Choosing A Coaching Story To Work

Still feeling it, so, a sidebar on choosing which coaching stories to work…

I was raised in XP, and as such, I imbibed the concept of "most important story" heavily. When I’d show up at these shops, I’d be replete with the wonder of myself, and I’d look out on the horizon of broken things, and I’d pick. And I picked "the most important story". To me, that meant the thing that is most ruining their ability to ship. But the thing that was often most ruining their ability to ship was some weird Taylorist capacity-box planning mechanism near the top. And to walk into a strange shop and start telling people what to do at that level (and in my smug tone) is a complete non-starter.

It’s not that I was wrong, tho I may have been, it’s that it is flat impossible to work from the floor and make changes at the top. Most especially when nobody knows you, nobody trusts you, and nobody wants to ally with you. That’s even often true of the schmoe who hired you to do this. She didn’t even know what she was asking, truthfully, and when she sees…well, maybe she thinks that wasn’t such a great idea.

So I adapted. I decided that most important story meant most important story I might actually be able to do something about. And that was better. A little. I sometimes really was able to make change like that. But it wasn’t better enough. I still failed a lot more than I succeeded.

So looking harder at what was going on, I was able to see a pattern, a difference between when I succeeded and when I failed. And it was obvious, once I actually troubled my grand self to notice it. I won when I had people around me, below, above, beside, who thought I was good at this shit. Good at thinking, good at solving, good at adapting, good at being decent and kind, good at humor. All that, but above all, good at helping. That is, on balance, I won when people around me thought I had usually helped more than I hurt.

So my choice of what story to work on as a coach changed dramatically. I turned away from size of problem or ultimateness of its cause. I started looking for little things I could do to help. And that spun me out for a long time, in truth. I mean, what is "help"? That’s not actually very obvious when you look hard at it. Slowly, I realized that right down on the floor, people not only were hurting, they knew they were hurting. Often in ways that, not to put too fine a point on it, were trivial to change. "Hold your elbow out here a little more, now try."

So when I choose what coaching story to work on, now, I choose the nearest smallest easiest hurt I can ease, and I set to work easing it. "Most important story," for me, became "smallest team-experienced hurt it was possible for me to ease". I worried, cuz I’m a worryer, that this meant I would never get around to working on the big stories. But those of you who refactor rigorously can see the parallel already. Fixing the small things makes the big things smaller. And if you fix enough small things, the next biggest things become small things.

So that’s how I decide what to work on when I come to a team as a coach. The smallest team-felt owwie I can fix. It has made me far more often, tho by no means universally, successful as a coach. I commend it to you as an approach.

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