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Doing Nothing - An Agile Coaching Pattern

April 30, 2021
12 minute read
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How can doing nothing be a coaching technique? You won’t actually be doing nothing. Instead, you will appear to be doing nothing, but will actually be creating value for your coachees. It just might look like doing nothing.

You can create value by doing nothing in several ways. You should consider doing nothing as your default starting point and the place you always return to. Your job as an Agile coach is not to be continuously busy. (Although, of course you always want to be adding value if you are billing for your time!) Remember the distinction between output and outcome; we don’t really care about output since value comes from outcomes. So, when in doubt, do nothing in one of the following ways!

Observation

Many people in many professions get paid to observe. Guards. Firefighters. Astronomers. Often, observation can feel like a value-less activity, particularly in busy corporate environments. However, observation can be valuable too.

The most important aspect of observation for an Agile coach is the opportunity it gives you to notice patterns or anomalies in the state of your team. You might notice a sense of exhaustion that wasn’t there before. You might notice one person being excluded from ad-hoc conversations. You might notice a brilliant solution to a problem that no one else notices. When you observe a team and its individuals, you are giving your own mind space to see and perceive deeper truths about the situation.

Observation puts you in a ready state. Security guards, firefighters and emergency medical personnel need to be in a ready state; not constantly busy. If a security guard is constantly busy fighting off intruders, you have a problem! You observe the environment so that you can take action at the right time.

Emotional Rest and Self-Care

You work at a high level of emotional and intellectual intensity as an Agile coach. You will frequently feel exhausted.An Agile coach needs to be emotionally and intellectually ready for their coachees. This usually means you have to take frequent breaks. Introverted Agile coaches need this more than extroverted ones, but everyone needs some time to recover.

In your contracts and coaching agreements, ideally, you have set expectations with people that you will take periods of rest. Ideally, this is paid work, or alternatively, you’re getting paid really really well! Regardless of your pay, you must be transparent to your clients and coachees about your need for rest, and also about the boundaries for taking rest.

There are three common rest scenarios:

  1. Checking out briefly. Many people do this informally: going for coffee, putting on headphones to listen to soothing or energizing music, getting some exercise or fresh air. As a coach, you will need to do these things more formally. Many coaches put “checking out” and “checking in” into their coaching agreements. Basically, you say “I am checking out now, briefly” to let your coachees know that they should not disturb you as you need to recover emotionally or intellectually (or physically). Likewise, after a very brief break of at most several minutes, you announce your return to engagement by saying “I’m checking back in now.” If you need more than several minutes, you probably need…
  2. …Emergency rest. In this case your psychological “batteries” are much more depleted. This can come after particularly intense coaching sessions with a team where people are dealing with a crisis of some sort. Often your need for emergency rest will come upon you quickly and unexpectedly. Again, you have a responsibility to your coachees to signal that you are stepping away, possibly for a longer period. You can use the same phrasing with just a small change: “I must check out now for the rest of the day, please do not disturb me.” A sleep is almost always necessary in these situations.
  3. Structured time away. You will also want to have a predictable cadence for resting. This can be a little different in that it doesn’t necessarily mean you are completely unavailable. Instead of “checking out”, you are going to set aside “office hours” where coachees can approach you on-demand, but you are also giving yourself permission to do other things besides direct interactions with other people. Ideally, you schedule these office hours daily, and you give yourself at least an hour a day blocked off in your calendar for this time.
  4. Vacations. Take them! Structure your vacations, if possible, to be true down time. Not time when you do anything stressful or exhausting. Depending on your personality and circumstances, you might still be busy during your vacations, just so long as you are recharging your emotional and intellectual batteries. Some people will need to surround themselves with friends and family. Some people will need to get outdoors or travel. Some people will need to catch up on housework or paperwork that is causing stress. And some people will just need long hours of sleep.

While you are resting, you should expect the team to struggle without you. This is good for them. They are adults and should never become dependent on your presence to get work done or deal with problems. At first, they might struggle. But as an Agile coach, you are giving them the emotional, intellectual and practical tools to thrive.

Doing Nothing to Create Space

Often you will notice that your team doesn’t seem to have the mental or emotional space to consider important questions. This kind of busy-ness is normal. You can help your team create the space to be open to considering important questions. In order to create this space, you need to first be comfortable in it yourself, and then you need to invite your team to also create this space. The starting point of this space is doing nothing.

Start by doing nothing for seconds. If you are asked a question, count a slow count to five in your head before responding. This doing-nothing space gives the asker permission to re-consider their question… and possibly answer it without you responding. Waiting can be hard. Most of us are uncomfortable with long pauses in conversation. We often feel a burning need to fill in this kind of space. Of course, you should not do this every single time you are asked a question. Instead, do five seconds of nothing whenever you are asked a question of the blue. In other words, if the question is part of an ongoing discussion that has already started, it is usually best to just go ahead and answer it if you can. After you have done five seconds of nothing several times, you will start to get comfortable with it. You can then start using this technique in new situations such as when someone asks you a powerful question (even if it was accidentally).

