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Which stance should I take? The 4 quadrants of Agile Managers

I completed my 360 degree year end performance evaluation last week but this post is not about performance reviews. This post is the mental model I developed following a comment I received during the 360 degree discussions.

Martin, we recognize you are a good coach but as the president of the organization, we still expect you to act as a manager and take a position or make decisions instead of simply asking us questions.

As any other coach out there ever received similar feedback from the team they work with? In my opinion, this is recurring question asked to coaches.

Since defining what my role should be as the leader of a self-organized team, I’ve adapted my leadership style from traditional to coaching, with apparently good impact. Unfortunately, I may have pushed the coaching stance a little too much and need to adjust in order to meet the expectation of a leader.

The above statement and questions that followed in my head, led me to develop a mental model to determine which stance I could take in a conversation. The model also aims to help others who wish to be agile managers, and determine the right stance to take in different circumstances.

Two perspectives and two dimensions

Below is my mental model which takes into considerations both participants’ perspective on a specific situation – the other person’s (to the left) and yours (at the bottom).

Each of the two people either has a complete and immediate answer or solution to the situation at hand or an incomplete and/or untimely answer (which means the person is likely to find the complete answer after thinking about it for a while but the time frame is shorter than the allowed time. These two dimensions offer four possibilities or four quadrants.

Debating

In this situation, the other person already has the answer (or solution) to a specific situation while your knowledge of the topic is incomplete (or absent). Consequently, the only way you can actually contribute to the discussion is by improving the solution and by challenging the other person’s answer in an attempt to improve the answer or the outcome.

Coaching

In a situation when neither of the two participants know the answer to a specific situation, you can take a coaching stance. As such, asking clear questions in an attempt to help the other person come up by themselves with the answer to the situation. This stance allows the development of the individual as opposed to the improvement of the solution.

Educating

In the situation where you already know the answer but the other person doesn’t, you share the answer to the situation and explain how you got to the solution. The objective is to develop the skills of the other person so they may come up with their answer next time they are faced with a similar challenge. As with the coaching stance, acting as the educator focuses on the development of the individual which will eventually take you to the exploring stance.

Exploring

In this situation both parties already clearly know the answer to the situation and as such, a discussion takes place to explore all perspectives in an attempt to make sure the best options have been properly covered. As with the debating stance, the exploration aims at improving the quality of the idea since the individual already came up with the solution.

Using these four quadrants makes it easier to determine up front which position I will be taking in the conversation and allows me to be fully coherent from one discussion to the next.

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice thoughtful approach Martin. The “other person” could fall into multiple quadrants or even all four. It depends on the topic.

    December 20, 2010
  2. Geoffrey Lowney #

    I like this. I can even see hanging a version of the graphic on my cube wall, so people who come to me can use it to evaluate their expectations.

    My only concern is around the term “Debating.” The word “debate” has an adversarial tone. I might suggest that a term more along the lines of “Probe” (“a penetrating or critical investigation,” “a tentative exploratory advance”) would reflect the goal better.

    December 20, 2010
    • Glad you like it.

      Thanks for the feedback, I will consider updating the chart.

      December 20, 2010
  3. Interesting and I am glad it works for you. I however think that this is a lagging metric. I mean for sure in which quandrant the person you talking to belongs cannot be known before he utters a word. It depends on the situation, person and the topic. So that means you have to start with an assumption and then stumble across the persn’s quadrant.

    I would say always have a coaching style. Its at first frustrating for a team, especially if they have always been under command and control leadership but eventually they learn. I am not a coach but a scrum master and it works quite well. You can help direct the team by raising important points but always in a way which begs looking for answers and not providing the answers. Infact I have asked lead programmer to also refrain from answering first to the problems and let the team come across it. This has led to the team being more confident and self organising.

    December 20, 2010
    • Sachin, this sounds like a good approach – especially when you don’t know the other person.

      Fortunately for me, I know the team I work with and as such it becomes easier to determine which stance I will take in a given situation.

      Thanks for your comment.

      December 20, 2010
  4. Bruno Morel #

    Hi Martin,

    This is where organic minds have the upper hand.
    My opinion there is that you’re going tooooooo analytic… :)

    I see two scenarios where we should switch from coach to take the manager seat :
    - debate is counter-productive : firing someone could be an extreme that easily illustrate that : debating it with the firee would be cruel if the reason to do it is there, and the decision was discussed and made with the others…
    - debate has reach the point of no result : for certain areas or topics (most of the inflammatory topics for example : Mac or PC ? :)) even a well-ajusted team / person may get stuck where there is two (or maybe more) side, and no straight, natural answer : that’s where the manager should help and make a stance

    In either case, as a manager, I know that I’m not error-proof and that, sometime, I take the wrong decision. But, I tend to think that IF I’ve sufficiently coached the teams to get me immediate feedback on my own errors, we will be able to adjust on the spot…

    Of course I need to ensure than MOST of my decision do good, otherwise, I would be a net-loss for everyone :)

    Other than that, you know better than me than most well-organised, well-trained, autonomous and openly transparent team will get most of their problem resolved.

    Hope it helps…

    P.S. : could we stop ‘leading’ ? :) I do believe that client (market in general) do lead. Especially in an agile environment…don’t you ? we manage…

    January 7, 2011
    • The role of the manager is indeed to manage and I don’t mean to say otherwise. In addition, the manager also needs to grow the people around him/her and make sure the decision is the best one considering the circumstance – hence the proposed model.

      This being said, there are many reasons why someone wouldn’t want to be a “coach” and I support that. As managers we need to remember that we pretty much can use a directive approach (we’ve been trained to do so) but depending on the circumstance, we may want to keep that as the last option.

      With regards to leading vs managing, I don’t believe there is much of a debate on that front – both should be used. The great leaders/managers know when to use one over the other to achieve results.

      Thank you for your valuable comment Bruno.

      January 7, 2011

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