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Part 1: 12 Focusing Questions for Agile Coaches

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

Are you able to see what other Agile coaches don't see? The most effective coaches notice things that others don't. How do they do it? I'm going to show you how.

It's essential that coaches be able to accurately assess the situation they are in so that they can respond in the most contextually appropriate ways in their efforts to help the people they are working with. There are 12 Focusing Questions that can help you do that.

At SquirrelNorth we equip coaches with exceptional observation techniques so that they notice many critical components that need to be uncovered in order to achieve successful outcomes for their customers. I'm going to share some of those techniques now.

Failure to observe these essential factors leads to responding in ways that are likely to be insufficient. Applying the 12 Focusing Questions avoids that pitfall.

Not only do we teach others how to leverage these focusing questions, we make extensive use of them ourselves when we are training, coaching, and consulting.

Part 1 of this post is going to introduce you to the first 6 focusing questions (Part 2 will cover the remaining 6).

They have had plenty of contact with reality! They are proven, pragmatic, and actionable.

Here is a summary of each of them.

1 - Identities of Individuals and Groups

You are going to encounter numerous situations where you observe behavior that seems irrational, erratic, and chaotic. It's puzzling, maybe even crazy to you!

You might be tempted to ask why? Instead you should consider asking WHO FIRST, and THEN WHY.

People have an identity and groups have an identity. As a coach you need to be asking: Who are you as an individual? How do you perceive yourself? Who is this group you are part of? What is it that lies at the heart of this group? What are you willing to protect at all costs?

If you want to understand the behavior of individuals and groups, you need to look for identity related explanations first. Look for clues on how people describe themselves, what they read, what they talk about, their job title, etc..

Understand the varying personal, professional, and organizational identities when looking to influence behavior,

Ask who first, then why.

2 - Emotional Motivation for Change

Whether you like it or not, everyone's initial response to proposed change is experienced through an emotional lens. You may have the most sound reasoning for your recommendation but if you don't approach it in such a way as to acknowledge this emotional component you are going to be met with resistance you're not adequately prepared to deal with. They won't even hear or understand your logical reasoning.

You need to ask yourself: What emotional behavior and actions am I seeing? Identifying and understanding these are key points of leverage that you have for motivating change. Only then will people be ready to rationally consider what you are saying.

For the most part, you'll find that people are willing to live with the status quo - it's a safe place for them. Introducing change during such periods can be quite challenging. One way to overcome that challenge is in understanding emotional needs and how they correspond to resistance you anticipate or are witnessing.

If you are trying to catalyze change during periods of status quo and you want to develop approaches that effectively deal with or leverage resistance you must be in-tune with the emotions of individuals.

3 - Punctuation Points and Equilibrium

Organizations experience punctuation points and periods of equilibrium. As a coach you need to ask yourself which of these the organization is currently in.

Punctuation points are typically very brief. Often times they are defined by some sort of crisis or significant event - for example a new leader taking over. They represent an opportunity to insert change more easily with less resistance.

Periods of equilibrium last much longer and is where you as a coach will often find yourself in an organization. It is much more challenging to affect change in this state, but there are a set of escalating tactics that can be applied to navigate these waters and successfully motivate change.

There are very different approaches and techniques to dealing with change depending on which of these is the case. Failure to identify the correct mode will likely result in the application of ineffective coaching techniques.

Ask yourself which organizational state the organization is in and then respond appropriately.

4 - Rocks: Sources of Resistance

As a coach it's to be expected that you will encounter many sources of resistance when engaging with individuals and organizations who are seeking your assistance.

We can use the metaphor of rocks in a flowing stream when trying to characterize resistance and how to deal with it. Water in a stream does not stubbornly expend all it's energy trying to plow through the rocks and take them head on. Water attempts to flow around the rocks. It finds

another way that is less likely to provoke as much resistance. Over time it's likely that the flowing water will erode the rock and that source of resistance will be diminished and in some cases extinguished.

As a coach you want to be like water.

Ask the questions: What are the rocks in this organization? How might I navigate around them? How is this change likely to affect the rocks? Will my tactic push me towards the rocks or away from them?

Once you have detected the rocks you can negotiate your way around them.

5 - Organizational Maturity and Executive Tolerance

Effective coaches concern themselves with stimulating the evolution of organizational maturity in the pursuit of helping those organizations achieve their desired outcomes.

Too often coaches limit themselves to what I would call "process coaching". They focus so much of their effort on instituting and policing the application of a particular framework or methodology. In addition, they do so without considering the maturity level and tolerance of the organization for adopting the practices that are the standard for said framework or methodology.

It's essential that you as a coach accurately asses the current organizational maturity.

Ask yourself what level of maturity this organization is at and what level of tolerance leadership has for various changes. Maturity needs to be assessed across a variety of fronts: culture, values, risk, leadership, practices, etc...

A key component of successful change stems from introducing stressors that are contextually appropriate for where the organization is at - their maturity level. Introducing practices that are a mismatch for the current organizational maturity will result in failure.

Also recognize that executives will have a certain level of patience in which they will tolerate a dip in performance during periods of change. It's important that you try and sense this level and not push beyond it.

Organizational maturity and executive tolerance will be limiting factors in what you can achieve. The good news is that they can also be enablers.

6 - What represents Fit-For-Purpose (F4P) for your Product or Service?

Are you able to detect if the organization has a robust understanding of what makes their product or service fit-for-purpose? There are reasons customers are selecting their product or service. Do they know why? Do they understand the thresholds customers have for each of those reasons?

Are customers dictating discussions of fitness? Or is the organization more inward looking and judging itself?

You're a coach. Hopefully you want to help the organization improve it's capability to deliver products and services. If that's the case, then you must ask yourself what represents fit-for-purpose within this organization across business, service, and project levels.

You may be in a situation where this understanding is lacking. Or you might be fortunate to discover their is a very rich understanding of F4P. Whatever the case. For you to provide appropriate guidance that fits the current context you need to detect this.

If you can't do this, then you can't help your clients determine what needs to change and when those changes result in outcomes that are fit for the purpose of the customers consuming the organization's products or services.


In Part 2 of this article I will share the remaining 6 focusing questions and leave you with some concluding remarks.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any of your own focusing questions? Let me know in the comments.

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