An Agile Coach is a relatively new job title, one that has become popular over the last 10 years or so and is a role that causes a great deal of confusion: what do they do? and how do you know if they are doing a good job?
It is also a title that covers a great many responsibilities, sometimes Agile Coaches will coach teams, sometimes they will coach organisations. For the latter I prefer other terms and so for the purposes of this article I will assume that the role is one aimed at coaching development teams within an organisation.
What the role is not…
An Agile Coach is not a manager,
although many Agile Coaches will have had experience as managers or at least have had backgrounds similar to other business leaders. An Agile Coach will generally have a broad history of working with people, and understand how to manage people – and how not to. In organisations with Agile Coaches they will often reduce the demand for managers or in some cases eliminate the need for managers entirely. But not by taking on their responsibilities, but by showing and enabling the teams to fulfill many of the responsibilities for themselves. This is generally much tougher than managing directly, as they must do it without authority. Much of an Agile Coaches responsibility will be in building teams and encouraging good working practices and collaboration with colleagues.
An Agile Coach is not a Project Manager,
although again they may have a degree of knowledge and experience in this area. An Agile Coach will be there to work with teams to deliver software, but an Agile Coach is much more likely to ask “Why?” than they are to ask “When?” A coach is far more interested in whether a team understands a priority than they are in ensuring a team meets a deadline.
An Agile Coach is not a lead developer,
although they may have once been one, sometimes they may pair with people on a team, coding or testing or designing, but they are not there to be productive but to enable the team to become more effective. Sometimes through advice sometimes by example and most often by enabling safe failure, a Coach will likely let you fail and then ask questions to help you understand why you failed.
An Agile Coach is not a facilitator,
although they may facilitate meetings and events. A facilitator will often be neutral and unobtrusive. A Coach should know when to prod, poke, be provocative and even contrary or when to stay silent. I know coaches that will deliberately and consciously stay silent during a meeting, noting for themselves what their advice would be but just watching to see if the team reach the same outcome. Other times, suggesting a false path to see if the team challenges them. Other times they may guide a team to an outcome if they feel the team will benefit and will be able to make similar choices in the future. Most often I find myself sowing seeds of ideas in the hope it will trigger the team to come up with a solution for themselves.
An Agile Coach is not a trainer,
although they will help you learn. An Agile Coach may at times teach in the conventional sense, but more often they will enable you to create opportunities to learn, and when they do training or seminars it will likely be composed of learning opportunities more so than lecturing from the front. A Coach will generally try not to tell you how to do something nor even show you how. Normally they will ask questions that encourage you to figure it out for yourself. This is not of course the only way to coach and sometimes it is more effective to show and then ask why you did something a certain way. But it will be rare that a Coach will tell you how to do something without ensuring you understand why you are doing it. As you can imagine this can be an area of frustration at times.
What are they then?
An Agile Coach is Experienced
An Agile Coach is generally someone that has been there and done it. There are a whole host of learning material on Agile Practices; delivering software; and managing people and businesses. But there is no substitute for someone that has done those things first hand, and better yet had difficulties or failed at doing some of those things. You will likely find that an Agile Coach has years of experience of delivering software in general, often having done a variety of roles.
I believe the reason for this is that in most situations where a coach adds value it is not a solution that is sought, but and understanding of the problem. Someone that possesses nothing but canned solutions to questions, hasn’t had the benefit of the journey to understanding that the question asked is rarely the question that needs answering.
To get there requires the ability to see beyond the question, and in my opinion at least, this comes far more from experience than teaching. I find some of the best lessons are in the form of fables and analogies. Because they are able to stir our own experiences to enable us to better understand why we do something rather than being presented with a solution.
Experience is the teacher of all things
– Julius Caesar
An Agile Coach has plenty of soft skills
the chief of which is empathy, which comes from experience. The ability to understand the perspective of a developer or QA or the other members of the team comes a lot from experience, which is why so many coaches started their careers in software delivery teams. But the role also requires communicating with management and customers and other teams which requires great communication skills and yet again can benefit from having been in a management role, or project lead, etc. The role may involve 1-1 coaching, mediating conflicts, giving difficult but constructive feedback, building relationships with teams and encouraging them to build relationships among themselves. Negotiation, selling, planning, listening, advising provoking and challenging. A great coach excels with soft skills. A few coaches have an abundance, most of us are skilled in some areas but are still growing and learning to develop these skills.
An Agile Coach is responsible
but not accountable, they are responsible for guiding the teams in Agile Principles and Practices, but priority is given to understanding why, over learning how. But they are not accountable for the teams following Agile principles, the teams themselves are. The coach can show the way but does not force you on to the path.
An Agile Coach needs to be humble
On the best days a coach is a force magnifier, they are able to show a team or an individual how to improve, but the coach will rarely be able to say “look at what I achieved” instead they will sometimes be able to say “Look what I helped achieve” but more usually watch from the sidelines as credit is given to the team or the individual. If you are looking for glory this is not the job for you. You are often even held in a negative light when you shine the spotlight on problems that were previously unseen. A thick skin is essential.
