Meeting Them Where They Are with Allison Pollard

Keeping Agile Non-Denominational, Episode 8

 Alex Kudinov   Hello. This is Tandem Coaching Academy's Keeping Agile Nondenominational podcast and I'm Alex Kudinov and Cherie Silas is your co-host today. Today we have Allison Pollard, and she's an Agile coach.

Cherie Silas   Yes, I'm so excited to have Allison with us. Just a little bit of history, Allison and I go pretty far back and started speaking together. We were the first partnership, we said, we're going to run out and conquer the world. Allison was a mentor to me, as I was coming up as an Agile coach, she knew way more than I did back then. Now, she still knows more than me.

Allison Pollard   We're such a good partner duo because you were more experienced in public speaking outside of Agile and I knew the Agile stuff inside out. So us partnering up to co-present for the first time, we had it we talked about, what's the thing we're both doing, what is it we're seeing, we land on the perfect topic, and then Cherie starts putting it out there and everyone said, Yes. I was along for the ride; how to get the deep dive into public speaking?  Have someone that signs you up for a ton of events and you get that practice over and over and over and over.

Cherie Silas   Yeah, it was really great, because we go to these big conferences and everybody knew Allison and I was her sidekick. So why don't you tell everybody a little bit about who you are Allison and what's going on.

Allison Pollard   Yeah, so like Alex said, I'm an Agile Aoach, although even that title I've kind of struggled with in the last three years in particular. I've worked with some development teams. So I was a team coach. Then I started working on how to really mentor up the internal Agile coaches for clients; a slightly different stance. It then shifted to focusing on leadership, and, first, kind of that enterprise coach sort of role of, "What is this transformation for your company?", "How do you think about it?", "Where do your teams need to be?" Then even that's changed to be, "What's the culture that we want to have?", "What are the kinds of results that we need to see, you know, from your products?", and "What are all the things that you need to be doing and showing up as a leader to enable that to happen?" So that's kind of my personal journey of, pivot yourself a number of times to support the people that you've chosen to work with. It's been pretty exciting and pretty topsy turvy at times.

Alex Kudinov   Yeah. And so as they say, there is no more permanent things than temporary things, right, and change is the name of the game. It seems like Agile coaching and Agile coaches are supposed to be very comfortable with change, right? We embrace change; we do all that. So what skills do Agile coaches bring to the table, in your opinion, that help them deal with this constant state of turmoil of change?

Allison Pollard   Yeah, well, I think one, we probably notice a bit earlier when change is about to happen, right? There's that friction that starts to come up, perhaps, in what we're feeling and observing and the conversations we're a part of. We are noticing some of the trends that are happening; we start to sense it, I think, before others might because we're used to living in some of that uncertainty, right? Every time we're coming in and helping a group through change, we have some pretty good ideas that we think are going to be helpful, we could be wrong, and we live on that edge of 'We could always be wrong.' We're going to be okay with that because we can adapt to it and I think it's that ability to stay out there on the edge and recognize, "When's the next change? When's the next change?" We learn to ride these waves over time that, I suspect, a number of us have really felt those muscles in a whole new way during the pandemic and a lot of the other things we're seeing happen across the world in the last nine to ten months.

Alex Kudinov   Yeah. Definitely the pandemic brought a different perspective, maybe, or a different set of difficulties in our lives but I'm curious, you mentioned this living on an edge and I am curious, what is it like for Agile coach to be in, kind of, all this constant state of, "I'm on the edge"?

