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Detachment from Results as an Agile Coach

December 28, 2021
11 minute read
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Just like the coach on a playing field, an Agile coach should be able to measure results. An Agile coach ought to have some accountability for results (just like a sports coach). But the feeling of self-worth you have as an Agile coach must be detached from results.

This mindset is tough!

If we review the things we control that affect productivity, quality and happiness, we see very little. You must come to terms with the idea that your activities, at best, create an environment that influences people, teams and organizations to improve in those dimensions.

Every person that you work with as a coach has agency; the ability to choose, the spirit to take action (or not) and the willingness to learn (or not). Instead of resisting this reality and trying to force people to change, embrace their humanity, give them the best possible environment to encourage change, and derive joy from the journey instead of the destination.

If you don’t have this mindset already, there is no easy way to learn it. Detachment from results usually only comes after multiple failures… and a very strong capability for self-reflection. This difficulty comes from a basic set of cognitive biases that we all have: confirmation bias, the fundamental attribution error, and sunk cost bias. Each one creates barriers in our mindset that need to be broken down through experience and practiced self-reflection.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the name for the observation that humans tend to perceive facts that confirm their existing beliefs and dismiss facts that contradict their existing beliefs. Therefore, if we believe that we can directly affect productivity, quality and happiness, then we will perceive the evidence that this is so, and ignore the much greater quantity and quality of evidence that this is not so.

As you read this, you might think to yourself, “but I can affect productivity, quality and happiness… I’ve done it!”

First off, congratulations! Since you have, indeed, made a direct, causal impact on those dimensions of success, you are in the slim minority. This is remote and hard-to-find territory for most people.

However, consider for a moment anyway, what confirmation bias really means by thinking about some examples that you might have seen other people do. You have probably met someone who says negative things about themselves. You might have heard them say something like “I’m so clumsy,” or “I’m not talented at drawing,” or “I could never do what you do.” If you like the person, you probably try to respond with something encouraging. Maybe you say “you’re not clumsy!” or “I really like your drawings!” or “just keep trying and you will get there!” But whenever you say something encouraging, it seems like your friend doesn’t even hear you. In fact, with confirmation bias, that is exactly what is happening. They don’t hear you. Their belief system filters out the evidence that you see as an objective observer, and they can’t change that until their own belief system changes.

Many times, when I am teaching a class, I’ll do an informal poll of the participants. I ask them some variation of the question “what is your success rate on delivering projects on-time, on-budget and with all the required scope?” I ask the question in several different ways, but the fundamental result is always the same: the large majority of participants believe they are good at doing project management. Yet, there are many independent surveys and analyses that show us that project success rates—as I’ve just described success (time, cost, scope)—are abysmal. In IT for example, the Chaos Report by the Standish Group, would often show a success rate of about 16-17% (a web search for “chaos report standish group project success rate” will yield lots of references). This is a great example of a belief (“I’m a good project manager”) causing a denial of disconfirming evidence (“83% of projects are not successful”).

Agile coaches suffer the same kinds of problems with confirmation bias in general, as well as specifically in relation to being detached from results.

How does confirmation bias relate to detachment from results?

When you suffer from confirmation bias, particularly if you believe that you can affect productivity, quality and happiness, you need to be extra-vigilant to look for contradicting evidence that you, maybe, aren’t so causal for the good results. It helps a bit to think about other possible reasons for success or failure. Every time your coachees, teams or organizations have successes, first, celebrate with them. But second? Look for dis-confirming evidence to find reasons you might not have anything to do with the success.

This habit will allow you to stop deriving personal satisfaction or dis-satisfaction based on the success of the people you are working with. You will, instead, gradually transition to the healthier, more sustainable, and ultimately more effective mindset of detachment from results.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error is the name for the observation that people tend to see the failures or bad behaviours of people they know (vs. strangers) as a reflection of their personality traits, rather than environmental factors. For example, if a work colleague makes a mistake, you are more likely to believe the mistake is due to a lack of knowledge, skill or wisdom (or even due to laziness or malice) rather than due to a temporary lack of sleep due to a sick daughter or a distracting interruption from the boss.

This effect is stronger with people we know well and less strong with strangers. Thus it is particularly important for Agile coaches to be aware of the effect.

Another side of this bias is that one’s own mistakes are more easily attributed to the environment than to one’s own traits. In other words, if you make a mistake, you will blame the lack of sleep due to your sick daughter instead of thinking of yourself as lazy. Again, self-awareness can help with this too.

