Conversations with Coaches: Jon Jorgensen

The journey to training and coaching can begin early in the Scrum certification process. Foundational certificants often plan for this path when they first hear about the option. For some Scrum practitioners, however, the road is a little less defined. What does it mean to be a good coach, and what’s involved in becoming one?

To help certificants who are struggling with this question, Scrum Alliance® spoke with Jon Jorgensen, a recent recipient of the Certified Team Coach certification. In this interview, we ask about his journey and what a potential coach should think about when contemplating this challenging yet rewarding role.


Scrum Alliance: When did you first become interested in coaching?

Jorgensen: The first day of my CSM® training with Brent Barton. I could see how coaching perfectly complements training. There were several basic tenets related to Scrum that I had seen coworkers resist in the workplace, though they had never voiced that resistance during training. 

I believe that misunderstanding or rejection of Scrum values and practices and Agile principles can, in some situations, only be properly addressed and remedied via coaching. Training is valuable and necessary but insufficient in many cases of transforming large organizations, because the limitations inherent in its format do not allow it to resolve all issues. As a Scrum practitioner, I really wanted to have access to an Agile coach who could assist me in mapping the practices I was advocating back to the principles and values I had been trained in.

Scrum Alliance: Can you talk about some of the experiences that helped develop you most as a coach?

Jorgensen: A few years ago, I was at a local event called SoCal Agile Open, having dinner seated next to two very experienced, seasoned Agile coaches who were having a conversation about the largest Agile transformation effort I have ever heard of (160 Agile coaches working in one enterprise).

One of the Agile coaches, who later became my mentor, was giving the other Agile coach a very vivid account of a crucial conversation that occurred with the client's executive sponsor. As I listened with amazement to the positive outcome, I asked the storyteller, "Is it what you said or how you said it?" to which he replied, "Jon, it is how and why I said what I said that made all the difference."

I instantly recognized that there is much more to transformational coaching conversations than simply being more knowledgeable and experienced than my client. The multiple levels of listening, and the use of powerful questions that lead to discovery in the client's context, was something I had not explored and become proficient in.

I asked my newly found mentor, "How do I learn more about this?" In response, he introduced me to Landmark (a personal and professional growth, training, and development organization), and I enrolled in several of their classes, applying what I learned there to my coaching conversations.

My thirst for elevating my performance in my coaching conversations continues to this day, as does my reliance on the guidance and feedback that I receive from other coaches, mentors, and experts in related fields.

Scrum Alliance: What advice do you have for anyone who is interested in becoming a coach but has not yet started on the journey?

Jorgensen: Find local gatherings large and small that meet at least monthly to discuss Scrum, Agile, coaching, and product development. If no such group exists, tap your inner resourcefulness to start one, in service to simply asking questions and harnessing the collective wisdom of the people who have sufficient passion around those topics to attend.

Then, invite, invite, invite. Everyone who might have interest or knows someone who might. The community will emerge and support you. Consider having the structure of the gathering be democratically driven, as is the case with Open Space Technology or Lean Coffee. This will ensure that every meeting reliably delivers what the people who attend are most interested in learning about, and that could make a real difference to them at that point in their careers.

Scrum Alliance: In what ways do you feel community involvement has helped you develop as a coach?

Jorgensen: By organizing events, presenting at others, actively participating in events by asking questions, or offering my own experience as a narrative, I've seen my learning pace inflect upward dramatically.

I've been more courageous around taking risks in a "failure-friendly" environment of trust, which is exactly what the local Agile community is for me. I learn vicariously as I engage in active listening with peers and practitioners. I learn for future reference what my peers are dealing with, so that I will recognize pitfall patterns among my clients, and when applicable I can draw on the key learnings that arose from the challenges their predecessor Agile enterprises encountered.

Often, practitioners among my clients do not yet know how vibrant the local Agile community is. By introducing them to the local gathering spots, they discover their peers and often invite each other to attend large-scale Agile ceremonies or demos to see how the corporate culture has fused with the Agile practices and principles.

All of these kinds of activities have led to new insights that I otherwise would never have obtained, had I not been engaged with and committed to the development of my local Agile community. It is an invaluable resource to Agile coaches. It is inexhaustibly the gift that keeps on giving and is extremely emotionally gratifying to give back to.

Scrum Alliance: What has been the most challenging aspect of your coaching journey so far? The most rewarding?

Jorgensen: The most challenging aspect of my coaching journey has been dealing with the frequent misunderstanding or general lack of understanding in the business community around what a business/Agile coach is, and/or prevailing disinterest in the topic of how profound and persistent change (transformation) actually occurs in large organizations and the individuals within them. Transformation cannot be simply delegated to an Agile coach.

Leadership and those who do the work of creating new products must be fully committed, up to speed on the concepts, and willing to take undaunted action toward reinventing themselves. Without this coaching alliance, it is all for naught.

With the need for coaching stronger than ever and still rising, I continue to see another problem at the opposite side of the “delegate vs. self-help” spectrum: naive optimism at every level of some organizations, whereby they believe if they try hard enough, read from reputable authors, or enroll in the right courseware, they can discover their ever-elusive blind spots and resulting coping strategies against change. The Dunning-Kruger effect has a kind superlinear impact on corporate cultures, and as it plays out in an organization’s attempts at Agile transformation, misguided exuberance, Theory X (as opposed to Theory Y) mindsets, and good intentions simply do not carry the day. This is the most challenging and disheartening scenario to witness and be fully present to.

Conversely, when the individuals, teams, and corporate leadership reach a new level of self-awareness (usually with the assistance of an Agile coach or coaches), they shift their mindset to one of lifelong learning and instinctively begin to collaborate with each other authentically. The palpable sense of freedom, self-expression, fulfillment, and prosperity is emotionally rewarding beyond measure to everyone involved, including myself as an Agile coach. I think that is what I entered the field of team coaching for in the first place.

Scrum Alliance: In your opinion, what makes a good coach?

Jorgensen: A good Agile coach is the embodiment of the Scrum values, Lean values, and Agile values. Their respective principles are the North Star by which good coaches calibrate and conduct themselves. Behind every great coach is another coach who mentors and assists the growth of other budding and blooming coaches along their journey of development. For this reason, good coaches are the product of many inputs from a large number of mentoring coaches.

Enormous self-mastery is behind their every action, inaction, and thought. Asking powerful questions and then having the patience to remain silent, but still actively listening, is required to hold the space open for the clients to grow into their full potential as they discover how the values and principles apply to their world of work. A good coach forgoes the temptation to give over-simplified, ready answers to an eager learner and balances the load of questions and answers he/she provides with the capacity the learner has at that time to receive them. A good coach is a systems thinker and respects people. The coach delivers what is necessary in the moment to optimize for the whole enterprise, long term.

Thank you, Jon, for your thoughtful and in-depth responses!

Jon is the second person ever to become designated by Scrum Alliance® as a Certified Team Coach. He is also a SAFe Program Consultant, working with clients who are household name brands in financial services, aerospace, heavy industry, database products, entertainment, and data storage. He is also a cofounder of the Agile Coffee podcasts and Agile Coach Camp U.S. West. You can learn more about Jorgensen by visiting his Scrum Alliance profile.