Coaching Agile Leadership

Photo by Marco Verch

Photo by Marco Verch

Leaders make a decision, change has been announced, and the agile coach wasn’t involved—what’s their reaction? Having talked to coaches all over North America at various agile conferences and open space events and heard their thoughts on management in general, it seems like the reaction is this:

  • If the decision clearly supports agile and the teams, the coach is elated and does a happy dance

  • If there is any doubt of the above, the coach is frustrated, angry, or depressed

Ouch. It’s tiring to be mentally recasting managers as friend or foe based on their decisions. And exhausting to think of them as villains or buffoons majority of the time. There’s this notion that persists—if only they (management) would get it (agile), then the culture and team issues would sort themselves out magically and a choir of angels would sing. Ok, maybe not the angels. Rainbows and unicorns would appear.

Agile coaches tend to be on the side of the teams, which somehow means they are against management. I don’t know if that’s serving us or organizations well. Is the safety to fail meant only for teams or for the organization? If we are to support culture change, what is our role in being a coach for the organization as a whole? Is that possible? Management implies privilege, which is not something to ignore. Those with privilege can be blind to it, and others may need real assurance to speak truth to management.

I just finished reading Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell. Campbell coached a number of executives in his unique style that included hugs, cursing, confidentiality, storytelling, and asking questions. He undoubtedly had a significant impact on those around him, and the description of his work didn’t always match my understanding of coaching. One thing was crystal clear though: he was a champion for those he coached and the executive teams to which they belonged. Who are we choosing to be if we do not champion those we coach?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bringing Backbone and Heart to Work

Image by deanna.f

Image by deanna.f

I started my career as a project manager, and I often found myself enforcing contracts—defined scope and budget—and having to say no to change requests unless an addendum was signed. My pre-agile days. I brought backbone to work, engaging in those conversations. Sometimes I was secretly miserable.

During that time, I typically went dancing once a week. One evening I would meet friends somewhere in Dallas where a live band would play, and we would dance swing and blues. I got to know the musicians over time. With them, I was friendly and happy. It gave me joy to know that there existed a group of people who only knew the kind and generous me.

That’s how I balanced my life early in my career.

This past weekend I attended the ORSC Path class—the fourth course in CRRGlobal’s Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching series. As I was leaving class on Sunday, I discovered that the Agile for Humans podcast I’d recorded with Ryan Ripley had been published. How amazing that a conversation on professional coaching was published as I’d just passed another milestone in my professional coaching journey!

I shared that amazingness on Facebook, and sure enough, my friends started responding to it. Family members, current and former colleagues, other coaches, and even friends from my dancing days saw it and liked it. Seeing one of the musicians reply, “GO Allison!” made me realize how far I’ve come in bringing backbone AND heart to work. Coaching enabled that for me.

In the podcast, I referenced a number of places to learn about coaching, and here they are:

There are also some great books on coaching available:

Getting work done can be difficult, but it is possible to address challenges head-on and care about people in the process. I've come to realize that relationships underscore everything in work (and in life). Thankfully I've found a way to navigate relationships better--coaching others, coaching myself, and receiving 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.

Looking at Agile Coaching and Sports Coaching

Photo by Greg Goebel

Photo by Greg Goebel

It’s common for agile coaches to be compared to sports coaches. Coaches fill a well-recognized role in sports, and many people have had some real experience on a sports team with a coach. In fact, I often see Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches being represented in diagrams as the person with a hat and a whistle, suggesting the sports coach metaphor. It’s a great comparison to explain how a Scrum Master or Agile Coach is typically outside the “software development game”—just as a sports coach is not scoring the points, this agile role is not hands-on in creating the product.

As I think about my experience on a sports team as a kid, I remember my softball coach showing me how to hold a bat, how to position my feet, and how to swing the bat in order to hit a ball. It was awkward and mechanical at first. And that’s where the metaphor of a sports coach starts to bother me. We could spend a lot of time teaching a team the mechanics of every agile event or artifact--it would be overwhelming for the team to absorb and apply. One aspect of agile coaching is teaching. There’s also mentoring, facilitating, and coaching. Many people say that an agile coach initially teaches the team, and as they mature, the coach moves into more of a facilitating or coaching stance. That is one way a coach can work. It’s possible to facilitate or coach much earlier in a team’s agile adoption without all of the upfront mechanics lessons. Sir John Whitmore illustrates the differences between coaching and instruction in a video about tennis.

