My Offer Of Being Helpful A Little Everyday (almost)

What makes the world go around?  I think part of the secret sauce of what makes the world worth enduring is neither money nor fame. I think that it is being helpful to other people – personally and professionally.

One of my life strategies is giving freely what I have to get what I want. I practice this both professionally and personally and it has overwhelmingly been a successful strategy. Living this way has brought me into some pretty interesting collaborations and I’ve met so many beautiful people.

So I want to do more of this.

I have decided to offer time  – one hour a day, 4 days each week – to anyone, from anywhere to explore anything. 

SoHelpful

 

Details of my Offer

  • I shall be using SoHelpful.me to offer this help and it will be free, forever. Book me on my SoHelpful.me page.
  • The slots are 30 minutes long and to make it most accessible there are slots AM and the PM and are typically available Monday-Thursday.
  • The slots are first come/first served and are open to individuals and groups.
  • It is free to book and meet with me during those times. I will never charge for this time, though I reserve the right to cancel it.
  • Even though it is free – I am asking and trusting that people who book me do not undervalue my time by not showing up without notice.
  • Recurring bookings are discouraged because I want as many people to have a chance to get some help. But I may make exceptions.

How Might You Use This

Here are some ideas depending on your context of how you might use this:

  • You’re thinking of starting a Startup – I can help by sharing what I have done and what I am doing – also what I have learnt. Or mostly I can shut up and listen and help you sanity check your approach, devise experiments etc. Let’s see, why not book a slot on my SoHelpful.me page
  • You’re working in a broken company and need to talk to someone who understands – I work in trying to help broken companies fix themselves and help people get more Joy. I can help with strategies to create awareness for change in your company.
  • You are part of an agile team/department/company and would like to get some help about practices, pains etc – I’ve worked with agile teams for over 12 years and coached companies for over 7. I can help development, product  and management people. Maybe I can remote facilitate something, observe and help you improve your process or help with some mini training. Let’s explore –  book a slot on my SoHelpful.me page
  • You are trying to find strategies for enabling conversations in your circles and life – I struggle with this too and I can help with building rapport, asking powerful questions, facilitating large groups and having non-violent communication. Book a slot on my SoHelpful.me page and let’s get the conversation started.
  • You just need someone to talk to who will listen, never judge and will only offer suggestions if you invite them? Let’s do it – book a slot on my SoHelpful.me page

I’m excited about this decision and my offer. It fulfils my need to be helpful and be the shoulders that others might stand upon as they reach for their stars.

I look forward to being so helpful to you on my SoHelpful.me page 

psst… do someone a favour and share this.


Featured Image By: Murray BarnesCC BY 2.0

My conclusions from doing 30 days of free remote organisation coaching

In December, I made this offer and invited help to learn how it might work. I got 11 responses and chose 3 organisations to work with. As the experiment evolved, I shared some early lessons and more here.

With the experiment now complete, here are some conclusions I can draw both from qualitative feedback from doing the experiment and quantitative feedback from surveys conducted during the experiment.

Always face to face before going remote. Always!

I had two groups that I met with and worked with, face to face,  for 2 days as a kickstart to the experiment. During this time I made the invitation  as sincerely as I possibly could, reinforcing it regularly during the workshops in my actions and through my language.

This facetime was essential in creating the bridges through which future collaboration. People had online conversations with a friendly personality they knew by name and sight and someone they had laughed with and exchanged stories with vs simply a voice on the end of the phone.

The third group did not have the facetime, we simply spent 2-3 hours online using tools to create the improvement lists and to make the invitation. Whilst this may have generated the same outputs – stuff to improve – I don’t think it we ended with the same outcomes – great rapport and bridges. This third group whilst still somewhat engaged, lost interest very quickly and had fewer collaborative sessions with me and with each other.  I also got quantitative feedback that this group would have preferred a face to face workshop at the start.

Remote work tools generally suck

I tried to keep tools to a minimum. Mostly we used google docs and Trello for online collaboration. For communications I tried lots of different tools – iMeet, Skype, GotoMeeting and Google hangouts.

Each tool had its benefits and drawbacks, but the take-away for me is that anything that travels on the interweb is going to be slow and unpredictable at various times. So I need backups and alternatives.

Most effective for me, was not the tech but the design of the sessions. The secret for me was to have shorter sessions with fewer people and to use video sparingly, maximise visual collaboration – ex: google docs to draw vs speak.