Allison Pollard   That's a great question and I'm using some of that language intentionally from CR Global and the training that they provide around relationship systems coaching because Cherie and I went through that together. So when they talk about an edge, they're really looking at, you have your like primary identity; your current identity. You know the paradigm; you know how to win at this game. Then there's this other side, this like emerging thing, this emerging role or need. Maybe it's new skills. Maybe it becomes like a whole new identity. You're kind of like, looking over this cliff in a way of, "What what does that kind of look like?" and, "How might I try that on?" and you might be going back and forth for a bit until something happens, and you're just over the edge. You are now on the other side.  I think as coaches, a lot of times we are looking at it and going, "Great! So I come in, and I help a team that's in this kind of primary identity." Whether you're in a waterfall setting or you've just started your journey with Agile, you know, "I work with groups that are like this and I helped get them to this other side" and even we had an idea of what other side meant, right? They're now self managing and they're able to show a completed increment, fully developed, fully tested, to a product owner and their stakeholders. We could maybe even get it into production on a very regular basis. Or do we take it as far as they are now able to pivot based on market conditions? The team can talk to you in terms of business metrics; how their product is performing at any given time. They're working on customer problems, formulating what the next bit of functionality is going to be, and they're prototyping it, and they're testing it. So each coach, I felt, had kind of figured out their sweet spot. "I work with people who are at this starting point and I'm able to coach them, teach them, mentor them, guide them, and get them to this other side."  So we've been crossing an edge over and over and over. We are the bridge and we help bring them along. Then in the last year, the game got changed, the bridge got moved and that's where I am kind of excited. As I've been trying to work with folks in organizations, there's so much change fatigue.  You look at what's going on in the news, there's the doom scrolling, there's having adapted to working remotely, people that have kids at home they're trying to educate and keep in school, they might be taking care of a family members or other loved ones that are getting sick or struggling during this. Now you come into work, which is dialing in on your computer to that next virtual call, and saying, "Great, so let's change this too." How are we going to work together differently? How am I going to need to show up together differently? What's the next thing that I need to be focused on creating and putting a lot of creative energy into that when I might be tapped out?

Cherie Silas   Yeah, I can see where, now more than ever, in my own practice, that people are reaching out for coaching because they need help with that change. You introduced me to professional coaching actually. So I'm wondering, how are you seeing that skill set come into your Agile coaching to work this particular dynamic?

Allison Pollard   I am so thankful that I had seen a demo of professional coaching and decided to go on that journey because I cannot imagine what I would be doing right now if I hadn't built up these skills. In a lot of ways, you know Alex was teasing me a moment ago of like, "I'm the glasses wearer" on my bio, it's my tongue in cheek, "I've done amazing things. I love putting myself out there but at the end of the day, I'm still a regular person and I don't have the best eyesight. So I need to wear prescription lenses for that." Having coaching skills is like having a new set of glasses; I'm able to see things a bit differently. So in the past way back when, I'll pretend it was way back when and not just recently, I might observe a team that's struggling, say, in a sprint planning and be wondering, "What's wrong with them? Why don't they know that they're supposed to be talking to the product owner about their backlog items and figuring out what they can accomplish in the next sprint? It feels like we're off topic, or like we're wasting time, or like ughh, this is gross. This is a bad meeting that they're having and I don't like that. I could assign them to go read a page out of the Scrum Guide, and be really helpful. "This is the book  and now let me drill it into you, "This is the way that we Sprint plan. Rah" That's not good. That's not really helping them to understand, "What is this thing that you're telling me about and how would it be different? How would I get started doing something different?" We've built up these patterns of how we relate to one another, how we talk to one another, and the things that we look at, and what's that first step? What's that big step? Right? What's the way that we change together and hold one another accountable through that change since we're trying to embrace that team mentality?  I think that's where going through hundreds of hours of coaching, by practicing being the coach, by getting coached myself, by observing coaching, listening to coaching, you become attentive to, 'What are the things being said and what's not being said?" What is it that they're, like starting to signal to one another through their body language? Or other things that are starting to become apparent in that environment? Maybe background noise? 'What was that? Did I hear someone like tapping their foot? Is there anxiety in the room? Is it someone's frustrated and waiting until we're done with this meeting; they can go escape.' We start to form stories of what's happening but the first step is back to, what is it we're noticing. I think the power of coaching is being able to notice things we might not have noticed before and be more confident in asking the question or reflecting it back; some way of now letting the group become more aware of it and decide, is this something we should do something about and work with?

Alex Kudinov   It's interesting. So you spoke about change and a lot of change and then it brings this whole set of changes. So in Agile coaching it's a little bit different, right? So in professional coaching, we do bring change but we do bring change from within; we help people transform in the way they want. So let's face it, in Agile coaching, we actually impose change in many cases. In majority of cases, that's part of the job.

