Lessons learned from a decade of Agile Coaching

Image by Public Co from Pixabay

In the summer of 2012, while I was busy window shopping in one of the malls in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I received a call from an ex-manager. I was a project manager at that time and had heard of the agile manifesto and done a bit of dabbling in Scrum. He asked me if I would like to be an Agile Coach. To cut a long story short, I did say YES and what followed was a decade-long roller coaster into the world of agility. I formally started as an Agile Coach in August 2012 and just realized it’s over a decade. Whoa — a decade !!

In my first year, I remember being kicked out of a management meeting (literally) for trying to sell this thing called Agile. “We are already in a mess, super delayed on our milestones”, one of the senior leaders retorted, “Please spare us from this thing — whatever it is.

Jira and Rally were still around, but the post-it notes were real back then. While Miro and Mural are incredible and were a saviour during the pandemic, the awesomeness of a physical post-it note and seeing it move on a physical board gave tremendous joy nevertheless. That feels genuinely nostalgic.

Scrum was getting popular. SAFe was rising on the horizon, and Kanban was still on the fringes. I personally had a great experience with Kanban and still love it. One thing missing, though, was the framework wars, maybe because a lot of us were busy coaching and much less on social media.

The past decade took me to fantastic places, from Seattle to Melbourne, Tel Aviv to Hyderabad and much more. I was privileged to lead some rocking agile teams and org-wide transformations of over a hundred thousand people, including some exciting and some not-so-interesting SAFe implementations.

Whenever I talk to some of my friends and colleagues on this coaching journey with me, I often hear that the agile coaches of today are not as passionate about agile as we once were, or their struggles are much lesser. After all, there is no “selling” needed for agile today, which was one of our biggest challenges. Getting a seat at the table with executives and leaders is not difficult for many agile coaches today, especially because these leaders hire them.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with many of my friends here and think that today’s aspiring and new agile coaches face similar struggles as we did. The business of change has always been tricky, and as some very good mentoring and guidance helped us, today’s coaches would also benefit from similar advice.

So here are my few cents for new agile coaches from over a decade of agile coaching

  1. Don’t take it to heart when someone says they don’t get agile. It takes time, and from where your coachees are in their journey, probably agile sucks and makes no sense. Make your effort, but give them time and don’t take it personally.
  2. Be patient with some of them, especially the leadership. Don’t dismiss people as uncoachable. Yes, they can be difficult and probably during your stint as an agile coach with them, they might not get it and give you a hard time. But, you never know. A few years later, you could run into one of those leaders in an agile conference where they are on the speaker podium, and you are the audience. I have been blessed with such a miraculous experience.
  3. Build relationships. You have a much better shot at teaching and transforming someone if you have a healthy working, trusting relationship with them.
  4. Don’t hold grudges. People will ignore you and what you say, especially when the change is hard for them. They are not avoiding or pushing you back. They are pushing back on agile or the disruptive change you are promoting. Be objective.
  5. Please don’t blame yourself when the beautiful, agile roadmap you built takes a beating as it hits the road. Repeat to yourself the famous quote from Eisenhower that we often use in our agile classes: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Whenever I see plans failing or going awry, I have found that repeating five times helps, along with some deep breaths, of course.
  6. Do not get into the framework wars. Remember, the ones who benefit the most from these framework wars are those that make money primarily from blogs, books and the conference circuit. People who are actually coaching for a living always use a mix of everything. Be wise and pragmatic. Learn all the frameworks and use common sense. Remember — Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer. It is immaterial if the customer sticks to one framework or does a crazy mix and match of practices. Figuring out what works in that context is the main thing. Real agility is often beyond the frameworks, anyway.
  7. Stay out of the agile bubble. If you primarily coach Scrum, find and talk to people who do SAFe, LeSS, DAD and Kanban, and vice versa. Meet people who are not agile coaches or scrum masters. Get out of your misconceptions and widen your perspective. Go beyond your biases. And most importantly, remember GEMBA. Talk to as many people about agile as possible to get their perspective and break your prejudices.
  8. Hold back on your sarcasm during difficult meetings when “they” simply don’t get it. Sarcasm is often futile and does not work anyway, and they won’t get it even after your perfectly sarcastic remark. So you are much better without it.
  9. Don’t be shy about learning Jira (or any other tool). Remember the manifesto said — While there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more. Yes, there might be a time when you will be a famous enough agile coach that you can crib how ugly and useless Jira is, but till then, make sure you brush up on your JQL. It will help.
  10. Not all coaches are good trainers and vice versa. Training in a classroom (or zoom) is a skill. Maybe you are naturally good at it, or you probably need to learn those skills. You could be naturally good at training, but your coaching game needs some refinement. Either way, practice helps you to up your game.

Did I understand and follow much of this advice throughout the years?

As S J Watson says in his book Before I go Sleep, “It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.

Much of this wisdom grew on me as the decade passed through struggle and sweat.

To the ones who are just starting, enjoy your journey !!

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You might also want to read my book “Perspectives on Agility”, available on Amazon in print as well in Kindle format. Kindle Unlimited users read it for free. You might enjoy a quick summary of the book before you buy.

For users from India, you can order a copy from Amazon India or Flipkart

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