Author Archives: Mark Buchan

About Mark Buchan

Mark is an Agile Consultant and Executive Coach who specialises in working with leadership teams when they are transforming their organisation to a more Agile way of delivery.

Dispelling the 13 Myths of Executive Coaching


I was just tidying up some files on my computer when I can across this article.  My first ever article I wrote back in 2007!  I remember the pain is caused me as I laboured over it for what seemed like weeks.  I have presented it here for you in its original form.  I may consider updating it, especially around my life coaching rant! Enjoy



This article has been written to address all those myths that have been circulated about executive coaching, what it is and what it isn’t. As a practicing executive coaching working for some of the top global organisation I believe that I am in a better place to make a more accurate assessment of what coaching is or isn’t that maybe some people who have heard about coaching on the grapevine and would happily place themselves as experts on such matters. This article will not attempt to give a detailed view of what coaching actually is, but I believe there is power in re-educating people on those myths all pervasive myths that seem to perpetuate in our industry.


You may be considering hiring an Executive Coach at this time so we would like to set the record straight and provide you an honest picture of coaching from the viewpoint of dispelling these myths.


MYTH 1: Executive coaching is where the coach tells me what to do and how to run my business

FACT: Absolutely not! An Executive Coach is in no way qualified to tell you how to run your business. As an executive you may hire an executive coach to streamline your thinking or to provide assistance as a sounding board for your ideas, but an executive coach cannot advise you on how to run your business. The executive coach is qualified to be a coach and as coach they will help you overcome obstacles or achieve goals. They are qualified in the art of coaching not in running your business. The executive will be reminded by a skilled executive coach that it is the executives responsibility to decide whether to act on any suggestions or advice the coach may give during the course of a coaching engagement.


MYTH 2: It takes up a lot of time

FACT: Lets be scientific for a moment. “A lot” is a relative term so to some people the 90 minutes every four to six weeks that we suggest for a coaching engagement may seem a long time. Many executive coaching practitioners may spend an hour a week with their executive clients, but research at Ashridge School of Business has shown that it is more effective to allow four to six weeks between the coaching sessions and to never exceed more than two hours in any one session. Sessions of coaching that are too frequent fall into the category of therapy and ceases to become coaching.


MYTH 3: It is just a management fad

FACT: It is true to say that coaching itself has been the subject of a remarkable trend since the turn of the millennium but fads die out and come back – just like corduroy flares or hairstyles. Executive coaching has been around in many guises but not under that label for over twenty years. So it is fair to say that it is not just a management fad, but is a trend where executives have experienced great benefit from working with us and other talented coaches.


MYTH 4: Executive coaching is the same as therapy and counselling

FACT: There are many reasons why this is not true. The main reason is that therapy and counselling are not solution oriented interventions. Executive coaching will always have some goal in mind for the coaching engagement. We certainly do not advocate that our clients lie on a coach and tell us about their mother! Executive Coaching can be people-centred but that does not make it therapy or counselling. Therapy can last for up to two years or longer with little evidence to support that the therapy itself had any real impact on the client   Executives have often reported that after having received executive coaching they feel like a weight has been lifted of their shoulder so the effects are similar to therapy.


MYTH 5: Executive coaching is the same as life coaching

FACT: Are you ready for a rant? Arrrrgghhhhhhhhhhh. Life coaching is a fad that is going to die very soon as there is a proliferation of under-trained, under-qualified, unregulated bored housewives dispensing advise for huge sums of money. A life coaches main qualification is life experience, or so they say. A skilled executive coach has many coaching models that they work from and is continually updating their knowledge and skills. Usually life coaches have very little experience in the way of self-development. Professional executive coaches are very self aware and understand the value of their own personal development. For instance all of our coaches have supervisors and their own coach. We walk our talk. So if you are considering hiring an executive coach, look them square in the eye and ask them who their coach is and how often they receive supervision. If you get less than satisfactory answers – call security. I’ll get of my soapbox now. Rant over.


MYTH 6: Executive coaching is only for use when executives are failing

FACT: Executive Coaching has a diverse range of applications for executives including improving their effectiveness and performance, advancing their communication skills, collaborating with them to create a compelling vision, provide assistance in applying their time to strategic issues and so on. Yes, Executive coaching can also be used to provide assistance to executives who admit to having challenges, but only those executives will benefit once they take responsibility for their change and own the issues that they are faced with.


MYTH 7: Successful executive don’t need executive coaches

FACT: The most successful executives in top FTSE 100 companies have their own executive coaches. The most savvy of executive know that everyone can always improve. Lets restate that everyone can improve in all ways.   We have no way of measuring the maximum potential that anyone can aspire to, but executive coaching provides the key to unlock any latent talent within an executive while building on the talent that they are consciously aware of.


