The Way I Develop my Agile Coaching Skills

coaching Ben LindersGood coaching addresses the challenges many organizations face when adopting Agile ways of working, including Scrum implementation. You have to make sure that your organization has the capability to do agile coaching before starting an agile journey, either by hiring coaches, developing coaching skills within the workforce, or a combination of it.

Let’s explore why you would need coaching and what it can accomplish, and what you can do to develop agile coaching in your organization. As an example, I will share how I have developed my coaching skills during the years.

Adopting Agile = Organizational Change

Many organizations struggle to adopt agile ways of working. While the Agile Manifesto looks to be common sense at a first glance, and the Scrum framework appears to be simple and straightforward, getting an organization to use Scrum and get benefits out of it can be difficult. Reasons I often hear have to do with the culture of the organization, creating teams, and learning new ways to collaborate and communicate. People have to learn new ways of working, and unlearn things that they are doing now.

While it is often most effective to learn this “on the job, by doing it”, the combination of doing your work and learning new things is difficult. Coaching is a way to address these challenges, and helps organization to adopt agile.  My opinion is that agile coaching is largely based on organizational change management:

I studied management at the Open University in the Netherlands, taking classes in organizational diagnoses and -design, culture change and also in sociology, psychology and marketing. I’ve read many book on the basics of organizational change, and started deploying what I read in my daily work as a team leader and later as a project manager.

Coaching = consulting

An agile coach helps professionals to learn new ways of working, and become more effective. How does a coach do this? It is usually a combination of teaching the principles of agile, explaining to teams how they can use them to organize themselves, and help them to get their work done using agile practices.

A coach is a consultant who brings experience and examples of how things can be done, including good practices from other Agile organizations. A coach creates a safe environment where people can learn new things, dare to try them out, even if they fail initially. And a coach also helps you to reflect on the way things are going with “inspect and adapt”, regularly ask why, and helps you to find better ways to do things.

I’ve learned how to help people to improve the way they do their work from consultants like Jerry WeinbergTom GilbEsher Derby and Watts Humphrey. I’ve read many of their books, watched their presentations and attended workshops given by them.  It helped me to develop myself as an internal consultant in quality management and organizational development, serving projects teams and the project management office.

Teams need coaching to become agile

People sometimes question if they really need an agile coach. My opinion is that agile teams definitely need coaching (actually, any change, whether agile, lean or anything else, needs coaching). Change is hard, and it is something that needs to be done in parallel with the ongoing work. Coaching helps to give attention to the changes that are needed, to learn new ways to do your work, and to reflect and improve.

I develop my coaching skills by reading books and articles, watching videos, and applying the knowledge with the people that I work with. Some of the great books on agile coaching that I recommend to read are agile coaching from Rachel Davies and Liz Sedleycoaching agile teams from Lyssa Adkins, and essential scrum by Ken Rubin. There are also great video trainings by Lyssa Adkins on coaching agile teams livelessons and by Jason Little on agile transformation.

Whether you need a coach depends on the people that are involved and their skills. If people can coach each other, and are open to coach and be coached, then you can do cross-coaching and may not need an external coach. You can also do pair coaching to develop coaching skills.

If there is insufficient coaching and mentoring experience in the organization, or your organization lacks Agile or Scrum knowledge, then hiring a coach is an effective way to build up knowledge. A good coach can also develop coaching skills in others and help to create a culture that enables coaching, making their presence superfluous by having others taking over their role.

Understand what works, and why

If you already have coaches in your organization, or people with coaching skills and experience, then the solution could be to train them in agile and Scrum, and have them do agile coaching. Conference can be a great way to see how organizations have adopted agile, and to learn practices that you can use to help your organization to become agile and lean.

During the years I’ve been to many conferences. Initially I attended them to learn what has worked in other organizations, later I started presenting my own experiences at conferences and writing articles about it. Presenting and writing requires that I reflect on what I do, how I do it and why it works, which helps me to learn better and faster.

