Anne’s Top Tips for Enablement – Lessons from being an Agile Coach

Often at ThoughtWorks we will be asked to help train and up-skill the client’s team members whilst we co-deliver projects. We call this enablement.  These are some lessons that I learnt whilst being an agile coach and from having 1:1 coaching sessions with clients, that are worth thinking about if find yourself on the “consulting” or “coaching” side of a relationship.

Tip #1: Understand the expectations from the start

What kind of engagement is it?

Think about what kind of situation you are in.  Are you there to  “just deliver x”? Are you working closely with a client team?  Are you there in more of a coaching or consulting capability? It could be something anywhere along that spectrum. Wherever you land on that spectrum there will always be some degree of influencing, education and support of the client needed.  You will need to bring people along with you, whether it’s a single stakeholder or a team of developers, this to me, is enablement.

Pick technologies and techniques that the client can support

More often than not, we will be leaving behind some software or hardware that we are expecting the client to be able to maintain or support to some degree.  Really think about this when picking technologies, designing your software, and evolving your process.   How different is this to what the client has done before?  What are their core skills in, and what’s reasonable progress from that?  Often the newest, coolest techniques are not going to be easily learnable in the time that we have with them. Think about your choices and don’t leave them with something they won’t be able to look after. Do the right thing by the client.

Talk about it often

At an account level, make sure you talk about what degree of enablement you are expecting, ensure that it’s planned in from the start, and check that you are progressing, revisit decisions and assumptions regularly.

Tip #2: Put yourself in their shoes

Work on courage and confidence

People’s confidence can often take a huge hit when they are transitioning to a new skill set. For example between waterfall and agile or from one technology to another. Until the person can work out how to adapt their current skills to meet the needed skills, they can often feel like they have no skills at all, they might feel they no longer have anything to bring the table and that they are the only ones feeling like this. Multiply this phenomenon by the fact that it’s not just one new thing thing they are experiencing, it could be their whole working environment, how they collaborate, how they contribute, the people round them and it can spiral quickly.  It is really hard to stay confident and courageous with all this going on.  At the beginning focus on doing everything you can to help people grow in confidence and courage, so that they can throw themselves into learning.

Consider learning agility

Learning Agility, the ability to learn, adapt, and apply ourselves in constantly morphing conditions, is something that as consultants, is a required skill. In some larger, more traditional environments, this is not something that employees have a chance to practice and develop often, so their learning agility levels might be quite low. This doesn’t mean they can’t learn, but that the process might be a lot slower that someone who is more practiced. It’s quite a different mindset, so think about how reasonable it is that we expect someone with lower learning agility to “just pick up” tens of new tools and practices at a fast pace. Really think about how patient you are being, slow down, cover basics and practice fundamentals often. It takes time to develop the skills of learning, but helping people build these skills can make such a radical difference in the future.

Show your vulnerability

It can be very intimidating to learn from an “expert”, someone might feel like this “expert” can do no wrong, that they never make mistakes, that they are always confident, that you don’t have anything to add.  Try sharing stories of times that you have struggled to pick things up, or situations you have felt scared in. We all feel unconfident at times, admit that to them, you’ll see a massive difference. Make sure to ASK for their input don’t just expect them to speak up without encouragement.

Make sure you cover the basics

Don’t forget to cover the basics, explain the dynamics and responsibilities when pairing, cover basic TDD and red, green, refactor, go into the finer details of how to write stories and plan work. Always remember to explain WHY. Keep repeating this basics, when you are new to anything it takes a lot of mileage and repetition until you start to understand the nuances.

Tip #3: Get to know the people you are working with

Build rapport

Rapport is one of the most important things when coaching. There needs to be trust and respect between both parties.  You might want to ask how they got into what they do, what their experience is at the company, find out what they do for fun, look for common ground.