MYTH 8: Executive coaching is expensive

FACT: Again this is a relative term, I ask the question expensive compared to what? Lets compare the coast of coaching to training. One of the major challenges facing executives is once they have attended any training course on leadership, communication, strategic thinking or whatever, they are left to apply the knowledge learned from the training on their own. The result is that little if any of the training is applied during the course of the executives day to day role. Research has shown that up to 90% of training budget is wasted because it is rarely applied. Executive Coaching on the other hand, provides a tailored form of continuous eduction and learning for the executive where the executive can apply the learnings from the coaching immediately and discuss the observations with the coach at the next session. This ensures that value is derived from the coaching. Studies have also shown that coaching can provide as much as 570% return on investment, so coaching can actually make money for your organisation and is less of a cost and more of an investment.


MYTH 9: Executives that have a mentor don’t need an executive coach

FACT: Mentors are different to executive coaches. There is a school of thought that says that mentoring is a form of coaching. Mentoring differs from coaching because it is more directive. A mentors teaches their mentee to perform certain behaviours or processes in the same way that they would. The mentee depends heavily on the experience of the mentor. An executive coach works best when they are being non-directive with their client assisting them in finding the answers within themselves. This has the effect of reducing the dependence that an executive may develop on a coach. A professional executive coach fosters independence in their client. Mentoring has its value and is mentors are usually provided in-house. Executive coaches tend to brought in form outside to be able to shine a light on an executives issues without the contamination of the internal politics or a particular culture.


MYTH 10: A successful executive coach needs to have similar experience to the executive being coached

FACT: This may be of help to the executive to know the coach has been through what they have been through, in which case a programme of mentoring may be of value to the executive. However, an executive coaching brings a whole new set of skills that the executive is unlikely to possess. So the balance of the executive’s knowledge coupled with the coaches skill at being able to provide learning strategies to assist them create a powerful alliance.


MYTH 11: It is impossible to measure outcomes of executive coaching

FACT: This myth is a sort of half truth. It is possible to measure some of the outcomes of coaching, especially a programme of behavioural coaching. However not all results from all of the different types of coaching can be measured. Coaching provides so many intangible benefits that it can be challenging to measure them all. Very often organisations fall into the trap of wanting measurable outcomes from all of the activities that an executive coach performs and in truth this is not possible.


MYTH 12: Everyone is coachable

FACT: This is not true. Every executive coach would like to believe that it is true but in reality some people are more coachable than others. Executive coaching works best for executives who are open minded and are willing to change. The type of executive who benefits from coaching is the one who takes responsibility for their own development and knows that they are capable of achieving more.


MYTH 13: Executive coaching is just another name for a consulting

FACT: Consulting is more akin to advice giving and problem solving but executive coaching is about facilitating the executive in finding the answers to their problems rather than solve the problems for them. Executive coaches can act in the capacity of a consultant if their expertise is being sought by an organisation to put into operation a programme of coaching or maybe for providing advice on implementing a coaching culture within their establishment.


A word from The Agile Leader …

Hi All

In the true sense of Agility I have been experimenting over the last year with a number of things as I seek to grow my business.  Writing this blog has been one of them.  For those of you that have been regular visitors to my site you may have noticed a complete disengagement from my writing and subsequently updates to this site.  One of the main reasons for this is that I have been totally immersed in work over the last 3 to 4 months and subsequently I have not made time to add content to this site.

I have been truly excited by my recent development of what I’ve called a “People, Interactions and Relationships” course.  (I have designed this course to improve collaboration within Agile teams.)  Since I have delivered the first pilots of this course back in February, I have received countless requests to run it as word of mouth started to take hold.  I have never really experienced such success before and it was truly humbling for me as I was able to help make a difference in so many Agile teams.

Since then I have been playing with other ideas about how to impact teams in a more meaningful way and this too has had an impact on my time.

I am about to start a new role near the end of September and it is my hope that it will afford me some time to start writing again.  So until then … keep it Agile and search out your own inspiration.  It really is worth the effort.

If  in the meantime you would like to find out more about my People, Interactions and Relationships course please feel free to contact me, but do understand I wont be able to run any more of these courses until early 2013.

Warmest regards


What’s a negative emotion?

I’m always struck by people’s judgements surrounding emotions.  For instance many people would classify the following emotions as “negative”:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Frustration
  • Doubt
  • Grief
  • Envy
  • and so on

To my thinking there is really no such thing as a negative emotion and here are my thoughts on that subject.

What is emotion?

In many of my trainings we invariably talk about emotion and I like to reframe it as such:


Where “e” stands for energy.  An example of this is in the immortal words of PIL “Anger is an Energy”. This energy is constantly in motion, unless its not in which case it may be stored somewhere.  I know that for me a lot of my emotion is stored in my gut as my way of dealing with uncomfortable emotions is to comfort eat.  Yes people, I may be a coach (and a damn good one) but I am still a work in progress and I feel that I am honest enough to admit that there are still some emotions for me that are uncomfortable to deal with.

