8 Roles Agile Coaches Play
Vince Lombardi. Phil Jackson. Kathryn Smith. These are some of the greatest Coaches in the history of sports. But what does being a Coach really mean? While they are experts of the game at hand, chances are, being an SME is only 50% of what a Coach does or is. A great athletic Coach takes on many different roles throughout the relationship, from being tactical like a defensive coordinator to providing guidance as a mentor. The same is true for an Agile Coach.
By effectively and fluidly moving between different roles, a good Agile Coach can apply their knowledge and talents to help their clients achieve their best results as quickly as possible.
First and foremost, an Agile Coach is an expert on Agile methodologies and on using them to improve the overall performance of teams, teams of teams, and leaders. And by expert, it’s not about memorizing frameworks. It’s about having real-world experiences to take the principles, values and frameworks and apply them to get results. Sometimes, this means that your Coach isn’t going “by the book.”
Teams and leaders new to Agile often don’t know where to start. In this case, a Coach might choose to run a “team chartering” play to stand-up some new teams. If it is a bigger transformation, that could mean working with leadership to help them create the transformation plan and build an Agile Leadership Team. If an organization needs to re-start a stalled transformation, an Agile Coach can also help to assess current state and then use the findings to create an appropriate transformation strategy to move toward the desired future state.
Reflective Observer and Truth-teller
Agile is not a silver bullet. Rather, Agile is a silver mirror. Agile Coaches taking on the Reflective Observer role will notice the interactions and reactions and, without judgment, provide you with a perspective you may not have noticed. The neutral, third-party perspective also gives credence to what internal team members have also already observed and communicated.
As your Coach works with you, there will be times where they will need to step into the role of Facilitator. Instead of teaching or mentoring, a Coach working from the role of a Facilitator will use their skills in conflict resolution, meeting facilitation, group dynamics, and personality styles, among others, to help your organization. Sometimes, these facilitation skills are used to help a group come to a decision when strong opinions and personalities stand in the way of productive conversations. Other times, a Coach takes on the Facilitator role to help present new ways to make existing meetings and events more effective.
To be effective in the Facilitator role, a Coach uses their experience helping teams in similar situations with the professional facilitation skills they’ve learned and adopted over the years. They help your teams become better communicators, with clearer understandings and more effective meetings.
Modeler of Behaviors
An effective Agile Coach is constantly looking to model appropriately aligned behaviors.
In any move toward Agile-aligned practices and principles, people and the teams they’re on will struggle with adopting new ways of working. They have learned through their careers how to perform and even excel in the previous environment. Therefore, those learned behaviors for success can often work against team performance and Agile-aligned principles and practices in today’s VUCA (volaltile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous) world.
While working with performers on those teams and with leaders and managers, an Agile Coach strives to model new aligned behaviors, even to the point of over-correcting. This could mean performing their own “failure bows” and explaining how something they did didn’t align with what they strive to model for their clients.
When a Coach is working with an organization, she will come across times when introducing and embracing Agile practices create friction, tension, and stress. During those times, your Agile Coach will adopt the Counselor role to help teams and leaders. As a counselor, your Agile Coach will use their active listening skills to create a space where problems can be discussed with honesty and safety.
By creating this safe environment, your Coach uses their counseling skills to help come to a clearer understanding of the problem currently being presented and helps to prepare the client – the person, the team, and the organization – to more effectively explore and evaluate solutions.
Mentoring is a hands-on, one-on-one approach to helping someone learn. Similar to the apprenticeship model of career growth, an Agile Coach in the mentor role develops a close and trusting relationship with the individual they’re looking to help. In this role, the Agile Coach leverages their experience and expertise to help explain not just the practices associated with how their apprentice could do their new job, but also the principles behind what makes those practices personally relevant.
One example used at Agile Velocity is the “Lead / Assist / Observe” pattern; this pattern is frequently used when mentoring Scrum Masters in organizations. Your Agile Coach will initially lead the Scrum events, establishing best practices and patterns first by example. After leading these events, the Coach will work with your new Scrum Master to answer questions and explain the decisions made during the events, and potentially role-play scenarios to help expand the new Scrum Master’s knowledge.
Your Agile Coach will then assist your new Scrum Master with the next set of Scrum events. Your Coach and Scrum Master will pair together to lead the events, and your Coach will begin to fade into the background, allowing your Scrum Master to facilitate the events while still having the security of a trusted advisor and expert in the room. After, your Coach will again work with your Scrum Master to help expand their comfort and knowledge, equipped with real examples from their work together.
Last, your Agile Coach will observe your new Scrum Master as he facilitates the Scrum events. Your Coach will remain silent and available, offering support and guidance after the events. This helps your Scrum Master gain the confidence to stand on their own while still feeling like they have the support of your Coach.
This pattern helps establish a trusted relationship between your Coach and Scrum Master and illustrates one of the many ways a Coach takes on the role of an effective Mentor.
Sometimes, your Coach will notice that there’s some basic level of knowledge that’s missing; similarly, there are moments where reinforcing previously learned practices or information would be more impactful than letting a team struggle through a situation. In these times, your Agile Coach takes on the role of a teacher.
Teaching can take many forms – from the image of the professor imparting knowledge through presentations and classroom-like activities–to the interactive learning from collective group activities and many other learning modalities. An effective teacher has command of several different techniques to present and reinforce knowledge, both in a formal classroom-like setting and in ad hoc teaching moments that come up every day.
Different from a teaching or mentoring role, when your Agile Coach puts on the Coaching role, their focus changes from knowing to unlocking. As a Coach, they operate from the assertion that the person they’re helping has the knowledge and ability to solve their own problems; as a Coach, they help them unlock that knowledge through powerful questions, supportive practices, and helping hold their clients to their commitments to themselves and others.
An Agile Coach frequently pulls from their experiences and knowledge – not just of Agile, but from their careers outside of Agile, their other roles listed here, and their understanding of their client – to validate or challenge their client’s narrative. They help our clients create a new narrative more compatible with this new Agile way of being and provide them the support and guidance needed to fully embody their new narrative.
The last role listed in the model is that of Partner. Agile Coach must not only be aligned with but must also be invested in your organization’s long term goals.
And those goals include building organizational self-sufficiency – so that continual improvement can happen in the absence of the Coach themselves. Therefore the Agile Coach plays a key role in creating Coaching competencies in your organization. By using all the roles listed above, and by working with people within your organization to increase their own skills as Agile Coaches, your Agile Coach will help build the internal Partners you need to keep your Agile journey moving forward and accelerating your business goals.
Long story short, while you may have signed up for an Agile Coach, you should expect the one role to take on seven others throughout the engagement.
Many Roles Embodied in One
Long story short, while you may have signed up for “one” Agile Coach, you should expect the one role to take on many others throughout the engagement.
What has been your experience working with Agile Coaches? If you’re an Agile Coach, is there a role we may have missed? Please leave your comments below.
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