March 23, 2022

Professionalism in Agile Coaching

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Leslie Morse

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Professionalism is a key part of our identity at Scrum.org. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to bring professionalism alive for our learners, our trainers and the broader community. What does professionalism mean in a broader context than Scrum? How do we bring it alive for Scrum practitioners? As we do this work, it often gets us wondering do we know what it means to be a professional in the Agile industry? Does it mean someone that truly upholds the Agile values and principles? Lots and lots of questions.

Professional Scrum puts an incredible emphasis on values, empiricism and Done. We may go as far to say that if you are using all of the Scrum events and upholding the Scrum values, but you are not using an empirical approach with a rigorous attention for getting Done, then you are not doing Scrum professionally. It is important to remember the motion of the process and even the right behaviors mean nothing if you are not delivering, reviewing it and improving it and the way you work. 

Pondering questions and topics like the ones above can lead to fun philosophical debates. Recently, we’ve extended our curiosity to the topic of agile coaching. What does it mean to be professional when coaching agile teams? Does it mean you leverage professional coaching skills? Does it mean you uphold the Code of Ethical Conduct for Agile Coaching from the Agile Alliance? 

Before you read on, I want you to pause for a moment. Think about the word professionalism. Think about how professionalism relates to the practice of agile coaching (the work of agile coaching, not the job title agile coach). What comes up for you? What does Professionalism in Agile Coaching look like? How would you know it was present? 

Grounding in Professional Scrum

If you talk to our CEO, Dave West, about what Professional Scrum really means, he will emphasize three important points.

  1. Transparent Empiricism
    First and foremost teams and organizations using Scrum professionally are wildly transparent about their empiricism. They frequently deliver and learn. To me, a key sub-component of this is that it means you have to be Done. You can’t really deliver unless things are Done. If our highest priority as agilists is to satisfy the customer1 then you have to be delivering often and learning if what you build truly satisfies them.
     
  2. Empowering Self-Managed Teams
    Professionalism in Professional Scrum is a team sport. There is no way around it. This means leaders have to get out of the way and create an environment where motivated teams are able to deliver value. It's pretty much inevitable that the ability to deliver and learn will be significantly impeded if organizational processes, structures and culture get in the way of teams self-managing. Listening and learning what teams need and empowering them to solve their own problems is critical. 
     
  3. Continuous Improvement
    This may seem a little redundant to Transparent Empiricism, however, it is so important Dave calls it out over and over again. A relentless commitment to continuous improvement is key for Professional Scrum. This is not only limited to continuously improving products and services delivered. It is also a commitment to continuously improving how people and teams work together to deliver value.

Agile Coaching in Professional Scrum

As Scrum.org it is hard to discuss professionalism for agile coaching without addressing how Agile Coaching fits in with Professional Scrum. Here is our definition of the topic: Agile coaching is a collection of skills and techniques used to serve people, teams, and organizations for the purpose of enabling agility

The Scrum Guide does not reference agile Coaching nor the idea of an Agile Coach. It does talk about Scrum Master accountabilities though and the skills and techniques of Agile Coaching are incredibly useful for those practitioners who are fulfilling the Scrum Master accountabilities. Why? Because “helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization2” is no easy feat. Scrum Masters are continuously working with people to unlock new ways of thinking and coaching allows you to meet someone where they are and help them do their own developmental work to embrace new ideas and ways of working.

Agile coaching and agile coaches helps people and teams solve complex problems. (By the way, helping people and teams solve complex problems is the Scrum.org mission.) So, we are all in favor of the discipline of agile coaching. We want agile coaches to be successful. We believe great Agile Coaches create an environment where Professional Scrum can thrive and are able to partner with organizations in ways that allow them to realize the full benefit Scrum offers for teams and organizations.

It is tempting to extend this to include commentary on how the job descriptions of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches are the same (or different), but I will leave that for another post. For now, let’s acknowledge that is another highly debated topic in the Agile industry.  

Professionalism in Agile Coaching

Our current thinking highlights four key aspects for professionalism in agile coaching.

  1. Practice Ethically
    Ethics are critical for any profession. In fact, I was talking with one of the co-founders of CRR Global, the home of Organization & Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) about the dilemmas of agile coaching and she essentially said to me, “Leslie, if there is no code of ethics for agile, then you’re not professionals.” I’m not sure I 100% agree with her statement because by definition being professional means following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain3. Her comment really did get me thinking though. It also made me appreciate the opportunity to be a Scrum.org representative who worked with the Agile Alliance Agile Coaching Ethics initiative. The Code of Ethical Conduct for Agile Coaching cites nine commitments.