Uncomfortable rather than negative

So here to me is the crux of the matter.  To my mind it’s not that emotions are either positive or negative; it’s the fact that some emotions are more comfortable to tolerate than others.  I mean who doesn’t prefer or choose happiness over sadness, joy over grief, contentment over frustration?  Also is it not more comfortable for us to deal with other peoples “positive” emotions rather than putting up with their “negative” emotions.

Emotions are contagious

If we continually find ourselves in the company of others who seem to be perpetually stuck in their negative emotions we find this a drain on our own energy and will make polite excuses to avoid their company.  Unless of course we are authentic enough to tell people the reason that we no longer wish to be in their company is because of the effect that their emotions have on us.

Emotions are addictive

Some years ago I watch a movie called “What the Bleep do we know?”.  In that film it was suggested that over time we become addicted to our emotions, which makes a lot of sense to me.  Our emotions trigger chemicals  in our body and these chemicals are no different to the chemicals that are contained in addictive substances such as alcohol, nicotine, sugar and heroin.    (Don’t take my word for it go ahead and watch the movie where scientists who are renowned in their field explain how all this happens – Candice Pert for example. )  Now as you read this you might say “see – some emotions are negative!!!”  But we can just as easily get addicted to “positive” emotions as well as the “negative” ones.

So what is the point that I am making here?  Well one point is that we may be too quick to judge the emotion as good or bad, negative or positive; but in actuality it’s the consequences of the emotion is the thing that we have trouble with. Take for example the emotion of anger (its no accident that I put it at the top of my list at the start of this article).  This is a perfectly natural emotion and a perfectly natural response for a functioning adult (or child) to have. However, as children many of us are told that we are bad when we express our anger.  My belief is that our care-givers find it difficult to deal with an angry child and feel that it is appropriate to train them out of being angry.  We may then grow up believing that anger is bad or wrong or negative, but actually it is a natural response.  Not only is it natural it can be quite productive.  I’m sure that you can think of some times when anger has driven you to take some positive action to change circumstances that you no longer find appropriate.  The same reasoning can be applied to other emotions such as frustration, doubt, envy and so on.  So how can we judge an emotion as negative if this energy source was one that inspired us to make important changes in our life.  Yes I know that it would be altogether more fulfilling and meaningful if love and compassion could be our inspiring energies, but life is not a Disney film and we are not all walking embodiments of Jesus, the Buddha or Mohammad (unless you are – in which case contact me because I could do with the mentoring ;0) ).

Emotions are expressions

Humans are by their very nature expressive beings and we express through our thoughts, behaviours and feelings.  The problem is we tend to suppress these expressions of our nature that we fear because we think other people will judge us unfavourably. This suppression harms us in the long run and negatively impacts us in ways that I don’t have time or space to go into here.

So our challenge is to firstly take ownership for our emotions, because they are natural expressions of our experience.  Once we own them, we can then go about expressing them in healthy and meaningful ways.  For me writing and journaling about them is meaningful.  Telling others how I’m really feeling (if I trust them or care for them enough) is also important and meaningful.  I am learning that part of the human condition is to emote and to then express rather than suppress – it’s a cheaper form of therapy and I don’t become dependent on other chemicals to help me avoid my uncomfortable emotions.


So in conclusion, having emotions is part of being human and I feel that it’s just not productive or useful to label them as positive or negative; they just are what they are.  Its a function of emotionally healthy adults to be able to deal with the emotions that show up for them every day, but yet a great number of adults choose unhealthy ways to deal with them – myself included.  It is important that rather than converting them into more comfortable ones to deal with (which is one way of avoiding emotions) or suppressing them altogether that we express them in healthy ways.

Overcoming a Blame Culture – Our Top 20 Suggestions

Does your organisation suffer from a culture of blame?  If so you will no doubt be aware of the negative effects that it can have, not only on the morale of your people but on your business as a whole.  One of the things that leaders who work in organisations often ask is “how do we address the issue of a blame culture?”  Here are the top 20 things that leaders can do start to turn a culture of blame into a culture of responsibility…

  1. Promote and model openness, honesty and truth
  2. Promote and model taking responsibility and being held accountable
  3. Promote and demonstrate respect for people which includes acceptance that we all make mistakes
  4. Promote and encourage partnership, collaboration and co-operation between people
  5. Work towards reducing panic and fear in the organisation
  6. Begin to focus on “How to fix …” rather than “who broke …”
  7. Avoid using punishment when people make mistakes
  8. Recognise people for their achievements
  9. Encourage and expect feedback
  10. Give feedback on your observations not your judgements
  11. Focus on solution finding rather than problem finding
  12. Ask for multiple solutions to every problem found
  13. Focus on continuous improvement
  14. Reframe peoples understanding of mistakes and failure i.e. no such thing as failure only feedback and we can learn from our mistakes
  15. Help people to understand that all behaviour has positive intention
  16. Educate people on the mindset that promotes blame
  17. Reinforce the behaviour you want by thanking people for bringing and revealing problems early and finding solutions to those problems
  18. Balance Responsibility
  19. Help people to understand the consequences of their actions
  20. Make responsibility an attractive proposition

Can you think of some more?  I’d love to hear your experience of how you turned around a blame culture in your organisation.

