Are you that agile coach who just asks frustrating questions?

coach asks frustrating questions post-it on a cork board

Have you been frustrated asking an agile coach a question just to feel that they ask you back questions that are unhelpful and do not get you unstuck? Literally you ask a question and they always ask a question back? But it’s not just any question, to understand your context. It’s those odd, philosophical questions, or overly practical ones, that are misplaced considering your situation?

🖐 Me too. I’m going to tell you a quick story that happened to me years ago, when I was just starting out as an agile coach. The only thing I had to back myself on that title in my career, other than my past as an agile developer and scrum master, was Lyssa Adkin’s book.

I went to this big agile gathering because learning is a fantastic journey and being surrounded by my agile peers turns out is a great way to stay connected and grow as a person and a professional. And I needed growth!

I’m sharing this story with you for two reasons:

  1. I want to be in solidarity to you if you ever been in such similar situations, where an agile coach just asks frustrating questions that do not help you move the needle in your issue.
  2. I don’t want you to be that agile coach that asks the frustrating questions, so I’m going to share perspective on how to be instead.

The story

I was very excited because in the event there was a booth called “Ask the coach” and the initiative is that you could come in and ask questions to an agile coach in private. So, all those nagging doubts you have when you are transitioning into the role, and you don’t want to feel silly or not knowledgeable are kept at bay.

NOTE: While people like to say you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about asking questions and I obviously agree, I would be naive if I did not acknowledge that it is normal to not want to be so vulnerable in front of a crowd of unknown people. While I believe most humans are great fellas, you know, there is judgment out there and I think it’s OK if you want to protect yourself.

Back to the story.

I was a new agile coach and I was now coaching this team who was perceived as the most fantastic agile team ever in this company.

And they were good! They had no problem delivering anything. Except… they also saw no problem in breaking builds and development pipelines and disturbing others in the process. They would “fix that later”; that was their thought process. Their approach to test and quality was less than ideal compared to teams that did not “deliver as much”.

The quotes are literally how people would refer to these points!

See the issue here? It’s obviously not just with the team that a conversation was needed, but hey, the team has the power to take quality in their own hands as well. Especially this team, who had some sort of political influence inside the organization.

So there I was, in front of the booth, having booked myself to the 10am spot. The chat was 10 minutes long max and breaks of 5 minutes for the coaches.

So here’s an approximation of my conversation went with the coach:

Me: “I want to help a team who thinks they don’t need to improve at all to think about quality. I notice points where they could improve, but I don’t know how to bring it to the team. What could I do?”

Coach: “What could you do? Put it on post-its.”

Me: “I’m not sure. I came here to collect insights.”

Coach: “Just try it.”

Me: I then do it the brain dump and very insightful stuff comes up such as “don’t say anything”, “say what I think”, “ask them about quality and improvement.”.

Coach: “What else?” “Anything else?”

Me: I’m stressed looking at the clock and nothing else comes up

the coach who asks frustrating questions lets you without insight
That’s what I left with, filled with non-insightful things

And faster than I ever thought possible our 10 minutes together were over.

This is not agile coaching

What I’d like to point out is that the booth was called “Ask the coach, not “The coach asks”.

You see, agile coaches ask questions, sure. But they ask appropriate questions. They consider the context.

Simply asking questions is not coaching. Coaches ask powerful questions.

Last, but not least agile coaches do more than ask questions. They can state opinions and techniques and teach and show how to do things. They are expert coaches.

So that was a missed opportunity with an agile coach that asks frustrating questions. Lucky for me there were other coaches and half an hour later I, recollected , came back to the booth and approached another agile coach.

What you could do instead

Consider that there are many stances an agile coach holds. You can think of them as hats you wear.

Different hats for different occasions. A baseball cap during a game. A fancy hat during horse races in UK. I’d probably would not switch them, or I would stand out in the wrong way in the event. The hat would be inappropriate.

Same with coaching stances. They can be more or less appropriate to the circumstances at hand. Let’s take a look having my story in mind.

1 – Wear the hat of a teacher

In the case of a teacher, you mention, teach, show concepts and tools that you think apply to the problem at hand.

