Does agile coaching lead to better business results?

Photo by Dan Gaken

Photo by Dan Gaken

Companies have general goals in mind when they hire agile coaches. Reading through RFPs and talking with leaders, it initially sounds like adoption of agile practices across teams is a goal of its own. A leap of faith that improvements in agile practices means better organizational outcomes will be achieved. Investing in agile coaching may seem worthwhile enough from that viewpoint.

The Agile Coaching Institute’s whitepaper includes a section on “What Business Benefits would an Internal Agile Coaching Capability Make Available?” It says a strong agile coaching capability means it would be possible to:

  • Enhance product delivery flow throughout an organization.

  • Scale safely by ensuring the agile coaching role is filled by someone whose skills and gravitas are a match for a given team/program/organization.

  • Ensure team performance by starting up strong teams, resetting teams when needed, and disbanding teams that cannot sustain the desired level of performance.

  • Create a sustainable Agile capability that lasts long after key players move on.

  • Reduce or eliminate reliance on external agile coach consultants.

As a coach, I found myself wanting something more from the business benefits of agile coaching since I am often helping organizations grow internal agile coaches and form an internal agile center of excellence.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet with a potential client who was interested in engaging an agile coach. Knowing that there are multiple coaches and organizations who might be able to help them in this area, one of their asks was for case studies because they wanted to know the results other clients had achieved. Reviewing a compilation of client engagements and the results was like going through an old photo album and feeling nostalgic about happy pastimes. Agile led to real benefits for those organizations like cost savings, increased revenue, and improved employee satisfaction. An agile coach would not have been able to guarantee those results from the start but knowing what’s possible and what would be meaningful for the company can allow for a better coaching plan.

An emphasis on adopting agile practices without an understanding of what an organization is ultimately trying to achieve feels (at best) short-lived. Agile coaching is more likely to be successful with a clear objective and an understanding of how teams’ increased capabilities will benefit the organization. Without that, agile coaches and sponsors alike can lose sight on whether practices are really generating better results or not. And that’s too bad—for the company and for the coach—because we all want to be successful in the long run.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

A Retrospective for End of Year or Project Reflection

Photo by AdNorrel

Photo by AdNorrel

How do you help a team reflect on learning and change over a long timeframe? I recently facilitated a retrospective for a team that had deployed to production after six months of development effort. Over that time, the team membership changed, impediments were discovered, and new technologies were learned. From the outside looking in, I sensed it had been a long and bumpy journey for the team. To help them reflect upon that journey, I first asked what they wanted to get out of the retrospective: the consensus was improvement items for themselves and learnings to share with other teams that are on similar technology journeys.

With the goal of the retrospective clarified, we were ready to move into the next retro activity. I asked them to imagine that the team was a spaceship. The spaceship had just completed its mission. I tasked the team members to individually draw pictures of their spaceship. What does it look like now? How damaged is it? What upgrades did it receive in its journey? Drawing took nearly 15 minutes as individuals added more details and iterated on their designs. Keeping with the creative spirit, I asked the team members to reveal their pictures on the count of three while also making the sound of their spaceship landing. It helped maintain a light and open tone as we then looked for commonalities across the images. We captured the similar themes on the whiteboard and further processed what they meant for the team.

As a facilitator, I noticed areas that the team spent a lot of time discussing and others that did not get mentioned; my role involved inquiring about the unspoken topics that seemed to be in their blindspots. Retrospectives on longer timeframes—even when a team has regular retrospectives—need an objective facilitator to notice what’s being said and what’s not being said to help the group gain a fuller understanding and learn.

A simple metaphor of a spaceship finishing a mission unpacked a lot of ideas and assumptions about their experience as a team delivering a project, and we could use it to talk about what future capabilities would be desired or future missions—the possibilities are endless on how this retrospective can be adapted to your teams!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Envisioning Success for Agile Coaching

Photo by Carol VanHook

Photo by Carol VanHook

What does it mean to be successful as an agile coach working within an organization? I don’t think the answer lies in how many people are trained or how many agile teams are operating. It’s not in the average maturity of the agile teams or in their velocities.

A colleague and I were talking about having an organization’s agile coaching group come together to brainstorm what success looks like and then create a strategy for how to achieve it. The idea of running a “remember the future” activity was floated—it’s a great activity that I’ve used in other scenarios. When a group taps into the energy of a desired future, new and vivid ideas can be produced. Yet I’m hesitant to say yes to it in this case.

My fear is that when agilists are asked to imagine what the future organization looks like after successfully adopting agile, they envision the same collaborative culture regardless of the company’s current state, its values, and its needs. Agile’s not a destination, but if we’re asked what the ideal looks like, I think we dream about the same place regardless of what company is our starting point. That feels weird. And while each person’s vision might differ slightly, I think it would be saying more about their personal values than the company itself.

