New Leaders Series – Part 1: Shift in Stance

After years of hard work as a software developer and high performing team member, you’ve found yourself facing a whole new set of challenges. You are a leader (architect, team lead, scrum master, mentor, manager) on your team.

Looking back, everything that you’ve done along the way has supported you to get to this point. You’ve never backed down from challenge and have embraced the uncertainty of solving problems in code. You love the focus that comes with being able to tackle these problems with confidence. You’ve enjoyed the satisfaction that comes each and every time you’ve transformed an idea into a solution.

However, all the skills you worked hard to hone in yourself reflect your stance as “expert practitioner” and while expert practitioner skills are foundational to your role, these are not the skills that you will need to grow in order to succeed as a leader.

And no one told you this. When you got the promotion, no doubt your manager told you of the confidence he had in your abilities; however, your leadership up to this point has been fundamentally built on your ability to hone your craft expertly.

Your new role requires a shift in stance. You are now responsible for supporting others to do what you did so well. There is a hidden assumption there; indeed, a fundamental change in how you perceive your value on the team.

Your work is less “about you” and more “about them”.

This shift from “me” to “we” isn’t a small change in thinking and being. It’s one that I’ve seen many new leaders struggle with as they are drawn instinctually back to the joy derived in expressing their craft…. the satisfaction and joy they experienced in being “the guy who solves the problems” rather than “the guy who enables others to solve problems”.

In this series, I plan to explore some of the new skills that young leaders might consider as part of their new practice – assisting them to make this shift from “me” to “we”. It is my sincere hope that my own lessons (sometimes learned the hard way) can be of service to others beginning on this journey.

Agile Coach Camp – Making Space

Last weekend, I was privileged to participate in Agile Coach Camp East. This is an event that I try very hard to attend every year… and every year, a theme emerges for me through the weekend.

This year’s theme for me was “making space” and it’s a theme that I want to keep exploring. However, in the interest of sharing, here are my first thoughts based on what happened at camp…

“Making space” means:

1. Creating an environment where things can happen.

Open Space and Unconference are wonderful examples of the power of making space. I’ve attended Coach Camp 3 times already… each time I am a little surprised at the depth and breadth of sessions that come out of such an event. It reminds me: this is the spirit of self organization; of trusting a group (in this case 70 individuals) to pull together and create something amazing collaboratively.

2. Leaving room to breathe between all the things that happen.

Some of the best group conversations I had during coach camp this year were during a jam session that went late into the night. I believe the quality of the conversations was directly connected to the ability of the group to disengage from these talks and do something else – something fun, something creative – in the space between the conversations. It reminds me that we are all better and happier people when we take time to connect with each other on a level that doesn’t directly relate to a specific or measurable outcome.

My intention then is to go forth and “make space” for myself and others. I look forward to seeing what else emerges from this theme in the days to come…

Thank you to the organizers and volunteers who make the space possible for Agile Coach Camp every year… and to all the participants who make space in their lives to connect. Looking forward to next year already!

Powerful Questions

There are many things that I’ve learned since becoming a mom… but there is nothing more powerful for me to date than learning to see the world through very young eyes.

The beauty behind a child’s approach to the world is that it is so fundamentally based in observation rather than judgement. When my daughter asks questions, she seeks to better understand what she observes. In so doing, she rarely asks “why?” but is more focused on “what?” in her line of inquiry.

From this, I’ve realized that “what?” is actually a very powerful way to question the world. Consider these examples for a moment…

Rather than asking: “Why is that?” …ask instead: “What does that mean?”

Rather than asking: “Why is she (or he) like that?” …ask instead: “What happened to her (or him)?”

Changing your stance from “Why?” to “What?” opens up your line of inquiry. You automatically move away from a place of judgement to a place of understanding. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child isn’t for every occasion… but if you are aspiring to understand and accept, it’s not a bad place to start.

Creating a Culture of Learning

“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” – Socrates

For Agile teams to meaningfully embrace change, they should also embrace a culture of learning. This idea is not unique to Agile, Lean also explicitly makes mention to the importance of learning by making it one of its’ principles.

So what can we do to create a culture of learning on our teams?

I would suggest that while it’s important to encourage learning and to create learning opportunities on the team, doing so may not be enough to truly embrace a culture of learning.

