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Coaching Agile Leaders

Applying Management Consulting Practices

16 August 2017

Dr. Dave Cornelius

Coaching Agile leaders is a formidable task, intended to guide individuals and teams toward a culture shift, inclusive of everyone and contributing to a value-driven outcome. The germinal practice of management consulting is tried and true and can be traced back to pioneer Frederick Taylor (1893), continuing with Edward Deming and Peter Drucker. The notion of applying management consulting practices to the field of Agile coaching would certainly create a benefit for coaches and stakeholders. Proposed is the Agile coach cycle of continual learning (Inquire, Discover, Influence, and Deliver) as a vehicle to gather data, generate insights, introduce culture shift, and demonstrate a value-driven outcome. Agile coaches leveraging the cycle of continual learning will have a measurable approach to help customers compete in a global economy.


The practice of coaching people or teams to achieve specific goals is a global phenomenon that has existed since the origin of the human race. Elders or more highly skilled individuals would share experiences and knowledge with the younger members of a tribe. The skills included — but were not limited to — hunting, cooking, science, medicine, and art. These skills were illustrated in cave drawings, demonstrating how knowledge was transferred to the current or next generation of tribal leaders. People shared stories to carry forward historical events that preserved culture and memories of the past.

In the modern era of globalization, continual connectedness, and the demand to be Agile, people need coaching to evolve to this new modus operandi. In this document, the definition of an Agile coach includes: 1) training and facilitating Agile frameworks knowledge and application, 2) collaborative engagement, 3) people empowerment, and 4) culture shift. The practice of Agile coaching goes beyond single teams and extends to the transformation of organizations to respond appropriately to market challenges and opportunities.

Management consulting

Management consulting (MC) is the practice of discovering customer issues and opportunities and engaging the customers’ leaders to define a vision, strategies, and operational effectiveness to remain competitive and thrive in their industry of choice. The management consulting practice began in 1893 with Frederick Taylor, a pioneer in time study and the application of metrics to business operations efficiency. Edward Deming is also of this ilk; he provided coaching to the Japanese automotive industry, which resulted in the Lean movement and the persistent cycle of continual improvement called Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA), an evolution from Walter Shewhart’s Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA). During my tenure as a management consultant working for one of the world’s largest consultancies, I learned and employed the Method/1 and Design/1 frameworks to guide customer engagements by gathering data, creating information, and delivering solutions.

In the Agile coaching practice environment, there are several frameworks that stand out and provide a common model that is similar to the timeless practices of MC:
  • Adkins (2008) introduced a philosophy and framework for coaching Agile teams that can be used by both experienced and aspiring Agile coaches.1
  • Leffingwell (2007) developed the enterprise Agile framework, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), that describes how to scale the Scrum framework across the enterprise.2
  • Nies and Larsen (2011) prescribed Agile chartering as a practice for ensuring agreement and alignment between multiple levels in an organization.3
However, there is a gap in the end-to-end framework from customer engagement to final delivery of a high-performing organization of teams. Simply stated, the missing piece is the set of defined steps and questions that will engage the customer and guide them in taking the value-driven actions that allow for a successful experience for both the customer and the coach.

Based on personal experience in the MC and Agile coaching areas, I believe a blended approach leads to a comprehensive outcome that enables a robust and measurable organizational Agile transformation.

The Agile Coach Cycle of Continual Learning

Frameworks provide common practices for engaging with people, allowing them to communicate and respond using a common language while also mitigating risks and producing a valuable outcome. The Agile Coach Cycle of Continual Learning is a framework for engaging with an organization, beginning with assessment and continuing through to the transformation of individuals into a cohesive, functioning team. The Agile coach plays a significant role in the organization’s transformation to becoming flexible, with the ability to inspect and adapt in accordance with market threats and opportunities. The application of MC as a guiding practice will help the Agile transformation engagement deliver tangible outcomes. These outcomes may include:
  • Central themes, based on responses to a face-to-face survey
  • Knowledge about the organization’s culture
  • A defined vision and goals
  • Established working agreements
  • Objectives and key results (OKR)
Armed with relevant information from the outcomes, the Agile coach is positioned to enable measurable outcomes.

Figure 1 illustrates the Agile Coach Cycle of Continual Learning and highlights the key areas of focus that enable an Agile coach to experience continual learning as he/she works with their customer to achieve the Agile transformation goal:
  • Inquire via powerful questions
  • Discover stakeholders’ needs
  • Influence change for value-driven outcomes
  • Deliver business value to the organization
Figure 1: Agile Coach Cycle of Continual Learning


To set the direction of the engagement, begin by asking questions so that you can understand the customer’s purpose and needs. The success of the engagement depends on why, how, and what. Sinek (2009) stated that each engagement should begin with the why question, in order to enable alignment among the organization’s members.4 Use the following approach to gather data and generate insights:
  • Ask powerful questions to understand the why.
    • Why is it important to take this course of action?
    • Why is creating value important?
  • Ask powerful questions to discover new information.
  • Create dialogues that are conversational with stakeholders and teams.
At the conclusion of the Inquire step, the coach should be able to:
  • Get closer to knowing the why
  • Discover who receives value
  • Describe the desired outcomes
Additional opportunities to gather more data will present themselves during the next step in the Agile Coach Cycle of Continual Learning – Discover. Uncovering the stakeholders’ purpose and desire for value will also help you to direct the correct course of action.


