The Xenodochial Agile Coach

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The Xenodochial Agile Coach

This article focuses on a little-known trait of an Agile Coach which appears in the A-Z list of characteristics of Agile Coaches but which needs to be given more attention.

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What Does Xenodochial Mean?

For some people, the term xenodochial may appear to be Greek and Latin and in fact they are right! Xenodochial is an adjective describing something — such as a person, software application, or a place — that is friendly to strangers. “Xenos” is a Greek word for “strangers." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, xenodochial means "hospitable." Xenodochial is literally Greek for being "friendly to strangers" and it is an attribute that describes something/someone that is friendly to strangers.

Definition of Coaching

Coaching, at the more generic level, as opposed to domain-specific agile coaching, is defined by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) as –

"Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today's uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful, and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach's responsibility is to -

  • Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve

  • Encourage client self-discovery

  • Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies

  • Hold the client responsible and accountable

  • This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential."

Agile Coach: Characteristics

An agile coach helps teams or individuals to adopt and improve their agile methods and practices. A coach also helps people to manage change as they evolve in their development and also helps them to rethink existing practices.

Some of the key traits/characteristics of an agile coach are communications, facilitation, organization development, advisory and consultancy skills, agile leadership skills, knowledge and experience in Scrum and other agile models/frameworks, and application of XP practices, apart from other skills.

However, there is another key trait that is important for an agile coach and which is generally found in the A-Z lists of characteristics of an agile coach — xenodochial — but which is otherwise given the short shrift in the common top ten characteristics of an agile coach. I would like to highlight that Xenodochial should find a place in the top ten characteristics apart from it being seen only as a novelty that is restricted to the A-Z lists as I found the xenodochial characteristic in an agile coach fulfill a very important role that will keep the agile coach in good stead when he is managing agile transformations in especially large organizations.

Large organizations have many stakeholders who are diverse and have extremely different viewpoints that do not easily converge to an appropriate consensual viewpoint during a transformation. When an agile coach is involved in an agile transformation that invokes a lot of change, the ripple effects are felt across the different stakeholders and thereby across the organization. In smaller organizations, this effect is somewhat limited as the number of stakeholders is much lesser even though a single key stakeholder can still create a lot of issues on account of various factors.

X is for Xenodochial: "Friendly to Strangers"

Most of the agile coaches shift from team to team and need to blend with different teams. Not only do they have to be approachable by different people, but they also have to ensure that what they say and how they act doesn't offend people and create additional conflicts. Members on a team each have their own concerns and motivations; the coach must be sufficiently self-aware to remain open to the latent potential of each member. The agile coach respects the culture and environment the team works in and he doesn't walk into a team demanding them to change their ways on how they do their work; he will first observe the situation before coming up with recommendations on how to manage the change appropriately. Delving deeper into the term, friendly to strangers could also imply helping the members to meet their goals effectively which is an important attribute for an agile coach.

The agile coach needs to listen attentively to the team they're working with in order to really understand what they are going through and the things they like and the things they don’t like. Sometimes it’s also helpful to indicate what he hears back to the team. He listens carefully to each member in order to understand what are their needs and fears, adjusting his priorities and activities in response to their needs. Sometimes this also involves sharing his ideas with others or encouraging people to speak up for themselves.

Comparing this in the IT context, this trait refers to the specific connotation of being easy to understand or intuitive.

In agile software development projects, the project manager or architect must be xenodochial to be able to deal reasonably with many different stakeholders and customers. The project manager manages team members, interacts with product owners and other business stakeholders on an ongoing basis. His ability to get along well with these diverse types of members ensures that he is able to keep the project on track.

New developers and clients may be added to a project putting the spotlight on the manager's ability to be friendly towards strangers. In a still broader context, a xenodochial style of project management is also crucial to deal effectively and appropriately with people from different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.

In user interface design, xenodochial is almost equivalent to the term “user-friendly.” Point of Sale terminals (POS), kiosks and websites should convey information quickly and easily with a minimal number of clicks (single click/two click) or screens and be accessible to users regardless of their ability/knowledge level. Icons and universal symbols that are considered to be interpreted uniformly across the world are often used in well-designed interfaces, especially those that may deliver services or information to international travelers across the world.

On the other hand, operating systems like Unix that depend upon a user's knowledge of text commands can be considered as not being xenodochial. However, Linux distributions which have a graphical user interface (GUI) make it considerably more xenodochial. This also implies that an operating system (OS) which is having a command line interface (CLI) is considered to be less xenodochial than an OS which has a GUI. GUIs can generally be used without any formal training and the learning curve is limited. However, if an OS requires an understanding of the CLI in order to be used effectively, then the learning curve is high and the user has to spend more time in order to learn the system and thereby it is considered as less xenodochial. Additionally, GUIs are accessed by users knowing different languages with varied backgrounds and distinctive cultural mores and norms. A GUI which is xenodochial is intuitive and appeals to diversified user groups. Additionally, public user interfaces (like kiosks) may be used infrequently and so should immediately highlight the key tasks that can be completed with the help of the system. This ensures that the kiosks are xenodochial to the users.

In agile software development, an important focus area is to fail fast, fail safe and fail early. If the agile coach exhibits xenodochial characteristics, he will be able to blend easily with the team and facilitate their learning journey by helping them to fail fast, fail safe and fail early. When the agile coach becomes successful, the team is more comfortable to bring new ideas to the table and actually implements them. They know that the coach will help them to find solutions instead of criticizing them or being an impediment in their work. By exhibiting a xenodochial nature, an agile coach can welcome and support new ideas that individuals suggest (fail fast/fail early) and protect them from the harsh criticisms that generally used to happen in the past (fail safe). This gives confidence to the team to try out new ideas in a safe environment and thereby arrive at solutions to complex problems in an emergent manner.

As an agile coach, do you have the xenodochial characteristic in yourself when you interact with your teams and other stakeholders or do you have a fixation on trying to analyze the mental models of others in the context of your mental model while undertaking coaching. As an agile coach has to interact on a daily basis with various team members and ensure collaboration among the team members, a key characteristic for an agile coach is the ability to handle diverse members with different backgrounds and mental models without losing patience and focus. This is possible only if he exhibits friendliness to strangers and tries to inclusively consider the opinions of all the members in the team. Hence, this trait is one of the most important traits for an agile coach to cultivate over a period of time and should be considered among the top ten characteristics of an agile coach.

Hence, as an agile coach, the single most important question that you should answer is whether you are xenodochial or parochial while you engage with your teams and which will determine the success of your coaching engagement.

agile coaching, agile software development, coaching

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