Buzzwords like “Agile”, “Scrum” are turn offs

From the very first improvement workshop – it was clear to me that people lost interest in the conversation when we talked on Scrum, Kanban and even Agile. The conversation suddenly stopped being about them – the people and their needs – but about the tools.

Everyone had some opinion why ‘technique A’  wouldn’t work. Different ‘truths’ about how these techniques work and experiences of ‘how’ they work.

At the risk of introducing yet another over-used word, I tried to steer the groups away from dwelling too much on techniques, but focus instead on outcomes and on some fundamental truths.

Keep the focus on effectiveness

Overwhelmingly across all the groups, ‘effectiveness’ was the key word that everyone could get their head round. It wasn’t divisive – even if we didn’t define it explicitly, everyone had a similar understanding that it was about making things better.

I  helped by offering my perspective on 4 elements of ‘effectiveness’: Value – what we are building/doing, Flow – how smoothly are we building/doing it , Quality – how suitable for purpose it is and how easily are we able to keep doing it and, finally, Joy – how do we each feel doing what we are doing.
(Major hat tip to Emergn and Joshua Arnold for their invaluable work on Value, Flow and Quality  – VFQ).
I invited everyone to consider effectiveness to be these 4 elements in balance; or the first 3 at levels that keep the 4th – joy – high and trending higher.

Most people – more than 80% of all participants – understood and agreed with this simple perspective on effectiveness.

Improvements take time and persistence

Without a doubt, the energy of the workshops and the enthusiasm for improvement was really high at the end of the workshops with all the groups. I believe the openness of the invitation helped the participants give the whole thing the benefit of the doubt and participate more fully. I was really impressed, yet concerned.

I worried about how could we transfer this energy into the work to continue the improvements when people got back into  their ‘day jobs’. I was concerned because I thought it would be difficult and undesirable for a single individual to sustain work on any improvement  item, so  I suggested that groups of between 3 and 5 form around each of the most popular improvement items that we dot voted on and prioritised by the number of votes.

Yet, despite the groups forming, the improvement work – even just meeting to explore questions that could yield greater understanding – still took time to get off the ground. In one case we didn’t even get to have the weekly reviews until the very last one, where it then turned out that there had been a lot of activity that had happened to move the improvements forward!

Persistence is hugely important – at one point, only two out of the five members of one working group turned up to have their conversation. I was so glad they persisted – because what they discovered helped attract greater interest in that improvement and more people joined later.

There is a need!

In my experiment, I worked with over 80 people in total – some more closely than others. Most had experienced some kind of ‘injection’ consultancy and most had generally a negative view of this model of consultants coming in – usually to coach or work with a team in Scrum/Kanban or something packaged – disrupting how people are working and then leaving after a few weeks or months. Most often, people shared that they just went back to how they worked – a bit more disillusioned.

The management in the various groups also generally felt they got less valuable outcomes from these engagements for the amount of money and time invested and disruption that everyone endured.

Almost universally, participants welcomed help and support to help them to focus on their improvements and explore different ideas and experiences to help them work on the items.

I believe there is a need because of a fundamental problem that many organisations have. Here are what I believe are the crux of the problem:

  • There are always things to be improved and some of them are critical.
    Each group averaged 26-35 things they would like to improve. Some of these were pretty big things –  like ‘getting more customers’ and  ‘feeling more appreciated for my work’.
  • Improvements take time and effort.
    During the experiment, most of what people shared were symptoms and therefore needed deeper exploration to understand, diagnose and find solutions for. It took time to get people together, time to explore the questions and sift through data. Most of this time was ‘stolen’ from the other time that people are normally busy.
  • There is a general lack of facilitation skills in companies.
    The biggest discovery for me – a huge proponent of self organisation – was that empowerment with permission is not enough for people to self organise. To do it effectively and to enjoy it requires supporting that empowerment with facilitation skills. If self organisation means everyone having pointless meetings that go on and on with no measurable outcome, then it is little wonder that groups would rather be told what to do than be more autonomous. My belief now is that everyone should have basic facilitation skills as a fundamental requirement to work with others. Basic techniques to get a group together with clearly articulated purpose, a framework to explore the purpose and means to converge the conversation into summaries, clear next steps and action.
  • The people who can best explore the problems that need improvement are hardly ever invited to do so.
    This is perhaps one of the biggest aspects of the problem that I observed. The experiment was based entirely on making an invitation -a request – for which there were no consequences for not accepting. Even with the invitation made, I got regular feedback about the fear of it not being genuine or genuinely supported by management. I found myself having to reiterate and reinforce the open-heartedness of the invitation often.

