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In my earlier post I painted a theoretical structure to my approach in coaching. I call that approach “Wu Wei Coaching”. In this post I will try to provide you one case example where I have utilized this approach. I plan to give you some more examples later on.

I won’t try to give a too detailed information on the case. There are of course ethical reasons for that, but also practical reasons: I don’t think it is possible for a single person to construct an accurate explanation of what is happening in social process. Like G.H.Mead pointed out, the meaning of a gesture is always negotiated in the following responses and there is no end for that process. People have multiple viewpoints and everybody creates a little different explanations of what it means for himself.

I will first present the case in a common language, as if we’d be having a lunch and talking about it in general level. Then I will reflect upon the case more in-depth and point out some of the “Wu Wei qualities” I think I have used.

Case: Planning Boxing

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I was part of a group that was responsible for arranging Agile Release Train planning event. There would be participants coming from several different countries and cultures. There were different opinions on the goals of the event, but at least we wanted to have a plan for the next Release Train. We also wanted to start real cooperation between the different stakeholders by putting them together in a face-to-face setting. Quite quickly it was decided that the participation would be limited to less than 20 people. This was to make sure there was a focused athmosphere. In practice we would invite all the Product Owners + some technical experts and other necessary roles providing supporting information for the decisions. The schedule for the event was decided to be two working days.

There were many different wishes and needs for this event. Some people felt it would be really important to have a good control of what is happening all the time during these two days. Also it should be very clear what the targets for this event would be and a good control that they are really met. Otherwise it would be like “playing the russian roulette”. Some other people felt that the most important function for the event would be to provide people chances to meet each other – the other targets would be secondary. There were also some other opinions. So, within these conflicting interests we started to plan the event.

We made a solid agenda for the two days and prepared some material for the participants in advance. There were time reserved for the formal presentations and informal discussions. We decided to print out list of all the User Stories and divide them in the four corners of the room. Our thinking was to have multiple discussions happening in the room at the same time. We also printed out a list of participants with their pictures, names and roles in it. This preparation work proved to be really important as it provided a good focus for the days.

When the event started we noticed that it was impossible to keep track of what is happening in all the dialogues people were having there. People were free to go to the corner they felt was most relevant to them and participate in the discussion. After a round of discussions we asked somebody from the corner to provide a 1-minute summary of what was happening and wether they would like to continue with the same topic. Then we started another round. For the facilitators the event started to become more about handling the clock and seeing that everything was all right. After few rounds there were lots of User Stories placed on the private task lists of different Product Owners. We didn’t go all of these through together – we trusted that the people would take care of those themselves even without any “social pressure”. We did make sure that there were somebody taking the initial responsibility of every high-level Story.

At the end of the workshop we held an “official” meeting where people went through their actions and goals in a usual ppt format so that we could satisfy the needs of those managers who believe that nothing happens without the formal actions in ppt’s.

Reflections on the case:

There were several different opinions about the planning event. Some people thought it would be waste of valuable coding time. Why would we need to have PO’s spending time together in some conference room when the coders could talk to each others while doing the actual work? Some other people thought it would be really important to come up with a solid plan – how would we make sure that the release schedule is accurate without the plan? A solid plan would also be needed to have a good control and understanding of what is happening in the organization. This should be also reflected in the way the meeting would be facilitated – a very disciplined and controlled manner. Few people thought that the face-to-face meeting would be the most important thing in order to start a good cooperation between the people – the plan would be secondary goal.

From my point of view what we saw was people utilizing different Causality Assumptions. Some people used Efficient/Rationalist Causality split: The facilitators should utilize their Rationalist thinking by planning an event that would be very predictable and lead to some predefined outcomes. These outcomes should include well-formed plans that all the people would agree upon, and which would lead to a product being developed in some predefined schedule. Some other people used Systems Thinking (i.e. Rationalist/Formative Causality split): It would be enough if we’d set a well-formed boundaries for the event. We would invite the right people, who would then self-organize within these boundaries. They would talk through the important topics and come up with the necessary plans and actions for themselves.