Allison Pollard   That's always a tricky one. So that's actually one of the things that I was talking to some colleagues about this week. So I've been working with a client as part of a coaching team. We have some really talented technical coaches and a manager that we all work with. So we met up with a director last week. She was telling us about the product that she has two development teams working on, some of the product challenges, that are high visibility, very, very important, potentially very long timelines around this; it's a big product replacement that they're doing. The technical coach that was in the meeting with us, was saying, "Great, so for me, how I work best, what I would be asking you to do is provide me a team of five people. Five people, including a product owner, and someone that has the UX user experience design skills and then the folks that have the development skills, but five people. With a five person team, what I can do is be embedded with them, we will understand the customer needs, we will do rapid prototypes and testing and validate every step of the product coming to life. We will be able to put this in production and respond very quickly because we'll have real time metrics of 'How is this helping your organization?' and 'How is it helping the customers?' So if you want to sign up for that coaching journey, I am absolutely your person."  I went, "Wow, I love his clarity." He's done it in a number of companies. He's amazing and I love that I get to work with him. Then we all kind of knew, for this particular situation, in this particular director, that is way too big of a change. They have two teams. They have two teams of about 10 people each. They have so much visibility around this that it's deeply uncomfortable for the organization to take, what feels like, a very radical move of, "Hi, I'm taking five out of your 20 the other 15 to go I don't know where to figure something out, we're going to be moving at a rapid pace that most people cannot even fathom right now, and the product is going to emerge over time." So whatever solution you have in your head right now, especially if it's a replacement of a product, you're thinking it's kind of like that but not the not all the ugly stuff about it. No, no, no, no. This is a game changer, right? We're talking about how to create a differentiator for your business with this kind of approach. I think that's why, as coaches, that idea of "Where are we good? How do we meet people where they are?" but then that crux of it, "So I'm gonna be with you on your Agile journey and I might want to impose some change, or inflict some help." There is a point in time, where I think each of us has made the mistake of, 'I'm pushing for things that they just cannot handle right now or they're not willing to go along with.' That's natural as a response to change but there have to be those opportunities where we say, "This might not be the best relationship." Either, I'm just not gonna be a good fit for you as a coach because I am trying to advocate for things that are not palatable, for whatever reasons right now, or I kind of need to have that conversation; "Let's reset some expectations"  I might be trying to get you into like a different like zone of agility than what is truly needed right now.  So that was even the conversation that we were having offline amongst ourselves. "Okay, given where this team is right now, these two teams, and some of the pressures  and the things that are happening, here's the smaller step, that would be highly beneficial compared to where they are right now." It would actually be a step in the bigger journey, I guess I would say, towards what the technical coach was advocating for. For them, though, it feels like the stopping point. If you can get them to what that thing is of just a little bit better than where they are right now, that's what they can grasp in their he ads, that's where they're willing to, like sign up, energetically to invest in that and work towards that. Are you the coach that can take them there, while still holding out hope? "Maybe someday they'll be ready; they'll be able to envision where we could go beyond that." I think that's the challenge.

Alex Kudinov   It almost sounds like a carrot, Here's the carrot, just go after it.

Allison Pollard   Right! Yeah.The sad thing is the carrot is not in one spot. Like, this is something that I learned, particularly from the Agile Fluency Model that really shifted my thinking of,  let's actually take a step back and understand what is that long journey that a team could potentially take. Some of these, I'll call it a milestone but it really is like that zone.  "If you can get to here, good stuff is happening. You're better as a team, you're providing some benefits to the organization, customers are getting a better thing. Then if you want to go further, you can go to this next stop." I love that they use this metaphor of, you're basically looking at a bus ride and it's the manager, it's the sponsor, that is saying, "I'm willing to pay the ticket, here's the zone that I want the team to get to." We as coaches, working with them in this conversation, you can't just say, "Hi, I would like to get to the last stop." Great. The ticket price is not the same for every step along the way. So if you want to go there, to the end all be all; "This is super Agile and I get every benefit we've ever talked about in presentations around Agility." Now, let's talk about how are you going to get there. What kind of a timeline is realistic for that and the serious commitment and effort that a leader is going to have to put in to make that happen as well. I sometimes wish -- I talked to leaders and I'm like, "I wish I can come in as a coach and be like a magic wand." 'What is your wish for this team and Agility? Wave Allison around, say the right words, and ta-da! It has happened. If I could do that...one, I can be rich but then, two, I'd probably be so bored, I would probably find another job. That's just weird, you know, Coach as a magic wand but...

