Sunday, July 01, 2018

What is agile coaching really?

Over the last couple of years, agile coaching has become “a thing” and a term that is used in recruiting, staffing, by managers, trainers, HR, and by many others. And even by many agile coaches themselves.

‘Recently’ (starting about five years ago) a new challenge emerged. From the world of life coaching comes the statement that “You all call yourself coaches, but none of you has a coaching education.”

And there may be a lot of truth in that sentiment.

But if we want to educate agile coaches in coaching, which kind of coaches are we actually referring to?

From memory, the prototype of the agile coach was the sports coach, not the life coach. Why? Well, the first mention of a coach in an agile context I came across is older than Agile. The XP-Coach was mentioned in eXtreme Programming explained (1st ed. in 1999, and the reference to the xp-coach on the original wiki is even older.
Later, long after the agile manifesto was written in 2001, the term “agile coach” appeared with all kinds of connotations.
Looking back at descriptions from the turn of the millennium it seems as if the agile coach in these times was more like a sports coach than a life coach.

Life coaches mostly work within the a set of assumptions that fosters the personal growth and development of the coachee. For some this might be represented in a list like:

  • The solution lies within the client
  • Coach and client are at an equal level (peers)
  • The coach is not the one to find the solution
  • The client is the expert for them self
  • The coach offers a container without judgement
  • Coach and client work with an open outcome

Now if we look at the (rather technical) description of the roles of the XP-Coach that somehow doesn’t fit.

To quote and paraphrase from eXtreme Programming explained:

“... the job duties are as follows:

  • Be available as a development [programming] partner [...]
  • [make refactoring happen]
  • Help programmers with individual technical skills, like testing, formatting, and refactoring
  • Explain the process to upper-level managers.”

or - on a later page: - “Sometimes, however, you must be direct, direct to the point of rudeness. [...] the only cure is plain speaking.” And also “[...]I am always in the position of teaching the skills [...] But once the skills are there my job is mostly reminding the team of the way they said they wanted to act in various situations. The role of the coach diminishes as the team matures.”(p 146)

As I learned from Dan Brown (the Kanban Dan Brown, not the fiction author) who also happens to be a children’s rugby coach the education of some sports coaches looks at six different attitudes of coaching:

  • tell (intervene and/or give directives e.g. to avoid injury)
  • show (let players see the effect of actions)
  • teach (educate the players on physical and nonphysical aspects [of the game])
  • train (increase the effectiveness or efficiency of an acquired skill or aspect)
  • sell (convince the players to 'buy into’ the application of techniques)
  • develop (work on the personal development of the players)

When I look at these lists, the sports coach seems to be much closer to the role of the coach that was outlined by XP.

And what’s more: it seems to be in much closer alignment with both the expectations of most clients as well as the expectations of most teams. For one thing only very few clients want to hire an “agile coach” with a completely open outcome. Due to the nature of agile approaches the specifics are of course not clear at the onset, but the general direction is clearly towards something that is aligned with the agile manifesto and probably includes a number of agile techniques.

So – even though I usually call myself neither an agile nor a Kanban coach, end even though I have clocked up a decent three digit number of education hours in life coaching over the past two decades or so – I mostly find myself in roles more akin to a sports coach than in that of a life coach. And that is true whether I'm working with teams or with upper management.

So perhaps we should keep this in mind if we use the term “coach” in conjunction with agile or Kanban.
What are agile coaches offering these days? Something akin to sports coaching or something akin to life coaching?

And what are customers looking for? What do they need, given where they are right now?

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg


Unknown said...

I’m starting to resent the way life coaches and therapists, who wouldn’t know a unit test from a design pattern are now jumping into the agile space claiming a monopoly on coaching. My understanding of Agile Coaching is starting to align on the very opposite of these certification authority’s. In fact most of these life coaches masquerading as agile coaches do more harm than good when they see everything as a conflict or trust issue. The team starts to create drama because the coach tells them that drama is inevitable without constant certified therapy.

Paul Marshall said...

Thanks for that piece of language/thought-history and pointing out. I personally like the ACI competence framework for agile coaching putting what you call life-coaching as one small part of the profile.

Yes, the agile coaching contract is intentional and not open as is: let’s do whatever you need (e.g. roll back agile chaos produced before) said...

Another question to the sports coach: a good player is not automaticlly a good coach. And a normal player can become an good Coach (remember Joachim Löw winning the World cap 2014).

Now my question: does this part of the sports methaper also fit with the agile coach idea?

Unknown said...

A good programmer is not automatically a good coach? Check
A “normal” programmer can be one a good coach? Check

The analogy seems to hold.