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Some Agile Coaching Tips



My first Scrum experiments date back to 2006 when I was a software team leader at Nokia. After few Scrum implementations in various companies, I starting coaching organisations & teams as an Agile coach/consultant. So far, I worked in 5 large scale Agile initiative(used to be known as Agile transformation but this is also becoming a forbidden word in Agile space:)) during which I coached or helped around 50-60 teams(guesstimate), worked with their stakeholders/managers, delivered various training and custom advanced workshops, worked with leaders teams to help them resolve organisational problems affecting agility of the organisation.

In this blog, I’d like to share few tips about Agile coaching from my perspective.

So…What differs Agile coaches from each other ? What sort of skills stands them out from others ?

I had the opportunity to work with different coaches and I can easily say there can be a huge difference between coaching styles, skills, approach.

Some coaches focus on a certain method or framework, some use metrics more than others (metric driven coaching), some prioritises self organisation over other things, there can be different approaches to scaling or technical Agility, list goes on and on. Till now, I experimented and experienced different challenges and tried different approaches to find the right balance and what works best for me. Of course learning and challenges is a never ending story but one of my key learnings so far is you got to focus on outcomes rather than methods when helping an organisation through its Agility journey. This path is unique for organisations. As an Agile coach you need to patiently work with the organisation’s priorities in their emerging Agility journey backlog.

Since Agile itself has been evolving fast, expectations from coaches have also increased. Talking from team level Agility, now we are talking about organisational agility or business agility. Framework, methods wars are getting fierce. Within today’s Agile context, Agility touches pretty much everyone in organisations. As an Agile coach you need business skills/know how, you need to understand different functions in the organisation, politics, domain, psychology, you need excellent soft skills, facilitation skills and so on, ahhh and there are frameworks, methods, practises :).

What contributes to an Agile coach’s performance is the sum of her/his skills in her prior career — iterative, incremental learning. No one starts her career as an Agile coach. Coach was maybe a developer, tester, analyst, team lead, project manager or a manager before. Broad experience will definitely help the coach. I am using all my prior experience right now and have lots of examples of “what not to do”things in my experience bucket. You don’t immediately qualify as a good communicator when you become a coach. You already need that skill to make an impact as an Agile coach.

Lets talk through a coaching case as an example: You are asked to provide coaching to an ever going large project. let say multiple number of teams are working on it,maybe some of the people are located in a remote site. Project might already be using some Agile practises hence there might be a perception of being already Agile. Its stakeholders might be from different levels in the organisation each of which might have different interests and priorities. There might be a strict deadline hence low tolerance on failure. Team compositions, skills might not be as you would expect; e.g. teams might be non-cross functional or non cross-component. What about resistance points in such organisations? Politics ? What would be your starting point ? Highly complex , huh ?

What skills you need most to help organisations as such for Agility ?

Every coach might have different approaches hence results. I think within a set of skills and competencies you need the most important ones I think are as follows(I presume you are already expert in methods, frameworks, practises and so on which is a prerequisite for the role):

1- Listen well: Listen listen listen to assess the situation, understand relations, expectations, politics, challenges, history of the project. Politics is an interesting one here. As an Agile coach you got to find ways to get around politics and resistance and there is not a formula for that.

2- Be part of the team not a stakeholder : You need to build trust to be listened. If people trust you, you’ll be part of the team, otherwise you will be just another stakeholder for them. Teams expect you to build a safe environment for them that usually lacks. If they see you as a team mate that they trust, they will also start revealing some ugly problems too that you might help them to resolve.

3- Be a doer: First understand people, understand the project, understand the challenges and be a doer as an Agile coach not a teller. Facilitate a user story mapping session with them, understand and reflect their business assumptions, challenges. Help them structure their metrics and use them and so on.

4- Facilitate: Show them what they might be overlooking. Make them think out of the box and challenge assumptions. Use your Agile experience and know how to set some goals with the team and facilitate the “how” and decisions. Ensure the team works with goals. Help the team set multi level goals that are valuable & achievable & traceable.

5- Communicate frequently: Talk to people, call them, listen to them, offer them help, and help. This will also help you to build a safer environment. .

6- Measure: Agree up front how the performance can be measured and tracked. Here Agile metrics, practises again can be of great help. Talk through the metrics with the team time to time.

Agile coaching is a long journey. At early stages of my coaching career I made some mistakes too like any other human being. It is very normal to make mistakes, be humble but learn from mistakes and move on.

Coaching can get psychologically challenging some time. Overcoming such challenges will contribute to your learning and experience. Those are things you will not be able to read from books and learn in a safe environment. Confront with situations and do your own experiments to speed up your learning. Dealing with challenges will only make you a better coach.

Finally, learn from other coaches. Be open minded. Accept that there might always be a better approach. Ask help, feedback, share challenges with your peers and discuss. That will open up your perspective for better coaching.

Hope you find these tips and insight useful.

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