If you’re transforming your organisation – don’t wait for a vision before you get started


Supporters of the Kotter viewpoint believe that having a vision for change is the holy grail a point that I most vehemently refute.  I tend to agree with Anderson and Anderson (Beyond Change Management, 2001) that for some types of change (transformational change in particular) a vision isn’t always possible.  Often trying to get a vision that is aligned across the many, often disparate parts of the organisation is an impossible task.  Very often the work of change needs to get underway before the organisation has fully reconciled its various parts with a guiding and inspirational vision.  To further make the point I have taken the characteristics as raised by Kotter (Leading Change, 1996) as to what constitutes an effective vision in order to express why it isn’t always possible to have a vision at the start of a transformational change programme.  If you are transforming your organisation to a more Agile one then pay heed, because changing to Agile in my view is a transformational change.

Why having a vision isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The vision must be imaginable:

What happens when organisations descend into chaos brought about by changes in their environment or from within the organisation itself?  There will be a time where there will be no vision because all that will be seen will be chaos; and if a vision does exist it will certainly need to evolve and change.  If we also consider for a moment that transformational change will bring about a very necessary shift in mindset, then is it fair to assume that the current mindset will not be the most appropriate one to imagine its new future?

The vision must be desirable:

Ask any employee or stakeholder of any change if they want the subsequent mindset and behavioural shifts that are required for the vision to be realised.  I would be very surprised if there was majority, even a slim one, of people who would sign up for this level of change; but often that is exactly what is required especially for a transformational change. So while the vision may be desirable (the land of flowing milk and honey) the process to get there isn’t and thus it is little about the vision that will propel people forward but instead the level of pain they are feeling.  This is why it is my belief that Kotter’s first step in his eight is the most valid: develop the sense of urgency.  This will move people quicker than a vision will because the desire of less pain is more compelling than that of  receiving pleasure.

The vision must be feasible:

Organisations spend inordinate amounts of time on feasibility projects and studies only to find that most of their change efforts still fail and often quite dramatically.  Kotter states that feasibility “comprises realistic, attainable goals” (Kotter 1996, p72).  Again I hold the notion that compelling visions are rarely realistic and attainable.  This presupposes that we know the path to be taken to achieve the vision and for transformational change this is rarely the case.

The vision must be focused:

Leading on from the last point the vision may not be clear and all we might know is that more of the same will end the demise of the organisation.  The sad fact is that this highly focused form of vision might actually be considered to be tunnel vision as expressed by Watzawick et al (Change, 1972) where leaders may often fail to see the complexities involved in the change and may settle for a more simplified vision of the reality.

The vision must be flexible:

This I totally agree with because of the very nature of change, one has to have a flexible enough vision to “allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions” (Kotter 1996, p72).

The vision must be communicable:

Kotter maintains that the vision must be successfully explained within 5 minutes (Kotter 1996, p72).  Again, with the wooliness around visions of a transformational nature it is unlikely that it could be successfully communicated.

In closing …

In support of what Kotter does say though is that “developing a good vision is an exercise of both head and the heart, it takes some time, it always involves a group of people, and it is tough to do well” (Kotter 1996, p79).  This in itself implies that the organisation cannot just stand still while they are waiting for a vision.  The fact of the matter is that the vision will be evolved over many iterations and will be informed by the ever changing set of realities that emerge both from within and outside of the organisation. So in short don’t hang about fine tuning and polishing a vision before getting started on the work of change; its more important to respond to the realities of our environment and the tide of change and to make some mistakes rather than wait until we have perfect thinking before we start.

Values Elicitation Exercise

This exercise is one that I share with my clients in the early days of our coching relationship as it helps me to understand them better.  Often it also helps build awarness for the client as they may not be fully aware of what is most important to them in their personal or professional lives.  By being clear on their values I am able to provide clarifcation to around making choices that are more fulfilling and aligned with their values. We are also able to  strategise appropriate actions according to their values and we can recognise situations where conflciting values may be an issue.

What are values?

Values define who we are.  Values represent our unique and individual essence, your ultimate and most fulfilling form of expression and relating.  When you honour your values on a regular and consistent basis, life is good and fulfilling.  When you are not honouring your values life becomes uncomfortable and unfulfilling.

Honouring your values is about taking congruent action towards expressing your values.

Important life decisions are easier to make and more fulfilling when the decisions are made in honour of your values.

Honouring your values has a three-fold advantage

  1. You will become more motivated towards a specific action
  2. You will undermine the Ego/Gremlin because actions based on your values is more powerful than actions based on your Gremlins reason for taking or not taking another course of action
  3. Life will be more fulfilling.

