Coaching and Producing


David Hussman applies lessons he learned as a music producer to his current position as an agile coach. An excerpt of this article was originally published in the March 2009 issue of the Iterations eNewsletter.

What do The Beatles, Nirvana and The Minnesota Symphony Orchestra have in common? Each group was lucky enough to work with a producer who helped guide them in the creation of a great recording. Successful music producers understand the importance of iterative collaboration as a key ingredient in producing great recordings. The best producers learned long ago that balancing creativity, skill, time, and money is essential to delivering valuable recordings.

As a music producer, I found success in a process that allowed me to track progress while allowing for improvisation and creative tangents. It also involved getting to know the players, their music, and the studio and recording gear. I found that process is good, but producing is a craft that needs a simple process to succeed. Like producing, coaching agile projects is a craft fed by a simple process. Successful coaching involves getting to know the project community, the product being built, and the tools and technologies at play. Successful coaches balance development skills, product requests, time, and budget to deliver timely and valuable software.

The Process of Producing Music
Each song follows a similar process-write, mix, master, and release-but the journey for each song is unique. Some make it through undamaged or even unchanged. Others, some of which are great, never make it to your ears because there is too little process to complete the project before time or money runs out. One way to help songs live past the recording process is to employ a producer, who guides the players through the recording process the same way that a coach helps a team deliver a software product. Working with the players, engineers, and investors, the producer helps work the songs into a holistically complete product ready for public consumption.

Fig. 1: These are the common steps used to record a song.

Production Styles Vary
As I watched successful producers and studied industry greats, I observed two categories of producer: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive producers push people to follow processes and techniques they have successfully used, while descriptive producers guide with anecdotes. Instead of telling people what to do or play, descriptive producers suggest ideas and encourage musicians toward chance while playing and even invite them to make decisions about how to capture their music. As I honed my producing skills, I learned the importance of having a simple process that provides enough structure and organization to allow for improvisation and foster creativity.

Time spent preparing before your first day in the studio goes a long way towards creating a relaxed and successful recording session. The music world calls this work "preproduction." While I tried to not let preproduction prescribe the outcome for any recording session, it helped me learn about the players and the way they play as a group. Preproduction was also a time to help work on the arrangements (possibly co-writing or suggesting various changes) and see the way the group worked (or failed to work) together.

Organized to Create

A recoding engineer once told me it was relaxing to work together (an act agile projects call pairing) because I was so organized. At first I was hurt. I would rather have heard how wildly creative I was. Later, as we paired our way through the recording sessions, I learned that he did think I was creative, but he appreciated how I used a simple schedule to stay on track while also making space for the improvisation that makes music magical.

I learned to take preproduction seriously from watching other producers use this time to seed a healthy vibe (mood) for the coming recording process. If you think software is much harder than a recording project, a few days in the studio might show you that the amount of emotion, fear, and volatility in the studio is as great (if not greater) than on most software projects.

The Recording Sessions
The recording sessions are where the tracks are cut (parts of a song are recorded). The process is absolutely iterative and incremental. The producer adds continuity by helping the band focus on each song as well as the entire collection of songs.

During the various sessions, the producer first works with the band as they record the songs. After the backing tracks are in place, the producer works with one or more players as they add more to the songs, continually recording and rerecording separate parts for each song. The producer also works with the recording engineer (and the gear) so that technology helps and doesn't hurt the players as they capture their performances with the highest fidelity possible.

To do this, the producer helps the musicians communicate and connect with each other and with the environment. For instance, if the keyboard player and drummer are not communicating because one talks music theory and the other speaks in rhythms, the producer translates their words and helps them hear each other's perspective.

In a similar way, the producer may help the creative people communicate a need or want to a technical person like the recording engineer. If the engineer is a player, this may be easy. If the engineer is a knob-turning technologist, the producer may have to advocate on behalf of the musicians to ensure the players and the song are served by the technology instead of becoming servants to it.

Other part of the producer's day may include working with the investors in the project, some of whom are classic, big-business types. Although this may not be the fun and creative part of the job, it is essential to completing the project. The investors, like any investors, want to see progress. If they are locked out of the process, things tend to get worse instead of better. The art of creating a whole product involves learning to speak the language of each audience, whether they speak in the language of music, business, or marketing. The producers who fail to do this often fail to produce something of value.

