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Katherine Kirk talks about applying different philosophies to coaching teams in crisis
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| Interview with Katherine Kirk by Shane Hastie on May 16, 2014 | NOTICE: The next QCon is in New York Jun 26-30, 2017. Join us!

Bio Now an independent coach, consultant and researcher, Katherine has solid experience contracting and freelancing in a variety of roles within the IT and Media industries. She has spent time as an Agile Coach at Rally after a period consulting as Delivery Improvement Specialist, Project Manager and Agile Coach at the BBC in the Future Media division in London.

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1. Good day this is Shane Hastie and we're here at Qcon London with Katherine Kirk. Katherine, welcome! Thank you for taking the time to come and talk to the InfoQ today. You and I know each other a little bit well but would you mind introducing yourself for the audience?

Sure. Basically I am an independent coach/consultant/project manager and I've got a background in working with troubled projects, which arises from the fact that when I started my career my friends were working in projects which were really suffering, and coaches, managers and so on were running the other way, they caught me up saying “we're working on great products, we want to keep this, can you come and help out?”. Because I've got a strange background being brought up in an aboriginal tribe I see the world a little differently in terms of interactions, and so that's probably where they were drawing from or wanted to draw from, so I'd go in and I was cheap. And we...I was able to look at things in certain ways and work with people in certain ways that caused us to overcome most difficulties. Usually, these were urgent scenarios and quite critical and eventually I kind of went off and worked in projects which were a bit easy and I was bored. So then I went back to this, and I really liked it because it is a place that is so urgent, so critical that you must innovate and ego is sort of put to the side. And you get to really explore what works. So I stayed in this, ever since.


2. You briefly touched down something. You were born in Australia, currently living in London, you say you were raised in an aboriginal tribe. Could you expand on that a little bit?

Yes, I spent up to the age of 12, living in the Pitjantjantjara tribe, which is in the northwest corner of south Australia. My parents were sort of semi-hippies, they've decided they wanted to leave within the culture. So they were quite radical thinkers at the time, and to serve the aboriginal people and to live within that environment. So we were adopted into the tribe itself, and we hunted food and lived in little huts and we moved every couple of weeks. That was my experience of the universe, and then at 12 years old I was sent to go and board in white society and that was a hell of a shock. So I had already formed a very different way of looking at the universe and people, interactions and so on. And then suddenly in quite the opposite society, and that was a very challenging scenario for a number of years. Classrooms for instance, if you, you know, have never really been in a classroom and you've been dealing one on one with adults and suddenly there is this hierarchy with one really boring adult standing in front of you droning on about a subject you are not interested in. You know, you are going to get up, because in the outback you can. That can give you a bad reputation, I found out quite early.

Over time, I learned to assimilate into society so nobody knew my difference. But it wasn't until I came across software engineering and particularly the Agile-Lean community where I just suddenly had an opportunity to use this strange way of thinking for the positive. And it is more like a family to me, really than a job, with colleagues and so on, and I really enjoy this space.

Shane: You bring an interesting perspective, and we do talk in the Agile space very much about a humanistic environment, and moving from thinking of the open space “the law of two feet” - get up and move on - it doesn't work too well in a classroom, but it is one of the things we do certainly encourage in the Agile movement. One of the things that you are quite strong on is continuous innovation.

Yes. I think it comes from, again, living in the outback. You need to innovate to survive. You need to innovate with what you have to survive in the desert. And you can't really plan too much, because the weather dictates how you respond. So I guess it’s a natural fit for me, to think about that and the industry itself that we are in it, now it's coming to a place where it's...they've got incredible, rapid change. It is evolving really really quickly. And even the traditional way of looking at, say, continuous improvement is suffering. Because it is full of change not just from the perspective of the industry itself, but alsă the people within it and the way we work, and how we interact. It is all fluxing. Fluctuating, sorry. (That's a new word fluxing, I've just invented it.) So now, the industry needs to start rising to that call from users to innovate. It is an exciting time in the industry. And that's where I'm finding myself getting excited and engaged and wanting to help people go to that next level. I guess because I understand from a core perspective, from having that strange background, living in such a strange environment, that deadly environment, what it takes to keep surviving and not knowing that but to thrive within an uncontrolled context. So I guess those sort of skill sets kicked in and I kind of like it.


3. Another thing you've mentioned is you've been looking at some Buddhist teaching, and bringing that into your work. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

About 12 years ago, I thought I'd really like to kind of learn a few new techniques, as meditative techniques, and I stumbled across this particular kind, which was the 'Mahasi Vipassana, a strain of Buddhism. Which I was attracted to because it is not very religious as such, not very ceremony heavy. It's some very dry, practical techniques that you can get to help you with your day to day life. It is developed by a guy called Mahasi, who lived in the last about 100-150 years, who looked at Buddhism and said: “Oh, look, there's so much ceremony, there is so much religiousness, that people have to time out to learn how to get insight and how to progress.” So he he thought: what about the layman, what about the lay person? And how can they get insight? Whilst working in the field, whilst living day to day life? So he really stripped out everything that you can and brought it down to the absolute basics, which allowed people then, and developed this little program or way of thinking, a way of meditating that would be accessible to all people. Even if they are massively busy. And we help them generate insight, and progress and continuously improve, of course what for Buddhism is to become enlightened. So I've found a monk, accidentally, as I said, and just started going to these talks and to the programs and I've done that for the 12 years, and suddenly found myself using that in the work environment and realizing that it applied, quite a lot because it is practical.


