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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Lyssa Adkins on 21st Century Leadership, Relationship Systems and the Role of Agile Coaching

Lyssa Adkins on 21st Century Leadership, Relationship Systems and the Role of Agile Coaching

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Lyssa Adkins, author of the book Coaching Agile Teams, about  21st century leadership, relationship systems, the role of agile coaching, brining more women’s voices to the fore and highlighting organisation disfunctions.

Key Takeaways

  • The role of a leadership coach is to reflect back to the leadership team how their interactions and behaviours influence the wider system
  • There are some common patterns that are evidenced in many relationship systems, and people are often uncomfortable looking at and acknowledging their own impact on the system
  • We are in a complex environment which needs a genuinely brand new type of leadership that we've never seen in the world
  • Agile coaching is a recognised discipline which draws on different competencies and is primarily focused helping people to use agile well for the purpose of delivering business results that matter and products that make people proud
  • Agile coaching is a role that is specifically designed to not collude with the limitations and dysfunctions of organizations, rather to challenge and make them visible


00:05 Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. I have the privilege of sitting down across the miles with Lyssa Adkins. Lyssa, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

00:16 Lyssa Adkins: Thank you for all these years being a partner to me in all the work in agile coaching and your role in InfoQ and bringing all good content to the InfoQ audience.

00:28 Shane Hastie: From that it's pretty clear you and I know each other quite well.

00:32 Lyssa Adkins: We do.

00:33 Shane Hastie: I suspect that some of our audience might not have heard who you are. So, can we get the one minute overview. Who's Lyssa?

00:40 Lyssa Adkins: So I'm Lyssa Adkins and I'm the author of the book, Coaching Agile Teams. And I have been a passionate contributor to the emergence of agile coaching as a profession. And now my focus is on coaching leaders and leadership teams so that they can take up the transformation that is theirs to do.

01:00 Shane Hastie: Let's explore that a little bit, if we may. Coaching leadership teams in transformation. What does that really mean?

01:08 Lyssa Adkins: Well, what it looks like practically is that I will observe a leadership team as they are going about their conversations, as they're going about their work. It's perfect if they're having a sort of this holiday strategy conversation or something like that. And from all of my models and skills and coaching abilities, I will be assessing their strengths and weaknesses as a human system. Not only in how they're interacting with each other, but also what are the structures, the behavioral structures, what are the structures and processes and procedures and organizational culture structures. What are all the pieces that I'm seeing and how they're interacting? And then I'll be able to feed back to them. "Okay, here's what I'm seeing and here's where I think you're getting held back."

01:53 Lyssa Adkins: And typically, they're coming to me because they're dissatisfied with their ability to make decisions as a group or make decisions that stick as a group. They're dissatisfied with the level of interaction it's sort of, for many of them, it stays on the surface and it doesn't go deep enough into the topics. They can't really get to collaboration. It stays sort of surface level or transactional. And ultimately, they're dissatisfied with the results they're seeing in the organization. And they have finally come to the realization that, hey, we might have something to do with that.

02:27 Shane Hastie: When you reflect that back, I'm pretty sure it can be relatively uncomfortable.

02:34 Lyssa Adkins: Well, yeah, I suppose it could, but a lot of it has to do with just the come from place of the coach in this case, me, as I'm reflecting that back. I'm holding that human systems are naturally creative and resourceful. I'm holding that nothing is really wrong here, but there are some areas where there are some challenges to the system, the human system currently, and hey, why don't we look at this together. Instead of it being like, "Here's my assessment of you." It's sort of like, "Hey, here's some things I'm seeing. Let's be curious about it together and what are you seeing?" And for certain, so I don't want to downplay that people just accept this blindly and it's all fine. It gets under people's skin, for certain there are reactions to it. And that's all natural too. So this is what professional coaches and human systems coaches in particular know how to work with. The big deal is that if I don't react to it, then we're okay. If I react to it now we're in a reaction-reaction loop that'll go on forever.

