Why do we need Agile coaches at all?

Erwin van der Koogh

Today I was asked a really interesting question by a client: "Agile is very simple, why do you need Agile coaches?".
That is a pretty fundamental question to ask of any Agile coach and after my initial shock we did come up with some good answers.

But the question (and the initial answers) kept nagging at me all day. And while I sat down with a glass of good whisky in the evening I got back to the question. Here is what I came up with:

  • Agile is simple, not easy
  • Experience bootstraps learning
  • Organizational gravity


Agile is simple, not easy

Any agile methodology is usually very light on rules and have-to-dos. That makes it simple, but not easy.
Behind and because of those simple rules there are still very complicated issues.
"Features must be broken down into chunks that can be implemented in x days" is very simple, but very hard to do if you have no experience. (and sometimes even if you do have experience.)
"At the end of every sprint you need to have a retrospective". Again very simple. But actually creating a team and environment that can really learn and improve their own process is hard.

So yes Agile is simple, but hard

Experience bootstraps learning

One of the most important things about Agile methodologies is that they make it possible and encourage learning teams.
Having someone with experience however allows a team to accelerate learning in the beginning. Someone who has been in a similar situation before can pick lessons learned and share those with the team so some wheels do not need to be reinvented. As long as the team only uses those ideas as a starting point for their own learning it can accelerate the initial learning.

Organization gravity

Lyssa Adkins has a brilliant quote in the book "Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition".

"Gravity Works". Yes it does. Rock climbers know this and plan for it. So do Agile coaches.

Agile transitions are not limited to the teams doing the actual development. They are part of much bigger picture. Other departments need to at least be aware of the transition and probably have to change considerably.
For example walk into the operation department of a big company that is doing waterfall projects and tell them that you are going to release every project every month. They'll laugh at you.
Most managers actually really like the fake certainty of waterfall projects..
Agile does not solve any problems by itself, it just makes them painfully clear. Not all organizations are mature enough to realize that and will usually blame Agile for all those problems that are suddenly surfacing.

Those are only some examples where organizational gravity will play up. They will constantly pull your Agile transition towards the old status quo.
An experienced Agile coach will recognize those signals and work with the clients to keep an Agile transition on track towards the goals that were set.

Just like a regular coach.

Comments (7)

  1. Andrew Phillips - Reply

    August 9, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    The all-important question is...

    Which whisky?? [as he picks up a pleasant but unspectacular Glen Garioch]

  2. Rini van Solingen - Reply

    August 10, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Yes, the rules of Scrum are simple. So are the rules of chess. Could you become really good at chess without a teacher/coach?

  3. Patrick Verheij - Reply

    August 10, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Great article, but can it sell coaching? Just like life coaching, the challenge for the Agile coach is to sell the benefits of coaching whereas the client main choice is between either being coached or not.

    Your points certainly make that choice a bit more easy, if I may say so!

    Your first two points about agile being hard and bootstrapping do however sell training over coaching. So hurray for the Agile trainer. Guiding change, your point in organizational gravity, requires both teaching and coaching.

    Consider also the concepts of Lean, for example Value Stream Mapping. To be able to do that, you have to observe the whole process. Who is able to do that inside a company? Who is not busy enough already, I mean? An Agile coach could be very helpful in that, assisting managers in their responsibilities.

    Also, people tend to try to "do it right" instead of looking for problems on purpose. This prevents them from learning and thus improving. Once again, the coach can be the driver behind the right behaviour and help managers remove obstacles to learning and improving. Fear of repercussions (or fear of ghosts in people's own minds) could be one obstacle to remove. Building leadership by self-empowering people another.

    Oh and don't forget that a good coach does not believe in fixed goals. Good goals create drive and a purpose, but they may change. May, not must. Because of a million of reasons. Coaches know that and are able to work with it.

    Thanks for sharing Erwin!

  4. Erwin van der Koogh - Reply

    August 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    @Rini: Exactly! 🙂

    @Patrick: I disagree that bootstrapping the learning requires just training. Training is to lay the foundations. With the bootstrapping it is more about sharing relevant experiences. Although it is possible we have different associations with trainer or coach 🙂

    And as far as goals go. Of course you should never have fixed goals. But I do however see my job as a coach to guide people towards the goals they have set previously. If they at some point decide to change their minds.. We will just go towards the new goals.

    • Patrick Verheij - Reply

      August 11, 2011 at 5:17 pm

      I see a trainer as someone who provides initial training and then follows up as a mentor by actively helping people do their new job. So a coach could start as a trainer/mentor and then gradually become a real coach once people are proficient and just need guidance to make proper and consistent decisions. But I guess we're on the same track here 🙂

      • Erwin van der Koogh - Reply

        August 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm

        It's a matter of semantics then..

        We agree completely 🙂

  5. [...] http://blog.xebia.com/2011/08/why-do-we-need-agile-coaches-at-all/ Share this:TwitterFacebookVind ik leuk:LikeWees de eerste om post te waarderen. [...]

Add a Comment