Ultimately it comes back to human change – An interview with Georg Fasching

Georg Fasching is an Enterprise Agile Coach based in Portugal and the program lead for our Enterprise Agile Coach Expert Cohort Program. In this interview, Georg discusses why change comes down to the human response, why large-scale complexity can’t be solved by simply rolling out a large scale delivery framework, and why he wants to help enable as many people as he can to better navigate complexity.

Hi Georg – for those of us who don’t know you yet please share with us who you are and what you do?

My name is George Fasching. I now live in Portugal with my wife and a toddler boy, and our cat also came with us from London, where we lived for almost 20 years. That’s where I did the ballpark of my professional experience. I started off in digital public development, but all project-based with IP projects, trying to realize what we had dreamed up without much end user interaction, other than an initial market research. Over 10 years of trying to do that and getting better at it and basically getting better specifications and trying to squeeze more touch points with the customer into an otherwise sequential and linear process. Ultimately in 2010, I finally learned about agile. And, at that point in time, I had joined a smaller organisation, looked after the product department and that’s where I then had to unlearn a lot of the stuff that I thought was right and relearn new ways of products development.

Two years later I stopped permanent employment and went independent and learned a lot about how organisations can really improve the way that they’re developing products by using more modern ways of working. And since 2012, so about 10 years now, I’ve readily worked more and more with leadership and work more with organisational change and organisational development. For the last few years, I’ve been focusing mostly on working with leadership teams, senior leadership teams, helping them update the way that they’re crafting strategies and updating the way that the organisation is working whilst including the people who are doing the product development work. So that’s a brief snapshot of the last 20 plus years or so.

How did you come to learn about agile coaching?

Agile coaching was a discovery for me really by accident. When I learned about agile and went independent again, I first started as a Product Owner and then I had an opportunity to serve as a Scrum Master, which I really wanted to try out to see the team from the people perspective rather than the product perspective. After doing that for some time I was asked by other teams and other areas to help them start up and train up Scrum Masters. I did that for a little while and then came across this role called agile coach and found that what I was doing for that time before was actually what agile coaches would do. So that’s how I learned about agile coaching and that I had been doing it without actually realising it when I went from one team to multi team and starting to work a bit more with leadership.

What’s an interesting trend you have recently observed in the agile coaching world?

An interesting trend I have recently observed in the agile coaching world… while there are a few that I’m trying to make sense of the most recent one is probably that more organisations are starting to realise that certain approaches towards higher levels of agility across the entire organisation are probably not so suitable in actually realizing that goal. There are more and more reports of “failed agile transformations.” When I look through those reports and case studies, the common pattern seems to be that a big contributor, to those transformations not bringing the results that they were after, was usually that there was a small group of people who made decisions that affected a lot of other people who were not consultants. That usually revolved around figuring out which delivery frameworks they wanted to use. And that those decision makers took the guidance from outside parties in many cases and made those decisions without actually involving the people. So I think that’s not the ideal approach, but I think it can still work provided that we take that decision and that framework then as a starting point, rather than an end point.

For example, say there was a large organisation and they realised that their way of operating is not really giving them the agility that it needs in today’s market place and they enlist the support of a consultancy to help them work out what they want to do about that and the consultants says well you need to work with a large scale delivery framework and here is, for example, SAFe. Then the senior leaders trust the guidance of those consultants and decide, okay, they are clearly the experts. Now we will roll out SAFe across the organisation and then we will have achieved enterprise agility.

So that was a pattern and not necessarily with those specific names, but that was a pattern for some time. I believe it has contributed to some of the less successful agile transformations. And I think a recent trend now is that more and more organisations are realising that we can’t work with that as an end point for enterprise agility. We have to consider that, at the very best, a starting point for exploring enterprise agility, but still, I would prefer a different approach. And that’s what we teach on our courses on the Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp.

I think the recent trend is organisations realising that the answer to help us deal with large-scale complexity is not as simple as just rolling out a large scale delivery framework.

What can you tell me about the impact that coaching has on agile transformations?

So the impact of coaching on agile transformation is manyfold. It starts with the very beginning. Starting from a coaching stance, we are already in a mode of where we’re looking to understand and listen to the current reality of the people who are doing the work and then we are involving them in determining what improvement opportunities they’re seeing in the current reality and leveraging their understanding in order to inform some larger scale experiments of several, several teams. Once they’ve identified challenges in undertaking those experiments through coaching, we can support not only the more tactical and strategic or operational parts of that, but also the human change element of it.

