Have you ever felt lost in a conversation because people were talking about a topic with such confidence and jargon that you were afraid to ask for clarification? This is how many people first encounter Agile coaching and development concepts and it can be a little overwhelming!
This post was created as a roadmap for anyone interested in Agile roles or methodology. Here, we’ll answer some common questions – like why you’d need an Agile coach – and to show you how you can apply this knowledge to your role and maybe even become an Agile coach yourself.
An Agile coach helps teams and individuals adopt Agile practices and methods in their work. The goal of an Agile coach is to make a team more efficient, transparent and cohesive, and to enable better outcomes, solutions and products/services. It is not about using one particular method over others, but empowering people to rise to business challenges smarter, faster and with less risk.
Selecting the right tools and methods is important whatever your role, though the Agile coach has to be like a good bartender and know how to mix them together to create a perfect combination tailored to the organization.
The role of an Agile coach includes discovering the organizational goals of both teams and individuals, identifying the method/s that will help in their journey, and teaching these practices. An excellent coach empowers people to the point where they won’t need their services anymore and are positioned to employ Agile methods in their future working practice.
The Agile Coaching Institute offers three certification levels for Agile coaching:
- Agile team facilitator: The starter level, working with existing teams
- Agile coach: The advanced level with a specific domain focus, working with teams that are currently forming
- Enterprise Agile coach: The expert level, working on leadership and strategic level with the organization
An Agile coach has a few common specialties:
- Technical coaches: Technical coaches work closely with developers and typically have experience with coding and integration since they’re necessary skills when working with any development team
- Process/management coaches: Process or management coaches focus more on establishing leadership for Agile teams and overseeing successful adoption of the Agile method
- Non-directive coaches: Non-directive coaches offer individualized support for people or organizations looking to solve specific Agile-related problems
Agile was first used in this context in 2001, when 17 “organizational anarchists” who recognized the need for an alternative to documentation driven, heavyweight software development processes got together. The result of the meeting was the Agile Manifesto signed by all participants.
The participants all agreed that while there is value in the items on the right, they place greater value on the items on the left:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Agile coaching is an evolving field though by following many of the concepts outlined in the Agile Manifesto, Agile coaches are able to drive innovation, growth, and transformation.
An Agile coach helps with organization development, growth and change, and implementing Agile processes across a business or team.
Here are some goals and challenges where an Agile coach can come in super handy:
- Ensuring there is alignment between strategy and development
With the help of a coach, you can create a system where it is easy to prioritize work according to its value and ability to advance your strategy. This system can also assist in redirecting development resources where necessary to maximize growth. Organizational alignment can be the difference between the success or failure of a business – this is one area where an Agile coach can add huge value.
- Delivering products and services that your customers want
A coach can help teach your team how to identify customer needs and develop their roles and responsibilities accordingly. Once this is done, a coach can also help break down delivery into short increments. Helping deliver smart, high-value improvements to your products and services is an area where the Agile coach shines.
- Making fast, critical decisions to avoid common failure patterns
By improving team dynamics, communication and transparency, a coach can instill practices that help leadership avoid pitfalls and minimise risk. Agile teams are better equipped to identify issues and develop quick, intelligent solutions. With the right methods and approaches, Agile coaches can give employees the tools they need to be proactive in their problem solving.
- Improving progress visibility
By focusing on transparency, communication and inter-departmental collaboration, an Agile coach can ensure the development process can be conducted with the least friction possible. Progress visibility means employees at any level have project oversight and can contribute meaningfully to the process.
- Ensuring better quality
An Agile coach makes sure that product testing is not left to the end of development and issues are solved as early as possible. By ensuring a product is used and tested early in the process, Agile coaches can not only help improve the product, but also discover any areas where the product could expand or pivot.
- Increasing collaboration and ownership
An Agile coach is responsible for improving team collaboration and ownership of tasks while providing a trusted, safe environment for teams to operate. Organizations work better when ideas and teams can communicate and share ideas while still having ownership of their product area: Agile coaches make this possible.