03:38 Shane Hastie: Let's explore this concept of human systems dynamics a little bit more, if we may. What does it really mean and how do you expose the human system?

03:49 Lyssa Adkins: At any given moment, there are two levels of things going on. One level is the content level, the topic we're talking about, the problem we're trying to solve, the decision we're trying to make. And the other level is the process or the pattern level. How the group makes decisions, how it works when two people in the group talk 80% of the time and what effect do those things have on their ability to make better decisions, to have genuine collaboration and in essence, to lead their organization better. And so I'm paying attention at the pattern or the process level. And now having said all of this, I've actually forgotten your original question.

04:34 Shane Hastie: Just exploring deeper. So, what human systems dynamics really means and how we then utilize that.

04:41 Lyssa Adkins: Yeah. So for sure those patterns are not only specific to those individuals and to them as a group, those patterns are also influenced in specific to the structures in the organization, the overall culture, the things that are implicit and explicit rules. So that's also in the mix for consideration when we look at the human system.

05:05 Shane Hastie: And how do we coach or help a human system to change?

05:11 Lyssa Adkins: By finding out what it wants. So if I'm able to say to a group of executives after observing them for a day or two or whatever, "Okay, here's where your system is really strong. Here's where I see some challenges. Here are some topics you might consider pursuing as a goal together." And they tend to be quite often the same topics, ability to be with difference of opinions and to actually navigate conflict tends to be a very common topic. Ability to make decisions that stick and to know how to make decisions so they can make decisions more rapidly and more completely, that tends to be a typical goal that they go after. And then in general, just having better business results.

05:54 Lyssa Adkins: And so if we look at the business results they want, then the question I have to think about is what about the way they're working is preventing that or an impediment to it. There's a goal you can articulate. There is a competency to develop. There are a set of skills or a set of behaviors to help the group step into. So it's actually cut and dry. It's really not very mysterious.

06:20 Shane Hastie: And why don't more people take it up?

06:22 Lyssa Adkins: I think we're afraid of looking at our part in relationship systems. I think that's what it is in a nutshell. I can even see it in my own family that when there is a slight disturbance in the field and I want to talk about it more and I want to say, okay, there was the topic, but then there was the way we address the topic. So I want to talk about the way we address the topic. There's a lot of, oh, I don't want to look at that. So I think that's what it's about. And it is a new skillset for us as human beings to be able to number one, think at a systemic level and at the pattern level and number two, take responsibility for our part in it, and just be willing to be curious about it, to work with it.

07:03 Shane Hastie: Thinking of the audience, typically technical leaders, working with technical teams, what are some of the competencies that these people would want to build in order to become better at reading the field, so to speak and influencing the system?

07:20 Lyssa Adkins: The primary competency, I would say for leaders, big L leaders in organizations and little L leaders, everyone in organizations is self-awareness and self-management. I'd say that's the primary thing. I think nine times out of 10, when I work with leaders, they are so in their own way for the things they want, but they don't see how they're in their own way. And they're not able to work with what is happening. They're just so bound up in what they want and what they're trying to force and how they're trying to get it all lined up for themselves. And not necessarily selfishly, I mean, for the sake of results for their organization as well. I mean, I think it's going to be different for every leader, but basically your ability to read the field is your ability to number one, get yourself out of the middle of who thought you have. That sounds strange to say, doesn't it?

08:09 Shane Hastie: Sounds so simple but feels so hard.

08:14 Lyssa Adkins: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, these are genuinely capabilities of 21st century leadership and I say that not just because we're in a new century and it's cool to say that. I say it because we are in a genuinely brand new type of leadership that we've never seen in the world. We're literally in a leap. We're in a leap forward in the capabilities of modern leadership.

08:37 Shane Hastie: Why is that?