Rather than spend more time upfront teaching and explaining how something is to be done step-by-step, a coach can help a team explore their experience of doing something. The coach deepens the team’s awareness of what they’re doing and how to do it differently. In doing so, the team owns the way something is done from the beginning, learns to recognize what is working and what is not, and is engaged in thinking of options to improve. The team is doing and learning from doing. The inspect and adapt cycle that we encourage in teams is introduced from the beginning. Imagine how a team might embrace agile then!

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.

Following the Energy of Change

Photo by sanpani

Photo by sanpani

Ever been surprised by how quickly and easily a group adopts change? What makes it happen?

I’ve seen a team modify how they plan a sprint on my first day with them, had a team embrace adopting Scrum the third day I worked with them, and watched a group of nearly 75 people self-organize into teams after planting the idea only a few weeks earlier. The “magic” behind those rapid changes comes from two ingredients:

  1. People had time to think about the change. That thinking goes all the back to the moment someone considers bringing an agile coach into the organization. Thoughts of how a coach may help creates hope for change. That hope spreads—others begin thinking and dreaming about what changes may be possible. My arrival is the catalyst for change to become real
  2. People shape and participate in the change. I don’t walk into a new engagement with a change plan clearly mapped out. Change is created through dialogue with the people who will participate in the change. Listening to people’s ideas, treating them as partners, and giving them choice are powerful—people get enrolled in change when they are respected.

If we learn to follow people’s energy and excitement, change can be so much easier. It’s easier to be with them as they try on change, and it’s easier for them to move into something new. While it’s rarely a single leap into the new, saying that organizational change is hard hurts our chances for successful change.

There can be a dance in change—from familiar to emerging. Agile coaching is about being a good “dance partner” to provide safety to those involved in change.

Lyssa Adkins and David Darst explain Edge Theory of Change

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.

Every Agile Coach is Different

Photo by Ravi Shah

Photo by Ravi Shah

If you’ve talked to more than one agile coach, you’ve probably realized that agile coaches vary in their experience, knowledge, skills, and styles. And if you’ve worked with multiple coaches, you’re more than likely aware that they think and behave differently. There’s no single path to becoming an agile coach, and organizations face a wide variety of challenges that lead them to hire agile coaches. But how often do we talk about how we engage as agile coaches with those we will be coaching? At Agile & Beyond, Matthew Heusser reminded me that agile coaches are incredibly diverse, and we can learn a lot from each other.

In professional coaching, designing the alliance or contracting focuses on setting expectations and defining agreements for the coach and client to work together. If there’s a separate sponsor, he or she will also be included in a conversation to clarify what information will and will not be shared about the coaching.

Talking about coaching and our own working styles can be awkward. Thankfully it gets easier with practice. I have presented two different presentations that explore coaching relationships and how to set them up for success (and reset them as needed), and I look forward to speaking on the topic more in the future:

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.

Coaches Say the Darndest Things

Photo by timechaser

Photo by timechaser

It goes without saying that I love coaching. I am involved in user groups, I attend conferences and camps regularly, and I deepened my skills through intentional practice by becoming a Certified Professional Co-Active Coaches.

There's an energy that is created when coaches come together and share ideas. A buzz, a liveliness. It's exciting and reinvigorating!

I've been fortunate to work with some incredibly talented coaches, and I had a big realization a few months ago: we coaches talk funny. We have our own language. And it can be alienating to those around us.

Working with a pragmatic technical coach, an integral agile wizard, and a Deming-influenced management consultant at a client organization was an exciting and a rich learning opportunity for me. If you listened in on our conversations, you would hear things like:

"How do we design alliances with the teams we are coaching?"

"What's going on from the IT perspective? WE perspective?"

"How do we encourage teams to enhance testing within the sprint to improve quality?"

"What would a statistical quality control implementation look like here?"

Conversations were lively, future-focused, and included constructive disagreements. And then I realized that one person was often quiet: the internal coach we were mentoring. The language we were using was full of jargon and difficult for him to understand at times. And he didn't always feel comfortable asking us to slow down and explain.

Someone we wanted to support very much was being left out.

Reflecting on this, I realized that the coaches I admired the most used words to connect to others. They understood ideas well enough to translate them into natural language. As we learn new concepts, we often get hung up on the terminology and use it often to integrate the learning for ourselves. Once integrated, it's easier for us to ask, "How would help us work together effectively?" and "What practices are supporting us? How is culture helping or hurting?"

Let's be aware of the language we're using and the impact it's having on those around us. A wise coach once told me, "I'm ok with changing the words to help someone else get onboard with an idea. I'm already sold on the idea myself, so it doesn't change it for me."

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.