An Agile Coach needs to be hungry
Being Agile means always wanting to improve, and to do that requires a desire for learning, through experience and through other forms of learning, books, conferences, discussion groups. An Agile Coach that isn’t learning and pushing themselves will likely very quickly become ineffective.
An Agile Coach is open to new ideas
Agile is not a methodology, it is a desire and determination to find better ways to develop software and help others do it. An Agile coach should not be wedded to a framework, be it Scrum or Kanban or XP or any of the others, they are tools to reach an end. When we limit our scope to only one framework we cease to be an Agile Coach. We should be aware of the options and be open to new ideas. That doesn’t mean we don’t favour some over others, but we should have an acceptance that they are merely a tool to do a job. Each may have areas they are better suited, and perhaps with sufficient understanding it may be possible to combine ideas or cherry pick elements from other methods.
The benefits of an Agile Coach
An Agile Coach’s expertise is much broader than Agile methods, whilst at it’s core the impact can extend from teaching the basics of the various Agile methods through to expertise in the various roles in an agile organisation – such as Product Owner, or implementing XP practices, coaching organizations on Agile transformations or simply process improvement. But most Agile Coaches have expertise that goes much further and may well be skilled at coaching interpersonal issues, team building, management techniques, personal development, conflict resolution and most of what would be considered ‘management’ skills.
I would broadly break down the benefits of an Agile Coach in to four areas
- Coaching on Agile Methods
- Coaching teams that have identified a need for support in certain areas
- Helping teams identify areas where they need support
- Helping organizations identify ways they can improve teams at a macro level
The first two the teams are likely consciously aware of and so are able to identify the need and make the request. The latter two by their nature are likely areas that the teams are not aware they have an issue, or feel it is something they cannot change (in isolation or at all)
The four stages of competence:
Unconscious Incompetence: If you are unaware you lack a skill or are unaware of a deficiency you cannot ask for help. A coach should be able to observe and identify where you may have areas for improvement, it is common for us to be unaware of our bad habits or blinkered thinking, we get stuck down rabbit holes, sometimes this can be on an individual level and sometimes teams can be the same way. It generally takes someone from the outside to see the problem and help move it from unconscious incompetence to a conscious incompetence, once we are aware of a problem we can choose to do something about it.
Conscious Incompetence: If you are aware of a problem, you can take steps to improve. Sometimes you can do this on your own but sometimes it makes sense to ask for help, asking for a coach to help guide you, they may have past experience or suggestions or techniques to help. With effort you can generally move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence
Conscious Competence: At this stage – with some effort you have the skill or have obviated the defect, but it still requires effort. Now it is really a question of practicing the skill until you become proficient (unconsciously competent), the value of a coach here is not in the evolution of the skill or the breaking of a bad habit, it is in the observance of new bad habits forming and stopping them early.
Unconsciously Competent: As you improve one skill area and become unconsciously competent – you have a mastered a skill, you may discover more skills you lack, and the cycle repeats.
How to measure or for that matter manage an Agile Coach?
There are generally considered to be a number of situations where it is very difficult to measure and therefore difficult to manage someone:
- Where the person’s expertise is broader or deeper than that of the person measuring them – essentially how can you assess performance if you cannot judge if it is good or bad and to what extent it is good or bad.
- Where the person’s contribution is intangible.
- Where the contribution is situational and variable, there is no yardstick. (Such as creative or innovative work.)
An Agile Coach falls into all of these categories.
There is no easy objective way to measure performance as there are no KPIs. The coach’s goal is to improve a team or an organisation, if the organisation/team improves – was that because of the coach or for other reasons? There is no objective way to tell.
At some point it becomes a question of trust, and subjective assessment.
If you have a problem and ask for help, a good Agile Coach will give you a solution, but a great Agile Coach will show you how to solve the problem for yourself.
Not all Agile Coaches are the same, and not all will possess all of the skills above. Each one will have different strengths and weaknesses and a lot will come down to how they interact with the team they are with. Like any profession there are some Coaches that are better than others. But in my view any team should be able to improve with the right coach, but not every coach is right for every team.
If you believe that you cannot improve with coaching (and some teams do claim this), then you are probably right, a mind so closed to the possibility of learning, or that someone else may see something you can’t, then maybe you cannot grow and you may be incapable of improvement. But consider that even the best sportsmen, and artists have coaches, the most successful business execs often have outside mentors. The limiting factor is not the coach it is your willingness to grow.
I’d also add that some coaches are better with teams at different stages of Agile maturity or the different stages of a team development, that does make one better than the other. I’ve seen some extremely experienced agile coaches that are so advanced in their understanding of Agile methods that they find it difficult to relate to teams that are at the start of the agile journey, they try to push the teams to new concepts before they are ready, rather than guiding them to their own growth.
In the same way not all Agile methods are right for all teams or organizations, understanding the strengths of your teams and the strengths of you coaches and finding a match may be the key to success. Some teams may require more time with them than others too, this is not necessarily a reflection on the ability of the team or the coach but on the skills being improved and the type of coaching that is happening. Sometimes a change of coach can stir things up and open new growth opportunities.
Overall I’d suggest that a coach is more guide than leader and asking one for advice is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. none of us know everything and the willingness to ask for help to learn is a crucial step to growth.