They’re Not Done Talking

I just finished by the Agile Coaching Institute’s Coaching Agile Teams class, taught by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd. Among other things, they taught us to use powerful questions.

For coaches—and really anyone working to guide others—who are not familiar with powerful questions, I recommend you dig in. Unfortunately, just reading about them isn’t enough. When I read about them in the Coaching Agile Teams book, I just didn’t get them. The understanding came when Lyssa and Michael led us through exercises in class.

All the participants paired up and took turns being first coach, then client. It was when I played the part of client that the value of powerful questions really stuck. As client, I brought up a very complicated issue for the practice discussion.  My partner was completely new to powerful questions, and had been instructed to read them verbatim off a board behind me.  Despite the clumsy delivery (all of us were clumsy at first!) and the transparency of the mechanism, each question struck me as startlingly incisive. The sort of questions you think only wise old gurus can ask you, that stop you in your tracks and make you reconsider your basic assumptions.  Really an amazing tool.

During the exercise, the person doing the coaching would wait until I stopped talking and then ask another powerful question. The questions continued to be good ones, but I noticed something else. Because the person would change and ask a new question off the board, the conversation would take a turn. The turns were subtle, but they nonetheless had the effect of severing my previous line of thought. This pattern repeated in later similar exercises, and it reminded me of something.

Years ago, I worked as a standardized patient, the actor hired by medical schools to help train students in dealing with patients. The teaching staff would give me the recent medical history of this fictitious patient and some other details of their lives. They also directed me not to simply spill all the beans, but to let the medical student get the information from me. I repeated the same scenarios many times with different students, and I was also present at the evaluations which immediately followed the exercises.

Many of these first-year students made the same mistake: they would ask a question, and—immediately after I answered—ask another question. The effect was that they were on the right track but turned too soon, missing relevant clues to the medical condition.  It’s not that I was trying to hold anything back.  It’s just that I would naturally stop at certain points.   For example, if they asked, “Has anything changed recently?”, I would naturally tell them one thing that changed and pause.  If they then jumped to a different question, the three other things that recently changed would never come up.  The feedback from the teachers was always the same: don’t change the topic, but ask if there is anything else. In cases where the students simply prompted me to go on, the information would continue to flow.

This is what seemed to me to be happening in the coaching practice as well.  I would reach a sort of natural stopping point, but based on the feeling that the new question severed that thought, it seems to me that I wasn’t actually done with the overarching thought. If the coach had instead asked, “What else?” or “Is there anything more to that?”, I think that I would have simply continued.  As a coaching client, one is not simply listing medical woes or recent life changes.  Another important distinction: coaching and powerful questions are not about fact-finding or diagnosis.  Nonetheless, I think the mechanics of exploration are the same.  I think that the same sorts of natural pauses between thoughts would happen in answering questions like “What’s exciting about this?”, “What is standing in your way?”, “What have you tried so far?”, etc.

If you’re reading this, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.  If you try this out, let me know what happens.  Next time someone seems to have finished answering your question, find a way of asking them to go on. I bet you they’re not done talking.

Foster Agile: Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Part of the Foster Agile series.

About twenty years ago, I was working for my step-dad’s engineering firm. Deadlines all around, I was paralyzed. I told him that I didn’t know what to do.  He said, “My grandfather always told me: ‘Keep your eye on the ball.'”  I said, “Sure, but what if there is more than one ball?”  Without missing a beat, he responded, “Keep your eye on the one that’s going to hit you first.”

This advice has served me well over the years, but working alongside him renovating my house over the last few years has really made the lesson stick.  At the start of a day, we discuss what we aim to do.  Then, we do that and only that until the end of the day.  I have occasional moments of panic that I am neglecting something important out there, or that I am going the wrong course, but working alongside my hyper-focused step-dad, I stay with the selected task.  There is this strange feeling–perhaps it is Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, I’m not sure–that the rest of the world has been pushed outside a bubble around us.  By the end of the work weekend, we have accomplished an astonishing amount of work.  As for the things calling from the outside world, nothing has burned down as a result of my ignoring them for a while.

I’ve since tried the same thing at work. I noticed that I was letting my focus slide all over the place in the time slots available between meetings. If I could manage to attend a scheduled meeting for an hour, why was I struggling to maintain focus on a task for an hour? So, I set up meetings with myself to focus on those tasks. And I kept my eye on the ball. The same feeling from working with my step-dad came back. The world retreated behind a bubble. The same anxieties came, but I stuck with my tasks (kept my eye on the ball that was going to hit me first), honoring my commitment. When I emerged, nothing had exploded. The only real change was that I was burning through tasks at a much higher rate.

