Agile Coaching

Allison Pollard – agile coach, consultant, and blogger – talks about the components of successful agile coaching, including the importance of trust, coaching to your strengths, and getting back to the basics of agile.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Trust changes everything.
  2. Coach to your Strengths. There are so many different skills that help agile leaders add value. Scrum Masters and coaches should play to their own strengths (rather than emulating others) in order to maximize their impact and value.
  3. Input – not just feedback. Make sure to get input from stakeholders before (not just feedback after) implementing new practices and capabilities.

Find Allison Online:

Also referenced:

Episode Transcript:

Jack: [00:02]
This is the signal cafe where we bring you stories and lessons from the agile community. Our show is planned, produced and promoted using an agile approach. So we rely heavily on listener feedback. Please reach out to us on social or leave us a review on iTunes or just send us an email at jack@signal.cafe and let us know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see in future episodes. We look forward to hearing from you. And today we’re speaking with Alison Pollard, Allison’s an agile coach and consultant and a frequent blogger. And I just noticed before the show that you’ve been on like 20 podcasts – so she’s also a Podcast Pro. Allison, welcome to the show.

Allison: [00:44]
Thanks. I’m happy to be here.

Jack: [00:48]
So tell the listeners a little bit about who you are and how you got started in Agile coaching and consulting. And what are you most passionate about outside of work?

Allison: [00:58]
Oh Geez. Outside of work. Oh my goodness. Well, okay. To start off I am an agile coach and consultant. I live in Dallas, Texas. I work for a company called Improving and for us, Agile coaching is one small piece of what we offer. Our mission is really around Trust – and we firmly believe that trust changes everything. And I’m sure we’ll touch on that again later, but my path into becoming an agile coach started way back when. I had been a project manager. I started hearing about Agile and became a Scrum Master. And then I had the really great opportunity to mentor other Scrum Masters and suddenly found myself being referred to as the agile coach. And so after getting over some impostor syndrome, I learned, , what it really meant to be an agile coach and have gone through professional coaching training and gotten certified in that area and really think it’s important that we increase our skills not only in facilitation and coaching and teaching, but also really strengthen our muscles on the agile side and continue to learn what’s going on in that side.

Jack: [02:12]
So I know what impostor syndrome is. I’m very, very familiar with it. For anybody who doesn’t know on the show, can you tell the listeners a little bit about imposter syndrome?

Allison: [02:25]
Yeah. It’s that, it’s that very common human feeling that, oh my goodness, I’m a fraud. Uh, it’s that feeling that like I’m having to fake it until I make it. I’m worried that I’m going to get found out or caught. I remember when I first started as an agile coach, , I just found myself walking into a client and not really knowing a whole, whole lot about the organization and what was needed. And the more I learned, I was like, okay, I can do this. I can help some new Scrum Masters, work with Scrum teams and, , get the, the basics of agile in place. But there was that fear of, what if I’m not good enough? What, what if my client thinks that I should be more expert somehow and that I’m not able to handle that.

Allison: [03:21]
And what I’ve learned over time is that we’re all on our own journeys and we’re all constantly learning. And I enjoy working with my clients and telling them, here are the things that I’m learning about. I’d love for you to come to this class with me or – I’m gonna be going to this conference and here are some sessions I’m really excited about. I’d love for you to be there with me. Cause then we can have the follow on conversations and talk about, how might that apply in your organization? Or does it even make sense? Maybe it was just a really interesting idea and we choose not to use that.

Jack: [03:58]
Yeah. I think being open about that is so, so key in just being really transparent about what and what you’re good at and, and what you don’t know and what you’re currently learning.

Allison: [04:07]
Oh yeah. Yeah.

Jack: [04:09]
The nature of consulting is you’re often working with like super smart people all the time and they know a ton of things about whatever industry that you’re in that maybe I didn’t know. So you were a project manager, became a Scrum Master, and started being referred to and actually acting in the role as the agile coach for the organization. When you look at Agile coaching and try to mentor and train up other new Scrum Masters or new agile coaches, what does that process look like and where do you start?

Allison: [04:47]
It’s funny cause I was usually like, you felt like you were making it up as you went along. Um, but in the last two years or so, I have found it very, very helpful to actually talk a bit about like what are my strengths and what am I like as an agile coach? And then have the conversation of what might they be like as a Scrum Master or as a coach themselves. Because what my clients really appreciate about me in particular is they say they love my brain. I do bring a lot of agile knowledge and experience to the table. I am more than happy to tell them things that I’ve been reading about or point them to interesting articles – and really getting them thinking outside the box. Well, my concern has been if a Scrum Master sees the way that I am and thinks that they need to emulate that behavior or even that wealth of knowledge, they’re going to have such a huge learning curve and that might not be the thing that makes the most sense given their strengths.