There are lot’s conferences around the world on agile, like the agile alliance conference, the Qcon conferences and many local XP Days conferences like the XP NL Benelux.

Network to share and learn

Many organizations already have some coaching capability, but that might not be enough. It could either be that the coaches do not have sufficient skills, or that there are not enough coaches, or a combination of both. It such cases you might want to further develop agile coaching in your organization. Bringing in a coach can help, but it is also good for individuals to define and develop their own coaching skills.

A great way to develop skills and learn new practices is to join networks or (on-line) communities. Every country/area has networks, in the Netherlands there is the nlscrum meetupAgile Holland, and the Dutch Software Process Improvement community SPIder. There are several good groups on LinkedIn, like agile coaching, agile transformation and organizational change, and the general agile group.

Develop your coaching skills!

As you can see, there are lots of ways to learn about agile coaching. I learned to help people as a change agent and coach, both as a consultant and when I was working as an employee for a company. And developed my coaching skills along the way, and practiced them while working with people. I also ask for feedback early and often, to continuously improve myself.

If you have the chance to read a good book on this, join a community, go to a conference, or get connected with people with a lot of experience, please do! Many organizations also have internal communities, where you can learn from your colleagues. A community helps an organization to develop coaching capability, and to have it available to deploy and improve agile and scrum with the organization.

Note: A previous version of this article has been published on ProjectsAtWork: Develop Agile Coaching.

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Bella

    wonderful points altogether, you just received a new reader. What could you recommend in regards to your post that you just made some days ago? Any positive?

  2. Stefan Wunder

    Couldn’t think of a better summary about the journey to a professional agile coach. Thanks for sharing your way and the useful links! I find myself in your words.

    1. BenLinders

      Thanks Stefan for your nice words.

      My aim with this blog is to inspire people to develop themselves in agile coaching and provide hints and tips how to do it.

  3. Nicola Moretto

    Hi Ben, I have a few questions for you:
    1. What’s the difference, for you, between coaching and agile coaching?
    2. A coach, for me, not ask “why”…but ask “what”; what do you think about that?
    3. As an agile coach, you bring always your experience to the team?
    4. How you get to teach agile principles to the team?

    1. BenLinders

      Nicola, thanks for your questions. With some delay, here are my answers:

      1. What’s the difference, for you, between coaching and agile coaching?
      Now you mention it, no real difference I think. When I coach or mentor people anything that would help them to do a better job fits in. No specific agile agenda (or any other) in there.

      2. A coach, for me, not ask “why”…but ask “what”; what do you think about that?
      I’m aware that why can be scary for some people (wrote about that in Asking Why). Why helps me to get a deeper understanding of a situation, while what might cover the surface only.

      3. As an agile coach, you bring always your experience to the team?
      As a person you bring your expertise. But coaching is not about pushing it on people, so I try to hold back on giving advice. Examples can be very useful, but they are not intended to be recipes.

      4. How you get to teach agile principles to the team?
      When they ask me. If it turns out that people want to learn something more on a topic, then we can discus it or plan to come together to go deeper into it. It’s pull based learning.

      Nicola, let me know what you think of these answers?

      1. Nicola Moretto

        Hi Ben,
        sorry for my delay; thank you so much for your answers
        Here are mine:
        1. For me, there is a really big difference. The difference is perhaps that the coach is a role of an agile coach. When you are a coach you should not give advice; because the team learns how to find the solution yourself. It’s really important distinguish when, as an agile coach, you’re doing coach or mentor (another role of an agile coach).
        2. For me, it’s the opposite. The “why” leads to a futile information. You need the “what” if you always want to improve. What do you believe about that?
        3. I very much agree with this answer 🙂
        4. I agree!

  4. BenLinders

    Hi Nicola,

    I agree with you, there’s a difference between “pure coaching” where you help to people to improve by giving feedback and supporting them in developing their skills, and consultancy where you train, mentor and maybe also guide people in their (agile) journey.

