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Be curious: Jenny Tarwater

Michael Hunter


Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.

I’m Michael Hunter with Uncommon Teams.

Today I’m talking with Jenny Tarwater.

Jenny is an enterprise coach working with large organizations to achieve their outcomes, generally using Agile values, principles, and practices.

Agile Velocity helps organizations accelerate agility. We’re a full-service transformation partner offering whole organization coaching, leadership and team coaching, and Agile training. Our team is focused on your practical business outcomes, helping you get the results you desire by taking a pragmatic approach based on where you are today to design your customized agility roadmap.

Jenny’s default stance is to put people and culture first and be curious about how they impact the overall system and practices.

Jenny is an international speaker with a passion for helping other coaches and trainers level up their game.

She is Program Director for Women in Agile’s Launching New Voices and is Track Lead for Energizing People and Teams for this year’s Agile2023 conference.

Welcome, Jenny!

Jenny Tarwater 0:52

Hi. Thank you for having me.

Michael 0:55

I’m happy to have you here.

In your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish their goals, what has been your biggest struggle?

Jenny 1:10

Well, my biggest struggle, I think because I put so much value on diversity, and because I put a lot of effort into understanding how I can show up better in that way and how I can support others, my biggest struggle is when that’s not matched by people that I work with.

There’s some real irony there.

I value diversity as long as it’s within my constraints, which means you have to value diversity.

But it is a struggle for me to remain curious when I’m talking with folks that I feel that’s not one of their values.

Michael 1:57

What have you found that helps you bring that curiosity even when it doesn’t want to come?

Jenny 2:07

What I try to remember is that I very rarely am 100% correct.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone that was 100% incorrect.

There’s different metaphors out there, as such the 2% correct or whatever it might be.

Really looking for that.

I also don’t think was a natural listener in my youth.

That’s been something that I have found later on with some great teachers. Lisa Atkins.

Listening and reflecting on what would have to be true for that perspective to be possible.

Those are all some parts of being curious that could have helped.

We workshopped taglines last year at Agile 2022, it’s a cat’s cradle.

Mine was, I’m a connector and collector of people and ideas.

I have a great love of models.

All models are wrong; some are useful.

Being able to get outside my use case of one in my head and being able to think about things objectively through other perspectives has been really helpful.

Michael 3:36

That can be so hard to do. How do you do that? What has helped you gain the facility you have in that?

Jenny 3:53

This is a journey.

I don’t want anyone to take away that this is something I have perfected or mastered.

This is a struggle.

I honestly think that most people are doing the best that they can and they have good intentions.

So, what is it about their background or their views or their motivations or their current state, whatever the case may be, that might be impacting something that I don’t see?

Oftentimes in retrospect, you have a conversation with somebody and you find something out, that mysterious missing link.

What was causing that behavior?

You find out there was a, not a cause and effect directly, but there’s some explanation behind it.

Imagining that there’s something that you’re not seeing, there’s something that you might not get to see, but there’s something that’s different than your own experiences and your own perspective.

That’s helpful.

Michael 4:53

So, along with remembering that everyone is meaning to be helpful, despite how it may appear, you also remember that everyone is, inadvertently perhaps, hiding parts of what’s important in the situation. You can go looking for it. And even if it’s not something that you’re able to find right then, just being aware of the absence can help you recognize where your model may not fit the current situation.

Jenny 5:35

Not that I’ve ever examined it this way, but if I think about the people that I’m closest to, that know the most about me, they still don’t know all about me.

They might not even know what happened to me a couple hours ago, right?

Even people that you have a pretty good rapport with and maybe even can anticipate a little bit of how they’ll behave and act sometimes surprise you.

There you go, there’s something you didn’t know.

Assuming positive intent is something that really means a lot to me.

Again, there are exceptions.

For the most part, people believe that they’re doing the right thing.

I know I learned a lot about when I thought I was doing the right thing and I wasn’t right, and so examining that.

But most of the time I’m trying pretty hard to do the right thing.

Michael 6:25

How do you suss out what the right thing is in any particular situation?

Jenny 6:30

I’m pretty clear on my values.

There are some lines I won’t cross.

That’s one of the reasons that I really appreciate the Agile Manifesto, despite it not changing in a couple of decades, is that it starts with values and principles.

It helps you make those decisions.

My two values that I keep closest are fairness and learning.

When there’s an unfairness in the world that I see, I know that there’s a good chance that I will start being very biased and not seeing the whole picture.

I also know that it’s something that’s important to me and to try to hold that stance, and that curiosity, because the impact, the results are so important.

Then there’s other times I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t care. Thank you. I’m not gonna expend my energy on this particular topic and trying to do the right thing. If other people feel strongly, then go for it. This isn’t the one I’m going to work real hard on.”