Allison: [05:52]
So, I’ve started using Strengths Finder in a couple instances with people so that we get a better language around like what is it that makes Allison, Allison – and what is it that makes you, you. What are the things that you’re talented in and that are going to make you stand out. And I will absolutely help you, you build up your agile awareness – and your knowledge around that. And we’re going to make sure that you get experiences where you are facilitating, you are getting a coach. But what is it that you’re going to bring to the table in those instances? One person in particular – there is another podcast I recorded with her – I was really excited about. Her key strengths were really around like ‘relator’ and empathy.

Allison: [06:43]
And so when I would see her in action, I could see how strong the relationship was between her and team members – that she could be kind of clunky in her language at times, and ask them to change things and they would go along with it because they had such a high trust in her. It’s one of those things where, if I had tried to use the same languages as what she was saying, there’s no way I would’ve been able to influence them, or, have them change because we didn’t have that strong foundation the way that she did. And so recognizing that, she had that, super skill around connecting with people that I did not have made it a lot easier for us to talk about, , like what are the ideas or what are the concepts that a team might need and then give her all the freedom in the world to do it however it felt most natural for her to do.

Jack: [07:44]
I love that. There’s so many soft skills and so many different approaches to coaching and acting in the role of a Scrum Master and acting in any role. You mentioned, you might be really strong in empathy and be a ‘relator’. You might be this super charismatic facilitator and public speaker. Maybe you’re super technical and you can help really help out in that sort of a way. Maybe you’re super processed, focused and organized. There are so many different strengths that somebody can bring to that role, but you don’t want to emulate what you’ve seen somebody else do and try to make that be the key. That’s awesome. And it just makes sense. Right? But it’s also something that I’m sure a lot of people miss.

Allison: [08:34]
For sure. Because we know there are those role models that we have and we think, man, if I could just be like them, I would be so great. And there’s definitely something to learn from other people, like what does it mean to be really extroverted and high energy and like get a group pumped up and excited about something. And I’m thinking about one of my coworkers in particular who does that extremely well – one of our trainers. Whereas for me, like my natural state is to be much more introverted. I will ask questions. I’m gonna come out with some very direct observations at times and say, , I hear you saying this, but then you’re about to do this other thing and, and those don’t feel like they are congruent with one another. Let’s make that the thing that we talk about now because something doesn’t feel quite right.

Jack: [09:30]
So you brought up Trust earlier. You also said that that’s huge at Improving. Talk a little bit about Trust.

Allison: [09:38]
yeah. It’s interesting. Our CEO had been at an event a couple of years back, and there was a keynote speaker who asked the question to this room full of CEOs, How many of you trust your IT organizations? And there were only six hands in the entire room that went up. Now, thankfully my CEO was one of them. But that moment really hit him hard and he wondered what is going on in companies where IT has such little trust. Because, I think we all recognize now that, software and technology are really driving companies. The software delivery performance of your organization absolutely impacts your overall organization performance. We see that in a the State of DevOps Reports and some other research findings. And so the idea around: “How do we, as consultants / as technologists, help raise the profession and help build more trust in environments where we are working?” That was really our call to arms. And so we think, it’s important to extend trust and to be a trusted leader in the client organizations where we’re working.

Jack: [11:03]
So what does that look like? How do you improve that trust? I know that it’s different in every single situation. A I know it depends on where you’re starting. But what are some of the key areas that you look to improve or that you looked to target when trying to improve trust between the business and IT?

Allison: [11:25]
Yeah. For us, we’ve been reading and going through training around speed of trust, by Covey. And so it’s given us a nice shared language to work with. Within our own company, we might talk about: How are we creating transparency? How are we clarifying expectations? Where do we need to talk straight? And as you interact with us, you might start to recognize some of that language coming through in the conversations that we have with the community and with our clients. Right now – I’m thinking to the organization I’ve been working with and if you can imagine this large enterprise that has been doing agile for a number of years and now they’re really trying to take it to the next level.

Allison: [12:16]
They’re talking DevOps. They are looking at becoming product-based and there’s a lot of change that comes with all of that, from skills and technologies, restructuring of teams and organization. And so through that – I come at it and I see this through the lens of Trust. If you’re suddenly reporting to a new manager, your ability to trust them might be a bit low because you don’t know what to expect from them and they don’t know what to expect from you. So I look at, how can I maybe help facilitate some of the conversations, that allow people to just hear from one another. Like – what’s your perspective on this? Or like, what’s your thinking? – and create more space / more time for that to happen.