The Coaching stance means that we are working with the pull that comes from the people that we’re looking to support rather than pushing something onto them. Right? So that’s how we know that human change works best. People want to see improvement and see change around them, but they don’t want to be changed. I don’t want to be changed by somebody. But I do want change to happen. I just don’t want to be changed by an outside force. I want for somebody to understand me, to listen to me and to support me in making improvements. But I don’t want somebody who doesn’t know anything about the work that I do to tell me how to do the work when they don’t do the work and when they are not as familiar with the work. I know that holds true for me, and I know that holds true for many people in product development organisations out there. So why don’t we just leverage that and work with that and design a new way of being for the organisation together with those people.

But that’s not the only perspective of where coaching is really useful in agile transformation. It also starts with leadership. In a coaching stance, we can help leadership to become aware of all the forces that are acting upon them and how they want to show up in order to meet those forces and challenges. Again, ultimately it comes back to human change. Some leaders are already very well-equipped to meet those challenges. Other leaders would like a sparring partner, or some support in order to help them meet those challenges. Again, a coaching approach is really helpful in that.

What are your favorite questions to ask the leadership teams?

My favorite questions to ask leadership teams. So the first one for me is always inspired by Simon Sinek. And I always start with why, so I have a bunch of why questions, right. So, why do they want to change? Why do they want to change now and why do they want help with that change? Those are usually the first ones. But for me, it gets really interesting when leadership teams say well, we want to see more collaboration in the organisation. And I ask them, okay, tell me about what collaboration looks like in your leadership team today? More often than not they are actually hoping to see something in the organisation that is currently not true for them in the leadership team, and more often than not I find that this is down to the fact that they don’t share any organisational goals. Somehow, they ended up in a situation where every leader can tell what the goals are for them as individuals, but they don’t have any common goals or any shared goals together. So, the questions usually in the beginning are around that. Then the follow-up questions are around helping them to create those shared goals and help them to reflect on the behaviours that they live in the leadership team and how they compare to what they’re seeing or not seeing in the organisation. So that’s usually the starting point.

What skills are essential for long lasting and enterprise-wide agility?

It’s about skills and it’s about systems. If we create systems that help us to leverage the skills, then we actually make it easier on ourselves. What I mean by that is while the skills are our ability to collaborate with people, our ability to develop self-awareness, and self-management and ensure that we collaborate with people using the fullest extent of our creativity. Those I would say are the essential skills as leaders or change agents.

We want to combine those with systems that help to retain the organisation’s enterprise-wide agility. And that is ultimately bringing it down to an experimental mindset. Whenever we are looking at having enterprise-wide agility, it means that we also be able to test things on a larger scale on a regular continuous basis. If we have systems in place that perpetually encourage us and stimulate us to run these enterprise-wide experiments, then we have one half of what’s required for lasting enterprise-wide agility. Then the other half are just skills that allow us to run those experiments well and do them well together and do them well together at larger scale whilst involving larger representative samples of the people that would be impacted by those experiments.

In what ways are one-to-one coaching and systemic coaching different?

There are a few ways where one-to-one coaching and systemic coaching are different. And the one key differentiator is actually our perspective and mindset as a coach. We can actually appreciate even an individual as a system in their own right. If we think about how we talk to ourselves in our own mind, we can even think about different personas or characters in our own mind and they themselves can be seen as a system. So even in a one-to-one coaching scenario, I can leverage systemic coaching in order to support the person. However, when we’re then zooming out a bit and I’m looking at the individual within the context of other people’s systems, that’s where systemic coaching comes into play as a more scalable approach of coaching, if you will.

From one-to-one, we will typically go to the team level next, where a number of people usually up to nine, ideally, and then we scale it out further and further and further through mechanisms from large-scale facilitation where we are then really interacting with larger numbers of people and do that in a more systemic way. The few crucial tips and principles would be moving from coaching an individual to coaching multiple people within one people system where we view every member of the people system as one voice of the system without ever getting sucked into the story of the system because of one voice of the system. It’s a practice and a discipline to continuously remind ourselves that in a systemic coaching environment, our client is the people system as a whole, rather than any one member of it.

You are the program lead for our Enterprise Agile Coach Expert Cohort Program. Why is this program so important?

The reason why I care about the Enterprise Agile Coach Expert Cohort Program is that it provides several mechanisms and systems that I wish I had when I started to get more into enterprise change or organisational change. One is that it provides the thinking space where we can come together with fellow practitioners who do the work and get not only peer feedback, but also feedback from faculty on how we are practicing the craft of organisational change and enterprise. So the feedback is one element. The other one is a regular cadence where we are encouraged to inspect and adapt our way of serving a client. And, having that in the diary in itself is already quite valuable because it prompts us to do a continuous meta-analysis of how well we are serving the client we’re currently engaged with.