Vaues elicitation

Consider the follow questions then write words that appropriately describe your response.

Peak Moment.

Identify a moment in your life that was particularly rewarding or poignant.  It is key here to pick a moment i.e. being told something rather than long duration i.e. a holiday.  Now answer the following questions

What was happening?

Who was present?

What was special about that moment?

What feelings did you have at that moment?

What were the values being honoured at that moment?

Suppressed values

Identify a moment that was a low moment in your life.

What was happening?

Who was present?

What was challenging about that moment?

What feelings did you have at that moment?

What values were not being honoured at that moment?

Must haves

Beyond the physical requirements of food, shelter and community, what must you have in your life to feel fulfilled?  List at least 5 things

Obsessive Expression

We are all capable of obsessive behaviour, insisting on honouring a value until it becomes a demand rather than a form of self-expression. Our friends and family are very good at pointing out the obsessive expression of a particular value, for instance they may say “You’re too ______” or “You always ________” or “all you think about is _________”.  List some of these here – and remember there is no right or wrong here , there is only what you are.

Here are some more questions to help you uncover your values

  • What qualities do you hold in high regard, when you see those attributes demonstrated in other people?
  • What qualities do you hold in low regard, when you see those attributes demonstrated in other people?
  • What cause or principal would you sacrifice, suffer or maybe even die for?
  • Beyond the physical requirements of food, shelter and community, what must you have in your life to feel fulfilled?  List at least 5 things.

Once you have identified your list of values the next task is put them in order of importance to you.  I recommend a list of no more than 10 values.

  1. Create the list: Start the list by placing what you feel are your most important values at the top.
  2. Test the list: You can then test this and reorder the list by asking yourself the question “Is this value of _____ more important to me than this other value of ______ “.
  3. Reorder the list: values that are more important than other ones should now take a higher place on the list.

The imposter syndrome: An affliction that can sabotage a great leader’s success

One of the most common ailments of psychology that abounds in senior managers and leaders is something that is referred to as the imposter syndrome.  For those of you who don’t know what it is I am talking about let me give you an example.  Peter, is an amalgam of many of my previous clients, so I can protect both their confidentiality and anonymity.

Peter is a senior manager in large organisation and is one step short from being a VP in his organisation.  Peter was referred to coaching just like many other executives in his organisation, not because there was anything wrong with him or that there was anything that needed to be remedied, but mainly because the organisation found great value in coaching their senior staff to help prepare them for their new role and responsibilities.  After about three sessions Peter began to open up to me about some of the anxieties that he was feeling from having attained such lofty heights in the organisation.  He described to me what it was like to be always looking over his shoulder wondering when someone would come up to him and say “sorry – we got it wrong, we made a mistake.  You aren’t really all that good after all.”  He felt like he was wearing a mask at work, keeping up the pretence and façade of someone acting as a leader. This unconscious fear was something that was eating away at Peter and was starting to have more of an effect in his life outside of work.  He was spending more time in the office or entertaining clients and stakeholders and was becoming more aware of a gulf that was widening between him and his partner.  As he confided in me “it’s like being this other person and sometimes I don’t know who it is I really am anymore.  I’m afraid of letting people down who have placed their trust in me.”  Peter’s way of dealing with this was to create more of persona around his work identity as a means to try and convince others and himself that he was worthy of his position.  More worryingly was what Peter confided in me was that he had noticed that he had started to procrastinate in his work and tendencies of perfectionism were starting to emerge.  Fortunately, nobody had noticed, but Peter had and these new behaviours were a growing concern for him.

Peter’s experience is very common in organisational life as some executives feel that the life they are leading is somewhat illusory.  They are troubled and anxious about the fact that they may have fooled people into believing they are better than they are.  As they search inside themselves this anxiety deepens as they struggle to come to terms with their beliefs about themselves and their abilities.  They rationalise that other factors such as luck, the influence of other people, good looks or suchlike are the real reasons why they have made it to where they are rather their innate talent.  All of this second-guessing themselves has a significant impact on their performance and they struggle to repeat the achievements that helped them to get to their current level of success.

In working with people like Peter, what tends to provide them with significant benefits in the coaching relationship is to explore their sense of identity.  Peter had lost touch with his own personal values and had instead began to falsely live the values of the organisation.  This again is a common experience in organisations as many executives are constantly in the dazzling glare of the spotlight being shone upon them by their followers, peers and stakeholders.  They are playing their part in a play, but unlike the actor who is able to switch off their character at the end of the play, the executive rarely gives themselves the opportunity to switch off or finds it difficult to maintain boundaries between the various aspects of their personal and professional lives.  The coaching serves to uncover and make these values conflicts more conscious so as coaches we are able to help Peter make sense of his experience and start to work on the self-limiting beliefs surrounding his capabilities and identity.