Alex Kudinov   I am not particularly sure any magical wand got in your reach at any time. You probably were used for other purposes.

Allison Pollard   I know. They're like, "Well, now I'm just gonna wish for the money. That's a lot easier." but the thing we always have to keep in mind is it's not just that the coach makes it happen. We need to be working, can I say, in tandem with the managers and with the leaders around them. We have to help change the context, change the environment that the team is operating in.

Alex Kudinov   So you touched on a couple of metaphors, first of all, of course, meeting where they are. That's been kind of a go-to for Kanban community for a long time, and maybe, as opposed to Scrum, there's a lot of conversation going on right now there. Then, you kind of brought in that metaphor of a bus. What came up for me, I read somewhere - and I don't remember where I usually read and then forget where - and she was describing coaching journey and she was actually saying that the coaching journey is like a coach goes to the clients bus stop and then invites the client for a bus ride. They take the bus and they have a ride. So I'm wondering, what Agile coaches can do to make that ride more comfortable for their clients and what skills they bring to the table to make that change more palatable, easier, whatever that is?

Allison Pollard   Great, great question. You start off mentioning, they meet people where they are. I know there are times where it's like, "I don't want to go where they are, where they are as painful." I think it's always important for us to be able to say, "Hey, I want to acknowledge your history. Whatever you've been doing, up until this point, it has been successful, at least somewhere down the line. That's why you were doing it. This is what made sense to you at the time. So I don't want to throw stones at what you've been doing."  and, you know, it depends on the kind of coach you are. I kind of love some of the, "Let's take the big disruptive step!" "Let's, let's, let's move into a scrum. Let's move into this framework!" but there's that quick touch point of, "Let me walk you through what this new thing is." Agile coaches being how we are, we have probably used a game or some kind of a simulation to give them a small taste of that experience and what life could be like if we work in this new framework. Then we can ask the question of, "So you in?!?" "Are we going try this?  "Let's do it for, say, six weeks? Then, we'll be asking you all along the way, 'How's it going?', 'What might we want to change to help our lives a bit?' but let's give this a solid go with this framework for some period of time." Totally cool. Others, like you were saying with Kanban, you could really do incremental changes over time with that team, really starting where they are. "Let's visualize it! How do things happen today? How does work get done? How does that flow?" Now that we've made some things visible, and I love this, especially with Kanban, it's explicit. It's one thing for me to ask a question of people and I've raised the awareness and "made it visible" in that we all heard the same thing and we have that recognition around it, but truly to put these online tools in place right now and to be able to see, "Where is the work? Where are things getting stuck? How long is stuff taking?" In a lot of ways it's getting to that, I need to externalize my memory and if I can put the problems out in front, it enables my brain to process it a second time or a little bit more deeply, that I'm able to find the next step or find the next solution as a result of it.   I'm gonna guess many of us are experiencing those moments of like, "I don't remember what day it is", or "I don't remember what I was working on", or "Who was I talking to about this thing and where was that conversation happening? Was it an email or was it in Teams or Slack?"  I think one way that we could be helping people, now, is setting up that electronic environment, so to speak of, how do you have the information in places where you can find it? That when you're done for the day with work, and hopefully it's at a reasonable hour, disconnect, like, you can now go and relax, spend time with your family, take up a hobby, sleep, we all need sleep, come back the next day and be able to find your place; get back into the flow as easily as possible?

Cherie Silas   Allison I hear you talking about Scrum and I hear you talking about Kanban and it brings to mind, for me, all the times I've stepped into an organization as an Agile coach and heard, ."..but so and so said, 'Do it this way.' and that's cool, and I wonder, there's all this stuff. There's SAFe, there's LeSS, there's Scrum, there's Kanban, there's Scrumban, there's whatever you thought up in your backyard. So we, as Agile coaches, what I have witnessed, is often, "We've got our hammer,"

Allison Pollard   Yes, yes!

Cherie Silas   "and the client is the nail." So what are some thoughts you have around that?

