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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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