Succeeding with your Agile Coach
I recently said goodbye to one of my organization’s Agile Coaches and I felt that I needed to take a pause and reflect to consider my next move. The engagement had gone well, in fact one of the best we’ve had, but not without its share of successes and failures. But the successes had clearly outpaced any failures, and so there was a lot of good I wanted to build on.
The departing coach was part of a 3rd generation of Agile Coaches that I had worked with in the 3 years since we had begun our company’s transformation to Agile. And while he was a great coach, so were his predecessors and yet they had had fewer successes.
On reflection, what had really happened is that we had changed as a company; we had learned how to better execute our engagements with an Agile Coach.
Deciding to hire an Agile Coach.
Deciding to hire an Agile Coach can be a big step. A couple of things need to have happened, you’ve recognized that you need some help or at least another perspective. And given that Agile Coaches are typically not very cheap, you have decided to invest in your Agile transformation, however big or small. You’re clearly taking it seriously.
However, through my experiences I noticed that things can get a little tricky once that decision has been made. Many organizations can fall into a trap of externalizing transformation responsibilities to the Agile Coach.
In essence thinking along the lines of “as long as I hire a good coach, they should be able to make our teams Agile” can take you into an engagement model that is not very Agile in the first place.
Much like how Scrum and other Agile Practices connect customers with teams and establishes shared risk, an organization’s relationship with their Agile Coaches need to be a working partnership.
Positive Patterns for Coaching Engagements
So it’s important for you to setup the right engagement approach to get value out of your Agile Coach and this goes beyond the hard costs of their services, but also the high cost of failure with not having the right coaching in the right areas.
Here are 5 positive patterns for coaching engagements that I’ve observed:
1. Identify the Customer
Usually it is management who will hire a coach, and they may do so to help one or more teams with their Agile adoption needs. So in this scenario who is the customer? Is it the person that hired the coach or the teams (the coachees) who will be receiving the services? In some cases, the coachees aren’t clear why the coach is there, they haven’t asked for their services and in some cases may even feel threatened by their presence.
For this reason, if management is hiring coaches you need to recognize that there is a 3-pronged relationship that needs to be clearly established and maintained.
With the customer in this case being someone in management, i.e. the person who hired the coach in the first place. The customer’s responsibility will be to not only identify the coachee but then work with the coach to establish and support that relationship.
2. Set the Mandate
Agile Coaches typically tend to be more effective when they have one or two specific mandates tied to an organization’s goals. Not only is the mandate important to establish why the coach is there, too many goals can significantly dilute the coach’s effectiveness. Put another way, Agile Coaches are not immune to exceeding their own Work in Progress limits.
The mandate establishes why the coach is there, and should be tied to some sort of organizational need. A good way of developing this is to articulate what is currently happening and the desired future state you want the coach to help with.
The teams on our new program are great at consistently delivering their features at the end of each sprint. However, we still experience significant delays merging and testing between teams in order for the program to ship a new release. We’d like to reduce that time significantly, hopefully by at least half.
Once the engagement is well underway you may find that the coach, through serendipity alone, is exposed to and gets involved with a wide variety of other areas. This is fine, but it’s best to just consider this to be a side show and not the main event. If other activities start to take on a life of their own, it’s probably a good time to go back to inspect and potentially adjust the mandate.
If you’re not sure how to establish or identify your Agile goals, this could be the first goal of any Agile coach you hire. In this scenario, the customer is also the coachee and the mandate is to get help establishing a mandate.
3. Hire the Coach that fits the need
Agile coaches are not a homogeneous group, with many degrees of specialty, perspective and experiences. Resist the desire to find a jack-of-all-trades, you’re as likely to find them as a unicorn.
Your now established mandate will be your biggest guide to what kind of coach you should be looking for. Is the need tied to technical practices, process engineering, team collaboration, executive buy-in, transforming your culture, etc?
The other part is connected with the identified coachee. Are the coachees team members, middle management or someone with a “C” in at the start of their title? Will mentoring be required or are you just here to teach something specific?
Using something like ACI’s Agile Coaching Competency Framework, would be a good model to match the competencies required of the perspective coach.
In my example earlier, in order for your team to get help with their merging & testing needs, you may have to look for a coach with the right skills within the Technical Mastery competence. And if you have technical leaders who are championing the change, potentially the ability to Mentor.
4. Establish Feedback Loops
With the coach, customer and mandate clearly identified, you now need to be ready to devote your time to regularly connect and work with the coach. Formalizing some sort of cadence is necessary, if you leave it to ad hoc meetings you will typically not meet regularly enough and usually after some sort of failure has occurred.
The objective of these feedback loops is to tie together the communication lines between the 3 prongs established: the customer, the coach and the coachees. They should be framed in terms of reviewing progress against the goals established with the mandate. If the coachees ran any experiments or made any changes that were intended to get closer to the goals, this would be the time to reflect on them. If the coachees need something from the customer, this would be a good forum to review that need.
Along with maintaining a cadence of communication, feedback loops if done regularly and consistently, could be used to replace deadlines, which in many cases are set simply a pressure mechanism to maintain urgency. So statements like “Merge & test time is to be reduced by half by Q2” now become “We need to reduce merge and test time by half and we will review our progress and adjust every 2 weeks.”
5. It doesn’t need to be Full Time
Resist the temptation to set the coach’s hours as a full-time embedded part of the organization or team. While you may want to have the coach spend a significant amount of time with you and your coachees when the engagement is starting, after this period you will likely get a lot more value from regular check-ins.
This could look like establishing some sort of rhythm with a coachee: reviewing challenges, then agreeing on changes and then coming back to review the results after sufficient time has passed.
This approach is more likely to keep the coach as a coach, and prevents the coach from becoming entangled in the delivery chain of the organization. The coach is there to help the coachees solve the problems, and not to become an active participant in their delivery.
Time to get to work
Bringing in an Agile Coach is an excellent and likely necessary part of unlocking your Agile transformation. However, a successful engagement with a coach will have you more connected and active with your transformation, not less. So consider these 5 positive coaching engagement patterns as I consider them moving into my 4th generation of Agile coaches. I expect it will be a lot of work, along with a steady stream of great results.