Software Development Coaches as Producers
My initial move to creating software landed me in a successful, small company. Our company worked a great deal like an agile team. Our process was a blend of a written and oral tradition. We had short, informal meetings, we were outcome driven, and we pair programmed even though we just called it "working together."

Happy in my creative software world, I was unaware of the many evolutions of processes being form fitted on the software project. As I moved to larger companies, I was asked to follow various processes that only seemed to frustrate people while simultaneously failing to produce much of anything.

In an act of self-preservation, I turned toward the emerging agile processes. They seemed to provide the amount of structure I was used to from my first software experiences. The more I practiced agility, the more I realized that the experience was a great deal like working in the recording studio.

The Process of Producing Software
I am not sure how or when I became a coach. I think it happened more descriptively than prescriptively. In any case, once I had coached for a few years, I stopped to reflect on my experiences. I was looking for ways to improve my coaching, and I wanted to learn what part of each successful project had to do with my coaching and what part had to do with the community or our use of agile methods.

It was quickly clear that many of my producing skills had transferred to my coaching. While the mediums differ, the work of the coach and the producer are quite similar. Both coach and producer help people create their best product with the time, money, and technology available. Where the producer helps the musicians turn songs into recordings, the coach helps project communities turn product owners' dreams into working software. Both follow a process (or journey) which has enough structure to allow for innovation.

Fig. 2: Agile products flow through an innovative delivery process.

My reflection also showed me that, named or unnamed, many projects begin with some kind of preproduction. Preproduction creates the time and space for a community to get ready to produce. As I introduced this idea more formally, I found it offered the same benefit as it did in the music world. I now had a name for a tool that allowed me to get to know the people, their product, and the tools and technologies in play.

Now, I commonly add four preproduction practices to each coaching gig:

  1. Project Chartering-starts building community and a common vision
  2. Creating an Initial Product Backlog-helps people see product value and start to build a common language
  3. Informative Workspace-creates a place where people can bond around the product/project
  4. Iteration 0-gets the technical house in order; design ideas emerge through early architectural spikes (time boxed investments used to better understand a technology or a possible technology solution)

I try to make sure that the amount of preproduction rigor is appropriate for the community I am coaching. For instance, a small community that is already very adaptive may complete these four practices in a few days. Conversely, a larger and distributed community that is replacing a complex system may need a bit more preproduction time.

Project Chartering
To better see the coach's value, let's take a coaching view at project chartering. Before we dig in, you should know (if you do not already) that project chartering is not new. Many managers create project charters; sadly, few people read them. Why? Maybe the charters are buried or simply not shared. Or, it could be that people lack ownership.

As is so often the case, the agile community simply took an existing tool and made it better by making it a collaborative tool. Agile charters are created by the community for the community. The charter is a way for the community to get to know each other, the purpose for the project, and the strengths and risks that lie ahead.

Like hang time (time spent) in a rehearsal room, chartering helps me (the coach) get to know the community. As we discuss project goals and potential roadblocks, I quickly see the communication skills of the individuals and the community. For instance, when the members of a project community are new, I see where I can grow existing connections and where I may need to make new connections. The chartering discussion draws people into a shared discussion around their commonalities and differences.

My time as a producer taught me the importance of fostering strong interaction during preproduction. As a coach, I use preproduction time (and practices) to connect communities. I often use this time to start connecting the technologists and the business players. Similar to getting the drummer to understand the horn section, I help the community find and capture their emergent, common language. Sometimes this may happen by simply playing back someone's words in an effort to translate and transfer his message to someone else.

Whether I am facilitating a chartering session, helping to compose a product backlog, or working to get the technical house in order, I find a bit of preproduction always helps me start the important conversations that feed the iterative collaboration that needs to take place in the early iterations.

Early Iteration Themes
In the studio, cutting good backing tracks (the body of the songs) is essential to producing a great final product. As the band records and rerecords each song, they start building a groove (the term musicians use to describe the feeling of playing well together). Sometimes the groove grows organically, with limited intervention from the producer. Often times the producer needs to provide guidance to one or more players. Many times a fancy piece of gear (technology) is the groove killer, and needs to be removed, no matter how cool it is.

