Agile Coaching Camp US 2018

Back in late September, I had the privilege of attending Agile Coaching Camp US. This event has happened yearly for the past ten years, bouncing around from city to city, offering up a heaping dose of education, camaraderie, fun, and community. This was the 10-year anniversary and was held in the city where it all started – Ann Arbor, which happens to be right in my neck of the woods!

This was my first Agile Coaching Camp, and was also my first Open Space conference. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Open Space (as I was) it is essentially a completely crowd-sourced conference. Going into the event the sessions and speakers are not predetermined – they are generated on the fly by the community that shows up. It was interesting to me that I was signing up for an event and that I literally had no idea what was going to be presented or talked about. Every single conference I have been to up to this point has been fully pre-scheduled and you could see who was presenting and the topics for each talk.

Friday night was mostly a social event – it started with dinner and some ice breaking exercises that were quite fun. I ended up splashing water all over the room to try and make it rain as part of a group effort to tell a story based on a random set of words. It was a lot of fun and allowed everyone to start seeing each other’s personalities.

It was very obvious on the first day that this was an event full of amazing, warm, giving people. You could tell many of them have been friends for a long time and that several people had attended every single coaching camp since the first one. I all at once felt welcomed but also very out of place – which is something I struggled with a bit throughout the conference.

This next day started off with breakfast and conversation. I got to meet a few new people, a couple of which were also there for their first time – which helped me feel more comfortable. We had some great conversations about the challenges and successes we have had in our current positions. A couple of the people at my table had also recently transitioned or were in the process of transitioning to a new role. It was great being able to share our experiences and helped set the stage for what I wanted to get out of the event.

We opened the day with a few introductions, and then one of the core pieces of the Open Space format came into play – the marketplace. At the beginning of each day, the facilitators ask all of the attendees to offer up sessions that they think would benefit the community. Any attendee that wanted to facilitate a session had only to stand up, write their session on a sticky note, present it to the group, and post it on the marketplace wall.

At this point I was a bit confronted – I wanted to offer up a session, but I didn’t think anything I had to offer was as valuable as what the other attendees offered up. Hello, imposter syndrome! For more about that, read my other post about the event.

With the marketplace full, it was time to head into sessions. I kept track of all the sessions I wanted to attend, and there were SO MANY it was hard to choose. Below is a brief synopsis of each session I attended.

What New Agilists Should Learn

This session highlighted what someone new to Agile should focus on learning. We discussed many different aspects of Agile and the best ways to help people get on board quickly. The things that stood out to me as gaps in my learning and in what I’ve taught other people were around visualizing work. We rely so much on our tools (Jira, VersionOne, etc.) that we forget how powerful some simple visualizations can be to see the work that needs done.

A somewhat unrelated topic that came up was the theory of “Wide mind” and the WADE matrix by Derek Wade which I found very interesting and will be exploring some more.

I was also reminded of the Product Owner in a Nutshell video which is a great tool to help people understand the importance of the PO role – and periodic reminding of our PO’s what they should be focusing on.

Another side discussion was the topic of using a need-based learning approach. As agile practitioners, we sometimes can fall into the dogmatic approach of directing people on exactly how they should do agile/scrum. Switching to a needs-based approach would open up a more iterative and focused learning path that gives teams more freedom to evolve and adapt as the grow.

Favorite quotes from this session:

“it’s in the doing that we discover what we must do”

“automated testing is the grease for the agile wheel”

Bring “You” to Your Coaching

This session was facilitated by one of my favorite podcasters, Bob Galen¬†of the Meta-Cast. It was an AMAZING session and gave me a lot of good reminders as to why it’s important to bring your own personality and experience to your coaching game. One of the things that I was introduced to in this session was the Johari window – a tool for visualizing our blindspots. Essentially the Johari window shows us that by sharing things about ourselves and by asking feedback, we can lessen the space where blindspots persist.

By w:User:Simon Shek –, Public Domain,

Another really amazing takeaway from this talk was this: being wrong is just calibrating to reality. It’s a really great way to think about being wrong – it helps take some of the morality/shame/embarrassment out of failure. If you’re wrong, you did something wrong, you said something wrong – look at is as a process of calibration. You get lots of wrong readings before you get the right reading when you are calibrating something. It’s a really great takeaway.

One suggestion that I really liked was the idea of transparency in our own learning as coaches. The idea is that we publicly discuss with our team what we’re working on about ourselves and what we’re learning.

Aside from those suggestions, a great deal of the conversation in this session centered around themes of openness and transparency. The more open and transparent we are as coaching, the more giving we are of ourselves and our experience, the more likely the people we coach will be positively impacted. We did discuss as part of this, where do you draw the line? What should you disclose and what should you keep to yourself? I made the point to the group that things we don’t choose to disclose and intentionally hide have a tendency to eat away us. I shared my own story of coming out as gay to my team when I started a new job. I wasn’t sure how exactly they would react, but it wasn’t something I was willing to hide and eat away at me every single day. In my case, the risk paid off and I feel closer to my team as a result.

