Be disruptive, be yourself

What is the best attitude to adopt when coaching teams disruptive and innovative techniques? I am often balanced between being over detached or over involved. Naturally, I am more of the flesh and bone kind of person, being more confortable when things get personal. But as a consultant, particularly at the beginning of a gig, you can’t do that. So there’s been a few cases where I have had to push myself, behave differently, consciously, do something I would not naturally be inclined to do.

At ThoughtWorks we are required to intervene when projects are going astray, or when productivity is low. The emotional impact of having someone external invading your personal space, this very space you may have nurture and cherished for many years (if you are a long term, loyal and dedicated employee) is huge. I have worked with colleagues who can very easily appear as experts and distill deep thoughts and knowledge in a very effective manner. Me, on the other hand, I really like to sit down with people, discuss, balance, counter balance, agree more than challenge. In short, I am more of a facilitator. So, back to this client you have to convince you are here for the greater good. If you are too prescriptive, then he/she may think you are an a**hole. If you are too nice then he/she might wonder why your rates are so high. So here is how I have gone about it on previous projects: be disruptive, then emphatic, then yourself.

Be disruptive

Take a risk. It does not have to be a massive one. It can be as simple as organising a team lunch straight away. Simply, do something different from what the team is used to, on the very first day. I few examples. During stand-up ask the team to clear the Iteration wall of all cards they don’t currently work on. Rip a card and burn it (or just put it in the bin). Spend one hour with a dev asking technical questions, even if you are a PM/IM, etc…  The reason for doing that is to show that you are ready to put your a** on the line to get things changed. It may be perceived as a bit cocky initially, but it pays off, if you do what follows.

Be emphatic

If you managed to establish yourself as a change catalyst, people will naturally come to you  to share concerns. That is, if you are receptive. At this point you should do your best to listen, take note, and do something if you can. This is also a very appropriate time to get to understand the root issues that the team are having, and talk to the deciders/leaders to see how to address them. If at this point, if you manage to ID and remove a blocker you’ve set yourself up for success.

Be yourself

There is always a tipping point in an engagement (unless it is a very short one), where you start feeling confortable enough, and know the people well enough, to act naturally, as if you were a full-time staff. In the past I have sometimes felt a bit awkward when this happened, because somehow, as a highly paid consultant, I always felt I had to deliver value in a productive way, 100% of the time. Well, I now realise that most clients value more your ability to integrate in their team/organisation than your expertise. This is why I strongly recommend to be yourself, as the best way to position yourself at them same level than your customers. Of course, if you have a strong personality, have been a consultant for 20 years, then maybe I should say tame yourself…

I hope this few lines can help anyone who is starting a new job or a new gig as a consultant. It certainly did help me.