What makes a good Agile Coach?
The right mindset, a bagful of practices with the skill to use them. More importantly, the wisdom to know when not to.
There is a mad rush to implement Agile these days. Given the high demand for agile coaches, I often get the question from scrum masters and agile coaches — “What are the skills needed to be an effective agile coach?”. Leaders who hire agile coaches have a similar question. “Given there is an ocean of people who call themselves agile coaches, how do we find someone who can really make an impact? What are the skills we need to look for?”.
In my decade-long experience working with hundreds of coaches and scrum masters, I have found specific patterns that play a significant role in their impact on the transformation.
There are 3 limiting beliefs and 3 enabling ones that come out as a differentiator in scrum masters or agile coaches that succeed and those that struggle.
Certifications make a good Agile coach.
The agile space is flooded with certification providers because this belief is firmly held. Aspirants flock to the fly-by-the-night certification courses. Employers consider this an easy way to staff the often urgent agile coach positions.
It is not to say that the certification courses are all bad. They are excellent starting points, but they DO NOT make a good agile coach. The challenge lies in the belief that these certifications are enough.
I meet coaches who have done SAFe SPC and ICP-ACC in two months, and they think they have arrived — they are experts already. These courses are excellent and help you, especially if you attend with instructors who know these subjects well. However, the day-to-day life of a coach requires deep change management acumen and many other skills. You will only learn those with experience.
As a coach, you have to go beyond the limiting belief that certifications are a differentiator. They are not. They point you in a particular direction, and that’s about it.
Agile Coaching is about Agile
The second limiting belief is that agile coaching is about implementing agile — teaching it, coaching about it. This belief is an extension of the first one — certifications drive this thinking and push you deeper into the agile filter bubble. Agile coaching involves agile, but it is essentially about leading change. You are not just an advisor or strategist.
You have to work closely and often lead the leader who is driving the transformation. That requires skills far beyond agile — managing change, stakeholders, risk management, communications, and more. Agile coaches often draw a boundary around them that limits their influence on the organisation and its impact. They need to see beyond this and lead without limitations.
It is OK to not understand delivery or operations.
A lot of coaches, especially those in IT come from either development, testing or operations backgrounds. Many of them become scrum masters and advance to agile coaches. Their last dabble into actual delivery is from an era that no longer is relevant.
I once was amused to see a coach trying to “sound intelligent” to the team based on his understanding of databases (he had worked on relational ones primarily). However, he missed that the core design could often be fundamentally different for no SQL database, especially when designing for multi-tenant architecture.
I agree that the coach need not fully understand the technologies or operational nuances of their context. However, they need to understand enough to have intelligent conversations. It is OK to not be the expert, but it is not OK to stay away from situations and live in your ivory towers. Your engagement with the team and impact will multiply the moment they see you “get their context” and “understand their situation”.
The 3 limiting beliefs essentially lead to transformation roadmaps and plans, which are theoretical and straight out of the ivory towers, far disconnected from the field.
It is no surprise they fail or have a limited impact. So definitely, as coaches, we need to be conscious and stay away from these 3 limiting beliefs. That’s a good start, but we need more. We need to be cognizant and develop 3 beliefs that are great enablers.
Agile is about delivering value and reducing waste.
A significant transformation like agile will be a long-drawn multi-year journey in most organisations. Without a lean mindset and approach that maximises value and reduces waste, these multi-year efforts often cause more overhead and damage. They struggle to make a dent in the status quo.
This is especially true in run-by-the-mill implementations around agile frameworks. At the end of the transformation, all you get is the framework — new terminologies, new roles, new org structure but the organisation’s struggles remain the same. It is the same old wine packaged in a new bottle. So anything that we do — a new process, a new practice, we constantly need to ask the question — Does this add value? Does it create waste? What is the exact problem it solves?
(For a more detailed understanding of how to reduce waste in agile transformation, have a look at this The 7 Wastes in Agile Transformations | by Hrishikesh Karekar | CodeX | Medium)
Plans are useless, but planning is essential.
Many agile coaches often levitate between the two extremes. They either think of the world as a straightforward, linear system or assume it is very complex — the future is uncertain and totally unknowable. Well, the future is unknowable for sure. We never know if a comet could wipe off life on earth before next summer. No one can rule out that possibility, but we do plan our next summer vacation, don’t we?
While plans that are too detailed for a year are useless, we need to have some plans, goals and clear expectations of what we intend to achieve in the near to mid-term. Those plans will evolve and change, but we need to have them in the first place — to give a real shot at achieving something meaningful.
I once sat through a session as a fellow agile coach explained to the audience the unknowability of the VUCA world and why the process of planning is a fallacy. He stressed the importance of living in the present moment and planning life — sprint by sprint. It was hard to say if the bank executives were puzzled, amused or irritated. One thing was for sure — he definitely lost them, and of course, he was lost too. We did not see him at the next meeting.
Striking the right balance between having no plans and too many of them is critical.
Practice makes one perfect or rather practices.
All this talk about mindset and beliefs is useless if you do not possess a bagful of practices that you have used yourselves, seen others use, discussed with others or at least read about it. You need to build that magic bag wherein you can push your hand and pull out a practice for the context and problem you need to address.
The magic here comes from developing the wisdom to know which one will work in that context and which one could cause more harm than good.
Becoming a good agile coach is all about practice. It is about working with yourself to observe, discover and build the correct beliefs and your toolkit of practices that will serve you well and let go of the ones that won’t.