Allison: [13:11]
And I also see, there are times where you’re talking to leaders in particular and – And I think we all have this dream that if we can just find the perfect solution or the perfect process, then we just roll it out across the organization and everyone will just latch onto it and adopted immediately because it’s so beautiful and it’s so perfect. Well, I of course, look at it and go, “when there’s a whole lot of humans involved, it’s not going to be that easy.” So I try to encourage – How do we have team members involved, at least in some of the conversations – so they can understand – How are we getting to certain technologies or how are we getting to certain processes or certain changes that might be happening within the organization? Because they’re the ones that ultimately need to be on board with this new way of working. Ideally they end up having ownership of it. I want their input, not just their feedback later. I help to encourage – How are we creating the forums, or how are we finding them and talking with them and really hearing what’s on their minds.

Jack: [14:30]
I love what you said about actual input – not just feedback after you’ve rolled it out. I think it is super powerful. Before the call you said something about this and you just hinted at it. It’s hard to just take something, whether it’s a framework like SAFe or LeSS or Nexus, or strict Scrum and roll it out and just say: Hey, this is awesome. It’s packaged – everybody do this. Right. We were talking about maybe just starting with just the practice of retrospectives or just the practice of x, y or Z. Talk a little bit about what you’ve seen and how you’ve approached in the past where – maybe you have a very traditional waterfall organization that’s running waterfall project management. There are no – or very few – people experienced with Agile coaching or very few Scrum Masters. Where would you start in that situation?

Allison: [15:30]
It’s funny as you asked that. Because I think looking at my career – I very rarely am the one that comes into that really traditional organization. My sweet spot has been more of – people that are already flirting with agile, or they’re certainly wanting to take it to the next level. But more often than not, they’re wanting to also invest in the technical skills. I am then partnering with a technical coach or a technical advocate of some sort. But if I think to a traditional organization – and how you might handle it – I think some of us love the idea of that – “I want to be the positive disruptor”. Like “I want us to just go all in on Scrum or we’re all going to flip to Kanban or whatever that framework is.”

Allison: [16:27]
And there are ways I think that you can make that happen. In our company, we sometimes talk about, how do we allow for people to attend training? And we learn a bit more about what this framework is and get a sense of what might it be like to do it. I’m thinking about like a very hands on Scrum class for example – where they’re getting the experience of being a team and building something together and tracking our work – through a product backlog and a sprint backlog for example. So after going through the training class and having discussions around – what is this thing? And what could it be like for us if we did it? You’re then asking the team, are you willing to try this? Can we do this for about a month or maybe six weeks or so?

Allison: [17:18]
And you want it to be a very safe environment where it’s really going to be okay for them to say no or yes. And I think all of us are like, please, please, please say yes. Because if you say no, we might not know where we go from there. So that’s one approach to be able to flip – just leap right into like the next framework. In other situations – I know from some of my colleagues – they’re really good at being really pragmatic. And so first understanding like how do things work in this organization? Who does what? How do we track the work? How do we know what’s most important to be working on? What are the steps that we take to get things to production. And as they gain that understanding – they might start making these small suggestions, to do things in a slightly more agile way.

Allison: [18:18]
I know from talking to one of our Scrum Masters recently – she’s been in a traditional organization and the team has been under a lot of pressure trying to meet their timelines – which I think all of us can relate to at some point in our careers. And so she had been telling them about retrospectives – this idea of – let’s take some time as a team and talk about like how have things been going? How is it that we’re approaching the work? But let’s identify some ways that we can improve things. And the first couple times that she would mention this to the team, they were like: “oh no, no, there’s no way. We can’t take the time for that. We need to stay heads down and keep doing the work in order to meet our timeline.”

Allison: [19:06]
And she did a very nice job of saying – okay, I understand and if we don’t do a retrospective – here’s what might happen. We still might not meet that timeline and we’re not going to find better ways of working that could have gotten us closer to that. So things could be getting much more painful if we’re not taking the time to reflect. This is an open door. I’m always willing to do a retrospective. So as you can perhaps imagine – a little bit more time passes and then there comes the day where the team says – Okay, Scrum Master, we’re ready for that retrospective thing that you’ve been telling us about. Things have gotten so hard and so challenging on our side. Like we need to get in the room and we want you to facilitate this cause we don’t know where to go from here.

Allison: [19:59]
And so I appreciate our consultants that are able to be so with our clients and introduce ideas and follow their timing on – when are they ready for that next big step? Whether it’s as simple as as one team and one retrospective. That could be absolutely powerful and really change the way that they’re approaching their work and the way that they’re feeling and their environment – from that point forward. Or what would it mean for us to do something like a sprint review? Let’s actually show the product that we’ve been creating to our stakeholders and maybe even our customers and talk about: “This is what we thought was important and these were the features that we added and what do you think of this? And what are our competitors doing and how might it influence where we had next? And what else is going on like in the industry and in the market and the rest of the customers that we need to be paying attention to – and having that conversation around where are we with the product and where are we headed next? That can be really, really powerful.