The core need that I identified and validated is that people involved in the improvement work need help, access to expertise and support at a pace that suits them. Most importantly, I discovered that there is a distinction to the way the help must be presented – friendly, empathic partnership is preferable to pushing knowledge or being an aloof teacher/trainer/’guru’.

What Next?

So, I have data, many mostly satisfied experiment participants, plenty of learning, great ideas and some validated conclusions. What next?

I am working on finalising the details of a new service to meet this need that I have identified and validated and I will be sharing it soon. I would really love your input when I have something to share.

If you would like to learn more about the smaller details of the experiment or are thinking of running something similar, consider booking a free slot on my new soHelpfulMe page and I would happily spill the beans about how it worked, the gotchas, what I would do differently and even share some of the feedback – anonymously , of course. 

For all other comments – please use the commenting system or tweet me @mhsutton. Please consider sharing this post. Thanks.

Why I might not want to work with you

I pride myself on being able to find common ground with most people. To find the shared value and work with them to achieve it.

The joy of working with people who truly value you and are open to ideas is unsurpassed. Exploring the challenges whilst still respecting each other, disagreeing whilst still collaborating deeply – these are all hallmarks of passionate working relationships. This is what I now unreservedly seek.

I’ve spent years gaining and honing skills and techniques to build rapport, to understand people and their needs and to build bridges between my world view and theirs. It has been enormously insightful and satisfying.

But all that experience has also taught me a ton of stuff and helped me come to the conclusion that there are certain behaviours that I do not want to work with it. Ever again.

8 Behaviours I Don’t Want to Work With

 It isn’t about people as much as it is about behaviours that people, in certain situations, exhibit. Here are the top showstoppers for me:

  1. Having and operating an agenda that is about controlling others.
  2. Withholding material information from me about what and, more importantly, why  we are doing what we are doing.
  3. Demonstrating a lack of openness to ideas.
  4. Reluctance, even when supported, to express how you feel and what you need.
  5. Being dismissive of attempts to create more openness between you, me and others.
  6. Applying the ‘power’ you have in an organisation in a coercive and authoritarian way.
  7. Treating people like resources and using that word easily and happily.
  8. Undervaluing human connectedness and ‘soft’ skills like empathy, trust and respect

Life is too short

There are a few simple reasons I have reached this place, but the most important for me – I think – is that life is too short.

Life is too short to waste it with people who take joyfully but give reluctantly.  It is too short to struggle on an on  against mindsets that are in constant conflict on the most fundamental of values.

Life is too short to spend even a moment on work that is entirely unfulfilling – where you are neither contributing nor benefiting.  It is too short to spend it playing the political games that burn time with little real value.

Yet life is too short not to work with behaviours that joyfully embrace diversity of approach, thought and experience. It is not long enough to really explore the unexplored awesomeness of passionate people. Life is too short not to seek value in joy or to separate ‘life’ from ‘work’. And that is what I want to work with now – for the rest of my life. 

What behaviours would prevent you from working deeply and unreservedly with someone else? I’d love to hear from you via comments or @mhsutton on Twitter.

Why You Might Need To Hire Differently To Fix Your Broken Company

Recently I’ve been working on an experiment to learn how to help companies improve by working with them remotely. This experience inspired me to write about broken companies, where you can get a better idea of what I mean by ‘broken’.

The difficulty I find most often in working with companies trying to improve themselves is that a new conversation needs to be started and it is often a difficult conversation to have. It is difficult for three major reasons:

  1. An organisation and its management have to acknowledge that there are problems that they cannot fix on their own. Acknowledging this can be a big deal – especially in companies that have a rich history of blame for things perceived as failure.
  2. Few –  if any –  of the people who need to be in the conversation have ever experienced being open-heartedly asked to join and take part fully in the conversation – at least not in a way that makes it OK to say ‘No’.
  3. Few –  if any – of the people in the organisation, know or have experience of facilitating this particular type of conversation.

Most employees were not hired to help improve companies.

Almost every company I have known in over 20 years of my working life has hired almost exclusively for function and competence at function – they hire people to do the job they want doing. In this regard people serve a functional purpose, just as a telephone serves a functional purpose, or a stapler serves a function. Yet human beings are so much more than simply functional resources.

