It is all the rage these days. A lot of Agile roles being rediscovered and sought after with the massive numbers of Agile Transformations happening in so many organizations.
Agile Coaching is something I’ve been doing for some years now, and I am of the opinion it is a true labor of love. Love for people and love for change. And for discovery. And imperfection. And I should say, such a misunderstood role, because Agile coaching is not just coaching, yet it requires coaching knowledge. It requires Agile knowledge as well. There is a skill up that is necessary, but the basic skills might not be what you think they are at first. So, the road ahead is long.
And it is long for a reason. In order to help you figure it out for yourself, I compiled 10 questions that help you understand if you are fit for the role at your current level of skills and emotions. Too much? You'll see for yourself!
Let’s try the questions to know: should you become an Agile Coach?
1 - Do you like to listen more than to speak?
Truly an Agile Coach observes what is happening around them. They are the eyes of teams when teams are busy delivering work. It is not uncommon that people seek an agile coach for advice and guidance. And for that, asking question and listening to what is said, and what is NOT said, reading the room, body language is key. When you are speaking you are not listening.
Sure, the Agile Coach can give workshops and training as needed as well. But even in those I ask you: are you making room for listening to your learners, more so than injecting your thoughts on them?
The need to speak can come from a chatty personality, but also from other things. If you feel the need to prove yourself. I've been there: insecure and trying to prove myself. It can also come from the place where you feel the only service of the Agile Coach is... to give advice, for example.
But the need to speak needs to be tamed. If it comes from lack of self-confidence, then the Agile Coach is speaking for themselves, not in service of the team. If they speak because they are uncomfortable with silence, then they are speaking for themselves and not in service of the team. If they are speaking to prove a point, then they are speaking for themselves and not in service of the team. Etc. You got the point.
An Agile Coach needs to develop a deep appreciation for the art of listening, as in more than just being silent. But actually, drawing information from everything and everyone they come in contact with. When they finally speak, Agile Coaches make a difference in the room, and most certainly answered the question: “do I really need to speak here”?
2 - Do you have knowledge AND practical experience in Agile?
I doubt a hockey coach would be hired on a professional league if they have no hockey experience. Or a runner coach. Or a piano coach. While it’s possible to be a Professional Coach (different thing) without client domain knowledge, an Agile coach is still an Agile and Lean practitioner. Operative word: practitioner.
In order to help people with Agile, they need to go through several mindset shifts. That means literally changing the way they think about things. That’s not easy.
Just consider: it’s not about using User Stories and doing Sprint Planning. It’s about what’s behind that: small experiments, YAGNI, iterative work. You can explain the techniques with one sentence, but where you will need to support people is on how to shift their thinking to adopt these new practices and techniques.
You can’t do that when you barely know the techniques much less the reasoning behind them. Have you used User Stories before? What helped you finally make the connection with small, negotiable, independent chunks of work? How did you overcome the challenges?
To the extent that you have used and continue to use Agile in your work and life is the extent of your capability to really help others solve their problems through Agile.
3 - Do you like being of service?
An Agile Coach is in support of individuals and teams in an organization. They are not bureaucrats; they do not belong to job hierarchies. If you see differently, I would ask who that helps.
An Agile Coach doesn’t reprimand people. They don’t tell people what to do or force people to do what they don’t want. They help people when they need help understanding. They help in the adoption and tailoring of techniques for individuals and teams. They speak of what they see and notice. They help people solve problems. They can offer perspective on what they know and have done before to help in the current situation. But they are not bosses or managers.
Being of service is staying tuned to people’s needs. Asking if help is needed, instead of inflicting help. Teaching something the team wants to learn about. Facilitating the conversations others have a hard time initiating.
Which brings us to the next one.
4 - Are you comfortable discussing the undiscussable?
Often times the unsaid stands in the way of positive change. “Difficult” people and situations and the “we’ve always done this way”. Nothing should be undiscussable, but some people feel they have more at stake if they are the ones starting the discussion.
The Agile Coach needs to feel comfortable probing and challenging ideas, assumptions, ways of doing. And being skilled at it, I should stress, because you can challenge ideas and present it in a way that actually challenges people on a personal level, which is unhelpful. Being skilled in separating the who from the what is key in these conversations, as well as being OK with all sorts of reactions.
Having enough emotional intelligence to understand yourself and others is what is required to create an environment of trust and transparency. Because that’s what’s missing when there are “undiscussable” items among people.
5 - Are you comfortable with conflict?
Some undiscussable items come from or generate conflict. Conflict stems from seemingly unsolvable differences in opinions. Seemingly, because the skilled Agile Coach understands levels of conflict and is able to help people find solutions, be trough compromising (you lose a bit, I lose a bit) or via integrative solutions (you win, I win).
Levels of conflict allow the Agile Coach to recognize that it is possible that conflict escalates when not dealt with adequately, hence the need for facilitation skills. And there are ultimately levels of conflict that require more than what the Agile Coach has autonomy and accountability to do. There is a difference between facilitating and meddling to be respected.
The level of comfort increases with the level of skills in this particular case. Nonetheless, the Agile Coach is expected from day one to be able to step into the room where difficult situations are happening and help people find common ground, collaborative approaches, or at least a cease-fire outcome.
6 - Are you comfortable with not knowing and ambiguity?
Agile is iterating, experimenting small, emerging knowledge. That in itself is primed for dealing with ambiguity. For discovering. For knowing a little bit more over time.
Anything can be an unknown in Agile approaches: When things will be done. How can things be done. What is the best way to go. The Agile Coach is a prime experimenter, and they should be able to help others to become one as well.