I tried to think about the event from both of these Causality splits and at the same time maintain a sense of Transformative Causality: I would not be able to control the event and the local interactions happening there – nobody would. Still it would be possible that we saw some beneficial patterns emerging in the event which we could try to amplify. It would also be possible that in the local interactions there were discussions happening that would be really beneficial for the company and the product – even if it wouldn’t be visible at the time. What happens in the global level is a result of many local interactions happening everywhere in the organization. Small discussions can lead to big consequences.

So, instead of focusing on the “actions”, “schedules” and “powerpoints”, we focused on the opportunities to have dialogues. We provided the room, prepared the features to talk about and invited bunch of people to participate the event. Instead of controlling who should talk with whom and for how long, we let the people to decide themselves how to make the best of the time. There were lots of discussions happening in the corners as well as in the other parts of the room. Some people were also visiting the development teams sitting nearby and other people available in the site.

In a sense this resembled a lot with the Systems Thinking. We even had some predefined goals formulated for the planning event, which we shared in the beginning. However, in my mind those goals were quite superficial and easy to reach. It would not be hard for anyone to make up a list of actions & responsibilities regardless of what really happened in the event. What was more important in my thinking was what will be happening after the event – what was the quality of dialogue happening at the event. The public dialogue can lead to changes in the thinking of the people participating it. This change in thinking will inevitably lead to changes in the ways of working too. This is because the thinking and acting are actually inseparable – they are different viewpoints to the same social process. So, the changes in thinking (i.e. the private inner dialogue) would have been the real goal for the event in my mind, but it would be impossible to make this happen. It would be really hard to even know whether it happened somewhere or not.

At the end of the workshop we had a meeting where all the formal actions and responsibilities were shared in a usual ppt format. That was a gesture to satisfy those people who were used to think about planning from the Scientific Management perspective, which is in essence based on the Rationalist/Efficient Causality split.  It is also to be noted that in technical work many things in the product creation are actually quite mechanistical in their nature.

My thinking was that it was important not to “call the game into question”, like Pierre Bourdieu put it. Not too much anyway. It could have lead to a situation where we might not be able to continue with the facilitation activity. It was also important for me to bear in mind that the client is the best expert in his own context. Whatever the reasons might be, I have no doubt that the stakeholders really needed to have “actions” and “responsibilities” on ppt’s, etc. In their context it was important.

In the actual planning event we did see beneficial patterns emerging. It became clear for us facilitators that actually the most beneficial thing we had was these rounds of discussions in the corners. It seemed to provide lots of good and important discussions. People were meeting each others and networking with relevant people. So what we did was that we removed some of the more formal topics from the agenda and put as many of the informal corner discussions as possible. Hence we saw that it was like having a 12 rounds of boxing. After each 30-45min round we rang the bell and had few minutes of break and then started the next round. We called this emerging approach “Planning Boxing”. This approach was really more improvised than planned in advance.

At the end of the event people were quite tired. There were lots of socializing, adapting to new groups and discussions and trying to figure out what was the best way to make the most of the time we had. I think it would have been easier for the participants if there would have been strict agenda with powerpoint presentations etc. Then it would have been easier to sit with the laptops open and work on some emails whenever the topic didn’t seem to be interesting. In the “Planning Boxing”, everybody was fully responsible of themselves, making sure that they met the people they needed to meet and have the discussions they needed to have. They were empowered and their agency was reinforced.

So, to summarize some qualities of Wu Wei Coaching, at least these things were on my mind:

  • Keep in mind what are the different purposes of it all – product creation, identities and learning
  • Try to look at the situation from different Causality Assumptions
  • Creativity and improvisation are more effective than planning and using methodologies
  • Put focus on the language and conversations, not on the abstract tools and processes
  • Assume that there are no tools and processes, only people that are trying to make sense of the big picture/cooperation by using concepts such as tools and processes
  • Keep the focus on this moment: How to affect things here and now, with these people in hand?
  • Empower the client, enforce his agency (step aside with your fancy thoughts and “killer interventions”)
  • Assume the client to be the expert on his own work and situation
  • See the organization and the roles as dynamic processes, not static entities and structures

Please, feel free to comment on this post! I hope this makes some of the principles of Wu Wei Coaching easier to understand. If there are something you don’t get, or don’t agree with, or whatever, I would love to have a dialogue on it and learn more myself.

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