    1 - Protecting confidentiality, intellectual property and information security
    2 - Acting within my ability
    3 - Introspection and continuing professional development
    4 - Navigating conflicts of interest
    5 - Ensuring Value in the Relationship
    6 - Upholding social responsibility, diversity and inclusion
    7 - Agreeing on boundaries
    8 - Managing differences in status and power
    9 - Responsibility to the profession

    Read the complete Code of Ethical Conduct for Agile Coaching
     
  2. Choose Intentionally
    The agile coaching toolbox is almost never-ending. There are a litany of adjacent competencies, disciplines, and professions a practitioner could draw upon when doing this work. The popular Agile Coaching Competency Framework lists four predominant stances someone might take. Coaching, Facilitating, Mentoring, and Training. Based on experience (and customer desire) I’d also consider Consulting or Advising to be a clear stance someone might take when agile coaching.

    The point is that people who are providing agile coaching professionally intentionally choose which stance to take. They don’t haphazardly use different skills. They evaluate the situation they are in, choose an approach and make the best choice possible. It is important to choose intentionally.
     
  3. Represent Accurately
    This is a nod to the idea of transparency which is so critical for Professional Scrum. If you are intentionally choosing a stance or approach to use when you are agile coaching, you need to accurately represent that to those you are working with. Oftentimes this is very subtle (especially for skilled practitioners). It might be a statement like, “To best serve the work we’re doing right now I’m going to focus on facilitating how we move through this discussion.”

    If you’re intentionally choosing to use a coaching stance with a person or team though, this representation will be much more direct because to practice ethically you must get consent from those you are coaching. It is important to recognize we are not using the word coaching colloquially (or generically) here. By coaching we mean you are intentionally choosing to bring forward skills and techniques from the coaching profession, also often referred to as professional coaching competencies.

    The short of it is to be clear with those you are working with on how you are serving them. There is a little magic in this disclosure as well. The more transparent you are with those people and teams, the more they learn which techniques best serve different situations. This insight helps them to be more skillful in their own work as an agile practitioner.
     
  4. Continuously Improve
    Again, a clear reference to Professional Scrum. Continuous improvement in this context is also a direct reference to the third commitment from the Code of Ethical Conduct for Agile Coaching. Those who are agile coaching need to be continuously honing their craft. This might be in the form of mentorship, peer groups, coaching circles, reading, practicing, attending courses, or being part of a cohort program. It doesn’t really matter how you are investing in deepening your capabilities as long as you are prioritizing the time to do the work.

So What? Why does this even matter?

You might be wondering why we even care about this. We want to do our part to help address the confusion and frustration across the Agile industry. As Scrum.org we talk to hundreds, if not thousands of leaders, practitioners, and stakeholders in agile organizations. One thing can be said to be true: few, if any, share the same definition of what agile coaching really is. Some people think (and experience) agile coaching as a form of consulting. Others think it is nearly synonymous with professional coaching and others are places in-between or somewhere else entirely.

This misalignment results in few being fully satisfied when it comes to agile coaching. This means both the people providing agile coaching and those that are the recipients of it are unhappy. There is rampant misalignment of needs, expectations and desired outcomes.

The presence of this frustration and confusion let us know something is missing. We happen to think it is greater professionalism in agile coaching.

Upping your Professionalism: Focus on Coaching

Beyond reflecting on the four key aspects of professionalism in agile coaching we provided earlier we invite you to take a closer look at how you are coaching. As we covered, coaching is one of the many areas you might draw upon when agile coaching. We believe this is an area ripe for improvement within the Agile industry.

Coaching, as agilists know it, is rooted in the skills and competencies from the ever-growing coaching profession. Practitioners who are the most skillful in coaching have often completed coach training programs accredited by organizations such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC) or others.

ICF and EMCC accredited training and certification is not available to everyone though. These programs require a significant investment of time and money. Additionally, not all Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches need to be certified as Professional Coaches. We do see that many are falling short when it comes to capturing the power of the coaching stance though. Others inadvertently misrepresent what coaching means because they are use skills from teaching, mentoring, facilitating or consulting and label it as coaching. The things learned in a 2-5 day course on agile coaching is just a teaser of what it means to effectively leverage a coaching stance. As a result, many stop short and only apply techniques like powerful questions and three levels of listening.

To help people deepen their proficiency in coaching we’ve created a new page on the Scrum.org site for Coaching. It highlights two things that are particularly important.

We also have two events coming up soon that highlight the experience and wisdom of people in our global community of Professional Scrum Trainers.

What’s new for you now?

I hope you found it to be thought provoking (at the least) and hopefully it was also valuable for you. I invite you to take a moment and reflect on what you’ve read. How has your thinking shifted since contemplating professionalism in agile coaching? What’s new for you now? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment on this post and we can start a discussion.

1Principles behind the Agile Manifesto
2Scrum Guide 2020
3Dictonary.com definition: Professional