Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for You! - Part 4

<<<< The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 3                                     The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 1 >>>>

Tips to Ask Powerful Questions:    Here are some tips to get started and master the art of asking powerful questions.

1. Prepare your questions
2. Eliminate the questions that are less powerful
3. Rehearse
4. Go through the checklist
5. Apply
6. Experience the process of inquiry and improve

The Greatest Enemy:  Many of us conduct our work life (as well as personal life) with ‘I-know-how-to’ attitude. That is good as well as bad. Good when we are ready to learn from multiple sources, inspect and adapt. Bad when we are clouded by illusion. Our greatest enemy is this illusion. When we stop learning our questions can remain damaging. This is when managers become damagers. Their questions are direct, critical, offending, acerbic and vicious. We cannot afford to live with the illusion of knowledge. Don’t you agree?

Conversations and Questions:  Asking and answering questions is a significant part of our daily conversations. We ask questions because of the reasons we discussed in Part-1 of this blog series.

Questions can be of different types. Some questions help us open up or start a conversation. Some questions help us probe. Sometimes we ask hypothetical questions and seek answers. Some of our questions can be reflective in nature. Finally, to end a conversation we ask closing questions. Here are some examples.

Initiate: How have you been? What are we going to discuss today? How was your meeting yesterday with the customer? What are your concerns about our project?

Probe: Can you explain why this tool is important? When did we first observe this? What were the observations?

Create: (Create a hypothetical situation) If we get a database expert, how will that help our project?

Reflect: Would you prioritize the top 3 or 5 issues first so that we make our team involved in finding collective solutions?

Close: What is our action plan? What is our next step? When will you talk to our customer about this?

Do you follow similar models?

<<<< The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 3                                      The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 1 >>>>

The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for You! - Part 3

<<<< The Power of Inquiry:.... - Part 2                                 The Power of Inquiry:..... - Part 4 >>>>

When we ask questions, we reveal the scope. In every question there is a context. There is a scope – either implicit or explicit. Why does the scope of our question matter? Scope does matter because it can make the question fit to a context. It clarifies the purpose and hence adds more energy or weight to the question. Let us examine the following three questions.

1. How can we educate everyone in our organization in writing high quality code?
2. Why don’t you take ‘code quality’ as an initiative at our business unit level?
3. As a team member how can you write high quality code so that we can meet our goal of delighting our customer?

Depending on the context, the scope of our questions has to be made appropriate. Else, it can result in a shocking experience. For example the scope of the first are second question is not right to someone who is struggling to ensure code quality at project level.

In our questions we embed our assumptions too. In clear and powerful questions, assumptions do surface. Here are some examples.

• Can we do something to produce good quality code? (assumes that nobody in the team has written good quality code)
• How can we learn from the other project team about writing unit tests and adopting TDD? (assumes that nobody in your project can contribute)
• Why is it not working? Why has it crashed? 
• Can you help me understand the situation?

Questions reveal team spirit and your intention. Which of these two questions is better? Why?

1. Why do we receive these customer complaints? Who is responsible? What did we do wrong? Can someone explain?
2. What can we learn from our customer’s email and the current situation? What are the possible options do we have? How can we help each other and serve our customer better? Any ideas?

How about these?

• How can we improve quality and do things faster as compared to the other team?
• How can we collaborate with the other team and understand which of their practices will work for us and provide benefits?

The first question induces competition whereas the second question nurtures collaboration.

Becoming Collaborative Coaches:   The first step to become a collaborative coach is to be genuine. Ask genuine questions. Let them be powerful questions. When genuine questions are powerful they invoke genuine answers. That is a virtuous cycle!  Yes. Let me repeat!

• Collaboration can be nurtured through genuine questions
• Genuine questions, when powerful, will result in genuine answers
• That is a virtuous cycle!

Checklist to Formulate Powerful Questions:  Here is a checklist that can help us formulate powerful questions.  Try this out!

1. Is this question relevant?
2. Is it genuine?
3. What do we want to accomplish with this question? What kind of questions, conversations or emotions can be triggered when we ask this?
4. Will this question invite fresh thinking/feeling?
5. What beliefs and assumptions are hidden here?
6. Will this question increase our focus on problems and shortcomings? Or will this question generate hope, engagement, collaboration, action and new possibilities?
7. Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?

