“Agile Coaching” Is Not the Goal

I've met a number of agile coaches recently. They tell me they're hired as Scrum coaches or as Scrum Masters. They see their job as “better Scrum.”

It would be lovely if that was their one and only job. However, many of these coaches work in organizations just starting a cultural transformation.

Even though the client asked for agile coaching, that might not be what the client needs.

Instead of assuming you need “Better Agile” or “Better Scrum,” consider these questions:

  • What business outcomes do you want to see, in 30, 60, 90 days? (Why the short-term thinking? Because consultants and coaches and agile approaches need to prove they offer value and find some quick wins.)
  • What measurements will you require? (More on this below.)
  • What are the boundaries of my role here?

These questions have nothing to do with a “better agile” or “better Scrum.” They are about business results.

Coaches—agile or otherwise—are not “installers” of a specific framework. If they are, they're teachers or something else. They're not coaching.

Coaches offer options with support. That means the coach often helps people think through alternatives (and maybe implement) alternatives. I don't see how to help think through alternatives without understanding the business results the organization needs.

Coaches who understand the organization's needs can and help the organization (or person or the team) achieve those needs.

That means that the very first job of a coach is to understand the metrics the managers want. What if the managers are “wrong” with their desire for specific metrics? The managers want something. Learn what that something is.

Here are things I often see managers ask for:

  • Percent done or earned value. Managers want to know when they can capitalize or when the first release is ready. How can the coach help the team release more frequently? What are the impediments to frequent releasing? How can you visualize that data?
  • “Accurate” estimation. Managers want to set expectations for people  (inside and outside the organization). Maybe the coach can help create smaller stories or better roadmaps. Or, maybe the coach can show how the multitasking creates havoc with estimation and the project portfolio.
  • How to see the value of a person. HR pressures managers for traditional “performance management.” How can a coach help a manager overcome that pressure and how can team members evaluate themselves or work with managers for more rapid feedback?

It's time to change the idea that the agile coach needs to help facilitate the team's working agreements or facilitate retrospectives first. 

Yes, agile coaches might need to do that. However, I don't see how to create or facilitate successful agile teams without understanding what the goals are, how managers will measure success, and how to define a coach's success.

How can you offer options with support if you don't know where the organization wants to go?

That data goes to the organization's needs and how the organization will define the metrics around those needs.

Yes, that's coaching. It's not agile coaching. It's coaching. Agile coaching is a further refinement once you understand what the manager and org want.

Too often, I see agile coaches who don't know about lean thinking. They don't understand why managers might need to see cycle time, not velocity. They can only get to “Agile”-in-name-only, or other nonsense like that. Which might be much worse than not-agile-at-all.

If you're a coach, how can you work to support the people or the managers in their goals? How can you help them see alternatives? How will your services help them achieve business goals? Answer those questions.

If you work in an organization trying to use agile approaches, do consider joining us in the Influential Agile Leader workshop.

9 Replies to ““Agile Coaching” Is Not the Goal”

  1. Love this! Thank you Johanna for highlighting such an important aspect of the intended purpose of coaching as a vehicle to achieve a new, better Status Quo through specific business goals. Know your Why. Scrum is a How, a single mode of transportation on your journey, so it is (by definition) not the goal.

  2. Nicely written Johanna. I’ve been incorporating notions from this model of agile fluency as I help leadership figure out what goals are most important in their agile transformation / journey. I like the notion of thinking about the highest order problem space and using that to frame practices, processes, learning and coaching, so that there’s a coherency to the work I’m doing as a coach.

    https://martinfowler.com/articles/agileFluency.html

  3. Best written Johanna. I just want to make sure; are you saying that the client of “Even though the client asked for agile coaching” is an organization just starting a cultural transformation?
    Why the result might not be what the client needs if correct?

    1. David, thanks. I have discovered through my consulting career that clients often ask for something specific in service of a business goal. That’s the goal a good coach or consultant will serve.

      For example, clients often ask me to help them manage their project portfolio. However, if they want to change the mix of products and services more often than the teams can deliver, is managing the portfolio the best I can do for them? I might need to draw their attention to their decision cycle time, the teams’ cycle times, and possibly more. Creating a portfolio board and helping them learn how to discuss and rank is only part of the problem. I need to help them see the entire problem.

      In a sense, the client is “always” right in what they want for a business goal. My clients want to finish projects faster and do a better job defining what’s next. And, if the client thinks they want an agile coach to help a team, they are probably correct. If the coach does not look at the total environment, so the coach can help the team achieve a business outcome, is the coach doing a good-enough job?

      Agile approaches transform an organization’s culture. Well, if they stick, they do. That’s why the agile coach needs to look at the culture in the team and surrounding the team. I find it easiest to link culture changes to the business outcomes the managers want.

      It’s also the coach’s job to point out incongruence between what managers want and how they act. That’s the point of the “Agile” Headed posts.

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