This is a chapter from my upcoming book [email protected]: The Path to Effective Lean-Agile Teams.
What a coach is in the Agile community depends upon who you ask. I believe a coach is a change agent. While not tasked with telling people what to do, they are much more than a facilitator.
A Lean-Agile coach is a person who understands how to help teams and organizations improve with the theories of Flow, Lean, and Theory of Constraints while also understanding the basics of human learning. Coaches need to play an active role in helping teams improve. By ‘active,’ I don’t mean they tell people what to do, which doesn’t work. Many people believe this is because people will resist when told to do something. But that’s not true. Many times people want to be told what to do. But if you tell people what to do, they may do it without working through the details of what is involved. If they run into problems, they may not know what to do. This lack of understanding may have them abandon the suggestion.
Being an effective coach requires:
A deep understanding of the area you are coaching requires theory and practice. Deming said, “Experience teaches nothing. there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory, there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then wonder what the trouble is. They look at examples, and without theory, they learn nothing.” When a coach understands why things work, they can provide that understanding both to the people doing the work and those responsible for them. This helps get everyone on the same page.
Conveying ideas to people requires understanding their concerns. For example, many people talk to executives by saying we must not start too many projects but instead have a focus on finishing. But many executives will hear this as getting less value, not more. Instead, we must tell them we will focus on delivering value faster. Executives will appreciate value sooner than working on fewer things.
You must also understand how people learn. People are complex beings. They have limitations on how they can learn and how much they can know at any one time. Understanding these limitations can avoid a lot of wasted effort. Understanding how people learn can help avoid invoking resistance in people.
Coaches should look for virtual boards to help the people they are coaching learn together. Teams are often not co-located yet still need to work together. Virtual boards are essential for this.
Having the appropriate character is essential but is something coaches need to learn for themselves. If a person doesn’t have the right temperament, they may be smart, but they won’t be effective. They will come across as arrogant and gruff, and people will resist their suggestions even when recognized as experts.
People tend to go to extremes in the Agile space. The options are not about standing back or being overly pushy. When you understand what’s going on, you can ask questions that guide and enhance other people’s understanding. You can point things out that others don’t notice. Being a good coach requires this. It’s not an attitude of following (the guide) but one of leading others in learning.
Let me first acknowledge that I am not an expert in sensemaking in the academic sense. I am writing this as a practitioner/consultant in the knowledge work arena. Nothing in this article is intended to attend to domains outside of knowledge work although I am sure some of it does.
Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld state that “Sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action.”
Since knowledge work is done in a complex adaptive system, sensemaking is useful to better understand what often appears to be a chaotic, impenetrable situation. Systems thinking tells us that systems are more about the relationships between the systems than the components of the system. As Russ Ackoff points out, a collection of the best parts of the best cars is just a pile of junk. One way of thinking about this is not that we exist in different states, but that in knowledge work there is an integration of simple, complicated and complex relationships present.
These relationships have aspects that are simple, complicated and complex (meaning not understandable or even visible). Understanding how the parts of a system interact is consistent with what Dr. Eli Goldratt (creator of Theory of Constraints) describes in The Choice. He calls the essence of his approach ‘Inherent Simplicity.’ This is expressed in these quotes
Quotes by Dr. Eli Goldratt from The Choice:
“The first and most profound obstacle is that people believe that reality is complex, and therefore they are looking for sophisticated explanations for complicated solutions. Do you understand how devastating this is?”
”The biggest obstacle is that people grasp reality as complex when actually is surprisingly simple.”
“The key for thinking like a true scientist is the acceptance that any real-life situation, no matter how complex it initially looks, once understood, is actually embarrassingly simple. Moreover, if the situation is based on human interactions, you probably already have enough knowledge to begin with.”
“Inherent Simplicity. In a nutshell, it is at the foundation of all modern science as put by Newton: ‘nature is exceedingly simple and harmonious with itself.’”
