What Is Agile Coaching?

When organizations begin an agile transformation, they tend to focus on the “how” first. Investigate some processes, select one, try it out. Oftentimes that process is Scrum (although many would say Scrum isn’t a process, I digress). When those transformations run into problems – as they inevitably do – the organization faces a crossroads. Do we continue with our process but get help? Or do we go back to what we’ve been doing? If they pick the former and get help, they’ll often bring in an agile coach. But what does – or should – that agile coaching entail?

Agile Coaching 101

Agile Coach
Agile Coach

An agile coach is someone versed in the agile manifesto, agile methodologies, and coaching. There are different kinds of coaches. Some agile coaches focus on process and methodology. These coaches can help with your metrics, your issue tracking/story databases, and your workflow. Other coaches focus on teams. They can work with a team to identify core issues, provide guidance to the team about how they might tackle those issues, and then hold the team accountable for making changes. And there are coaches that work at the management or executive level. They can help your managers understand how agile changes the entire organization, not just the handle on the crank of the machinery. Good enterprise coaches are few and far between because of the work focus and because it’s difficult. It’s actually all difficult work – agile coaching is not easy. And not everyone can be – or should be – an agile coach.

The best coaches are going to have a blend of experience and skill. I know some amazing team coaches who don’t know the first thing about how to coach enterprises. And enterprise coaches who can’t figure out metrics. When an organization is looking at getting help from an agile coach, the question they have to ask is – what do we want or expect from agile coaching?

What to Expect From Agile Coaching

Newly Minted Scrum Master
Newly Minted Scrum Master

The first kind of agile coach an organization tends to have is a newly minted Scrum Master, probably because Scrum – and the Certified Scrum Master class – is so ubiquitous. And this is a good starting point, but the CSM class does not provide any real grounding in agile coaching. It barely provides sufficient detail for the new Scrum Master to be a real Scrum Master.

But a new Scrum Master really can’t provide coaching that can be effective (unless they have a good background in traditional coaching). It will take that “newly minted Scrum Master” quite some time and training to get to the point where they can provide some worthwhile agile coaching. If you decide that your new Scrum Masters needs some help with their teams, you should bring in a coach. But what should you expect from that person?

Starting Agile Coaching

A good agile team coach has experience and knowledge of how agile teams work. They should have experience in more than a single methodology. While having a Scrum expert can be handy, the old proverb of “just having a hammer”1 applies in that case. Your coach needs broad experience. The first thing they’ll do is an agile assessment. It could be a formal or informal assessment, but the coach will observe the team and not just at ceremonies.

A team that says all the right things at a meeting may be fine. If they then go back to their desks, put on their headphones, and check out, they’re not a team. They’re just a bunch of people working on the same thing. A coach needs to understand where a team is on their agile journey. Did they just start? Are they pretty advanced? Knowing where we are is key to knowing where we need to go and how to get there.

How Agile Coaching Works

From a process perspective, it’s important to understand that coaches are focused on observing the team and then communicating back to the team what’s working and not working. The important piece is that they leave it to the team to figure out how to solve the team’s problems. They can help the team identify what possible solutions exist but leave it to the team to try to solve them on their own. This can be uncomfortable for people who think they have the “right answer” for a team’s problems, but it’s important that the team be allowed to experiment and fail. What worked for one team may not work for another. So we can’t really push a “right answer” onto a team. I talked about this a little in a previous article.

Coaching the Enterprise

Enterprise coaches are going to be focusing on a different level of the organization than team coaches. Coaches at this level need to understand how organizational structure, paths of communication, the flow of work, etc. all figure into whether agile can be successful. There are a lot of different elements that come into play, including new management thinking and matrix-versus-reorganized reporting structures. The main thing that they deal with is the role that management plays in an agile implementation.

Crossing the Management Chasm
Crossing the Management Chasm

A lot of how business has developed management over the years is based on 19th- and early-20th-century thinking. A lot of new management theory challenges those assumptions and changes the role of the manager. As a result, managers don’t know what their job is with an agile team. Work comes from the business directly. The team is self-directed and sometimes self-managed. So what do managers do? That’s where enterprise coaches work.

Helping management understand the need for vision and strategy. Enabling their teams to succeed. And mostly getting out of their way so they can do awesome work. And the chasm between “now” and “later” is very scary to a lot of people. But a good coach provides guidance to make that transition easier and less scary.

Agile Coaching Tips to Keep in Mind

Tuckman Maturity Model
Tuckman Maturity Model

Most importantly a coach brings a grounding to the team. A coach’s experience allows them to be comfortable with what might be uncomfortable for other people. Especially when teams are just starting out, it’s critical that they are allowed to go through the Tuckman Maturity Model on their own. Each team’s journey will be different, but we can’t short-circuit the model. Sometimes the bumps are light swells on the agile ocean. Sometimes it’s a “perfect storm” and the team’s journey gets very rocky. Your coach should be able to provide a beacon to teams in trouble to help them get to safe harbor. But they’re not at the helm – that’s the team’s job.

What NOT to Expect From Agile Coaching

There are a few things you should not expect from your agile coach or agile coaching engagement. Here’s a quick list:

  1. Perform Duties of Scrum Master or Product Owner
    Your coaches need to work independently of your team’s work. Having them separate from your team really helps them see things from an objective point of view and provide insights. While a Scrum Master may be a coach, if you’re getting agile coaching from a coach, don’t expect them to do that work. It’s very difficult if not impossible to be a facilitator and a participant. Your coaches need to be facilitators of your agile journey, not knee-deep in it with your teams as a participant. Plus, most coaches cost far more than a Scrum Master anyway. Save your money and hire real Scrum Masters and Product Owners. Use your high-powered coaches to do what they do best – coach.
  2. Tell You What To Do
    An agile coach will give you recommendations and suggestions, but they won’t tell you what to do. They may explain that what you want to do won’t be in your best interests – if your interests are to be agile – but, as I wrote earlier, each team has their own path. And that may mean that they won’t necessarily advocate for your current processes. Agile coaching is a journey, much like agile itself. A good coach will help your team or organization come up with its own ideas and solutions.
  3. Be an “Agile Purist”
    Because each team and each organization must take its own agile journey, there is no single, prescriptive path. There are certainly some “good practices” that agile coaches have acquired over the years, but the “best practice” for one organization or one team may completely fail a different one. Therefore, coaches need to be pragmatists far more than purists. Will they challenge you about your practices? Absolutely. Will they say “my way or the highway”? No. Well, they shouldn’t.

@ Velocity

We have a small team of full-time coaches here at Velocity – at present – but we have a lot of people who are providing agile coaching all over. Some of our Solutions Managers are very skilled agilists and can provide insights to their teams. But we do have coaches to help them if they get in over their head. The good thing is that Velocity Partners does see a lot of value in having coaches on staff and, as a result, our teams have the opportunity to improve.

Closing Thoughts

There are a lot of reasons why you may want to get agile coaching for your team or your organization. Make sure you’re finding the right coach for your needs. Don’t put an enterprise coach with a team or, worse, a team coach with your executives. The important part is having the right tool in the form of the right coach for the work you want to be done. Getting the right agile coach in the right place at the right time can rocket your teams and organizations to unbelievable heights.

Feliz entrenamiento, mis amigos! (Happy coaching, my friends!)

Footnotes

  1. The proverb says: “when all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail”. Only knowing one thing means that you’re only going to know how to solve problems with that one kind of knowledge. The broader the experience, the bigger the tool belt and the more crafted the result.

Bill DeVoe