Allison Pollard   When you start off saying, "As a coach, I stepped in...", I was like, 'Oh, she's gonna say, like, we've all stepped in it." We've all made the mistake of, "I come into the organization with my hammer and they don't...why don't they appreciate my shiny hammer? I got it from Thor; this thing's amazing!" You're spot on though. We tend to gravitate towards our own tool sets. Wherever we got the most experience with them, or which ones were we introduced to first, or which ones were we introduced to most recently, there's probably some particular framework or set of practices that we like to introduce over and over and over again.  I think there's a lot of benefit that we can provide, when we're really clear, again, kind of that value proposition, back to the sponsors, back to the teams that we're working with.  "I do this. Here's how I do it. I'm really good at helping teams get from here to here by introducing Scrum, or by embedding with them and using extreme programming, or we'll be using Kanban and iterating through the flow, improving our cycle times, and making smaller changes over the course of our engagement together."  I love the clarity that comes when a coach can describe, "This is kind of how I operate; this is what I tend to do." Where it gets really intriguing is, how many Agile coaches are open to, "You know what!?! I want to pivot my role and I want to pivot how I operate." Like I said in my intro, I've been working with a client, that is my primary client for about three years. My role has changed dramatically in that period of time. To say I'm an Agile coach can be accurate and could be misleading. So I sometimes have to find different words. "Well, I help leaders have a more intentional culture. I'm helping them to instill trust throughout the organization as the world is going through levels of change that make trust really, really hard." Having the awareness of what we're offering to people and when do we need to pivot how we show up and what we provide? I find it kind of exciting and that's what I've been helping some of the coaches and Scrum Masters that I work with to consider.

Cherie Silas   So you're talking about helping leaders change. That's kind of a fascinating part of this. We go into organizations and I hear, "Start at the top. Start at the bottom. There's this big thing, it's ground roots you have gotten get them." Then we'll catch the leaders or, 'No, the leaders have to do it!' then you push it down. At the end of the day, everybody has to change and there's a lot of big change going on, and what I've often found is the ability of the leaders to change is where the ceiling is.

Allison Pollard   Yes, I would buy that. While you could have people, I guess I'll say lower in the organization, I think we all kind of know what that means, right; the typical org charts. You could have people lower in the organization secretly do larger changes, for as long as they can get away with that. Experiment with things; be bold, be courageous, and be able to do that for some period of time. You're right, though, at some point that ceiling really starts to kick in. Maybe it's okay that that one team does that weird stuff, the way that they do that doesn't fall in our normal policies, or it doesn't match our typical training. If that starts to go to a second team, a third team, a fourth team, fifth team, sixth team, there comes that point where the leadership could react by saying, "No, no, no, no, that's not allowed here. That's not how things happen here." It could hold in a status what the organization is able to be capable of. "We can go no further than this because that's just kind of where we are."

Cherie Silas   That makes me wonder. Is it okay that there's a ceiling and we didn't get complete Agile transformation; there's a ceiling and that's just gonna have to be okay. Is that a thing?

Allison Pollard   So this is where I really tap into some of the things we learned in professional coaching. That idea that people are creative, they're naturally resourceful, they're whole; they're operating, they're functioning as human beings. They're informed adults. Especially in groups, that group has intelligence about it. If I say like, "Leader, what you need to be doing is XYZ, when all you've ever known is 123"and they, in that initial conversation, go "No, no, definitely not. No." I could say, "Great. Well, thanks for the time. I'm gonna leave now. Bye." and that would be fine.  For me, personally, I think part of my way of working with people is, I want to be able to see, where's the the future you imagine for yourself and I want, as a result of our working together, for you to not only start making real, serious progress towards that but I want to help you imagine further and bolder and help you be more courageous and confident along the way. So if we are the kinds of coaches that can help people expand their dreams or their goals because we're able to show them, "It's okay to make change and that you're starting to feel some success from it.", I think that would be incredible.

Alex Kudinov   So I think what you're suggesting, kind of throughout this conversation, is that Agility is not about the tools, it's not about the frameworks.  Yeah, I recognize we knew that all the way right and it's not about religion of Kanban or religion or Scrum.  I know Cherie kind of rattled out a lot of those. It's not about those denominations, it's about something else. What is the heart of Agility? What is at the core of it for you?