The art of discovery is a powerful state that supports the exploration of individual and team dynamics. The art of discovery prompts us to:
  • Go deep to uncover the hidden truths
  • Use the power of observation
  • Observe to hear what is not said
  • Leverage collaborative intelligence
Collaborative intelligence consist of the innovations or ideas created by people working together, as a team, for a common outcome. Many organizations invest a large amount of money in understanding team dynamics in order to achieve optimal performance. One recently discovered pattern in team dynamics is that of psychological safety.5 Edmondson (1999) described psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.”6 Teams that practice transparency, and thus psychological safety, often perform at an optimal level. The team’s performance may not be perfect, but it will have the ability to inspect and adapt because each individual is afforded the option to share openly.

Through the process of the Discover step, you will be able to extract explicit, tacit, and embedded knowledge. Explicit knowledge is found in artifacts and discussions with people. Tacit knowledge consists of those experiences that people have a hard time explaining; experiences that are known because they repeatedly occur. Embedded knowledge resides in systems and is implemented through formal or informal practices. Discovering these three types of knowledge will provide you with a snapshot of the organization’s knowledge.


The role of the Agile coach is to influence the organization’s leaders and teams to embrace a culture change through collaborative intelligence experiences. As you work with teams, you will affect their ideas, opinions, and actions by “inspiring, rationalizing, negotiating, bridging, and asserting.”7 The goal of the Influence step is to:
  • Engage people for actionable outcomes
  • Develop working agreements to build value
The five key styles of influence are:
  • Bridging: Connecting effectively with people and developing relationships
  • Rationalizing: The use of logic to influence individuals
  • Asserting: Placing pressure to get your point across
  • Inspiring: The act of presenting visions that resonate with your collaborators
  • Negotiating: The give-and-take required to achieve your goal
Inspiring and asserting are used most effectively in high-stakes situations, such as when the organization is having their lunch handed to them by the competition. Rationalizing, bridging, and negotiating are used most effectively in low-stakes situations.

The data gathered during the Inquire and Discover steps will help you discern if the situation is a high- or low-stakes situation. This insight will guide your choice of influence style during the presentation to key stakeholders and the teams. Use stories to help anchor your message and improve your influential effect.


The Deliver step is critical in demonstrating to the customer that value is obtained from the coaching engagement. Successful coaching outcomes are not easy to measure; a sense of value is needed to obtain customer satisfaction and potential repeat business. This is when you put on your MC hat and identify ways to measure the deliverables for the customer. One option is to use the A-B test approach to compare and contrast the performance of selected teams or demonstrate quality improvement.

In the space reserved to deliver, you must envision the art of possibility. Zander and Zander (2000) encourage the telling of the “WE” story, which “points to relationship rather than to individuals; to communication patterns, gestures, and movement rather than to discrete objects and identities.”8 Developing a working relationship with the customer will provide support both during the difficult moments and during the celebration of victories. The art of possibility will help you identify creative ways to tackle difficult problems and reward the people who are partnering with you. As a coach, you will guide people to see opportunities when situations become difficult.

The Agile coach must provide consulting and training, as well as coaching, to ensure teams are able to deliver value during and after the engagement. You should work with the team to:
  • Create a shared sense of value
  • Meet or exceed the objectives
  • Promote innovation through people networks
People networks are the relationships in which collaborative intelligence enables innovation and positions the organization to outpace the competition. These networks are opportunities waiting for the formation of Agile communities, and they allow for the possibility of a sustainable transformation. The value delivered from the coaching engagement must point to a brighter future with measurable outcomes.


Some may look at management consulting as a thing of the past, but I caution to not throw out the baby with the bath water. Like many practices of the past, keep the good and throw away the rest. Discernment is obviously needed to help with the selection process. The application of MC practices will help the Agile coach to discover both tangible and intangible information to support the customer engagement.

The Agile coach will achieve success by:
  • Visualizing the ideal engagement with customers
  • Inquiring about the why and discovering who receives value
  • Discovering patterns and extracting explicit, tacit, and embedded knowledge
  • Influencing: Affecting ideas, opinions, and actions by inspiring, rationalizing, negotiating, bridging, and asserting
  • Delivering: Promoting innovation through people networks and the art of possibility

  1. Adkins, Lyssa. Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2008.
  2. Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Upper Saddle River: Addison Wesley, 2007.
  3. Larsen, Diana, and Ainsley Nies. Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams & Projects. Hillsboro, OR: Onyx Neon, 2011.
  4. Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio, 2009.
  5. Duhigg, Charles. “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2016. Web.
  6. Edmondson, Amy. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Administrative Science Quarterly 44.2 (1999): 350. Web. .
  7. “The Five Keys to Business Influence | Mark Jeffries.” Mark Jeffries. Web. .
  8. Zander, Rosamund Stone and Benjamin Zander. The Art of Possibility. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School, 2000.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4 (1 ratings)


Mallika V, CSP,CSM, 8/17/2017 3:47:57 AM
Informative article!

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