What do agile coaches really do?

Agile coaches hold a somewhat lofty and sometimes even mystical position in most organizations. Oftentimes the work coaches do sounds fluffy, theoretical or even mystical to some. To me this is one of the reasons why its such a polarizing position, some people who have experienced good coaches who bring tremendous value will swear that they need coaches and they’re important. While others think the opposite and that coaches are just overhead to comply with the organization’s vision of being “more agile”.

Describing what coaches do is something I’ve had to think about a lot recently and this is how I think about it. This is not an exhaustive list nor do I claim that it is. What I’d like to share here are general categories of the type of work we do so you can imagine what that might mean for your organization. I also don’t claim to represent all agile coaches in existence, they might think of it differently and that’s okay.

This is how I think of agile coaching:

Teach and Train

This is the first and most obvious thing that agile coaches do. The idea at this point is really to establish a baseline level of knowledge and practices. In reality this looks like doing workshops to teach how to write user stories or doing hands on facilitation of retrospectives. This step is usually timeboxed and is part of a “transformation” or “agile adoption” effort. This is usually short lived as you move onto other types of coaching work once a baseline is established.

This being the most obvious also means that a lot of people don’t really see beyond this. “What do you do after all the teams already know the [framework] you’re teaching?” that’s a common question, heck that’s even something we sometimes ask in interviews. The next sections answer that.

Optimize

Frankly my favorite type of coaching work, optimization projects. This could be anything from helping teams deliver faster, unblocking the flow of work, looking at how teams collaborate but all with the intention of optimization. Now comes the important question, what are you optimizing for? That’s something you align with the organization you support. Which means yes, its not always about delivering faster, reducing bugs or making everyone happier its about optimizing for what’s most valuable for the business. If we’re trying to beat our competition to the market, then yes its about throughput. If we can’t get work done because incidents and bugs are piling up then its about increasing quality or improving the flow of work regarding bugs and incidents.

When we talk about optimizing there is the assumption that there are measures we’re working with or at the very least a goal we’re contributing towards. A good challenge to this aspect of coaching is that this type of work should be taken on by leaders of the organization. After all isn’t “improving performance” one of the basic functions of leaders and managers in an organization?

This is where defining projects and roles come in. Optimization efforts don’t necessarily mean that coaches are the experts in what is being optimized. This is where the different expertise and experiences of coaches come in. We could wear a project manager hat to keep things organized and on-track, we could take on change management hat to propagate changes across the organization, we could take on a coaching role and help upskill the those who might need it.

Sustain & Scale

Sustaining practices, artifacts and habits is a deliberate effort. The question then becomes who has to put in that effort. Oftentimes people would point to a scrum master, a coach or a manager and the “right” answer here depends on your context. What is important to me is that it should always be clear who is responsible for sustaining and growing how they work.

Take this as an example, a common thought pattern is that “the team should be responsible” and that coaches should only be there if they have questions or issues. If that’s your thought process then as a coach, sustaining means that I provide the teams with the tools and training they need to know when to pull for support. It could also take the form of identifying key people who will be champions or influencers who will sustain and grow how the team works then providing mentorship and a community for these people.

Another way to think about it is that leaders of organizations are responsible for sustaining and growing how their teams work. If you think that way then sustaining is about equipping them them measures or checks they can use to gauge team health and putting practices in place that keeps leaders accountable towards actually sustaining how they work.

In practice this step of creating a way to sustain things could be happening in parallel with the teaching phase or as fast follower to it. Regardless of when it starts there should be a clear exit plan or criteria for the coaches so they can move onto other types of coaching work.

I think of sustain and scale together because one enables the other. If coaches don’t actively work on projects to sustain ways of working then they’ll never get to optimizations or other kinds of work. In this sense “scale” isn’t an activity or type of work but it just my way of saying that you move on to either support more teams or do other coaching work.

Level up

Levelling up looks beyond a single team and its maturity. Levelling up looks at the organizational container that holds teams together, how are the teams organized? How do the teams collaborate? And of course equally important how are we managing and leading these teams?

This is mostly uncharted area for most people as what this looks like in practice is highly contextual. This could look like setting up dashboarding across teams, this could look like aligning a product roadmap and connecting the dots between the roadmap and the things teams work on. This could also look at a different direction altogether, maybe coaching at this level is about maturing the leaders of the organization, maybe its about figuring out how a new team fits into how you work, maybe its about designing for the future and maybe its simply about helping all the teams meet that big scary deadline.

Similar to how optimization is best defined through clear projects or initiatives levelling up looks the same. This could look like a project or reorganize teams to strengthen craftsmanship or optimize delivery. This could look like enabling leaders across the organization with more agile management techniques and thinking. This might look like helping organizations define their strategy and aspirations.

I think of optimizing and levelling up as two different but overlapping types of work. Optimizing would always focus on a specific improvement the organization is trying to make while levelling up looks at more widespread changes in the organization.

Remediate

Yeah it doesn’t sound good does it but it’s true. Sometimes we need to take a few steps back to support teams we thought were already self sustaining. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the original training we did and the systems we set up to sustain are faulty, sometimes life just happens. People move on from the organization, management styles could change, a deluge of work could overpower the systems in place. Regardless of why it is still a fact of life that this happens and we need to act on it.

Okay so what?

Defining the type of work coaches do is an important step in being able to communicate the value you bring to an organization. Equally important is that it allows you to set goals or define projects that you work on. This is how you go from fluffy statements like “assigned to support the team” and “helps through facilitation of events” to “teaching and set up of events and artifacts” and “improving cycle time from X to Y”.

I hope by reading this you get a better understanding and maybe even a new found appreciation for what coaches really do.

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

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