Best Laid Plans…

I am one of the co-organizers of a local Agile Meetup group (APLN-Chicago).  Our monthly meetings are generally attended by folks in one of two camps:  The first, I’ll call the Agile Seekers — people who would not consider themselves experts, but are there to learn the what/why/how of Agile.  The second group I’ll call the Agile Explorers — people with practical experience in Agile, who are looking to test the edges of Agile and finding/sharing new ways of plying their craft.  On most nights, we manage to strike a pretty good balance between the different camps, finding ways to leverage the experience to feed the learning, and everyone walks away with something positive.  I wish I could say it always works that way, but last night it kind of got away from me.

And I feel bad about that.

But I’m an Agilist, and that means I accept the reality of failure, and seek to learn from it when it happens.

So, here is what I learned last Thursday night…

The topic of the night was “Acceptance Criteria for Agile Coaches”.  I came into the night with a basic outline of what we would do.  First, identify different types of Agile Coaching engagements, then break out into groups (open-space style) and discuss the expectations placed on a coach in that scenario, and how you would measure success in that scenario.  Then we all reconvene and present our findings/learnings/lists to the group.

Two things happened that poked a hole in that plan.  First, the number of coaches in the room was relatively small compared to the number of seekers.  So the group more or less determined by general acclamation that they didn’t want to do breakout sessions, and would rather stick to a single group discussion.  The second issue was that we had one seeker in attendance who had a practical example of an struggling agile project that crossed into many different areas of coaching that could be applied to address parts of that struggle.  As this attendee related details of the situation, most of the coaches in the room started to engage in asking clarifying questions, and generally probing the complex problem to figure out where the landmines were… <cue Indy voice: “Landmines (snakes), why did it have to be landmines (snakes)”>

A few minutes into the probing, I noticed that each coach seemed to have zeroed in on a different problem/challenge.  I quietly went around from coach to coach and confirmed to myself that they were all aiming at a different aspect.  Maybe this would be a chance to break the group up by problem area, focusing on a different aspect of this one case study.  When I reached the last coach in the chain, they offered a perspective that was completely different from the rest.  Instead of focusing on solving the problem(s), they pointed out that the level of frustration that our ‘client’ was expressing wasn’t being acknowledged, and would serve as a barrier to the advice the others were offering.  They suggested that some personal coaching might help open the door.  The notion intrigued me.   This was definitely an angle nobody else had considered, so I asked the group if they’d allow the ‘coach’ and ‘client’ to try something.

Most of the group cautiously agreed to give it fifteen minutes.  So the coach and the client sat facing each other, and the rest gathered around in a circle to watch and learn.  The coach sat in a neutral position, fairly close to the client, and spoke in a very soft, even voice.  I won’t go into details of their conversation, but suffice to say, that within a few minutes of asking for and granting permission, the client had affirmed that they were comfortable allowing the coach to ask questions, and that there was a mutual agreement about the boundaries and limits of the discussion.  We sat, and watched and waited to see how it would turn out.  I had to admit it was an exceptional demonstration of active listening.  The coach dug around a little, and said it sounded as if the client felt stuck.  “Yes”, came the reply.  The group leaned in a little closer.  It seemed to be getting to the verge of a breakthrough.  Sure, it had taken a little more than fifteen minutes to get there, but there was going to be a payoff.  An ah-ha.  Something.  Any minute now.

By this time, I noticed a few of the audience members were disengaging from the exchange.  It seemed that to them, the payoff wasn’t going to be worth the time we were spending.  I understood their angst.  What had it been, twenty?  twenty-five minutes?  And counting.  I tried to subtly get the coach’s attention.  Interrupting at this moment felt like it would be a violation.  After another minute, the coach said quietly to the client, “I’m very conscious of the time we’ve spent.”   I breathed a sigh of relief.  Cool.  Home stretch.

A few more questions were asked.  Another anenue was suddenly opened.  Still not agile.  “What does your perfect future look like?”  Several members of the crowd stood up apologetically, and left.  The coach finally ended the questioning at about the forty minute mark, and then asked if the audience members could share their one-word thoughts on what they had witnessed.  Some words like ‘truth’ and ‘openness’ were expressed.  Good words.  Appropriate words.  I thought this might be a good time to bring this back around to our topic.  “Okay, so that was an example of personal coaching.  What would you guys say the Acceptance Criteria should be?  How would the coach or client measure success here?”  “What other kinds of Coaching could we bring to bear in this situation?”

Too late.  We were now in the tail end of our last half hour.  The crowd was dispersing.

And then something happened.  Something really important, and half the room missed it.

The coach slid their chair backward, increasing the distance to the client.  One or two of the other coaches in the room tried to resume probing questions with the client.  They seemed intent on doing something to salvage the moment; to get it back on track.  From my vantage point behind the client, it may have been easier to spot.  Shoulders tensed.  Arms were brought up across their chest.  The tone of their voice changed from one of accepting vulnerability, to defensive and … stuck.

It took less than thirty seconds.

Whatever groundwork had been laid – whatever conditions had been established, were erased.

To me, the important lesson here was one for the coaches.  We engage our clients with the goal of imparting necessary skills and of shepherding them through strange situations.  We each have a lot of experience in seeing Agile applied in a variety of environments and settings.  We have a collection of patterns we each have come to recognize and apply.  We see the danger points and the blind spots. We fill the role of trusted advisors, teachers and mentors.  That is the value we bring.  But these are all mechanical things.  They speak to environments and processes.  And sometimes, we forget that these environments are made up of people.  An Agile transformation is not just a collection of events and skills that need to be learned.  It is more than behaviors that need to be changed.  There are people in there.  Those people have feelings. Feelings get messy.  You may want to, but you can never disregard them.

Don’t be so quick to pre-judge an outcome.  Sometimes, there is more to be gained in the quiet conversations than in hours of lecture.

So back to our topic.  How do we know when we’re done?

Is there really a simple checklist that can be followed?  For the mechnical aspects, yes.  Definitiely.  All team members trained.  All process requirements leaned out. Continuous improvement and feedback loops firmly established and functioning. Transparency.  Productivity.  But there is a definite soft side to this as well.

Are we done when we have won over the hearts and minds of our charges?  All of them?  Or just some?  Some will follow our guidance willingly, even eagerly.  Some will bide their time, waiting to see results before they make their decision to buy in.  Some will fight it – maybe out of fear. Maybe out of mistrust.  Maybe because they feel like they are stuck in the middle.

-Michael Marchi

Oh!  And as for lessons learned about facilitation.  I do believe there was value in allowing the individual coaching demonstration.  I just think I needed to enforce a time limit on the discussion.  Maybe I’ll get a little bell… a soft chime to remind everyone that we’ve reached the end of a timebox.  The individual case study could have continued as a smaller breakout session, while the rest of the group could return to the main topic.

Author: Michael Marchi

Michael Marchi CSM, CSPO, CSP-SM, CSP-PO, RSASP, AHF Management Consultant / Agile Coach & Trainer @ 42 North Unlimited ( Co-Founder and Board Member @ APLN Chicago ( Co-Host [here's this agile thing] podcast (

One thought on “Best Laid Plans…”

  1. Michael, Here’s a bell I’ve been using for over a decade:

    I came because the topic & questions were exactly what I needed. I’m still hoping the coaches could contribute their offline.


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