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Intrinsic Agile Coaching with Storytelling

Teams can share their experiences with other teams and coaches through storytelling. Agile coaches can facilitate a process of sharing experiences to empower teams and help them becoming self-organized said Patrick Steyaert and Wim Bollen. They showed a technique based upon archetype construction to draw learning’s from team stories which teams can use to design and travel their own agile journey.

At the Agile Tour Brussels 2014 conference Patrick and Wim facilitated a workshop about intrinsic agile coaching – agile coaching without coaches. Stories told by them and by attendants where characterized and distilled into archetype teams representing an archetypical agile implementation.

Many frameworks and solutions exist for enterprises that want to adopt agile, each having their own domains of applicability. Selecting and deploying them can be difficult and there is a chance that teams will resist when changes that are needed to adopt an agile framework are imposed on them. In the whitepaper about the quest for an integrative approach to manage the agile menagerie Patrick described why diversity is important in agile adoption:

On the one hand CIO’s are striving for standardisation based on one model or approach but at the same time they can’t ignore the “law of diversity”, i.e. diverse agile approaches are needed and maintaining them all makes the standardization difficult. Not every team is alike: different type of work, different people, different level of agile experience, different values, different goals, different practice, different working standard are just a few examples of differences between teams. After all, the agile menagerie is the result of the need for more diversity. A point solution working in one context might not work in another context (…) Transformation programmes initiated to scale agile across the entire enterprise are complex: not only because there is no such thing as “one size fits all” approach (i.e. not all change is alike) but above all because people do not want to let go of their experience built up while adopting agile in their own team, and rightfully so.

There are agile assessments that coaches or consultants can use to assess teams. Teams may change their behavior when being measured this way, the question however is if they will truly become more agile said Patrick. A different mindset is needed for “being agile” in stead of “doing agile” as Patrick and Wim presented:

Doing agile

  • The coach is the expert – the coach knows best how you should your work
  • One-size fits all – all teams need to comply to the standard practices
  • Knowledge transfer – one-to-many transfer of how things should be done

Being agile

  • The coach is a facilitator – you know best how to do your work
  • Leverage diversity – teams have different needs but share a common vision on what being agile means
  • Knowledge sharing – many-to-many sharing of what works and what doesn’t work

Different methods exist for knowledge sharing. For example retrospectives help teams to learn by reflecting on what went well and what needs to be improved. Coaches can do a “show-and-tell” approach to help teams to learn practices and artifacts. Narrative methods use stories to gain insight how teams work for organizational learning.

Patrick and Wim facilitated a workshop at Agile Tour Brussels doing storytelling exercises with anecdotes. Wim kicked off by telling a story about how he is helping a product vendor of banking software in an agile transition. The attendants were divided up into multiple teams and were asked to write down things that they found characteristic in the story using sticky notes with keywords. They could write as many sticky notes as they like as long as they kept them& short and to the point. It was not allowed to ask questions, attendant had to listen to really get things out of the story.

Patrick also told a story and finally one of the attendants shared his experience in a story where all the attendants continued to write sticky notes with the keywords for the characteristics. It is good to have two stories that are somewhat similar and one which is really different said Patrick. The two similar stories provide depth and detail on one approach while the different story broadens the solution space and stimulates creativity by bringing in different experiences.

Patrick asked the attendants to cluster the sticky notes with keywords in themes. Some of the themes that came up were “process”, “team skills”, “delivery”, “feedback”, “structure and vision”. and “planning”. When all clusters had a theme name assigned teams were asked them to remove the keywords from the clusters, leaving only the theme’s names. Teams where then asked to look which themes have come up in the different teams.

Patrick asked people to come up with four interpretations for each theme, varying from very positive to very negative. When they were done with the interpretations the theme names could be removed.

We now have positive and negative interpretations. The attendants were asked to cluster these interpretations into a project or team archetypes and give each archetype a telling name. As an example, one team clustered positive interpretations into a “dream team” and negative ones into a “team from hell”.

Themes help us to capture what is important said Patrick and Wim, while the archetypes provide insight into different approaches related to the themes. This diversity helps teams to decide upon the way that they want to adopt agile to suit their needs. This way teams can define and travel their own agile journey.

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