Doing nothing for minutes is actually the hardest so I’ll return to it in a few moments.

Doing nothing for hours is next after practicing five seconds of doing nothing. Here, you deliberately communicate to the team that you are going to do nothing for two or three hours specifically to give the team space to work without interference. You can (and probably should) continue to be present when you first start doing this. However, eventually, this is time you give the team without your presence. Three hours of doing nothing in the presence of the team gives the team space to self-organize, problem-solve, or just generally get work done… without depending on you to micro-coach them (note: think of micro-coaching as a state of heightened engagement with a team or person in which your coaching techniques are applied on a time scale of seconds or minutes). Sometimes a team might ask you for space.. that’s also a legitimate application of doing nothing for three hours.

Doing nothing for days is also critical for a team’s development and independence. In this case, you might be supporting other teams or simply taking time off. However, you should not do this until you have built a basic level of trust with a team. Being away for days at a time can erode trust if done too soon. Effectively, from the team’s perspective, this is the same as taking a short vacation (see above).

Doing nothing for ten minutes is the last space-creating technique to practice. This one is the most difficult because it creates the most social discomfort. To start, you “check out” for ten minutes, but remain present. Your check out language should be something like: “Hey team! I’m going to check out for ten minutes. Please do not disturb me during this time.” This is best done during team meetings or team mobbing so that everyone on the team is aware of you doing nothing. It’s best if you avoid any activity during this time including on a personal electronic device other than having a 10 minute countdown timer running. In fact, you should be paying attention to what is going on around you. Once the time is up, check in with the team again to let them know you are available. During the ten minutes, because you are present, you team may forget and ask you to help with something. If that occurs, you should respond by reminding them that you are checked out temporarily. You can ask them if their request for help can wait however many minutes are remaining. This will often seem really weird to the team at first. That’s okay… stick with it. Remember: you are doing nothing to create space. To show the team that they can act without you, but that you still care about them. If the team encounters a true crisis during this ten minutes (unlikely, but it could), then you should still do your best to wait through the entire ten minutes.

Ultimately, creating space be it seconds, minutes, hours or days encourages two valuable behaviours for the team:

  • the team will “pull” help from you rather than you imposing help proactively, and
  • the team will learn a measure of independence from you regarding their agility.

This practice of doing nothing to create space leads naturally to the final reason you might consider doing nothing…

Doing Nothing to Allow for Learning Through Failure

You will have to get comfortable with failure. And, you will have to help your coachees get comfortable with failure. The best way to do this is to start small!

You will often see a situation where an individual or a team is headed in the wrong direction. You see that failure is inevitable. (NOTE: you might be wrong; the failure you anticipate may not happen!) Sometimes you will consciously choose to NOT intervene so that the failure happens and your coachees can learn from failure. Here are some guidelines for how to do this:

  • Start with very very very small failures. Things like a small mis-understanding that leads to a short amount of wasted time. By “small” and “short”, I mean something that won’t lead to emotional or financial damage or more than a couple person-hours of wasted effort. After each of these failures, make sure to help the team examine the source of the failure and apply principles and techniques compatible with agility to reduce future risk or improve future effectiveness. When you notice the mis-understanding occurring, make a note of it, do nothing, and then follow up with your coachees a few hours later to see what happened. The very first time you do this, your coachees might feel some resentment, so be prepared to withdraw from your “trust bank account” and have a vigorous plan to re-build trust. As you do this more frequently, your team will come to expect it and enjoy the learning.
  • Larger failures must be handled with great care. In order to “do nothing” in the face of larger potential failures, you must have a pre-existing agreement with all your stakeholders that this is an important part of developing agility. This includes any employment contracts you have and any team working agreements and individual coaching agreements. These larger “do nothing” situations are a risky coaching move and are covered separately in the section “Risky Patterns – Take Care!” later on.

Ultimately, the amount of failure that your coachees and other stakeholders can handle will vary over time. In general, if you are effective as a coach, their tolerance will increase over time, but it can regress if there are generally stressful situations. For example, the COVID pandemic crisis made everyone emotionally more fragile for a time, and additional stresses and failures would often feel larger than they otherwise would in the absence of the pandemic. This applies to you, too! Your tolerance for failure, even others’ failures, has limits.

One final thought about this. We often talk about the value of experiments and innovation. It is critical to remember: it is not an experiment if you already know the outcome!

Experiments and innovation inevitably include failure.

External Perception if You are “Doing Nothing”

This is the hardest part of this pattern overall. If you are paid as a coach, your customer (not necessarily your coachees) will expect you to be doing “something”. It’s best if you can educate your customer and include “doing nothing” in your contract before you start being paid. However, that isn’t always possible. Obviously, the exact legal language will vary depending on jurisdiction, but a great way to start is to share a description of this pattern with your customer. Here’s a link to a nicely presented version of this pattern. LOCATIONTBD

Ultimately, this is related to the shift in mindset required of everyone to embrace agility. This mindset includes trust as an essential component. Build trust whenever possible. Rely on trust rarely.

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