Agile Coaching Lessons from the Upanishads

Education is often seen as a uni-directional process. Teachers training the students was a trend few years ago. More and more it is being replaced by students learning. Training departments have become learning departments and trainers are facilitators. While the focus formerly was on the teacher, the latter is now focused on the student. Both are in fact extreme approaches pushing the ultimate responsibility of the transfer of knowledge to either side, when in fact its a bi-directional exchange. Teaching cannot happen without a student and learning without a teacher.

It is in this context that Upanishads assume significance. Upanishads are conversations that happened between the Masters and their disciples thousands of years ago. The range of topics that the Upanishads discuss is astounding. More so is the manner in which they build the knowledge, from the simple to the most complex understanding. The Sanskrit word “Upanishad” means sitting close, being close. In a literal sense, the student sits close to the Master and learns from the Master .

The student seeks to go where the Master already is and the Master welcomes the student, step by step, into the knowledge.

This ancient method of teaching has some amazing lessons for our modern times as we continue to explore newer ways of teaching, coaching and communicating in general.

Upanishad always start with a Shanti mantra. First there has to be peace. Knowledge cannot be transferred when there is no peace. And the peace is necessary at several levels – physical as well as the level of thoughts and emotions. Without these in place, the environment is just not conducive enough for learning to happen. Imagine talking about the agile manifesto to someone who has a deliverable deadline tomorrow morning for which they are already struggling. Their mind is totally occupied on that and not in the state for the right listening to happen. So peace is essential. That is an essential ingredient.

An agile coach gets a new team who has been delivering successfully in the waterfall model. Can the coach really take a 2 day class and expect from the 3rd day, this team will start delivering in an agile manner. No. It will not happen. The coach and the students are on totally different levels. What is obvious to the coach is not so obvious to the students. Even if they may have some conceptual understanding after the course, the experience is missing. The coach’s sermons and examples of other teams that follow the “right practices” are not enough. Procedures and techniques though essential, alone won’t lead to results. They need to assimilate the learning through their own understanding and experience. The coach on his part needs to create an environment where the students move forward and are willing to experiment, do things differently. The coach needs to provide reassurance time and again that it will work. And it’s not a hollow promise. It’s not lip service. The coach as well as the students both have to be in that mode of exploration for progress to happen. Let us try this together and see what happens. Let us explore.

However knowledgeable the coach must be, they must be careful with what they teach and at what time. Too much information at the wrong time is often detrimental. Continuous deployment does not make sense to teams that can currently deploy to production once every few months. They are just not there yet. In fact it could turn them into a skeptic. Continuous deployment does make sense and is the right thing to do probably, but this team is not there yet. To be able to march till the Everest peak, you need to be at the Everest base camp first. The coach needs to understand these dynamics. The message and the mode of delivery need to be tailored. The coach need to look at where they are currently to take them to the next level, step by step. This involves empowering them, encouraging them and identifying small wins that will improve their confidence to take on bigger challenges on the journey.

Upanishads teach us one more important thing. The message is always one to one. Ashtavakra speaks to King Janaka alone and Krishna sings the Bhagwad Geeta for Arjuna – amidst the battlefield. Its a personalized message that is delivered in a specific context to a specific audience. Teams and individuals (and individuals in teams), each have their current state and abilities. Coaching cannot be generalized. There is no secret formula that works for all. At the same time, though each is at a different level, the coach need to give them confidence that the objective is attainable. This is essential for them to keep trying, especially in times when it seems too much to move forward. In Bhagwad Geeta, Krishna gives Arjuna options after options. Oh you cannot do this, do this. You find this difficult too, try this. He goes on and on. The coach need to be listening to the student and accordingly present the options. What will work, no one knows !! Its a mystery, they both solve together.

Last but not the least, the student and the teacher must share a bond – the student must feel that the teacher is where they aspire to be and the teacher must feel that the student wants to learn. Without this it won’t work. No amount of agile coaching will work with a team that does not see a need to change. Or that thinks the coach cannot really offer them something more than what they can read or learn from the internet. This explains why many times teams are more receptive to coaches external to the organization or specialists because their authority on the subject is already established. People fundamentally believe that they possess special skills beyond what they have. The teacher is already at a level that the student aspires to be. This creates a “Yes mind” where they are receptive and willing to try. A genuine attempt already puts them on the path to success.

These are a few droplets from the vast ocean of knowledge that Upanishads are. As is the Upanishadic style, first there must be a question, then there will be answers. Hope this puts your mind to thinking mode and generates some questions.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.


References & Inspiration

1., @devduttmyth

2. Kena Upanishad by @SriSri Ravishankar

Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh is an enterprise agile coach with interests in varied disciplines. Frequently writing on Agile and Lean related topics, he also occasionally ventures into other stuff like Artificial Intelligence as well..