Here’s an example form the same agile gathering when I met a wonderful agile coach who really did help me. Back then he taught me about the existence of the SCARF model and the impact this has in communication for group collaboration and effectiveness.

He gave me a tool to move forward. He showed me examples where to apply it. That’s what a teacher would do. He can’t fully do the work to actually use it to my case, but he trusted I was smart enough to fit it into my specific context.

And fit it I did. And since then, SCARF has become one of my dearest work tools in communications of all kinds, including my personal life.

2 – Wear the hat of a mentor

In the case of a mentor stance, the key difference is that you would tap into your own personal and professional experience to help the person who asked the question. You could say “Here’s something that has worked for me” and then give the context and the idea.

When the other person hears and sees it in action, they can judge for themselves what part of that is applicable to their own experience. This allows for a more in-depth investigation. It contains a ton of nuance, and you can usually ask more questions about the experience.

For example, I could mentor you in this right now by telling you the story of how I approached the issue with that team eventually: I already started in the previous section when I mentioned SCARF. I literally spent a week studying the model and creating dialogues to understand how things sounded and how other people would receive the message I was trying to convey.

What I wanted was to make sure the team would not feel offended, would actually get excited, and would feel invited to co-create the solution with me. I decided to run a workshop with them in which we experienced different levels of quality for paper-folded toys (that we all created) and then had a long debrief on how that could be seen in their case as a development team. The theme was learning and growing.

What was nice about it is that some people knew origami (and I knew they knew it) and still saw the value in the activity. It turned out being even more relevant about the discussion on how much you can still make progress even when you are already good at something.

I’m obviously omitting details so that you can read this post in less than 20 minutes. But that’s me, mentoring you on how I applied SCARF, how I used my knowledge of the team composition and strengths, and how I took my time to show up to them as a coach who was inspired to see them become even more effective.

If you want to explore more about mentoring, I briefly shared my thoughts about a mentoring as a blog post before.

3 – Wear the hat of a coach

Finally, yes, you can wear the hat of a coach, even if you have only 10 minutes to talk to someone.

The key thing though is that as a coach you ask questions that open the thinking gates of their interlocutor. A question such as “How can you do that?”, when someone just asked you “How can I do this?” in a time-sensitive manner, more often than not shuts down the other person, annoys the other person and everything in between.

Here’s how I would have coached younger Petula could I go back in time and break the 4th dimension barrier. Some of the questions I could have asked:

  • How do you want to use our 10 minutes together?
    • in case I just wanted some quick teaching (you know, it’s not forbidden). Or any other thought I might have. You know, if I’m coaching you, you are on the driver’s seat, so what do you want?
  • What have you already tried?
    • Recognize I’m resourceful and understand what I’ve already done.
  • Do you have something in mind already?
    • Recognize I’m resourceful and help me verbalize my ideas to implement if I have any.
  • What’s preventing you from talking to the team about this topic?
    • Recognize that if no feelings were involved, I could have just talked to the team already. So what is it that I am actually looking for?

And you know what? Here’s how I now know how to answer that final and vital question:

That team was considered stellar. So I really did not want to give them any less than a stellar experience when approaching the subject. Also, that team loved games and I’m a geek, but not the gamer type, although I do like to play. So, I wanted to create a playful experience for them (like I mentioned above) since that’s their natural “language”, instead of forcing them to speak mine.

Finally, time permitting I would have asked:

  • What is it that you want to do with what we just talked about?

Because I would want younger Petula to leave the conversation committed to moving forward and taking the steps to have that interesting conversation with the team.

a lesson I want you to have too

Today I thank that coach who asked frustrating questions because not only I learned about SCARF that day, but I also help my team become even better, I grew my abilities as a facilitator and eventually I learned a lot about coaching by experiencing non-coaching, a coach who asks frustrating questions.

One of the most important things I learned as an agile coach is that people will come to you with a question that is not what it seems ad first. Don’t take it at face value. If it was all that simple, the person or the whole team would have done it already. There are hidden parts on feelings, biases, fear and hope behind any question or ask for help you receive.

So even if you don’t have more than 10 minutes you can choose to show up as a coach to the person in need. And then they are also at freedom to ask you to just teach them some technique and even quick hack.

What are your thoughts and experiences on this topic?