Get certified - Transform your world of work today

Coaching Agile Teams

02/02/2012 by Tushar Somaiya

Two words, Agile and coaching, seem to be the most-used buzzwords (after brain and neuro) of the last five years or so. The way things are progressing, I see them staying at the top of the list for decades.

Let’s understand these words individually first, and then see how they make sense together. More important, let’s understand why they make sense together.

First let’s look at agile. Not Agile Manifesto, not all the different methodologies or techniques. What does agile mean? The Free Dictionary defines it as “characterized by quickness, lightness, and ease of movement.” Webster notes that it is “marked by ready ability to move with quick, easy grace.” The way I like to put it is, “Quickly responding to changes defines agility.”

In the context of software development, how quickly, lightly, easily, readily, and gracefully we respond to changes while developing software defines our agility. (Notice the word respond and not react.)

Now, what is coaching? The term “coach” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word for a carriage — which takes you from where you are now to where you want to be. Coaching is:

  • The art of facilitating the performance, learning, and development of another. (Effective Coaching, Myles Downey)
  • Helping you do your best. (Fish! Sticks, Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul, John Christensen)
  • Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. (Coaching for Performance, John Whitmore)
  • Coaching closes the gap between thinking about doing and doing. (The Life Coaching Handbook, Curly Martin)
  • Coaching is about performing at your best through the individual and private assistance of someone who will challenge, stimulate, and guide you to keep growing. (Gerard Donovan, founder and CEO of Noble Manhattan Coaching)
  • Coaching will assist a client in defining what they want, removing obstacles, setting goals, taking into account values and purpose, striving for balance and fulfillment. (Coaching Agile Teams, Lyssa Adkins)

In a nutshell: Coaching is a vehicle to transport a client from where he is now in his life to where he wants to be.

So we have learned what agile and coaching are, individually. What do they mean together? What is Agile coaching? (Note that we are not talking about training, in an Agile fashion or otherwise. Training is teaching people to do what they don’t know how to do. Coaching is for people who are performing normally and want to do better.) In the words of Lyssa Adkins (Coaching Agile Teams, Addison-Wesley Professional, 2010): "In the context of Agile teams, coaching takes on the dual flavor of coaching and mentoring. You coach to help someone reach the next goal in his or her life. You also share your Agile experiences and ideas as you mentor, guiding the person to use Agile well. In this way, coaching and mentoring are entwined, for the sake of developing talented Agilists for more and better business results.)

"In other words, the context of Agile makes you a mentor; the focus on team performance makes you a coach. (Note that a serious point of ethics for professional coaches holds that the coachee’s agenda must be the single guiding light of the coaching relationship. The coach exists solely for the coachee, not the other way around. In Agile, the coach not only can but must mix in his or her own agenda: to influence the coachee to use Agile well. Hence an Agile coach is not necessarily a 'pure' coach.)"

Finally, why do these concepts make so much sense together? Why do Agile teams benefit from coaching?

Getting good results with Agile is actually relatively easy: Form a cross-functional team, prioritize backlog items, create a shippable product each iteration. Follow the process and your team is likely to deliver value. There's no surprise here.

Getting truly great results, especially consistently, however, is a bit rarer. Great results require a great team. And great teams rarely just happen. A team that's new to Agile and aspiring toward greatness may need a trained, experienced coach. This is because Agile is a change in mind-set, and mind-sets don't change overnight — or even after two or three days of training. Even if they do, they need some direction.

To again quote Adkins: "If the client, team, ScrumMaster, and management are new to Agile, they invariably need a coach to tell them what 'good' Agile is. Agile can seem full of opposites: simple yet challenging, lightweight yet mighty, commonsensical yet subtle, easily accessible yet deep. Agile is easy to get going, yet hard to do well."

Ultimately, of course, the coach wants to be no longer needed. The team will start making its own decisions, doing its own planning, organizing itself. Managers, meanwhile, may become ScrumMasters, thus facilitating the team. In fact, once most of the work is done by the team itself, management is free to progress naturally toward people management — facilitating, mentoring, and coaching. Just what they've been there to do all along. . . .


Coaching Agile Teams, by Lyssa Adkins (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2010)