Beyond Agile Coaches
2 February 2023
This is the first episode of a series of articles aimed to reflect on the very role of the Agile Coach and to propose some different angles on the role.
Beyond Agile Coaches
Why being an Agile coach doesn’t address what’s needed and why we should really care about it
For many years our business, as many others, has been focused on giving the best help, advice, support, and coaching to the companies that have embarked on a transformation (i.e., the Agile Transformation). We have been providing expertise and professionals who came to announce themselves as Agile Coaches.
People don’t get it…. maybe it’s us
More often than not, we find ourselves explaining what an Agile Coach is supposed to be doing and what value they bring to the client. The conversation might get tough for poor communication due to the wrong vocabulary. Clients have many reasons to be willing to talk about their real issues. Tactical and short-term ones, but still accurate.
People need to talk about their issues and we, as coaches, are supposed to use their language.
Many conversations start from the assumption that “Agile is what the client needs” and end up with something like the following:
No useful conversation will happen until we get rid of “our” stuff and jargon.
What follows is just a list of requests coming from the clients, very specific and, I know, with the solution in the question:
- We need to move all our solutions to the cloud (devops);
- We need to create POC with estimates; If POC is accepted we will need somebody to execute this;
- We need an ideation expert to create one perspective product vision/mission and roadmap so we can pitch it as a startup and get money (ideation; problem/solution fit consultancy);
- We need a team facilitator who can work with us to make the team works better under the constraints of government agency and apply assessment practices;
- We need a business transformation expert who will coach leadership (ok this seems like an agile coach 🙂)
- We need a SAFe agile coach to help us work on this and that (usually SAFe + Spotify model implementation)
- We need a trainer who can deliver PM, MS project, Product training, Jira training;
- We need mentors for our SMs who are on-boarded to guide them on their growth.
And, when less specific, requests talk about getting faster, product-oriented shift, sustainable business, speed of reaction, engaging people, you name it…. but not Agile.
All such requests, and pains, from the client, give us a different angle to understand what it is that a client asks for. Not to mention that the client, unlike many professional coaching contracts, is a whole company and not an individual.
The usual answer to such a request is too often: “You need an Agile Coach”. We even get requests like “I want 1-10 Agile Coaches for A, B, C”.
Not every request needs to be accepted and carried on, of course. Many of those might be related to what an Agile Coach does. All of those have at least one element in common: they do not mind the agile approach and coaching, but they require a high level of individual specialisation and have goals which are pretty well defined. Requests are pretty concrete, like it or not, and refer to the resolution of pain, a specific skill, and some buzzwords too.
I know many Agile Coaches out there could feel like Woody Allen did when listening to Wagner’s music.
Too many of us, including me until not many years ago, would reject such requests in the name of purity forgetting the very core of being a coach, which is serving our client. In the last 6 months only I heard weirdness like “An agile coach doesn’t do slides”, “An agile coach doesn’t work under deadlines” or, this is my favourite, “You don’t understand Agile” combined with jargon-vomiting speeches as if, you know, being an Agile Coach was some sort of naive, artistic work.
What happens, of course, is that the market needs to stay unanswered and the Agile Coach gets less and less impactful.
The evolution of a role
That was quite easy at the beginning. We started working on training, then teams with scrum adoptions, kanban and some organisational work. Some part of the pure coaching perspective started to be added to the role.
In the meanwhile, from Adkins and Spayd to Scrum Alliance to Galen, the community at large gave many contributions to the definition of the role. What an Agile Coach does and, most of all, what an Agile Coach is. As a reference, the x-wing model of competency is the de facto standard in the market and is commonly referred to as a framework for growing the competency of an Agile Coach. With its evolutions, this is the model we all confront when dealing with competency and growth.
Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spaid’s competency framework
Such a model was pretty important and started to think about an Agile Coach as someone with much wider experience and standing, that should be able to master coaching stances, mindset and tools and, at the same level, someone who should master one (or more than one) technical areas (Tech, Business and Transformation Mastery).
A precious but difficult definition was created by mixing coaching and technical mastery in the same person, extending the need for a balancing which was already present in a coaching stance. In one evolution of the competency mapping into the Scrum Alliance wheel, we started to see some more defined competencies like, for instance, organisational design.
The Scrum Alliance Coaching Wheel
A good intro to the model and its evolution can be found on the internet. We like Galen’s article.
Every coach knows that balancing consulting (mastery) skills and coaching skills may be painful. Each coach might offer advice, if agreed upon and requested by the coachee, on different topics, based on expertise. This is known and accepted, for instance, in the world of professional coaching.
A possible shift in the role
Or a way to help our clients by speaking their language
Focusing on Adkins’ model is great for self-awareness and growth. It’s not when going to the market because it misses the client and speaks a language the client doesn’t care about.
We started asking ourselves: what an Agile Coach role description would look like if we started from the market? From the personas?
We do think this may be beneficial both for the client who might get listened to and better served and the Agile Coach who might focus on concrete business examples, with concrete people instead of themself. You might be an Agile Coach AND work with a particular focus on a client. You might work on leaders, and teams and be a change agent, a consultant, a proper coach or a change manager.
Assuming a single person can do all of it at the same time, with the same high level of professionalism is not going to be true. This is what companies fully understand, and need when dealing with an Agile Coach. Think of many initial agreement sessions when the client says something like “I want you to facilitate portfolio management sessions” or “I want you to help my teams to take the most out of Scrum”. After the agreement, an Agile Coach’s focus might shift.
We intend to offer our services, and even stimulate a debate on this, by defining a specific focus (or experience) of our coaches. From what an Agile Coach is to Who an Agile Coach serves and what for. The hypothesis here is that clients will be able to relate more to what we do, and we could get fewer misunderstandings that, even after initial agreements, may resist and, eventually, offer a much better service to our clients.
To add another angle, we would like to think about Agile Coaches using the T-Shaped lens on two different levels:
- Inside: x-wing or competency mapping based.
- Outside: what specialisation we may offer and how to respond to the market.
This is pretty consistent with our approach to the companies, derived from Leopold’s three levels, which identify areas of focus inside the company.
Our three levels
Possible new roles will be Product Coach, Team Coach, Organisational Coach, People Coach, and Leaders Coach. We are keeping the “coach” word, and skills hopefully, and sharpening the “Agile” word by… removing it. Agile is assumed to be always there, a mindset, and a common ground. All these roles have fundamental similarities, of course:
- They all have a strong Agile knowledge and think of their growth in terms of x-wing map
- They all have coaching skills and use them
- They are able to balance their stances
- They do have specific expertise (on Product Management, for instance) and that’s the expertise their offer to the client
For each of the roles will be creating a specific article and some deep dive and, for each of the roles we will try to give better information by showing what a client should expect from them. Something like what follows:
A summary of coaches’ focuses
Stay tuned for the next one: the Product Coach.