Agile is popular and appearing all over the world and in most industries such as social action, education, mining, spiritual organizations, and family life. With this level of growth and interest, it is natural that we would extend the agile education system to helping others become coaches to help others.
Throughout my experience as an agile coach, consultant, and trainer, I have been lucky to work with and for wonderful people that have challenged my thinking, encouraged my autonomy, supported my suggestions, and collaborated to help us both grow. It has been 9 years of a wonderful adventure, with more to come.
So, I thought that I would offer some ideas and comments on the elements of an effective agile coach including qualities, abilities, responsibilities, and activities.
Agile Coach Misconceptions
There are plenty of misconceptions about the agile coach since it is so new and many recruiting companies and HR departments are getting a handle on these emergent agile roles. And there are many reasons for agile failure. Below are a few of the common misconceptions of the agile coach role – sound off in the comments for any others that I have missed.
- Agile Coach is the same as a Team Lead – not true. This is something that we love to do as humans, mapping of known concepts to unknown concepts. The focus of a team lead is quite different to that of an agile coach.
- Scrum Master and Agile Coach are the same – not so. I have seen job postings for a Scrum Master / (slash) Agile Coach. Whenever I read this job posting title, I already have a sense that this job posting has been done without much experience in the field of using agile. The person who accepts this job would have a difficult being successful as the Scrum Master is focused primarily on the Scrum team, whereas the Agile Coach role is much broader.
- Agile Coach is just another leadership role – nope. It is true that leadership is needed to do the agile coach role justice. However, as an agile coach, there are plenty of focused as well as broad responsibilities to accomplish. The focus is often behavioural and organizational shifts, not just managerial ones.
Keep in mind, that it is vital that an agile coach leads through words that match behaviours. If an agile coach says it is critical for a team to collaborate to be effective but that same agile coach is an island to his/her peers, this behaviour will undermine credibility.
“Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.” – Bahá’u’lláh
Now onto the main event, elements of an Agile Coach
This is a good time to showcase the needed and critical qualities of an agile coach. Not only do skills matter, but so do qualities in terms thinking, feeling, speaking, and behaviours.
Key Qualities Needed to be an Effective Agile Coach
- Humility, this one is deeply important to make an impact and have the ability to be empathetic and understand the challenges of those you support. A fellow coach and friend, Michael Sahota, demonstrated humility when he opened up to a large group that we were coaching with the challenges of his life. Not only did this have an impact on the group of participants, it also allowed me as a coach to open up as well.
- Curiosity, without this quality an agile coach won’t be able to uncover the deep reasons why someone is blocked or struggling. Jean-Sebastien Bedard, my colleague, and Scrum Master, showed wonderful curiosity when he asked plenty of questions to a team that he supported to uncover their software development challenges to more effectively help that team.
- Compassion, a quality that shows the heart of a person. James M. Heidema, my father, and international trainer, continues to show his heart and soul when interacting with those that he meets which has led to plenty of “adopted” children and even one friend that names his son after my father. A favourite quote that my dad lives by is “People don’t care how much know until they know how much you care.”
Other important qualities include kindness, passion, excellence, patience, and encouragement. Did I miss any?
Key Abilities Needed to be an Effective Agile Coach
- Comfortable with giving contrary or unpopular advice to leaders. This can be hard for many people. In many cultures, we are expected to honour our elders (or more senior leaders) by agreeing and going along for the ride. However, one of the powers of an effective agile coach is being comfortable or even looking forward to offering less popular or challenging opinions to lead to better collaboration and outcomes.
- Effective at facilitating and teaching concepts and ideas. Often, as agile coaches, we are required to take a group of people through key concepts and methods so that they can think through and be able to apply them to their environment. These can range from one-on-one ad-hoc sessions to large-scale group presentations and everything in between. Being able to make them informative as well as interactive is critical for those to enjoy and get the most out of your teaching sessions. Wessam Nasser, a friend, and talented agile coach and consultant, brings great energy, skill, and creativity to his facilitation. It was always fun to present and facilitate sessions with Wessam.