08:38 Lyssa Adkins: I think humans are really, really good at adapting to our environment. And as our world has become more complex and interconnected, as we have realized that things aren't as easy as they used to be, black and white answers don't seem to be just around every corner. We've realized that we're as Robert Keegan, adult development researcher would say, that we are literally in over our heads. The complexity of our world has so far outstripped our ability to be with it, that it feels like being in over our heads. And so I think we're in a new type of leadership because enough leaders, enough human beings, no matter what their role is in an organization are increasing their ability to have more complexity of their mindset, of their thought of themselves really. So I think we're just adapting well.

09:33 Shane Hastie: Speaking of adapting well, one of the things that's been a bit intriguing, I know that you've been asked many times when are you going to update the agile coaching book for which you are pretty well known and you're not doing that.

09:47 Lyssa Adkins: I'm not. I'm not.

09:48 Shane Hastie: So what are you doing instead?

09:50 Lyssa Adkins: Well, I'm pointing to people's work, to other people's good work, instead. I could easily write a second edition to the Coaching Agile Teams book, but it would be a collection bin pointing to a bunch of other people's work. And the book itself, the first edition is still as valid now as it was when it was published 10 years ago, and it's doing its job. So instead of being a collection bin for other folks’ work, I just want to point to that work. And so that's why this interview is important to me because I really want to point to the good work that other people are doing in the profession and discipline of agile coaching.

10:31 Lyssa Adkins: Oh, this is an interesting thing. I have decided to record the audio book for Coaching Agile Teams. And that's almost complete now. In the process of recording that audio book, I got clear of some new things I want to say to people, but they're not necessarily my thoughts. They're just new pointers to other people's work. And so some of that will be in this interview and then there will be a multi-episode podcast under the women in agile podcast that will be delivering those thoughts that I had while I was recording the audio book.

11:06 Shane Hastie: What are some of the things that have transpired in agile coaching or coaching in general since you published the book 10 years ago?

11:15 Lyssa Adkins: Well, agile coaching is a really widely accepted discipline in the world at large now. I mean, if you say agile coaching to people, especially if they're in the technology organization, most people have a sense of what that is at least. They know that discipline, they know that profession exists. And so it's matured to the point that people understand a little bit about what it is and the people who are in the agile coaching field have definitely advanced the state of the art of agile coaching low these 10 years.

11:47 Shane Hastie: What is different between agile coaching and what we call coaching or what people recognize as coaching?

11:54 Lyssa Adkins: It turned out that I had a lot to say about this in the Coaching Agile Teams book. And when I read those words aloud for the audio book, they really sunk in and resonated with me all over again and I think that they will for the people who listened to the audio book as well. So basically, here's the thing as agile coaches, we use skills and the belief set of professional coaching as a side dish. It's not the main course. The main course is helping people use agile well, so that necessarily we have to help people become good agile list to do so. And in that pursuit, that professional coaching skillset is incredibly useful and just sort of exactly what the doctor ordered, but we're not professional coaches. Our focus is using agile well for the purpose of delivering business results that matter and products that make people proud and it stops there.

12:49 Lyssa Adkins: In fact, as agile coaches we violate the number one code of ethics of professional coaching, which is that only the client's agenda leads the coaching relationship, not so for agile coaching.

13:03 Shane Hastie: If I am an agile coach and I'm also a professional coach, or I want to bring in those professional aspects, how do I bridge that?

13:13 Lyssa Adkins: You can bring in professional coaching skills all day long. That's not a problem. That's not a problem at all. What is essential is having a very clear designed alliance with your client, or if you're inside of an organization with a manager who wants you to do something and the people that you're coaching so that you know what you're aimed at, therefore you know when you're about to cross a boundary.

13:37 Lyssa Adkins: There have been times that I've been in a coaching conversation with someone in an organization. I am there as an agile coach to help the organization use agile well and we get to the point where there is something going on in their personal life that is significantly impacting their ability to work effectively. I can coach them on that and the aspects of that, that are related to the scope of why I'm there.