And another one is that while the primary objective of the cohort program is not necessarily to teach a lot more content, because we already covered our complete playbook in the two courses, but it’s about actually getting the support to implement everything that is covered in those courses and deal with what comes out of the actual practice and implementation and realise how that is supported by the cohort. It’s also giving us a continuous opportunity to inspect ourselves and how we’re growing as enterprise change agents. And the ability to do that over time, together in a community, in a cohort that is fixed for a significant period of time is something that’s incredibly valuable. That sense of camaraderie that comes out in the cohort where some of the cohort members also get together outside of the scheduled cohort calls with faculty. It’s a wonderful thing to see and confirmation of how important community is in the work that we do.

In professional coaching, there is this support structure called supervision, which is a term borrowed from other helping professionals like psychiatry. But in professional coaching, we’ve got this supervision and some people do one-to-one supervision with another coach, others do group supervision and, in the enterprise change work that we do, there is nothing like that. You could maybe set something up like that with other practitioners yourself, but in a way, we’ve already done that for you because we have these cohorts.  We don’t supervise you, but we do mentor you, we do help to not only grow in your capability as a change agent and we also help you to grow in community. And that’s why this program I believe is really important.

What does it mean to be an expert?

For some reason or another, I don’t know why in the agile community, there’s almost a love/hate relationship with the term experts. And, I don’t know where that came from. I haven’t never really found an actual source for that as an issue, but pretty early after I became aware of tension around that term, I just took a moment to look up what the definition is of an expert and I’ve got it here. Experts simply means a person who is very knowledgeable about or skillful in a particular area. In the enterprise agility/coaching world, we typically find people who have been working in large organizations for a number of years who have been working with agile teams for a number of years.

And, that suggests to me that they really care about this type of work and they have developed a significant amount of expertise. So, while on the professional level courses, the objective is to equip people with the concepts, models, skills and approaches to do the work of an enterprise coach. In the expert cohorts we are there to mentor people and support people in the application of that and the demonstration of that expertise to a level that is rather high. We’re setting a relatively high bar. The people who have set that bar have even more experience than the people we are looking to serve on the cohort program, who I would have no doubts to call experts in the particular field.

Now they have set the bar for the next tranche of people coming through those cohort programs here. So to me expert means exactly what it says in the dictionary. And if somebody has reservations about the term, it’s up to them to figure out how to work with that and what they want and what they gain from that exploration. For me, it is someone who has devoted themselves to truly practicing deliberately, continuously learning the craft. Being of service, growing as a person, growing as a professional and doing the work and helping others do it and having done so for a number, a number of years. That’s what it means to me.

This  program sets a high bar. Why should I learn this topic from you?

I’m part of the faculty to serve the cohorts because I have devoted myself to this work and I have done the work for 10 years in the agile world. Plus 10 years of doing it in the pre agile world, if you will. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned over that period is that ultimately all of these things come down to human change and human change is a subject that I have also devoted myself to when it comes to me and continuing to develop as a human being and leaving the world in a in a better place, which again is a wonderful segue to another question that we might be talking about. Whether I would call myself an expert based on that definition is neither here nor there. I’ve done the work. I’ve seen others do the work. And the way that we look at ourselves in the cohort is not that the faculty is better than the people on the cohort. It’s simply that we have done the work to validate ourselves against the learning objectives. And we happen to have found that we have already met them, and we have demonstrated in doing so. Now we’re finding ourselves in a position where we desire to support others through that process.

What does it mean to you to make a difference in the world?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this even probably the year before we had our son because there are a lot of things that are fantastic and superbly awesome about us as a species and in all of the scientific discoveries that we’re making and the philosophical discoveries that we’re making. But I’m also sometimes disheartened and saddened by what is going on in the world. And how oddly distributed wealth is across the globe, how oddly resources are ill distributed across the world. I’ve been thinking a lot about food availability, food scarcity, and food waste across the world. To quote one of my favourite authors “we already have the technology it’s just not sufficiently or not adequately distributed yet” William Gibson. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can make a difference on a global scale and in my own way. There are many ways to do that and for me I have identified that for me to make a difference in the world, it is to equip people with better ways of solving the kind of problems that are prevalent nowadays. And those are all complex problems.

The world is more connected than it ever was. We’ve seen how true that is, especially 2020 and 2021 with the global pandemic. So for me, I am seeking to make a difference by creating the type of legacy where I hope to get to enable as many people as I can in better navigating complexity. My personal perspective on that is to combine it with realizing how little time our bodies have had to evolve in their ability to really cope with what life is expecting of us nowadays.

We have access to this phenomenal amount of intelligence yet when our body goes into survival mode because of some stress that is appearing, all of a sudden that small interface that our human brain has with its much, much older parts of the brain is so strong and influences our emotions. It’s astounding. So, part of my contribution is for us all to get better at staying as much as we can in creative mode and as little as we need to in survival mode, while we’re collaborating to solve complex challenges.

If you enjoyed reading this interview and want to learn more from Georg, you can enrol in one of the following highly-impactful courses that he co-leads:

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