Agile Coach as Puppet Master (& the Zoom-Out Resolution)

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Zoom-Out Coaching is a powerful tool for personal and business Coaches in general and also for Agile Coaches.

Calling all Puppet Masters!

OK let’s be explicit, “Agile Coach as Puppet Master” is most definitely a statement of what not to be. For the natural or aspiring Puppet Masters out there I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. You may want to watch this instead.

When I talk about Agile Coach as Puppet Master this is intended to be a call for self-reflection and awareness and a trap to avoid. I continually apply this to myself as a Coach and indeed as a person. I could just have easily written:

  • Leader as Puppet Master
  • Manager as Puppet Master
  • Person as Puppet Master

Agile Coach is my primary concern in this article but please feel free to substitute with whatever person title you like and much of this will still apply. Except for the next bit.

A Fantastic Beast
An Agile Coach is a curious creature or “fantastic beast” with role facets that can be incredibly productive or equally counter-productive depending on how and when they are utilised. A useful framework to help us think about this is Lyssa Adkins’ / Agile Coaching Institute’s well-known Competency Framework, affectionately known as the X-Wing model:

This highlights the many skills an Agile Coach needs to utilise. At times we need to call upon our “Agile-Lean Practitioner” expertise. At other times we switch into Teaching or Mentoring. In another moment we employ our Coaching and Facilitating skills. This all requires judgement and we can be switching modes frequently and often within a single conversation or session with a person or team.

How we “see” and the power of Zoom-Outs
The prudent application of these skills is largely influenced by how we “see” a person, team or situation. As well as an Agile Coach I am a Zoom-Out Coach or “Zoomologist” which at its core is concerned with challenging our default perspectives and assessing our options for how we “see”. I am obsessed with how human perspectives form and how our default perspectives can drive our behaviour, often down unproductive or unhelpful paths, for ourselves and the people we impact.

Seeing people as “Puppets” is incredibly and depressingly common in life, society and within organisations. In fact, we don’t even realise that this is what we are doing. That this is how we are seeing people. And as Agile Coaches we are not automatically immune from this.

This is one of my favourite quotes that I use in my happiness and Zoom-Out workshops and content:

This applies in all directions by the way. People above you, to the left of you, to the right of you and below you in the organisation or community.

Consider these questions:

Q. Have you ever become frustrated by the unexpected or unreasonable behaviour of a person or team?

Q. Have you ever diligently figured out a recommended course of action for a person or team only to be dumbfounded by why they won’t do it or fail at it?

Q. Have you met stiff resistance to your coaching or mentoring efforts?

Q. Have you encountered what feels like unnecessary conflict?

I‘m guessing that you answered yes to most if not all of these questions. And I would argue that much of this stems from how we “see” the people involved and the situation they face; how we see people in the context of our needs, not theirs, for example.

Tripwires and Puppet Strings
What is it about being human that leads to these results and to us seeing people as “Puppets”? Here are some potential contributing factors:

  • We are pattern matching machines and tend to “recognise” people we’ve never met before; “Ah, this is a Developer” or “This is a CTO”
  • We can be lazy and prefer the well-trodden mental path
  • We label people and things and put people in “boxes” or “pigeon holes”; e.g. “This is a Developer and I know all about Developers”; “This is a CTO and I know all about CTOs”
  • It feels like the quickest way to get the results “I” want
  • We have our preferred modes of thought or “mental comfort zones”, e.g. as “Agile-Lean Practitioner”; as Engineer; as Manager; solver of problems; as manipulator of ‘Resources’
  • We extrapolate from small data points; e.g. a single statement a person makes; a single fact
  • We are subject to cognitive biases such as the Halo Effect and the Horns Effect
  • Seeing people as ‘people’ and not ‘resources’ is perceived as a sign of weakness, i.e. “I don’t do that touchy-feely stuff!”

The challenge is to resist these mental shortcuts, biases and our tendency to project our past experience onto new people and experiences. Or at least to be aware this may be what is happening. These all influence our default perspectives.

The Whole Person Zoom-Out

As a Zoom-Out Coach I talk about various Zoom-Out Dimensions, one of which is a “Whole Person Zoom-Out”. The spirit of this Zoom-Out is to strive continually to see and get to know the person for the unique and whole person they are. To avoid placing them in a neatly labelled box with associated “puppet strings”; “Ah, I know how to deal with this person! Clever me!”. How we see a person or team is going to profoundly affect how we think about and approach them. It’s going to influence how we converse with them, and indeed the extent to which we converse with them!

The Universal Zoom-Out
Another Zoom-Out Dimension that has relevance here is the “Universal Zoom-Out” which is concerned with how we see the universe, which of course is populated by people, at least our little corner of the Milky Way. We need to be aware of the impact of us seeing ourselves (and we all do) as the absolute “Centre of the Universe” around which all things and people revolve. We need to seek out a well-balanced and helpful view of the universe and its governing laws; the nature of things and people.

Zoom-Out Agile Coaching
So what does this mean to us as Agile Coaches?

First of all, “seek to see” as best we can. Do not rely on our default perspectives. Use Zoom-Out Dimensions and skills to see people and situations as fully and clearly as possible with a fresh perspective.

Secondly, “seek to see”. Duplication intended as this is not just the first step but a continual re-appraisal. We continually fight our cognitive biases, download updates to our mental maps (often from other people) and frequently Zoom-Out to avoid going down unhelpful rabbit holes.

From this position of a well-balanced set of perspectives about a person, team or situation, the remaining steps of the path will be clear to us. We’ll be best placed to make a wise judgement call as to which competency mode will serve us well in this moment: telling, teaching, facilitating, coaching or suspending conclusions and exploring further.

Powerful Zoom-Out Questions
As coaches, we love a good question!  The following “Powerful Questions” can be useful to apply to ourselves as coaches. A little self-coaching goes a long way. Note that “person” can be substituted with “team” in most cases.

Q. What are you assuming about this person?

Q. What is helpful about how you see this person? What can you build on?

Q. What is unhelpful about how you see this person? What should you discard?

Q. Where did your view of this person originate? What basis or evidence?

Q. What are you assuming about this person’s view of a situation?

Q. Have you asked them what they think?

Q. What “box” have you placed this person in?

Q. What are you assuming about this person’s skills and experience?

Q. Are you seeing the full picture of this person’s skills and experience?

Q. Are you assuming you know this person already?

Q. What assumptions have you made about what is best for them?

Q. What can you learn about this person from them? (Just ask)

Q. What can you learn about this person from other people?

Q. What are you not seeing about this person?

Q. What do others see about this person that you don’t?

Q. What agenda are you pursuing and who does that serve?

Q. How do you think you can influence this person and based on what evidence?

Q. Are you seeing ‘facts’ that do not really exist?

Q. Are you seeing conflict where it does not really exist?

Q. What else could they tell you that is important?

Q. What don’t you know about this person which could surprise you?

Without wishing to get too meta, it can be useful to think of our cognitive biases, tendencies and default world views as our own puppet masters, pulling our own strings. By spotting these strings we can cut them or at least limit their influence on us where that affect is not serving us well. So by defeating our own puppet masters, we can limit the extent to which we see others as puppets to be mastered.