows what an Agile Coach should do completely, but we are not specialists in all of it, we are not the most forward thinking Agile Lean practitioners right now, honestly.

Lyssa Adkins: Absolutely not.

Michael Spayd: We are preeminent in the professional coaching space in the Agile Coaching world I think.

Lyssa Adkins: And in defining Agile Coaching in total, I think that’sa bit of thought leadership we are bringing to the world, but for example you wouldn’t hire me to work on your continuous integration problems.

Michael Spayd: No, you wouldn’t.

Lyssa Adkins: And I can’t train anyone in that. However this is what good Agile Coaches know, they know where they’re strong and where they need help and they pair with other coaches.


14. So do you suggest for someone who is looking to come into the role of an Agile Coach that having some time in a team, having that specialty wherever they;ve come from, I mean you came from project management, you’ve coached teams before, whether they’ve come from development or testing, that’s the other part of the equation.

Lyssa Adkins: May or may not be. They might develop in a totally different way. I didn’t know for example I was going to develop such deep knowledge and transformation mastery when I started. There is no way I could’ve known that, but what happened to me along the way is that the teams kept serving up situations that I was flat-footed in, didn’t know how to respond to and my old skill set just didn’t work, and so that kind of pushed me into “Hmmm, I guess I better learn about this now”. And that is something that will happen to a lot of people.

Michael Spayd I just want to say, the three specialties that we’ve identified from looking at the coaches in the Agile world are technical, obviously, business and transformational, which is about leadership and organization development.

Lyssa Adkins: And change.

Oct 10, 2012