According to the coaching roles originally taught by Agile experts, Esther Derby and Don Gray, there are nine roles that sum up the responsibilities of Agile coaches. These roles cover a spectrum from observation to partnering (from watching someone perform a task to doing it with them) and are all important in being an effective Agile coach.
- Hands-on-expert: This role is most commonly required in organizations just getting started with Agile methods. A coach needs to be more hands-on at the beginning when individuals are unsure where and how to start with these new methods. Often, a hands-on-expert will directly lead and implement Agile methods and instruct teams and organisations
- Coach: With this hat on, an Agile coach believes that everyone can solve their own problems, they just need a little guidance in figuring out how. A good coach gives people the tools they need to grow on their own
- Teacher: If the individual or team is missing information, this role’s purpose is to fill this gap and impart new knowledge
- Technical advisor: This is where the above-mentioned domain expertise comes in. When teams hit a technical roadblock, a coach in this role has the ability to help them overcome it, often working closely with a team throughout the process
- Counselor: Like a good therapist, active listening is key for any Agile coach. A coach in this role creates a safe environment where, for example, tensions regarding the adoption of Agile practices can come to the surface in free and honest discussion. This role of a counselor is required any time someone feels unsure about their role or any part of the working process
- Facilitator: Instead of giving exact answers and revealing solutions, a coach in this role helps team members discover these on their own. The facilitator role also assists in conflict resolution and improving group dynamics
- Modeler: While modeling, a coach focuses on changing behaviors. This is crucial when adopting a new practice as the old habits tend to kick in instinctively
- Reflective Observer: This role can provide valuable outside perspectives that immersed team members may not have recognized before, helping guide them to new understanding and revelations
- Partner: In order to play this role effectively, an Agile coach must be aligned and invested in your organization’s goals and vision. A word of caution here: most Agile coaches are external contractors and therefore cannot completely fulfill this role. 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
Note that as an Agile coach works with a team, these roles can fluctuate and change. A good Agile coach tailors their role and approach to the task, team, and individual they are working with.
As Manoel Pimenter has described in the Agile Coaching DNA, the job of an Agile coach can be broken down into 5 areas:
- Catalyzing improvement
Using Agile methods means changing your organization’s processes and responding to future changes better. A coach has to kickstart this first and biggest change – the adoption of methods that will help an organization during its journey.
- Promoting awareness
To kickstart changes, a coach has to make a team aware of the need for change and create buy-in across the organization. Open questions, visualizations, data, and metrics can all help in identifying problems and gaps and ensuring the whole team is on board.
- Boosting ownership
If a coach has succeeded in promoting awareness, this can lead people towards greater engagement with the organization and their role. Awareness increases responsibility and commitment to finding a solution and helps staff be a part of the change they want to see.
- Developing competencies
One of the key activities of an Agile coach is imparting knowledge. Creating a collaborative learning environment and promoting emergent learning cultures are the key to sustain an Agile approach long after the collaboration with the coach is over.
- Facilitating barrier removal
As a company transforms into an Agile organization, the process can face numerous barriers and challenges. The responsibility of an Agile coach is to remove obstacles and facilitate change so that an organization can continue to grow and collaborate without issue.
Here are some specific examples of activities Agile coaches might undertake as part of the Agile coaching process:
- Help the organization to establish Agile practices and governances
- Assist to create strategy
- Proactively organize opportunities for colleagues to learn more about Agile, inside and outside the company
- Providing training on Agile practices
- Identify process issues and improve them
- Expose wasted resources and opportunities, wherever they are
- Interact with HR to make sure HR policies support Agile, team-based thinking
- Help managers and leaders to implement and apply Agile practices
- Helps team members put their training into action
- Work with all stakeholders to set up and maintain a structured way to continuously improve the teams and product development flow
- Facilitate sessions to envision changes
- Facilitate brainstorm session for new product development
- Conduct assessments
- One-on-one sessions
Passing on knowledge
- Deliver on-demand training on specialist topics such as user stories or refinement
- Continuously and proactively improve existing training material for courses
- Encourage a culture of continuous experimentation to further improve the Agile practices
- Provide capacity calculator template for the team
- Help scrum master to plan meetings like preplanning, planning, daily scrum, review, and retrospective
The SessionLab library features a host of resources that can help Agile coaches lead and devise Agile coaching sessions.
