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How Agile Coaching Plays a Role in Unlocking the Future of Work

October 28, 2020

If it has been said once, it has been said a million times this year, we are living in interesting times. Even before the onslaught of COVID-19, business conversations were focusing on how organizations (and people) thrive in VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). Since 1995, Scrum, and since 2001, Agile, have become ubiquitous for how to combat these challenges as they provide paths for innovating and creating value in a complex and ever-changing world.

As our industry has matured and we’ve uncovered better ways of delivering incremental value, we’ve dreamt of utopian organizational cultures, ultimate responsiveness in pivoting our businesses, and continuous innovation pipelines. These dreams are inspiring, and for those of us that are lucky, we get to experience them - even if it may be fleeting. The harsh truth is that the overwhelming majority of us still feel light ages away from what we believe in our hearts is possible. We can see the possibility of what the future of work can offer, however we have yet to uncover what it takes to unlock the systemic shift needed to make it reality.

There is a prevailing opinion beginning to emerge though, and our CEO, Dave West, has been highlighting this in webinars and conference presentations for about a year now. We are mired in a pattern of applying the industrialized mindset in our pursuit of agility.

Before we go further, let’s align on three key markers for how we define the “Future of Work.” We will know the future of work has arrived when…

  • Experimentation is the norm. Innovation and creativity will permeate the way people and teams approach solving complex problems and amplifying the value delivered to customers. This experimentation will be embraced in disciplined and methodical ways that focus on measurable outcomes and evidence of creating meaningful impact.
  • People collaborating trumps processes and technologies. Organizations will forego process and technology optimization when innovating and creating value. Instead they will naturally lean into the creative wisdom of people and teams.
  • Incentives are transparent and outcome-oriented. The days of individual performance-based promotions and incentives will be gone. Unity will be created through people and teams rallying around defined goals and outcomes that close the gap between current value and potential value created for customers, constituents, and society as a whole.

Since my arrival at earlier this year, Dave and I have been exploring how agile coaching is positioned to open the doorway for the future of work. It isn’t the world of agile coaching as we’ve known it either. It is a refined approach combining the discipline of professional coaching with rich expertise in the values, principles, and practices of agility. In this post, we’ll explore five dimensions for how we can create space for allowing the future of work to emerge and how agile coaching can be a catalyst for getting us there.

Limitations of the Industrialized Mindset
If you read much “self help” or are exploring the world of professional coaching, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept of self-limiting beliefs. While most commonly thought of as something that is individual in nature, e.g. “the stories we tell ourselves;” this concept applies at the systemic level as well. Our collective industry and organizational minds have their own narratives and engrained ways of thinking. And as we referenced, they are held back by a persistence of the industrial mindset. We see this stunting our ability to embrace the future of work in three ways.

  • Marginalizing key roles. In our industry, this is most prevalent with the role of Scrum Master. If you’ve been part of (or seen) a high performing Scrum team you know good and well Scrum Masters are not just chief administrators or glorified assistants. Too many organizations demean the role of Scrum Master and place not just a glass ceiling, but often an iron ceiling on their ability to serve the Product Owner, Team, and Organization to their fullest potential.
  • Constraining value with hierarchy. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you’ve heard a story of someone that’s fallen victim to the layering of Scrum Master > Team Coach > Program Coach > Portfolio Coach > Enterprise Coach. Yes, it is true - someone who is highly skilled at serving teams may not possess the finesse necessary to delight the C-Suite. However, the now prevalent positioning of rank and authority within agile coaching roles exacerbates the very organizational constraints we seek to overcome in an agile enterprise.
  • Rebranding traditional processes and responsibilities. It is another classic “smell” of something going wrong in change efforts, especially agile transformations. The industrialized mindset has significant reliance on controlled-system behaviors. Processes, structures, and technology intended to “take complexity out;” which is a fallacy in and of itself. This often results in over-engineered approaches to agility that produce nothing more than continued insanity. Consider the question, when is the time you stopped doing something in order to improve?

Unleashing the Future of Work with Empiricism
Now is the time to make empiricism new again. Slow down, bring our community back to three pillars at the heart of agility: Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation. The challenge is that the industrialized mindset approaches these three pillars from a fixed stance versus a growth-oriented stance. Empiricism designed to unleash the future of work will look like…

  • Transparency. Continuous attention to revealing the system around us, and not the defined processes and procedures. Specific focus and attention to revealing the human and relationship systems within teams and organizations and how they work together to create or impede the delivery of value.
  • Inspection. Two perspectives on inspection are needed for the transition to the future. The first starts with self - how each individual approaches their own personal development & professionalism. Second, systemic development & professionalism - how teams, communities, and cultures collectively pursue mission-driven work. Inquiry should balance ones that are deep and exploratory with others guided by the pursuit of outcome-oriented ways for creating value with customers and constituents.
  • Adaptation. The cycle to break with adaptation is change-for-change-sake. There must be a courageous dismantling of self-limiting beliefs, engrained patterns of behavior, and historical non-value-add metrics. Dismantling these creates space to adapt based on the results of inspection, experimentation, and evaluation of evidence that indicates where and how adjustments should be made. 

Let’s acknowledge the biases we bring to our quest for creating the future of work. The bias towards agility. The bias towards Scrum. The bias towards professionalism. We are in fact, We know (and believe) the core tenets of Scrum combined Agile values and principles work well for navigating complexity. When these are embraced and brought-to-life with reverence, discipline, and professionalism - magic happens. We’ve seen it, we’ve experienced it, and yet we know more is possible. This means the real conversation about ushering in the future of work is not only about Scrum. It is not only about agile. It is about using them as the foundation for our way of approaching the world and doing more with them.

