Awhile ago, I’d written a blog post about the lack of an agile engagement having a cohesive coaching team. But later it dawned on me that I’ve never shared what an agile coaching team might look like.
Given that inspiration, I spent some time developing the first version of this post in which I discussed aspects of creating (finding, forming, and building) a great team of coaches for a larger-scale, agile transformation initiative.
Since then, I’ve updated my experience and renewed my focus on this important topic. I’ve also developed some additional posts that support the ideas. So, I thought I’d share an update with everyone.
Here’s a link to the original post. And let’s explore it again, below:
Are they followers?
I honestly don’t know where the quote comes from, but I’ve heard that in order for you to become a great leader, you need first need to become a great follower. That by following, and putting on the mindset of service, and by effectively following another, that you better understand leadership.
I would extend that notion to agile coaching. In order to become a great agile coach, you must first be coachable.
So, when I’m building an agile coaching team, I’m looking for true servant leaders. Those that can share stories, anecdotes and examples where they were great followers and servants to other coaches, teams, and organizations.
I also check on their ability to handle feedback. My friend, Josh Anderson, shares his secret to interviewing in the following post:
Essentially, Josh challenges some core opinion or position in the interview to see how the candidate navigates confrontation and tension. He’s not looking for a particular reply. Instead, he’s looking for the level of engagement based on criticism. He’s testing their ability handle feedback, both positive and constructive, well. And without getting defensive? But even more importantly, do they do something with (process) the feedback.
While this idea of following sounds self-evident for agile coaches, my experience says that it’s much rarer than you might imagine. Here’s a blog post I wrote about my experience facilitating a coaching retreat for the Scrum Alliance. It’s a true story and aligns nicely with this point.
Are we like minded?
I’ve walked into many organizations with groups of coaches and I’ve found that they all approach things differently. Now clearly I’m not looking for everyone to be a clone of each other. But I’ve found that having general philosophical alignment and agreement on agile principles and tactics across a coaching team is good for the organization.
Consistency & clarity of models, approaches, and tactics;
Establishing a baseline for new & operating teams;
Ease of team members moving from team to team;
Alignment with organizational culture and context.
It avoids agile practice and role confusion so common today. And it also sets the stage that there are “rules” in mature agile organizations and teams.
I’ll give you an extreme example:
Not that long ago I presented a lunch and learn to approximate 75 testers in a large scale agile organization. At the team ratios, they were operating, this represented somewhere between 35-40 Scrum teams.
I asked about retrospectives, how many were having them and were they effective. Of the total number in the room, 50% said that their teams had decided to do away with retrospectives. I was appalled. How in the world could you be even “doing Agile” and skip your retrospectives at the same time?
This is a case where I would hope coaches would step in and prevent such a shift from occurring within their teams.
Establishing the Notion of a Head Coach
I liken the model to that of a sports coaching team. There is a head coach who lays out things like vision, overarching strategy and playing style, game plan, and practice patterns. They also lead the way as far as recruiting goes.
However, they surround themselves with assistant coaches who are specialists in particular areas. And these coaches serve as the bridge between team members and the coach. While they bring their unique style and skills to the table, it’s under the overarching vision of the head coach.
I do think agile coaching teams need to explore the notion of having a head coach. Usually experience and skill comes into play here. But not a focus on title or dollars. This is a servant leadership role and the head coaches primary job is to develop or coach their coaches. That’s where the experience comes into play, so that they can mentor and guide the coaching team. Yet, also effectively lead by example.
Release Train Engineer
Many SAFe organizations are in the position of hiring (or developing) RTE’s. When I think of this role, I think of them as a “Head Coach” for their release trains. Sure, they have a lot of external reporting and communication responsibilities.
But that being said, I think their most important role is coaching and developing the ScrumMaster and Product Owners on their trains. In other words, coaching the coaches.
Are we creating a team with different perspectives?
Many believe the best of teams are composed of different people with a wide variety of skills, backgrounds, interests, etc. In other words, they are diverse. And out of that diversity can come greatness.
I’m looking for the same thing in agile coaching teams.
Look for people with software and non-software backgrounds. Who have held leadership positions and those who haven’t. Some with many years of work experience and others just beginning. Some who favor Scrum and other who favor Kanban or XP.
Above all I’m looking for a passion and enthusiasm around agile approaches to software development. And a fervent interest in helping teams to grow and be their best.
Are they curious, reflective, and continuous learners?
Another aspect of Coaching Teams is their willingness and aptitude to be continuous learners. To patiently and doggedly push their teams to improve. Not in a pushy way, but in an inspirational way.
Often this revolves around effectively leveraging retrospectives at various levels within their organizations. And this could be at the team-level, release train-level, project-level, and even organization-level retrospectives.
