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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Alex Sloley on the Value of Coaching, Mob Programming in Action, Leadership for New Ways of Working

Alex Sloley on the Value of Coaching, Mob Programming in Action, Leadership for New Ways of Working

In this podcast recorded at the Agile on the Beach (New Zealand) conference, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Alex Sloley about the value of a coach, mobbing as a way to solve tough problems and the importance of leadership in adopting new ways of working.

Key Takeaways

  • Coaching is fundamentally about people helping other people get better at what they do
  • A great coach is someone who can ask questions and help people figure out their goals, what they want to achieve, and then help them get there
  • Mobbing is a way for an entire team to tackle a singular problem and solve it as quickly as possible
  • With mobbing, divergence equals innovation and experimentation and creative thinking
  • New ways of working spread through diffusion across organisation, not by decree from the top down



00:17 Shane Hastie: Hello folks. Before we get into today's podcast, I wanted to share with you the details of our upcoming QCon Plus virtual event. Taking place this May 17 to 28, QCon Plus focuses on emerging software trends and practices from the world's most innovative software professionals. All 16 tracks are curated by domain experts to help you focus on the topics that matter right now in software development. Tracks include Leading Full Cycle Engineering Teams, Modern Data Pipeline, and Continuous Delivery, Workflows, and Platforms. You'll learn new ideas and insights from over 80 software practitioners at innovator and early adopter companies. Spaced over two weeks at a few hours per day, experience technical talks, real-time interactive sessions, asynchronous learning, and optional workshops to help you validate your software roadmap. If you're a senior software engineer, architect, or team lead and want to take your technical learning and personal development to a whole new level this year, join us at QCon Plus this May 17 to 28. Visit for more information.

01:33 Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. I'm at Agile On The Beach in Tauranga, New Zealand. And I'm sitting down with Alex Sloley. Alex, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

01:46 Introductions

01:46 Shane Hastie: You and I know each other pretty well. We're both from the antipodes or based in the antipodes.

01:52 Alex Sloley: But I suspect most of our audience might not have come across you and your work, so would you mind giving us the two-minute who's Alex and why you're here?

01:59 Alex Sloley: Yeah, so I spent a long time at Microsoft. I'm originally from Seattle. I shipped in a lot of different products, Windows and Office, and I did Waterfall really awesomely. But then that was where I learned about Scrum. And from there, it was a startup, got acquired, spent some time in The Big Four, and then I worked for Steve McConnell of Code Complete fame, right?

02:22 Shane Hastie: Yeah. Yeah.

02:22 Alex Sloley: And I worked for him for a couple years. And I travelled the world helping clients with better ways of working or exploring new ways of working, I guess is the way to say it. And then I decided to move to Australia. I now live in Sydney. And for me it was like an adventure, going some place really cool and exciting. And now what I do is basically I just go around and I help clients wherever they may be. And I'm really, really passionate about engaging the community and doing lots of conference speaking, or just hanging out with my Agile friends and doing stuff like we're doing right here right now.

02:59 Shane Hastie: So, some of that community stuff, I know you've been doing things like Coach Camp and so forth, do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

03:05 Agile Coaching Retreats

03:05 Alex Sloley: At Scrum Alliance, I'm the co-advisor for the APAC Agile coaching retreats. I've been involved as an advisor for almost two years, but I've been going to the Agile coaching retreats that the Scrum Alliance hosts since the very first one, which was Boulderado in 2011. I'm also on the Scrum Alliance coaching advisory team. So being a voice of like a coach in the community that they can talk to and listen to. And I do lots of conference organizing and reviewing and stuff like that.

03:38 Shane Hastie: So let's explore this coach thing a little bit. It's a role that seems to be sort of popping up more and more. And, is it just another buzz word or what does a coach bring to a team? Let's take the audience we've got here, strongly technical, team leads, influencers, architects, developers, and some of us more in the people and process space. But a lot of our audience are in that deeply technical space. Why should they even think they need a coach?

04:10 Learning about coaching

04:10 Alex Sloley: Right. I mean, I knew the word coach before I became an Agile coach, right. In my world, it was like a sports coach. I didn't know what personal coaching or Agile coaching was. And then I took a course, a workshop in 2011 with Michael Spade and Lisa Atkins. And that's kind of like when I learned about this whole Agile coaching thing. As I've gone through my journey and I've thought about what coaching really means, yeah I kind of agree with you, Shane, in that it's just a word. I mean, just like Scrum Master or Product Owner are just words or titles. So, it's more about what that person does or acts or the things they do more than anything, right, or some people might say their attitude.

