Observing Human Work Systems – A Coaching Fundamental

The topic of observing people working has caught my interest more ever since I attended the Problem Solving Leadership workshop run by Gerald (Jerry) Weinberg and Esther Derby. At this year’s Agile Coach Camp, I ran a session on this to learn more about what other coaches do to see humans at work as well as share areas I know had learned to start paying attention to…

Our first step was to identify behaviors we observe. Some of the more common ones showed up in our list: work artifacts, conflict, movement, body language, noise levels from people and the environment, and patterns of communication between members (who talks to who).  Others are a bit less common: when people take on leadership, where focus is, and what Jerry calls ‘Jiggling’, an interaction or event that gets a system to change in a meaningful direction from being stuck.

I then had a few people volunteer to observe and select what on the system they wanted to observe. The remainder of the people did an exercise I gave them. After, we debriefed what was observed. One person chose to watch people’s body language and with the exercise focused on when people had eye contact. The other chose to watch for who had control of the pen since it was the primary method for getting work done. Lastly, I chose to focus on who took leadership roles at what time.


This led to a discussion for understanding how one can observe communications in a meeting and get an idea for who dominates the discussion by drawing lines with who talks to whom and how much. Equal lines with everyone shows little domination while lots of of lines between just a few may show others being ignored. This continued with some discussion around Google’s Project Aristotle and the work of Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland; here’s a really good paper measuring Face-to-Face communications.

As a follow on, I had the team do a cluster exercise I learned in PSL. I asked the people in the exercise stand next to those with which they most closely worked. This is a very revealing; I’ve done it in a few retrospectives and it can have a team self-reflect on whether they may be isolating others in their work system or if the connections may be wrong to do the work.

We closed by sharing what made observing work systems difficult and how we may be able to improve this important skill. Below is the photo of the flip chart we took about this…

Last ACCUS Session Last Page

It was great seeing the variety of answers for improving our skills as coaches in this domain. Several mentions of humility were made as well as the core Scrum value of Focus. My favorite comment though was the metaphorical answer to “Listen with Your Eyes” and, of course another was one that hints at cognitive empathy, “have multiple views” to remind us of the Elephant and the Blind Men.

Agile Coach Camp US – Neat Learnings

I attended several sessions at Agile Coach Camp; I was really impressed by the topics proposed this year. I went to some on Business/Organizational Agility, improving feedback/listening skills, one on creating Joy at work, and several related to using games to teach various Agile concepts. I’ll have to admit, I got lighter on the subject matter as the Camp wore on… Anyone that knows me usually knows I have no fear in proposing 2-3 topics.  This year I proposed none.  I was a bit too dain bread to host one given all the distractions and effort that went into running the Camp itself.

Before I jump into my key learnings/highlights, I was very glad to see one of the emerging themes be one of invitation over imposition. So many organizations are now jumping onto the Agile bandwagon and imposing Agile from above as opposed to helping it emerge; and then we wonder why there is resistance! I also really liked that there was good discussion on various technical topics as well; I often feel these get forgotten.  It’s important for us as a coaching community to understood how we can help organizations adopt things that matter and for software development they ummm… seem… to be technical in nature.

So my highlights; I would be remiss if I did not say one highlight was our extremely energetic facilitator Trica Chirumbole.  I think she brought a great energy to the Camp form opening to closing circles.

I was glad that my first session was one that Ryan Ripley ran to clear up some of the misperceptions people have about why an organization should adopt Agile. We seemed to come up with some great clarifying points to help our organizations or clients understand what to expect as an end result as well as various interim improvements to expect along their journey. Here were some of the key take aways:

  • a focus on improving organizational adaptability/responsiveness
  • use of data to make decisions, but not without regard of what the organization’s people will be undertaking
  • more transparency into organizational performance; risks more visible so better decisions can be made
  • better trust within the organization
  • containing failure and learning from it
  • improved employee engagement and retention

The title of the session was it’s NOT about being Better, Faster, Cheaper; though we rearranged it to mean this by stating: Better = more predictability and customer-focus, Faster = is time to market, not just meeting a schedule, and Cheaper = a focus on producing more value, but not reducing costs.  The hard part we found for measuring organizational performance on these is few organizations have a baseline measurement for any of them; in fact we came up with the hashtag #nobaseline to tweet about these instances. Reminding me I could use that with my current client 🙂

Ryan later ran a follow-in discussion from a session we had in the Open Jam session of Path to Agility in Columbus on creating Joy at work.  It was a complementary session to the earlier session as it focused on the human aspects of making those aspects happen. Since we had a new crowd, we really spent a third of the session kind of bringing them up to speed on our thoughts (at least it felt that way). I have an earlier post to help you. Once there though, we explored why Joy was more important than happiness though several people still thought they were synynomous.  Quite a bit of the conversation focused on how NOT imposing choices on people (what Daniel Pink would refer to as Autonomy) is key to this.  Some other also had it relating towards accomplishment (there’s Mastery) towards a purpose. I mentioned that I like Jurgen Appelo’s CHAMPFROGS; it feels more complete.  Since then, after reading Frédéric Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, I might also say Joy is the integral of Wholeness from time = 0 to the present.  I still also stand by our earlier equation as well from Path to Agility.

I’m going to go quick over some of the rest as I feel I have been rambling a bit; I went to a games session hosted by Declan Whelan and George Dinwiddie on games they had come across or developed.  Declan presented Tom Grant’s tech debt game; everyone played it different and got results that demonstrated WHY we should make investments into things like automated testing and continuous integration. George showcased a game that he has been slowly evolving to show how refactoring works – it more demonstrated how software is malleable and we should treat it as such.  This is of course on its own very valuable.

I attended two other sessions I want to highlight, also both ‘games’-oriented: Mark Sheffield held sort of a games round-up.  I learned several new games to research and variants of games that would prove useful for helping teams and managers understand things better.  Andrew Annett ran a session on the Empathy Toy, which is all about common cognitive empathy (aka developing shared mental models).  This toy is fantastic, every coach should have to play this – you are always trying to find ways to bridge the gap in understanding.  My cohort Ken Furlong and i are already developing new ways to use it.

We had 2 happy hours before and during Camp as well as some food shared in various locations – it was awesome catching up with Diana Larsen, Daniel Mezick, Aaron and Brian Kopel, Jeremy Willets, Kevin Goff, faye Thompson, Declan Whelan, Tim Ottinger, and Ellen Grove at length (during Agile2015, I also had the chance to spend some time with my friends Woody Zuill, Pawel Brodzinski, and Chuck Suscheck at length too).