So people join companies primarily to do what they were hired to do – not explicitly invited to take part in the continuous improvement of the company, themselves and each other. As people move from job to job, the invitation is never made. Until one day they get to a company that does make the explicit invitation and they have no idea how to do contribute to help make things better.

Continuous improvement of the sort that I believe in – where we are individually and collectively focused on improving both our product (and services) and each other in the process takes people who care. It is not the kind of continuous improvement that is mandated from above. The input about what needs fixing comes from the same people who will play a key part in fixing it – everyone. I’ve often heard this referred to as ‘bottom up’. I do not agree with this – because it implies that in this approach there is still a ‘top’. In fact there is no hierarchy when we have this conversation – we are all equal partners, albeit with different responsibilities.

I once invited a group of developers in a company to a brown bag session to explore what things they thought needed improvement and what capabilities they thought might enhance their effectiveness. As the invitation went out, I got responses from a number people who said they weren’t interested. One in particular elaborated on why he wasn’t interested. This email created such an impression on me that I saved the most relevant quote. Which I share with you now.

We are here to code this software and we have too much to do – I’m not fucking interested in helping anyone else to get things better – that is what we have managers for , isn’t it?

I often wonder how many of the people I have met in the companies I have worked with who feel this way but never say it, but act on it nevertheless. How many work in your company?

Now I also wonder how many of those same people would have applied for the jobs if they had been explicitly invited to help the company continuously improve – not through some bullshit HR feedback system – but through full participation and ownership of both the problems and the solutions. How many would be willing to take the empowerment that was offered and seek sustainable improvements through collaboration? How many would in your company?

Invitation? But joining in improvements is implied, isn’t it?

Often when I talk to groups about why an explicit invitation is essential, I often get people who roll their eyes and say “but it’s kind of implied, isn’t it?”. Of course, it is reasonable to assume it is implied if we are ourselves readily do it. Expecting of others what we do naturally is common human behaviour. It is also one of the commonest ways we inflict violence on ourselves and others. By expecting that others will behave in the way we think is implied often results in disappointment which often leads to judgements – ‘they are incompetent, they are selfish, they are <insert your moral judgement here>’.

I feel pretty strongly about this and see a strong analogy with  date rape.

A guy invites a girl out for dinner, a movie and some drinks – maybe even coffee. After the date, she drops him at his place and he invites her up for ‘coffee’. Is sex implied with coffee? What happens if the girl doesn’t recognise that implication and actually has no intention to have sex with the guy? For her, the invitation to coffee was exactly for a beverage. What happen if she says ‘No’? Whilst this situation may not always end in rape, one has to wonder what moral judgements emerge as a result, what coercion was applied, what suffering caused?

All this because an explicit invitation wasn’t made.

I deeply believe that whatever is risked by making an explicit invitation to join a mutually beneficial activity is returned several times over by the explicit buy-in and commitment that those who say ‘Yes’ give back.

Hire differently

I believe that it is a form of violence to demand people to do something they had no explicit knowledge they would be asked to do and then, if they do it ineffectively, to chastise them. Yet I see this happen often. The chastisement is not often overt, but it is present nonetheless.

This is why I think all organisations that are committed to developing the habits and behaviours of continuous improvement need to fundamentally redesign how they hire, to explicitly include the invitation – not demand – to prospective employees to participate fully in  continuous improvement.

Redesigning how hiring is done is actually the tail end of a longer chain of redesigning activities and attitudinal shifts.

To make the invite, the company has to figure out what continuous improvement means for them – this is the start of the internal invitation. The makers of the invitation – usually management – need to discover what a ‘openhearted invitation’ means and be comfortable enough to make one.

Then the invitation itself needs to be figured out.
If it is too vague, it risks being irrelevant.
If it is too rigid it risks being perceived as a demand and as coercive.
If it is just right, it is easier to have the conversation and demonstrates to the prospective employee that your company is worth taking a risk on.

Are you involved in continuous organisational improvement in your company, I’d love to hear your experiences. Please comment or tweet me: @mhsutton

Why I Wrote This

I wrote this because my mission is for the world  – including and especially the world of work – to be full of JOY.

I wrote this because I wish for the people who work in broken companies to see value and a potential for JOY in joining with others to improve their companies and I want them to realise this potential.

I wrote this because most of the time, I see that a huge amount of misery, frustration and anger could have been avoided by a few open-hearted invitations and conversations and I want to help companies start to have those conversations.

