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What is an Agile Coach?

It may surprise people to learn that my perspective of what an Agile Team Coach is, is very different to what an Agile Coach is.

Agile Coaching as it was written about many years ago by Lyssa Adkins, was very much angled toward team coaching.

Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed that some of that team focus has gone.

If we look at some of the more popular training and certification programs for coaching as well as Agile coaching, you’ll notice that the emphasis is on coaching rather than team coaching.

Many service providers and certification bodies don’t have a program that focuses on team coaching at all. Their focus, instead, lies in coaching the individual.

The prevailing line of reasoning seems to be that the team coaching element is somehow ‘embedded’ in the Agile coaching industry and the role that agile coaches play within organisations.

The State of Team Coaching

In my own experience and from the latest research that is coming out of my training and self-development path at places like Henley Business School, there is a school of thought about the current state of team coaching that is interesting.

According to the ICF (International Coaching Federation), scholars and academics in the world of coaching, and ongoing research in the field, it is believed that team coaching is currently in the same ‘stage’ as professional coaching was twenty (20) years ago.

And what that means is that we are in a period of pre-theory.

There simply haven’t been many academic studies on team coaching. There simply isn’t a wide body of professional knowledge on the discipline or the industry as a whole.

If you look at books like ‘Building top performing teams’ by Paul J Barbour and Lucy Widdowson, which is pretty much one of the best team coaching books out there, they will openly state that this is all pre-theory and that a lot of their hypotheses and ideas are built upon academic research into family therapy, group therapy and facilitation that has happened over the past 20 to 30 years.

So, the industry is currently looking to the past to inspire thinking about the future, specifically within team environments, to generate ideas and new academic studies in the field.

Agile Coaching versus Professional Coaching

In 2001, when the Agile Manifesto was being created, that’s when professional coaching was really being defined.

And now we find ourselves in a place where the Agile world has been built around the concept of self-managing, self-organising, autonomous teams where lots of people are practising elements of team coaching but we don’t have any real rigour or research into that to inform their practice.

I feel that we are currently at this intersection where we have professional coaching combined with the Agile world, where we have loads of anecdotal evidence in team environments, and these elements are now starting to overlap between professional coaching and team coaching.

In the Agile world, there’s too much conversation around coaching the individual and not enough conversation, rigour, research, and activity around team coaching.

There is a lot of emphasis on individual coaching practice, techniques, frameworks, and models that are designed to help the individual on their journey.

In the ICAgile ACC Team Coach course, the first chapter of the curriculum focuses on coaching individuals and how to effectively guide individuals within team environments, and I think that’s wrong.

I think that if you’re going to speak about team coaching, you’ve got to be talking about helping a team achieve high performance within a context that is relevant to that team.

Being an Agile coach or team coach is not just about helping people develop strong relationships, like each other, commit to extracurricular activities together, and socialise together.

Sure, these things are important and part of the equation, but all of that is meaningless if they are not achieving high performance in a team context.

So, from an Agile team coaching perspective, it’s about understanding the context.

Where does that team fit in?

When I talk about teams, I am referring to all kinds of teams. A team of software engineers, a team of managers, a leadership team.

Regardless of the kind of team we are talking about, if you are approaching these teams as an Agile coach thinking about individual coaching, you are not going to get the best out of that team.

You are not going to be of best service to that team.

We must view these teams as entities, wherever they are, and support them on their own journey.

When discussing Agile coaching, immediately I think of professional coaching (Professional Coach vs Agile Coach).

One-on-one coaching of an individual within a team environment.

The agile coach helps the individual determine their goals and progression objectives, and has a certain degree of latitude in terms of the coaching stances they may take on and the coaching techniques they may employ, to help that individual achieve their personal goals and objectives.

That can be valuable. Absolutely.

It is, however, not as valuable if the individual’s self-determined goals and objectives do not equate to the team achieving high performance.

