So what does an Agile Coach actually do

Manoel Pimentel - Catalyser of Changes

Elabor8 Insights
Sep 13, 2018 · 8 min read

Due to the popularity of Agile and all the different initiatives of organisational transformations, Agile Coaching is becoming something quite popular in different companies. There are many people calling themselves Agile Coaches in social networks, and there are heaps of companies recruiting professionals for this role. However, we should ask if people are aware of what an Agile Coach actually does. In this text, we are going to explore a few practical perspectives to answer these questions.

Agile Coaching 101

Agile Coaching is about change (period!). It concerns how we can improve organisational behaviours at different levels to produce better results. For this reason, Agile Coaching is an approach towards fostering an organisational shift to improve the work, behaviours, and outcomes in the context of the development of solutions/products; it is not only about adopting framework X or Y. Agile Coaching is about how to enable people to respond more quickly, more qualitatively, and with less risk for business opportunities.

Before discussing the “what”, let’s understand the “why”

Why do we need Agile Coaches? Why are companies hiring Agile Coaches? Is this role really necessary? Maybe these are the most intriguing questions in the entire Agile community. Answering these questions is an essential exercise to understand the real problem we are trying to solve with this role.

As mentioned earlier, Agile Coaching is an approach towards fostering organisational improvement. This means that companies are willing to achieve a different state regarding better ways of work, better business results, or simply to solve an organisational problem. However, most of the time, the journey toward this desired state is not easy. There are many obstacles, gaps and risks on the way.

It’s possible to group the typical challenges during a change journey into five categories as follows:

  • Primary Problems — Any elementary situation to be solved. For example, maybe the organisation wants to increase customer satisfaction, or perhaps they need to reduce the time to market or maintain competitiveness in a dynamic market.
  • Unawareness / Inattention — Very common. People don’t know what they don’t know and, because of this, need help to have a clear understanding of the problems, gaps, and opportunities to improve. In Agile, awareness is an indispensable condition for promoting continuous improvement.
  • Low sense of ownership — A lack of engagement and participation is one of the most typical challenges for many companies. For this reason, many organisations need help to create elements to foster collaboration and boost a sense of ownership among their employees. That is the reason why self-organisation and collaborative decision-making are frequent topics in most of the Agile practices.
  • Gap of competencies — Maybe people will need a different set of skills to achieve the desired state. Most of the time, change means adopting different behaviours and new ways of working. People need to learn different responsibilities and activities during an Agile transformation. For this reason, they will need assistance and support to develop new skills.
  • Organisational barriers — Business agility is a great desire for most organisations. Consequently, companies must optimise their processes and organisational designs in order to nurture more flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness to unpredictable changes. That is the reason why companies need help to identify and overcome barriers during their journey of improvement.

As you can see, there are different types of issues during an Agile transformation initiative. It is not about use framework X or Y. Scrum, Kanban, XP, SAFe, and LeSS are just a set of interconnected options to help people to improve their organisational capability, solve problems and generate value. As Agile Coaches, we should master how to mix these options to help out the organisations.

What does an Agile Coach do?

Understanding the function of an Agile Coach is much more feasible once we acknowledge the set of “why’s” described in the previous section. An Agile Coach is a professional who will assist the organisation in solving the types of problems listed above. It’s possible to do it in different ways; however, let’s explore a few details regarding what is the gist of the activity of Agile Coaching.

We can summarise the essence of the work of an Agile Coach using a model called “The Agile Coaching DNA”. This DNA works as a compass to guide the decisions about which practices and approaches we can use to help clients achieve better results.

Based on this DNA, it is possible to see Agile Coaches working on five elements (see the image below): Catalyse Improvement, Promote Awareness, Boost Ownership, Develop Competencies, and Facilitate Barrier Removal. Those elements work as high-level goals for Agile Coaches. Let’s talk a little bit about those elements.

Catalyse Improvements

Agile Coaches must act as catalysers for the continuous improvement culture.

Providing support and facilitation to the change journey is the primary element during the Agile Coaching process. As Agile Coaches, we need to continuously help organisations, teams, and individuals in the journey from the current state to the future state. That is the real gist of coaching.

Promote Awareness

In order to catalyse the improvements, it’s necessary to help people to be aware of the problems, gaps, needs, options of solutions, etc. Most of the time, Agile Coaches give support to people to explore their mindsets, behaviours, and consequences to promote changes and improvements.

We can use different ways to promote this sort of awareness. For example, we can use open questions to help people to visualise and understand some particular thinking or behaviour.

Another good example is about Agile itself. We can use data-driven culture and all sort of metrics (Flow, Lead-time, Cycle-time, Throughput, Velocity, Cost of delay, Business value, etc.) as enablers for awareness in organisations. Based on this shared awareness, we can help people to identify the opportunities for improvements.