Jack: [21:13]
I want to repeat what you said about a good agile coach being so with the team that it’s really clear when the team is ready for the introduction to a specific ceremony or practice. And that’s really by collecting feedback and conveying the value of that practice – over time. Make sure to get input from everybody. Everybody that’s going to be in the process or everybody that’s going to be doing this new thing and not just feedback after it’s been rolled out and really get buy in – get input and buy in. And I think part of that buy-in is like you said, presenting it as an experiment, right? We’re not saying that we’re going to do this forever. We’re going to try it for six months – and what parts of it are going to really provide the most value? What do we need?

Jack: [22:07]
So if you were to give one piece of advice to a new agile team and new Scrum Master, new coach – What has helped you the most? Or what would you, what’s the most wide sweeping piece of advice that you think people should hear?

Allison: [22:27]
Man, that’s a big question. But what’s coming up for me is – having gone through the agile fluency game workshop and the diagnostic cohort – really digging into the agile fluency model really changed the way that I think as an agilist. So I really recommend people go read the agile fluency model – because I think so often we get hung up on whole frameworks. And what I love about the model is that it’s actually putting more emphasis on – What are the benefits that the organization is wanting or that the leaders are needing to see from the teams? And then let’s talk about – What are the capabilities that we need from the team? And so that’s why I do think more about individual practices. What does a retrospective do for a group of people versus what would a sprint review or some kind of a demo do.? Rather than thinking I must bring in all of Scrum or I must bring in all of SAFe or insert framework here. I think if we can really understand those individual practices and the benefits that they bring, it gives us a lot more freedom and creativity as a coach to recognize that there’s more than one way for us to get agility for an organization.

Jack: [23:59]
I think that’s so true. And really just understanding what the value is with each specific part that you’re introducing.

Allison: [24:07]
Yes. Yeah. Cause I think it’s so easy for us to think – well Scrum as a framework is valuable because it was designed to be valuable and like we do retrospectives can Scrum said to do retrospectives. And so I’ve found that I could be getting lazy as an agile coach if I’m not explaining “the why” behind components of it well enough. Like – well this is what the book says, so we’re just going to do it that way – versus what would it mean for me to really challenge myself and explain this well that you understand the benefit of any particular practice or any particular role – that you’re more willing to consider it because you at least recognize what it’s trying to do.

Jack: [24:54]
Yeah. And it’s kind of like thinking like, this might sound cheesy, but just kind of thinking like a product manager or a marketer. Right? It’s not always clear – it should be – But it’s not always clear what that value is. And so even if you know – it shouldn’t be assumed that everybody involved really understands that. So kind of going back to that on a regular basis and making sure that it never becomes muddied, I think is super valuable.

Allison: [25:26]
I like that idea of like agile coach as product manager, right – In a way that you are helping to design – with, with the organization – what is this agile way of working as a product going to be for us? What are the features it’s going to have? What is it going to be able to do? What benefits do we get from it?

Jack: [25:51]
Yeah. So, this has been awesome. Alison, what are you working on now? What would you like to tell the listeners? Where can they find you online and what are you super excited about in the coming future?

Allison: [26:05]
Oh okay. So yeah, we didn’t really talk about, at the beginning, what do I do outside of work? And I think that’s because most of my outside of work sounds like work to other people. Part of my joy is attending agile conferences and speaking at them, particularly when I have the opportunity to work with different co-presenters. And so this year I’ve had a couple of different co-presenters that I’m new to working with and I’ve been really excited partnering with them and I’m getting to hear their stories and help share our experiences with a broader audience.

Allison: [26:45]
So if you want to know like where I’m going to be or if you’d love to talk more, you can find me at my blog: allisonpollard.com. It has a list of the conferences and some of the different talks that I’ll be doing. I’d also love to just hear from people like what’s going on in their organization – How are they seeing agile and what are they trying as a coach?

Jack: [27:10]
I think your events page is so cool and I think it’s so neat to invite all of the people out there to come and say hi to you and – if you’re going to be there, I want to meet you. I want to talk to you. Um, I’ll make sure to link to your blog and the events page and all of the things – You can find Allison on Twitter as well at @Allison_Pollard. Her website is allisonpollard.com and I will link to all of those things in the show notes. Allison, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure. I’m sorry for the technical difficulties.

Allison: [27:47]
It gets to the best of us at times.

Jack: [27:50]
Hey, this has been great. Have a wonderful day and thank you so much again. Thanks.

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