4. So what are some of the insights or the practices about?

It is really about the approach. It's about not so much about imagining things or controlling breathing, it's more about training yourself to respond to whatever comes your way in an equinimous and strategic manner, so that you can note your own intention and then follow through with that intention, if it's a good one. So you get a choice, you create options for yourself. So the world comes at you, how do you get yourself in the position where you are taking the best option forward for you but do that at a highly rapid pace. So the techniques themselves include slowing things down, getting used to watching when do you create an intention, how do you create an intention, and then once you learn how you're doing that, how to choose the right one for you. So there is actually not that much interaction with monks or strange behavior. The techniques that you learn in the retreats are literally slowing yourself physically right down, so that you can start to spot when you intend to open the door, when do you intend to get up out of a chair. If you can track where you intend to do that, you can then decide whether or not that's a good option for you.

So it's very practical. The meditation consists mainly of watching your own breathing. There is no fantasy involved. So you literally train your mind to be occupied with observing your body's breath. And in doing so, of course you increase your concentration, but you start to allow the subconscious mind to think through things that it's perhaps been interrupted in for years and allows you then to gain your own insight. And all of that is done is silence because it’s your business, your private things, and the monk will say, “I am not your counselor, don't want to know your problems”. I am teaching you these techniques, you'll know your own answer. Now that's handy in coaching. That's really handy, but not all those techinques I talked about that I'm not talking about making programmers sit and slow themselves down. Although, TDD, BDD, those type of techniques do slow you down, do make you question your own intention. So we do have techniques that already do that. But then how do we, personally, control this bubbling, emotional, being with ego and fear and so on? How do we, not control it, but how do we work with that to our advantages and the advantages of the team? And what I found with Mahasi Vipassana it is not about holding hands and hugging. It's about translating. Ok, in software engineering, what would that be? How would I behave? What is the equivalent in software engineering? And how could I approach things differently?


5. So how do you bring this into team? How do you bring these ideas out?

I think you look every coach has a toolbox of techniques and ideas, and you look at your toolbox and you use the understanding gained, from Mahasi perhaps, to know when to pull certain things out of the toolbox and not. So for instance that's what I am trying to do, is translate that into techniques so you don't have to go to a Mahasi retreat to learn these things, you can just kind of have a look at the outcome and learn from that and take it. That is one of my aims. But how do you translate it? Well, for instance, you'll be able to read a room a little easier, a bit quicker than usual, and understand that perhaps we need a bit of equinimity now. A great way to get equinimity depending on the circumstances, is to create a visual board of that, perhaps. Or maybe you'll see that this is far too much judgement in the room, and you'll understand quickly thatthere might need to be a bit of voting. Now that happens naturally for some coaches and happens naturally for some project managers or scrum masters, or facilitators and I admire them. But doesn't it always happen without conscious thought, in urgent, in troubled projects that are critical because the stress level is quite high? So you need some sort of conscious way of taking this on.

So there is a need for me to translate some of this stuff out there, I understand that. But how? By making people aware that they do have choice, that they can track intention, and using the techniques that we've already got in the industry to do that. It's kind of like assembling the tools into some sort of way that's useful for the people in their context and then they can go off with that and selfmanage and use them afterwards. I hope that make sense.

Shane: Another thing that we were talking about is this concept of creating „environments of the insight”.

Yes. So I've been thinking a lot about the different hierarchies around, within organizations, and how you have your different levels of control, being boss, you know, that we call strategy and leadership, you know. With that hierarchy we have different types of culture and filters which cause us to operate in quite opposing ways. And I think that there's a need for people to specialise in helping people gain insight. Once people have insight they're able to negociate and they're able to work out collaboratively what needs to happen. But getting insight in a high stressing environment, where it's very difficult and things are urgent, is really really hard. So I've been working in trying to help people create techniques that suit them within their context, that will allow them to get that „ahaa!” moment more and more often. And not just from one level – devs, for instance, or project managers – but also all the way up the tree. Because if they can continuously or consistently get that „ahaa!” moment, then they've got a continuous improvement philosophy or culture, where even if there are difficulties now, they'll kind of sort it out as they go along, if that makes sense.


6. As a coach, how do you do that? How do you...what sort of things you need to do to instill this in in an environment, in a team?

I think the first thing which Mahasi teaches you is to get to a state of equinimity and to help everyone involved to get into a state of equinimity.


7. So what is a state of equinimity?

Well it means that you can see something, clearly, without engaging in it, without getting too emotional, without taking your prejudgements, without allowing anybody else to influence, but to just see something as it is. Now that can be extremely difficult if „what is” is horrendous, and you find yourself having horror. But the trick is to stay in that space, see what is, to be brave enough to stay with what is, work with what is. And then, your solutions, because they're based on reality, will be more effective. So how we get teams into that space? I think we do that through strategically thinking through what's useful in the context. I keep saying that because in troubled projects you can't go in with, you know, we're going to do scrum, we're going to do kanban. You have to just do what they need. So to get teams into that space obviously we've got techniques like retrospectives, we've got things like boards, we can do games of various kinds, and...But it needs to be an appropriate to the circumstance, I mean it would treat teaching executives very different from how you would treat developers. So there's not one anwer, but there is that you would aim to facilitate bravery. Bravery to stay, bravery to see. Get buy-in from them, to stay, you know, we're gonna see some stuff that's really bad. But because we're going to be different this time, we're going to be brave, we're going to stay with it, this is going to fix much more quickly.

Shane: Katherine, really interesting stuff. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today and we look forward to see where this progresses.

Yes, me too.

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