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Michael Norton (doc) is Director of Engineering for Groupon in Chicago, IL. Michael's experience covers a wide range of development topics. Michael declares expertise in no single language or methodology and is immediately suspicious of anyone who declares such expertise. Michael is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 41 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Coaching Anti-Patterns: Prescriptive Agile

07.02.2013
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I saw a tweet this morning that got me thinking about a coaching anti-pattern I frequently see:



The Prescriptive Agile Coach

The Prescriptive Agile Coach is armed with a reliable set of practices. The practices have been documented, vetted, and implemented successfully on a number of teams. They are inarguably proven. To the Prescriptive Agile Coach, those not following these practices are not truly Agile. To the Prescriptive Agile Coach anyone following these practices, but not achieving the results desired, is simply doing it wrong. For a Prescriptive Agile Coach, bringing a client's practices into compliance is of significant concern.

The following is a typical exchange between a Prescriptive Agile Coach and their Client.
Coach: May I give you some feedback on your stand-ups?
Client: Sure. That would be great.
Coach: I've noticed you don't address the three questions in your stand-ups. I think you'd find stand-up to be of higher value if you did.
Client: Oh. We tried that. It felt really disconnected. This way feels more like a team.
Coach: Well, I don't know if you've read the book on Scrum, but the stand-up serves a very specific and important purpose. It's important, in order to maximize the benefit and not waste people's time, that we cover what was done, what will be done, and any impediments. Let's tell the team we're improving the format and start with the three questions on Monday. Sound good?

So what's wrong with this exchange?


The Coach asks if the Client is ready for feedback, gets acknowledgement, provides the feedback, and explains their reasoning. This is practically a model of affective professional coaching. But the coach didn't listen to the client's response. Rather than probing to find out why the three question approach felt disconnected and less like a team, our coach simply redirected back to the benefits of doing it "right".

Meet them where they are and leave them in a better place


When I encounter a team that sends daily email status updates, walks the board, or does stand up three times per week, my first responsibility is to understand how and why they came to this practice. How did they come to this decision? What challenges does this approach address? What benefits are they optimizing for?
As a coach, your primary concern should not be bringing the client's practices into compliance. Your role is to help the client become more effective. If, after understanding their context and challenges, the best solution for them happens to also look like something you once read in a book, that's fantastic. If, however, it looks entirely novel and serves the needs of the team, that's equally (and perhaps more) fantastic. For the common practices we read about in our agile textbooks; each of them was once a novel idea that best served the needs of a team.
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