14:06 Lyssa Adkins: And then there comes a moment and I can feel it every time when I'm about to cross a line and now become their personal work-life coach and that's the moment when I have to say, well, hang on, although I have the skills to help coach you on, let's say it's a divorce. That's sort of a classic one. I have the skills to coach you in navigating this challenging time in your life around a divorce. That's not why I'm here. So let me recommend some other professional coaches to you. So it's a lot of clarity and transparency is what I would say. That's how we navigate this world.

14:39 Shane Hastie: One of the things that's bothered me personally, I have a strong and deep background in the agile community and in agile ways of thinking, is agile has become a dirty word. What's happened?

14:53 Lyssa Adkins: Well, I think that we have installed a really modern app on a very old operating system, if we want to use that metaphor. So think about agile as this new sexy app that can do all kinds of stuff. It's amazing. And if we install it on an old operating system, full of beliefs from the previous century about how organizations are supposed to work and how people are supposed to behave in organizations, there's going to be an incompatibility. And it will run, it will, the app will run, it just won't run well. And so I think that that is by and large, what's happened, especially as agile crossed the chasm and everyone and their dog said, we are now doing agile, especially in large organizations who have a more embedded operating system that people operate from. So that's how I can think about it.

15:44 Shane Hastie: How do we upgrade that operating system?

15:46 Lyssa Adkins: One person at a time. So that's some bad news probably. Some good news is if a couple of those key people upgrade their back to our earlier part of the conversation, they upgrade their mental complexity to be more of a match for the world around them, then agile starts to flourish in the organization because leaders then know how to move from the reactionary mode they've been in for a long time to more of an outcome creating mode that actually just opens up the highway for agile to run.

16:20 Shane Hastie: Thank you for that.

16:21 Lyssa Adkins: Was that helpful because I feel your pain about this, and I share it?

16:25 Shane Hastie: The frustrating thing is you're absolutely right. It is one person at a time and there is no magic transformation bullet. In fact, I struggle with the idea of an agile transformation even. This is a slow evolutionary process that we're asking people to change the way that they think and they approach the world.

16:46 Lyssa Adkins: That's right. And although I have loved my tenure as a thought leader in agile coaching, where I've decided to put my focus is with capital L leaders, organizational leaders and transformation leaders, because of how much impact they have on everyone else. So if I can only affect a few human beings in my life, if it is that evolutionary process, then I want to affect the people who have the chance of doing the most good. So that's just my particular path and focus right now.

17:21 Shane Hastie: If we can change tack again, you're doing a lot of work in the woman and agile space, why and what's happening there?

17:29 Lyssa Adkins: Oh, it was probably 2015 when several of us women in the agile space looked around at a conference and said, "Well, there are plenty of us women here. Why aren't there more women speakers? And why are the first 20 people who get up to announce a topic during the open space all men? What's up with that?" And for community that has a value system, that really values diversity, emergence, collaboration, individuals, it was just odd. It was odd that we weren't doing better. And now in our community, we've now also recognized we haven't been doing well with diversity of race and ethnicities.

18:13 Lyssa Adkins: So, there's some work to do there too, because we've been missing some voices. And so that was my idea a couple of years ago is how can I better amplify the voices of women that are already out there in our agile community? And one of the things that happened was that I partnered with a friend of mine, Caroline Dragon, who had a program called 10 Women Strong, which is about helping women develop their authentic leader fullness and bring that to the world. And we have been running those programs for agile women for the last couple of years.

18:46 Shane Hastie: What are these programs doing and achieving?

18:48 Lyssa Adkins: I'm seeing the women who've gone through these programs stepping out more in the agile community. Also let's remember simultaneously there is a Women in Agile movement in general. There is now a Women in Agile nonprofit organization. That's like a trade organization. It's not just 10 Women Strong that has created more women stepping out, but all of this together. We're all participating in this movement together. And I also see collaborations between women. I see these women starting companies together, and that is thrilling to me.

