What Is an Agile Coach? How Can They Transform Your Team?
Agile coaches help companies that want to transform — they’re focused on progress. But what that looks like is different for every client, and that means every day is different.
Sometimes, it involves teaching new techniques to large teams; sometimes, an agile coach might be setting objectives for an organization or mentoring individual managers.
“We need to be prepared for whatever is going to be thrown at us,” said Erin Randall, founder and principal coach at consultancy Ad Meliora Coaching. “We might be coaching a product owner on, where are we trying to go with this? What’s the roadmap look like.... We might be doing some basic teaching on how you write a good user story.”
What Is An Agile Coach?
However, it doesn’t stop there. Agile is more than just a path to efficiency, and Randall uses it in nearly every aspect of her life. She’s even set up a Kanban board to organize a family reunion. “This works everywhere, truth be told,” Randall said.
It’s an effective way to show progress in most environments, and it minimizes frustration.
Agile Isn’t Just for Software Development
Agile’s success in software development has attracted other industries to the practice. Randall now sees finance companies, human resource teams, and even veterinary clinics using these methods to stay organized and productive — it applies to any industry, but it’s especially common in tech.
“By and large, every serious software shop in town has agile on some level,” Randall said.
Agile isn’t such a niche practice anymore, and you can find a large variety of agile coaches, each with their own unique specialization. That might look like a focus on organizational transformation or having technical expertise in software.
“Every serious software shop in town has agile on some level.”
“As agile coaches, we serve individuals, we serve teams, we serve organizations — so we need to be ready to step in at any of those three levels, kind of at any one time,” Randall said.
Randall’s expertise is best suited for companies that already have internal agile coaches — she’s a coaches’ coach. If you’re an internal agile coach, it’s likely that you’ve got your hands in projects across the company and an outside perspective can often bring more clarity. She’ll work with clients on scaling their approaches and on implementing agile techniques. Internal coaches take on a lot of responsibility throughout their organizations, so they also benefit from agile training.
“You have an organization that you’re trying to build into something greater and you’re going to need coaches throughout that organization that are skilled in those areas — I can help scale that kind of change,” said Randall. “It’s one thing to do some of this work with a small group of people. Now you have an organization of 500 people. How do you make this change scale?”
Agile Coaching Is Kind of Like Therapy
It’s not just about changing the process — Randall examines the team dynamics as well. For example, a company enlisted Randall when it needed to create more transparency. In that situation, she advised the executive team to show exactly how it’s working toward company goals, and not just barking down demands at entry-level employees.
When Randall studies an organization’s workflow, she’s able to help them find ways to tighten development timelines while still delivering quality products. A common misconception in those cases is to assume it’s all about doing things in less time, but that’s seldom the case, Randall said.
“Sometimes we might need to slow down in order to speed up,” she said. “We might do a lot of work with UX teams, to get the UX going out in front so that we’ve got good data coming in from actual users. Then helping engineers go: OK, if this is the product that we’re going to build, what’s the best way to make that happen?”
“Often, team members are comfortable opening up one on one and telling me about what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling.”
Katie Childress is an internal agile coach at WP Engine, which helps companies host WordPress websites. She spends more than half her time on improving team processes and creating training materials, like slide decks and Wiki pages. Another chunk of time is dedicated to projects across the product and engineering departments. And most importantly, she’ll leave time to listen to members of her team.
“Often, team members are comfortable opening up one on one and telling me about what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling,” Childress said. “It helps me understand what’s going on and figure out ways that I might be able to help, or empower them to make the situation go right. ... I don’t want to go so far as to say that it’s therapy for them — but it’s a little bit of therapy, and it’s also super educational for me.”
Giving Teams Ownership of Change
Most people like autonomy when they experience change, so teams should be driving the discussion and coaches should guide them toward finding their own solutions, Randall said.
“Do you like it when people tell you what to do all the time? That gets a little bit old,” she said.