Really knowing where those lines are for you, what you have to maintain to be true to yourself, helps with that energy conservation and where to use it.

Michael 8:07

How do you identify where those lines are when you’re in a situation you haven’t been before, so say you don’t know from past history?

Jenny 8:22

Such good questions.

You make me think hard here.

My first instinct was instinct.

There’s some intuition when you can sense danger, you can sense something doesn’t feel right.

Even though, let’s say at work, working with larger organizations, usually going through some kind of a change transformation, there’s some patterns out there.

You see those patterns, you start to recognize them. There’s some heuristics that you might use.

Sometimes you just sense, something’s not right here. Something doesn’t feel right.

Then, stopping and pausing and bringing more awareness to that and trying to determine what it is and knowing that you’re not going to see all those. There’s going to be things out there.

That said, we were talking about fairness. That’s one of my values.

I’m in one of my initial consultations with somebody and nobody in the room is talking but the leader.

There’s a conversation that has to be had before we go much further because I already know things won’t work the way that they’re asking them to work with that kind of a behavior.

That would be an example of kind of a line that I see that would need to be clarified pretty quickly.

Michael 9:49

So, even though it’s a situation that may be completely different from any of your past experience, you still see echoes of other experiences, that overlay that you use for guidance.

To go back a bit to listening, what has helped you learn to listen? Are there any specific tools or techniques that you have found to be super useful?

Jenny 10:27


One of the classes or workshops or cohorts that I’m involved with is Path to Coaching and I like to give credit again, to Lisa Atkins and Michael Spade, Michael Heyman, the folks that I truly believe that, the day I remember going, “Oh, that’s how you listen better.”

With understanding the three levels of listening, which for those that may not have been exposed to that, there’s the idea of, if you’re saying something to me, and I’m filtering everything through a me me me me me filter, there’s gonna be some data loss there. If I’m waiting to talk or something, then I’m not going to be listening as closely.

Second-level listening is really where you’re connected and really in tune with the other person.

Then, third-level is environmental. Where you can feel things are instinctual. It may be in the tone and the body language and the absence of words, the choice of words. Really listening for more.

That was instrumental for me to understand and recognize being in first-level or even being in second-level, if that was serving the conversation.

Then, the other thing was, say I really want to be in second-level. I really want to be listening to you. How do I keep that going without it being back to being about me?

Like, “Oh, I’ve done that too. Oh, yeah. That’s like when I did this.” Or, “I would do this.”

The idea of powerful questions has been another kind of life-changing skill that I gained.

The reason that I brought up Path to Coaching is because those two practices, those two skills right there, are almost always the best takeaways from the people that I work with.

Those are the ones that aren’t, “Oh, these are just going to help me at work.”

These are going to help me at life.

That’s where it was for me.

Michael 12:31

We started talking about what your biggest struggle through your journey has been. What are you struggling with right now?

Jenny 12:45

Remote work’s hard.

A lot of the ways that you would get to know somebody on a more personal level are harder to do.

You don’t end up walking down a hallway with somebody.

You don’t see them leaving on a Friday, going out to the parking lot.

You don’t have lunch with them.

I’ve found it to be extremely hard to get those truly valuable, personal moments over Zoom.

I’ve had them; they can be done.

But when we have so much to do, and we’re all so tired of being in front of a camera all day, it’s challenging.

I think it’s a priority.

I strongly believe that if people have trust and psychological safety, they’re going to have better results at work.

Better results with anything, but work context, better results.

Yet, there’s this pressure to get stuff done.

Spend more time doing the things that result in a specific outcome.

Really trying to balance that is a challenge.

So, I’m trying to think of some creative ways, a couple years into the pandemic, to create those spaces.

At my work, we have coffee talk every once awhile, I think it’s once a month, which is great.

It’s good, but it’s still, eight people on a Zoom.

There is something about the one-on-one conversations that allows for some more personal sharing, some more getting to know each other.

Even just being attuned to one person instead of six makes a big difference.

Michael 14:35


As I grow my coaching abilities, most people talking about growing that type of business are saying, “You’ve got to do group coaching and courses and all these things that are lots and lots of people, and I’m, “But it’s the one-on-one that I love doing. A deep conversation and the deep learning about the person and helping them do that deep learning about themselves. That is what I love doing.”

Jenny 15:16

You know what you just reminded me of?

I took the Training from the Back of the Room course, from Sharon Bowman.

She shared that traditionally, education is done because of economics.

The rows of chairs facing the teacher that’s imparting all of the knowledge, that was an economic decision.

I just heard economic decision in what you said.

Sure, group coaching is scalable. And sure, there is value in the coachees being able to talk and ask questions and stuff.

