Give Them What They Need, Not What They Are Asking For.
As an Agile Coach, I often come across situations when a team member, leader or an entire team reaches out to me asking for a very specific tactical support. I hear things like: “I believe our team has lack of psychological safety so we would like to ask you to deliver training on psychological safety for us.” or “I spoke to the folks from other team and they were really happy about your Kanban training. I think learning and using Kanban would be valuable for our team too. Would you be able to train us on that?”
It is natural for action oriented people to jump into answers and solutions before trying to sit back and assess the situation and the need from a bigger picture perspective. What is the risk with this solution driven approach? You may end up giving them what they want, but not what they really need.
The good news is that they come to you as their coach so you’ve got a great opportunity to influence what support they’ll receive from you at the end. What can you do to find out what they really need instead what they are asking for? It’s very simple – you need to take time and a few steps to assess the team’s or individual’s challenge and situation.
A few simple steps to assess team’s or individual’s needs well
Typically, teams or individuals would reach out via email describing shortly what their challenge is and what solution they look for. Sometimes people also stop by at your desk to briefly explain what it is that is challenging them and what help they need from you. In any case, my recommendation is to propose to them a 30 minutes chat to understand their needs better (or in other words – to assess the problem) before giving them any answers or solutions. Try to meet with them within few days after this initial contact. You’ll be surprised how much more you’ll be able to find out and understand during 30 minutes. If that’s possible, I also recommend you to ask someone else to join you for this short discussion. It may be another coach, Agile champion or your thinking partner who you work with. Having another pair of ears listening and another person asking deep questions will help you to assess the situation much better.
In the beginning of this short meeting, I recommend setting the stage and explain why you wanted to meet with them and what will happen during the meeting. I typically say something like: “We wanted to meet with you in order to understand your challenge and your needs better. During the upcoming 30 minutes we will ask you questions and we’d appreciate if you could share with us as much information as possible. At the end of this meeting we won’t be able to give you specific answers or solutions. We will first take time to debrief and we will get back to you within a few days with a more specific proposal in terms of what support we suggest and what the next steps could look like. Do you have any questions or concerns at this point?”
After this introduction, everyone is ready to have a discussion, to ask and answer deep questions. Here are examples of questions that will help you to understand and assess the team’s or individual’s challenge better (obviously, depending on the challenge the team or individual is sharing with you, you’ll need to think about variations and come up with other deeper questions related specifically to the discussed challenge):
- You mentioned in your email that the challenge you’re currently facing is XY. Can you tell me more about it? When did it start? Who are the others involved in this?
- Would you say there are other challenges besides this one that your team is facing? When I say challenge, I mean certain bottlenecks that slow you down and don’t allow you to deliver your work the way you’d want to.
- Can you share with me any examples of real situations and fact-based observations that would help to describe this challenge(s)?
- What do you think it’s the root cause of this issue? Where does it come from? Who (individual or team) or what do you think is causing this issue?
- How has this challenge been impacting the ways you work and collaborate within your team or with others?
- What would you say is happening as a result of X?
- Do you think there is a knowledge or skill missing in your team that is causing this challenge?
While you ask these deep questions make sure you actively listen and add more specific deep questions based on the information you hear. Your objective is to understand the real challenge that the team or individual is facing and the root cause of it. Try to look for information in between the lines, and through the examples you’re being exposed look for subtle nuances of positive or negative emotions that will help you to understand where the real problem is. Make sure you don’t judge or react in a specific way to the information you hear (for instance, don’t be sarcastic). Make sure you don’t start sharing examples of how to deal with this kind of issue or what the solution may look like. That has time. Try to stay focused on digging deeper and getting as much information as possible.
Once the meeting is over, make sure you write down all the information you heard and the thoughts that were crossing your mind during the meeting. You may not be able to capture everything while you’re talking and listening to the team or individual, so taking 5-10 minutes after the meeting to complete your notes is very valuable. Also, intend to debrief – on your own or with your thinking partner – as soon as possible on what you heard. Ideally, plan some time for debrief for right after the meeting. If that’s not possible make sure you debrief during the next 24 hours. You want your thoughts to be still fresh. During the debrief share with each other what you believe you heard and what you think the real challenge and issue is. Again, listen actively to each other because there may be information or nuances that you or your thinking partner didn’t catch. Once you believe you have complete picture of the challenge start discussing and drafting the proposal of a potential solution and next steps.
Your next steps may include deeper or ongoing assessment (for instance observation of the team / team’s ceremonies for a certain time) because the complexity of the challenge may require more time spent exploring the issue or meeting other people. If the challenge sounds fairly simple and you believe the solution won’t require too much of work then you can jump into drafting very specific proposal, which for instance could be a proposal of an educational vision for a team or an individual. However, the next steps after this initial simple assessment always differ and you need to be conscious and sensitive about what is the best way to move forward.
What steps do you take to assess the challenges of teams and individuals that you work with? I’d be happy to hear your thoughts and experiences!