Change that’s actually sustainable must ultimately come from the team itself. It doesn’t work in the long term if the team feels they’re being pushed into a process or implementing solutions they don’t have ownership over. Communication is an important aspect of this, and even though Childress has strong opinions about agile, it’s more important that her team feels like it’s a collaboration.
“I will either give a recommendation, or say, I’ve seen this work, here are the pros and cons, how would you like to proceed?” Childress said. “Just kind of share my experience, but ultimately how the team proceeds is up to them.”
The process is a careful dance between sharing expertise and showing empathy. That’s just the nature of coaching work, Childress said.
“Agile coach is an interesting position, in that it’s a position of influence but not authority,” she said. “And so the personal relationships and the trust is really important.”
Strengthening Team Dynamics
It’s not unusual for Randall to focus on a solution for one issue, and then discover other problems that were overlooked. It’s hard for people to identify where they might be going wrong, and that’s where a coach can be really helpful.
“You will have a team present one thing, but then you do some work with them and you find there’s something else underneath that was really the thing bothering them all along,” Randall said.
This kind of discovery happens when agile coaches are able to really investigate, and it goes beyond just asking people about what they think could work better. Agile coaches observe work habits and interactions in order to give better advice.
“Pay really close attention to what is being said, who’s staying it, what effect it is having on others in an organization,” Randall said. “Pay attention to not only what is being said, but what isn’t being said ... to the body language of people. Sometimes it’s as simple as, are people happy to come to work? If you’ve got a lot of really miserable people, something is happening somewhere within the system to cause that kind of angst.”
“Pay attention to not only what is being said, but what isn't being said.”
When it comes to team dynamics, Childress refers back to Bruce Tuckman’s stages of team development, which presents a guiding framework. In the initial phase, teams are all on their best behavior — they’re just starting out, she said. Eventually, people will show their quirks and butt heads to figure out boundaries. It’s how people learn to work together.
After that, teams reach the next phase where behaviors and practices are set up, and then finally move to the “performing” phase, where everyone is operating at their best. After certain milestones, Childress incorporates team retrospectives to improve team dynamics and growth.
“Most of our teams do a sprint retrospective at the end of every sprint,” she said. “Agile coaches and scrum masters can help keep those fresh and effective by exposing the teams to a wide library of possibilities — so that you’re not constantly using the same exact retrospective format.”
Running retros using different techniques allows for more insight and creativity. For example, a sticky note wall can help team members share their feelings about what worked and what didn’t in a sprint, while having a data-centric retro can help teams evaluate their performance against metrics and find areas of improvement.
“Changing up the format, changing up the questions that are being asked or the activity that’s being conducted, can keep things fun, fresh, and also lead to new insights and new action plans for that team,” Childress said.
Asking the Right Questions
For all agile coaches, but especially for ones that are internal to a company, determining whom to help and how best to do it is an important part of the process. Teams will approach Childress and ask for guidance too. Their requests are specific, like recommendations on the level of detail needed in backlog items, and also broad, such as advice on how to handle team members not working well together.
Metrics are also really important, Childress said. She uses information about deliverable predictability and backlog health to figure out which teams and issues need attention. And listening is a powerful skill that can lead to deeper understanding.
Asking good questions helps coaches figure out pain points and elicits more revealing responses, Randall said. She likes to ask questions that get straight to the issue: What hurts most in your day-to-day existence? What problem do you wish just disappeared? Where is your time being wasted?
Asking these types of questions helps her understand the underlying problems and its contributing factors, which is necessary for crafting the right solutions, Childress said. Lots of people will complain or spend too much time describing the problem — she turns that around and asks: What does good actually look like? It can be tempting to jump into solutions straightaway, but that’s rarely the best approach.
“I think understanding the real why behind something will set me on the right path sooner. If I can recommend the right resources or the right course of action, or even just keep asking them questions until they arrive at their own way forward, that’s even better.”