We often get caught up in the culture we’d like to see and lose sight of the business results that make the coaching investment worthwhile.

I find myself wondering how else we can envision where the organizations can go with agile coaching support—to see beyond the culture or behaviors. Johanna Rothman’s question, “What business outcomes do you want to see, in 30, 60, 90 days?” is a fantastic one to me to accomplish that. The shorter time frames generate varied ideas of what might be possible and most beneficial. Focusing on smaller goals also feels more congruent with the agile and lean approaches we promote.

Ultimately, the answer of what success looks like connects back to what problems agile was meant to address for the company. And we need to spend more time having conversations with sponsors and stakeholders to understand success rather than hearing “agile” and saying, “I can do that.” I want to hear more success stories resulting from agile coaching in 2019, and it starts with a clearer vision of success.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Games to teach technical practices

Image by nur_h

Image by nur_h

Good engineering practices are needed to sustain agility. I’ve been reading Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim; in their research, they found that technical practices predict culture, continuous delivery, job satisfaction, software delivery performance, less deployment pain, and less time spent on rework. Technical practices are incredibly powerful!

It can be helpful to have folks outside of development teams understand the concepts behind the practices so they can better support them. Sometimes stakeholders will surprise you and find ways of applying the concept in their own work. In some cases, holding a workshop with live coding may be a fit—if not, there are games you can facilitate to teach technical practices:

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

How to Challenge Teams to be Better

Photo by KC Alabanza

Photo by KC Alabanza

Through training classes and conference workshops, more Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches are learning about professional coaching skills and practicing them with their teams. I think it’s fantastic.

That being said, sometimes we’re so focused on asking powerful questions that we may neglect other coaching skills that can also help us serve teams well: articulating what’s going on and challenging.

Cherie and I introduce those coaching skills in our Powerful Coaching presentation, which I had the pleasure of leading at AgileCamp Dallas last week.

Example:

A development team had worked for many months on features before they were released, and a few issues popped up in production that necessitated them turning off the functionality. Naturally, the business stakeholders and Product Owner were interested in exploring changes that would allow customers to use the functionality and wanted to know rough estimates so they could determine the return on investment for the effort before proceeding.

The team spent time reviewing the problems, brainstormed options, outlined what would be involved effort-wise, and created a plan to present. There would be three areas to be addressed, and the team decided they would work on all three at once.

Hearing this last part, I said to the team lead, “I’m confused by the decision to start working on all three fixes at once. Your manager has been encouraging the team to limit its work in progress and focus on the most important thing. What’s happening here?”

The conversation continued, and we talked about how the team had wanted to change its practices for a while but had been feeling stuck trying to meet a timeline. Their collaboration had been stifled and the work had been stressful. Now they were about to propose more timelines without improving a thing!

“Your stakeholders are asking for reasonable estimates, and you have management support to do what you think is right to ensure a quality product. The team keeps thinking that the time to improve will be soon, and yet it doesn’t seem to happen. Right now the work is important enough to be done in a better way. Are you and the team willing to make changes now rather than keep waiting for a day that won’t come?”

Honestly, I felt like I was being belligerent by this point. I reiterated that the team had the ultimate decision on how they would work and that I was challenging because I believed in them. When they were reviewing the issues and brainstorming options, it was exciting to see each team member contributing ideas and asking questions; they were motivated and engaged in trying to solve business problems. And now they were on the verge of settling into old behaviors rather than championing the better ways of working that they’d wanted to try.

Conclusion:

Coaching is more than asking questions. Teams need someone willing to reflect back what is being observed and heard so they can process it more deeply, and they benefit from having someone challenge them to be greater than they may think they’re capable of in that moment. Practice articulating what’s going on and challenging in addition to asking powerful questions for more effective coaching.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Learn What an Amazing Mentoring Relationship is Like

Photo by Liz West

Photo by Liz West

Mentoring relationships can take many different forms. I have a few people I consider mentors, and I do not work alongside them on a daily basis. In fact, most of them do not live in Dallas. It seems like our lives intersect precisely when I need it most, and I gain much from our conversations. They can be my champions, my inspiration, my teachers, and my source of wisdom. When I imagine my future, I find myself borrowing from their examples. This quote from an article about 5 types of mentors captured it beautifully:

The best mentors can help us define and express our inner calling. —Anthony Tjan

That’s a big task for a mentor and one that I take seriously. Part of being an Agile Coach and consultant means mentoring the internal coaching capabilities of an organization—finding the employees who will continue the good work of teaching and coaching others after I’ve left. I’ve had the pleasure of coaching many new Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches over the years, and one of my joys is connecting them to the greater agile community—I especially love catching up with previous clients at meetups and conferences. So when my friend and fellow Dallas-based Agile Coach Chris Murman said he was looking for someone new to be on the Agile Amped podcast, I immediately said, “I have an idea!”