So why isn’t this syndrome more prevalent?

The simple truth of the matter is that the imposter syndrome is something that executives and people in power have great difficulty in talking about in private, never mind publicly declaring their deepest fears.  What does tend to happen though is that the higher that someone rises in an organisation, the more likely they are to feel this.  Mid-level managers who are teetering on the edge of “super-stardom” may start to become affected by these thoughts and behaviours that we have described.  While being a middle-manager it might have been possible for them to hide; but faced now with the very real prospect of being “outed” as an imposter, many self-defeating behaviours may start to impact their performance and sabotage their success.

So what about you?

I know that for me personally I have struggled in my own therapeutic journey to identify my true self; this is not a comfortable process but it is a rewarding one as I have a clearer sense now of my self and what makes me tick.  Rather than now do things to please other people or get their praise and positive strokes, I do things now (mainly) because I want to.  I say mainly because it is still a work in progress for me, after all patterns that have taken forty years to create tend to be a little more difficult to shake, even with all of my NLP skills  🙂 .

So what about you?  What is going to help you if, like me and our example of Peter, you labour under the stress of the imposter syndrome.  I have provided some reflections and self-coaching questions here to help you explore the extent to which the imposter syndrome may be impacting your performance.  If you would like to explore this subject in a little more detail then please do contact me privately as I understand that this type of exploration and conversation isn’t one that lends itself to be shared on web forums.  I would be happy to spend some time with you.

Reflections and coaching questions

Do you have a good sense of self, i.e. who you really are, what you stand for, what you would die for?

Are you clear on your identity?  What is your place in the world?  One exercise I share with my coaching clients is the values elicitation exercise (<– follow link )

Think about a difficult situation that is current for you. Take a moment to just be with it.  How close do your thoughts and feelings align with that reality? Are you able to have a good grasp on reality?  How often do you check your assumptions with reality?  How often do you find yourself believing that your thoughts or feelings are reality?

Do you underplay your achievements in your professional life? How much do you feel that has luck been a factor in your achievements?

Have you noticed any behaviours that have recently started to negatively impact your performance?  Are you effective in managing your time?  Do you prevaricate on urgent decisions?  How effective are you at delegating?


The affinity method for estimating stories


Planning poker is quite a popular method for estimating stories, but one of the huge drawbacks on complex projects is that it takes forever, especially if you have over 20 stories.  Here is a step-by-step guide for how I guide teams through a much quicker process for estimating stories.  I have used this method with teams who have over 200 stories and we have completed the estimating session in under two hours.

When to use this method

This type of estimating is most useful at the foundations or release/delivery planning stage.  It is most useful as I have said before when there are 20+ stories to be estimated.


It is important that before you start the estimating session that the team understands what the story means.  The estimating session will have been preceded by a number of story writing workshops where the stories were discussed with the team members, but not necessarily in great detail.  So completed story cards with preliminary discussions as well as preliminary or high-level acceptance criteria feed into this process.

Clear floor space or wall space 2-5 metres is preferable

Some cautionary notes …

If your team is new to Agile you may find “observers” turning up to the session.  These may be business analysts, product owners, project managers or whatever.  I sometimes find that these people, with best intentions, want to influence the outcome.  For instance project managers are keen to please their sponsors and want to provide estimates that are often smaller than the team feels comfortable with.  When I facilitate these sessions I make the rule that the observers may only do just that- observe.  The only people allowed to estimate are the ones who will be doing the work.  Yes, OK they may get the estimate “wrong” – in fact I can almost guarantee that they will, but the team should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes and not be held hostage to the opinions of others who will not be as committed as the team will be to getting the work done.  To this end I always recommend that the session is facilitated by an experienced Agile mentor or coach who is able to deal with the difficult characters who may unintentionally (or even sometimes intentionally) sabotage the efforts and outcomes of the team before the work has even started.

The Process

Setting up the workspace

1) The far right of the workspace indicates those stories that are the most complex or most time consuming.  The far left indicates those that are the most simple or quickest stories to complete.  I like to put markers on the board to remind people of two sides of this continuum.


2) One member of the team randomly chooses a story card from the pile of stories; they read out the story to the rest of the team.  They then place that story on the board according to how they feel about the level of complexity or time to complete.

3) The next team member then randomly selects the next story and places it either to the right or the left or in the same relative position to the previous story.  A long way to the right of the previous story suggests a very much more complex story, while one a long way to the left would indicate a much simpler or easier story to complete.  The is a relative estimating method so the distance between the stories is important.

4) This continues for a few goes until there is about five or six stories on the board.

5) Once there are a number of stories on the board team members then have a choice in how to use their turn

            a) they can either select another story and place it on the board or;

            b) they can move one of the other stories.

