"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change!" - Charles Darwin

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Are you an Agile coach?

In the last 3 months, I met an incredibly high number of people, who call themselves Agile coaches: it looks like it is a fast growing family. For some reason when introducing each other, every time it is like a dejavu and it seems to me to hear the very same words: “My name is xxx, I am an Agile coach. And you?”
And this makes me smile every time, because it reminds me a tale from a friend of mine. 
When her sister was a child, they met a Great Dane: you know the huge dog, which size is more comparable to a horse than a dog?  
So her sister approached the dog and said: “My name is Carmen. I am a 6-years old girl. And you?

There’s a lot of misuderstanding about Agile coaching (as well as a lot of mystification around Agile, I hope I can write something about in the near future), but still in my view it is one of the most challenging and yet exciting jobs in the world, even if honestly or on purpose misled.

I will try to share what it is in my view.
Let’s start with the word “coaching”. It comes from the English word “coach” and gives the sense of taking a person from a point A to a point B. Myles Downey in Effective Coaching defines it as “The art of facilitating the performance, learning, and development of another”.

But an Agile coach (likewise as I said some weeks ago for an Agile manager) is not only a coach.
First of all in coaching it's the coachee to define the direction, like a “coach” doesn’t take the lead itself in defining where to go: it’s all about the coachee's agenda then.
On the other side, if you’re an Agile coach is not only about your coachee's agenda, it’s also about your agenda of teaching about Agile values, principles and practices, because you know by experience that they can improve their performances as individuals and teams by being and living Agile.

So an Agile coach is not just a coach (and even less just a facilitator), but he’s able to be a teacher and a mentor, when it is time help people who do not have enough tools to perform a certain task or solve a certain problem in the complex world of SW development or in the art of working as a performing team.

Then, while it is enough for a professional coach or a facilitator to master only coaching skills or facilitation tools, without necessarily knowing anything about their clients’ or team’s context, only first-hand experience and hands-on practice can give an Agile coach enough tools and credibility to give some direction when it is needed by the circumstances: you want your team to be off their comfort zone to be able to learn, but not too much to fall into chaos or panic.
And being a teacher is even a different job, where you need specific skills and practice different tools: that’s why you could have heard about “allied disciplines” as the tool set for an Agile coach.

But what should you exactly be able to teach, mentor and coach about? 
Let’s see what we can derive from the Agile manifesto.

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Encourage self-organization and collaboration: they are keys to success. Help them learn how to work effectively by means of experiment, fast feedback loops and safe failure. Help them see their conflicts and to choose what to do about them.

  1. Working software over comprehensive documentation
Help people to get things done. Teach, mentor and coach on Agile technical practices, both individuals and teams. Stimulate a culture of SW craftsmanship in your company, based on mastery and apprenticeship, excellence and deliberate practice, ability to find solutions to always new problems.

  1. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Teach and coach your company on Agile values and Lean principles, so that they can be more effective on the market. Have business and development like one team: teach them not to play the contract game inside the same company. Promote a culture of continuously creating learning, by means of close collaboration with the customer on the product.

  1. Responding to change over following a plan
Train your team and organization to be able to keep as many options open as possible until the very last responsible moment and make informed decisions. Enable cross-functionality and e2e approaches to be more flexible to change. Coach your organization to always look at the big picture to focus on the most important stuff, validate hypoteses instead of blindly follow plans and change direction when needed.

And you should live yourself and role model the values and principles you would like your team or your coachee to learn: you cannot just be on stage.

For instance, challenge yourself the status quo and continuously improve: be soft with people and tough with processes, as Toyota teaches, starting with your own way of working.
So be the first to experiment, look for fast feedback loops on what you’re doing and reflect on the results. Continuously learn and practice new coaching and teaching techniques, be passionate and energize others. Be ready to share what you learned and contribute to local and global communities. 
Empower, be always there to protect your team and have the courage to stand for what you believe in.

You don’t work as an Agile coach: you ARE an Agile coach. Aren’t you?