March 22, 2020

3 Steps to Becoming an Agile Coach

Completing an Agile Coaching certification doesn’t make you an Agile Coach. So where do you start and how do you chart your own journey?

I thought about my own journey and interviewed a number of successful active coaches. The following is a brief guide drawn from our collective experience.

Just to be clear, this bare-bones guide isn’t the only way of becoming an effective Agile coach but does contain enough to give you a solid foundation so you can be useful, effective and deliver a ton of value to your clients and the organisations you serve

First, an example of some excellent coaching.

Dilbert Coaching

1. Master some Agile Frameworks and Methodologies

If you want to be an Agile Coach, you better have a solid grasp of some Agile Frameworks and Methodologies. This may seem obvious, but I have lost count of the number of Agile Coaches that don’t know how many events there are in Scrum (as an example) or who don’t know the difference between Kanban and Scrum, and don’t get me started on what makes a useful Scrum Master…

To start with, focus on one Agile framework and build from there.

Out of all the Agile methodologies and frameworks out there I chose to focus on Scrum. Scrum is the most popular framework when it comes to Agile, so it’s probably the best place to start.

You need both book smarts and practical experience to be able to coach well.

Get Thorough Agile Knowledge – Theories and Practice

Get Theories

So, we said we are going to start with Scrum and the fastest way to get some solid knowledge is attending some of the finest Scrum.org training out there – this training will equip you with the knowledge you need to understand the framework well.

You need to know why we do agile – no its not because of the ‘stand-ups’. You need a working understanding of how Scrum fits together, what the roles and artefacts are and how they interrelate.

You need to know what Scrum is good for and where it breaks down. Getting this solid baseline will stand you in good stead.

To continue my education a number of my colleagues and I attained certifications in Professional Scrum Master I, II, III as well as the Product Owner I, II, III – Scrum.org training is thorough and the examinations are tough – attaining these certifications show a level of increasing mastery and will give you confidence when it comes to using and applying the framework

Get Practice

Hopefully while you’re learning all this great Scrum stuff you are actively engaged in an agile role. To be a great coach you should have been active in an agile role as part of an agile team. You will ideally have been involved in a number of roles as a Scrum Master, Product Owner or Development Team member on an active Scrum Team.

Weird fact - I have never met an effective Agile Coach that has not been a Scrum Master. To be an Agile Coach, I believe you must have some experience as a Scrum Master.

As well as other responsibilities, the Scrum Master operates as a coach for the team, teaching, training and mentoring the Development Team, Product Owner and the Organisation in effective Scrum. If you’ve never coached any teams, how will you coach multiple teams and Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Developers in parallel when you are an Agile Coach?

All the coaches I hire are strong enough to operate as a Scrum Master and/or Product Owner with little or no preparation – they can only do that if they deeply understand both the theory and practical application of the Scrum framework, what each role entails and what is needed to get the best from it. I have found that of the best ways to learn about a framework is to learn where it fails. If you can figure out the places that failure occur and how to overcome them then you can help others.

To be an effective Agile Coach you will need to have in-depth knowledge about agile in more than one form. For example, when will you recommend Kanban over Scrum? When will you endorse Prince 2 over Scrum? What about DSDM? What’s the best approach for highly regulated projects? What if there are fixed deadlines and fixed scope, what will you advise? You can only answer these questions if you have learned more than just one agile flavour.

2. Master individual and team change work

Great so now you’re an expert on some agile frameworks, the next piece is to master the people side of Agility.

Get Coaching Theory and Practice

An Agile Coach is constantly working with people and is usually to be found training, mentoring, coaching at multiple levels. Sometimes you are coaching team members, other times you are training leaders.

So how do you do that?

An agile coach knows proven ways to help people overcome problems.

As an example, I am a big fan of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) as a change approach and am myself an NLP Master Practitioner with over 20 years’ experience in coaching people to success.

Neuro Linguistic Programming contains a great set of skills for connecting with people and assisting with making shifts using elegant change approaches that are rapid and effective. NLP also has some approaches to help a practitioner handle conflict and challenge. How do you help new teams go through inter-team conflict for example? NLP offers some options using Reframing to help with bringing parties together. There are also approaches like the Situation, Behaviour Impact tool developed by the Centre for Creative Leadership (http://www.ccl.org). the point is, you’ll need a range of approaches to help people manage change and reinvent themselves to get the best from Agile ways of working.

Get Facilitation Theory and Practice

Ok so you know how to coach people, how do you get the best from teams?

You need some facilitation and training techniques.

For Training, I use ‘Training From the Back of The Room‘

I heavily blend Training from the Back of the Room (created by Sharon Bowman) techniques with Liberating Structures facilitation practices.

From the Website - ‘Liberating Structures are easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust. They quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone. Liberating Structures are a disruptive innovation that can replace more controlling or constraining approaches’

Check out http://www.liberatingstructures.com/ for more information.

I train without power point and these two models are probably the best complimentary approaches I have found for rapid learning.

Liberating Structures also offer ways for groups to learn, solve problems, group think, reason and generate consensus. Its worth getting serious with Liberating Structures.

Right now with the growing interest in online and distributed working, organisations need to create collaborative distributed teams that are just as effective. Its not enough to know about zoom, you’ll need to know how to use it to maximally bring your teams together, solve problems and still achieve tremendously, you can tailor both Training from the Back of the room approaches and Liberating Structures to work well digitally.

3. Master Organisational and Leadership Change

Finally, for Agile to thrive in a firm, the entire organisation needs to adopt the principles, practices and mindset.

Dilbert Leadership Change

When Agile first comes to organisations you might see something like the above. Leaders tend to assume that they are already agile. They reason that as successful leaders with the right titles, salaries and responsibilities how could be anything but agile?

Such leaders tend to end up here:

Calvin Hobbes Leadership

What’s worse is, that after training the entire workforce, without creating the conditions for success, our newly skilled people will just leave.

To make change thorough you’ll need to understand some organisational change approaches. Understand what stops Agile from working across firms and most importantly how do firms unwind or undo Agile initiatives once they start?

For me, a through grounding in John Kotter’s work around organisational change is essential. Add some change approaches from Mike Burrows (http://www.Agendashift.com) and Klaus Leopold (http://www.flightlevelsacademy.com/)  and you begin to understand not only the challenges around how large scale change can be initiated but also approaches to sustain the change and generate the momentum to make it self sustaining. Additionally, as empiricism is at the heart of all we do, a solid grounding in Evidenced Based Management would stand you in great stead.

And finally, both Mike and Klaus offer training in their methods, I also recommend The Professional Agile Leadership training by Scrum.org.

So that’s it…

3 things

  1. Master Agile Frameworks
  2. Master Individual and Team Change
  3. Master Organisational Change.

I’d love to know your thoughts on what makes a great coach, please feel to reach out to: Jay@FractalSystems.co.uk or comment below

Jay is co-founder of Fractal Systems Consulting, an agile consultancy run by a group of Professional Scrum Trainers, change agents and agile delivery coaches who have deep experience and know-how in creating behavioural change, come and find us at www.FractalSystems.co.uk   

Additionally, if you’re interested in learning in a fun application rich environment that focuses on real world applied approaches, come along to one of our trainings at FractalSystems.co.uk/agile-scrum-training