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Balancing the WHAT (is delivered) with the HOW (we deliver)

If you had a blank whiteboard to design an executive agility learning workshop..?

As I learn and develop my coaching practice, I find myself moving into a new space as a coach. For years I’ve had a laser focus on people’s behaviour as they work. Of course, I also concerned myself with the what of work too but to a much lesser extent. Recently I’ve moved more into enterprise agility and enabling organisations to reduce the cost of changing in response to internal and external forces.

My observation is I now have a greater focus on value and what is being delivered; maybe the best way to communicate this is as a shift to the left in my work. Focusing on the ‘what’ as much as the how is a central part of business agility coaching. Slicing off small outcomes, testing, experimenting with what we hypothesise is valuable then assessing insights to adjust what done next.

I was working with a client recently and found myself designing an immersive learning experience for an executive team. I stood next to the blank whiteboard and started planning the session. What immediately came out was a ways of working retro, followed by how they could reflect on areas for improvement re how they collaborate and solve important problems that are brought to them for resolution. It was then that I notice my reactive pattern of defaulting to the ‘how’. My challenge for this particular group of executives was that they specifically requested that my work as a coach be done as we do the work together. But I defaulted to stopping the work to consider how the team worked.

There is a subtle but important difference between the two approaches I described. My reactive pattern was to stop working and conduct a retrospective. The second pattern is to coach as you work, drawing attention to how people work as they work. At first glance you may not consider this to be a big deal but in that moment it was an important insight for me. My reframe was that business agility coaching needed to start with the work not the way of working. This would mean I’m paying more attention to the value being sliced then to the way the work is delivered. For example, if the value was delivered using waterfall I don’t care as long as it is sliced thinly and we can ship it sooner so as to learn what to do next. This change in my perspective made scrum versus Kanban or SAFe versus Disciplined Agile a redundant conversation (at least in the moment I was coaching).

Value-centric coaching the key to moving past Agile arguments

There is always discussion about the language of Agile (frameworks, models and theories) versus agility (being able to easily change direction as an organisation). This is reflected in the emerging business agility “movement” versus the established Agile industry players such as Scrum and SAFe. Of course, Agile and agility coexist as two perspectives on what coaches do to help clients; both are required. My reflections in this post simply point out that agile practitioners need to be better than most at switching between these two views (the what and the how). One thing both perspectives agree on is a relentless pursuit of value (e.g. Scrum recently updated its guide to include a product goal as a way to ensure what is built is valuable). Jon Smart’s recent book “Better Value, Sooner, Safer, Happier” makes a point of ensuring all coaching conversations start with defining what exactly value is. Jon offers an OKR canvas to use that helps create a shared understanding of value prior to the way of working even being considered. By doing this, the coach has a firm view of what value is before they start experimenting with the way of working.

For those of you who are reading this like it is yesterday’s news (lots of smart people have been going on about agility for years) I apologise, but up until recently Agile language has been central to how I describe my practice. I am evolving and learning as the world and our collective way of working changes.

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