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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Gil Broza On Agile Coaching

Gil Broza On Agile Coaching


1. What brings you to Agile 2010?

I am the stage producer for the Coaching Stage and it is my seventh time at this conference. I am here to learn more, because there is always more to learn, so I am meeting old friends, meeting new people, learning about my profession, learning about the business of coaching, and just trying to give back as much as possible.


2. What is your company 3P Vantage?

There are three major elements when we talk about Agile. There is people, product and process and this is the order that Agile has them in. Agile would say that the most important thing is people, how they interact, how they come together, how they have a shared vision and so on. Then it is all about the product that they build. But that's the second in importance. The third in importance it is how they actually do it, which is why they have a lot of leeway with the process.


3. The Agile community kind of started as a programmer revolt and as a "Damn it, I'm a person!" Has it maintained that perspective or has it started to get lost in process and product?

I don't know that it got lost. The developer evolution I think is far more understated. Several years ago, if I said I was an XP coach, that's meant a lot. Nowadays XP is taken to be less important as a methodology, people are looking at it just as the set of technical practices and I think that is the position that they've relegated it to. So there is an overall interest in complete process, in complete methodologies, in how we turn out the product. The perspective has definitely become more encompassing, more inclusive. Having said that the "I'm a person" is definitely still playing a huge part and whenever I come into an organization to help them with Agile, this I the perspective I take, because all too often people are treated as resources and they are still considered to be plug-compatible in most places. That is not going to make Agile succeed.


4. You brand yourself as a coach, not as a Scrum Master.

No, I'm certainly not certified, I'm one of the great unwashed.


5. What are the important differences between the Scrum Master and the coach?

I brand myself as a coach but also as a consultant, a trainer, a facilitator, basically somebody who would come in and help you take on Agile and do it properly and to reach high performance. As such, I would guide the team and the teams in setting themselves up. I would help the organization in understanding what they need to put in place or what could work, what could not work. Unlike Scrum Masters, I don't necessarily oversee a team or remove the impediments for the team. For me the ultimate goal is to help the team form well enough so that they embrace agility successfully, that is my ultimate, that's what I'm paid to do.


6. What does the Scrum Master do that is different?

A Scrum Master is essentially a process lead. The Scrum Master takes care of the process, takes care of the team, helps remove obstacles, the Scrum Master connects the team to other people in the organization. While there is a greater emphasis on process stewardship, there is also the element of helping the project along. The coach is more concerned with facilitating the team's experience and their skills, for them to become agile. There is a lot of overlap; certainly many Scrum Masters also coach. For a long time, there was a great deal of confusion over whether Scrum Masters should be coaching or not.

I think they naturally should, but if I call myself just a coach and not a Scrum Master, it means that I am helping everybody to master a process that works for them not just Scrum. Pretty much everywhere we go, we customize the process even though they might be calling me in to help them introduce scrum. Quite often we customize it pretty heavily. And because my approach is highly pragmatic we customize it any which way that still embodies the Agile principles and achieves the outcomes.


7. Does any of your work involve overseas and immersion in other cultures? Certainly you have multicultural teams that you have to coach; there are particular challenges when you are also crossing cultural boundaries.

Of course. My work has taken me mostly to the States. I live in Canada, so we definitely get very cross cultural teams there in Toronto. And I've gone to France, and because I grew up in Israel, I've also had the opportunity to work with teams in Israel, though not as much. The experiences are certainly different in how people would take guidance, how people would look for others to suggest for them how to do - the sort of conversations that you could have with people, the level of openness, so the distinctions are pretty significant.


8. What do you mean by contextual craftsmanship?

Craftsmanship has definitely got into the spotlight recently and, like some movements, some people take to it extremes and value it for its own sake. The same thing happened with XP in the early days and also with Scrum. What I find is that craftsmanship per se, as a value unto itself, is important but it needs to live into the context of the business. The craftsmanship that I would have people espouse, is that craftsmanship doesn't just produce excellent product, it's a product that is right for the situation. For instance, teams are forever understaffed and they don't have enough time. So what is the best product that they can turn out? Both from the feature or interface perspective as well as under the hood that still satisfies the business, that is good enough, that works within the time frame, but it is still professionally built so that you can carry it on to the next few versions so that you can continue building on it.


9. There have been a number of people over the decades that have tried to bring people into software development process, things like the Mythical Man Month. What inspirations do you rely on to kind of ground your coaching and coaching philosophy?