Remembering Things About People

I found this to be a very interesting discussion at an Agile conference, but scratching beneath the surface we, as coaches, need to know a lot about the people around us so we can relate to them and build trust. I attended this session because I personally have a very difficult time remembering details about people, not to mention having a terrible time remembering names.

The discussions in the session touched on a lot of different topics. We started off talking about capture tools and mechanisms to retaining information about people – tools such as OneNote, Notability, journaling, etc. This ended up spinning off another session on about journaling which I thought was really neat.

We discussed a few tips for memory – such as saying someone’s name multiple times when you first meet them. Someone brought up the concept of memory palaces which I had never heard of before.

A couple books were mentioned:

(I get a small referral fee from Amazon if you buy either of the books linked above).

We spoke briefly about the guilt that people feel when they can’t remember somebody’s name or something about them, and it was discussed to try and not feel guilty about that, but to own it and bring the person in “I’m sorry I know you, I’m just terrible with names, will you remind me?” I can see the power of shedding some of that guilt and being open/honest about it.

One last thoughts was to ask people when you meet them, “what is something you would like me to remember about you and this conversation?” It’s a way to generate some understanding about memory and to create a shared memory about that interaction.

Clean Quality

Another new concept for me, the idea of clean quality is really distilling down what quality means and to who. The session started with a demonstration. Using three volunteers at different vantage points, the session leader showed us how when he throws a ball a certain way, the people around him will see very different paths based on their perspective. Even though the ball was thrown one time and in one direction, depending on your vantage point it might look like the ball went straight up and down, maybe it looks like an arc, or maybe it didn’t look like it moved at all (I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this, maybe I’ll make a quick video?). The demonstration showed how perspective plays a role in how people perceive quality.

Ultimately we defined quality as value to some person.

The topic then moved onto discussing how you define value, and to who?

We spent some time doing mind mapping to show the various internal/external stakeholders, and then we discussed how value could be defined quite differently for each person on the map. This led into a discussion about personas and how they can be important in story writing, so that you can cleanly express the value as perceived by certain users.

An example of how this could come into play, would be to define three internal and three external stakeholders in a story, and then describe what each of those users would expect for a given feature. An example of this is simple: I have a story to build a table. We then talked about all the different types of tables that I could build given there is no context in the story for who is asking for the table, and what function they expect the table to serve. It could be a dining room table, it could be a registration table, it could be a table of values in an excel spreadsheet. When you add the value that the stakeholders are looking for in the table, the list quickly diminishes down to a particular kind of table. This led to a discussion about lean principles:

  1. First, build functionality as an experiment, design with a goal to understand and test your assumptions
  2. Incrementally add elements of quality to that functionality

Journaling to Deepen Your Agile Practice

This was a great session with lots of ideas on trying to make your journaling/note taking more effective. We all quickly realized we were soulmates when it came to some of our beliefs about journals, paper, books, and completion. For example, I shared that I picked up a journal to bring with me to the weekend and almost didn’t use it, because I had written a few notes in it many, many months ago – it felt tainted! There truly is something freeing about a clean, clear journal!

We first discussed the concept of image notes – where instead of writing out lots of text, you draw your notes. Some people refer to this as sketchnoting.

A book that was suggested was “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Several people had read the book, and many of them had adjusted away from the direct GTD model but used it as a starting point.

Some action items I took away from this session:

  1. I need to ceremonialize my journaling – set aside time each day to write in my journal, and also set time aside to review the previous day’s journal entry to distill it down.
  2. I need to focus on learning to filter my journaling, especially when I’m taking notes for a conference. I tend to write down a LOT and then have a hard time distilling it down.
  3. Another suggestion, not directly related to journaling, was to seasonally adjust my learning. For example, take on a new learning initiative for myself every three months to coincide with the seasons. As per some previous sessions, it was also discussed to share that learning publicly so the people around me can share in that learning and also help hold me accountable for that learning.
  4. Similarly to ceremonializing journaling, it was suggested to ceremonialize meditation as well, and also to do so publicly so the people around you know what you are up to and can be respectful of that time.
  5. An unrelated but interesting resource that was suggested was a semi-regular coaching call, called Coaching and Cocktails with Deborah Hartmann Preuss and Steve Holyer.

In summary

I got a lot out of attending this coaching weekend and I encourage agilists of all types and skill levels to attend an event like this. You will meet incredible people, gain massive insights, and feel better about your abilities as an agile practitioner. I’m looking forward to next year already!

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