19:22 Shane Hastie: How do we make sure that that momentum continues and grows and tackling the other elements of diversity in our community as well?

19:30 Lyssa Adkins: There are so many people working on this. So many people have it on their radar. And in terms of issues of race and diversity and other types of diversities. I think of April Jefferson and the work she's doing to host conversations in our community. I think of Cheryl Hammond, who has been a stand for diversity in our community. And I think of Sally Freudenberg, who's been a stand for neuro-diversity in our community. And so these people are doing their work and they are the ones to carry those banners forward. So we just did it live. How do you amplify women's voices? I just did it.

20:10 Shane Hastie: So tell us more about the podcast series.

20:13 Lyssa Adkins: So the podcast series is a little bit of fun behind the scenes information about how the audio book recording went. I knew ideas or epiphanies I had along the way as I was recording it, but also the content that I want to point people to. I mentioned in lieu of creating a second edition, I just want to point people to the people who are advancing the ball now, because it's not me. I feel like if this was a game, maybe American football, I have done my job. I carried the ball down the field and now other people have got it, only there's multiple balls in my game, so that's not like American football, but plenty of people have taken up the charge of continuing to advance agile coaching as a true profession. And it's important. It's so important because agile coaching is that role that is specifically designed to not collude with the limitations and dysfunctions of organizations. So it's that really strong, even though it can be compassionate, very strong stand for, "Hey, here's you in your own way."

21:17 Shane Hastie: Not collude with the current limitations of the organization. Let's explore that.

21:23 Lyssa Adkins: Okay.

21:24 Shane Hastie: What's it mean?

21:26 Lyssa Adkins: This notion of not colluding comes from the professional coaching world. And if we think about, let's say if I'm someone's executive coach and I'm using primarily professional coaching skill set with this person, and the person comes up against some sort of blocker and some sort of thing in themselves are like, oh, well I know I should do that, but I can't do that. You’ve probably felt this inside of yourself, everyone who's listening, I know I should, but I can't. So, there's some limiting belief there that's keeping the person from moving into action in a way that they say they want to. So, there are all kinds of skills and ways of helping people face those limiting beliefs in a way that doesn't have them become too resistant to it. So, we bring a sense of curiosity and exploration. There are all kinds of professional coaching processes that help someone look at their limiting beliefs without having to be traumatic, right?

22:19 Lyssa Adkins: So that same skill set is necessary for someone who is an agile coach or a scrum master or an iteration manager or a Kanban lead of one team up to someone who is an enterprise agile coach, up to someone who is the CEO of the organization. And it starts at the very beginning with the idea that with agile, we put people in these self-imposed time boxes to produce real product. And so necessarily what happens is that the impediments to producing that product get writ large all over the place. You start to see them in the way that they were covered over before, because there was enough slop in the system. Now they're very much in everyone's face. And so the scrum master role, agile coach role, those roles are specifically designed to take a stand and to say, okay, I know you don't want to look at this, but this impediment has just come up and if you want the organization to deliver in the way you say you do, let's get curious about this impediment or this limiting belief that exists.

23:30 Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

23:32 Lyssa Adkins: Yeah.

23:33 Shane Hastie: Where will people find the podcast?

23:36 Lyssa Adkins: They're going to find it on, stands for coaching agile teams. And we just recorded the podcast about all of the amazing work that seems to have popped up in multiple organizations all in the same last 18 months, which is this incredible focus on agile coaching as a vehicle for genuinely transforming the world of work, which is for example, the Scrum Alliance's mission.

24:05 Shane Hastie: Lyssa has always, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. If people want to continue the conversation with you, where do they find you?

24:16 Lyssa Adkins: You will find me and everything I'm up to on, but you have to know how to spell it. It's L-Y-S-S-A A-D-K-I-N-S dot com.

24:30 Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

24:32 Lyssa Adkins: My pleasure, Shane.


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