Here’s what there is to know about unhappy stakeholders. They are capable of being happy. In fact, they WANT to be happy.
They’re not being unhappy to annoy you. They’re being unhappy because they have a good reason for being unhappy. As agile coach, it’s your job to coach the relationship between the product owner and the stakeholders in a way that empowers the product owner to find out what the valid needs are behind their unhappiness and to work with them collaboratively to get those needs addressed.
A fundamental assumption I go in with to any agile engagement is that people have reasons for what they do and say. Good reasons. Reasons that are based on valid needs, like building community, being acknowledged, being heard, surviving, being in relationship, curiosity or growth.
Assuming my stakeholder needs are valid allows me as an Agile Coach to more clearly see the “dream behind the complaint.” It allows me to ask, “What do you hope for?” and “If this were going really well, what do you see happening?”
It’s kind of that simple. It comes down to a basic confidence in human beings, that they do things for a reason. Even when we act all crazy and weird, even competitive, hierarchical, domineering, cruel or destructive, I believe there’s always a valid human need at work. It’s my job as Agile Coach to find out what that need is, and invite it to speak.
This is a basic process of unfolding that is so part and parcel of Agile Coaching. And it’s a Zen type of unfolding, because it’s being open to whatever shows up in the moment, whatever craziness, or hope or pettiness presents itself. Each one is an opportunity for something great. Each is something solid and human and whole trying to happen. I’m in the fortunate position as agile coach to simply act as midwife for the emergence of something new – whether it’s a high-performing team, a 500% improvement in Sprint velocity, or an innovative product idea. The beauty of it is, I myself really don’t have to do anything. The team, department or company is already naturally creative, resourceful and whole. If I trust it enough to invite its wholeness to unfold, even if gremlins show up, like politicking, craziness, aggression or fear, the wide sunny meadow I spill out onto every time is basic human goodness.
When I first started working in cultural transformation 20 years ago, I tried to bring in consulting-like solutions that companies said they wanted, then got confused on why they didn’t work. What I didn’t understand at the time was how important it is to start with people where they are, not where I want them to be or even where they want themselves to be. Just where they are. And I’ve learned that starting with “what’s here now” brings a richness that is material to work with as a coach, unfolding right in front of us. My journey of learning to start in the “now” in for my clients in transformation reminds me of the poem “Guest House” by Rumi:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
There’s a field in coaching that we all work in, kind of like field theory in physics. It’s an open field where everything is known and knowable, or at least available, if only we slow down enough to notice it. We let the warmth of that sunny meadow ground us into the warm solid ground of human kindness. In agile transformation coaching, what that looks like is values-based work; ways of working together based on courage, trust, collaboration, risk-taking, willingness to fail and desire to creatively learn together.
I temporarily took over one of the teams at my current client last month because their leader quit. He was a command-and-control leader who had been driving himself in the team to work 60 to 80 hours a week. And still things had fallen by the wayside. One of those was attention to certain stakeholders. Stakeholders with needs, stakeholders with worries. Stakeholders who wanted to talk, but no one was listening.
I’ve been with this team about four weeks and in that time span we’ve started listening to each other and to stakeholders for the first time. It’s hard work. It’s slow work. Each team member still sees him or herself as existing on separate islands, like young children who don’t know how to share yet, and instead, do parallel play. They don’t know how to collaborate, and they fight with each other when they try, for now anyway, til we have time to wade into some coaching on conflict resolution, Emotional Intelligence and team play.
And wading through this together, yesterday we met with three very worried, very neglected stakeholders. Jeannine, Denice and Bob, in operations. Together, they manage the groups of people who do the daily customer facing work – the people who answer the phone and help customers with-real life problems. The people who help customers better do their jobs using our software products. The trainers who train those customer service representatives. The documentation people who write the training.
And the team I’m temporarily leading was supposed to release cool new charts three months ago, but Jeannine, Denice and Bob vetoed that, because they didn’t understand the product well enough to support it. Uh oh.
So yesterday when we talked to them, the air was tense. Worried. Yet the simple human act of opening up a dialog to find out what it’s like on their side of the fence made all the difference. Yesterday the team stopped hunching their shoulders and covering their ears. Coaching allowed them to stand up face to face with Jeannine, Denice and Bob, then line up shoulder to shoulder, us against the problem. A partnership alliance got forged, and we’ll see our way clear together.
So much of agile coaching is simple human decency. It’s being willing to step into a field where which we co-create each other and our shared future. In that field, I know I exist because I’m in relation to you, because we can talk. I can actually hear you, and you can actually be heard by me. We can work together in a kind of creative fidelity. There’s a delicious scent to that, like warm chocolate. I will gratefully take it into my conversations today with Jeannine, Denice, Bob and the team. It will perfume our interactions as we invite possibility to unfold, emergent. And who knows, we might even get to go live this time.