You can help spread JOY in the world by sharing this. Thank you

Is Your Company Broken?

 

Many companies are broken – some deeply.

Yet, many remain profitable – thanks to the evil of ‘maximising shareholder value’ – profits roll in, souls and joy roll out. Others busy themselves with the structural preoccupations of ‘a real business’ – plush offices, sophisticated internal systems and fancy titles. All these add to the illusion that they are not broken.

What is a broken company?

By ‘broken’ I mean there is an abundance of stuff that needs fixing – from communication to the coffee machine and no one is fixing them because they are too busy or they don’t care or both.

Whilst many types of things might be broken, the most critical are the key foundations of human relationships – openness and trust. In broken companies there may be many  people who are disengaged from the wider organisation and feeling disempowered  – though they might excel at the function they were hired for. Broken companies often have processes and procedures that choke deep, meaningful human communication and become increasingly human-unfriendly places to be.

Getting things done in a broken company is like having teeth pulled – painful. People devise workarounds for getting stuff purchased, create defense mechanisms around power-hungry, psychopathic managers, play silly political games to get ahead because that is how the systems seems to work. Others might get by simply by keeping their heads down and hoping for the best.  For others still, there is so much BS that they simply give up and go some place else.

Another aspect of a broken company is the absence of a clear plan for how things get better. Some broken companies attempt to fix themselves by creating a role to be responsible for fixing things for everyone and surround themselves with even more process. This creates an illusion of doing something which is often as problematic as being broken in the first place.

Things will break – sales will sell something we don’t yet have and we will be late at delivering it, servers will fail, suppliers will let us down and colleague we work with will – at some point – not live up to the expectations we have of them. A broken company is not simply a place with things that don’t work. A broken company is a place that is incapable of openly acknowledging and fixing them.

How does a company get broken in the first place

I don’t believe anything starts off broken.

I’ve been involved with companies of all shapes and sizes and I love asking how they got started. If you go back far enough, almost every company was started by people who wanted to make things better – for themselves and others. They saw an opportunity and they provided something – a product or a service – to exploit it. Then they scaled by hiring more people and creating more layers without real thought of how it might evolve.

From my observations I think that as people join a group, they bring with them a culture – ideas, behaviours, experiences, and attitudes – that gets mixed in with the cultures of the people in the existing group and something new emerges. Similar biases are likely to get stronger and groupthink becomes more likely. Ultimately, depending on what the dominant biases are – being closed vs openness , choosing to blame and punish vs collaboratively learning from mistakes and seeking solutions together – certain behaviours will become dominant that that lead companies to or prevent them from being broken.

Incidentally, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a corporate culture. I think each person operates on their own culture – their own set of internal beliefs, ideas and behaviours – which may  all be hugely influenced by the widely held ideas and behaviours. But fundamentally people choose how they behave.

As things don’t work as expected – the dominant behaviours tend to be blame and finger-pointing that sets off a chain of events that results in everyone learning that failure is unacceptable and will be punished. Trust between people is usually the first casualty – at which point it really doesn’t matter what breaks, resolving it becomes very difficult to do. What most companies then do is get policies and grievance procedures in place – as though those will somehow magically restore trust and openness.

From this point on, things still break  – as they always do – but no one cares enough to fix them and the company becomes broken.

So, is your company broken?

Look around where you work and consider these questions to help you figure out if your company is broken.

  • What are the relationships based on? Contract or collaboration?
  • How healthy is the communication? Is it free, open and honest or narrow and defensive
  • To what extent do  you trust the people you work with and how much do they trust you – ask colleagues if you can (and if not, consider the previous point)
  • What is the general level of trust in the company – think of examples.
  • What are the dominant behaviours when stuff  – really important stuff – breaks?

I would love to hear from you – anonymously if necessary – about your experiences of working in companies that you consider broken. Please consider commenting on this post or we can chat about it over twitter.

Why I wrote this

I care that people find joy in their lives and work plays a huge part in most people’s lives.

I wrote this because without acknowledging that some companies are broken and represent an unhealthy places to work, we cannot get to the conversation about improving them and we cannot begin to open the invitation to the very people who can help improve them.

I wrote this because someone may have been silently suffering and enduring an experience that they have felt unable to share and this post gives them a voice. I know I have met people who have been scarred by working in broken companies and not been able to share their feeling.

