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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Dajo Breddels On Provocative Coaching

Dajo Breddels On Provocative Coaching


1. Hi everyone. My name is Todd Charon and I am an Agile editor here at InfoQ and we are at the Agile 2014 Conference and today I am joined by Dajo Breddles. Did I get it right?


Todd: Yes. All right. Excellent. You were speaking here at the event. So before we get started, just tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am an Agile coach who isn't nowadays. I started with Agile somewhere in 2001 because I remember the planes crashing into the twin towers when I had my first assignment and I did some non-Agile work in between and then came back to Agile and worked in the past for Rational Software. So I was into the RUP, I mean sometimes a RUP, sometimes I sold them, RUP again and eventually it is more Scrum. It is where I am now.


2. What brings you to the conference today? You spoke yesterday and tell us a little bit about your topic. It is “Agent provocateur” – it is a very provocative title. So what is it about?

It is actually about how you can use provocative therapy techniques in Agile coaching just because you don’t believe yourself in the silver bullet process, the IT process, so why would there be a silver bullet for coaching? So you probably need different coaching styles and techniques so you can mix and match for situations which present themselves.


3. This concept of provocative therapy – I mean therapy, which is a little different than most Agile coaches are familiar with. What is the origins of that?

The origins of provocative therapy itself, or?

Todd: Yes.

Provocative therapy was created by Frank Farrelly who is an American guy with, I think, Irish roots. He was a social worker. When he did not really get the results he wanted he said “I have had enough. I’ll just tell them what I really think instead of talking around it and go deeper and what is the cause of the root problem and things like that” He got some results with it. He actually evolved that and that became provocative therapy. I do not think he himself knows exactly what he did exactly, I think it was more intuitively so some NLP trainers who are modeling him and they are more structured. So, I said “OK. I have seen him do this a lot of times and that helps him with this.” So there are more provocative coaching guys who actually structured what he already did intuitively.


4. They took it and made more of a system out of it as opposed to – I guess he was doing it kind of off the cuff and that's just how he would do it, right? Cool. So, what makes that an interesting tool for an Agile coach to have?

Sometimes you can’t get people where you want them. I stumbled over it because I am also a life coach for people and that is why I did the techniques and at that moment I thought “Maybe I can use it sometimes during Agile coaching if I can’t reach people” and it is more about motivational problems or some different type of problems. That is going to helpful for Agile coaches or an Agile community.

Todd: So this is definitely a very different way of approaching coaching. It is almost aggressive. Or at least it can seem that way.

Yes, I got seen that way. That was the hard part of my session yesterday – I only had 1 hour and 50 minutes – and there are a lot of nuances in it, so the basic training actually takes about 16 full days, I think, and that is part one and there are three parts. So, it is actually a year education. So, you need to follow more nuances to do it really well, but what you are actually doing is getting through to the other side. Sometimes if you say “Do this” and they say “No, I won’t”. But if you say “Don’t so this”, they say “I decide if I do this”. You can make use of that kind of mechanisms.


5. There was a kind of key there. You mentioned there were three sections in your session and it sounds that we have only been provocative in kind of – “challenge” seems to be one of the big ones. But the other two parts that you needed to make it safe to challenge. What are those two parts?

What I say is that you have three key pillars. Fist you need the warmth. You need to connect those which are your coachee or your client because if you do not have the warmth, it feels like bullying: “You don’t teach that as well. Well…” So, you really have to get the connection. You get the connection, you can get it really fast, if you know how to. And the second one is humor. Humor is a big part of it. You have to make it funny for the client, hopefully, but also for yourself. So, it is not a very long talks which is no fun to do, you get really drained as a coach. You can say “Oh, let’s make some fun today”. That is what I like about it.

Todd: And then you challenge them. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that challenge might look? Or give us an example where you used it.

The challenge is more like – if you want to move a donkey, you can push from his butt and try to push him away but he will just put his feet in the sand and say “No, I am not going to move”. But if you pull it still, he will say “Oh, what happened here?” and then he moves by himself. That is the mechanism we use. We actually don’t tell them what to do, we actually say what you do not want them to do. But you exaggerate it so they are going to say “Come on. I do something else”

Todd: Maybe you can give us an example of a story where you did that with a client or something and it kind of worked.

I have to think about that. Sometimes people say: “Well, I do not want to do Agile. I am fed up with it. Change x” And then sometimes you say “Oh, you have to do it because you will do this”. And then they say “Well, I am not going to do it”. But you can just turn it all the way around. “OK. Maybe you do not have to do it because we still need people who attend to the old stuff. The guy in the basement is going to retire soon so maybe you can do his stuff again and the rest can go on with new apps and things like that. We’ll make the new cool stuff.” And they think “I don’t want to be the guy in the basement”. And they say “No, no, no.” And you say “Yes, but you are old and you probably can’t learn new things and that is normal if you get a little nervous. That is OK” And they say: “I am not old”. You say: “You are already fifty and can’t learn new things now.” “No. Probably not” The more you object, they are going to object against it and that is good because then they are convincing you they have to change. That is what we want.