I struggle to exercise the enormous discipline required to give myself this gift of focus. First, I have to plan my time, committing chunks of time to given tasks.  This runs counter to my impulse to just dive in.  Second, I have to make hard decisions when I realize my list is simply too long for the day.  I have to resist impulse #2: rely on wasteful wishful thinking.  Third, even when I have planned my day, yet another impulse presses me to respond when things call, rather than keeping blinders on.  In all cases, I have to fight an ingrained habit in order to avoid distraction.

Focus is a core value of Scrum.  At the daily stand-up, for example, team members have this wonderful opportunity to select a single task, or a set of serial tasks, to take on for the day.  The system explicitly lays out their right to keep the rest of the world off behind a bubble.  Scrum and other Agile frameworks enable this focus through the key structural component of iteration: “Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.”  Breaking a schedule into chunks allows you to break your work into chunks in the same way, leaving everyone the freedom to focus only on the set of work selected for the current chunk.  It keeps you from the much more complicated discussions you have to have when you have a boundless future in which to schedule your boundless list of tasks.  Focus is one reason Agile principles can work. However, it’s not enough for them just to enable focus; one must discipline oneself to apply those principles.

The folly of multitasking is well-known, but I suspect that many people see its danger only at coarser levels. For example, they talk about the problem of having to go to a couple of half-hour meetings a day, or of having to switch product focus from sprint to sprint. While I agree that these switches degrade focus, it is at the grain of minutes and even seconds that I think context-switching does its greatest damage. You click the bookmark for your bug-tracking software and the system is slow. In the moment you wait, you switch to look at an email that just came in reminding you to submit your time sheet. You open the time sheet app. Another delay in loading. You switch back to read the next email. This pattern continues, and all of a sudden you have eight tasks cluttering your mind. The impulses had good intention: “It is a waste of time for me to stare at the screen while the bug-tracking software loads, so I’ll do something else for a minute.”  Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. It is actually more efficient by a stunning degree to stare at the screen until the system responds. This is the powerful counter-intuitive truth of “keep your eye on the ball”.

Are you as focused as you think?  I offer this challenge. When you are done with this post, figure out your next few highest priority tasks.  Rank them.  Do the first, and focus only on that until it’s done, at which point you move on to the next.  Pay a little attention to yourself as you do.  Are you really focused?  Did you switch over to email for just a second?  Did you make that spreadsheet a little fancier than it needed to be?  Did you remember something “more urgent’ you had to do and switch to get it done because it would just take a second?  If you switched away, try again.  This time, force yourself not to switch.  Once you’ve succeeded in avoiding a switch, look back on how it went.  What was different?

Highfalutin talk aside:  Keep your eye on the ball.  And if there’s more than one, keep your eye on the one that’s going to hit you first.

Foster Agile: S**t My Step-Dad Said

My step-father has been very successful in academia, private business, and–most relevant here, oddly—making buildings. As far as I know, he only knows about Agile because of my yammering on during some visit. Nonetheless, I learned many of the truths underpinning Agile and Lean thinking from him.

Note that I wrote “truths underpinning Agile and Lean”, not “core Agile/Lean principles”.  The folks who wrote the Agile Manifesto didn’t hunker down in some laboratory and invent Agile ground-up as a theoretical framework.  Rather, they extracted certain commonalities from their empirical observations of real work experience.  Indeed, they start: “We are uncovering better ways…” (emphasis mine).  Read the manifesto or any of the principles.   They don’t say why the approach works, but only that they have observed it to work.

This is one reason I believe so strongly in Agile: it stems from broad empirical knowledge, and not just some cool theory that seems like it might work.  For those new to Agile, though, it can smell like the emperor’s new clothes.  “I can’t really tell you why this works, it just works.  Trust me.  It’s magic.”

I am generally trusting, so it’s enough for me to give it a shot and see for myself.  However, I am also obsessively analytical, and—especially when I am asking others to take a leap–I like to have a better theoretical understanding.  I want to connect the empirical observations of others to some less lofty things that I have observed myself.

That’s where my step-dad comes in.  Before working in Agile, I worked in a variety of roles in different organizations.  During those 18 years, I noticed many things that don’t work and a few that do.  Near the beginning of that time, I worked for a consulting firm of my step-father’s, and toward the end of it, starting renovating my house with him.   During work weekends, I and others were repeatedly stunned by how much more work we got done when he was there leading.  The model presented by this productivity and his superlative discipline allowed me to distill my rough observations of work into–yes, I’m going to say it, and with a capital T, no less–Truths.  What a nerd.

When I started working in a Scrum shop, I read Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle’s Agile Software Development with Scrum.  Here was a way of working that mapped to the Truths I had seen.  Woohoo!  Again: what a nerd.

Why does this matter to me?  It calms my anxiety that this new set of clothes is of the imperial variety.  And it helps me, as a coach, calm similar anxieties in others.  I’m grateful to my step-dad for showing me these things, and I’m planning a bunch of posts about these Truths that I learned from him.  He’s from a small town called Foster, so I’ll call the series Foster Agile.  Let’s see how far I get.