Allison Pollard   Oh, excellent question! It's like you're asking, sort of, 'What's the Golden Rule of agility?" If I think about religions, there tends to be that Golden Rule that seems to show up across the spectrum. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; treat others as you want to be treated aspect. I think from an Agile perspective it's hard to say. It's so trapped in whatever your particular words, whatever your particular values are. For me, creating agility is about building trust and that comes by like clarifying expectations, and having conversations around accountability, and setting how we're going to work together, having those times where we recognize,"What are your strengths and what are my strengths? How do we collaborate most effectively?" or "When do I delegate and let you take it and run with it?"  I think focusing on that trust between individuals, developer to developer, developer to product owner, product owner to stakeholders to customers; it shows up in all these different frames. Doing the work of building the trust will help us to stay together and be able to move together in delivering things for our customers.

Alex Kudinov   I want to dig a little bit deeper. So, it's trust, it's communication, it's that high-bandwidth communication. So when you are successful as an Agile coach in that, what emerges for you and for your clients then?

Allison Pollard   Oh, gosh. I am thinking to some of the clients I've worked with and the things that they say. One of my favorites. Jason, he basically says, "I feel smarter after I've talked with you. You've enlightened me, you've challenged me, you've helped me to look at things with a newfound clarity, I guess you could say, that I take a lot of pride in." It's tricky, because I think to Brené Brown when she had written "Braving the Wilderness" and talking about belonging. There's that sense of, to belong in a group, you're always one foot in and one foot out. There are things that I share in common with the other people in this particular group, whatever it is, and there's the other things that make me different, that set me apart.  I am always feeling that 'one foot in, one foot out.'  Any group that I'm working with, there are some things that we share in common and I want us to be able to lean into that, and trust that, and find the confidence of, "What are we able to do together because we all prize this or value this thing?" Then at the same time, I have got to, absolutely got to, bring the things that make me different and distinct, and the values that I hold that might be complimentary or even challenging. It's that difference between us and our ability to hear the differences between us that will enable us to do things we might not have anticipated.

Alex Kudinov   So it's interesting, you mentioned kind of enlightenment about that. Then we keep saying that if the only thing as coaches, professional or Agile, we do is bring more awareness to the client, and give back to them, and ask them, "What do you want to do with that?"

Allison Pollard   This is really interesting because this is something I've been thinking more and more about. Yeah, when you ask me about Agile coaching, and coaching in general, it's all this like soft stuff. "We're gonna have more trust. We're gonna have greater awareness." Soft and squishy feels really good and I help individuals that are getting smarter and thinking a bit differently. The end result of that, and this is where I sometimes go really light on the stories and I think many of us do, it's the business results that have been enabled as a consequence of that. The teams that have gone from deploying software every nine months to one month pretty consistently because of the things that we were able to do together, that's a serious positive impact for an organization.  "We are now able to deliver value more frequently to our customers. We're able to pivot our direction with more ease as a result of that."  Where are we able to all come together and recognize, "Oh, actually, this particular product is not feasible. It's not delivering the things that we thought it would to serve the customers; they're not responding to it the way that we anticipated" Shut it down. Let's cancel this, let's move on to something else. There's serious cost savings that an organization gains when people are able to come together, reflect on that reality, and make the decision to put their efforts, put their financial investments towards something else instead. So I think that's for us to always keep in mind. Bragging on what we do, we help people do awesome things; we need to also talk about the awesome things that they've been able to provide their customers.

Alex Kudinov   So, obviously, a lot of your clients were learning a lot from you, were enlightened by you, gained new awareness; so how do our listeners get more of Allison's wisdom?

Allison Pollard   Great question. I have a blog at allisonpollard.com. So you can look through the articles I've put out there in the past. I also keep a list of my upcoming speaking events there. So it's the beginning of the year. I have a couple lined up and I'm sure I'll have more as the year goes on.

Cherie Silas   All right. Well, Allison, thank you so much for being with us. It's been wonderful. It's been too long since we got together. I get so much energy from being around you and I'm sure that the people listening to you can pick up on that energy. So we just want to say thanks for coming!

Allison Pollard   Thank you. Thank you. I know I did a lot of the talking but it was your presence, you and Alex both, that brought it out.

Alex Kudinov   Right. Well, thank you, Allison. This was Tandem Academy Keeping Agile Nondenominational podcast, we have Allison Pollard and we are your hosts Alex Kudinov and Cherie Silas. Goodbye.

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