Creative Solutions

Coffee Walk

14 October 2013

Todd Wilson
Agilex

Don't underestimate your environment

Over the past year and a half, I've been extremely fortunate to live and work in an area of great coffee and great weather. Boise, Idaho, is perfect for walking and riding bikes. As an Agile coach, leader, and mentor, I've discovered that combining geographic and environmental attributes into my (almost) daily routine at work has spurred creativity beyond my expectations. To tell this story, I’m going to rely on a metaphor. 
 

Establishing balance

For a moment, visualize a scale, perhaps a scale of justice. Now substitute the words "sustainable work" for "justice." The bowl suspended from the scale's left arm enables sustainable work, and the bowl suspended from the scale's right arm impedes sustainable work. Sustainability is achieved when the scale is level. When weight is added to one side of the scale without a counterbalance being added to the other side of the scale, sustainability is threatened.

There are many forces at work that disturb this balance. As a coach, ScrumMaster, or business leader, we strive to maintain balance. Depending on your role within an organization, you may choose different methods to influence the scale from imbalanced to balanced. For instance, as a director, I have been able to hire developers to increase productivity in order to maintain balance. As a ScrumMaster, I've woven the threads of communication across an organization in order to remove impediments. Having the right tools in your toolbox is essential to establish balance.
 

The concept

I’d like to share a tool, or, rather a group of tools, that I've found extremely effective while mentoring others. I simply walk to coffee with a colleague. Sure, it’s simple, but why is it so effective in maintaining balance? The diversity of the coffee walk enhances problem solving by incorporating all five senses into a focused meeting. Movement and stimuli, along with appropriate questions, are great equalizers to an imbalance. Let me explain: Studies have shown that physical movement, specifically walking, improves concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain (http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/exercise.html). Concentration or focus is needed to resolve complex challenges.

Another ingredient is creativity. Creativity and out-of-the-box thinking can greatly increase the likelihood of discovering solutions to complex situations. My coffee walk is filled with diversity, enabling creative solutions. A stuffy conference room or drab gray cubicle aren't necessarily inspirations to creativity. So, I walk. 

The walk in action

A typical walk may start with someone asking me, "Do you have time to talk?" I pause, ask a few pointed questions, and then ask, "Would you like to go to coffee with me?"

Why the pause and questions? I use this time to determine whether the problem can be solved with the magic coffee bean and its amazing aroma, or over the smell of dry-erase markers at a whiteboard.

As a facilitator of a whiteboard session with a group of passionate people and colorful dry-erase markers, I'm able to discover design solutions rather quickly. This is particularly true with work flow issues and other logical challenges. However, abstract problems that are not easy to draw on a whiteboard present their own problems and are less apt to be solved with a pen. Enabling a variety of human senses enhances discovery of solutions to complex, theoretical, cultural, and personnel issues.

Walking through one city park graced by warm sun, colorful trees, and flowers provides a stimulus for out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. The activity of walking increases blood flow. The environmental stimulus enhances creative ideation. However, focus is greatly needed, or you'll end up with a heated and possibly controversial complaint session rather than a productive coaching session.
 

Putting it all together

There is a process to my questioning, and I often rely on a metaphor to illustrate a point or understand my colleague better. The best results are often achieved when the solution is coached through rather than provided. As a coach, rarely will I offer a direct solution. Typically, I'll ask questions that inspire discovery rather than directing my colleague to a solution. It's true that I've seen and resolved many similar problems throughout my career. However, they are never exactly the same. Offering the cookie-cutter answer is rarely effective. As a coach, I am much further from the problem than my coffee colleague. When my caffeinated friend owns the problem instead of me, he or she owns the solution as well.

Finding the right questions to ask and watching my friends learn and grow is extremely rewarding. If you're working through a problem and struggling to find a solution in your office . . . try the coffee walk.

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Comments

Sourabh Goel, CSM, 11/13/2013 11:21:34 AM
Great article. Thanks for sharing.

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