As the coach moves up this stack of retrospectives, the challenges and the organizational impact increases. They’ve then become comfortable influencing learning and change at all levels of the organization.
The other side of this is personal reflection and self-awareness, as we’ll discuss a bit later.
Not Solely “Coaches”
There are different stances in agile coaching. A pure coaching stance is not one of teaching or telling. It is one of asking powerful questions and helping the those coached discover insights on their own. While that is valuable, I’m not looking for coaches who adopt this stance 100% of the time and who are not situational in their approach.
Sometimes I’d like the coach to be a facilitator, or a teacher, or an advisor or an expert in their interactions. Depending on their skills and the clients’ situation. In other words, don’t have a one-size fits all strategy as a coach.
I like the model presented of the 9 Coaching Roles that Barry Overeem explains in this post. I expect more seasoned coaches to be able to fluidly and seamlessly navigate from one stance to the other as each situation dictates. In fact, I often will move across 3-4 of these stances in an individual coaching situation.
Point being, don’t have 1-tool (stance, perspective, posture) in your coaching.
Are they dogged, persistent, relentless?
And did I say courageous?
There something really challenging about being an agile coach. Essentially, you’re a cultural change agent. Usually in quite hostile waters.
Often, the very people who are bringing you onboard and paying you, are the ones who you’ll be most challenged by. Given all of this, the role isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires:
An ability to engage in courageous conversations
Energy and enthusiasm
Goal and outcome orientation
I wrote about a coaching experience I had with a colleague in this article. Essentially, they opted out of having some very crucial (and necessary) coaching conversations due to “not having the energy” for it. While I’m empathetic to that state, as clearly, I’m older and need a nap now and again, I don’t hold it as a valid reason for not having the conversation.
It’s an excuse. And as coaches in a team, we need to be able to rise above our challenges. We need to energize each other and hold each other accountable to a higher-bar. In other words, we need to be relentless in our pursuit of our client’s goals.
I recently read an interesting Harvard Business Review article that spoke to the self-awareness level of most leaders. The resulting statistics from the article’s survey showed that while 85% of all leaders felt they were self-aware, the leaders 360-degree reviewed only felt 15% were actually self-aware.
As I read the article, I wondered if that gap would apply to most of us? Even, gulp, agile coaches?
I suspect the answer is yes. We are generally not that self-aware.
In building an agile coaching team, I’d be looking for coaches who understood their blind spots and who were aware of their weaknesses. In other words, I’d be looking for those that were adept at gathering 360-degree and confidential feedback and then acting on it.
I think the important point here is first, the awareness, but more importantly, the improvement plans and goal-setting related to it.
Ability (and willingness) to Pair-Coach
I used to be mostly a lone wolf coach. Coaching alone with clients. And if I was part of a team, I rarely coached with other team members.
But what I’ve discovered is that I really like pair-coaching. It gives me a chance to work with a coaching colleague on an assignment. To learn from someone and mentor them at the same time. It’s a win-win.
It also significantly reduces my blind spots when it comes to coaching, as I’ve got another set of eyes to serve as a sounding board.
I wrote an “experience report” article of sorts on a particular experience doing pair-coaching. I’d encourage you to read it.
I think the key thing here is to look for folks who are “pairing friendly” and willing to do opportunistic pairing whenever possible. It’s not for everybody, but the learning and client impact value is priceless.
You could extend this to teams of ScrumMaster
I often recommend to organizations that they form a Community of Practice group around their ScrumMaster’s. Essentially creating a team around the role.
This team is less focused on the individual Scrum teams and more focused on building a practice of Scrum Mastery. One where the individual ScrumMasters help, guide, care for, and grow each other.
5 Dysfunctions – Your First Team
One of the things you learn if you study Patrick Lencioni’s 5-Dysfunctions of a Team model is to be clear about your team. He defines the notion of your first team. This is the team to which you owe most of your energy, effort, engagement, trust, and focus.
You can interact with many teams in your day-to-day efforts. But you always place your “first team” front and center in everything you do.
In the case of building a coaching team or a ScrumMaster team, I want you to consider THEM to be your first team. Here’s another article I’ve written that delves further into the dynamics of a first team focus.
I know I just touched on some of the factors associated with crafting an Agile Coaching Team.
The inspiration for this post was the example a coaching failure I mentioned in the beginning. One of the things that should have been done in that example, was to have formed an agile coaching team. With emphasis on the team.
I hope you found some of these factors useful in focusing your thinking. If you are part of a group of coaches, I want you to start thinking of yourselves (and taking some of the above formative steps) in moving from a group to a team. I think you and the organization you’re coaching will notice the difference.
Stay agile my friends,