Common mistakes when coaching a new Agile team
We coaches, most of us start off with a lot of energy and expectations when approaching a new coaching relationship. New possibilities, new people, new challenges. We hope we are all going to learn and adjust to each other and make a stellar progress together.
When things end up going south we might be left wondering what went wrong, especially when we are a little more seasoned as coaches. We have seen lots of different teams, worked through different dynamics, charmed even the hardest of the people. When experiencing a lot of success in our careers (and the definition here is free for each personal interpretation) it can be fairly disheartening to first, realize what is going on, and secondly, to actually admit it to ourselves and finally acknowledge it publicly.
There are probably many reasons for that and I will state some I have personally encountered so far in my journey and they all relate to, I believe, forgetting the basics. And I would add those basics can actually be approached in the following order:
The role of the Coach
That is the one I start with. From teams that have a lot of experience with other coaches before me to teams that are brand new together or new ton Agile and have not the smallest idea of what I can bring in, this one is a must. Every coach is different in personality, in approach, so the work to be done between every coach and every team will always differ.
Assuming the role reset as a stepping stone of the beginning of the relationship means that I get to explain that I am not:
the boss - I don't make decisions, don't assign work or blame
the team leader - I am not the one to be rallying the troopers so they get the job done
And the things I will do if the team trust me and allow me to is:
give suggestions and reference material
design and conduct collective and individual experiences so they can grow as a team
hold the team to high standards, which means sometimes holding the mirror very up and close
This clears some but not all of the assumptions between the coach and the team. So, moving to the next one.
We can all assume too much and assuming the team knows the role of the coach is one of them. Another dangerous assumption, falling more on the coach side is about team maturity. There is not a particular need to rank maturity on a scale from 1 to 10, but here are rather some sample questions I use to investigate the maturity of a team:
How long have they been together with the current formation
How long since they work with any flavor of Agile
How comfortable people are giving and receiving feedback
How comfortable they are with the technologies they use
Gauging maturity is an element of hearing from the teams and from the people around them, such as former coaches, manager, adjacent teams. Knowing how much they deliver, how much they quarrel, how liked they are by other teams, for example, can have multiple truths and I consider important to get informed about them.
Another important information to know that should not be inferred is:
Does the team have a mission?
Ideally a manager took care of that a while back. When assembling a team, it is invaluable to allow people to unite towards a clear and inspiring goal. That should come from the leadership layer, because teams should support the success of the company's strategy. If the team does not have a mission, it is important to know it and to try not to fabricate one. In this case do the exercise of acknowledging it, covering the team and the leadership. Making everybody aware of what a mission is and its importance is in my role as I perceive it. Formulate one is not.
Another important assumption is how much of myself I am going to donate to this new team. There is so much time to be used and expectations should be managed from the very beginning. They include but are not limited to:
Given that the team knows my role, what do they expect from our coaching relationship?
Is this the only team I am coaching in the organization?
Will we work together all the time, on a daily basis?
The last one, introducing the next aspect that should not be neglected when establishing a new coaching relationship.
I like to keep it simple and basically explore guidelines, because I find best to refine Working Agreements throughout the whole relationship. The reason for that being we are all going to evolve. Together. Meaning, the details can be sorted out throughout the evolution of the coaching relationship.
The simple elements I look for are:
What form of Agile or Lean is being used? What are the steps the team's process comprises and does everybody understand them?
Will I be present on specific moments and ceremonies of the team or will I be working very close with them, sitting closer and experiencing, say, the sprint together with them?
How do I give feedback to the team? And to the individual?
Are they comfortable to have 1:1 interactions with me?
Anything that allows me to format the experiences we are going to share is what I categorize as Working Agreements.
The team's point of view
A few elements are less obvious in the partnership. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, we start full of expectations, both the coaches and the team. As coaches, we arrive with an arsenal of techniques and so-called soft skills, but I believe I am not alone to have forgotten this step: listening to the team's point of view.
We know what Agile team configurations should look like, we understand the needs of the company, we now have a full history of the team, the picture seems mostly complete.
But how does the team see themselves? Where are they now and where do they want to go? What are their personal stories, individual struggles and team idiosyncrasies? What are the challenges they face as they see it?
Forgetting to go through this step might be the deal breaker with a team that is less forgiving, and rightfully so: we cannot install or deploy our Agile coaching into our team. We cannot inflict unwanted help nor risk being very unilateral. Forgetting this step means assuming a lot, means poor Working Agreements, means flat role of a coach, as I arrive as messiah / tyrant of Agility, ready to bring in the transformative knowledge that only I know and that the poor souls should submit to.
Listening to the team would be that final piece of formatting this brand new coaching relationship and closes the circle that starts with the definition of the role and influence of the coach. If at some level these basics were respected, even if not in depth and constantly readjusted, a coach and her team might be off to a very good start, based on understanding, trust and empathy. This saves a lot of time spent clearing up mistakes. This avoids a lot of pain. The arsenal of Agile and Software techniques will find its place later on.