Using Inception as an Agile Coaching Tool

Using Inception as an Agile Coaching Tool v2

Agile Coaching can be a challenging job, particularly when supporting managers in organizations. In fact, for new Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches, coaching managers may be the last place they focus. They may find it more comfortable or easier to focus their efforts on the scrum team or even the Product Owner.

New Scrum Masters and Coaches should not ignore managers as they are clearly within their responsibility. One agile coaching tool that I would like to suggest they use with managers is inception. By inception, I mean implanting an idea in someone’s head without them being aware. But wait – I don’t mean to manipulate them or control them. It is only to help others to figure things out for themselves. Let’s take a closer look.

Great Ideas from the Fixing Your Scrum Book

The idea of inception as an agile coaching tool was inspired by the Fixing Your Scrum Book by Ryan Ripley and Todd Miller. The book is great and it actually sparked a lot of great ideas about Scrum improvements and agile coaching tools. (You can check out my review of the Fixing Your Scrum Book here).

Ripley and Miller dedicated Chapter 8 of Fixing Your Scrum to working with Managers. They point out that the Scrum Master provides many important services to the organization including these that directly involve managers:

…help management plan the company’s Scrum adoption

…lead and coach people

…help everyone (yep, including managers) understand how empiricism and Scrum work

— Ryan Ripley and Todd Miller, Fixing Your Scrum (2020)

I know what you must be thinking, was the idea for inception actually implanted in my head by the authors of the book? Wow, that is an entirely new level of inception!

Scrum Masters May Struggle to Coach Managers

The chapter about working with managers was interesting. Scrum Masters may find that working with managers is one of the more difficult aspects of the job. I found it difficult. First, there was the power differential. How do I help or coach the person I report to, the person who hired me and the person who controls my pay and promotions?

Second is that managers are in the position they are because at least at some point, they did what the organization wanted. They succeeded. The organization rewarded them for their behavior. Oftentimes when Scrum is introduced in an organization, we are asking them to do something that they didn’t do before or that runs contrary to what helped them succeed in the past. Scrum actually threatens their value system.

Finally, early in my career, I tended to see managers as the opposition to agile ways of working. (They aren’t called the frozen middle for no reason). I saw them as an impediment. My colleague Bob Galen and I have shared our thoughts on this over the years and I have taken his coaching on ways to engage and empathize with managers. Bob shared his most recent thoughts about what I have learned so far in his article titled Managers as Coaches. But I digress.

Working with managers may be difficult but is an important part of the job for Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches.

The TAPS Model is an Agile Coaching Tool

There is a model for coaching that I have come to appreciate called the TAPS model which stands for Tell, Ask, Problem and Solution. (I am unsure of the origins of this framework – if anyone knows, please leave me a comment.)

Here is a diagram:

The TAPS Model is Another Great Agile Coaching Tool

I’ll write more about the TAPS Model in a separate article but the two key aspects which are relevant here are the domains on the right labeled as Teachers and Mentors and Coaches.

  • Teachers and Mentors – Trainers tend to live in the intersection of Tell and Solution. Trainers and mentors help us to gain knowledge that we do not have already so that we can do something we need specific knowledge in to do better.
  • Coaches – Coaches tend to live in the intersection of Ask and Solution. Coaches see what is happening in a given situation and ask questions of the team or coachee to help them think through their dilemma and move forward by using their own ideas.

What sparked my thinking is that Ripley and Miller recommended that Scrum Masters talk to managers and be curious. Be curious about the manager’s goals and current challenges. Scrum Masters should ask those powerful, open-ended questions which lead to deeper levels of understanding, creativity, and innovation. That is in the sweet spot for coaching as described above.

Ripley and Miller are careful to point out that in order to help the managers, you have to build a relationship and establish trust. Without trust, no coaching is is going to be possible and this applies to everyone, not just managers. And even though building trust takes time, it is entry criteria to being able to coach effectively.

Using Inception as an Agile Coaching Tool

So how does all of this relate to Inception as an agile coaching tool? In the 2010 movie Inception, the goal of inception was to plant an idea in the head of someone in a dream in a way that the person would believe it was their own idea. It is highly manipulative and I think it may be illegal in many states, but hear me out.

When we think about the TAPS model and the idea of trainers and coaches helping others to understand possible solutions and embrace them, what we are talking about is inception. Not exactly like the movie, but inception nonetheless:

  • We strive to understand the current state of the organization, the current challenges of the manager and we have empathy for what they are going through.
  • To the extent that we have ideas about possible solutions to the manager challenges, we can introduce possible agile and Scrum solutions.
  • We can teach concepts, principles, and solutions.
  • We can use exercises and experiments to help others learn experientially through participating or observing.
  • We can ask those powerful, open-ended questions that help lead others to come up with solutions on their own.

When inception works well, those we are helping embrace the ideas, gain more of an understanding and apply the insights to address their challenges. We influence them to come up with creative solutions. And they feel like they came up with the idea on their own.

Which is what we want – for others to feel like they accomplished it on their own or that they made their own choice. And as coaches we need to have the ego strength to support them.

Which is a form of Inception that I think can be really powerful.


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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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