Agile has amplified the need for all roles to practice soft skills, including coaches, ScrumMasters, product owners, and team members. Soft skills, essentially, are any skills that have you interacting effectively with people you need to work with or influence. However, there is nothing soft about them. Soft skills are probably the most challenging thing you can focus on in your technical career.
The difficulty comes from our perception of these skills. That’s why I prefer to refer to them as deep skills. They allow you to deepen your ability to collaborate with others.
One deep skill is the ability to facilitate group conversations. I work with many new leaders, and this is the first thing they shy away from. However, it’s one of the first skills they need as they learn to lead a team for the first time.
Other deep skills would include providing one-to-one feedback to team members, conflict navigation, negotiation, and presentation skills that motivate audience members into taking an action—whether your audience is within your organization or part of a larger community. One of the most overlooked deep skills is writing, particularly company reports or external blog posts or newsletters.
The ability to clearly explain an issue, provide some rough directions to explore, and motivate people to action are key skills that deepen your relationship with those on your agile team.
How to Learn and Practice Deep Skills
One of the reasons deep skills are challenging for many in a technical career is because they are not properly emphasized in our primary education system, at least in the US. We are encouraged to do our own work and compete for the best grade instead of looking for ways to collaborate. Aside from the occasional group project, we are mostly taught to work independently.
Once we start our professional careers, we are further handicapped. All the skills we learned for our technical trades were ones we could primarily gain through intense study by ourselves. It was merely a matter of spending time with the technical material and practicing solo skills. However, deep skills require other people in order to improve. You cannot practice deep skills alone.
The best thing to do is establish safe environments for us to learn about these collaborative skills with others. One of the simplest approaches is starting a book club and focusing on books that help develop deep skills. Having conversations with the group as you all read through chapters helps participants identify where they may be struggling with specific deep skills, whether covered in the book or not. This starts to build a level of trust among the group members.
You also may want to break into smaller groups to practice these skills. I recommend groups of three or four people because this allows members to constantly practice more than if they were in a larger crowd. In such self-guided groups, it’s best to schedule meetings once a week or every other week so that members can practice their new skills in their everyday lives, then fine-tune those skills with their groups later. It is important to practice skills between sessions.
Another option is a guided mentoring circle. In this format, an expert mentor guides the group through exercises to practice the new deep skills. Such circles usually have four to eight people and typically follow a course introducing the new deep skills. It will also meet every one to two weeks and will encourage practice commitments between sessions. A mentoring circle could last for several months and may be renewed, depending on the competency of the members by the end of the period and the availability of the expert mentor.