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 coach. And I always thought: why do we need them?

Based on my experience doing a lot of agile training the past year, I do see why they are required. Scrum masters get caught in the power struggles 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 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 stuff. Put a coach in front of the team and chances are big that he’ll start giving directions. And that’s exactly what we don’t want.

During my scrum training 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 grow agile, we need to change those.

What Makes a Good Coach?

First of all, I believe that it’s important WHO the coach is. This image from the agile coaching institute gives a good overview of the coaching competencies:

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. He (or even better: she) should be emphatetic. Able to facilitate discussions (as opposed to dictating solutions); to strike the right balance within a group of people; to speak with people at different levels and getting them engaged towards the same (agility) goal. Good at teaching. Mentoring is even better, because mentoring is based on having the hands on experience that you teach.

Scrum Master Versus Agile Coach

There’s a reason a soccer coach is standing outside the field instead or running around. A scrum master is in the field. So are the product owner and the team members. That’s one reason we’d need a coach. A scrum master is often an employee, a coach is often an external. A (high paid) external is seen as an expert and people at different levels will listen to him/her.

So How Do We Solve The Paradox?

My view on solving the paradox is that yes coaches can help move a company to agility. But we should be selective. And I believe we should be cautious with engaging full time coaches long term. A program in which the coach is available part time (maybe during the retrospective) to support people in their change process. And then a senior person to work with leadership, which could be having a bi weekly lunch meeting to discuss progress.
Do we need an agile coach? Yes AND No.

 

 


About Hugo Messer