We hear this countlessly within our Agile efforts that the most effective mode of communication is face to face. Yet increasingly the effort to minimize cost for having someone “in person” is utilized in companies around the world. Let’s visit the concept from a coaching perspective. Why does an in-person or on-site coach matter?
Certain conditions must be acknowledged in this effort:
Solutions such as FaceTime, Skype and countless other video conferencing tools are effective.
Relationships can be built in person and then cultivated through periodic check-ins through other communication mediums.
It is not possible in every circumstance to be physically present when crucial decision-making points are being approached.
Why then should we insist on face-to-face when coaching is provided? Let’s take a look at a few situations.
A coach is sitting with you and your team, reading body language and hearing statements about the estimates for work to be done in the coming sprint. They notice when, as a ScrumMaster, you assert yourself as the “leader” and the collective eye roll occurs from the team that is trying to figure out how to commit to the right amount of work. Perhaps it comes because you are stressing the importance of cross-training and the technical lead has “nothing” he can work on during this sprint except for code reviews. The drooping of the shoulders, the turning of his eyes towards the ground as to avoid eye contact or confrontation with you when asserting your unnecessary power play. The team in turn tries convincing him that the value he adds is so much more than coding but in guiding the rest of the team to excellence. The coach notices the technical lead is having nothing of this discussion, all the while the technical lead reluctantly nods his head in agreement with the team. Who else notices the subtle hints that come from this interaction? What is then done in that moment to ensure that the voices and thoughts in the room are being heard? An observant coach speaks up at that point and acknowledges that it appears there is some concern with the approach being taken on the work to be committed to. She might even ask the technical lead to express their thoughts to help with openness in the team before shoving a commitment down someone’s throat. Discussion ensues amongst team members. The technical lead acknowledges that he feels his efforts are useless if he doesn’t at least have some item he is responsible for during the sprint. The team asks the Product Owner which other item they would be ok pulling into the sprint for the technical lead to move forward during the sprint to completion. The commitment is made and the open dialog continues even after the sprint planning session ends.
Let’s look at a couple other ceremonies that teams participate in and what would be missing without face-to-face presence to observe, coach and improve what is happening.
Daily Standup – All team members are consistently present and timely over the phone. However, the ScrumMaster notices a lot of "huh", "is it my turn to talk?", “my phone was on mute” and of course the dreaded keyboard clicks. Seeing that body language and interacting is SO important in this ceremony as it is the accountability measure the team has amongst themselves as to meeting their sprint commitments or not. The level of engagement is quite simply not the same as someone standing in the room.
Sprint Review – The team is reviewing backlog items from the sprint to determine whether they are ready for an external demo. As the team is being asked about whether certain items are done, the common answer is “Yes” or “Of course”. A coach is present with the team over the phone and hears the bobble head responses and wonders what is being missed. The same principles hold true here. Face-to-face communication bridges the missing gaps of communication. Team members not wanting to acknowledge that the definition of done has not been met. This is something that even the most skilled orator takes longer to get to without seeing the physical response and demeanor of team members.
If these ceremonies require a coach physically present in the room, the Retrospective definitely requires it. It is a highly interactive session that simply cannot judge the value the team is getting from the positives, negatives and ideas generated from that radical candor that should hopefully exist in the Retrospective. With that physical presence of the coach, it is then the accountability of the team to react and take direction from an unbiased professional in the field they are trying to master.
Think of the value of your company, doesn’t it sound like a "live person" will give your teams more value standing in the room, observing and providing feedback? This in-person coach has established the trust of the Scrum Master, Product Owner and team. This is a connection they can always have for problem solving, vision and guidance. Think of the value of your teams, their time, productivity and deliverables. This in-person coach can assist all team members to provide stakeholders with the tools and solutions they need to succeed.
Most importantly, the in-person coach is able to read the body language and attitude of team members, versus a virtual presence that only hears words. The in-person coach will see the problems with a team dynamic that a virtual coach won’t see. Embed that coach with your team, embrace your coach and be the team your management wants to see.
The closer you can adapt to face-to-face communication for coaching instead of defaulting to the crutch of technology to facilitate that interaction, the higher rate of success you will see. Be Agile! Be resilient! Be present!