Is It Normal To Feel Chaos and Like An Outsider as an Agile Coach

Last post 04:37 am October 8, 2021
by Simon Mayer
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12:32 pm October 7, 2021

I've been an agile coach for about 9 months and lately I feel like my team is really performing and working well together.  This makes me happy as it is the goal for my team and the organization I work for.  However, I can't help but feel a little distant from the team, almost like I'm an outsider.  I spend a lot of my days blocking impediments for the team, refining acceptance criteria, and making sure our board is working well and our backlog has the appropriate and right amount of work to pull.  While I really enjoy the work and the role, it feels like my day is often somewhat chaotic and that there are many tap-on-the-shoulders and interruptions.  However, my team has expressed to me that they feel like they are working so much more efficiently (our analytics show this too) than they did in pre-agile days and that they don't feel the push of work on them like they used to so I feel I am doing my job well.  My only other experience in an agile environment was as a development member of a team years ago where I felt the true performing and teamwork that agile can offer when implemented and practiced well.

So my question is, is it normal for the agile coach to feel that chaos and feel somewhat distant or outside the team?  Or am I doing this whole coaching thing wrong?  I'm not sure if it is the job of the agile coach to take those tap-on-the-shoulders to shield the team from them or if I am just falling back into the old way of doing things?  My feelings are somewhat muddied by the fact that I am also a developer on the team, although with my coaching duties, I don't get much development done.

Thanks for any feedback or advice!

06:27 pm October 7, 2021

I spend a lot of my days blocking impediments for the team, refining acceptance criteria, and making sure our board is working well and our backlog has the appropriate and right amount of work to pull.  

No disrespect intended, however what has been shared doesn't appear to be activities of an Agile coach. For example, the Scrum Master is an impediment remover. Refining Acceptance Criteria is typically done by either the Product Owner and/or the Developers.

An Agile coach is not part of the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master, however, does use coaching techniques to help their team. An Agile coach supports a team (or organization) by helping them unlock the answers from within. As the song goes, 'Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man That he didn't already have'.

Have you checked out 'Coaching Agile Teams' by Lyssa Adkins? That book can help you understand the role and stances of an Agile coach.

 

06:32 pm October 7, 2021

I wouldn't have thought that it was an agile coaches job to perform the actions you have described, because basically you are performing actions that either the Scrum Master, product Owner, or the Developers should be doing. 

  • Refining acceptance criteria - PO with stakeholders
  • Making sure our board is working well - Developers
  • Our backlog has the appropriate and right amount of work to pull - PO & Developers

I would have thought that an agile coach would be helping the SM with his activities related to serving the organisation, as well as also helping the organisation directly. 

Someone please correct me if I am wrong. 

06:37 pm October 7, 2021

Thank you!  I should specify that my organization is using the term and role of agile coach to essentially serve as a scrum master, although we use Kanban rather than scrum (I participate in many refinements due to my additional role as a developer and subject matter expert).  I have read Coaching Agile Teams and am reading it a second time.  Perhaps my questions would be better asked in relation to a scrum master.

08:07 pm October 7, 2021

I had similar impressions as the others when I read your post.  Then it dawned on me that this is probably an organization that isn't fully embracing the Scrum framework and a job title of Agile Coach that is intended to do Scrum Master, Project Manager, Process Management duties. 

But even in that situation, you seem to be doing a lot of work that an Agile Coach/Scrum Master would be helping the team to do for themselves. 

On your original question..yes, you will feel a little like an outsider as a Scrum Master/Agile Coach if you are trying to focus on doing work related to building the product.  That is not the focus of the Scrum Master/Agile Coach.  Their focus is entirely on helping the team function better as a self-managed, self-organized team.  If you focus on the team you will not feel like an outsider.  I have never really cared anything about the product being built.  That is for the Product Owner and Developers to care about.  I am focused on their ability to function as a team instead of individuals, on their ability to organize themselves to get the work they want to do to a "Done" state. I focus on whether they understand the empirical model and how it benefits everyone. I focus on their being able to trust each other, respect everyone's abilities and opinions.  I don't care what language they use, what tools they use to do the work.  Only that they have those tools available to them.