People will be pressing the Agile Coach asking for recipes, but the reality is that the recipes are few and specific. You can use them, but not for long. How can you tell your people that? Are you prepared for this conversation and explain what experiments are, in a language that makes sense for your teams and aware of their technical and business needs?
There are techniques to help create and conduct those experiments and make decisions in highly uncertain environments. Do you know what they are? Do you use them in your daily life? Most of our lives are based on calculated risk, on what we know versus what could be, on complexity. You and your own life have the canvas!
This is a highly transferable skill, and the Agile Coach knows how to help others discuss and decide around what cannot be known upfront. Once again, emotional intelligence to not sweat the uncertainties and ambiguities in projects and teams is required. If the coach is stressed, how can they help their people?
7 - Do you enjoy the spotlight?
In correlation with the level of service the Agile Coach offers, the spotlight is not the place for the Agile Coach. It is almost as if the Agile Coach acts as a supporting cast. And I bet there were movies where your really rooted for that supporting role!
There is nothing wrong with being in the spotlight and most competitive people seek high levels of recognition. If, however, you are interested in being named the person who solved the problem, maybe you should not consider a position as an Agile Coach. The individual or the team should get the praise, not the coach. It is not a position to help you climb an executive ladder or other layers of promotion.
Agile leadership in the Agile Coach relies solely on lateral leadership, not in positional authority. The ability to converse, influence, listen and make others listened to. It is a powerful position on the sidelines.
Obviously, your efforts are recognized if you work as an Agile Coach in a healthy environment! But you are not on the product trenches, you are not defining the next business model. Ultimately, an Agile Coach should not even last forever with a team or even in a company. If they are doing their job right, at some point (which sometimes is more than a decade, I grant you this) the coach made themselves either redundant (because people progressed to their independence in Agility) or irrelevant (because the team or the organization ended up being inhospitable to Agile approaches).
8 - Are you comfortable giving and receiving feedback?
Inspect and adapt cycle. Iterations. Feedback loop. Feedback is at the heart of Agile, so the Agile Coach needs to be comfortable and skilled giving feedback. No one can grow without it. Direct or indirect, feedback is learning from the responses you get after doing something. The Agile Coach should be unapologetic on the art of giving feedback.
But feedback is not having opinions about things. Think more of a gift. Feedback is not given without intention. And it is given in a way that makes the other part positively impacted. And it's wrapped carefully.
And a big part to be good at giving feedback is to know how to receive it. The Agile Coach needs to be asking for feedback all the time. Was the meeting useful? Was the conversation helpful? Is there anything I can improve on to serve you better?
I bet you will receive ill-formatted feedback. Be ready for that. People can rant and maybe even lash out. More added to your education of your emotional intelligence and social skills here. Even how you invite feedback will be something people learn from. How you ask, how you receive. You can only normalize feedback if you show it yourself, as an example.
Are you prepared to hear how much you still need to improve, despite all the hard work you’ve done so far?
9 - How much empathy do you have?
If you consider how hard it is to change your mind about something you really like or something you are good at and that now is suddenly discontinued… you can definitely empathize with the transition people go through when they adopt Agile ways of working in organizations.
It is hard to have new roles, new accountabilities even if you decided proactively to make the change for yourself. It is even harder if it’s being imposed on you by a massive organizational transformation. It is possible that people are being steamrolled over with those changes.
Through empathy, the Agile Coach can create safe spaces for people to mourn what is gone and start dreaming about what is new. Through empathy there is listening, non-judgment and understanding being generated and amplified.
If you hold grudges and if you help the developer but not the manager, there is a lot to work on your empathy before you can be effective as an Agile Coach. If you still cannot coexist in an environment where there is no us vs them, where you can truly feel and work for your executives, and serve your testers and product owners, you will not succeed, for sure you will be frustrated, and you can create damage around by coming this close to badmouthing.
The good thing is that empathy is something you develop. Yet another skill.
10 - How positive are you?
Some people are natural rays of sunshine. They come into the room and everything lightens up, everybody knows “it will all be well”.
While that is amazing, you don’t need all that to help your people through positivity, but an Agile Coach works with lenses of positivity for sure. There is always a possibility, a chance, an alternative. Everything has a potential to be better in the grand scheme of things. Either for helping people cope or for helping them move forward, making failures become lessons learned, making success something to be repeatable.
Not only your Lean-Agile knowledge can be helpful to easily draw experiments, but also your abilities as a professional coach are at play in your ability to remain positive and help others to be just as positive. Your positivity skills will also help you with conflict and difficult situations. Is through positivity that you see feedback as a gift. Positivity enables the other abilities and grow from them as well.
Agile Coaches believe in and help people effect change for a more positive future. It has to start with you.
As a closing argument, do you know Agile Coaching has a code of ethics to follow? You need to be prepared to abide to that!
So what’s your answer?
In the end, an Agile coach is definitely a coach, but also an Agile-Lean practitioner, a teacher, a mentor, a facilitator. A team enabler. A leader for change. And never to ignore: it is a position of service.
If you have it in your heart and mind to expand your competencies towards Agile Coaching that is a fantastic path! You will then join thousands of like-minded people that honestly want to transform how people think and operate at work.
And... I can help with that. The Agile Coaching Program of All Things Agile Canada is 100% online, interactive and give you a rather intense outlook on the disciplines involved. It is thorough and it is one step in your journey. I promise: you will come out transformed!
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No matter how you feel after reading this article, let it marinate. Agile Coaching is a journey, and you can toy with the skills before you make any career decisions. And you can always evolve in any other direction too. After all, you are agile and you can always change!