Agile Project Management
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by Geof Lory
As an agile project leader, a big part of my job is coaching. A big part of coaching (as opposed to managing) is helping individuals and teams change, and change starts with feedback. But sometimes when I give feedback that does not validate what someone wants to do — or, even worse, straight-up shoots it down — they fight the feedback (and sometimes fight me). The person is looking for validation, but when you’re trying to improve, you don’t need validation. You need truth. My job as a coach is to speak the truth.
To initiate change you have to admit that what you are doing is not working. This can be challenging when our convictions are strong. As powerful as the ego is, it is also easily bruised and skilled at protecting itself. So rather than challenge the ego head-on, inspect what you’re getting from what you’re doing.
To do this, try these words: How’s that working for you?
When someone is explaining their situation and asks for your opinion (or you feel compelled to offer your opinion), I suggest you first consider asking, “How’s that working for you?” I have found that this simple question is a powerful tool for unfreezing current behaviors and safely inviting alternative actions.
Here’s why this thought-provoking question works so well:
- It’s an invitation to curiosity. Asking how something is working is an invitation to engage in a deeper conversation. If I just provide a quick response with my opinion on the situation, the other person might simply accept my response as somehow being authoritative, right or wrong, which might end the discussion. Inviting important information with this question promotes a deeper conversation.
- It’s empirically focused. This question tests feelings, thoughts, and biases against cold, hard reality. You’re not asking what they imagine or what they think. You’re asking about their observation and awareness of what’s really happening. Reality can be cruel, so it is not unusual to want to ignore it, but it is what it is. Deal with it.
- It’s non-judgmental. Asking how it’s working asks them to self-evaluate. You don’t have to judge anything. It does, however, force intellectual honesty. Once they examine their own situation and collect factual data, they are likely to reach that uncomfortable moment of truth. They are forced to decide whether to accept what is or continue to deny it. By itself, the question does not provide the solution, but at least you know the answer is not to continue doing the same thing as before.
- It’s self-reflective. Asking how something is working forces introspection. It solicits a self-analysis of the approach. Sometimes people have given the situation thoughtful consideration and can quickly provide their opinion on how things are going. But many times people haven’t yet invested the effort to examine the situation and might be hoping I can save them the trouble by giving my opinion. Asking how it’s going forces them to reflect on their own situation and take responsibility for it.
- It’s largely binary. Usually it’s either working or it isn’t, and when it isn’t, we all know it. The empirical evidence determines the answer, without subjective interpretation. No fuzziness. No hemming and hawing. Just a simple yes or no. A solid admission that it’s not working tips the scale and breaks the emotional bond with the current behavior.
- It stops you from problem-solving. Those you coach may want you to provide answers, and you may feel compelled to oblige, but the reality is that you don’t know everything. (Please don’t tell my kids; as a dad, I’m still milking that one.) And even if you did have the answer, the change will be more sustainable if you can lead them to their own solution. Asking this question keeps you from immediately jumping into problem solving.
There is a proverb: When the student is ready, the teacher appears. All the coaching, instruction, and guidance in the world will never take root if the soil is not conditioned to accept it. This simple question loosens the hardened soil and prepares it for something new. It readies the student for learning and change.
While this question is a great coaching tool, the best part is that we can use it on ourselves too. We all get stuck from time to time, and this question invites us to look at our assumptions and actions and ask ourselves on a regular basis, “How’s that working for me?” If the answer is “Not so great,” then we can continue our monologue with, “So what do I plan to do about it?”
Once we are willing to admit that what we are doing is not working for us, the magic can start. The facts are undeniable; we said so ourselves. Turning back would be foolish. Now all that is left is to look forward and accept accountability for the change that is necessary.
There are many phrases my daughters would attribute to me and my parenting style, but I’m sure that if I were to ask them they would say this one is at the top of the list. I grew up in an environment where I was allowed to make my own mistakes, and I made a lot of them — often the same ones over and over again, as my determination and pride were stronger than my common sense. My father typically sat patiently, waiting for the student to appear.
So the next time you see a little insanity, try this easy question. I’ll be interested to read your comments below. Let me know how that’s working for you.