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Agile Coaching 101

What is Agile Coaching? Years ago, whenever I heard the word “coach,” I imagined people like the little league coaches I’d observed while cheering my kids on. These coaches made all the team decisions, refused to take any feedback, frequently yelled all the team, and made the kids do pushups or run laps when they […]


November 24, 2020

What is Agile Coaching?

Years ago, whenever I heard the word “coach,” I imagined people like the little league coaches I’d observed while cheering my kids on. These coaches made all the team decisions, refused to take any feedback, frequently yelled all the team, and made the kids do pushups or run laps when they made mistakes. Because of them, I assumed the term coach was a synonym for drill sergeant.

So, over a decade ago, when my boss told me he was bringing in an Agile coach to help our team do Scrum, I was alarmed; as was the rest of our team. With coaching expectations, we were defensive, resistant, and uncooperative—our first coach left after three weeks.

My team made a lot of wrong assumptions about the Agile coach role. Turns out an Agile coach isn’t the same as a sports coach. They aren’t dictators; they are servant-leaders. They don’t yell or criticize. They teach and model Agile values and practices to enable you to reduce the cost of change, decrease lead times, and increase customer and employee satisfaction. Fundamentally, a coach is someone who helps move people from where they are to where they want to be. An Agile coach works with you to define your goals and meet them.

What Makes a Good Agile Coach?

A good Agile coach has many capabilities and competencies. They have a deep knowledge of Agile and Lean and are enthusiastic Agile champions. They have significant, practical experience working in an Agile framework. They are experienced teachers, mentors, and facilitators. An effective Agile coach is a strong communicator who actively listens with empathy, uses examples and metaphors to clarify concepts, and gives honest and tactful feedback. They aren’t afraid to have difficult conversations if necessary, to help an organization meet their goals.

A good Agile coach is a people-person who can quickly develop rapport with all kinds of people in various roles. Ideally, they have a good sense of humor to engage with people and to ease fears and concerns surrounding change.

A strong Agile coach is skilled at using visuals, tools, and creative facilitation techniques to get full participation and input from individuals and teams. They assist groups to brainstorm creative ideas and solutions, then works with the group to refine those ideas and collectively find the best decision.

What Happens During an Agile Coach Engagement?

As each organization is unique, each Agile coaching engagement is unique. However, most engagements follow a common high-level flow.

An Agile coach usually begins an engagement as an investigator. They meet with individuals and teams across all participating departments and roles. They observe, ask questions, and gather information. They help the organization define and articulate the problems they want to solve. They assess where the teams and managers could potentially adapt their processes to improve productivity and quality. Then, they meet with sponsors to create an Agile action plan. An effective action plan contains agreed upon acceptance criteria that concretely defines the measurable goals and outcomes of the engagement.

The execution of the action plan usually begins with widespread training for everyone: teams, business owners, management, etc. Training ensures that each person shares a common understanding of the Agile values, principles, and practices. High-quality training assures everyone has the same foundational knowledge. This foundation enables people across the organization to have high-bandwidth conversations with each other and gives them the ability to make informed decisions about their own Agile transformation.

An Agile coach will work with the organization to plan and prepare for a transition to the Agile framework(s) that best fit the group’s needs. The coach will facilitate each framework event and teach all participants the flow, purpose, and explain how each person can contribute to reach the intended objectives. The coach mentors people in Agile each role to help them understand their responsibilities, how to collaborate across roles, and how to execute items they are responsible for in a timely manner with high-quality. Over time, the Agile coach’s goal is to have the team take the reins and facilitate their own meetings and steer their own efforts towards continuous improvement.

The Agile coach meets with the sponsors on a regular basis to discuss progress towards the engagement goals. The coach works together with the sponsors throughout the engagement to re-plan, re-prioritize, and pivot based on ongoing feedback.

When the engagement comes to an end, the Agile coach conducts a final assessment and provide recommendations for the organization to consider to continue improving the quality, speed to market, and probability of their Agile implementation.

Good Agile Coaches Are Hard to Come by

Currently, there isn’t a commonly accepted school for Agile coaching that guarantees graduates will make amazing Agile coaches. Subsequently, there isn’t a verified, large pool of qualified Agile coaches.

The best coaches I know developed their capabilities through trial and error. They experimented, learned, and pivoted. They spent significant time in your shoes. They speak from real, practical experience; not just from stuff they learned in books or blogs.

The best Agile coaches intuitively connect with people at all levels. They partner with organizations to identify and flesh out waste. They serve as trusted advisors who collaborate with your organization to create actionable, concrete plans to transform processes and practices to improve the organization’s bottom line.

If you are thinking of hiring an Agile coach, ensure the coach has the necessary qualities and experience. A high-performing Agile coach will significantly shorten your Agile transformation and ensure it achieves your business goals.

Learn more about NextUp’s Agile coaching offerings.

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