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Seeking the chaplains of agile

It hasn’t (yet) got to the stage of ads in the personals or gumtree but there’s a scarcity of great agile coaches in the market right now.

As more and more businesses (some of them very large organisations) decide to shift to less-hierarchal, more-connected, customer-focused ways of working, with work being done in cross-functional and collocated teams, this demand – already outstripping supply – is only going to grow. 

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As far back as 2012 – before any of the recent public focus on the effectiveness of agile methods - advertised agile jobs outnumbered suitable candidates 4.59 to one, according to InfoQ.

"There are no dark arts or secret handshakes in agile. The best coaches share their experience and observations openly.”  - Penelope Barr

Agile is an approach based on iterative development, where desired outcomes evolve through collaboration and transparency between self-organising cross-functional teams. It comes with its own language and ceremonies (sprints, standups, retrospectives) and for the uninitiated even sounds a little cultish.

Embracing that analogy, the high priests and priestesses are the agile coaches - the keepers of the word. There’s a fair bit been written on this but in my experience it’s actually not like that at all.

It’s not a cult, Mum

Contrary to the popular tongue-in-cheek belief, there are no dark arts or secret handshakes in agile.

In fact, the best coaches share their experience and observations openly. Doing so supports people through the significant change from old ways of working to new; helping people see their new purpose; and grow new skills and capabilities.

They help individuals, teams and groups to work in the best way and identify team improvements and systemic blockers to delivering their product, project or organisational goals to achieve customer value.

The collected wisdom of the sector encourages coaches to show vulnerability upfront and acknowledge the truth so there is no confusion: they’re not necessarily technical or domain experts - nor is it their role to be.

Indeed, in many cases deep subject matter expertise may not be essential. Often a lack of bias/preconceived ideas will be an advantage; the ‘day 1’ questions a coach asks will help others make profound connections.

Although as Dr Barrett McBride points out, most find themselves coaching after years of business or technical experience and leadership and rely on that experience rather than ‘pure’ coaching.  

Like all professions, coaches bring the combined wisdom of a theoretical basis and their lived experience. 

What’s a great coach?

A great agile coach knows agile (and lean, systems thinking, design thinking, value stream mapping etc etc) and is, in their heart, a people-focused person. 

One of their keys roles is to help decipher for the layperson exactly what’s happening in an environment of uncertainty, where people are understandably confused but keen to learn. 

Ness Corporate neatly outlines one of the ways agile coaches bring value: they bring “cohesive methods… a common agile lingo, a common set of definitions [and] can establish an effective communication channel throughout the company”.

Coaches need to build teams that can learn and then take accountability for their own on-the-job learning, experimenting, prototyping and developing so that when the coach steps away, learning resilience has become an inbuilt component of the team.  Ideally, the coach is encouraging people take things on just before they’re ready to build up confidence and learning agility.  

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GRAPHIC: Matt Nicol

Agile prioritises progress over perfection. This is one of the more fundamental differences in modern workstyles and it does challenge people. Coaches help teams quickly establish new norms where the true value is in discovery, learning and understanding.

Working with different teams and different businesses means coaches have knowledge of common problems. Experienced coaches help teams traverse new terrain quickly because they help people avoid pitfalls or provide quick diagnosis and remedies if something starts to go awry.

Objective

One of the core challenges of coaching is that coaches begin a role with the objective being to work themselves out of a job.  Along the way, they’re at once part of the team and apart from it – observers but also participants, needing the ability to flex between their various roles as required. 

It’s especially challenging when a coach is working with those who aren’t initially receptive to a coach (change can be hard) or believe they don’t need a coach.

Often people are conflicted, appreciating a coach for the advice or insights but at the same time resenting them. The coach is the personification of a need to change, a requirement to uplift systemic, delivery or technical capability or performance.

Even those who have a high degree of optimism or flexibility around change can experience difficulty about some aspect of agile or the amount of change required. In order to ‘be’ agile rather than just ‘do’ agile, you’ve got to be all-in. 

Some question the value of a coach on the basis of past experience. Certainly, like everything else in life, some coaches perform better in certain coaching roles.

The expectation for a domain coach – who will work with a leadership team at a strategic level – compares very differently with say a squad coach – who works with small cross-functional teams responsible for delivering better products and services iteratively to customers. 

With some of the biggest organisations in Australia (ANZ, nab and Telstra) working to shift at scale from old ways of working to new, finding quality coaches, in the numbers they need, represents a challenge - likewise, getting them to sign on and bring that experience in-house on an ongoing and sustainable basis.

No doubt good coffee and networking help - but that’s a whole other story.

Penelope Barr is Lead, New Ways of Delivering at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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