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(This was taking forever. But you know what? You can’t fix what you didn’t write.
So ship it, I say, ship it!)

What does an idea have to be for me to call it a pillar of coaching practice?

The situating activity was the first thing I ever identified this way. It happened that I was working with a team doing that most awful of all software specialties, the dreaded double-entry accounting. (Why is this problem not solved already? Anyone??)

These folks were hardworking and excited programmers, deeply motivated and even well-trained.  They had the full backing of their company. They practiced several excellent disciplines, and they nailed one release after the other.

There was just one little problem:

Nobody wanted what they built.

These guys desperately needed situating in the business: smart and skilled as they were, it was all in the geekery end. They just did not understand the market in which the company moved.

It didn’t take genius: they needed a crash course in “How Our Business Makes Money”.  In no time flat I had marketing and the CEO and everyone with any muscle at all coming into the programmer’s work area to give them the true skinny on what was needed strategically for their niche vertical market.

I created a lovely slogan that you’ll see me use a lot:  We’re In This For The Money. Catchy, yes?

Case closed, problem solved, check received, ego boosted, yeah yeah yeah.

What With One Thing And Another,

Two Years Passed.

At first I considered situating as a specific response to a specific problem.  The team does not understand the business? Take steps to situate them properly.

This worked pretty well.

But one day a team challenged me to explain why more & smaller classes is better than less and larger ones. I hit the books and found a ton of useful material about the information bandwidth of the human mind.

So, I told them about it. I started with Miller’s “Magic Number Seven Plus Or Minus Two”, and went on from there. It was enough of a suggestive case I made that they decided to try it. (That’s all you’re ever going to get for producing a plausible explanation, so I was pretty satisfied.)

Then it hit me.  I had situated this team, too. Oh, I didn’t help them grasp the business. I helped them grasp how human minds work. Just as every team is inside a context of business, every team member is inside a context of having a mind.

Situating Operates With Any Context

There’s no real limit to the kind of contexts teams and individuals need to be situated to. Here’s a few I’ve used:

  • helping teammates learn to code for each other is situating in the space between minds;
  • teaching a special shorthand code for resolving certain conflicts is situating in the team itself;
  • showing people how slack works is situating — what — in the mind and the body;
  • getting folks to understand business value is easy and cheap and invaluable situating in the company;
  • re-awakening geek joy is situating teams in their own well of energy;
  • … and so on and on.

At some point, I began to think of all of these various contexts as the ecology of the team. It’s a tricky word, ecology, and I’m still not sure I want to use it publicly. For now it’s enough to say I’m not talking about any one context in particular, but rather all of the contexts I can think of!

More Than Technique

Situating is not a particular technique.

Sometimes you situate teams by just talking. Other times it’s drawing pictures, or bringing in guests from the rest of the company. Situating can be nothing more than re-balancing the physical layout of a pairing station so that two people can feel how best to pair.

When I work with a team I am constantly looking for opportunities to situate.

A great deal of this work is in the basics: reminding folks that we’re in this for the money, or indicating which competitors we are setting out to beat this release. But don’t limit this pillar. Any time you see the team working so that their actions are disconnected from their goals, you have an opportunity to situate. If you can think of a way to do that, then go for it.

All of which I hope answers the first question, about what makes a pillar a pillar:

A Pillar Is An Unbounded Source Of Coaching Action

Coaching is not a spectator sport. It is, to steal from Heidegger, a site of thrownness. You are thrown into a complex world with incomplete information and you are required to act. The hardest part of coaching for me is the part where I have to puzzle out the next right act.

The pillars constantly send me ideas for action. They’re not actions themselves, but they are the source — an unbounded source — of most of my coaching actions.

(There’s lots more to say about situating, but let’s search out a few more pillars before we go deeper. Next up: Releasing.)

3 Responses to “Coaching Pillar: Situating”

  1. Simon Kirk says:

    “The hardest part of coaching for me is the part where I have to puzzle out the next right act.”

    Oh yes, right on the nail, spot on, etc. Sometimes the fear of making a wrong action for a team can just *paralyse* me. Though these days I’m fairly confident with teams, it’s the next right act for the business that’s troubling me.

    Which is an interesting thought: situating is equally applicable to the business, as well as a team…

    • GeePawHill says:

      Interesting thought indeed.

      A side note: I had a team a little bit ago. The testers had told me pre-retrospective that they were unhappy with dev’s fairly casual approach to staying in touch. Ten minutes into the retro, dev expressed frustration that testing couldn’t turn results around fast enough.
      Bingo. I situated them both: “Dev has something testing wants, and testing has something dev wants. Everything else is details.”

      • Simon Kirk says:

        Would you say that’s the general pattern of the way to situate a function (team, business, whatever) with the problem of being badly situated (or not situated at all): To find the various parties that want something from them, quantify those wants (decipher the details) and arrive at a suitable suggestion?

        Of course the chances are most of those wants are cyclical, such as with your example. I’m thinking that’s probably why situating a business feel much more difficult as there are inevitably a far wider spectrum of demands on the entity.

        I still think you’re right that identifying all the parties who want something from the badly situated entity (and vice versa) is the first and hardest step (hence “Everything else is details”, though I’m glad you didn’t include the word “just” :).

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