Agile 2006: Coaching Software Development Teams

Coaching Software Development Teams
Michael Feathers
Wednesday morning, second half

Not a Grand Unified Theory of Coaching. Just observations.

Coaching and Change

  • Coach
    • Team advocate: thinks about what’s good for the team
    • Coaches aid change and provoke change
    • Coaching has ethical responsibilities


  • All coaching relies on some model of human behavior
    • It’s hard to talk about human behavior frankly without offending people
    • Have to live with the fact that there are “Things You Can’t Say” — Paul Graham
  • Pitfalls
    • Objectifying people
    • Labeling — disrespectful, barrier to communication

The Dilemma of Work

  • Asks self: Would I like to work in this team?
  • The necessary evil? The necessary good?
    • If you didn’t need the money, would you work as you do now?
    • Why? Why not? What about your coworkers?
      • Some people become passionate about the work they have to do
      • Others just see it as a job
      • Can’t assume that everyone will be passionate about what they do
    • Who are we at work?
      • What matters to this person? What motivates them? Can I get them tied into the passion of doing this stuff?

Organizational and Personal Values

  • In any social setting, there can be conflicts between our personal values and those of our surrounding organization
    • Company can assume that you’re available to the company all the time
    • These conflicts determine the character of organizations and how well they function
    • They are hard to talk about
    • Can be a core issue with morale

Introducing “Pat”

  • Emergent personality
  • From a teacher: “Every class has its own personality”
  • Backronym: Personal Anthropomorphization of the Team
  • When we’re together, we’re something different than what we are separately
  • Super-Organism theory:
    • “A group is its own worst enemy” — Clay Shirky
    • The Lucifer Principle — Howard Bloom
  • Is Pat happy today? Is Pat sad? Apprehensive?
    • Individual people might be happy, but the group might be depressed
  • “Pat” does not embody organizational goals; “Pat” is an amalgam of the team
  • People outside your department do view your department as a single entity

Organizational Stance

  • Who does “Pat” work for?
    • Core values (inferred from action)
    • Typical behaviors
    • Reasonableness of Expectations
      • E.g., overtime, blogging and smoking

Personal Stance

  • Who we are (individual members of the team):
    • Our personal lifecycle, our personal experience (how old? have a family? what kind of commitments outside work?)
      • Can make educated guesses, but really need to talk to people
    • Our history in the organization
    • Our level of commitment
      • No judgment here
      • In many organizations, default assumption is that everybody is totally committed to the organization
      • But if people are doing what they need to do and aren’t getting in the way, they can be effective even if they aren’t totally committed

Anatomy of Learning

  • Learning involves a Tension/Release Cycle
    • Needing to know something, not knowing what to do: tension
    • Learning how to do it: release
    • As a coach, need to surf on that wave
    • There’s usually a source of tension you can work with
  • The thing we work for, we remember
    • Self-investment
    • If the team wants to work to get something done, let them
    • If necessary, show them how to fix it. They won’t be as invested in the result, but you do still get that release.
    • Pay attention to the mood of the room. Find a tense moment to help introduce something, and help them learn.
  • The job of a coach is to find teachable moments, and help team members release the tension productively
    • Places where people are receptive
  • Chaos aids learning
    • Can be more effective to tell someone to eat right when they’re in the emergency room after a heart attack

Conflict Identification

  • One of our jobs as coaches is to identify the conflicts / problems
  • Think about the team, think about its health, and identify problems that may not yet be recognized
    • When you identify, you can
      • Address and fix it, or
      • Lead people to find and fix it themselves
      • To know which, ask “Pat”
  • Page on Ward’s Wiki, has “Genius” in the title. Points toward this: you may have a solution, but it’s better if you can lead others to find it themselves.

Go Sideways

  • Recognizing when people are stuck, and offer alternatives
  • Keep some distance, but watch progress
  • Problems are enticing and captivating, but every moment you spend captivated is wasted if you’re going down the wrong path
    • When problems don’t yield to pressure, help people switch gears, to try a similar but smaller problem
    • Often this is enough to make the original problem yield
  • Help people step back; sometimes some distance will solve the problem

Go Home

  • Well, not really, but…
  • Pay attention to progress on problems.
  • Cultivate a sense of when people or problems are overloaded.
  • “Guys, you can’t have fifteen people working on this.”
  • Sometimes you have too many people working on too few things. Help redirect them to other things.

“Antennae Up”

  • When you’re a coach, you have to develop a sensitivity to what’s actually happening.
    • Who’s working with whom, how they’re interacting
    • What work is being avoided
    • Just be aware of these things
    • Can be draining to do this as well as work on software

Pair Coaching

  • Have someone else who knows the team available to bounce ideas off of
    • You might not have the right interpretation
    • In consulting, this works very well
    • Internal coaches can use peers on other teams, or trusted members of the team

Ask the Room

  • When the team adopts a new rule, ask them to call a huddle when tempted to break it, to see if there are alternatives
    • Leverages the whole team and builds a sense of how the team works

Make It Physical

  • A key coaching technique is to take the abstract and make it tangible
    • Information Radiators
    • Design: CRC cards, etc.

