Professor Reinhard Stelter of Copenhagen University has a book out titled The Art of Dialogue in Coaching; Towards Transformative Exchange.
I’ve found it seriously inspiring as the skills Stelter teaches enhance those everyday dialogues and conversations that’s becoming more and more important in modern testing, QA, and quality coaching. I’ll come back to that.
I have read Stelter in Danish before, but this book in English has new material that I wanted to dive into.
From the backcover:
In The Art of Dialogue in Coaching, Reinhard Stelter invites readers to engage in transformative end fruitful dialogues in everyday working life, and provides the theory and tools for them to be able to do so.
Professor Stelter has worked on transforming coaching from its instructive and directive roots in sports where the coach helps the coachee get from A to B, over the psychological focus on helping the individual removing mental blockings for her individual development, to a new and third level in which the asymmetry betwen coach and coachee is used to drive meaningful dialogues in which co-learning can take place.
Stelter has written the book in three parts, one on the theoretical basis of his work, another on meaning-making, values and narratives, and the third part on dialogue practices. The middle part seems to me to be the most important, but the two other parts contain interesting stuff too.
So why do I think skills for having good coaching dialogues would matters to testers?
As testers we’re really experts asking “why?”. I find a lot of good testing starts with that question. But just asking “why?” and testing isn’t coaching. However, I’m seeing the meaning behind the “why?” questions we ask change. It’s no longer only triggering our testers’s curiosity, but feeding something deeper.
What I’m seeing is that our why’s more and more are a help for our stakeholders, colleagues, team mates etc to grow their couriosity. This has always happened, of course, testing is inspiring, but I still see a change being needed so that we can more systematically and perhaps even strategically help them better understand their own situations in terms of quality and make wise decisions based on those understandings.
I’ll be talking about that at STPCon in Boston on September 25th, where I’ll be looking back on how testers probably learned to ask value based “why?” question from marketing to learn and identify the factors that makes users and customers feel that the products we test have value so we can test for these factors. But I’ll be looking also on the new “why?”, the one that triggers coaching instead of testing. .
To me, the need for the new “why?” is a reflection of how organizations are rapidly changing: We used to have IT as cost centres, smaller separate hiearchies in hierachical organizations. I’ve consulted for a few organizations like this since I started full time test consulting in 2003.
Today, organizations look more like this:
The DevOps movement is driving this transformation, I think: We increasingly network with people and processes, and have no hiearchies: Quality is owned by everyone. That correlates well with Danish management culture and the very low power-distance we have between managers and workers.
Therefore I’m shifting from asking my tester-“why?” questions and instead I’m asking why to help the team become just that: Expterts in what quality means to stakeholders, customers, and users.
This is actually a bit like what Henry Mintzberg, professor of management at Mc Gill calls “adhocracies,” a type of organization where business power is in the body of the organization, not centralized near the top.
Things are often more messy in the real world where we’re practicing testing. There are still hiearchies and a lot of goal keeping still needs to done around the world, but what’s interesting is that the development the importance of coaching more and more important, and therefore also makes the skill of having meaningful dialogues more important.
To facilitate work on that abstract thing we call quality, we need to coach people on finding out what quality is in the context in which they’re working. We can’t guarantee the effect of that work, there’s no direct quality assurance happening.
Stelter argues that modern generation coaching is rooted in situational ethics, where outcomes of our coaching are only hoped for, and work we do is not about pointing out what’s important to the individual. I’d say the same: Modern Quality Coaching is ultimately about helping the other person find meaning in her goals.
I have to admt something: All this is forcing me out of my comfort zone. It’s not a transformation I can do myself.
That’s why I read litterature on coaching, speak at, attend, and help organize conferences like Test Leadership Congress, STPCon, and EuroSTAR and in as many other ways as I can seek to establish communities of practice with peers in which we can coach each other to make the jump from the expert-role, to the co-learner’s role.
As a QA person, I still need to have a fairly good understanding of what quality is in the context, but as I’m more more hands-off with the product and the actual testing these days, I need a new search for meaing as a tester and test manager: Helping people in the team to find that bigger meaning behind their work and remain courious about the values they help create.
And that’s where Stelter has a strong message to us:
A search for meaning, which always involves a focus on values, is a search for a personal existential foundation and whatever makes our lives and our actions meaningful. […] I have expressed my disinclination to focus exclusively or excessively on specific goals or problems. […] Goals and objectives can lock a person into a particular societal discourse: this, ultimately, represents the polar opposite of the purpose of a good dialogue, which is to enable novel perspecitves. […] [p.43]
Stelter doesn’t exclude goals or problem solving. They are important and even foundational.
But his thinking is totally unlike what we often encounter in tech, where goals are in an iron triangle, about deliverying expected quality, on time, and on budget.
Instead he thinks of goals and objectives as possible outcomes by a series of human events with a particular effect and desired purpose, and actions oriented towards acthieving a specific actionable goal (Stelter suggests a goal to loose weight, but in our contexts, it could be about delivering a bug fix, feature, or user story to production.)
R. Stelter: The Art of Dialogue in Coaching, Towards Transformative Exchange. Routledge 2019.