An Agile coach needs a wide set of skills and competencies to successfully assist teams and organizations. These competencies can be categorized into content, process and domain knowledge alongside the basic requirement of having deep knowledge of Agile processes and methods. Coaches also need to have an understanding of scale models, with knowledge or first-hand experience of how Agile works in growing organizations.
- Teaching: A coach needs to recognize if a team is lacking knowledge in any area. If this is the case, the coach needs to fill this information gap and teach the group what is missing to help them reach their goal. Teaching always has an output goal and is a vital part of Agile coaching.
- Mentoring: Mentoring is also about imparting knowledge but in a much more nuanced way. Coaches who mentor, don’t usually have a fixed objective and are usually more focused on smaller groups and individuals as opposed to teaching.
- Training: All coaches will encounter a situation where they need to deliver training. This training may be about Agile itself, around specific areas of product knowledge or be both formal and informal.
- Professional Coaching: The foundation of this approach is that teams can solve the problems they have. This requires trusting in the experience and knowledge of the team and guiding them to find answers on their own.
- Facilitating: This is all about being impartial and providing space for the team to air their thoughts. Coaches need to hold the team within a set of agreed guidelines without expecting or forcing a particular outcome.
- Communication skills: Good coaches often choose their words carefully, yet their impact is huge. Concise, effective communication is integral to the Agile process: whether it comes to ensuring executive buy-in or facilitating collaboration between teams.
- Influence: Agile coaches are always encountering resistance, a natural reaction to any change. To successfully complete their work, they need to be able to diffuse this resistance by using their influence and expertise to demonstrate the power of Agile.
- Patience: While coaches may already see where the team should or will end up, getting there is a deeply personal process, that may not go as quickly or smoothly as expected.
- Empathy: As with patience, empathy is crucial in truly connecting to those undergoing coaching and guiding them through what can be a challenging process.
- Devotion: Coaches need to be devoted to helping an organization, and be committed to delivering a successful outcome and pushing through the necessary changes. Agile coaches also need to have the strength and tools to inspire teams to be similarly devoted and accountable in their work
- Technical mastery: This is all about software development. Coaches sometimes need to be familiar with technical processes such as architecture and software craftsmanship to best instruct a team in Agile methods and processes.
- Business mastery: Coaches need to have a strong foundation in product innovation, strategic planning, and operation and process design. Strong business acumen is integral for identifying the Agile approaches best suited to the task at hand.
- Strategy and vision: Having a vision and knowing how to break it down into an easy-to-follow format is essential. Coaches need to determine business priorities and to maintain oversight of the process to avoid transformational burnout.
- Transformation mastery: This is focused on leading change for individuals, teams, and organizations, and demonstrating how businesses can evolve.
- Organizational behavior: While this is not essential to an Agile coach’s work, a knowledge of organizational behavior can help tremendously, especially in navigating mid to large teams and companies.
One of the fundamental tasks of any Agile coach is planning and facilitating workshops and breakout sessions with various stakeholders in the organization.
Some typical workshop and meeting types are:
Sprint planning sets up the entire team for success at the beginning of any change or initiative. With proper planning, the product owner will have a prioritized product backlog ready to take to the session. The development team can then discuss the items and the group collectively estimates the effort involved. The development team will then make a sprint forecast outlining how much work the team can complete from the product backlog. This will become the sprint backlog. Optimizing, guiding and shaping future development sprints are all areas that Agile coaches can add value to an organization.
Stand-ups are designed to quickly inform everyone of what’s going on with their colleagues. This can be hugely useful for larger, distributed teams who may not have regular water-cooler time to catch-up and align outside of larger meetings. Stand-ups aren’t a detailed status meeting: the tone can be light and fun, but must always be informative. The most common format for a stand-up involves a person answering these 3 questions:
- What did I complete yesterday?