Boost Ownership

Awareness can lead people toward engagement. If we are aware of our problems and their implications, we are more likely to feel responsible for the solution. Ownership means that the person has sufficient commitment on the path toward some goal. In others words, the person is committed to knowing why and how to build the road to reach his or her purpose. This situation builds self-esteem and self-motivation.

Ownership implies in more autonomy or in a low level of dependency to create and sustain solutions. For this reason, when an Agile Coach provides answers or dictates exactly how to solve some problem, it compromises the Coachee’s ability in learning how to learn. Also, give answers maybe will create a dangerous dependency on the Agile Coach.

In this case, the Coachee will always need help from the Agile Coach to create and maintain the improvements. Boost ownership is the reason why most of the Agile Coaches should be temporary agents in the organisations.

As a take away to boost ownership, Agile Coaches should avoid dictating the solutions and must practice a non-judgemental approach to help people to build their path toward some goal.

Develop Competencies

As you saw in the previous elements, helping people learn new skills (hard and soft competencies) is one of the key ingredients of Agile Coaching. To develop people’s skills, we can create a combination of two approaches: Coaching and Mentoring.

However, there’s a huge difference between both. When we are acting as a Mentor, we provide the correct answers to solve some problem. When we work as a Coach, we are always trying to promote awareness and ownership in the people so that they can build their solution. It is important to make this difference pretty clear for the audience. Also, it is vital that the Agile Coach recognises which kind of situation to which coaching and mentoring could be applied.

As Agile Coaches, we also need to help the organisation in creating strategies to promote a learning culture. We can use different practices to reach this goal. It is about how we can create an organisational environment to foster collaborative and emergent learning inside the teams.

Facilitate Barrier Removal

During an Agile transformation/change initiative, there are lots of obstacles to adopting new behaviours and practices. Most of the time, Agile Coaches must act as change facilitators.

A Change Facilitator is someone who helps the organisation to identify the opportunities to improve and foster collaborative strategies to maximise the success of the change efforts. We always have driving forces (positive forces) and restraining forces (resistance) to achieve any goal during a change initiative. For this reason, we need to reduce the resistance and take advantage of the positive forces.

A few concrete examples of Agile Coaching activities

The elements described above represent the most common high-level objectives for Agile Coaches. We can achieve these intentions by using different techniques and approaches. Let me give you a few examples of Agile Coaching activities (see the table below). It’s important to note the relationship of each activity to the common objectives described in the Agile Coaching DNA.

Activities and Objectives:

  • Facilitate sessions for envisioning the changes involving people from different levels of the organisation (Catalyse Improvements, Promote Awareness, Boost Ownership)
  • Conduct assessments to identify what changes/improvements are necessary (Promote Awareness, Catalyse Improvements)
  • Facilitate sessions to map the company’s current value stream and, identify pain points and bottlenecks (Promote Awareness, Catalyse Improvements)
  • Assist the organisation to create strategies for data-visualisation/accessibility (Promote Awareness)
  • One-on-one sessions with team members, Scrum Masters, and Product Owners (Catalyse Improvements, Promote Awareness, Boost Ownership, Develop Competencies, Facilitate Barrier Removal)
  • Providing training regarding agile practices (Develop Competencies)
  • Facilitate critical retrospectives to identify organisational improvements (Promote Awareness, Catalyse Improvements)
  • Help the teams to create effective information radiators (Promote Awareness, Boost Ownership, Facilitate Barrier Removal)
  • Help managers and leaders to embed practices of agile management in their routines (Develop Competencies, Facilitate Barrier Removal)
  • Help the team to implement good practices that improve quality and increase productivity (Develop Competencies, Facilitate Barrier Removal)
  • Help the organisation to establish agile practices for effective portfolio management and governance (Promote Awareness, Facilitate Barrier Removal)
  • Create and assist the strategy to increase multi-actor collaboration, reducing risks and enhancing organisational performance (Promote Awareness, Boost Ownership, Facilitate Barrier Removal)

A practical conclusion

Agile Coaching is an extensive activity to nurture improvements in organisations and help people to evolve mindsets and behaviours. It is not a simple task, and it can vary according to context. Consequently, there are multiple forms and techniques to do so.

The practices introduced in this text represent a shared understanding concerning the most common activities and responsibilities for Agile Coaches. Of course, you may have your own style/approach towards coaching for agile adoptions. The most critical idea here is having Agile Coaching as an activity to catalyse concrete and relevant improvements in the organisations by promoting awareness, boosting ownership, developing competencies and facilitating barrier removal. This is what an Agile Coach actually does.

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