But there is some loss there.

There has to be some balance between the goodness of the group and the goodness of the one-on-one.

I recently was a participant in a course.

It would not have been anywhere near the same course if it wasn’t, it was a five or six day cohort, if it wouldn’t have been for that group of people.

The group of people made it, the questions, the discussions and stuff, but it was also the one-on-one conversations that we had.

Both of those things were necessary to have the great experience that I had.

Michael 16:38

As you are working with teams and you’re seeing these imbalances between diversity, listening, opportunity, whatever it is, the unfairness, how do you make that visible?

Jenny 16:58

By making it visible.

What I mean by that, I recently shared with a coworker a model called Rapport Mapping.

Basically, if you think about, there were a group of folks, drawing thick lines between when there’s strong rapport and then maybe thinner lines when there’s not as much or maybe even broken, folks that don’t get along right now.

That’s a way to make visible those social connections that are not so visible, as you’re sitting on a Zoom or in a room.

I’ve also done things like, just make checkmarks next to people’s names on who’s talking.

Then I can say something like, “Oh, this is interesting. Your Product Owner, your Scrum Master, had about 90% of the conversation today. What is that about?”

Not being necessarily judgmental about it, but being curious about why that is.

Sometimes that’s a point in time. It’s just that day.

Sometimes that’s a pattern.

Looking for those things and making them clear to the folks involved so that they can help with that interpretation and they can start seeing that as well.

Michael 18:19

When you’re highlighting these points you’ve noticed, are you typically doing that to a whole group of individuals, with a subset, how does that work?

Jenny 18:34

I am standing on the shoulders of so many giants here. I should have attributed a couple of those last lessons to the people that I learned from. But this one I’m definitely going to attribute to Marsha Acker: bring it to the room.

Those side conversations, or the discussions that you have say just with a Scrum Master, who’s maybe the facilitator of a group, it robs the rest of the folks from their ability to see and take ownership too.

That’s one of the things, whether it’s a team or a train or a group of leaders, that the more skilled they can be at that awareness, the more choice they have in how they can show up and how they react.

Michael 19:21

How do you have teams have that conversation when some or all of the members aren’t so used to having those kind of conversations, aren’t ready to have that level of vulnerability with each other?

Jenny 19:40

There’s a need to meet people where they are and recognize that even within a group, or a group, may be at a different spot for lots of reasons than another group.

I worked really hard to be as vulnerable as I am.

In my first jobs, man, you were stone during meetings, nothing, no emotions and get stuff done and everything was the results.

I actually had somebody take me aside and talk to me about that and say, “You don’t have a very good reputation. You’re not very fun to work with. Nobody, you’re so business-oriented, that it’s impersonal. It’s hard for people to tell you things. It’s hard for people to tell you the truth.”

Being in project management and other kinds of things, you want to hear about the risks. You want to hear about the things.

I was preventing that.

And I will say it was a mask.

Because I was scared inside.

I didn’t know what I was doing.

I thought that bringing that front was important.

The people I work with now, I’m not afraid of showing emotion at all.

Now I know it has an impact on folks.

So, I try to be aware of that.

Emotion is data.

It’s language.

But I remember when I would have said, showing tears in a meeting was humiliating.

So, I have a lot of empathy for the journey that folks have to do, to go through, to be comfortable, and that some people say, “I’m not gonna go through that journey. That is not appealing to me.”

So, I’m meeting them where they are and then building trust with a group, making sure that when we talk about things like confidentiality and working agreements, that those are things that are important and held true.

Building that trust leaves a little bit more opportunity to try things that might be might be harder and harder as you go along.

If the benefits are being seen, it’s an easier progression than if, for whatever reason they might backfire, or not have good results.

Michael 22:16

Do you have some suggestions for how teams can get started along that journey, if they’re in that, “I will not show it to you because I do not feel safe.”

Jenny 22:28

When I have a public class or a new team or a group of leaders that I haven’t worked with before, I’m going to start off with something, maybe a check-in question that’s pretty straightforward.

“What’s a favorite book?”

Never, “What is your favorite book?” because that’s so much pressure.

It’s a judgmental, “Oh, I gotta pick the best book.”

“What’s a good book?”

Or, “What’s a movie you’ve seen lately?”

Something that gets them talking.

Then, maybe following along that thread, and asking a little bit more vulnerable questions.

Another example might be, “What’s one word that’s true for you today?”

 It’s a great check-in question.

That’s one of my very favorites.

Somebody might say, “nervous,” somebody else might say another emotion. Oh, okay, we can talk about emotions.

Well, then maybe the next day we have the Wheel of Emotions up as a check-in.

