How being a bouncer prepared me as an Agile coach

After leaving the Army, job prospects were not excellent for a tank-driving, cannon-shooting, armored crewman, outside of being part of “The Expendables,” and I was about 20 years too early for that. I used the network I built to ask around for any positions that might be a suitable fit, which led to me stepping into a bouncer’s role at a well-known local nightclub.

Looking back on my storied career as a praetorian guard to the noble nightlife and the patrons who traveled its hallowed streets, I found myself thinking about similarities between the role of a bouncer and that of my current position as an Agile coach. In both roles, we tend to perform similar tasks.

What Agile coaches and bouncers have in common

Putting people at ease.  Most people think the primary job of a bouncer is to be intimidating. The reality is you do not want people scared of you, but you do want people to respect you and your duties you need to perform for the sake of everyone’s safety.

As a coach, I never want people to feel so intimidated by me that they do not approach me with a question or suggestion. I should be able to build trust with the teams and organizations I work with so that they understand I am here to create a safe environment for them to conduct their work and have some fun along the way. A warm smile shows genuine interest in who the people are, and a little humor always goes a long way in creating connections and gaining trust.

Using keen observation skills. Working in large nightclubs requires you to interact with the customers and observe everything that is going on around you. Being aware of a person’s body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture can mean the difference between proactively stepping into an encounter before it becomes elevated.

As a coach, whether onsite or in the virtual environment, it is vital to observe these characteristics, especially when discussing a particularly challenging topic. In the virtual world, when someone refuses to turn the camera on or looks away from the screen constantly, that’s the signal to start a conversation to determine the roots of these behaviors. As a coach, you should also be willing to be more proactive using tools available by viewing team boards, demos, and metrics so that you can intervene before things get too tangled.  

Knowing how to handle conflict. Whether you are working as a bouncer or an Agile coach, it is not a matter of “if” but “when” conflict will occur, and you need to be prepared to handle it. As a coach, using the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop in these instances can prove useful.

Suppose you are not aware of the term OODA. In that case, it refers to a four-step approach to decision-making that focuses on filtering available information, putting it in context, and quickly making the most appropriate decision. It is beneficial for most situations, especially when dealing with conflict. As coaches, we have to observe the dynamics of the teams and environment, orient ourselves with the conditions that may have caused the conflict, decide on the best approach given the information we have, and resolve the dispute.

Every team needs some degree of healthy conflict to reach a level of trust, and as a coach, we must observe where the teams are on this continuum to provide value best.

Acting quickly when appropriate. As a bouncer, we first attempt to settle the dispute through conversations; sometimes, it results in having to escort someone out because they were not respecting the rules and showed no concern for the safety of the others.

The Scrum guide says one way the Scrum master provides service to the development team is by removing impediments to the development team’s progress. Most times, this refers to a process or technical issue; however, an impediment can be a person who is preventing the team from progressing and causing safety issues within the group. 

There have been only two cases in my 20 plus years that I have removed an individual from a team due to the person impeding its goals. If we have performed due diligence and done what we can to resolve and improve the behaviors, we should act quickly before any negative actions further affect the team. Sometimes, you must escort people off the team.

Knowing whom to call on for assistance. Finally, working in a large nightclub with hundreds of people, you must know where your support system is. If you need help in a situation, you must know when to call in backup before a problem gets out of control. The same can be said in a coaching situation.

Knowing who your support system is and who has experience with different approaches and techniques can show your client that you are a good steward of their trust and are not feigning to be the all-knowing oracle. It is acceptable not to have an answer to every question that is raised and knowing whom to call for backup in those situations is an invaluable tool to utilize.

What I’ve learned going from bar scenes to Agile teams

While I have long since left the nightclub scene’s glamour and glitz, I still find myself reflecting on those skills I learned along the way and how they shaped my stances as an Agile coach and my interactions with leaders and teams. The patterns are still present: creating a safe space, spending time observing the environment, understanding conflict happens and knowing how to handle it, knowing when to act swiftly in the interest of maintaining a safe space, and knowing whom you can call on for help.

The environments have changed, but the skills remain.

Learn more about Bruce Nix here.