In the instance where the member elects to move a story they explain to the rest of the team why they believe this to be so.  The team can then discuss where is the most appropriate place for the story.  I find that it is good to keep the discussion short and if there is serious disagreement in the team then err on the side of caution and put the story further to the right.

6) The process continues until all the stories are on the board.

7) Assigning the points

The outcome should now be groups of stories spread across the board.  We then allocate story points according to the rough Fibonacci sequence as we do in planning poker – (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40 & 100) – we then write the story point value on each of the cards.

Again it is important to not get too hung up on the numbers at this stage of the estimating process as finer turned estimates will be provided as the project progresses and more is known about the product we are creating.  A good point to remember is that it is better to be roughly right rather than precisely wrong especially in the early stages of the project. However it is worthwhile just retesting our thinking with some of those stories that may have been borderline between two groups, especially those of numerical significance i.e. those the are between 20 and 40 or 40 and 100.  There is no point in “dying in a ditch” over a story is a 1 or a 2 at this point.

If you have any further questions about this technique then please feel free to ask in the meantime … happy estimating 🙂

Some surprising truths about admitting to our mistakes

Is playing the blame game really necessary?

It takes courage and humility to admit when we are wrong or that we have been the cause of some upset.  So is it a lack of courage or personal pride that keeps leaders from admitting they were wrong or made a mistake?  Argyris, in his book overcoming organisational defenses (1990), suggests that what is really going on with leaders is that they are engaged in a game of saving face or to put it another way avoiding embarrassment.  This behaviour is extremely dysfunctional on so many levels.

Firstly, if the reasons for the failure are not attributable to ourselves and we engage in a witch-hunt to find the “culprit”; this activity distracts us away from discovering and subsequently solving the root cause of the problem.  As a result we may become more concerned with dishing out justice rather than engaging in an activity of learning.

Secondly, if we go about looking for the “culprit” we are subconsciously saying that the problem was out of our control.  A recent example of this can be found in the banking crisis where the fault was identified as “too many people defaulting on their mortgage payments” rather than accept the responsibility that maybe is was risky lending practices that was the true root cause.  This is damaging because what we are saying to our stakeholders (shareholders, employees or otherwise) is that we are not in control.  This has a knock on effect of damaging the trust that is placed in an organisation’s leadership.  It may also indicate to our stakeholders that we lack capability, which is quite ironic because the reason for looking for a scapegoat is to demonstrate that we are capable and “… if it wasn’t for so-and-so this wouldn’t have happened.”

If we don’t play the blame game – then what?

The blame game is really quite a pointless activity on so many levels because if we truly understand the root causes of our organisational failures we would quickly discover that rarely is one individual or department solely to blame for a mistake.  The failures tend to be systemic ones rather than truly simplistic cause and effect relationships.

So what is the solution instead of seeking out the culprit?  In my opinion it’s about looking within; either within ourselves or within our own department to understand how we might have contributed to the mistake.  If we were to make this the first part of the learning process it has all sorts of implicit and explicit benefits:

The benefits of admitting our mistakes

It demonstrates courage: Who doesn’t want to follow a brave and courageous leader? Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility as a leader takes extraordinary courage.  It also demonstrates humility and sets us apart from mediocre leadership where ego, looking good and believing in our infallibility are more important that the benefits we will accrue from learning from our mistakes.

It demonstrates our humanity: People are people so the cliché goes and as people we anticipate or expect people will make mistakes from time to time.  Admitting our own mistakes qualifies us as a member of the human race and it turn allows other people to step forward when they have made a mistake.

It sets an example for our followers: leading on from the previous point as leaders we need to be aware of the example that we are setting because our followers will in turn follow our example.  There is little stock placed in a leader who says one thing “we need to learn from our mistakes” and proceeds to cover up their mistakes maybe giving the message that they are either perfect (mistakes, what mistakes?) or that “the rules don’t count for me”.  If integrity, truth and honour are values of your organisation, then leading by example should be a behaviour that demonstrates that we are living our values not just espousing values that sound good.

It garners greater respect:  I am often amazed at the apparent lack of humility that leaders demonstrate.  Some organisational cultures value a more macho or machismo approach, but in the long run this does little to engender the respect and loyalty of the followers in that organisation.  Leaders who demonstrate humility and a willingness to accept responsibility as opposed to giving a bollocking to “wrong-doers” only serves to make people hide or cover-up their mistakes.  This also has an impact in that leaders are then unable to make a decision call to limit the damage or fall-out from unintentional mistakes often resulting in even greater damage being caused.  Admitting mistakes and learning from them separates extraordinary leaders from mediocre ones and earns the respect of our colleagues, families, friends and stakeholders.

It engenders more trusting relationships:  The traditional style of leadership may have perceived that it was a sign of weakness to admit our mistakes or shortcomings; instead it is now often seen as a sign of emotional maturity in our leaders when they hold themselves accountable rather than “passing the buck”.  This trust will in turn strengthen our relationships as our stakeholders will translate these actions into somebody who is honest and is worthy of our trust and loyalty.