The fundamental attribution error means that we are hindered from perceiving the true causes of behaviour among those we know, and ourselves. We have to work at it. We have to constantly think to ourselves, “what are some possible situational reasons for this behaviour that don’t reflect badly on my colleague?” And, inversely, “what are some possible fundamental traits about myself that caused or exacerbated my bad behaviour (that I can work on improving)?”

A really great example of the fundamental attribution error is seen in the concept of “laziness” and how we so frequently apply it to people we perceive as not getting “enough” done in a period of time. Almost always, there are situational reasons that a professional is not getting work done. Often those are temporary issues and can be worked out without harm to the business or the team. In fact, some of the best teams I’ve seen have become that way partly by the members supporting each other to overcome situational obstacles to productivity. This topic is extremely deep and I recommend reading Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price.

Your detachment from results is hindered by the fundamental attribution error. You will see poor results as a sign that the team or the business isn’t “good enough”. Or you will see great results as due to your personal excellence. You will then strive to “fix” your team members (instead of the environment). Trying to fix team members leads to ineffective, wasted and sometimes harmful activities. How many people love it when a colleague comes up to them, unsolicited, and says “you really gotta try harder!” Unsolicited vague advice almost always leads to feelings of guilt and resentment and the lowering of trust and morale within a team, and therefore actually hinders results.

Of course, traits do play a role in performance. It’s just much less than we would expect due to this cognitive bias.

As a side note and brief reminder: there are rare situations when a trait that someone has is truly hindering that person, the team or the organization. In these rare situations we have to make hard decisions about the amount of effort we put into accommodation versus letting a person leave the team. These is no universally correct formulaic solution to this kind of problem. However, be aware that in many places there may be legal minimums that one must practice to accommodate individual traits that hinder the work. Often we should strive to go beyond those minimums, but how far will always be situational.

Remember: as an Agile coach, you have significant influence over the environment of those you are coaching. Detachment from results helps you focus on the environment.

Sunk Cost Bias

The final bias related to detachment from results is the sunk cost bias. This is the name we give for the observation that people who have invested time and energy into a particular path (the sunk cost) will be highly biased towards continuing on that path even when there is a preponderance of evidence that the path is suboptimal. Think: the cliché of the man driving around an unfamiliar neighbourhood lost, refusing to look at a map while his passengers implore him to stop and ask for directions.

The more we invest of our time and energy, the stronger this bias grows. In particular, if the type of energy is emotional or related to a component of our identity, then this bias can become overwhelmingly strong.

This bias shows up in many situations. You see this bias in action when a person refuses to change their behaviour, tools or techniques because “I’ve always done it this way” or “this will work if I try it just one more time.”

We are all subject to sunk cost bias, just like the other cognitive biases.

As an Agile coach, sunk cost bias is actually a sign that you are not detached from results. In fact, a big reason we want to be detached from results is so that we can avoid sunk cost bias in our work as a coach. Being detached from results is, in effect, the antidote to sunk cost bias.

So how does one avoid sunk cost bias? There are a few important ways to avoid or mitigate this bias:

  1. Deliberately try behaviours, tools or techniques you think will not give you good results. This will make these alternatives easier to try in the future due to the familiarity, and by trying these alternatives you disrupt the continuity of investment in your more familiar and “certain” practices.
  2. When you invest time in a behaviour, tool or technique, put in some significant time researching and practicing alternatives. This investment in alternatives diminishes the bias effect on the “first” practice.
  3. Avoid creating detailed long-term plans. Even the investment in planning can create a sunk cost bias for those plans. By having only short term plans that are detailed, you can more easily pivot as circumstances change or you discover that the direction you are headed is not optimal.
  4. Foster in yourself a mindset of continuous learning. This one is a bit tricky. To learn a skill well, you often need to invest deeply in the discipline of that skill, repeat the skill many times and generally maximize the likelihood of sunk cost bias. So, the mindset of continuous learning means embracing alternative skills and conflicting philosophies and mindsets to avoid sunk cost bias.

Being detached from results ultimately leads to a happier experience as an Agile coach which, somewhat paradoxically, leads to better results. Sunk cost bias can creep up on you—even just spending time with a team leads to sunk cost bias in your relationship with that team. The ultimate avoidance of sunk-cost bias and the ultimate detachment from results would seem to lead us to a point of apathy, anti-commitment and a professional life of unceasing short, transactional interactions with no deeper story or meaning. Please don’t go to this extreme!

As an Agile coach, you must balance commitment with knowledge that you don’t control outcomes.

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