Gaining Focus – a Self-Reflection

Being an Agile Coach – not bound to distinct teams but rather working with several people within bigger organizational structures – comes with a challenge. There are many topics I could start working on immediately. If I did I would be busy and feel good about doing stuff, but most interventions would not result in meaningful effects. At least this is my experience. Time to change that.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

In 2019 my personal growth goal has been to increase my own focus. I wanted to try out different approaches to do so and reflect which approaches have been helpful and whether this would have significant impact on the effectiveness of my work. 

While aiming for my goal I was working in a Coaching Tandem with marvelous Frieda Tanski at my side. Together we experimented with a set of approaches. Now it is time to reflect and share the learnings:

Guiding principle of the Agile Coaches at idealo
Luckily we developed a guiding principle within the team of agile coaches at idealo. It became our shared base, the one major artefact describing our role and goal. Today I can say that this has been very helpful for finding and keeping my own focus. It helped me and us to classify the different expectations from others, helping us to decide whether we would accept an assignment or not.
Based on the guiding principle we developed one simple question we asked ourselves before starting to work on a new assignment: “Whose job are we going to do if we accept this?”. Often we did identify other roles being responsible for what has been asked. Sometimes this just meant that we had to reject the inquiry. Most of the time however we went on asking ourselves: “How can we help the organization to get into a state where this responsibility can be handled without the help of agile coaches”. Working on the actual need with this goal in mind helped in the current situation and the same time enabled the organization to solve this on it’s own in the future. We left responsibilities where they belong. This meant also that we kept focus on our guiding principle and avoided being confronted with similar inquiries later on. That’s focus.

Agile Coaching Manifesto
Based on the guiding principle we wrote an Agile Coach Manifesto (I might translate and post it in in the future) for our tandem. Our thought behind this was to increase transparency about our role within the department we were working with. We hoped that this would help to manage expectations by others, i.e. that colleagues would reflect themselves if we were the right people to ask for help. We hoped to get less inquiries that did not match our role, helping us to stay focussed by less distraction.
Even though the manifesto had been published and was perceived by others, we were not able to measure significant impact. Still it was of great help for the two of us to align our understanding of our role and accordingly helped us make faster decisions regarding whether to follow up on an inquiry or not.

Quarterly Strategic Offsites
Once in a quarter the two of us took a day out of the office for strategic thinking. We tried to identify the bigger topics we would start working on for the next couple of month. A couple of questions guided us through our process:

  • Which observations do we currently make in our work environment?
  • Which of these observations are critical regarding the transition into an working agile organization. 
  • Which of the critical observations do we want to invest into in following three months? (prioritization)
  • Which target condition do we want to reach?
  • What will be our first steps on the way to the target condition?

These offsites were of great value for our work and helping us to keep focussed a lot. The shared understanding of our next goals, knowing what conditions to look at and being able to start with concrete first steps made a huge difference. We were able to tell our colleagues what we wanted do achieve increasing acceptance of others. We were able to start working on the new goal immediately avoiding distraction by all sorts of work that eventually appears. We were able to re-observe the situations that we described allowing us to see changes, discussing progress and adapting our plan. The time for the offsites was a really good invest and focus increased a lot after each of the offsites we had. 

Weekly Tandem-Time
Next to the quarterly offsites we decided to install a regular timebox for reflection and refocusing. Once a week (every Wednesday morning) we met for three hours. Having this regular, protected space was essential for keeping focus and making progress. We mainly discussed the following questions:

  • How do you feel lately?
    This turned out to be a very strong question regarding focus. Unfocussed work often comes with lots of different contexts. Switching between these easily becomes visible in symptoms as stress or demotivation. Asking this question was helping us to identify defocussing.
  • What did we observe regarding our main topic since last week?
  • What did we do to reach our goal? What did work out, what didn’t?
  • What are the next steps?

Initially we decided to spend this timebox outside in a café, avoiding disturbance by colleagues just stepping in. While this was helpful in the beginning, we later decided to meet in the office. We took advantage of the material available (you do not have stuff as whiteboards in cafés…). Also we were able to use a small room where people normally do not pass by; spontaneous disturbance by others was not a big issue.

We experimented with different backlogs. Physical backlogs right on the wall, digital backlogs in Jira, backlogs holding topics, epics, stories, tasks… No matter what we did – they did not survive for more than a couple of weeks. We just did not use them.I was asking myself why backlogs did not work out for us – especially as we promote them to teams as the artefact to use for prioritization of work. Here are the answers I can come up with:

  • Using quarterly offsites, weekly reflection slots and a lot of spontaneous communication in the tandem already allows us to stay focussed. Backlogs do not bring additional value. They do produce costs instead as tickets have to be written, updated and destroyed. 
  • As Agile Coaches we are pulled by others when needed. It is these situations we can use for our interventions, i.e. we are highly dependent on being pulled by others. Whenever being pulled we do have our goals in mind and act according to them. But it is hard to pull a topic from a backlog and then push it into environment. This does not reflect our work style. Our work clearly differs from that we see in teams. Backlogs in teams mostly represent goals the team can reach autonomously. 
  • There is an exception that is noteworthy: we did have a list of open topics written directly into the calendar entry of our weekly tandem session. We did use this list a lot. It was not prioritized and thus not a real backlog, but still it was a single place to keep future topics. Why did this work out? My assumption is that
    • the list was directly coupled to the weekly, i.e. we knew when to take a look at it.
    • access was easy. The list was always available when needed, i.e. no matter if we were doing our weekly out of office or in a small meeting room, we always had the possibility to see it.

Being Out of Office
Sometimes all you need is pure concentration. E.g. when working on my first article for this blog. Or when talking through strategic goals as mentioned above. For myself tasks like writing feedback, self-reflexion, writing of articles, preparation of talks or conception of workshops were good things to do out of the office.Not being in the office, i.e. not being disturbed by spontaneous communication really is helpful. I identified two things to keep in mind:

  • You should take a topic-based decision. Do not decide to just spend a day working at home. Decide which topics need your full attention and be committed to work on these when you will not be in the office.
  • Also, when not being in the office, get rid of other communication channels. Switch of notices for emails and messages, put your mobile into silent mode, make sure (when working at home) that your family will not rush in every five minutes… 

Keeping My Calendar Clean
The most important measure for me has been the status of my calendar. I do feel a clear correlation of defocusing and amount of calendar entries. Many of the steps mentioned above helped me to do so. I actively decided to not join meetings that were not helpful for reaching my goals. I decided to not start working on new topics when more than half of my weekly working time was already locked in the calendar. I ended up with several unscheduled timeslots of 1-2 hours (on a daily basis). This has been time I was able to spend with high focus. Whenever my calendar told me that these timelots were gone, focus was gone, too. 

Sometimes I tried to reserve time for focused work by scheduling time in the calendar. This did not help a lot. Others just send invites anyway. It was the change in my mindset that made the difference. Knowing that these timeslots are important for my work, convincing myself that it is alright to not participate in meetings, denying invites by others if time for focused work was needed… In the end it paid off – for me and for others.

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