5 Recent Things I am Learning from My Remote #Coaching Experiment

I have spent the last couple of weeks on the road – travelling to spend two days each with two of the five organisations that are participating in my remote coaching experiment. The time I have spent face to face with these wonderful people has been really humbling and continue to help me validate the reasons that I launched the experiment in the first place. I am learning some really important lessons that will help me shape a possible service and I’d like to share them with you.

#1. It doesn’t really matter where you start the conversation

I once was asked “should we focus on problems or improvement?”. This experiment is teaching me that – if you are interested in a sustainable effective improvement – you cannot seriously explore improvements without really understanding what you are making better i.e. the less effective starting point or problem.

I have experimented with being Problem Focused with some participants in some cases and Solution Focused with others – to get some anecdotal evidence of what is more effective. So far, I think both are equally effective. But hugely dependent on how the conversation is facilitated and also the openness and empathy in the groups.

Ultimately I am learning that you start where you feel most comfortable and what really matters is the commitment to continue the conversation.

#2. People have day jobs, respect that

Every ‘Improvement Discovery’ session I have facilitated emphasises that everyone  has day jobs that affect their bandwidth to work on the things we want to improve. 

I say this to help set expectations of the level of involvement – at various times – that people may experience from themselves and others. 

Despite knowing this in my core, I sometimes find that I feel deeply frustrated when I cannot see any evidence of progress on the items that people signed up to. I wonder to myself:

Don’t they care enough about this problem to drop everything and fix it?
Don’t they respect me enough to do what they committed to?

Then I catch myself and remember that they have day jobs and whilst this is important for them – because they said it was – they also may be having a tough time trying to balance both commitments. Immediately this triggers an empathic response. How can I help them find the time to make the thing they want better, happen?

#3. Being remote requires emotional control

One of the more difficult things that I am experiencing is that, because I’m remote and not physically around the organisation and people, I am less able to easily access the non-verbal communication that is abundant with co-located group. I struggle to sense what is keeping people busy or what is distracting them.

I react in various emotional ways to this lack of input. First I may feel angry – that they are not ‘keeping up their side of the bargain’.
I may also feel unappreciated because ‘don’t they know I am sitting here waiting for them to pull my help’.

My main learning here is to come back to the context – and this is why it is really important to have context – so that I know that this is not personal. I am also learning that recognising that I have a feedback gap is very important. It invites me to share what I am feeling with the group and invite help to address the feedback gap.

#4. Getting Invited is harder than simply barging in

The core of my approach is that people themselves address the exploration of the improvement they seek. We find what we want to improve, prioritise them and then form working groups around each one to frame, explore and discover what concrete actions can be taken to make the improvement. I can facilitate, guide, collaborate, teach, coach and listen – or not –  to the extent that they need me to – but only if I am invited to do so. I call this ‘pull’. This is different from ‘push’ – which is more about me interrupting people – remember they have day jobs – imposing what I think they need. The coaching approach requires that participants understand this is the offer and are comfortable with pulling my involvement.

For the first bit – understanding the offer – I am learning that I need to be more explicit that I am available to be invited and this is really the main way I get involved and being clear about how they can make the invitation – scheduling a meeting, chatting on IM etc.

For the second bit – people feeling comfortable – I am learning  that people find it hard to pull even when they are clear that is the way to get my help. My understanding of why this is the case is evolving but so far being ‘too busy’ keeps coming up as a primary reason.

#5. A month is not very long to change everything

All the groups I am working with have 30+ members and cover almost the entirety of the functions to get stuff out of the door.

You can imagine that so many people have many things they want to improve. Some of these things are cross functional like ‘understanding of the value of what we are building’, others are specific to functions like ‘we need to increase database unit test automation’.

This experiment is 30 days long and is designed almost exclusively for my learning. During this time I want to learn what works and what sucks about working remotely – both for me and my clients. The only way I can really learn is by doing it. So the doing is  necessary but kind of no the aim. That said, once you ask people what they want to improve you better damn well have a plan to help them get those improvements.

So I am learning to be clearer that their journey of continuous improvement has no end date. It is neither constrained by time nor space, but simply by their commitment to work towards better versions of themselves. I simply jump off that line in 30 days as they continue.

Please share your experiences of working remotely in a coaching role or as someone working with a remote coach – I can use all the learnings I can get!

