What is an Agile Coach?

Agile Coach
Agile Coach – Copyright: Image by StockUnlimited

For many people, the idea of an Agile Coach is new and unfamiliar. It’s seems obvious that it’s someone who can coach others in Agile, but what does that really mean? Why would you need an Agile Coach in your organization? What kinds of things do Agile Coaches do that your ScrumMasters and Product Owners can’t? And what benefit does a Coach provide that just reading the Scrum Guide or some other literature can’t? I’m happy you asked!

What an Agile Coach Does

Agile Coaches are usually people with a lot of experience working in agile environments or even crafting agile transformations. Coaches have to have a lot of knowledge about agile frameworks and methodologies, not just one. While a ScrumMaster may know the Scrum Guide inside and out, they may not know about Lean thinking or eXtreme Programming. Some other agile methodologies have nuggets that might help a team that’s not  implementing that particular methodology. An experienced coach can identify some items to help a team reach a whole new level.

Coaches focus on helping teams get better. That’s no different than any other coach, but Agile Coaches tend to focus on helping the team understand how they can fix their own problems. This is the proverbial “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime”. Coaches can give the answers but I try to have teams identify their own solutions. If their solution is not the one I’d pick… I let them. We try it. Experiment. I may learn something from their success or failure. But it’s important that the team learn from the experiment.

Finally, If your organization is just starting its agile journey, your Agile Coach will very likely do some sort of agile assessment. This gauges how ready your teams are to adopt agile. There are likely some unpleasant surprises that will come up, so be forewarned that you might not be ecstatic with the “state of agile” in your organization. This is not a criticism, though! It’s simply an objective view of the organization and what challenges you’ll likely experience as you adopt whatever agile methodology you’ve selected.

In short, an Agile Coach brings a lot of experience, understanding, and compassion – as well as a desire to help others succeed – to your organization.

What an Agile Coach Doesn’t Do (Normally)

If you’ve spent the time looking for and engaging an Agile Coach, there are a few things you should probably keep in mind that are normally outside the coach’s role.

  1. Being a ScrumMaster/Product Owner. Most coaches are paid more than a ScrumMaster and bring much more to the table than you benefit from having them as a ScrumMaster. Asking an Agile Coach to fill in either of these roles is a disservice to the coach and to your bottom line. If you need a ScrumMaster or a Product Owner, hire one of those. A coach in those roles is a waste of your money.
  2. Advocate for your current processes. Most coaches will look at your processes and procedures and then make recommendations on how best to proceed to reach your goals. These recommendations may or may not support existing processes, but each one should be examined objectively.
  3. Tell you what to do. Coaches will never tell you what you should do. They will definitely make recommendations based on their knowledge and their experience, but under no circumstances will they take a “hard line” on things. You’re the customer and, as I mentioned above, you may opt to go a different direction. Call it an experiment. If it succeeds, awesome. If it fails, awesome – so long as you learn something for it.
  4. Be a purist. I often hear from those trying to resist agile adoption that some coaches are agile purists. If you’ve been reading my posts at all you’ll see the fallacy there – we’re actually all agile pragmatists. We understand that one technique or ceremony or process may work in an ideal setting, but we also understand that one size does not fit all. We may need to tailor a methodology to the group at hand, but we should be trying to adhere to the Agile Manifesto. There should be no “my way or the highway” kinds of conversations with an Agile Coach.
    A friend of mine – the Agile Tie-Dye Guy – puts it this way:

    “The process for tie-dye is the same no matter what you do, but different aspects of the process change with different materials and dyes. And every tie-dye is different, just as your agile adoption will be.”

Finding the Right Agile Coach For You

If you’re looking for an Agile Coach, here are some tips that might help you get started.

  1. If you have a specific methodology you’re looking at implementing, find someone who has not only a certification but experience in that. For example, f you’re implementing SAFe 4.0, get someone who has done it before. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain and false starts.
  2. If you’re just starting with an agile transformation, find a coach who has experience in multiple frameworks. Otherwise you’ll get a “one size fits all” approach that will likely be a Bad ThingTM for your organization.
  3. Ask your prospective coach what their philosophy on agile is. If they provide something other than tailoring their approach to meet your needs, you probably don’t want to work with them. To me, that sounds like an awful lot like “my way or the highway”. Probe around to see if that’s how they are. If so, it’s hasta la vista!

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Artemis offers excellent coaching services. If you’re interested in learning more about us and what we can offer, please Contact Us.

Good luck and happy coaching!

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