04:52 Alex Sloley: So, when I think about coaches, it's just people who are interested in other people getting better. And I definitely am a subscriber to the coaching stance and the coaching competency framework. So I'm thinking, you're moving fluidly between teaching, and mentoring, and coaching, and facilitation, right? So visually, and what it looks like when you are working or coaching with people, might look a little different here and there, depending on the context. But ultimately, the goal is to help them succeed, I think. So, I mean, you could be a coach at a fast-food restaurant, you could be a coach in a primary school, you could be a coach in a deeply technical environment, you could be a coach in development, right. And perhaps, maybe you're coaching them in that thing that you're deeply technical in. Right. I mean, that makes perfect sense. In a perfect world, you're awesome at this one thing, you also have that desire and capability to help people get better at that. So there you go, there's your perfect marriage.

05:57 Shane Hastie: What brought you to coaching?

05:59 Alex Sloley: For me, it was about helping other people succeed. I love doing awesome things myself. I'm not shy about celebrating my own successes. But really I get the biggest kick out of celebrating other people's successes. It's like, "Ah, look at how I've helped this person." And now I'm celebrating them and it's even better. And so, I guess, it was born out of a desire to see other people succeed. And it's not at your own cost. In fact, it makes your own celebration that much sweeter, I think.

06:31 Alex Sloley: So what does a good coach bring to a team?

06:34 The value of a good coach for a team

06:34 Alex Sloley: I think a good coach doesn't necessarily have to be technical. I mean, I've met awesome coaches who aren't Agile coaches. I've met coaches who are high performance sports coaches. I've met personal coaches or coaches in therapy and stuff like that. So it's more about how are they helping the people succeed? So in terms of a great coach, I'm thinking, it's someone who can ask questions and help people figure out their goals, what they want to achieve and then help them get there. And sometimes there might be a little instruction and mentoring, but really it's just having conversations. I do drink a lot of coffee, Shane, because really, I'm just going around and I'm talking to people. And by the end of the day, I have got to start drinking decaf because you're not supposed to have 10 cups of caffeinated coffee a day. Right. So really I'm just talking to people.

07:34 Shane Hastie: And what do people get out of it?

07:36 The value people can get from being coached

07:36 Alex Sloley: It's funny because sometimes when I'm working with people who aren't used to that coaching thing, I think sometimes they come in thinking, "Why am I doing this?" Every now and then, someone's told them, "Oh, you've got to go see Alex." Right. Not forced, but like, "Oh, Alex is going to help you." And they're like, "Okay, I'll go see what's up." Right. And then, afterwards, you can kind of see sometimes when the light shines in their eyes and they're like, "Oh, now I kind of know what this is about." Sometimes I think they're just happy to have someone listen, just listen to them. They might be having a bad time, a bad day, and just the fact that someone's empathizing with them is enough to make their life a little better for that day. Sometimes they'll come to me with real questions that they just want an answer for. "Alex, I'm having an issue with this and I just really need the answer." And I'll try to help them get there.

08:33 Alex Sloley: I think the best coaching relationships I've ever had with organizations and companies and teams and people, you kind of develop this trusting relationship. I mean, there's no definitive quantitative metric that says you're absolutely helping them, but you can kind of just get that vibe.

08:51 Shane Hastie: Another thing you mentioned is about building community, what are those communities and what's happening in that space.

08:58 Working in community roles to make society better

08:58 Alex Sloley: Yeah. I guess you could call it the Agile community. I mean, if I was talking like to Shane, which I am right now at the bar, we'd say "Agile" 20 billion times, probably, and the Agile community, but we were having this conversation earlier today, Shane, it's like, so what about the Agile term? If I think of it, it's just like a community of people who are interested in helping things be better at, not necessarily work, but primarily at work. And this community is, I think, the community of people who are helping, shall I say, society and humanity push the boundaries of how we can accomplish things together as a community better.