It creates greater organisational value:  If shareholder value is of greater importance than say personal or organisational learning then the research carried out by Lee et al (2004) may be of interest to you.  The research carried out over a 20 year period indicates that investors and shareholders place a greater value on organisations that look to rectify their mistakes from within as opposed to blaming external factors.  Investors, unsurprisingly, place a greater value on leadership that assumes responsibility and control.


An Agile leader is a continually growing leader and one that continues to inspire their followers so if we are interested in creating an Agile organisation, one that holds continuous improvement and learning as a value, then admitting our mistakes is a key behaviour to promote growth.  It may not be easy at first as it will take courage and determination to overcome our defensive behaviours, but in the long run I believe the benefits are worth it.  Don’t you agree?


Argyris, C. (1990), Overcoming Organisational Defences. Prentice Hall.

Lee, F. et al (2004), Mea Culpa: Predicting Stock Prices From Organizational Attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin December 2004 vol. 30 no. 12 1636-1649.

Agile Mindset – Changing Mindset and Emotions, A Model


This tool that I want to share with you is one that I use with my clients when their stress levels rise.  It is a model taken specifically from the area of psychology called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and has been also been applied to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). It is called the ABC model and I use it to help my clients understand the true causes of most of their problems doesn’t lie with their environment, the people in their lives or external events.  Very often the cause of much stress and pressure that they put themselves under comes from their own thinking.

An Example

Consider the following real life example.  John’s boss asks him when is the report that he been working on going to be ready.  John immediately starts to feel under pressure and rather than snap at his boss he grumbles to himself “Why is he always doing this to me? Doesn’t he know I’m working as fast as I can? Who does he think he is? It’s not fair he always picks on me”.  John now feels a few familiar emotions that he might package up and call stress.  These emotions may be anger, resentment, feelings of injustice or sadness to name a few. If we were to sit down and talk with John what do you think he would consider to be the source of his “negative” emotions? More than likely he would see his boss as the problem.

The ABC Model

Now let’s look at this from a different perspective while describing the ABC model.  The ABC model comes from the work of an American psychologist Dr Albert Ellis and is described in greater detail in most books on CBT.

The “A” stands for activating event  and in this case it is when the boss asks John when the report would be ready, a perfectly reasonable request if delivered appropriately.

The “B” stands for the beliefs or thoughts that John has immediately after the request. Why is he always doing this to me?

The “C” is then the consequent emotion which practitioners and researchers of CBT belief arise as a result of the thoughts that John tells himself.

So the chain of events is that A is followed by B is followed by C.  Now often the thoughts may happen very quickly, so quickly in fact that they may go unnoticed and John is left thinking that the cause of his “negative” emotions were his boss.  This line of thought is also a trap for John because the more he thinks like this the more “negative” emotions will be created which leads to more unresourceful beliefs.  This is what can be termed a vicious cycle of events that can quickly spiral out of control.  Research has demonstrated that our emotions can be controlled by our thinking, so what we need to do is to think differently in order to experience different emotions.  If we can stop then reverse the vicious cycle we can end up with a virtuous cycle instead that will lead to clearer and more resourceful thinking. To do this we add “D” and “E” to the ABC model.

The Change

“D” is about disputing or questioning your unresourceful thinking and “E” stands for the effective result that arises from taking the time for the internal discussion.  In the example above John has the belief that his boss is always doing that to him.  The word always is a generalisation so John could start disputing whether this is actually always the case and is his boss actually picking on him?  If John continues to believe that he is a victim his behaviours and emotions will be that of a victim and this will only perpetuate the cycle for John if other potential bullies or persecutors identify John as an easy target or a whipping boy

An Exercise to Change Your Life and then Your Team

This exercise can be life changing for you and that is no overstatement.  Once you begin to change your thinking and feeling, your behaviours will naturally and automatically start to change.  This is the secret that underlies most successful behaviour change.  So, start to identify for yourself what emotions you experience on a daily basis that you may like to start feeling less.  People may call these “negative” emotions and that is why I have highlighted the work negative.  To me the emotion really isn’t negative – it’s just an emotion, neither negative nor positive, but often we want to feel these negative emotions less often than the positive ones. For instance you may find yourself being angry, sad, depressed, anxious, stressed, resentful or whatever;  Ask yourself are these emotions really useful or resourceful for you?  If not then start to become better at spotting the thinking that precedes them and the events that started the thinking process.  Maybe you could start an ABC diary that can capture the events, the beliefs or thinking and the emotions that follow.  Once you have started to identify the ABC then start to dispute and question your thinking that leads the “negative” emotions, you may then start to have new and more resourceful thoughts that can lead to “positive” emotions.

Once you have started to master this change for yourself, if your team hasn’t already started to change because of your changes, then you can start to coach them to become better at identifying and changing their thinking and subsequently their emotions.