Day in the Life of an Agile Coach: John Miller

by Bonnie Nicholls

For John Miller, surfing has taught him a great deal about coaching.

"You can't predict a wave," says Miller, who lives near the beach in La Jolla, CA. "You can't say, 'I'm going to catch this many waves.' No, it's catch as catch can. You go for it, you wipe out, you live. And it's not a bad thing."

This flexible approach and upbeat attitude infuses every one of his training sessions as a Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coach℠, whether he's working with a Fortune 500 company or an educational institution.

Over the past four years as a coach, Miller has learned through experience and feedback what works best for him and his clients.

His coaching philosophy

Miller's philosophy is simple: "I'm there to partner with teams and organizations to help them transform to the best version of themselves." He does that by putting people in a room and creating an environment where they'll have tough conversations and solve problems on their own.

"Figuring things out is the most powerful thing," Miller says. When people do that, "they understand it on a deeper level. Best of all, they feel more empowered. They're able to see that they are empowered to make changes."

Empowerment and positive relationships are particularly important to Miller, who grew up as a foster kid. Even when he didn't have anyone guiding him in decisions, he always knew he had a choice.

That sense of empowerment, he says, is similar to wanting to be loved, and it permeates his coaching. "In a way, I love my clients. I give them love and compassion. I know and trust that they are creative, that they're resourceful, and that they're whole."

Adapting materials to the audience

Education is different from business. It often has mandated standards that schools must follow. Still, Miller adapts Agile and its nomenclature to the situation.

Partnering with teachers and students, he creates a visible classroom, using a Scrum board to ensure they monitor their progress. He also shows them how to establish a learning rhythm —including sprints, check-ins, reviews, and reflections — to create valuable habits. He fosters empowerment by teaching them to become more self-directed, and cultivates collaboration by combining self-direction with tools.

Agile not only improves the learning process in school, but it also gives students a practical life strategy for the 21st century, Miller believes. Kids discover that they can figure things out on their own, make a plan, and adapt to change as it comes, whether it's in the classroom or at home.

Go-to techniques

His core techniques include appreciative inquiry, in which teams interview each other and zero in on what they're doing right to magnify those bright spots within the organization. It shows the team that transformation is possible, and inspires them to achieve it.

"It creates an energy all its own," says Miller. "Whatever we put our focus on, what we become."

He also uses liberating structures, based on the book by Henri Lipmanowicz, to create an environment where people will talk honestly and without fear. And he employs positive psychology to encourage people to recognize and nurture their strengths.

Ultimately, however, he puts his clients' needs first and adapts his techniques to the situation. "I try to keep it open and emergent and to help them discover themselves, discover each other, to better design the solution for themselves."

How his coaching has changed over time

When Miller started coaching, he used to be more content- and process-driven, even though it was based on Agile practices. Since then, his confidence has grown. He realizes that what's important is getting people to understand what those principles and values mean to them. Now he concentrates on getting teams to talk to each other, to glean insight and come up with ideas on what to do next.

"I still will teach, I still will advise, but I'm not attached to it," he says. "I offer it." He tells clients what he's seen work in similar situations, but it's up to them to adopt it, adapt it or not use it at all.

He's also grown more courageous, even challenging, especially with executives. While it used to be tough for him, these days he has fully embraced it. "That is my job, to challenge them, to hold them accountable and have the tough conversations, and do it in a supportive way."

Dealing with feedback

Miller used to think the more feedback the better. He would often go into a class a couple of times a day to ask how he was doing. But that made his clients think critically about the class rather than focus on the work. Now he solicits informal feedback at the end of a session and uses online forms.

The feedback he most enjoys comes long after the training is done. "The best feedback is that unsolicited email or LinkedIn message directly to me about the impact my coaching made on them," Miller says.

Recharging and staying healthy

To be sharp and ready for his clients, Miller goes to the beach for 20 to 30 minutes every morning, exercises for half an hour, does yoga for another 30 minutes, and then spends time writing.

While traveling, he follows the same routine but without the beach. He also avoids eating out, preferring instead to cook healthy meals in his hotel room's kitchen. Most important of all, he keeps an emotional connection with his family by using FaceTime.

"I need to be physically, mentally, and spiritually ready," he said. "If I can give myself that, I'm fully available. I'm at my optimum state to help somebody."

Miller by the Numbers

6 hours of sleep a night
60 days of travel each year
4 years as an Agile coach
30 classrooms visited annually
2 surfboards for this California resident
2 daughters, Sienna and Olivia

John Miller was first introduced to Agile as the director of education technology for an Arizona elementary school system. Miller is a Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coach℠, the chief empowerment officer of Agile Classrooms, and he also leads corporations through transformational change as a coach and trainer with the Right Shift Institute. You can learn more about him on his SCRUM ALLIANCE® profile.

Certification SEUs Required Renewal Fee
Foundational (CSM®, CSPO®, CSD®) 20 $100
Advanced (A-CSM®, A-CSPO®) 30 $175
Professional (CSP®-SM, CSP®-PO, CSP®) 40 $250
Leadership (CAL-E, CAL-O, CAL-T) 10 $50