"If we dive deep enough, we’ll find that there are very few elements at the base - the root causes - which through cause and effect connections are governing the whole system.”
The question, of course, is what are these “very few elements at the base?” Observations of both successful and failed attempts to improve an organization’s ability to deliver value to stakeholders has led me to the conclusion that there nine of these. I call these “vectors for effectiveness.” They are, in a sense, dimensions to observe how to improve an organization. They are consistent with the natural laws of knowledge work. They are:
Effective organizations tend to do these well and ineffective ones can improve by attending to them.
Because complexity (both inside and outside our organization) is ever present in knowledge work, we can never see exactly what is happening, nor can we make totally accurate predictions. However, if we don’t attend to the complicated causal relationships that are known via Flow, Lean and Theory of Constraints, our methods will almost certainly be out of control.
The approach I espouse then is to understand what we are predictably doing wrong. We look for the results of actions based on these factors and validate (or invalidate) them. This results in movement forward or learning by exposing relationships we either didn’t see or didn’t understand due to their complexity. This enables us to move forward. It also suggests we take a skeptical view of these factors themselves. Always looking to refine our model for understanding.
It is also important to recognize that in knowledge work there is a particular type of waste that complexity enables. These are when a small error results in a big cost. These are called non-linear events. Non-linear events due to a combination of three things: 1) a small error, 2) lack of visibility to see what’s going on (often due to complexity), 3) coupling that results in a cascade of errors, resulting in a big error. A great example of this in knowledge work is when a small misunderstanding of a stated requirement causes creating the wrong functionality in a big program that makes it useless. Or a “one-off” error in code causes a catastrophic error.
The bottom line is that sensemaking should be used as a basis for taking effective action. By using inherent simplicity and the factors for effectiveness I’ve identified, you can both better see what’s going on as well as having these observations be directly related to actions you can take to improve the situation.
If you are interested in learning more about how to apply these check out my workshops (including the Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant) and collaborative engagements see the Success Engineering website.
Why if you are a PMP who understands the value of Agile your next workshop should be the Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant
Although I'm no longer in the PMI, I still have great respect for its products and membership. I joined the PMI a couple of years ago for several reasons. One of the biggest was the clear desire of most PMI members to want to learn. I know many PMIers wondering about what their next steps should be. Agile is decidedly more than a fad, so that makes it more attractive. But it also seems to be anti-management and a bit free-wheeling as well - which goes against many of the principles and philosophies we've seen useful.
In thinking about this, I believe the choice forward for many PMPs and other PMI members is a combination of the Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant workshops as well as some of the new work I am doing with Success Engineering. I'll talk about why the Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant workshop in this post. In the next few days I'll follow up with my new efforts with Success Engineering. These products won't be available until early next year.
What makes the DAVSC appealing to PMPs.
While I have been a believer in Agile from before it began, I have always been troubled by a few things. These are mostly its:
I created the DAVSC as a way to teach consultants how to:
In a nutshell, it teaches participants how to guide transformations in a manner I found was effective for both me and other top consultants. I created on the basis of what successful consultants needed to know by observing them (and not so success consultants) for almost 2 decades.
The DAVSC is more focused on teaching you how to think to solve you and your clients' problems than how to adopt someone else's solutions.
I'm co-teaching 3 Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant workshops over the next 6 weeks in different times zones. You can see them here.
Each session will be followed by a 45 minute session for additional Q&A that will also include why and how the workshop was created. Although you currently need a DASSM certification to be certified in the workshop, you are more than welcome to attend if you believe that the general concept of Agile is a good one.
Feel free to contact me for more information
Complexity has become a big topic in the Agile space. I don't agree with much of the conversations about it and thought I'd post a collection of the posts I've made on linkedin here.
Many people tend to look at scope, time and cost as 3 factors for completing a project and that all 3 can't be set. This is the trouble with fixed scope, time & cost projects. Waterfall projects often fix all 3 with at one of these factors being missed. That is, scope is dropped, project is late, and/or we have cost overruns.