Thoughts on Agile Coach Camp US

I attended Agile Coach Camp US last week. It was a wonderful experience and a great way to explore new ideas. Here are some of my personal highlights of the event.


Olaf Lewitz gave an excellent introduction to the concept of Temenos. It’s an approach that emphasizes creating space for effective conversations and mutual understanding so that we can become aware of our choices and take more deliberate (and positive) action in the future.

IMG_4302Olaf triggered a sharing exercise by asking us to tell stories from our lives where it felt difficult to say “no.” We began hesitantly, but soon we were relating our experiences, building on each other, and exposing how difficult it can be to turn down our friends, relatives, and colleagues.

While this was happening, we observed several things. The pace of the sharing accelerated. Sharing led to more sharing, more openness, and increased sense of connection with each other. As we discussed our experiences, I—and others as well—became more aware of options. Our choices to say “yes” or “no” were deliberate; we did not “have” to make them the way that we did.

That’s when I was struck by the power of the approach. Instead of drilling into why an event occurred or why a decision was made, we were being focused on options and future possibilities. We talked about our view of the past, but the analysis in my head did not dwell on the past; it was looking to the future. I felt that I had more choices than before. I felt that I could be more deliberate. It was a fascinating effect to observe.

It was made more powerful by the knowledge that the most successful retrospectives I’ve facilitated worked much the same way. I’ve always placed great emphasis on sharing diverse perspectives. I didn’t call these perspectives stories, but they worked similarly, and broadened our view of the past so that we become more aware of future options. From there, it is easier to make a deliberate choice about what to do in the future. I think I can make my approach even more effective with Temenos and want to learn more.

Remaining Curious

Sue Johnston led us through a fun conversation about the value of remaining curious as a coach. The most impressive aspect of this session was how we focused in on questions and questioning style. Questioning is an important aspect of curiosity, of course, but there are different ways to ask questions and we agreed that some are more effective than others.

IMG_4295One of the most interesting suggestions was to try to avoid the use of “why” questions. We ask “why” questions all the time; the “5 whys” is a well known technique. However, they can be very dangerous. “Why” questions can easily lead to blame. Consider the difference between these two questions:

Why did you do that?


What made it seem like that was a good idea?

These two are very different. The first question is framed in such a way that an individual (or a group) immediately feels responsible for doing something wrong (the “that”). Judgment is implicit. This will likely trigger hostility and/or fear. We risk shutting the conversation down.

The second question divorces the action (the “that”) from the individual or team. We operate from an assumption of best intentions and allow them to share their perspective. We remain open to the possibility that they know something we do not and that their choice might have been the best. This approach increases the potential for a broader level of shared understanding. The suggestion was that we should try to reframe “why” questions as “what” questions whenever possible.

Another valuable point was Sue’s introduction of the idea of the “arc” of a coaching conversation. This was presented as a series of different questions, each appropriate for a different moment in the arc.

  • In the beginning, we need to learn and so we ask, “What?”
  • Once we understand the situation better, we need to develop a better sense of the context and so we ask, “So What?”
  • With a sense of the context, we can move to helping draw out factors that may not be immediately obvious and so we ask, “What Else?”
  • Finally, to help someone understand what they can do with the knowledge gained, we ask “Now What?”

I thought this was an excellent little frame for thinking about coaching conversations that can help keep the focus on curiosity.

The Unprintable Work of Derek W. Wade

Derek ran a pair of sessions, both had great names that drew people in, but they’re inappropriate for a family blog.

In the first, we explored the power of venting frustrations in a positive way. We shared techniques we use to deal with frustration and affinitized them. Then we vented our frustrations, not as stories, but just as a word or phrase, going around the group several times. We had plenty of frustrations. Once we had a good list compiled, we shared a few stories and tried to relate them back to the brainstormed techniques. I think the best vision to come out was the concept of simultaneously drinking wine and juggling chainsaws. That gave us all a good laugh!

The second session explored techniques for dealing with leaders who seem resistant to change. We had all encountered people in powerful positions who appeared unwilling to support the improvement of their teams. Although it was not billed as such, the session was a great look into the dangers of fundamental attribution error. We spent a lot of time discussing how these individuals have their own valuable perspective and we need to gain a better understanding of it in order to communicate with them effectively.

Beneficial Conversations

In addition to the sessions, I had several really useful conversations which helped me see things in new ways.

Michael J. Tardiff and I IMG_4282had a fascinating exchange. We talked about infection and subversion as two different models for organizational change. We agreed that an infection model starts out localized and spreads once others see or hear about the value. With infection there is no inherent threat to existing power structures; an effective practice, like TDD, might spread this way. Subversion differs in that it deliberately seeks to undermine existing authority and is driven by interested parties. The two can be combined; they’re not mutually exclusive. But they have very different implications. Our talk got me thinking about the importance of accounting for power dynamics and vocabulary when we discuss organizational change.

Andrea Chiou reminded me of the value of creating a shared set of experiences for increasing empathy and accelerating understanding. The most effective workshops I’ve run all seem to have had some element of this, even if I didn’t intentionally create it.

Bryan Beecham explained his concept of “human refactoring” and used some very effective software code analogies to describe it. He believes we can use this approach to change our behavior and make better choices. I agree. I’m less confident in his goal to live for 200 years, but I wish him luck.

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