6. [...] What was the purpose of giving them a nickname?

Todd's full question: So it leads them to the point that this other thing, for example being the guy in the basement, is definitely something they do not want to do. But now the thing that you wanted them to do and that they did not want to do, doesn’t seem so bad at that point. So, I guess, before we get to the end they go to, there is also a few other components that you mentioned that may happen. For example, like a nickname or something like that. So what was the purpose of giving them a nickname?

Because we use a kind of structure, one of those is you give them a nickname. And a nickname can be something they think of “OK. Maybe all the people talk about this behind my back with this name” This is known to help the best. The nickname has to itch because they have to get rid of the nickname. They will say: “I do not want to be called that” When I attended the training I said: “OK. I have to do something about my weight” And I said: “Yes, you are right. You are dreaming because you have to do sports and I did sports when I was younger”. “So, I am a dreaming blob. I don’t like to be a dreaming blob. So, I am going to the gym and I will show you I am not a dreaming blob” So, if you have a six-pack I will call you the dreaming Hercules. But if you are growing fatter even after two years, then I will call you the hallucinating blob because it is an hallucination you have. So you can use the same kind of things also in the work place.


7. So this kind of gets them to a very excited state where they are very much pushing against this. So then how does this get to the point where you, as a coach, want them to be. Obviously, you get more and more and more and more agitated, until what happens

I said that yesterday really good, I think, I'll elaborate on it. But as a provocative coach, you do not have a point you want them to go to. You don’t care. They say they have a problem, you say: “OK. It is not a problem.” Let them take ownership of the problem and if they say “OK. I want to go direction A or B”, it is fine with me. Even if the guy say “I do not want to use Agile”, if you want to create a new job, it is fine with me. If you want to learn Agile, it is also good for me. So I am not biased to get in a specific direction. So it is up to him.


8. [...] What would be an example in that kind of conversation where you would refer to the solution as bad?

Todd's full question: Right. So one of the things you kind of mentioned along with that was that in this scenario of coaching the problem is the good thing you want to encourage and the solution is the bad thing. Because we have an indication from your example there that the problem is good – this is a good thing because x, y, z - what would be an example in that kind of conversation where you would refer to the solution as bad?

Sometimes the solution of people could be “I want to be also so good at, say, refactoring – some old stuff, COBOL programming”. “Oh, no. You don’t want to refactor” Then you give examples why it is bad to have the solutions. If you can refactor everybody comes to nagging you, if you can refactor their stuff, of course, you are the one who knows COBOL and C Sharp and Java, so you get really, really busy and you get overworked and things like that and then you can object “Oh, no no. Of course I am not going to be overworked. I just work my hours” So that is the other the way around.

Todd: So now, you kind of mentioned that the point is not to get to a certain point where they do something, they have to choose something on their own at that point. So, isn’t there a risk they might say “You know what? You are right and I want to be”

That is fine also. That is a strange thing. You only have two possible outcomes: either acceptance – and that is what you are saying, you are right – or, the other way, is change. If it is acceptance, and it sometimes can also be acceptance, mostly it is not knowing what to do. You say: “I accept I am not going to anymore with this life and I accept the fact that I will still be in the basement and things like that”. It is also fine. Who are we to tell him he can’t spend the rest of his life in the basement because we do not like it. That is one. But what you can also do is then object the other side. You are going to have to say: “Maybe you are right.” And I’ll say “You want to be in the basement” and then turn it all the way around.


9. You mentioned the warmth and the humor as being very important things. Now the words may come off as harsh, right? Is there a big risk or what do you do if they actually start to take it very personally as you are going down this path?

That is a question you hear a lot, especially from people who see it and I saw examples of both yesterday: some say “Oh, you can’t do that” but you also saw that people who are coached, they do not have any problem with it and that is the strange part because as long as you get the warmth and you get the humor, you get the connection and it is actually about an incongruent message. So, you are telling harsh things but non-verbally you are sending “OK. You are OK. I appreciate you, I am there for you” at the same level. If you do that on the same level they understand “The words are not that important, the other one is” and they object but that is the same effort especially males have that with their friends. They can be harsh but there is still no – he is really taking care of me, he wants the best for me, but he said some hard things to push me along so that I get the best out of myself.


10. What do you do if you see they start to diminish and they start to really be taking it as opposed to you?

Take it back. What I do not recommend people to do is doing provocative coaching all day. Just start with normal coaching or whatever and sometimes you can use it. You can also stop it. If you say it's not working, you can work on your warmth again, humor and maybe stop it there or try it again. If you lose the connection, stop the provocative coaching because then it will be harsh and then you are going to get fired.

