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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Entries in coaching (7)


Ears Open, Mouth Closed

This has been my most silent week of work ever.

On Monday, I started my job as an Agile Coach at AppFolio. The first thing I have had to get used to is that I’m not writing code. This job is an opportunity to step fully into the coaching and facilitative role that I’ve said that I want, which is vaguely terrifying in and of itself. It’s also led to the second thing I’ve had to get used to: It’s far more useful for me to listen than it is for me to speak. I’m in a staff position, rather than in the line of production. My job is to be of service to the team, to help them get more of what they want. So I need to listen, to observe, to soak up what’s going on and how things work. I need to see what normal is and what that implies. I need to not start by assuming I know what changes should be made and simply speak from my own perspective. In time, I will start asking powerful questions and offering suggestions for improvement, but for now I mostly need to keep quiet, to watch and to listen.

For those of you who know me, you can understand how hard this is.


Designing Good Meetings

How do we avoid bad meetings? By knowing what the goal of the meeting is, designing an agenda to meet it, and communicating both to the group.

The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making identifies seven different types of meeting goals:

  • Sharing Information
  • Obtaining Input
  • Advancing the Thinking
  • Making Decisions
  • Improving Communication
  • Building Capacity
  • Building Community

Each of these have distinct patterns of interaction and information flow. They require different types of involvement from the participants. The same kinds of activities will not work equally well for them.

And speaking of activities, it’s important to remember that open discussion — the most common meeting activity — is only one of the many possible ways to structure group work. Among the alternatives are:

  • Presentations and reports
  • Structured go-arounds
  • Individual writing
  • Listing ideas
  • Working in small groups

Setting the stage for a good meeting requires picking the right activities for the meeting goal.

Finally, once these details have been figured out, the participants need to know about them. If someone comes into an Advancing the Thinking meeting expecting to be on the receiving end of Sharing Information, he or she isn’t going to be well-equipped to contribute. And if someone thinks that the group will be Making Decisions when instead they’re going to be Building Community, the potential for unnecessary frustration is high.

I’ve seen how these techniques have improved some of the meetings I’ve facilitated. The challenge for me now to is to practice these skills consistently and teach them to the team so that we can make all of the meetings we’re in better.


Fitness: Two hours of tossing concrete around in the garden
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 303 words, 375 seven-day average, 269 average, 38709 total, 709 words past the goal for the week; 11-day streak

Some "Bad" Meetings Are Good

So here’s my biggest takeaway from The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making: Confusion and frustration are not signs of dysfunction in group decision-making. They’re a natural byproduct of the struggle group members have to go through in order to integrate new and different ways of thinking with their own.

The authors have a developed what seems to be powerful explanatory model of the dynamics of group decision-making. There’s a good illustration of it here. In particular, note what the authors call the Groan Zone. Here’s what they say about it:

When people experience discomfort in the midst of a group decision-making process, they often take it as evidence that their group is dysfunctional. As their impatience increases, so does their disillusion with the process.

Many projects are abandoned for exactly this reason. In such cases, it’s not that the goals were ill-conceived; it’s that the Groan Zone was perceived as an insurmountable impediment rather than a normal part of the process.

So let’s be clear about this: misunderstanding and miscommunication are normal, natural aspects of participatory decision-making. The Groan Zone is a direct, inevitable consequence of the diversity that exists in any group.

Not only that, but the act of working through these misunderstandings is part of what must be done to lay the foundation for sustainable agreements. Without shared understanding, meaningful collaboration is impossible.

It is supremely important for people who work in groups to recognize this. Groups that can tolerate the stress of the Groan Zone are far more likely to discover common ground. And common ground, in turn, is the pre-condition for insightful, innovative co-thinking.

I’ve picked up two insights from this. The first is that my job as a coach and facilitator is not to help my team avoid this struggle. My job is to support them to keep working through it. The second is that far too many meetings have gone bad when they started to butt up against this struggle and — instead of dealing with it — took it as sign that they should end the meeting or move to a different topic. I know I’ve been guilty of this in meetings I’ve moderated.

Avoiding the frustration and miscommunication in group decision-making means avoiding the work that makes group decision-making worthwhile. Often the worst meetings are the ones that aren’t allowed to bad enough to get good.


Fitness: Ran 6 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 336 words, 415 seven-day average, 269 average, 38406 total, 406 words past the goal for the week; 10-day streak

Bad Meetings Are Bad

Meetings that waste people’s time are bad meetings.

The “meetings are a waste of time” meme pops up on my radar every so often, and I’ve seen it floating around again lately. It irritates me. What’s the alternative? On any problem that requires more than one person’s input, communication is the single biggest determinant of success. I have yet to see a better form of communication than a group of people with a whiteboard and an example of whatever they’re working on.

This isn’t to say that all meetings actually promote useful communication. I suspect many of them inhibit it. That’s why The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making is so fascinating to me. It points out that when “business as usual” solutions fail, a different and difficult process is need to create agreements that work. The facilitator’s role is support people in this process and help them do their best thinking.

At its core, the process is about embodying four fundamental principles:

  • Full Participation
  • Mutual Understanding
  • Inclusive Solutions
  • Shared Responsibility

I suspect that whenever someone says “meetings are a waste of time” it’s because they’ve been in too many meetings that didn’t.


Fitness: Pushups (8-10-7-7-15)
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 500 words, 444 seven-day average, 268 average, 38070 total, 70 words past the goal for the week; 9-day streak

I Need to be More Zen

One my problems at work is that I know too much.

I’ve said before that I’m not the world’s strongest software developer. One of the attractions that a facilitative role like Scrum Master or Agile Coach has for me is that it lets me help people who are better developers than me become even better. When I focus on process and detach from outcomes, I really can help the team get more for itself.

The problem is that recently I’ve been working in areas where I am one of the more knowledgeable people on team. When I’m a subject matter expert at the same time I’m trying to be a process owner, I have hard time letting of my desire for particular results. That can compromise my neutrality as a facilitator, which is never good.

This week, for example, I got very frustrated with a team member for doing something different than we had decided.1 I was concerned with what I saw as a breach of our established procedures, but I think responded more strongly than I would have otherwise because I disagreed with the substance of the changes. I tried to stay neutral by only bringing up the procedural objection, but I don’t think that worked. Maybe I should have disclosed my technical objections as well. It’s still not clear to me what the right thing to do was.

This is something I’ve struggled with a lot at work, as I’ve been asked to wear technical contributor and coaching hats. I’m starting to see it change as the team matures, and I’ve been able to deliberately let other members overtake my knowledge in particular areas. That feels weird to do at times, but in the long run I think it’s the best choice for the team and for me.

Either way, it’s a lot easier to be a facilitator when I genuinely know nothing about what we’re dealing with.


Fitness: Ran 5 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 534 words, 201 seven-day average, 261 average, 35499 total, 501 go for the week; 3-day streak

1 I realized today, while working through The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, that this may have been caused by a lack of clear decision rules, which meant that I thought we had moved to action while he thought we were still deciding.