Then you see, there’s talking about emotions. Look at all these different emotions. Think about this for a minute.

Debriefing is important.

If you just say, “What’s a one word check-in for you?”, and then you go on, a couple hours later, somebody’s like, “Why did we do that?”

Explaining that gets everybody’s voices activated, really seeing the group as an entity, seeing them together, maybe shedding some of the things that they brought into the group with them, what just happened in the last meeting, or how their day is, talking about how important that can be.

If you can’t share something like, “What’s the word that’s true for you right now?” how are you going to talk about the fact that you have no idea why something in the portfolio is prioritized the way that it is?

So, lower stakes, pointing out that there’s higher stakes, that we need to have that kind of vulnerability and those kind of discussions.

Michael 24:27

So, you do the question, let the interaction happen, and then explain what just occurred beyond the obvious of, the answers people gave.

Jenny 24:40

I’m a big fan of the debriefing of everything.

What; So what; Now what?

The learning happens on reflection, not in the doing.

Some people are naturally reflecting; some people might want to go through more deliberate guided process for that.

I would default, especially with a new group, to the deliberate debriefing of things, so that they’re seeing those connections.

I’ve had situations, especially earlier on in my Agile coaching career, where we were like, “Why did we spend time on that? That was a waste of our time.” It’s almost like trust falls. Why’d we do trust falls?

If you debrief something, and it still doesn’t resonate with people, there’s a whole ‘nother thing to be curious about.

So, debrief everything.

Michael 25:43

Now, I’m curious. What else should I ask you?

Jenny 25:47

What else should you ask me?

Well, I realized when I was listening to my introduction, I didn’t mention the wonderful company that I work for.

So I want to make sure to get that in: Agile Velocity. Great company. After being an independent coach for eight years.

A lot of what we’re talking about today comes into play.

We’re a group of individuals that work together.

Individuals and interactions, the first value pair of the Agile Manifesto, that’s the hard part.

Most of the books behind me, those are about individuals and interactions and in groups and such.

So, want to make sure I get that in.

The other thing I would say is, ask questions.

Be curious.

That’s my favorite mode to be in.

I’ve asked Lyft drivers, “What do you know that I should know?”

There’s so many fascinating things that they’ll tell you about in the world has to offer.

My favorite question to ask people is, “What do you know that I should know?”

Michael 27:10

It’s sort of like the question I just asked you, but it has a different feel to it.

Jenny 27:18

I’ve had Lyft drivers like show me things in their trunk, their hobbies, because I’m like, “What, that’s a thing? Tell me more.”

People love talking about things that interest them.

A great way to learn.

I said I was a connector and collector of people and ideas.

A lot of these different perspectives that that I’ve embraced, don’t always come from classroom settings. Don’t always come from a book or podcast. (Lots of them from podcasts, though, of course. )

It’s great to have a sense of wonder and curiosity with the world.

Michael 27:56

You have you’re an offer for our audience, if they would like to understand where their teams are and where they might have opportunities for improving.

Jenny 28:10

You’ll share the way to get to the assessment, but we have at Agile Velocity, we have a model called Path to Agility which is not a recipe, is not prescriptive, but it’s a way to think about what might be some of the choices that a team, a system or an organization might go through to change the ways of working and what might be important for their business outcomes.

What we’re offering is a taste of that, through part of that assessment at the team level.

We’ve got a few questions out there you can go through.

I would encourage, if you take that, to be curious.

That’s the starting point with a conversation with your team to say, “What does this mean when we see these kind of results? What does that mean to us?”

Michael 28:59


If people would like to follow up with that, earn more about that or all the other things we’ve talked about today, what’s the best way for them to connect with you?

Jenny 29:10

I would say LinkedIn.

That did not used to be my preference, but right now we’re gonna go with LinkedIn.

I’m still on Twitter. Taking that day by day. It’s challenging. But that used to be my favorite place to connect with people.

By the way, if anybody has suggestions, I would love to hear those, send them to my LinkedIn or my Twitter.

Twitter is @JennyKCMO, referencing where I live.

And, again, Agile Velocity website, there’s links that you can get to me from there as well.

Michael 29:47

Thank you.

What would you like to leave our audience with today, Jenny?

Jenny 29:54

Stay curious.

Know your values.

If you’re ever somewhere where I am, whether that’s Agile 2023 or a meetup or a class online, please do introduce yourself and let’s have a conversation.

Michael 30:15

Sounds great.

Thank you, Jenny, for a fabulous conversation today.

And thank your audience for being with us today.

Please let us know: what resonated with you? What didn’t? What do you agree with? What did you maybe disagree with? How do you instigate your curiosity?

Jenny and I want to know.

Thank you.

Have a great day.

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