PM to Agile Coach: Why are you a subject matter expert?

I used to be smart about a number of topics.  In fact, I was smart about all the topics that my teams did projects on.  Just to name a few, I can talk to you about healthcare delivery, municipal water systems, credit card recoveries, oil well production, website content management and streamlining defense systems.  I’m not kidding.  I know something (in fact, quite a lot) about all of these. 

Why?  Because becoming a subject matter expert was a key factor in my success as a Project Manager.  As a PM, I was the spokeswoman for the team.  I was the lynchpin between team members who didn’t work together frequently.  I was the one holding all the pieces in my head (or on my MS-Project schedule) and making sure they got done.  Often, I was the only one with the “whole picture” so it was imperative that I be an expert.

When I first started working as an Agile Coach, I kept my subject matter expert orientation.  I couldn’t imagine NOT becoming a SME.   How in the world would I lead the team if I didn’t know the subject matter in depth?  So, I immersed myself in my team’s conversations and was helpful to them as I became an expert (along with the rest of the team who were also becoming experts).  When I came back to coaching for the second time, I read something that hit me like a ton of bricks:    

Everything you do for the group is one less thing they know they can do for themselves.

(Hat tip to Chris Corrigan and The Tao of Holding Space)

I reconsidered: Why am I becoming an expert in the team’s work?  They really don’t need me. Working Agile, the team quickly builds all the expertise they need and they’re the ones who live with the outcome (while I skip off to the next project), so it’s probably appropriate that they be the experts – not me.  But…what in the world will I do with myself instead?  My team is in conversation, solving a problem.  If I’m not right there in the middle of it, what value am I adding?

Well, it turns out, quite a bit.  As I held myself back from the details of the conversation, I realized that I could have an important impact on the team’s productivity and quality of results by paying attention at a higher level.  I look for certain things and *consider* whether to call them out to the team. (More on when to talk and when to hold your tongue in another post.  That’s a big topic.)

Here’s what I look for:

  • Is everyone who wants to talk getting airtime?  Are there dominant people in the room who need to listen more?

  • Are the ideas high quality?  Is the team moving toward the simplest thing possible?

  • Is the team getting tired?

  • Is it tense? Do they need comic relief?

  • Is the team being audacious enough? 

  • Are they taking on as much as they should or are they letting “accepted” barriers get in the way?

  • Is the team couching everything in terms of customer value?

What do you look for when your team is in conversation?  Have you paid attention to what you're "doing" while they're solving?  Tune in, I bet it's a lot. Please comment below and add to the list.  Let’s make this “invisible” role of the coach a more conscious thing and bring its value out of hiding.

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