The early iterations are an important time for bonding and building healthy habits. Each iteration challenges the community to come together in a way that deliver working software and a healthy code base in a sustainable way. While some communities do this well, forming strong bonds early on with little intervention, others are in need of some coaching.

Like a music producer, the coach works with the community, possibly helping one member see another's perspective. Helping engineers understand the product vision while coaching them to deliver the product one story at a time is like guiding the production of a complete recording song by song. Here are four themes I brought from music production to agile coaching:

Theme 1: Helping People Learn
Many music producers are also great players. Yet, instead of stepping in and playing a part for a struggling musician, the producer draws on his skill and works to understand where and why the musician is struggling. The producer, who is listening and not immersed in playing, can provide clearer guidance and add inspirational perspectives.

Talking in Tests
Without a common definition of "done," you may find you are the software equivalent of the band whose music is never heard. When everyone is a tester, success is more likely. One way to grow testing is to get more people talking in testing.

For instance, I sometimes hear developers say that "stories do not contain enough detail." When I ask for examples, the answers are usually tests in disguise. Sometimes it is as simple as reframing their "details" into testable examples and then adding them as acceptance tests. Other times, I pair up a developer and a tester (or product owner) to help smoke out (define) the missing tests.

In a similar fashion, a coach stepping in to help does not take over. The best and most lasting discoveries are those found by the community. A skilled coach finds the right time to provide supportive words and or a gentle nudge. Sometimes coaching is providing guidance, while other times coaching involves letting a situation safely play out and helping the community learn from the experience.

Theme 2: Leading and Teaching
I produced several bands that went on to produce their own recordings. Some producers are hurt when this happens, but I always viewed it as a natural evolution and hoped my contributions had helped them feel confident to take the reins.

Like good producers, coaches often lead while teaching and teach while leading (and learn while teaching). While your coach may lead the early stand-up meetings or iteration planning sessions, the best coaches know that the path toward sustainable success is paved by allowing the community to take ownership as soon as possible. For me, this means leading the first few iteration-planning sessions. I let the community members lead as soon as they feel (or show) they are ready.

Theme 3: Explaining Why over Telling How
In the studio, helping players use the process to better capture their music is much more important than teaching them to use a piece of gear. Good coaches draw on this wisdom by teaching people the value of any practice as well as the mechanics. Sustainable agility is more common when people see the value of a practice instead of simply being told how to do the practice.

Theme 4: The Importance of Getting Done
While the coach does work with individuals, other times the work is with the larger community. This often includes helping define the ever-elusive "done." From chartering to story writing, story telling, and crafting and using acceptance tests, coaching sustainable success means leaving a community owning and growing their shared use of doneness.

These are just a few of the many themes from music production that can help working coaches find their way. Eventually, each coach needs to find a set of coaching themes. Do any come to mind for you?

Continuous Tuning: The Work of the Producing Coach
Both the producer and the coach have difficult jobs that take great patience and require continuously respectful leadership. Anyone interested in the job should know that coaching is a continuous process and not an event. In rare cases, a single coaching moment results in great change-for example, coaching a community through a tough retrospective may help find a set of changes that make all the difference.

More often, coaching changes happens in a series of small coaching moments that incrementally add up in hidden ways. Good coaches continuously invest in small events that help the community to experiment, examine, and improve in small chunks.

Coaches Tell Stories: When Will You Start?
Whether you are producing records or producing software, storytelling is one of your more powerful tools. You can tell people what to do-a prescriptive style-but they may not listen. Telling them what you have done-a descriptive style-starts a meaningful discussion. Once you engage people, the descriptive style allows you to learn what of your experience may be helpful and what of their experience is best used. Telling stories never fails to start important conversations.

Sharing our stories helps provide richer content, which leads to smarter and stronger problem solving. Time and again, I find that telling my coaching stories is the best way to get others to tell their coaching stories and take the coaching reins. This augments the discussion in ways that help us work toward a coaching plan for their community, while also helping us learn and become better coaches together.

Most people have a coaching story or two to tell. What are yours? If you want to coach or grow a culture of coaching where many people coach, telling your stories is a great starting point. Engage others in the process of change by telling your stories and asking them to tell their stories. If you want to help people change, you will have more success if the change happens with them instead of to them.

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