Talk about goals and aspirations

Take time to ask and listen about what their goals and aspirations are, you are more likely to find you have a motivated pair if you can help find them opportunities that they would enjoy. One idea that someone had which I thought was great, at the start of pairing or at the start of the day the pair should talk about what learning or knowledge they want to gain out of the activity. This will help you work out when to take more time over particular concepts, and when it’s ok to go at a higher level of understanding.

Value them and their skills

It doesn’t matter what experience or background people have, everyone has skills to offer, everyone will bring different perspectives. Your clients will have the best domain knowledge, and they know their own systems better than anyone. They are software professionals, probably with a lot of experience. Value and embrace this diversity in thinking.

Open the feedback conversation

It’s important to create an environment where feedback is encouraged and accepted. This might not be something that currently exists, it is our job to create that space. Make it a place where they are comfortable enough to be able to feedback to you about how they learn and what helps them.

Conclusion

I hope that you have been able to take away some tips that you can apply in your next enablement situation.  Please reach out to those around you and ask for help, and make sure the team is talking about enablement and how it is progressing. Developing the empathetic skills I’ve talked about above will make a huge difference in creating a successful enablement situation.

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Leadership coaching – the best investment I have made in myself.

I have just wrapped up 6 months of coaching with Stacey Sargent from Connect Growth and Development, and it was such a great experience. I wanted to capture some of my feelings so that I could always remember how much of a difference it made.

Why do leadership coaching?

I was lucky enough to be given a yearly budget from my company ThoughtWorks to use for personal development. Some people spend theirs on a far flung conference or books or the odd workshop, and I’d been pretty rubbish at using mine at all in the last few years.

Right now I’m in that middle zone of transitioning to a “leader” on my teams, no longer content with not being able influence the direction of the project and the people on it and starting to feel brave enough to dip my toe in the responsibility that is official leadership roles. I needed a push!

I wanted to focus on my own growth and development. Spend time thinking “What it is that I want?”, and “How to get the best out of myself?” so that I could get the best out of the people and the situations around me.

I have quite a high EQ but sometimes it can be overwhelming, so I wanted help learning how to manage this. I wanted to know how to be a calm, confident leader that people can look to in times of stress and uncertainty. Most of the time I project a very positive, passionate and energetic persona, whilst sometimes I’m actually feeling panic, doubt and uncertainty on the inside. I wanted to feel on the inside what I seem like on the outside.

I wanted to be able to have the tough conversations that I need to have with people to build good relationships, I shied away from personal confrontation.

To work on these things I figured I needed dedicated effort and practice to do so!

How to find a great one?

Find someone who knows what they are doing, and that you have great rapport with. You need to be able to trust this person enough that you will be able to be honest with them, and not be afraid to say the things that maybe you haven’t said out loud before.

For me it was helpful that Stacey did not work for the same company I did. It really provided some unbiased outside perspective.

Work out if you feel like you would need to physically meet up with your coach or if you would be able to be build your coaching relationship remotely, over Skype or some other tool.

I actually had been lucky enough to attend two sessions that Stacey had run at a couple of the Grace Hopper Celebrations that I had been at, and knew that she now runs a coaching company. So called her up and asked.

How did it work?

We would meet twice a month, on Stacey’s suggestion. My first thought was “how am I going to find the time?!” But actually, that frequency provides you with enough focus and reminders to be constantly thinking about how you can be growing.

As I live in London and my coach was in Seattle, we managed to find a time that suited as both, I chose Monday evenings as it helped me start the week off right. We would Skype for an hour or so. I think neither of us were sure how coaching remotely would go, but actually it worked out better than either of us had expected. I’m not sure it would have worked so well over just the phone. With the camera on it was much easier for Stacey to see my physical reactions and to see me squirm when I wasn’t giving an honest answer to myself!

There were days when I was grumpy and upset, and there were days that I was super energised and positive. Sometimes we would work on helping out my immediate situation and other times a more long term high level look at my goals and growth.

What did I learn?

I got an enormous amount out of these 6 months. I think the headline is that I know so much more about myself now.