Adapted from Sally Ann Roth Public Conversations Project c.1998

<<<< The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 2                                         The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 4 >>>>

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for You! - Part 2

<<< The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 1                              The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 3 >>>>

How do we construct powerful questions? I was reading the white paper ‘The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action’ written by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs. Written in 2003, this paper mentions that questions starting with ‘Which’ are less powerful and so are close ended or Yes/No questions. Who, when and where add some power to questions whereas why, how and what help us construct powerful questions! In all general circumstances this holds good!

A word of caution! Sometimes why, how and what questions can be damaging. Here are two examples.

a) Why do we have unfinished stories?
b) What makes our folks stay on internet messenger all the time?
c) How can we even think about such a bad design?

I hope you got the point! Let me move on.

We do see ups and downs in our projects. It happened in one of my project too. We came across code quality issues reported by customer. The mail from customer reached our project manager. He wanted to have a team meeting. He wanted to figure out the situation and find a solution.

When you put yourself in the shoes of this project manager, which of the following questions will you prefer to ask?

a) Are we satisfied with the quality of code we deliver?
b) When have we been most satisfied with what we deliver? How did we accomplish that?
c) What is it about our way of writing code that you find most satisfying?
d) Why might it be that the feedback on our code quality has had its ups and down?

Or when you want to involve one of your programmers in contributing to this situation, will you choose

1. As a team member how can you write high quality code so that we can meet our goal of delighting our customer?
2. With your experience in writing high quality code, how can we enable our team in writing similar code?

By the way, do you think Jim could have been a better coach? Don’t you think Jim could have asked Sachin the second question and make Sachin understand his true potential?

I am sure you have related these examples to your experience and incidents from your projects. Have you thought about the scope of questions and underlying assumptions? Yes.  There is a scope, implicit or explicit in every question.  Also, there are underlying assumptions.

Part-3 of this blog post will address these two aspects in detail.

<<< The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 1                          The Power of Inquiry: ..... - Part 3 >>>>

The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for You! - Part 1

‘The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for You!’ was the topic I chose for my 45-minute keynote at Agile Tour 2012, Chennai. It happened last week (20th Oct). The venue (Hotel RainTree, Anna Salai) was great and the delegates were superb! I am writing this blog post to share the salient aspects of my session.

Let me begin with the word ‘inquire’. Inquire means explore, probe, investigate, examine, analyze, review or enquire. It is about seeking information about something or doing a formal investigation. The word ‘inquiry’ means exploration, probing, investigation, examination, analysis, review or enquiry. Inquiry or enquiry is one of the powerful means of coaching. Agile coaches and Scrum Masters can make a positive impact on their teams by understanding the power of inquiry.

Effective inquiry consists of powerful questions. We can learn the importance of asking questions or the power of inquiry from what Albert Einstein said – “If I had an hour to solve a problem, and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

In her book “The 7 Powers of Questions”, Dorothy Leeds says, “Questions 1) demand answers, 2) stimulate thinking, 3) put us in control, 4) get people to open up, 5) give us valuable info, 6) lead to quality listening, and 7) get people to persuade themselves.” Interesting! Isn’t it?

Having set this context with the delegates, I shared the agenda of my session. The agenda was this set of questions!

a) Why powerful questions?
b) What are powerful questions?
c) How do we go about asking powerful questions? and
d) How can we retain the takeaways, stay connected, and share our coaching experiences?

The delegates were curious and very attentive.

Why powerful questions? Powerful questions a) initiate reflective and productive conversations, b) surface assumptions, c) generate enthusiasm and energy, d) provide focus on attention and enquiry, and e) induce more questions.

Powerless questions do the opposite! They do not initiate reflective and productive conversations. They hide assumptions. They sap energy. They demotivate people!

All of us do have the ability to distinguish powerful questions from powerless questions. What do you think about the following questions? Which ones are powerful? Which ones are not so powerful?

a) Are we doing well in this iteration?
b) Which user story are you working on?
c) Did you do unit testing?
d) What does it mean to provide quality deliverables to our testers?
e) What risks exist that we have not thought of yet?
f) What is the possibility we see now?

The first two are obviously weak questions. You are the Scrum Master or Agile Coach. You know what is happening in the project. You attend daily stand-up meetings! In spite of all these, do you ask the first two questions? Do you stop there? Or do you attempt to continue your dialogue with powerful questions to make your questions accomplish what you want them to accomplish?

