Coaching True Agility

Can coaching help organizations to increase their agility? Yes, but it depends on how you think about it and do it.

Here’s my view on coaching true agility.

Many organizations are hiring agile coaches for their agile transformation, to find out that their agility doesn’t increase while spending a lot of money. They expected that the coaches would make them agile, but their actual performance and results are not improving. It’s even becoming worse!

If you want to learn what agile coaching is and isn’t and find out if your agile coaches are truly agile, read on.

Explicit language

This is not a regular tips and ideas blog post in which I share my experiences for you to use in your daily work. It’s a personal cry out in which I share my thoughts on a delicate but important topic. If this is not what you like to read then there are hundreds of posts on my website so just pick one and enjoy.

In this post, I’m challenging the software industry’s view on and practice of agile coaching. I share my ideas which present a different way of working that a large part of the industry adheres to, supports, and accepts as being the “best and only way to do it”. If you are easily offended then you might want to skip this post.

On the other hand, if you have a strong opinion on agile coaching and want to learn about my ideas, go ahead and read it!

What’s agile coaching (and what not)?

As I see it, agile coaching is primarily coaching. Coaching is about getting good things out of people, helping people to find ways to do things and supporting them trying something new. It’s unlocking a person’s potential and helping them develop themselves.

Agile is a mindset, a way of thinking that explains how people can work together to deliver value. It’s based on the values and principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

To add agile to your coaching means that you as a person truly and deeply believe in and act according to the agile values and principles. But it’s still mainly coaching that makes the difference, bringing out the best in people. It’s not about an agile framework like Scrum or SAFe, those are solutions.

Many organizations start off with the wrong expectation when it comes to agile coaching. They aim to “buy agility”. They hire agile coaches to “become agile”. But agile coaches can’t “make” people agile. Nor can they make people “do” agile. It just doesn’t work that way.

Coaching is not teaching. This implies that a true coach doesn’t teach someone how to work according to a specific agile framework or how to do their work in an agile way.

Also coaching and consulting are different things. From a consultant, you expect to hear how you can do things. A consultant provides solutions and helps you apply them in your specific situation. A coach will pull the answer out of you. Help you decide what to do instead of telling you how it should be done.

A good coach doesn’t judge if something is agile or not agile. They don’t assess agility. I’m a strong believer that people can self assess their agility, that why I’m maintaining a webpage on agile self-assessment tools and checklists and have developed the Agile Self-assessment Game. These tools can be used when coaching people, they support collaborative thinking and problem-solving.

How I “coach” agility

I don’t see myself as an agile coach, although people do tell me that I do have coaching skills.

My real strength is my curiosity, which I combined with creativity when it comes to how to do things and eagerness to get things done. I want to truly understand how people work together and the results that they are aiming for, and help them find ways to become a better version of themselves.

I often combine teaching, facilitating, mentoring, coaching, and experience sharing to best serve people:

  • I listen to people and help them to explore what they would like to reach and why that matters to them.
  • I help people finding out what they already know and the skills and strengths that they have.
  • I support people in visualizing and increasing their understanding of how they do their work.
  • I create and foster situations where people share and learn from each other.
  • I facilitate to help people reflect on how things are going and decide on how to take action.
  • I share my knowledge and experience to support people in thinking about possible solutions that might help them become more valuable.
  • I work with people to help them decide what they will do and find ways how they will do it.

When people discuss their problems with me, I like to know what makes it a problem. If people want to look for answers to their problems, I explore what options they have. If people are looking for solutions or ideas, I share my experiences to inspire them. When they are looking for ways how to do something, I challenge them to think about multiple solutions and how to apply them in their situation.

Again, I’m not an “Agile Coach”. And I’m not a consultant, I’m way too practical and outcome-focused, and I don’t work “by the hour”. There’s no good job title for what I do. I am what I deliver.

Is your agile coach truly agile?

If agile coaching isn’t about making people agile, how can you know if a coach that you are working with is truly agile? Here’s how I would check it.

  • Is the coach really interested in your professionals instead of talking only about agile processes, methods, or frameworks?
  • Does the coach collaborate with you from the first point of contact to find out how to really help you?
  • Do you get questions and feedback from the coach, is (s)he also coaching you?
  • Instead of discussing hourly rates and asking you to sign a contract, is the coach talking with you about your needs?
  • Instead of enforcing people to become “agile”, does your coach help you and your professionals to identify good things in the way of working and support exploiting those?
  • Does the coach feel comfortable with change and uncertainty, does (s)he say “I don’t know?”
  • Do you together with your coach take time to reflect how things are going, and change your approach based on what you have learned?

I’d love to hear from you how you recognize true agility in an agile coach! Feel free to comment on this article and add your experiences.

How true agility works

True agility comes when people believe in and act according to the values described in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (see how true agility looks).

When I work with people, I prefer to start with the why. I invest time to find out what people need, what would help them, and why they need it. What benefits they are looking for.

Next, I think about how I can deliver value to them. There are many ways that we can consider:

  • Would a workshop wher we practice help you to solve your problems?
  • Might coaching or mentoring help to decide where to go or what to do?
  • Maybe a short remote coaching/advice session to take the first step?
  • Are you able to solve your problems using one or more of my agile coaching tools?
  • Would reading my books or blog posts help you to get ideas on what to do?

I can come up with tons of ideas on what can be done (and I usually do), but it’s up to the people that I work with to decide what works best for them.

You decide what steps you want to take, I’m there to travel the journey with you. I bring along all of my experiences and skills to help you be successful!

There’s never a guarantee that what’s decided do will work. That’s why on everything that I do I give free lifetime support (thank you Yves Hanoulle for inspiring me on this).

As crazy as it may sound, I’m ok with anything that works for you. I do not enforce buying (more) consulting hours. I don’t give away teasers expecting you to hire me. If a one-hour remote coaching or a half-day workshop is what you need, then that’s what we do. If downloading and playing one of my games enables you to go forward, that’s great, go ahead and do it! I’m perfectly fine with it.

Agile without certificates

I explained in my article alternatives to agile certificates for delivering quality and value that if I would have to acquire all the certificates that apply to the things that I am capable of, that would take me years doing exams and a lot of money. I rather spend that time helping people.

I tend to say “I’m not certified, I’m just damn good in what I do”.

Call that blunt (yes, I’m Dutch and we tend to be pretty direct), idiot (ok, I have over 56 years of life experience and wisdom), arrogant (does transparency and honestly matter for you?), or fluffy (life’s too short to brag around and make noise; I’m a doer): This is what it is and what you get from me and, believe me, it’s worth every euro you pay.

If you are looking for someone who will force their favorite agile framework or method, the only one which they are certified in, on everyone in your organization, please go out and search for a certified agile coach, consultant, Scrum master, or project leader. There are plenty of them, and I’m wishing you good luck checking their certificates.

If you are looking for true agility that helps you to deliver more value to your customers and stakeholders, let’s connect and collaborate!

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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.

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