Todd: You mentioned in you session that the thing is that using this approach may not be well liked.

Yes. A lot of coaches have the “I want to be the savior” syndrome or something like that. They really like the affect that they are helping other people and actually, sometimes, provocative coaching, helping them but not helping them, you have to get used to it because sometimes they say “You are a nasty man. Go away” But, maybe you had a teacher yourself somewhere during your youth which actually said something to you and you said “Oh, nasty guy” but he really helped you just by telling you that. I don't think you can be an interviewer and you say “I'll prove you wrong” and you probably made more impact on the guy who was always so nice to you.

Todd: Yes. I know. At least myself personally, I had a teacher that was very much like that. He was very much a provoker and I don’t know if they'd let him teach today, in today's society because of the tactics he used, but everyone loved him because it brought out the best in them as well, right? Yeah, for sure.

So it is more that we are cultivated with the lost years in the 70’s that we are still like “Oh, no. You have to be careful what to say to people because they get offended” and it is strange because our brain did not change that much in the last thousand years, so why all this carefulness? It is something like frail and vulnerable and we are built from porcelain: “Oh, don’t touch it, else it will crack” So, people are more resilient. You can see that. If you could just look on TV, even people in war territories or where there is drought or where ever. People manage. They are more resilient than you can think.

Todd: There is also when you did kind of a practice session there. You had a kind of a little matrix of options on different ways in which you provoke people when you are challenging them. Maybe give us some detail, I know there is like 20 of them so we don’t have time to detail them all, maybe just give us some examples of a few of them and what they might end up looking like.

I do not know the matrix from the top of my head, but you have five columns, four rows – that is actually giving you more options to do something more with the problem so you know the problem is good because it is giving you benefit for importance to others. So someone might say “Oh, my problem is that I really get an unhappy feeling when I think that I am not enough there at home for my kids because I make long hours”. You can say “You don’t have to” or whatever, but you can also say “Yes, you are not happy. What do you mean not happy? Are you crying in your car or it is just a nagging feeling” “Oh, there’s a nagging feeling.” “OK. Then you are not unhappy enough. Maybe you have to be more unhappy because, for your children, it would be far better if you are more unhappy and you actually do something about your work because you don’t take care enough of your kids so they would become scum or whatever, they really miss their daddy they become detached, become criminals later” You can really exaggerate it and they say “Of course not, because I am there during the weekends and most of the evenings and that is good” OK, that is not that bad to be feeling.


11. Excellent. So, what comes next for you after this conference?

After this conference I am going back home and start with a new client and in September, I am presenting a product owner board game that I designed at the Scrum Gathering in Berlin. So it is completely different.

Todd: Well, it depends on the technique you use when you present it.

That will be completely different. That is actually a board game designed to let people see if you have multiple product owners. You can work together, but the first version of the game, of this whole play, is actually like this: “OK. You are a product owner, there are multiple product owners and the product owner who earns the most money or the biggest business value wins”. So they will compete with each other and at the end, you will say “How much business value did you make for the whole company?” You can let the group play and your goal is not to make the most money of yourself, but to make the most money for the company and they see the difference because a lot of product owners get incentivised or they get KPIs where their invidual return or what they are specified to do. And that can be counter productive for the whole company. So maybe you have to set KPIs on a bigger level so just to show them that if they are fighting each other for resources, for that is what is in the game, it's essentially a resource management game, they are fighting: “I need the architect so you can’t use him now but at least I get my job done and if you are thinking about the best for the whole company, you can say “OK. You can have the architect because your product is more important than my product”

Todd: Yes. And you definitely show how when incentives aren't aligned within the organization...

That would be one. It can also be about developing the good stakeholders so you start with just normal stakeholders and then you have to first get better stakeholders. It will cost time but that will give a return on investment later on. Things like that. So they can know as a product owner what they can do. I developed a game and I showed it a few years ago at Scrum Gathering – Scrum: The Board Game and it evolved to Agile – The Board Game so you can also do Kanban with it. It is up to the players. And that is actually a team game so all individual team members which are there, contribute as a Scrum team or Agile team to get some new stories done. The protocol of the game is designed so you can eventually play this game alone with one product owner and what comes out of this product can only be used in the next game. So we flow in further. But then you need an hour or four playing time. So, go play at the conference.


12. Nice. So if somebody wanted to find out more about yourself or what you are up to or in particular maybe the board game, where would they get that information?

Well, I still have to make my web site so I registered the URL – it is - and probably all the things will be on there. Also, the spiral dynamics things which I did last year and the year before. There is more about how spiral dynamics can help with the implementation of Agile in your organization.

Todd: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you.

Nov 23, 2014

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