Having a better understanding of what my strengths and values are gives me something to always check my trajectory with.  This helps me know when and how to push myself. If I’m in a situation I’m uncertain about or wondering if I’ve pushed too far, I can do a sanity check to see if I’m still holding true to my values, and if I am then to be brave and keep going!

We spent quite a lot of time coming up with the goals for my growth. It took many iterations, but what we came out with in, really hit all the key areas and may not have been what I was originally thinking they might be. Having these goals will help me be more intentional about the choice that I make.

One of my goals was to have an answer to “What do you want to do? What to you enjoy doing?”. So I looked back at my previous experiences with a very open mind and thought about what the things were that motivated me, or that I really enjoyed, what did I not enjoy so much, and I came out with 4 things that create an environment that I can really thrive in. This has really helped me to have conversations about how my company and I can put me into situations where they will get the best out of me. A benefit for both them and me! Having these concrete ideas and showing the process that I did to come up with them, has helped me start very rational objective discussions.

Training your brain to be more introspective. It takes a while to get used to analysing why you do what you do. Getting into the habit of it takes practice. During the start of my 6 months coaching, Stacey would have to ask a lot of questions before I would finally realise what the underlying motivations were to a certain situation. By the end, I could almost complete the whole loop before the problem statement had even come out of my mouth.

Along these similar lines, I have always had a bit of a self deprecating tendency. I often slip back into it when going into new situations. Again though, by the end of our sessions I could normally catch myself and consciously turn it more positive. The next step is to not even think it!

We also would work on more tactical aspects when needed. If I was experiencing a particularly tough situation or relationship at work, we would talk through in depth. Thinking about why it was happening, what could I do about, how best to approach it.

I have gotten better at being brave enough to have conversations that I might be afraid of. Approaching them with more structure, thinking about them, and practicing them before I have them.

I am a fairly emotional person, but can also be quite rational. These two sides of my brain were at war with each other. I thought that I needed to be more rational and try and squash my emotional side. I realised though, these sides combined are who I am. It is what makes me me. It is also, often, what makes me very effective. So I am trying not to react but to be intentional with my conversations and actions.

What helped?

  • I love learning
  • I am happy to throw myself into uncomfortable situations and to doing things in a different way to help myself grow.
  • My coach and I had a great rapport and high levels of trust
  • Stacey was not afraid to call me out if I was slipping back  into old habits
  • Regular contact kept me focused

In conclusion…

I feel like I know myself much better than I did before.  I have much more confidence in who I am. I understand and have come to terms with what I bring to the table on a team.

I’ve realised that to be the best leader that I can be I have to be my own unique self and work hard to work out what that is. I can lead with my own style while staying true to what I value in both myself and others.

As I am in the early stages of my leadership journey, my learning is currently more focused on myself. I’m hoping that soon, after I have more practice, I can have another go and change my growth focus to how to get the best out of the people that I am leading.

It was a truly great experience and I am thankful for having the opportunity.  I am very grateful to Stacey and all her hard work, understanding, passion and patience.

I would very much recommend making this investment in yourself if you want to grow into a great leader.

Beginnings of an Agile Coach

So, I’ve not blogged in a while…  I’ve been at a new client since January as an Agile Coach, it’s been quite the learning curve,  leaving me little mental space left for blogging!  To celebrate my return I have got a new blog theme. Pretty!

Agile Coach?! What is one of those?

Teacher, Instructor, Coach, Trainer, Encourager, Enabler, Questioner, Confidente, Counselor, Advocate,  Life Coach…. (Not sure all of those are words) in all things Agile. Helping the team achieve the best that they can and create and deploy high quality software as quickly as possible.

Most ThoughtWorks projects have some inherent enablement as part of their remit. Projects where we deliver software alongside the client normally involved an enablement piece, teaching and mentoring them as we both deliver software together. Showing the client how to do TDD, continuous integration etc. The main point here though is that we normally are the ones setting up and driving the process that the team follows, and sometimes show whilst ‘doing’ when all else fails.