09:40 Alex Sloley: So you could think of it as, yeah, it could be in a high-tech industry, but I don't work just in the high-tech industry. I've worked in telecom, pharma, oil and gas, et cetera. Right? So all these principles and practices and philosophies can be applied regardless of industry, which means they can also be applied in private industry as well as government agencies, which means, wow, you can do it in government, you can do it in the education system, you can do it even at universities. It's applicable everywhere. You can do it in your personal life. I mean, that's how me and my family do it. We're all Agileists in my family. And it's just the way we roll.

10:20 Shane Hastie: So, one of the things you mentioned to me before we started the interview was you're doing some work in mob programming now.

10:27 Alex Sloley: Oh, yeah.

10:27 Shane Hastie: That's a new buzzword.

10:29 Alex Sloley: Sure.

10:29 Shane Hastie: It goes beyond pairing. What do we get out of mob programming? And why should we even think about it? A lot of organizations, we get the pushback of, "You want two developers to pair?" And now we're saying we want a whole team to sit together and mob.

10:43 Introducing mobbing

10:43 Alex Sloley: Yeah, right. It's like, "How efficient can that be when you've got a team of 10 people working on the same exact thing?"

10:50 Shane Hastie: Yeah.

10:50 Alex Sloley: I've got a client right now who's using mob programming in a variety of different contexts, which is really fascinating. It's not even just, just mob programming, they're just calling it mobbing. And they're coming up with all these cool experiments around mobbing. They're doing mobbing in marketing, they're doing mobbing in development teams. They're doing mega mobbing, which is mobbing across trains and they're even doing it across continents, so remote locations. Essentially, in the context of this client, they embraced it because mobbing was a way for the entire team at the team level to tackle a singular problem and solve it as quickly as possible. They just attack that problem and destroy it. And that's why the client loves it because they give them these hard problems and then they destroy that problem quickly.

11:49 Shane Hastie: So what does that look like? What does a mobbing session look like, feel like?

11:52 Alex Sloley: Yeah. So we get all the people in the room. Sometimes they're really structured and sometimes they're much more loose. Some of the sessions, we'll actually have like a run sheet planning looking thing, which might be just like an outline on a whiteboard or sticky notes. It'll have a vision for the mobbing session. It might be a singular thing or like a series of things under a specific theme. And then they might be very systematic in that they do rotations around the people in the room, or it might be just much more loose in than that we just have general time boxes and people kind of self-volunteer to be the captain as they go through these mobbing sessions.

12:31 Alex Sloley: But things that they all have in common are that they have some kind of vision, they have some kind of primary backlog item they're working on. If they're working on multiple backlog items, they're all unified under a singular theme. It involves the entire team. We block out the time for it. We time box it so we don't go past the time box. And we always integrate remote people so that they're not left out of the fun. Those are pretty consistent themes in this situation.

13:03 Shane Hastie: So you mentioned a role there, a captain, what does the captain do in a mob?

13:09 The role of mob-captain

13:09 Alex Sloley: So technically, by-the-book mob programming, you would have a primary person who kind of like owns the keyboard and the mouse. Or in the case of a non-software programming mobbing, you might have mob drawing, for example, they're the person with the paper and the pen. But they're the driver and they're doing the actual doing. And then everybody else in the room is participatory in that they might be observing or making commentary or asking questions or making suggestions. They're involved, but they're not holding the pen and they don't have the keyboard and the mouse in their hands. But they're involved and their learning and they're impacting how the captain does it. And then you rotate that captain role around the room, around the team so that they each take a turn at that same role as it were.

13:57 Shane Hastie: And what else makes mobbing work? What else constitutes a mob, I suppose?

14:02 What makes mobbing work?

14:02 Alex Sloley: I had this question on myself when I was contemplating it, when I first learned about mob programming too, at all the Agile conferences and talking to Woody, and reading the book and doing the website and all that kind of stuff. And I'm like, "Oh, really, what is the difference between, say, mob programming and pair programming and perhaps swarming, right?" So, there's technical definitions between all those different things. But essentially what it comes down to with mob programming that makes it different from swarming and pairing is that it's the entire team with a WIP of one, that's the definition on mob programming, WIP of one, entire team.

14:41 Shane Hastie: So we're working on one thing together.

14:43 Alex Sloley: One thing only. Exactly.