- Talented at listening well. This may be the most overlooked of the abilities of an agile coach. Whether you are helping a team, eating with a colleague, or in front of a group of executives, it is quite important to listen thoughtfully and actively to identify clarifying points, deeply-rooted assumptions, and points of shared agreement. The three levels of listening, from the book Co-Active Coaching, is a great way to develop listening skills through excellent practice.
A few others to mention include strong communications skills, ability to read a room, becoming a trusted advisor, self-reflection, coach others to become a coach, a thirst for learning, and able to provide objective analysis. Any others that I missed?
Key Responsibilities Needed to be an Effective Agile Coach
- Lead by example and modeling of behaviours. To make an impact that matters, an agile coach needs to demonstrate behaviours that he or she would like to see in those being coaches. For example, modeling patience when facing hostile or confrontational individuals can lighten the mode and help others do the same.
- Able to take a new team from the basics of agile to one that is self-sufficient. This one requires understanding the natural ebb and flow of an agile as it moves towards excellence. The agile coach is able to facilitate sessions, mentor individuals, train the team, and problem solver as obstacles arise.
- Lead the application and education of Scrum, Kanban, and other agile frameworks. This responsibility needs an agile coach that has both broad experiences as well as deep understanding of the various methods of agile. This allows the coach to choose the most appropriate agile framework to fit the situation and environment instead of using a single tool as fix-all – which does not work.
Other responsibilities include providing honest feedback to teams and individuals, working closely with those around agile teams to collaborate on larger goals, and acting as a soundboard to ideas on how to be more effective and take agile to the next level. Anything else?
“The reality is that the only way change comes is when you lead by example.” – Anne Wojcicki
Key Activities Needed to be an Effective Agile Coach
- Facilitate workshops to increase understanding and the application of agile. Some of the workshops facilitated will be those that the coach performed previously or may be common to most organizations. However, others will require the creation of new content and approach to delivering the material based on the current state of the participants.
- Be an active contributor to leadership and organizational discussions. Part of the value of an agile coach is his/her ability to be a team player in leadership strategy and goals. It is important for the agile coach to be seen and act as a peer and valued member of the overall path to effectiveness and culture in the organization.
- Contribute to the overall agile maturity and strategy of the organization. Just as it is important to be an active member of the leadership strategy, it is also important to be a contributor in how the company moves towards agile maturity. Since the agile coach is on the ground and connected to the agile teams, he/she is able to offer critical perspectives on what would be effective and ineffective in advancing towards more effective use of agile frameworks and principles.
Other activities that are important, including being available for conversations and general support, offering creative ways to overcome challenges, willing to stand up and support individual initiative, and continuously learn to offer greater value to those the coach supports. What other activities come to mind?
Four Models of the Abilities Needed for an Agile Coach
There are some great visual models of the various skills, abilities, and responsibilities of an agile coach. I recommend these models:
The Agile Coaching Competency Framework by the Agile Coaching Institute. This model display practitioner abilities, teaching and coaching, business mastery and other skills needed to be an effective coach.
The 8 Elements of Agile Coaching by Zen Ex Machina. This second model shows plenty of hats that a coach needs to wear such as mentor, change agent, and consultant.
Tasks of an Agile Coach by On The Agile Path. This third model shows plenty of duties of the agile coach such as be a mirror, the big picture, and team dynamics. Note: I removed the phrase “Agile Coach / Scrum Master” from the model as this is confusing.
Some Closing Remarks on the Agile Coach Role
The agile coach role is both exciting and challenging. It needs a person that thrives on ambiguity, loves to experiment, is passionate about helping others, can develop humbleness around results, and enjoys continuous learning. I have been lucky to learn from and with many wonderful agile practitioners that aid me in my expansion of thinking, openness to different opinions, and offer plenty of guidance. And don’t forget to get support and help from those around you – an effective agile coach has plenty of supporters and collaborators around them.
“Be strong, be fearless, be beautiful. And believe that anything is possible when you have the right people there to support you.” – Misty Copeland
What makes you an effective agile coach? What abilities do you notice in your agile coach that helps them to succeed? What other abilities does an agile coach need to support agile at the team or organizational level?
I hope that each of you continues to find joy in your work, your family, and whole life. Agile can be fun and difficult, I hope that you can find the balance.
Paul J. HeidemaWarm regards,