Amplifying Human Potential with Professional Coaching
By now you should also see the bias towards people in this exploration. Human systems are the gateway to the future of work, and to achieve it we must take steps today to unlock and amplify the inherent wisdom and creativity each of us have to offer. 

Consider a very early definition of the word coach, a vehicle that transports a very important person from where they are to where they want to be. The body of knowledge for Professional Coaching offers the guide for doing just that, creating a container where individuals and teams are able to chart a path towards their own defined future-state.

This is another area where the duality of individual and systemic work is critically important. Professional Coaching accreditation organizations such as International Coaching Federation (ICF) and European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC) recognize the importance of both and point to coach training schools and programs that enable people to develop and hone these skills.

The proven success of professional coaching as a gateway for personal professional development makes it a critical component for how we move forward. The question becomes, how do we apply it within our domain of expertise?

The Intersection of Professional Coaching and Agility
Here lies the crux of our primary hypothesis. If we truly believe that first, Scrum and agile are proven ways for navigating complexity; second, human systems are at the core of unleashing the future of work; and third, professional coaching unlocks the fullest potential of individuals - then we must fully navigate the intersection of professional coaching and agility. 

This is probably not news to many of you. The idea of coaching in the agile industry has been around for more than a decade. Yet, here in 2020, the year that seems to have thrust the most ambiguity and complexity at us that we’ve seen in modern times - we are still longing for more. We are still in a quandary for how to realize all the benefits agile has to offer. So let us not simply intellectually appropriate concepts from professional coaching, and instead double-down on professionalism and study the body of knowledge from professional coaching in disciplined ways in order to determine how best to achieve our primary agenda of ushering in the future of work via the constructs of Scrum and agile in a human-centered way.

The intersection of our industries calls for recognizing several things, and to be clear - this list is not exhaustive.

  • Agile comes first. Nine times out 10, we are agilists first and professional coaches second. We are not changing our careers to become professional coaches. Instead, we are bringing in key skills and competencies from this body of knowledge to amplify our ability to unlock the fullest potential of ourselves and those around us in pursuit of agility. We (as agile leaders, agile practitioners, agile coaches, Scrum Masters, Product Owners, etc.) are simply activating a coaching stance in our primary role.
  • Ethics and professionalism. Professional Coaching has a code of ethics. The most commonly accepted is the ICF Code of Ethics. We, as an industry, need to take a cue here and further hone our professionalism. As, we are proud to be part of the Agile Alliance Agile Coaching Ethics Initiative where we are openly crafting a code of ethics for agile coaching. 
  • Understand conflicts of interest.  This is an extension of the first two points. In true professional coaching you are focused purely on the client (customer) you are coaching and what their agenda is. As agilists leveraging professional coaching competencies, we are doing this within the macro-agenda of agility. This means it is important to understand when our client’s agenda is at odds with the pursuit of agility.
  • Always be designing. As agilists we often talk of co-creation. When it comes to stepping into the coaching stance as an agilist three words should be at the forefront of your approach. Design, design, design. Get explicit on who the client is, who the sponsors are, and who the stakeholders are. Design alliances (coaching contracts) with them to be clear about the boundaries of what you will and will not “coach” on. In this work, it is important to realize the majority of the time, as agilists, we have “clients” that are teams - not individuals. So be aware of the impact of how team (or systems) coaching and individual (1:1) coaching work together.
  • Recognize boundaries and limitations. This shows us up in several forms. The most important of which is knowing yourself. “Coach” is only one stance an agilist can take. Mentor, Teacher, Facilitator, and Consultant are other ones as well. (See the Agile Coaching Competency Framework.) It happens often, when people are introduced to the idea of professional coaching they get really excited and over occupy the role. When this happens it is easy to get in above your head, cross the boundaries of your personal abilities, and inadvertently coach towards agendas that are conflicts of interest with the outcomes sponsors or the organization are seeking. Slow and steady wins the race here. Remember, we are agilists first. Second to this are the boundaries and limitations of those you are coaching. Meet the client, sponsors, and organization where they are. You can accidentally lose people too soon. There are plenty of people still afraid of the “woo-woo” that is often associated with the coaching stance. Understanding where you are, the team is, and the organizational context helps you know which stance to occupy and when. It takes practice.

Embracing our Higher Calling
At the end of the day, we want to uplift society’s ability to thrive in our complex and ever-changing world. That means we need to create awesome teams capable of innovating and creating value while navigating VUCA on a daily basis. If we are doing that, then we are living the future of work. So let’s embrace the first line of the agile manifesto in a new light. Now is the time to be working together to uncover better ways of creating the future of work

This means bringing new intentionality, commitment and discipline to the way we hone our professionalism, develop ourselves as people and uplift those around us. The natural ways we approach our work as Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches and Leaders is a great start. Why are we waiting to take it to the next level? Why shy away from unlocking the fullest potential of ourselves, our teams, our organizations, and the world? The next age of agility will be built on forging deep alliances with professions adjacent to ours. One of the most important of those is building the bridge between our industry and professional coaching. 

We already know Scrum and Agile are wildly popular. As a result, we are perfectly positioned to change the world. We have a responsibility to do so. On behalf of the family, I invite you, as a fellow Scrum professional, as a fellow agilists, and as a fellow member of society to challenge each other. To embrace a mission for making the world a better place. Together we can usher in the future of work.

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