Active Listening

  • Single most powerful thing you can do as a coach
  • It is hard
  • Listening with minimal judgment is harder
    • Keep it centered on work
    • Balancing judgment (“Pat” vs. Person)
    • Pitfalls
  • When you listen and it isn’t recognized, you identify resistance
  • Listening is deep respect.

Advance / Retreat

  • Work with someone initially on some task, but selectively withdraw support
  • When you know how to do something, it’s easy to just do it. Resist temptation, especially when you’re trying to teach practices.
  • A way of gauging engagement and aiding initiative
  • By letting them take the lead, you’re helping them develop initiative in other situations

Tending “Pat”

  • Imagining what Pat is like right now. Visualization. Is s/he tired? Scared, relaxed? What’s the feel of the room?
  • What is Pat afraid of?
    • Losing job?
    • Extra work?
    • Is Pat nervous?
  • May miss things if you’re looking at individuals

Personal Encouragement / Discouragement

  • Most coaching work is one-on-one
  • You can’t address “Pat” directly
  • Coach has to be able to address things no one wants to address
    • Active Listening and Respect are your tools
      • Know the person
      • Know the feeling
      • Feel it first
      • Address

Name It

  • Often the first step in solving a problem is naming it
  • May not even have to say what needs to be done in response
  • If it’s an “elephant in the living room”, this is doubly true
  • Name problems and coach others to name them
  • This teaches the team reflection
  • Don’t always have to have a solution right away

“The Flounce”

  • Identifying the “Elephant in the Living Room”
  • Obeys “tension / release”
    • Pointed questions, soliciting comments… ending with silence. (tension) Then stark honest assessment of the problem, usually with emotional gravitas. (release)
  • There’s some drama to doing this

Team Surgery

  • The most effective way to change “Pat” is surgery
    • Most companies loathe the idea of moving people from one team to another
  • Team surgery is hard: politics, fiefdoms
    • Internal sub-teaming
  • The surgery that changes “Pat” the most is “Add Person”
    • Removing people doesn’t force as many differences in relation
  • Unfortunately, results are unpredictable
    • Try moving someone to a different task for a while, see what happens to the team

Push in the Water

  • Coach has to be able to ask people to go beyond their limits
    • Part of “Tending Pat”


  • If coach knows more than the rest of the team, team can rely on coach for answers. Pull yourself out of the loop.
  • “I think Sara knows about that, check with her.”
  • Can work well with a tension/release cycle
    • “Of only we spoke to Sara first”
  • Be aware of your desire to be in all loops
  • When the work gets done without drama and you didn’t do any coaching, that’s success
  • Most important when you’re dealing with a bunch of individuals, as opposed to a team


  • Doesn’t have to be very overt
  • Part of being a coach is identifying what has gone well
  • There are successes on all teams in all situations. Tie back to goals.
  • Before cheerleading, decide whether it’s appropriate. Think about how it’s going to be received. Don’t come across as a Pollyanna.

Cultivate Respect

  • Especially in a dysfunctional team
  • People on teams will objectify each other (build a picture of another person based on a few experiences)
  • They will attempt to develop intimacy by complaining to you about others on the team
  • Your reaction is *important*.
    • Make it clear (without pushing them away) that you can’t look at people that way
    • Have to see them as a person too. Where are they coming from?

Ethical Questions in Coaching

  • When is “Pat” asking for too much?
  • When is an organization asking for too much for a team?
    • Fall back on honesty
    • Worst thing a coach can do is accept an organizational goal they don’t believe in, and go back to the team as if they believe it
    • Say you think it’s problematic, but we still have to do the best we can
  • Manipulation
    • Not every intervention has to be completely above board
    • Advance-Retreat.
    • Don’t always need full disclosure about why you’re doing a particular thing, when it’s in the best interest of the team.

Team Health

  • Intimacy and Unguarded Moments
    • Do team members know each other’s kids’ names? Do they talk about what they’re doing on the weekend?
    • When people know a bit more, things are a bit more at ease at work
  • No Emotional Steady-State
    • In a healthy team, the emotional state will change
    • If the emotional state is stuck, something’s wrong
  • Goal Achievement Record. How often do they meet their commitments?
  • Have people personalized their space?
  • Do people solve problems, or wait for someone to come save them?
  • The Role of Rules
    • Zero tolerance for zero tolerance

Dealing with Resistance

  • Sometimes people will act counter to the team’s interest
  • Advance/Retreat
  • Ignore. Some things will sort themselves out. Takes a lot of judgment.

Dealing with Personality Conflicts

  • Levels of relatedness:
    1. could hang out and talk about things outside work
    2. can work with for a couple of hours a day
    3. No, get me away from this guy/gal.
  • What is the relationship like from the other point of view?
  • Does everyone else have the same problem with that person?
  • Remedies:
    • Team Surgery
    • Align on communication boundaries
    • Let them go
  • Hiring is the most important decision an organization ever makes

Politics and Cliques

  • “Us versus Them” is natural, get used to it.
  • Generally shouldn’t happen inside the team.
  • Doesn’t have to be pathological.
    • Can be galvanizing
    • If the surrounding organization is dysfunctional, might not be all bad
    • Can be dissolved at times (team surgery)

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