Do We Really Need An Agile Coach ?

To be honest, I think there are way too many coaches in the world. For years, while walking around the IT industry in the Netherlands, I saw the market getting flooded with agile coaches. At meetups, 50% of the people were agile coaches. People left their jobs to become agile coaches. And I always thought: why do we need them?

Based on my experience of doing a lot of agile training and consulting over the past few years, I do see why they are required. Scrum masters get caught in the politics of their companies. Product owners struggle to understand their role and say no to stakeholders (who are often superiors). Team members have very practical questions on how to plan and estimate, how to prioritize, etc.

The Agile Coaching Paradox

But I see a big paradox. Agile preaches self organization. So we want our team members to figure out how to do their work, effectively and efficiently. Put a coach in front of the team and chances are big that the coach will start giving directions (the team will rely on the coach’s instructions). And that’s exactly what we don’t want.

During agile training programs I often hear “Am I allowed to do ABC?”. My neck-hairs raise when I hear this question and I always need to breathe to find my balance there. OF COURSE YOU CAN!  Just do what you think is right given your context. Now the issue with people asking this question is: they have a mindset of “tell me what to do and I will do it”. In many cases this is based on culture, on habits, on power structures. If we want to deepen our agile practice, we need to change this mindset.

What Makes a Good Coach?

First of all, I believe that it’s important WHO the coach is. This framework from the Agile Coaching Institute gives a good overview of the different coaching competencies.

Agile Coaching Competency Framework

Agile-Lean Practitioner Ability to learn and deeply understand Agile frameworks and Lean principles, not only at the level of practices, but also at the level of the principles and values that underlie the practices enabling appropriate application as well as innovation.

Professional Coaching Ability to act as a coach, with the client’s interest determining the direction, rather than the coach’s expertise or opinion.

Facilitating Neutral process holder that guides the individual’s, team’s, or organization’s process of discovery, holding to their purpose and definition of success.

Mentoring Ability to impart one’s experience, knowledge and guidance to help grow another in the same or similar knowledge domains.

Teaching Ability to offer the right knowledge, at the right time, taught in the right way, so that individuals, teams and organizations metabolize the knowledge for their best benefit.

Technical Mastery Ability to get your hands dirty architecting, designing, coding, test engineering, or performing some other technical practice, with a focus on promoting technical craftsmanship through example and teaching-by-doing. And, expertise in agile scaling patterns or structures.

Business Mastery Ability to apply business strategy and management frameworks to employ agile as a competitive business advantage such as Lean Start-Up, product innovation techniques, flow-based business process management approaches, and other techniques that relate to innovating in the business domain.

Transformation Mastery Ability to facilitate, catalyze and (as appropriate) lead organizational change and transformation. This area draws on change management, organization culture, organization development, systems thinking, and other behavioral sciences.

My belief is that the most crucial characteristics of a coach are on the soft side. The coach should be empathetic – able to facilitate discussions (as opposed to dictating solutions); to be able to balance participation and contribution within a group of people; to speak with people at different levels of the organisation and get them engaged towards the same (agility) goal. The coach should also have the skills to transfer knowledge (teaching), however, mentoring is even better, because it is based on having the hands-on experience of what you are teaching.

Scrum Master Versus Agile Coach

There’s a reason a soccer coach is standing outside the field instead of running around. A Scrum Master is in the field, so are the Product Owner and the team members. That’s one reason a team needs a coach, since a Scrum Master is often an employee, a coach is often external to your organization. An external person is seen as an expert and people at different levels of the organisation will often pay more heed to him/her.

So How Do We Solve The Paradox?

My view on solving the paradox is that yes, coaches can definitely help a company to accelerate their adoption of agility and realise the benefits (there is ample evidence of this in existence already). But companies should be clear and realistic in their expectations, as well as being selective in engaging coaches. And I believe that companies should be cautious in engaging a coach full-time for a longer term (more than 12 to 18 months). A good approach is to arrange for a coach to be available part time to help facilitate or observe key events, for example retrospectives, and to support teams and individuals in their change process.  Coaches also work better in teams, so if an additional coach is available to work with organisational leadership, this can create additional synergy.

 

Do we need agile coaches? Ultimately it depends, but usually coaches will help you achieve your transformation objectives significantly sooner than going it alone.  Do the math!


 

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