The single most important thing to master as an (Agile) Coach

These days I don’t get to coach a lot of teams anymore, but spend most of my time training or coaching managers, execs & Agile Coaches. And all of them, but especially the Agile Coaches, have one thing in common. The first time I sit down with them their first reaction is: “But I don’t do anything. What am I supped to do all day?”.

This is a very logical question to ask. Since the dawn of civilization we have been productive when we were busy… busy producing something. Coders code, testers test, analysts analyse, marketers market and managers manage. Every minute you spend doing work meant more output.

But it does not work like that as a coach. You never add any value directly and you only add value indirectly when the people you coach change their thinking or their behaviour. If that happens though you have now added tremendous value, because all of your coachee’s future behaviour has changed. So as coaches we either deliver no value whatsoever, or a huge spike of tons of value. And this is the root cause of the discomfort. I sometimes compare it with fishing. Lots of nothing and failed attempts between the catching of the fish (if any).

Which brings me to the most important thing to do as a coach: Be present. Not just physically present, but mentally and emotionally as well. You need to be present to spot the opportunities for interventions. You need to be present to know when to step in and when to let things go. Spend time observing and spot patterns and show those to the people around it. They almost certainly haven’t seen them because they are too busy producing.

Being present is also very powerful when someone is doing well or trying something new. Your presence is reassuring because you would interfere if things went really wrong, but you leave it to your coachee to make as many decisions as possible. It is by far the best way to learn. Or as Napoleon put it:

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

My version of that quote would be:

“Never interrupt a coachee when they are making a mistake we can recover from.”

So if you are a manager, an Agile coach or a Scrum Master and you feel like you aren’t doing anything, don’t panic. Don’t give in to the temptation to do busywork to feel like you made progress, or to prove to the organisation that you really are working. And that temptation will be huge.

Instead work on being present. See what is really happening, figure out ways you can make an intervention. Start to see patterns in the behaviour of the people and the teams around you and give those back to them. Ask open ended questions and just listen to the answer. When you force people to verbalise something they make implicit knowledge explicit. And most importantly be present when people are trying something new.

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