I don't know if I can give you an answer. I'm definitely a follower of Jerry Weinberg and I hang with the crowd of the Amplify Your Effectiveness Conference. I like to observe a lot, and read a lot and the ideas emphasize all the time, so is really hard for me to say where this things are coming from. At this point in my life to be couching people, I'm coming at it from a certain way, from a certain maturity that was just different 10 years ago. There is a lot of inspirations coming into that, a lot of self management and self awareness, so it's really hard for me to pinpoint a source.


10. Larry Constantine was really well-known in the software world and basically left for about 10 years and went into psychology and family planning and family counseling. And he came back and said "Software organization, software teams - they are just big dysfunctional families, and I can take this knowledge that I learned in this other area of my life and apply it here.

Several years ago I studied NLP, Neuro-linguistic programming. Initially I took this in order to become a better coach and specifically a better communicator but it also started me off on a journey of self discovery and a lot of learning of how people operate, mental models, the sources of excellence, how we can learn from other people, how we manage our state. I have been applying so much of that in my couching, so that in conversations with people, I'm getting into better rapport with them, I'm able to reach deeper levels of empathy and understanding for where they are coming from.

And also help them embrace the sort of changes I brought into effect, to introduce though respectfully and relatively easily. A lot of people in Agile couching talk about resistance and handling resistance. Several years ago Agile was so new, the whole concept of bringing Agile into an environment that is sort of regimented into command and control, always met with resistance. Nowadays because everybody is doing it and it is proven itself out, it seems a bit easier. But every team has its share of resistors, every team has its share of people who are fearing the new situations and some people who would say one thing and mean another because they are fearful of the situation, or because they stand to lose something.

I think this sort of training into what makes people tick and how to identify beliefs and value, and also how to help them along, has definitely helped in my coaching ability.


11. You are stressing a lot about people and the Agile movement itself still thinks people. You also mentioned to me earlier today in the keynote and in other places that the state of the industry people are still plug-and-play components and the cheapest labor rate. Is that going to change ever?

I'm doing my best to change that, will it ever? - It's hard to say. There are a lots of people speaking up against this and becoming more and more vocal. With technology nowadays allowing us to reach more and more people with this message maybe we will make a difference, it's hard to say. I will personally do what I can to stop organizations from treating people as resources.


12. What kind of communication challenges do you find when you are coaching the whole team - the developers, programmers, managers, costumers? Do you ever see the whole team?

Yes, I do. In fact, one of the first things I do is to identify who's playing, who's participating and what sort of involvement we can expect. We definitely get a nice cross-representation and a cross-functional team. Communication issues: while there is the perennial habit of "I work on my stuff," especially when you got those damn cubicles, then people just work on their own stuff, and it's something that they are used to. They are used either being told what to work on, or they make their own stuff, but then they stop talking with other people. In the first few weeks with every team what will happen not enough communication. Because work is sort of coming in and then it distributes down and people turn it out individually.

So some of my role is to connect them. I do a lot of this coaching by walking around. And simply to encourage them to talk about the stuff that's keeping them back, what's keeping them stuck, three questions of the stand up. If they don't get to the third question what's the point, what's in your way? I make sure that they speak their mind, that they ask for what they need, they identify where they're stuck, they seek help and it's really a matter of getting the conversation going. The problems don't really run much deeper than that in most teams, some of course will be outliers but in most teams it's a matter of not communicating enough, I find.


13. I don't how much you've had the opportunity to work at the design world or a lot of the things recently about the design thinking, but you're looking at a design team. You go to a company, like Adeo, which is a design company, you go to Stanford D School and see what they are doing there. They're performing teams that are highly communicative, that are driven by nebulous or vague things, like the user stories, they call them a brief, a lot of communication, prototyping, costumer observation, things of this sort. They seem to do this really well and simulate effortlessly. Why do we have so much difficulty in our profession?

First off, what I have learned is to never accept something at face value. So when you say that they seem simple, I don't know how simple they really are. It's like you look at people you cross paths with in the hall and everybody looks healthy and balanced and successful, but you don't know what's really going on. In our industry we have definitely our share of problems but I don't know just how extreme those problems really are compared to others. Having said that, there is so much left over from the traditional thinking in the software industry, in the thinking of rewarding individuals for merit, in the thinking of if we put you in a functional team, that would be a better way, in the thinking of let's get the most out of people as we can, this utilization thinking, that's maximizing.