14:45 Shane Hastie: And I can see two, three people sharing ideas and so forth. Doesn't it become chaotic with six, seven, eight people?

14:54 Alex Sloley: It definitely is an environment where you could get a lot of divergence. And I think that's kind of the point of the whole exercise. You're getting that diversity of opinion, you're getting that inclusion of all the different people's ideas in the room. So when we're talking about divergence, right, you want to keep your team as divergent in concept and idea and execution for as long as possible up until the last responsible moment, because it gives them the most room to experiment, innovate, and to try different things to experiment with. Divergence equals innovation and experimentation and creative thinking.

15:37 Shane Hastie: So that divergence is good.  How do you make sure... And I suppose, it's the same challenge as with brainstorming and other divergent thinking areas,  technical people are often considered to be quite introverted and quiet. How do you get all of the voices out?

15:56 Enabling divergent thinking and ensuring all voices are heard

15:56 Alex Sloley: Yeah, that is always a challenge. I think, first of all, you do want to have a space in terms of psychological safety. I think if you were trying mob programming and perhaps in a team that wasn't safe, it might be a little more challenging. So definitely I think you want to be thinking about, is the team ready for this? Right. Perhaps, there are teams that wouldn't be ready for this psychologically safety-wise. So you got to make sure that the team thinks it's a good idea. It's not something I would force on a team, that's for sure.

16:28 Alex Sloley: In the context of my current client, basically what we did is, "Hey guys, hey team, what do you think? Should we try it?" And they were like, "Yeah." And then it just kind of spread from there because another team saw that team, another team saw those teams and then they said, "Hey, let's do it all as trains." And then they said, "We'll do it as multi-trains." So, from that perspective, I think you want a culture and a safe environment where that thing can happen. And when it does, it's really great.

16:55 Alex Sloley: And then those introverts, well, if it's a safe space and they're in the room with their team and someone on their team is the captain and they hit like an impediment or they have a question, well, they're going to speak up, they're going to say something. And when it's their turn at the wheel, right, same thing's going to happen. I think people, whether or not they're introverts or extroverts or ambiverts or whatever you want to call it, if they love their team, they're going to get involved. It's just human nature.

17:29 Shane Hastie: So segueing a tiny bit, in fact, probably shifting to a different topic, leaders and leadership. The sort of environments that you're talking about there that we know as humanistic workplaces and the move towards less authoritarian, more, another hackneyed phrase, more servant leadership style-

17:49 Alex Sloley: Sure.

17:49 Shane Hastie: What's different out there? And is it more than just lip service today? Are organizations really getting it?

17:56 Modern leadership approaches embracing change

17:56 Alex Sloley: I think the organizations that have those leaders are the ones that get them. It's the organizations that don't have those leaders that kind of stagnate. So, it's very typical for me to go into a place and the business sponsor has hired me to help them push the boundaries, get them to the next frontier, I suppose you could call it, and then when I get boots on ground, for that person to be the person who's most resistant to the change that I'm trying to introduce, which is full of irony. Right? So when I think about organizations with leaders who are trying to push the boundaries, not only are they saying it, but they're also proving it with their deeds. Those clients are the ones where they say, "Yes, we want your help." And then when you come in, they're the ones that say, "Yeah, we're willing to try stuff."

18:53 Alex Sloley: It's very frustrating as a person who's trying to help leadership get to the next level to be told, we can't do that, it's not done that way here. It's very frustrating, because you're the person that's trying to help them change. And if you don't change, then you're just going to stagnate. Right. I think it's those leaders who figure that out or the ones that really get you to the next level...

19:18 New ways of working spread through diffusion, not decree

19:18 Alex Sloley: Now I have found instances where those leaders who are capable of working and embracing with change, sometimes they'll go around different places or even within different orgs and large companies and kind of lead the charge. Sometimes you'll find places, physical places where it's kind of like that's the norm. Or you'll find industries where that's the norm. And we talk a lot in the Agile coaching community about top-down, bottom-up, middle-out, I prefer to think of it as diffusive. When you take a teabag and you put it in a mug of hot water and you can see the dark tea kind of seep through the water, that's the same thing with new ways of working in leadership and organization, it just kind of spreads. But you've got to have the right leaders.

20:11 Shane Hastie: So we talk about these new ways of working and new styles of leadership. What do they really mean? What do they look like? What does it feel like?