    When I’m acting as a coach, I may give examples if that helps people to understand situations and inspires them to find new ways to do the things they do. I do not give recipes, advice, etc in that role.

    Wrt question 2, I’m a strong believer of why over how, AKA as Dude’s law. Yves Hanoulle who I highly respect wrote about this in Why over how (My look at Dude’s law).

    Can you elaborate what makes that what more important than the why for you?

    Ben Linders

    1. Nicola Moretto

      I’m agreeing with you but I wanna be certain that we are aligned. In your opinion, is the role “coach”, from an agile coach, “pure coaching”?
      Ibe further agree to give examples but I would add with parsimony.
      The questions with “Why” have some defects:
      1. It brings less specific answer.
      2. It tends to stay the coachee on the problem.
      3. It not generates any action. For me talking generates actions.
      4. “Why” not challenges the coachee to find some solutions.
      5. The “why” could be perceived as a judgment.

      Instead the “what” represents the obstacles…with “what” you can start for working on. The “what” brings movement to solutions.
      Let me give an example:

      “Why do you not use a kanban board?” => “What prevents you from using a kanban board?”

      The second question is more powerful, specify and it’s not free to interpretation because it pushes the coachee to say something new.
      It’s true that the “why” be scary but, like a coach, are you sure that information helps the coachee and your work?

      I think that this is an interesting discussion 🙂

      1. BenLinders

        There’s a lot of confusing around the role of agile coaches. People attach different meanings and expectation. The best to do is to discuss expectations when starting (and working) as a coach with an organization to assure that you are on the same page.

        1. Nicola Moretto

          Wow…I love this answer!

      2. BenLinders

        When using why in question, I use it to get a deeper understanding. Asking what gives me the activities that they do, asking why can reveal their motivations, passion, drive, benefits, any reason why they do their work as they do it. The goal that they are aiming at.

        There can be different ways to do things while aiming for a same result. You can change the what and how with the same why. If we understand the deeper reasons (both the coach and the coachee) we can discuss such things.

        Why can be very specific, think about five times why as used in root cause analysis. I agree that the why does not generate actions direction, but once there’s a better understanding you can use different questions to get there as “do you know ways to solve this problem? ” or “what can be done?”.

        Be careful how you ask why as you already mentioned, people should not feel threatened. Make clear that you are not judging but looking for understanding!

        Yes, I also think this is interesting. Now I can ask you “what makes this discussing so interesting? ” or “why do you find it interesting? “. Does your answer differ?

        1. Nicola Moretto

          Yes, to second question I respond “because I talk with an expert coach”; instead the first question I respond “there is openness and that you have another, interesting, points of view from me :)” .

          I realize that all of these answers may be from both questions;
          but the point is that to the second question I could answer “I don’t know” or “mmm…for me this is interesting and nothing else” or another vague answer; conversely the first question made me think more. What do you think about it? It could be my interpretation.

          1. BenLinders

            One word, what or why, will not make a huge difference. But using a combination of different question styles can lead to a better insight in the situation and how the people that are involved perceive it, and deal with it.

            Five times why is a questioning style that is used in Root Cause Analyis to get deeper insights.

            I use both what and why questions when I’m asking questions in a retrospective. They have proved to be valuable for me.

            Regarding your answers, the why question might be somewhat overwhelming, something that people don’t ask you every day? If you say “mmm” then I’m assuming that you are thinking about the why, but not ready yet to answer it? If you answer “for me this is interesting” I can follow up with “what is it makes it interesting for you” or “just a simple “why for you”?

            There is no one right question or questioning style, rather it’s having the skill to use several ones that helps a coach to be more valuable for a coachee.

  5. Nicola Moretto

    Ok, you’ve convinced me. In the coming weeks I’ll do the experiment to start asking “Why” 🙂
    Thanks for explaining your position; it was definitely enriching for me.
    In the future, if ever I had other ideas for discussion, can I send you an email?

    1. BenLinders

      Sure Nicola, and thanks for sharing your thoughts with my readers!

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