The enablement part had always come quite naturally to me, I’m fairly reasonable at communicating, people tend to naturally follow me,  I’ve been working in Agile environments for 5 years now and my ski instructing background gives me a leg up on the teaching aspect.

For a while now I had been asking to go on a pure coaching/enablement gig thinking that I’d be quite good at it, and how different could it be?!

Very. Turns out, when you don’t have full control over everything, as well as the ability to jump in a ‘just do it’, it’s not so easy any more! As with any new project it always takes me a while to settle in and really feel confident about what I’m doing. It’s been a very steep learning curve, but I can happily report that I’m now really enjoying it.

What advice would I have given myself  back at the start of this enagagement?

Learning about Learning

I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning about the ways that people learn. Funnily enough this is where a lot of the things that I learnt whilst learning to be a ski instructor were very familiar. Acknowledging that different people learn in very different ways and that you, as a coach, have to adapt your techniques and approaches to suit each kind of learner.

I also spent a lot of time learning about the Dreyfus Model, which is a model that talks about how individuals acquire skills and the different techniques that work best for people depending on where they sit on the Dreyfus Scale http://www.learninggeneralist.com/2009/08/using-dreyfus-model-to-engage-people-in.html

I still have tonnes more to learn about learning, but I find it fascinating. I think it’s something that you really need to invest in if you want to become a great coach.

Being coached on how to Coach

I was lucky enough to be working with a small group of very experienced consultants. Not only could they share their ideas and war stories with me, but I felt comfortable getting feedback from them. They made an effort to be approachable and open, so I always felt like I could go and ask them questions, and validate the ideas I had and the approaches that I wanted to take.  It’s important to have that supportive group as you are starting out. Unfortunately I don’t think that anyone can teach you how to be a coach, so it’s really a question fo getting regular feedback, failing fast and going with your instinct.

We all have own style

Following on from the point above. It’s important to recognise that we all have our own styles of coaching and teaching. What works for one person in a situation may not work for another person in the same situation. When you are starting out it’s very easy to watch other, successful coaches and think, “Wow they are amazing at XYZ when they do ABC, therefore if I do the same I will be successful too”. Not true in most cases. Every time I tried to emulate someone else I was never as effective as if I just went with what I would naturally do. For example one of my colleagues is great at asking very probing, thoughtful questions to people to get them to think about what they are doing and the affect that it has. I thought, ah brilliant, downloaded a bunch of  “consulty” type questions and tried them out on the next person I spoke to. I was so busy trying to remember the right questions in the right situations that I wasn’t even listening to what they responded with, I also sounded distinctly un-genuine. Turns out that when I stick to my normal mannor of talking to someone and asking they things, I achieve the same outcome but in a different way.

Pace

Things will move a lot slower than you are used to in a delivery situation. People take time to learn and change, and this shouldn’t be rushed. Step back, take a breath and let things happen in their own time. The sooner you come to terms with this the more enjoyable the experience will be.

It also may feel like things are a lot slower because you are not the one thats physically doing the work anymore (writing code, doing analysis etc.). That lack of control will seem like things are going slower, but they are probably not that different.

Don’t get overwhelmed

When  you are first in an Agile Coaching environment you will like see infractions of what you think is “proper Agile” everywhere you turn. Especially if it’s a new team and they are brand new to Agile. You might feel like there is so much to work on that you don’t know where to start. Recognise that you can only do one thing at a time, and some things may be easier to work on than others. Try and find the thing that is causing the team the most pain and start from there. We also found that trying to work on something that they are already ‘doing’ will be harder than introducing something that is brand new that will really help them. You are much less likely to get a defensive reaction.

I found just keeping track of the behaviours I was seeing, coming up with things that I thought might help, and then reveiwing them daily with some of my colleagues really helped. It’s also worth thinking about  whether or not a task is worth the effort that it requires. The image below is a Impact/Effort Analysis chart that you could use. Rate the potential exercise/piece of work on this scale and think about which order to then tackle things in.

Effort/Impact Analysis