20:20 Alex Sloley: It's interesting you bring up the word "feel," because you can definitely sense a vibe. Every time you go into a new place as a change agent, as a champion of change, like you can just feel like what that place is like. You can see it, you can smell it, you can sense it. So definitely, there's a vibe associated with these so-called new ways of working.

20:43 Alex Sloley: I think it's about treating people as people, trusting them. You're going to say to yourself, "Hey, these people are going to do the best they can for us as long as we trust them. As soon as we don't trust them, they're not going to do their best for us." Right. So it's kind of like, you have got to have one to have the other. So they tend to be trusting. They tend to have cultures where you can say stuff and not suffer really hardcore consequences, so psychological safety. They tend to have leaders who are forward-thinking.

21:16 A leadership environment where people feel passionate, want to work together and care about each other

21:16 Alex Sloley: It's not about mechanics, it's not even about specific structure of like the office. Hot desking and activity-based working doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to have a really awesome organization. Just like having certain software packages or certain tooling, those are all part of the picture, but they're kind of ancillary, because it's more about building a place where people feel passionate and want to work together and care about each other. And it's more about human systems working together than anything else.

21:57 Shane Hastie: So if I'm a hard-nosed business leader, why would I want to invest in this stuff?

22:01 Happy people work harder and are more engaged

22:01 Alex Sloley: Happy people work harder. It's amazing, right? If you have a happy team, they'll work longer hours, not because you asked them to, but because they love it. And they'll probably balance that out with working more sustainable hours, but you'll be amazed by organizations where the people love their work and they love their teams and they love their environment, they'll be all in, they'll die for you. And in terms of business, I mean, that's great because now you've got people who care as much about your company and your product as anybody possibly could in the world, as much as you, if you're a founder, you're just going to get better results.

22:47 Shane Hastie: Touching on that "getting better" and where you mentioned, you're bringing some of these ideas from information technology groups out to other areas of the organization, what does that look like, the ubiquitous business agility?

23:01 Alex Sloley: Ah yeah. Well, in terms of buzzwords, that's kind of up there right now.

23:05 Shane Hastie: We're right up there with that one.

23:06 Alex Sloley: Bridging the divide between technology and business groups

23:06 Alex Sloley: Yeah, business agility right now. I still go places where there's this divide between IT and "the business", whatever that means. I think now places, organizations, companies that are kind of more forward-thinking, that divide is a lot less than it used to be. And it's gotten to the point where in some places I can see the business looking at the IT people with kind of like envy. They may have heard of the word Agile or agility or whatever it is and they kind of look on that and they say, "Wow, something interesting is going on over there. I'm interested in that." And often and it involves, they're looking at the leaders of those organizations that are really awesome and they're like, "Wow, that leader is kind of inspirational. They say things I like." And then they look at their own organizations and they're like, "I kind of wish it was that way a little bit in my place too." Right. And then they start to perhaps experiment, take little things that they've seen from the IT world and do it in their non-IT world.

24:13 Alex Sloley: My current client I'm at right now, I get invitations all the time from all the different functional areas like marketing and legal and HR and risk, right, because they're, I won't say they're standing outside looking in, but they can see cool and awesome things happening and they want some of that, which means, I guess they can see a place in the future where it could be better for them too.

24:41 Shane Hastie: And what is the that?

24:43 Alex Sloley: I think they can see how people work together. They can see how the people who are doing those Agile type things work with them. They can see the results, the focus, the clarity, the working on less work, but doing that work really well and enjoying their lives, inspirational leadership, all the great things I saw many years ago with my own very first Agile team, they start to see in their organizations and then they want some of that.

25:16 Alex Sloley: I think very often when people can see Agile teams or Agile organizations that are successful, whatever that means in terms of your organization, they'll think, "Ooh, I want to try some of that." And it could be delivery, it could be fixing a broken projects, it could be morale, who knows, but things got better somehow in some way.

25:40 Shane Hastie: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

25:46 Alex Sloley: They can always find me at an Agile conference like today, Shane. But they can also email me at And you can find me on Twitter at @alex_sloley. And if you bump into me at a conference, I'm happy to chat about any of this stuff.

26:05 Shane Hastie: Thanks very much.

26:06 Alex Sloley: My pleasure.


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