Vince Lombardi. Phil Jackson. Pat Summit. 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 coach takes on many different roles throughout the relationship, from a defensive coordinator to a father figure. The same is true for an Agile Coach. By effectively and fluidly moving between these roles, a good coach can apply their knowledge and talents to help their clients achieve their best results.
When you are working on helping your teams or trying out new practices and behaviors, you won’t have the time to stand separate from the situation and observe yourself. An Agile Coach in the Reflective Observer role will notice the interactions and reactions and, without judgment, provide you with a perspective you may not have noticed.
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.
When your coach is working with her teams, she will come across times when introducing and embracing Agile practices create friction, tension, and stress. During those times, your Coach will adopt the Counselor role to help your teams. As a Counselor, your 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.
Different than teaching, mentoring is a much more 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, your 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 ScrumMasters 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 ScrumMaster to answer questions and explain the decisions made during the events, and potentially role-play scenarios to help expand the new ScrumMaster’s knowledge.
Your Agile Coach will then assist your new ScrumMaster with the next set of Scrum events. Your Coach and ScrumMaster will pair together to lead the events, and your Coach will begin to fade into the background, allowing your ScrumMaster 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 ScrumMaster to help expand their comfort and knowledge, equipped with real examples from their work together.
Last, your Agile Coach will observe your new ScrumMaster as she facilitates the Scrum events. Your Coach will remain silent and available, offering support and guidance after the events. This helps your ScrumMaster 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 ScrumMaster 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, we operate from the assertion that the person we’re helping has the knowledge and ability to solve their own problems; as a coach, we help them unlock that knowledge through powerful questions, supportive practices, and helping hold our 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. We 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.
When working with a team just beginning their Agile journey, they often don’t know where to start. Taking on the role of the Hands-On Expert is the first step in our Lead / Assist / Observe pattern for Agile practice adoption.
A great example of applying the Hands-On Expert role is when your Agile Coach leads the Scrum Ceremonies for a newly formed team. Relying on their own experience and practice, the Agile Coach actually does the work of a ScrumMaster. The coach not only facilitates the event, but also works with the team’s Product Owner to help ready the Product Backlog, identifies and helps resolve impediments, and performing the other work a beginning team needs to help hit their first Sprint deliverable.
Similar to the Lead / Assist / Observe model above, 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 practices. They have learned through their careers how to perform and even excel in the current environment. Therefore, the learned behaviors for success can often work against team performance and Agile-aligned principles and practices.
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.
When coaching teams, I’ve often found myself performing my own “failure bows” and explaining how something I did wasn’t aligned with what I strive to model for my clients.
The last role listed in the model above is that of the Partner, and it’s the role most external Agile Coaches can’t effectively play.
In order to play the Partner role effectively, an Agile Coach not only must be aligned but must also be invested in your organization’s goals. Your external Agile Coach, therefore, can’t be fully aligned – they aren’t an employee, and while they may be concerned and deeply interested in your goals, they aren’t ultimately responsible for achieving them.
However, your Agile Coach plays a key role in creating the long-term 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.