Individual Goals versus Team Goals

If an agile coach is working with an individual and they determine that they would like to achieve X, and that coach is working with another individual on the team whose goals are contrary to that individual’s goals, what role would they play then?

What options are you presented with?

Does the Agile coach go to either of the individuals, inform them of the differences in their goals, and ask them if they would like to change their goals to align with the other individual?

Does the Agile coach get both individuals in a room, explain the impasse, and suggest or recommend a new common goal for both individuals?

This is one of the issues we experience when an Agile coach focuses on coaching at the individual level.

The agile coach is the funnel for all kinds of information from all kinds of behaviour. How do they behave and act from there? How can they be effective as a team coach given these circumstances?

How do they act ethically? How do they act professionally? How do they act in a way that helps those individuals come together effectively as a team entity and achieve high performance?

So, this is why Agile coaching at the individual level is fundamentally flawed if they are trying to help a team achieve high performance.

If we approach this with rigour, we can see that it is necessary to first align the team on their purpose. If they are all aligned on their purpose, they are also clear on their values and identity as a team.

If they are all aligned on those elements, we can then help the team understand how they want to transform themselves as a team.

How are they going to learn? How are they going to grow? What are their preferred ways of working? How do they best operate together to achieve their collective goals and objectives?

How aware are they of each other and the broader systems that they work within?

If we begin to focus our endeavours on helping teams along those lines of thinking. To come up with their own plans with us guiding and supporting them. Then the moment that an individual comes up with a plan or objective that contradicts what the team have collectively agreed upon, it’s as simple as pointing that out and asking that individual to reevaluate their goals and objectives based on what the team have agreed on as priorities.

Being an Effective Individual Coach First

To be an effective team coach, you must first have practised and succeeded as an individual coach.

This is vital to have the necessary skills and foundation to develop your team coaching practice and capability.

If you’ve always done Agile Team Coaching and you’ve always done things that way, brilliant! I would love to hear from you and learn from you.

For everyone else, it is a necessity that they first become proficient and highly skilled at individual professional coaching before progressing to team coaching.

The ICF (International Coaching Federation) is being quite definite that when it comes to professional team coaching, you must be a competent and experienced individual professional coach.

In many ways, the same is true of agile coaching.

To be an effective agile coach, you must be a competent and experienced agile practitioner.

You must have worked at the coalface of an agile environment and deeply understand how agile environments work.

You need this experience and practical knowledge to gain credibility with agile teams and become an effective agile coach.

If you have this agile practitioner experience, and you decide that you want to progress in your career as an Agile coach, then you must invest in becoming a professional coach with an individual focus before beginning your apprenticeship as an Agile Team Coach.

I don’t believe there is any real difference between an Agile coach and a scrum master.

Both need to be strong agile practitioners, both need to be strong coaches and facilitators, and both need to have experience working with teams in high-performance environments.

The panacea for me in being a really effective agile team coach is equivalent to the panacea of being a really effective scrum master.

It isn’t just about the individuals you work with. It isn’t just about the team you work with.

It’s about that broader systemic understanding and helping the system shift its orientation.

It’s about helping the people in that system shift their behaviours to support that new orientation.

So, if I was, to sum up in a nutshell, ‘What is an Agile Team Coach?’, I would say that an effective team coach is no different to an effective scrum master. They need to have a broader systemic understanding.

They need to understand the team as a system. They need to understand the interactions between teams in that system. They need to understand the broader organisational system to understand the performance drivers and goals.

They also need to understand the broader system at large.

If you want one tip to be an effective agile team coach, understand your systems and understand the context to help the team achieve high performance.

If you are interested in becoming an Agile Team Coach, visit our IC Agile Certified Agile Team Coaching course page.

If you are interested in adopting LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) as a scaling framework for Scrum, visit our Certified LeSS Practitioner course page for training options or our Services page to see how Ben can assist with LeSS coaching, consulting and mentoring services.

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