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Asking for Help in Agile Adoption

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Coaching and mentoring can help organizations in adopting agile. But they only work if people are open to help. What makes it that people sometimes do not allow coaches to help them? What can you do to encourage helpful behavior in organizations?

Bob Galen wrote the blog post the agile project manager—please sir, may I have some help?  in which he shares several stories of people who were reluctant to ask for help from coaches. One example is about an organization which, 6 months after receiving training and being ready to go on their agile journey, was using a command and control management style with agile:

Managers were micro-managing the sprints and adjusting team estimates and plans. The teams were distrustful, opaque and misleading their management. There was virtually no honest and open collaboration—nor trust.

In those 6 months the people hadn’t asked for any help nor did they allow their coach to help them:

Their agile coach had asked many times if they needed help and the answer was always: ”No – things are going fine”. Only when they had failed 10 sprints in a row and team members were mutinying, did the Director reach out for help to their coach. Their coach came back and in relatively short order brought the team back to ‘basics’ and helped them restore balance, trust, collaboration, and commitment to agile delivery. Afterwards, everyone was asking the questions: “Why did it take so long—why didn’t we ask for help sooner?”

In the blog post Bob mentions several reasons why people are sometimes not asking for help:

What I’ve noticed in the professional landscape is that folks are truly reluctant to ask for assistance. Is it ego? Is it embarrassment? Is it trust? Is it perception? I think it’s all of these and more. (…) I see it at all levels of organizations—which my examples try to illustrate. It happens at the senior leadership level, the management level, and at the team level. It’s often independent of a person’s experience. Indeed, there seems to be a relationship between the more experience you have and your reluctance to admit that you don’t know something, or need help in formulating a next step.

In his second blog post on this topic Bob explains that not asking for help is related to recognizing the importance of teamwork in agile:

At least from an agile team and project perspective, it’s not about the individual. It’s about the team. Asking for help is an acknowledgement that your team is greater than the sum of its parts, and that you have a responsibility to identify challenges and face them as a team. When you’re unwilling to raise them early and often, you’re not seeing the big picture of collaborative team work towards a common goal.

Help is multidirectional says Bob, asking for help and providing help should support each other:

I think the degree to which you offer to help and collaborate will improve your own abilities to ask for and receive help from team members. An easy way to “get better” is helping your own team members—asking probing questions surrounding team challenges and being real in exchanges around getting things done.

In the blog post the three most powerful words in the world Mike Edwards talks about how admitting that you don’t know things can open the way to ask for help and help people to grow. He gives an example from his coaching experience:

A ScrumMaster who struggles to ask for help or be realistic about his knowledge of Scrum. This is made worse by his background in project management. It can be hard to break the old PM habits, but it's even harder when you don't admit to needing help. This is leaving an environment where a new Scrum team is struggling, the product owner isn't overly thrilled, and a project is doomed to waterfall-like results. This team is doomed to reverting to old comfortable places if something doesn't change.

Mike suggest to address such a situation by helping people to get insight in what they know and don’t know, and to become open on it:

When I'm interviewing I ask questions to try and find the boundaries of someone's knowledge. I want to see the person being willing to admit to something they're unsure of. If they are willing to do this when they're uncomfortable, then they are more likely to say it when they become comfortable as a team member. This will mean the team can quickly address a knowledge gap and move forward

In the article IDEO’s culture of helping on Harvard Business Review the authors Teresa Amabile, Colin M. Fisher, and Julianna Pillemer talk about what can be done to encourage helping behavior in organizations. They start by explaining why they think this needs attention:   

Helpfulness must be actively nurtured in organizations, however, because it does not arise automatically among colleagues. Individuals in social groups experience conflicting impulses: As potential helpers, they may also be inclined to compete. As potential help seekers, they may also take pride in going it alone, or be distrustful of those whose assistance they could use. On both sides, help requires a commitment of time for uncertain returns and can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Through their structures and incentives, organizations may, however unwittingly, compound the reluctance to provide or seek help.

The article describes what IDEO does to create a culture where people ask for and provide help:

From the beginning of every project, designers are encouraged to assume that they’ll need help. A project team with a demanding client learns that it would be irresponsible not to ask a colleague who had a lot of experience with that client to review its work. The team members might ask for that colleague’s input throughout the project, in sessions lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to half a day. At IDEO there is no shame in asking for help, and this psychological safety shows up on many levels: For example, people cheerfully accept frequent all-office e-mail blasts along the lines of “Does anyone have experience with Spanish-language radio?” or “Who’s tried the new quick-loss diet?”

IDEO did a survey with the entire office population to investigate how people helped each other. A conclusion was that trust and accessibility are the most important things to make a colleague helpful:

(…) people trusted their top-ranked helpers more than they did their fifth-ranked helpers, and they trusted both much more than their nonhelpers. (…) Asking for help involves at least some vulnerability, so it stands to reason that people would turn to helpers whom they can trust with their thoughts and feelings.

Accessibility involves being available, willing, and able to lend a hand. (…) When a team failed to get help, it was usually because the person needed simply wasn’t available—he or she was out of the office, out of e-mail contact, or simply too overcommitted to devote the time. (…) Often a team’s best helper was someone who hadn’t been identified as such at the start of the project.

The favorite coaching technique from Len Lagestee is to use an informal setting:

Around lunchtime and as frequently as possible, I would plant myself at a table in the break room. I am currently working at an organization with small lunchrooms on every floor so I would find the closest one, sit down and just wait. I would catch up on emails or get a little work done but I make sure to not act overly busy or have a “don’t bother me” look.

Being available and visible makes it easier for people to become open about their experiences on the team and within the organization, which creates opportunities for you as a coach to help them in their daily work.

What have you done to encourage people to ask for help?

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