On Hiring An Agile Coach, How to Setup for Success

Hiring agile coaches is still very much a standard practice. Many organizations hire a cohort of coaches spread around the organization to help teach, train, and lead the teams towards their specific goal of agility (usually related to: better quality products delivered in a shorter increments).  There are indeed many benefits to agile coaching in the right circumstances (i.e. the team wants the outside help). The most critical time for ensuring success with a coach starts before the engagement – the pre-contract setup meeting in which current state, obstacles, and expectations are shared.  The team or its leadership asking for a coach must reflect on its current state, the state of the product (direction or strategy for the future), the dynamics of the team, external factors, the governance and software development processes, and its main points of pain (quality, speed, effectiveness – ROI). The team needs to have a sense of where it wants to focus its improvement so that it can become more responsive in its delivery of high quality software. It will hire a coach accordingly.   In a general sense, the team will have reflected enough to know that – with respect to agility – it is 

  • stuck in one or more patterns, that prevent quality or productivity, or general effectiveness. 
  • needs additional clarity about specific goals; and ways to reach the goals.  
  • has either communication or motivational issues which require individual or team coaching
  • wants to own the change….and the results

Given the above, the setup meeting I envision will encompass the following two topics: Goal Setting and Investment Thinking

Goal Setting: The coach and coachee (e.g. leadership and team) generate a common understanding of the specific goals as well as the skills, training, and facilitation needed of the coach to reach those goals. 

Goals should be measurable.  For example, if code quality is the burning issue preventing frequent delivery of features, then a coach versed in quality issues, software craftsmanship and Test Driven Development (TDD) will be suitable. The goal might be to reduce escaped defects by 50%.  Each agile coach has her own ‘book of knowledge’  on topics in the following areas (not an exhaustive list):  team dynamics, psychology, communication, organizational learning, management, agile methods (e.g. Scrum, XP, Kanban), processes and tools, systems thinking, software development, product ownership, lean startup, technical practices (e.g. TDD, ATDD, CI/CD), and scaled methodologies (e.g. LESS, SaFE, DAD).  It is important to find a fit that suits your situation well.  Find out more about the coach candidates and their strengths.  Broadly speaking, we can divide coaches into process coaches, technical coaches, and leadership coaches (focusing on communication and motivation) – but all coaches will be versed at a high level in many of the listed areas and have depth in a smaller number of areas.  

When needed, a coach should be able to call on other coaches in the organization to fill in any gaps.  For example, an agile coach focussing on process and methodology should be able to find assistance with CI/CD – DEVOPS expertise and bring in a short term trainer to fill a gap on the team they are coaching. A technical coach who is less comfortable with running retrospectives, should be able to ask someone with that experience in team facilitation to fill in.  The coach should be able to measure the goal and help you achieve it.

Investment Thinking: The coach shares with potential sponsor/hiring manager of the agile coach the ways in which they and the team will need to invest in the coaching. 

 If this step is skipped, you will encounter many bumps.  It is not uncommon for there to be some resistance to coaching involving change.  Many times it is due to pre-existing schedules and deadlines that are said to be ‘fixed’.  It can be due to fear that some might have of losing their jobs.  If we assume that ‘learning’ is the biggest impediment to a transition to agile, and that learning takes time, and we know that ‘there is no time’, no coaching will help. A coach running behind the busy people telling them what to do, just in time, will also fail.

Agile coaching involves the team learning new habits, and communicating in different ways about the work. Initially there will be knowledge transfer through training; knowledge acquisition (cementing the classroom knowledge) will come through the hands on work.  Doing is believing. A team that is willing to drop their own resistance and invest in some new ways of working together and communicating together will succeed. Management must support this. 

A coachee (leadership and team) will benefit most from a coach when they can recognize and verbalize their own resistance patterns and be open to talking about it.  A good coach will help them recognize these patterns early on.  Any team undergoing change will first experience a dip in productivity before the gains begin to take hold.  The timeline of a coaching intervention will be heavily dependent on the context, culture, and the size of the team.  Expect to have the team spend some portion of their work on learning and improvement.  Expect to experiment, and learn from failing too. This is learning.

General Principles of Coaching

If then, the initial improvements and goals are agreed to; management is invested in its own and its team’s ongoing learning activities;  and the skills of the specific coach are aligned to the desired improvements, the coach will come on board with a higher likelihood of success. The very best coach will seek to minimize the touch time with the team over time, and leave them in their own best state for learning on their own.   

The coach will be a powerful observer whose general stance will be to keep the team on track and to help them stay accountable to each other.  Although the coach will often wear the hat of a trainer and facilitator, she will, as much as possible, apply the general principles of coaching, namely:

  • A coach focuses on the agenda of the coachee (the goals and improvements they wish to achieve). The coachee decides which goals or problems to work on, not the coach. The coach can help them discover what they want most.
  • A coach uses powerful questions to generate new learning. The coach does not teach or advise, but asks questions and listens.  During coaching, the coach will help the team by facilitating sessions to find out more about the goals and areas where the team is stuck.  Many questions will be asked and orient the team towards finding solutions.
  • A coach encourages action. The coachee develops his or her own action steps, rather than waiting for assignments of the coach.
  • A coach supports change. A coach follows-up to support personal learning, growth, and change.

The reason we want to see general coaching principles applied to agile coaching is quite simple:  a team will feel more ownership, and the coach will be helping the team to generate its own best way forward.  Specific skills and knowledge of the coach can and should be brought into the mix when absolutely needed. However, it is much more powerful for a team to become a learning team, not reliant on the coach for spoon feeding answers.  A coach can help the team feel confident in its own choice, or steer them to select a new option if the first choice is not in the team’s best interest.  Only when the team is stuck, unable to think of options – should the coach provide an answer.
It is no wonder my recent tweet 
got so much attention.

There is so much work to do to teach people how to learn on their own again. It’s an art they have somewhat lost in the top down style org

This is what using the coaching principles can add.  If you have read “The Goal”, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, you will understand the power of these principles.

_________________________
This post was written from the vantage point of my own prior coaching experiences, many of which did NOT work out or align in the best way possible.  I have just rolled off what I hope is my last ever gig in an organization where agility is mandated and the teams do not genuinely request the coaching.

In the coming year I will be investing in Systemic Modeling training with Caitlin Walker who has achieved major cultural turn arounds in organizations seeking change with as little as 9 days of training, spread over a year with off and on remote coaching after that. I credit much of my thinking around the Setup process described above to her ‘Clean Setup‘ technique.

To hear an account of the effects of Systemic Modeling coaching, watch this video.  This type of work inspires me, and I hope that in the very near future, I can find engagements to do exactly this sort of intervention.   I am not giving up completely on agile coaching, but I will apply the above Setup criteria to whatever opportunity comes my way to ensure I am not ever in the position in which managers and leaders feign wanting the coach in a mandated agile program and then fail to invest in the coach when the coach is present.

Explore posts in the same categories: Coaching, Experience Report, Leadership, Organizational Change, Teams

One Comment on “On Hiring An Agile Coach, How to Setup for Success”


  1. […] How the 'we' works in a complex changing world. « On Hiring An Agile Coach, How to Setup for Success […]


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