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Musings of an Agile coach: Asking powerful questions to effectively embed knowledge and practices

Liandra Nxongo

April 2019

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In the journey of being an agile coach, everyone expects you to have the answers to everything. Most of the time you do have answers, because you can draw from experience and knowledge.

When I started this journey, I felt I should always jump to share and explain and give countless examples when posed with a question. I still believe I should, but I’ve come to realise that it's more of changing the approach of how to share knowledge and expertise. What I have come to realise is that, apart from having depth in Agile knowledge, it is most important for me to keep looking for more effective ways to build onto the coaching part of it.

The essence of coaching, is leaving an impression or to help the person/team/organisation to be fulfilled in finding their truths along their journey? How does the saying go..."Give a woman/man a fish and you feed them for a day; teach a woman/man to fish and you feed them for a lifetime".

I remember a colleague of mine had an intriguing coaching technique. As is normal with agile coaches, many would approach him with questions like 'how is this done in Agile?'. Or questions like 'according to your expertise and experience, how should we do this in an Agile way?'. Without blinking an eyelid, he would always respond with 'even without Agile knowledge how would you go about solving this problem? What do YOU suggest?'

Being put on the spot, the person would be visibly thrown off. Sometimes they would even be a little annoyed and apprehensive, mumbling under their breath "you’re the agile coach, you should give us all the answers...I thought you’re the expert".

My initial observation on those types of interactions was the tip of the iceberg. What you start to see below the iceberg is the benefits of asking such a simple and powerful question.

Creating confidence in the person

Agile and new ways of working can sometimes be intimidating at first. With seemingly hundreds of Agile buzzwords and the need for a complete change in the mindset, it’s easy to see why one would be unconfident. By creating a space where you can co-create and share ideas around how you could solve a specific problem it creates confidence in the person and enables them to try to figure it out.

Co-creating the final solution that will stick

Any solution or idea around an implementation will always stick if the person has a say in it. People are more likely to buy into an idea if they had a hand in creating it.

Changing the power dynamics and enabling mutual learning

Agile coaches committed to continuous learning know that they do not have the answers to everything and that a problem can be tackled from multiple dimensions. All interactions should be treated as an opportunity to discover these dimensions. By asking powerful questions you are able to get a different perspective and both parties will feel enriched on the joint knowledge journey.

Now I’m not saying don’t respond to the questions when they are posed to you. One of the main reasons you came in to be an agile coach is to help answer uncertainty and share knowledge and experience. What I am saying is that conversations need to steer away from a one-sided knowledge and expertise voice to a mutual learning that can enable whomever you are talking to solve their own problems for times to come. In essence, teaching someone how to fish.

Examples of Powerful Questions

Liandra Nxongo