Why Clean Language is useful to Agile Coaches

Clean Language is an inquiry process which helps people find clarity, fast, in a way that strengthens relationships, encourages transparent communication and enhances results in complex environments.

How is that useful for Agile coaches?

If the organisation you work in is like the ones I’ve encountered, even when organisations and teams have implemented Agile frameworks and ceremonies, critical impediments remain.

They’re the impediments in people’s heads.

It’s actually the way people think that’s stopping Agile from delivering on its promise.

And that’s where Clean Language comes in. It can help you to get beneath the surface of everyday interactions to discover what people are really thinking and feeling, and to guide their attention to innovative, more useful mindsets.

For example, I was coaching a newly-appointed Scrum Master who had previously been a senior developer, and was struggling somewhat in the new role. I asked him, as I often do, “When you are working at your best, you are like… what?”

A few Clean Language questions later, he was describing himself as like an oriental monk, sitting in solitary meditation on a frost-covered mountain. A large sword lay by his side, ready to strike at anyone who disturbed him.

As we explored further, he realised that way of working might have been great in his old role – but nowadays he needed a rethink. As a Scrum Master, he had to put the sword away, leave his meditation and connect with other people.

Last time I saw him was at an Agile meetup in London. He told me he was really enjoying guiding his team’s development, and encouraging up-and-coming developers to do the big problem-solving that used to be his territory. And he was using Clean Language questions to help team members to understand each other, and their users, more fully.

Because it’s so useful, over the last few years Clean Language has moved from being a fringe topic in the Agile world towards centre stage. It’s being featured regularly at Agile events: at Agile Scotland recently, two workshops (by Mike Burrows and Andrea Chiou respectively) explored very different ways it could be used.

In essence, Clean Language (originally devised by the late David Grove in the 1980s) is simple. It’s a set of questions, and a way of asking them, which allows the inspection of people’s thoughts and feelings, inviting transparency and adaptation.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy! Clean Language works particularly well in complex situations, where it invites practitioners to take their listening skills to new heights; to turn down the volume on their own opinions; to allow curiosity to blossom.

That can be a serious challenge!

What’s thought to be the world’s first Clean Language workshop specifically for Agile coaches is happening in London this month. I’ll be co-training with experienced Agile coach and trainer Olaf Lewitz from Berlin, who has used Clean Language in his work for the past three years.

It’s shaping up to be one of those “I was there!” events. Attendees will include Tobias Mayer, Shaun Smith, Ash Sheikh and Elaine Tittanegro. A few places are still available.

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