For this to happen, we first must first create the capacity for learning on the team. This means honouring the time and energy that it takes to set aside our own agendas and then divert this time and energy to learning. It also means allowing ourselves to acknowledge and dare to speak three simple words: “I don’t know.”  This can be tricky because we don’t often reward or encourage a culture of “I don’t know” in our work and personal lives. It’s unlikely that Socrates would have climbed high up the corporate ladder with his approach of “I know nothing”.

So if you are seeking to create a culture of learning on your team consider…

…do you ever hear team mates asking for help?

…is it ok for the team to acknowledge what they don’t know?

…do we honour learning on the team in the same way we do “solutions” and “results”?

The key here is to be able to accept what we don’t know and then move on to “what do we need to do to learn?” while being comfortable with the reality that we may never have perfect answers.  However, by not acknowledging what we don’t know, we risk buying into answers that don’t deliver value.

A Retro on Retros

It seems clear to me that a lot of us out there don’t like retrospectives.  Ok… maybe you are an Agilist and you actually love them (me too)… but I feel pretty safe in saying that this feeling is not shared by all the members of your team.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately and it seems to me that this “not liking” aspect can be broken down into two categories.

Retrospectives make me uncomfortable.  Examples of this would include: “I have trouble speaking up in a group setting.”; “I  have difficulty seeing different points of view especially when they are at odds with my own.”; “I don’t want to create conflict or hurt someone’s feelings.”

Retrospectives are unproductive.  Examples of this would include: “I prefer to focus on my core work than retrospect. That’s where I feel most productive.”; “What we talk about at the retro is less important than what I’m working on right now.”; “We talk and talk, but we don’t actually do anything.”

I would say that most participants in a retrospective will identify to some degree with the “uncomfortable” and / or “unproductive” views of a retrospective.  Rather than viewing this as a problem to solve, I would suggest that these “dislikes” are an opportunity for the team to explore with curiosity.  So consider…

Making retrospectives comfortable. Consider on a personal and team level: “What needs to happen so that everyone can engage with the activity?  What are different ways that we can share ideas, sample different points of view, and be at ease with different attitudes on the team?”

Making retrospectives productive. Consider on a personal and team level: “What needs to happen to make these gatherings productive? Are we talking about the most important problem impacting the team’s ability to deliver value?  If not, then what will it take for us to do that? How do we hold ourselves accountable to our decisions and actions coming out of the retrospective?”

If the retrospective is generating some dislike on your team, then perhaps the time has come to have a Retro on Retros?

Agile Teaching 103

At this point, you’re almost home. You’ve set the context for learning (Agile Teaching 101), you’ve created memorable lessons (Agile teaching 102), and one more thing remains…

We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” – John Holt

I’d like to advocate for the value of “homework” or practice as an invaluable teaching tool. It is every bit as important for grown-ups as it is for children because every student (young or old) experiences some level of apprehension or fear when faced with something new.

If you’ve done your job as a teacher, then you have participated in bringing your student to an uncomfortable edge by introducing something new to his reality. If you want your lesson to translate into your student’s every day life… and I sincerely hope you do, because that should be your success criteria… you will have to help him to overcome his fear of trying out his newly discovered skills.

Therefore, in all that you teach, there should be an opportunity for your students to practice what they’ve learned in a supportive and safe environment. This will give them the opportunity to gain the confidence in themselves and their team (yes, group work IS important) that will allow them to use what they’ve learned in the days to come.

Happy Teaching 😀

Agile Teaching 102

Now that you’ve created a good foundation for your teaching, you’ll be ready to dig into the some new stuff with your students.  Here’s my second tip for your consideration…

“All learning is done through meaningful association.”

This picks up directly from Teaching 101’s “Teach them where they are at” idea from last week.

If your goal is to have your students retain what you have to teach, then you’ll need to help them create connections between what they already know and what you would like them to learn. Memory is a key component to learning and your new lessons will only “stick”, if you can find a way for your student to capture and own that knowledge.

Start with what is familiar to them and create connections to the new material. In this spirit, it doesn’t hurt to throw in as many different styles of learning while you are at it. For dry material, I’ve been known to sing at my students and dance like a fool in front of them… anything to help create a meaningful and memorable connection to what’s new. If you are truly interested in teaching and haven’t read Gardner’s book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, then you might want to put that book at the top of your reading list soon to explore different types of learning in order to integrate this into your teaching tool set.

Stay tuned next week for the next installment in this series… Agile Teaching 103… 😀