An Agile Coach is not just about coaching (part 1)

"Agile Coach" is an extremely overused term today: it seems like every company wants one and lots of people refer to themselves as that. But what does it actually mean? An external consultant? The iteration manager (aka Scrum Master)? The person who facilitates collaborative workshops? An agile project manager? A trainer talking about agile? Someone who visits once a week and advises the team?

It could be all of these and none of these; it's all a matter of timing. At Pragmateam we talk about Agile coaching as a 4-stage process which reflects the team's agile maturity and degree of autonomy: Educate, Show, Mentor and Support.

Pragmateam - Agile Coaching

Educate. If people have no previous exposure to a concept, you teach them the basics first. The coach might do a presentation on the topic where education is needed, put people through classroom training or - my preferred option - use contextual training by whiteboarding and discussing a topic just before the team experiences that new practice or principle.

Show. It is a lot easier to “see” what good agile looks like than to “explain and imagine” it. As a result, this coaching stage is about leading by example and demonstrating. It is the stage where the coach is most involved in delivery: they will take the lead in the various Agile ceremonies, make decisions about the best technique for the situation at hand and have a more active role in delivery; all whilst taking the team through this learning journey.

An Agile Coach builds capability and mentors people to ensure the team and organisation are learning and therefore can continue on their own when the coach (inevitably) leaves.

Mentor. At a certain point, the team has been set up for success, has seen what good Agile looks like and falls into a good rhythm under the coach's leadership. It is then time to dial back the 'showing and leading' and move to a mentoring style, so the team is able to be self-sufficient when the coach eventually leaves. This means actively mentoring and coaching team members, assisting them to lead the day-to-day and giving them feedback.

Support. When a team is mostly self-sufficient and doesn't need day-to-day coaching, it benefits from an external person to ask questions, be a sounding board and provide feedback. At this point, the coach goes into a more 'passive coaching' mode and may just come by once in a while to catch up with team members, participate in a retrospective, observe the team in action and give advice regarding the observations.

At the end of the day, Agile is a means for better delivery of business value. Therefore our broad definition of an Agile Coach is someone who gets things done and teaches the team how to learn and do it themselves. It is someone who leads by example, is hands-on and has a bias for delivery. And throughout this process, an Agile Coach builds capability and mentors people to ensure the team and organisation are learning and therefore can continue on their own when the coach (inevitably) leaves.

In part 2 of this blog post, we explore why delivery-oriented coaching, leading and showing it first makes more sense than simply coaching the team from the sidelines.