If you are interested in keeping up to date with what I am learning in this experiment – please consider signing up to my email list – I won’t ever spam, sell, share or otherwise pimp you details. Also consider following me on Twitter.


Featured Image By: squidishCC BY 2.0

3 Things #Agile Teams Can Do Today To Improve #Estimates and #Estimating

Over and over again I find teams and organisations that have a chronic problem with ‘estimation’. It is one of the biggest causes of disharmony and mistrust in organisations I have worked with. Many tout ‘agile estimation’ as a process to help address this  and in some aspects it is helpful, yet many teams still struggle.

But it doesn’t have to be so, here are 3 handy tips that can help you. But before you read any further, I’m going to need you to do something – you and all the people seeking estimates and the people doing the estimating.

You have to get together and agree : For what reason(s) are you estimating?

If it is simply to have a number to go into a spreadsheet that you can then use in the defense or prosecution case then stop and go here, you will get far more satisfaction.

If it is to identify risks and inform a collaboration into whether what you are trying to build is worth taking those risks for then read on.

1.  Start Estimating Early

Figure what the minimum you need to start the conversation and then start it. I have found overwhelmingly in over 100 teams I have coached, teams asking to be involved much earlier on and many times the conversation starts with a one-liner and a sense of value. Then teams and the business can explore the risks together and collaborate on ways to minimise them.

The trouble I see most often is that information is not brought to the people who can best use it until the item becomes very important and increasingly urgent. This is the zone no one wants to be in. It adds pressure to the system that hinders collaboration and strains relationships.

2.  Elaborate and Estimate Often

Big bang estimation sessions are motivation killers and reach a point of diminishing value around the 90 minute mark – much sooner if there isn’t the information available for a meaningful conversation. Meaningful information is the key.

If we have nothing new to talk about then let’s not waste everyone’s time talking about it.

The focus is on relentlessly identifying what we do not know about risks that we can reasonably discover without actually building the thing. Then we go find more information about those risks – and in turn discover more about what we should be building, even how we should be building it.

Then we get back together and based on this new information we either know enough to quantify the risks and a sense of time or we have more stuff to go find out.

Most teams that I know getting great results from regular estimation – although they call it elaboration or grooming – are doing it 2-3 times week for no more than 1 hour. For some, they do it right after their daily stand up for 15- 30 minutes.

3.  Estimate Quickly

Time and again I find groups sitting mindlessly together, everyone individually frustrated at being in an estimation ‘meeting’ that is wasting everyone’s time. This is often a signal to me that the conversation has gone on far longer than it was useful. Of course some things need long engaging conversations, intertwined with times of contemplation where people can think about what has been said – but if you’ve been in those conversations you realise that everyone knows it is valuable. I’m not talking about those.

The trick – if I can call it that – is to be quick. For each item you are estimating, start by asking “what don’t we know about this that we need to know”. There are 3 possible responses to this:

We know all we need to know

Then go ahead and estimate using whatever technique you choose to derive your number (planning poker, affinity grouping, bucketing etc). Once estimated, move on.

We don’t know what we don’t know

Consider building a prototype to kickstart the questions or visit a customer or do a gemba walk. Do something to get to the first or last response. If you’ve tried everything and you cannot proceed, don’t build whatever you were asked to estimate. If you cannot find the answers to reasonable questions now, how might you fare when you have unreasonable questions and the meter is running? Decide what kickstart activity you will do to answer the question “What don’t we know that we didn’t know”, plan how to start (remember you have nothing else to talk about!) and then move on.

We need to know…

Write down as many things as people say, then quickly frame them as questions – using ‘What/How/Can’ – then prioritise them in some logical order.Then take between 3-5 from the top, figure out who will go hunt for the answers and then move on.

Whatever the case try not to spend more than 10 minutes per item. If you find yourselves approaching this limit, stop and ask yourselves is there any more value in carrying on.

I believe all estimation is waste – some might even be necessary, by preventing even greater future waste.

Did you find these tips useful? I know estimates and estimating are a controversial and potentially scary subject – how do you estimate, what are your stories. I’d love to learn and share.

Early lessons from my '30 days of free #remote #agile #coaching' experiment

By: Shardayyy - CC BY 2.0

By: Shardayyy – CC BY 2.0

In late December, I announced a really juicy offer of free remote agile coaching for 30 days for organisations willing to help me learn how remote coaching might work and how effective it could be.

It is now late January and I finally got my 5 lucky volunteers from a total set of 11 respondents. I fully intend to share the names of the lucky 5 once they agree that I can do so and also as part of a series of case studies.