The third question is a close ended (Yes/No) question. All of us agree that the last three questions are high quality questions. They are powerful questions! These are the questions that make you think, participate and find answers.

How do we construct powerful questions? Part-2 of this blog post answers this question with several examples.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Scrum Masters and Coaching

Couple of days ago, I went through ‘The Scrum Guide’ developed and sustained by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. I focused on the ‘coaching’ aspects involved in the role of Scrum Master and found the following.

The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, including:
       *  Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality
       * Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:
       *  Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;

Thinking through these aspects, I started recollecting a decade-old incident. We were new to agile methods at that time. Scrum was not very popular in India as well as other parts of the world. We were learning to do iterative development and trying to understand and follow agile principles. XP was well known.

Our team was not fully self-organized. Jim, one of the senior project managers in the organization was responsible for building the project team, working with them and making sure that we deliver. He had prior experience in executing projects using RUP (Rational Unified Process).  He was a wonderful person, seasoned manager, knowledge seeker and mentor.

To me, the role Jim played appears similar to the role of Scrum Master.

During the early days of this project Jim noticed that Sailesh, one of our team members used to come late (by an hour or two or even three sometimes) to work, complete his tasks and go home. Jim was open-minded. He believed in flexible work hours. With no urge to make any judgment Jim was not bothered as long as Sailesh was able to deliver and meet his commitments. Sailesh was a very good programmer who wrote high quality code and took charge of complex features.

After a month or so, Jim found that one of the team members needed some support from Sailesh in solving a technical issue. Sailesh was not around. As usual, he arrived late that day and started concentrating on his work. Obviously, everyday Sailesh had just enough time to take care of his tasks at work. How could have his daily schedule provided him time for collaboration or hand-holding or mutual help? He felt self-sufficient because of his skills and experience. He did not need help from his team mates. As you may guess, he was not showing any signs of collaborative attitude.

That was an impediment.  Having observed similar incidents with Sailesh, Jim was concerned and called for a meeting the next day at 9.00 am. Jim wanted me to accompany them in the meeting. This is because Jim was preparing me to play his role over the next few months.

The next morning Sailesh came in late. He entered the meeting room at 9.40 am with a quick smile and a casual remark, “Hi Jim, I reached just now. Shall we start?”.   That was a 40 minute delay!

Not expecting anything more than that, Jim responded, “Sailesh it is 9.40! How come you got delayed?”.

“I went to bed an hour past midnight and got up late!”

“We had scheduled this meeting yesterday. You accepted and you went home on time yesterday. So, I was wondering this morning and worried why you did not reach by 9.00 to start this meeting.”

“True. But somehow I am used to starting my day little late. Today I had to fixe my flat tire which I did not expect! I am sorry.”

I was listening to the conversation.  I was shocked. No doubt, Sailesh was not organized. He was focused on his tasks alone. He did not value the time of his coworkers.

The meeting continued for 10 more minutes and ended with a stern remark from Jim. He said, “Sailesh, You need to be available at work on time as per our corporate work hours. If you are going to be late by 30 minutes or an hour it is ok as long as you are consistent and all of us in the team know your availability. It is about team work. We are not working in this team as individual contributors.”

Sailesh left the meeting room. Jim was talking to me. We talked about two options. The first option was to talk to Sailesh, coach him and make him understand his strengths and improvement areas. The second one was, of course if the first option does not work, to move him out of our project for further counseling or action.

Eventually, Sailesh resigned after couple of months. It appeared to me that he wanted to remain as an individual contributor and specialize in software architecture. I wasn’t sure of his professional success because of his lack of collaborative spirit!

Looking back, I wonder if Jim and I could have handled it differently. Were we reactive? Did we fail to pay attention early or bond with Sailesh early? If we come across a similar situation now, what will we do?

Have you come across a soft issue like this in your projects? If yes, what was your approach?

I believe an incident like this has to be analyzed with the coaching role of Scrum Masters. Next week, on 20th October, Saturday, I am delivering a session ‘The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for Scrum Masters’ at Agile Tour 2012 to present similar incidents and discuss my thoughts on how to turn these around with powerful questions. If you are in Chennai, don’t miss this event! More info: http://isec.co/event_detail_info.php?event_id=12.

To know more on this read the 4-part blog series 'The Power of Inquiry: Coaching Tips for You!'
Note: For confidentiality reasons, I have changed the names of all characters in this story.