 I'm not sure if it is the job of the agile coach to take those tap-on-the-shoulders to shield the team from them or if I am just falling back into the old way of doing things?

Yes, you are doing it wrong.  Those tap-on-the-shoulders should be on the Product Owner's shoulders if from a stakeholder and on a Developers shoulder if from another Developer.

08:20 pm October 7, 2021

However, I can't help but feel a little distant from the team, almost like I'm an outsider.

You describe yourself as an agile coach, but would you say you practise all of the stances a fully engaged Scrum Master ought to have?

What about the things you do which compromise a Scrum Master's position, such as managing a backlog and a board for others? Remember that when you take away from self-organization and teamwork, distance will then be introduced between everyone. A good Scrum Master avoids such practises for a reason.

10:08 pm October 7, 2021

Perhaps my questions would be better asked in relation to a scrum master.

Thanks for clearing that up. Please do continue to ask questions, this is a helpful group. : )

Scrum doesn't forbid one person to hold both accountabilities on a Scrum Team, although there are pros/cons as I'm sure you've figured out. 

 

Scrum on

04:37 am October 8, 2021

I firmly believe that the best Scrum Masters act as agile coaches whenever needed, as the most commonly understood responsibilities of an agile coach fall under the way a Scrum Master serves others ⁠— particularly the organization.

I feel that what you raise, combined with the very enlightened answers you've received so far, are an opportunity to inspect not only yourself, but whether there are other impediments in your organization and team that are making you feel that something is off.

You've received feedback that suggests some of what you are doing is wrong. You will need to determine that for yourself, but I think it's a very strong hint about some areas to investigate. Keep in mind that the underlying issue could be as much (or more) about what you are being expected to do, and why those expectations exist, and not just the specific actions you take. There could, for instance, be a cultural or mindset issue that prevails in the organization.

 

As a former developer, when I switched to a full time Scrum Master role, it took me a few weeks to realize that I was no longer getting the same hit of chemicals in my brain, from all the times I'd commit and push some code, or deploy something to production.
It took me even longer to see that a different, less frequent, but more fulfilling hit could come from other things, like seeing how I'd placed a series of breadcrumbs which helped a team retrace its steps and learn a powerful lesson, or when I see others behaving in a way that I could trace back to my training, mentoring and coaching.

I any case, I often feel like an outsider, and yet I'm someone who thrives off deeper relationships. I am comfortable putting myself in a contrary position to the rest of the team and others (my role demands it after all), but that can sometimes come at a cost. It is occasionally a very lonely position to be in.

 

Some things that I've found that can make this problem worse are:

  • being in multiple teams (especially when I was in all of the Scrum Teams)
  • being too busy to focus on the needs of a team (strongly related to being in multiple teams)
  • not having a peer with a comparable role/experience to challenge me and give feedback, or just to pair up with in tackling impediments
  • fixed mindset assumptions (whether from within the team or outside) that I'm there to report on what the team is doing
  • the invisible bullets I provide for the invisible gun of others. Although my only intention is to provide transparency, and I don't think anyone plans on using their invisible gun; in the wrong circumstances, my attempts to reveal can look like I'm setting the team up to fail.

Some things that I've found reduce the problem are:

  • talking to the team: letting them know how I feel, why I want to be included in things, what I'm trying to do, and what I'm not trying to do
  • listening to the team
  • being prepared to change my mind, based on what the team say, and being clear when they haven't changed my mind
  • using more inclusive language "we" over "you"/"they": making clear that when we fail or succeed, we do it together
  • contextualizing why I ask or say certain things: "because I want us to show others that we're in control of the situation, have you thought about...?" / "I feel being able to deploy something earlier will help us learn, and win trust from others, so I suggest we consider..."
  • having a manager who understands my role, and has very similar values about team autonomy
  • having a manager who gives critical, but constructive feedback
  • declining to do things that would undermine the team or my place in it (e.g. relaying negative feedback from others, performing analysis of metrics on behalf of the team, or visualizing metrics that I feel would drive the wrong conversations)
  • encouraging the team to celebrate wins, whether big or small

I have also found the enforced (and now largely opt-in) remote working since the pandemic to be quite isolating. Depending on your personality, needs, and context, perhaps that could also be a factor in why you feel like an outsider.