- What will I work on today?
- Am I blocked by anything? Do I need help?
There’s an implicit accountability in reporting what work you completed yesterday in front of your peers. No one wants to be the team member who is not making progress or whose contribution is subpar. With a considered approach, Agile coaches can help ensure accountability without creating a culture of blame.
The purpose of this is to showcase the work of the team. They can be in a casual format like “demo Fridays”, or in a more formal meeting structure. This is the time for the team to celebrate their accomplishments, demonstrate work finished within the iteration, and get immediate feedback from project stakeholders.
Agile is about getting rapid feedback to make the product and development culture better. Retrospectives help the team understand what worked well, what didn’t, and what opportunities exist to improve things in the future. Retrospectives should be used to find out what’s working so the team can continue to focus on those areas. Furthermore, they should be used to find out what’s not working and use the time to find creative solutions and develop an action plan. Retrospectives conducted with stakeholders across the organization and with an emphasis on Agile philosophies can ensure mistakes are limited and successes are repeated in the future.
One practical activity for retrospective meetings is the Start-Stop-Continue exercise, where the agile coach facilitates a discussion centered on what the team should start doing, what they should stop doing, and what are the things they should keep doing.
Agile coaches and scrum masters aren’t rivals. These roles complement each other and can both be instrumental in delivering organizational change and growth. The key difference in how these roles operate is in scope, with some overlap.
A scrum master typically focuses on a single team or at a maximum 2 or 3. If they handle more teams than this, they are either superhuman or very likely won’t be that effective. Scrum masters are at their best working very closely with a small team on a specific task. Scrum masters will help ensure that the team lives and breathes Agile processes outlined by the Agile coach and in accordance with the company vision.
An Agile coach will work with many teams either directly or through management personnel. Because of this, they can’t develop the same level of personal relationships with employees as a scrum master, though they have a larger degree of oversight and organizational ownership of the Agile process. They work with the managers to increase the overall agility of a number of teams and across an entire organization.
An Agile coach’s work always begins with a longer observation period. After this, and because they tend to have more experience in organizational and process development than a scrum master, they can recommend more effective and far-reaching changes. They also tend to have more influence as they work with management and can implement these ideas faster and on a wider scale.
First, you need to understand deeply what Agile is all about. Starting with the Agile manifesto, you not only need to understand it, but stick to its values in the work you do.
Secondly, you need to familiarize yourself with the frameworks. Currently, Scrum is the most popular, but it is not enough to know only this method. It is recommended to read up on lean, kanban, extreme programming, crystal, DSDM, and FDD at least on a basic level. Knowing about them however is not going to be enough, you need to have experience in at least one more area.
Thirdly you need to become a part of the Agile community. Look for meetups, conferences, read blogs, comment on forums etc. While developing your skills is essential, being a recognized and contributing member of the Agile community is also hugely important.
As the community of Agile professionals is rising and organizations have started to implement the Agile methodology, Agile certifications are becoming widespread. It provides managers with an advantage over their rivals by officially identifying their understanding and expertise of Agile tools and systems.
There is no substitute for practical experience implementing Agile in an active environment, though certifications, training, and courses are a great place to start.
When selecting a training facility, make sure they have great feedback and that previous graduates have a successful track record of landing great projects.
Some great organizations to start with are:
- Agile coaching institute
- Agile for all
- APMG international (they offer training courses covering a wide range of topics, within those, six are Agile courses)
- International consortium for Agile
- StrategyEx (they also offer training courses, but are more focused on project management, and business analysis and Agile)
We hope we’ve given you a comprehensive overview of Agile coaching and what’s needed to master this approach. If you decide to embark on this journey, we hope it will be an exciting and fulfilling one – Agile coaching can be enormously rewarding and varied work!
If we’ve left anything out or if you have questions about any part of the post, write to us in the comments below. We’d love to hear from Agile coaches on their experiences and thoughts too!