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Sharing the “Minimum Viable” Amount of Expertise

Many of us have had the experience of having something that we already know being explained to us in excruciating detail. When providing expertise, consider the saying “Less is more.”

We have found the following levels of choice useful for determining the minimum viable expertise to share. We have ordered the levels from providing the most choice to providing the least choice.

  • Share missing information. Sometimes the coachee has everything they need to move forward, except for one small piece of information. Because you already have that information, you may see a whole plan for moving forward in your head. By providing just the missing piece of information instead of the whole plan, you give the coachee the opportunity to do the rest of the work on their own.

  • Share a resource. When there are many possibilities for action, providing just a couple requires selection on your part, which then limits the coachee’s choice. If you provide a resource that offers a wealth of information in the area of the coachee’s interest, that gives the coachee more choice. It does require more effort on the coachee’s part to get to a plan of action, but it also gives them a reference to consult when they have a similar situation in the future—and it keeps their choices open.

  • Share relevant examples. When you don’t know of a relevant resource, or there is a time constraint, provide examples and anecdotes from your own experience. This usually affords the least choice for the coachee. However, by providing multiple relevant and viable examples and following the guidelines on sharing expertise, you can still maximize the coachee’s ability to choose.

Here is an example interaction that shows the application of these three levels of choice:

  • Scrum Master: “Our retrospectives are getting boring and useless. ‘What went well, what didn’t go well, and what ideas do you have?’ over and over again is mind-numbing. What should I do?”

  • Coach: [Shares missing information.] “The Scrum Guide only requires a retrospective, not a specific format.”

  • Coachee: “Oh! I didn’t know that. That’s awesome! In the future, I’ll take advantage of that flexibility, but I don’t know any other formats. What should I do?”

  • Coach: [Shares a resource.] “There’s a website called retromat.org that will give you a random format by choosing from a wide variety of options for the five stages of a retrospective.”

  • Coachee: “Oh! Terrific! But I need to run this tomorrow and I don’t have time to look into that. What should I do?

  • Coach: [Shares examples/experience.] “I find that when folks are first trying a different format, they have good results running ‘Best Team’ or ‘Timeline.’ I’ll send some information on those.”

  • Coachee: “Perfect. Thanks so much for your help.”

Feedback Is a Form of Expertise

As an Agile expert, you will notice things that others don’t. When you share your feedback, you are sharing expertise. Everything that applies to sharing other kinds of expertise also applies to feedback.

Observations Are Feedback

The simplest form of feedback is an observation: “You have tomato sauce on your nose.” It is the same as holding up a mirror to help the other person see something that they may be missing. It is just an observation; there is no reference to expectation. You don’t need to do anything beyond the observation; the person will thank you and take care of the issue on their own.

Saying “I noticed the standup went to 30 minutes today” is feedback in the form of an observation. If there is already a shared expectation around the length of the standup, a simple observation should suffice. On the other hand, perhaps members of the team came from another organization where the expectation was 30 minutes and they feel like everything is fine. In that case, there are mismatched expectations and a simple observation will not be enough feedback.

Comparing Expectations Is Feedback

Another way to provide feedback is via expectations. For example, you might be attending a standup for a team that is new to Agile. You notice lots of discussion on topics outside of the work that the team is focused on for the current iteration. With your teaching hat on you might say, “I notice there has been some discussion on subjects outside of the work for this iteration. There’s no issue with having those discussions. However, the expectation during the standup meeting is that we will limit our discussion to what we are currently working on for this iteration and discuss other topics later, perhaps right after the standup meeting.”

With this statement, you have provided feedback on the current situation consisting of an observation and a reminder of what is expected. Hopefully, that is all that is needed for the team to change their behavior. If that doesn’t work, you may need to provide more expertise to help the team produce the expected result.

Sharing the Minimum Viable Amount of Feedback

Just as with other forms of expertise, you can share the minimum amount of feedback. For instance, if you sense that a person is unaware of something that would be useful for them to know, make a single small observation and then stop. If you sense there may be a difference of expectations, just state your expectations and then stop. When you provide the minimum viable amount of feedback, it gives the other person the opportunity to make their own choice about what to do about the observation or new understanding of expectations, possibly removing the need for you to provide additional expertise. And if the expertise you have shared is not enough, you can always offer more.

Giving Praise and Criticism Is Like Playing a Game of Hot and Cold

Praise and criticism are often intertwined with observations and expectations. Praise and criticism are forms of judgment. Praise may make the coachee feel good about their performance. Similarly, criticism may make them feel bad. Neither provides much information about exactly what met or did not meet expectations.

Consider the children’s game “Hot and Cold.” In this game, an object is hidden and a seeker has to find it. The seeker is given clues about how close they are to the hidden object in terms of temperature. They are told they are getting hotter if they are closer and colder if they are farther away. The seeker depends on these clues to find the object.

Providing praise or criticism of a coachee’s performance is similar to a game of Hot and Cold. Without receiving specifics through observations and expectations, the coachee is less likely to learn how to do Agile well. If the person providing the feedback goes away, the coachee’s ability to continue on the path to Agility may also go away.

In our experience, the best results come from using only observations and expectations to provide feedback and avoiding praise and criticism. When people realize through your observations that they are meeting their own expectations, they will naturally feel good about their efforts.


The following examples illustrate the differences between observation, expectation, praise, and criticism.

  • Scenario: A Scrum Master conducts a retrospective. In the team agreement, it says the team picks the retrospective format and the duration is an hour. The Scrum Master brings two new formats for the team to choose from. During the retrospective, one of the topics that surfaces is to make a decision between two potential implementation technologies. After a facilitated discussion, the team makes their decision and then creates a plan for moving forward. At one point, Bob, a technical writer, tries to get the Scrum Master’s attention but fails. The retrospective runs one hour and fifteen minutes and some participants leave after an hour.

  • Praise: “Awesome retro! Way to go!”

  • Criticism: “The retro could have been better.”

  • Observation: “I see the retro ran over by fifteen minutes and people had to leave before the end.”

  • Expectation: “The team agreement says that the retrospective should be an hour, but that was an hour and fifteen minutes.”

  • Expectation [From Bob]: “I expected everyone to have a chance to speak.”

  • Advice: “Next time, consider checking in on the time throughout the retro and ask people what they want to do if it seems the conversation will run over time.”

Return to Professional Coaching as Soon as Possible

Part of sharing the minimum viable amount of expertise is returning to Professional Coaching as soon as you can. Think of Professional Coaching as your default mode, only venturing away from it when absolutely necessary and then for as short a time as possible. Set an intent to start with Professional Coaching, switch to something else when needed, then switch back to Professional Coaching. This approach is illustrated in Figure 4.2.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 Staying in Professional Coaching mode as much as possible

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