Noreen, Chris, and Allison at Agile 2018

Noreen, Chris, and Allison at Agile 2018

This podcast episode marks the first for Noreen Emanuel, Agile Coach. She brings empathy to relationships and lights up a room with her positive energy. An avid learner, Noreen embraces new ideas and adapts to change; her servant leadership inspires those around her to do the same. I’ve been fortunate to be her mentor as she begins her agile coaching journey, and we’ve got a formidable partnership. Listen to our conversation with Chris and learn what an amazing mentoring relationship is like from both sides.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Breaking Free from What's Been Holding You Back

Photo by felip1

Photo by felip1

“I don’t feel like an impostor anymore because of you!”

That was part of the greeting I received from someone very excited to see me at Agile Midwest last week—all because of a coaching conversation we’d had two years ago. It was incredible to see how happy she is now.

In March, I’d shared a story at Scrum Gathering Canada about how I initially felt like an impostor as an agile coach. I didn’t feel like I compared to other agile coaches I knew. It took me a while to realize that every coach is different. Sharing that story and how each day I told myself, “I am an agile coach” until I believed it felt freeing. And it got tweeted:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.02.15 AM.png

Impostor syndrome is normal, and yet it can be so isolating to experience. It can hold us back. I started reading How Women Rise recently, and it includes 12 self-limiting habits common to women—habits that we can change if we can notice them. The message has been resonating for me, and as I’ve brought it up in conversations, it seems to resonate with others too.

How have you shifted away from thoughts and behaviors that may be getting in your way?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Learning from the Agile Community

Photo by awee_19

Photo by awee_19

My first agile meetup was in April 2009. I was going alone and didn’t know what to expect. My experience with agile was limited, and I was shy. Awkward small talk while waiting in line for pizza. Uncertainty about where to sit. Gratitude when the session started because I could relax and listen.

Thankfully my shyness wore off, my agile experience increased, and I’ve since welcomed a number of folks to the Dallas-Fort Worth agile community. Local meetups and events are great opportunities to learn and connect with others. Many people—myself included—are relieved to discover that they are not alone in the challenges they face in agile adoptions.

I wrote about my community experience as part of Tips from the Trenches, a compilation of wisdom organized by Yves Hanoulle for Scrum Masters and currently available on LeanPub.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Reading Recommendations for future Agile Coaches?

Photo by Rich Renomeron

Photo by Rich Renomeron

I love to read and have been using Goodreads for nearly seven years to track books I want to read in the future--now my "To Read" list is nearly as long as my "Read" list! Needless to say, there are a lot of great books out there, and only so much time available to read them.

Recently Bob Galen and Allen Holub posted lists of books for folks getting started with agile, and there are great titles on both. It got me thinking about the knowledge needed for more experienced practitioners. A colleague once asked for recommendations that would support his growth from Scrum Master to Agile Coach, and here's the list I came up with:

  • Succeeding with Agile by Mike Cohn
  • Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins
  • Becoming a Technical Leader and/or Are Your Lights On? by Gerald Weinberg
  • Talk to Me by Sue Johnston  
  • Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams & Projects by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies
  • Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott
  • The Art of Agile Development by James Shore
  • Management 3.0 by Jurgen Appelo
  • Switch: How to Change When Things When Change is Hard by the Heath brothers
  • Drive by Daniel Pink

The list is a few years old. What books would you suggest?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Being an Agile Warrior

Photo by Ty Crockett

Photo by Ty Crockett

A few years ago, I heard a manager talking about the interview he went through for his current role. In it, the interviewer asked how he felt about agile. He replied that he’s an “agile warrior.”

As I listened to him, this silly image of a samurai-like warrior appeared in my head. Agile warrior? Not quite.

To be a warrior means to be your true self in the face of difficulty and for the sake of something bigger than personal ego. A person who knows that the world is a hunting ground and everyone is an ally. A person who lives in “lions roar” knowing that there is a wisdom aspect to all and everything.
— CRR Global glossary

Eventually I decided to start a coaching circle at Improving, and I wanted to name the group. The word “warrior” kept popping up in different contexts for me. A fellow coach and CTI student suggested that I read The Four-Fold Way. The description of the warrior archetype shifted my understanding. An agile warrior has a strong ability to show up, be visible, and empower others through example and intention. Our coaching circle was named the Agile Warriors, and we explored topics that would make us stronger agilists and developed skills that made us better warriors.

Not long after, Vic Bonacci asked me to contribute a topic to his Agile Coaching Cards kickstarter. My friend Ty recently came across my card during a visit to St. Paul, Minnesota and sent me the photo. What would it mean for you to become an agile warrior rather than a worrier?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.