Three Short Coaching Pro-Tips

A respondent asked that I combine these three short Pro-Tip muses into one post, so here goes:

Coaching Pro-Tip #1: Everything good about agility is rooted in relationship, so everything good about coaching is, too. As coaches, we usually start from negative trust, and our central priority has to be reversing that position.

In the early days of most coaching engagements, one sees lots of issues, of various size and shape. The temptation to start issuing criticism and directives is almost overwhelming, but it has to be fiercely resisted until one has the trust-standing necessary to help.

I tell my clients this explicitly: "In this first stretch, what it’s going to seem like is that you’re paying me a ton of money to, well, hang out. That’s not what I’m doing, but that’s what it will look like from your viewpoint."

Then, assuming some "decider" hires me in, I go to the teams and I tell them the exact same thing. I’m also very explicit about some other aspects.

  1. I am not in the chain of command in any way. I don’t give orders. I’m not a boss. I don’t tell people what to do. I don’t track whether they’re doing it. That is not what coaches do.
  2. I understand that you work for a living, and that it’s hard, and the last thing you need is me calling lots of meetings and showing you powerpoint.
  3. I am actually indifferent to whether you meet your targets, except in so much as not meeting your targets causes you to have a bad time. I’m far more likely to talk you out of a target than talk you into one, let alone set a new one for you.
  4. The process works for you, you don’t work for the process. You own this, and you’re in charge. If I suggest an experiment, it will be an experiment, and we’ll timebox it and I’ll ask you to decide as a group whether we want to keep it or not.
  5. I keep confidences. I can serve as a leaky rephrasing anonymizing backchannel or a perfect black hole, whichever, case by case, you ask me to do. I am not remotely a spy, and your "decider" knows that.

All of this is by way of laying down a base for the relationships I’m hoping to build, and not coincidentally of course, hoping to model.

The teams, in early days, will inevitably ask me for expert advice, on stuff like "what to do with rollover" (the same thing every time), "how many story points in a sprint" (a lot fewer) "how do we handle insane last-minute changes from management" (toss the plan).

I approach most of these questions by saying, "Idunno, what do you think we should do?" They tell me, and I say, "Cool, let’s try that and see how it goes."

The truth is, none of these questions are terribly important in content, but all of them are super-important in relationship.

They help them identify my "type", and I’m delighted that they’re even wondering. It’s the first hurdle: "is this schmoe even worth talking to?"
There are lots of other issues, once they start to know you, and you, them, and for quite a long time I just keep most of my visions to myself. And my information, and my powerpoint, and my lecture, and my lessons.
I have watched many talented and bright would-be coaches miss this central fact: it depends on relationship, and if you don’t take care of relationship, nothing else you say or do is really going to matter much at all.

Coaching Pro-Tip #2: When the developers act like testing the code is a time-wasting checkbox that costs a great deal and rewards very little, they are usually right, and one has to find out why, and tackle that, before pressing them to test more.

In test-after shops, it’s quite common to set a test goal, usually but not always expressed in terms of coverage numbers. Once this is done, the org begins to press the developers to meet that goal.

My experience is that this kind of pressure backfires way more often than it succeeds.

When the boss tells someone to do something, they will usually do it. If they find the something beneficial, they will quickly learn to do it well. If they find the something markedly unpleasant, they will quickly learn to do it just enough to check it off the list.

If a developer hasn’t learned how to write tests well, it’s often because they haven’t learned to write any code well. What they need isn’t a checkbox, it’s mentoring.

So when I see the signs in a test-after shop that writing tests is considered a chore, I go study some of those tests, up close I study them. And what I usually find is that the tests are either expensive, useless, or most commonly, both.

Primitive obsession in the data setup, lots of automocking that renders the test empty, bad names because scope is too large. These are the things I usually see.

Notice: every one of those things is not actually a test code problem, it’s a shipping code problem. The test code is that way because the shipping code is that way.

So if the developers are signalling you that testing is an unpleasant chore, you know what? Believe them, find out why, and make fixing that your target, not a coverage number.

Coaching Pro-Tip #3: Sometimes it’s just chemistry. One advanced coaching skill is understanding when you’re not some team’s cup of tea, and seeing when the right thing to do is help them find someone they can relate to.

As we’ve already noted, agility depends on relationship, so naturally, coaching agility depends even more on relationship.

Relationship is, of course, always already in progress, meaning that it’s changing, usually in two somewhat different ways, all the time. It changes because we’re actively changing it as we go along. It changes because we’re sensing it differently as we go along.

Of necessity, then, we always begin by leaning in together, to let these changes play out for a while, to discover where it might go. By "leaning", what I mean is, we are trying on variations of our selves, team and coach alike, consciously or unconsciously, seeking relationship.

When we’re leaning, we’re actually becoming someone other than when we’re standing up straight, when we’re totally safe, surrounded by completely trusted and trusting individuals, free to be you and me, if you’re old enough to remember Marlo Thomas.

It’s like wearing a Halloween mask, only it’s a mask of oneself.

It’s subtle, this. It greatly resembles one, but not quite, not exactly. It’s a kind of gameface, not the face when one’s at home, or with beloved friends, when one feels most nakedly oneself.

Imagine, in my case, me wandering around wearing a GeePaw mask, pretending to be GeePaw, even as, in fact, I am GeePaw. Most of you, most of the time, wouldn’t even know the difference between me leaning and me standing straight up. Sometimes I don’t.

And those two sets of changes are changes to our individual "oneself" masks. And from time to time, those little tweaks to the mask cause the mask to become quite different from the naked self. When that happens, one has to make a choice, either to grow, or to let it go.

If one decides to grow, one is essentially saying that one is changing to become more like the mask. It is accepting the insight and the concomitant behavior change that, essentially, lets us become a new person.

If one decides to let it go, one is essentially saying that one’s mask is no longer close enough to oneself to be lived with.

Remember, it’s not just the coach who’s doing this, it’s each individual in the team. We’re all doing it, all the time. And we all face those decision points, consciously or unconsciously, at various moments across time.

That’s what I am calling "chemistry".

Becoming the mask is neither a good choice nor a bad one, and letting go of it is neither a good choice nor a bad one. Both can result in considerable growth. Both can be fraught with pain or filled with joy.

In my early days as a coach, though, I associated the letting-go with pain and pain only. And I fought ferociously to hold on to the mask, at times stretching it far outside the shape of myself.

It’s easy to see why. We’re talking here about being love-worthy, really.

Or anyway, I thought we were talking about that. 🙂

Over time, I came to understand it a different way.

Here’s why this came up: I was asked about an acquaintance in the trade, B. And B is an excellent coach. A strong geek, decent, kind, very smart and very thoughtful, first rate. I’ve worked with B, and I know this.

I believe B feels mutually about me. But there’s one other mutual belief we have: we neither of us feel the other is our cup of tea.

We have no chemistry.

And when I first realized these two ideas:

1) B is an excellent coach.
2) B and I don’t have chemistry.

I had to rework my ideas about coaching and about chemistry.

So when I work with a team for a little while, & realize that we’re just not clicking, that my oneself-mask is stretched too far, I don’t want to become it, and have to let it go, I’m okay with that.

Sometimes it’s just chemistry. An old hand comes to a place of accepting this.

I move on. But I don’t storm out. I know a lot of coaches, we’re a surprisingly small and tightknit community. I seek to find them someone who can help them more than I can.

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