Here are some early lessons that I would like to share about offering something that otherwise would be hugely expensive for no financial cost:

Cost is a barrier

Almost all the respondents said that cost was a barrier to them getting help  – let alone ongoing help. Trying to justify the cost made having the conversation with their management and other parts of the organisation harder!

Just because it is free doesn’t mean it is attractive

One respondent was pretty keen and was really geared up, but when they brought the offer to their management – they weren’t so supportive. ‘We are hiring an agile coach next month, why do we need a free one?’. The value of an objective expert who can help call out ineffective behaviour and help focus everyone’s attention on finding more effective behaviour is understated until people try it and see transformational results.

Free does not mean fast

I believe that agile businesses are inherently fast responders. Their ability to sense opportunity and to respond – even if that response is a placeholder for a future conversation – is essential. This  – in my opinion – is one of the observable behaviours of an agile person/team/business.

My lesson is a little skewered by Christmas and New Year – but not so much that I could not discern that all but two of my respondents was really fast off the bat. From an early conversation to explore the nitty gritty of the offer to connecting with their CxOs to schedule a go-ahead conversation took all of a week. On the other hand – most others were taking a week or two to even just respond to my reply!

I’m sure they all have great reasons,  but assuming that your free offer  – however good it might be – will spark immediate response is perhaps ill-advised.

If I was to do this again, I would not pick the holiday season and I would set an offer period – for no other reason than communicate my sense of urgency.

The newbies are fresh enough to care

Almost all 11 respondents to my offer had been in their roles for less than 1 year. This invites me to explore why these particular people chose to act.

Perhaps they are still fearless and optimistic about their organisations’ journey of continuous improvement.

Perhaps they  still enjoy the support of their management in their drive to help their organisations become better.

In my experience of over 100 teams and over a thousand people, the new people in the organisation hold huge unsullied hope and their employers and colleagues best learn how to make the best of that temporary state of non-corruption.

Ask a question, share a thought

If you have any questions about my offer and how it is working out – please drop me a comment below, contact me on Twitter or email me. I’d love to learn and share.

At this point I really want to say a massive thank you to all those who shared my tweets and the link to the original post to their networks. I can’t thank you all enough. If you are ever in Spain… beers!!

Just so you know – #agile training is *not* coaching.

I’m noticing a rather bizarre thing happening in the agile services space. Trainers – certified or otherwise – are increasingly adopting the ‘Agile Trainer/Coach’ title.
In my experience, trainers are not naturally coaches. I understand one reason why – it makes them more marketable, especially in a market that is full of ‘professionals’ seeking quick fixes and silver bullets to deeply flawed organizational problems.

Now, I’m not saying a person cannot be both – I just question the effectiveness of either – particularly the coaching – if said person has been peddling the same content repeatedly over a few months/years. Where is the learning for them, where is the problem solving that leads to knowledge that leads to something they can use to help others through a muddle?

I’ve coached over 100 teams over the last 7 years and the more coaching I do, the more I appreciate what a coach does. It is to bring a different perspective to the problem. A perspective informed not simply by the dogma of one framework or methodology – which trainers are great at -but the collective screw ups and successes of the their past experiences made sense by deep and constant reflection. Advice, support and counsel is imparted with honesty and deep empathy. A coach is in your problem with you, but not off your problem. Think about that!

I write this because I value coaching above training and I do not want to see the practice fall into the abyss of uselessness and corrupted definition.

Coaches are there to walk your journey with you – not every step but certainly every step where you falter. Coaches are there to help you become stronger in your practice. They are there long after the nonsensical idealism of training has worn off.

What has your experience of training been?
Have you experienced having a good coach work to help you and your team/organisation deliberately improve? What challenges did you observe, how did you address them?

I’d love to hear your experiences – good/bad/indifferent.

Why Are Women Not Paid The Same As Men?

I have been tip toeing around this in my head. I thought I knew why, but actually I think I’m as much a victim of my own preconceptions as anyone! So basically I’m zeroing what I know. Please help me understand.

So here is my question. I am saddened by this situation and angry too. Mostly I am curious.

Why are women paid less than their male counterparts doing the same work?

There is lots written on this here, here and here.

I want to understand it and then I want to help destroy the system that supports it. I have two daughters and the thought that they may be discriminated against because of their gender – or any reason really – boils my blood.