This thinking lingers, even though teams adopt Agile, because it's not just in the team itself, it's what's around them, in their management, in the organizational structure, that exerts so much tension, so much force that it's really hard for the teams to play properly. I'm guessing that we will make more progress and really make this more about the people and how they deliver value, when organizations adopt more agility it is taking place, slowly, but it will over the next decade, I'm sure it take place a whole lot more.


14. How does one prepare oneself to become a coach?

You could go to school, but I suspect this is not enough. How do you prepare yourself to be a coach? You have to have been a player. In my case I was a developer for many years, I was a manager as well and I worked closely with the business so I have all the perspectives, but you have to have been a player at least at one of these three disciplines: business, management or technical. You have to decently and authentically care about people. And this comes from a certain maturity, form a certain place of openness, so the act of preparation is a lot of self study, a lot of personal change, for some people it's natural, for most I think it's not.

You work with other coaches, you get a mentor, because even though you can read about this, you can role play this, it is nothing like observing other people coach a team and understanding the consequences. You can learn individually, you can learn in a group but it is something that you can really mature into, it's not just something that you pick straight out of school, like law, or accounting, or programming.


15. You mentioned school. Most people come into our profession from computer science programs, MIS programs, maybe a business degree, MBA. I am a professor, so I have been an educator for a long time. The closest thing that you see coming out of MIS or computer science are project management. The closest thing that you see coming out of the business schools are the managers. None of them sounds like necessarily a good preparation for being a coach.

When I said "school" I meant something like a coaching school where you study towards a certificate or something like that, it's not usually a degree. I'm not personally aware of any schools or universities offering this as a degree, but many people learn this in a sort of program. You spend a couple of hundred of hours studying and role playing, and it will do some proper certification around that. The sort of thing that they teach you can really pick from a book and from other people, it's the practice that matters. It's the practice and it's the self development, it's the awareness and the care for people, so the actual coaching skills you can pick up any which way.

You don't become a coach until you do it enough, until you really engrain it into you. It is like the distinction between managers and leaders. You can learn to be a manager, you can also learn to be a leader, but you become a leader over time, or maybe it is an innate talent. It is not just about the skills, it's about the being.


16. Professionals sports world they have high school, college, minor leagues, pro leagues, etc., you could kind of work your way up to the coaching ranks to become a master coach. Is there any equivalent out there, in our profession, Agile coaching, or things of this sort? It is from a small company to a big company?

I think it is simply a matter of experience, of how many different situations and teams have you encountered. You can get a pretty good level of experience from working with multiple teams within the same organization or you can get really great experience from one or two teams in different companies, this is more like my experience. There is some level of recognition like there is the certified scrum coach and that is a status that you get after a while and after putting in enough time, I'm not quite sure of the requirements. But there is no other designation in our field that everybody recognizes for that.


18. This is true. I also hated all these tools and stuff.

The concept of coaching is absolutely necessary even for a well understood process like XP. I had the privilege of being part of a really strong XP team (more than one, in fact) and still we are talking about several people who have to pull together, in having guidance, having leadership and also having some centralized figure that helps them look after the process. It's simply necessarily because it's great to distribute control and authority and autonomy but groups need leadership.


19. Other than yourself, are the any master coches out there, people that we should be looking at studying and emulating?

Yes. Two people that I constantly learn from, and partner with, and simply enjoy teaching with are David Spann and Johanna Rothman. Both are incredibly pragmatic people, incredibly versed in facilitation, they are people I would trust my teams with. But there are plenty more.


20. Are there any other issues, or concepts, or ideas that you wolud like to share with us that my questions didn't elicit from you?

I like the fact that Agile coach is now a profession, it is something that people build their professional image and professional selves towards and I am especially tickled that we have a stage at this conference, specifically for coaching. As several years ago we didn't, it's a fairly new thing. So what we had sessions about coaching two or three years ago, if I recall correctly it was only in 2009, maybe 2008, that we actually had a specific track or subtrack for coaching. After that point you couldn't really learn it from any particular source, the weren't any real books about it.

Now there are a couple of books, so you could learn couching as a general purpose profession, like you would learn how to coach a sports team or how you could became a life coach. You could have also been a player so you know the moves, an than you learn the process and you can help the team with it. Now they are actually creating a body of knowledge about Agile coaching. Occasionally I run programs to help Agile coaches from good to great. Two or three years ago, there would have been no demand but now we are getting there, it's beyond training, beyond leadership it's specifically coaching.


21. Thank you very much for being with us.

Thank you for having me.

Nov 24, 2010