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Agile coaching for delivery; nine essential themes for getting stuff done

Agile requires us to work with and through others to deliver outcomes. This brings up a tension between getting things done and treating each other with respect; this post explores that tension.

Traditionally agile coaching has been associated with behavioural change and the “softer” elements of how we work together. Topics such as psychological safety, culture, courage, innovation, trust and the most overused word in agile… mindset have started to dominate the conversation when agile coaching is discussed.

"hard" & "soft" tensions in agile coaching

I thoroughly endorse all of the above softer elements being part of an agile implementation, however equally as important is the need to drive a sense of urgency to ship value and deliver on the expectations of our internal clients, external customers and sponsors (who are paying for the agile coaching service).

I see a healthy tension developing between building psychological safety within agile teams and ensuring delivery outcomes are improving as they adopt new ways to work.

In this post I would like to outline nine themes that I see as being critical to an agile coaching service within an organisation. If agile practitioners can keep these themes top-of-mind I believe that it will help them navigate this tension between maintaining safety and getting work delivered.

This post is equally as important for anybody involved in agile delivery roles as it is for those playing the role of scrum master or agile coach; in fact it is the crossover of these two roles that I want to talk to in the nine themes I will outline below.

Establishing the agile delivery system

Agile coaching is best executed as part of an agreed system of work that is designed to deliver outcomes. To keep things simple think of a system of work as simply knowing how work progresses from not-done to done. This theme ensures anyone delivering agile coaching checks that an agreed system (a container)

is in place prior to coaching for behaviour. I use the word “container” as a metaphor for the agreed system of work as it provides a “scaffold” upon which behaviours can be anchored and serves as a set of guard rails within which the teams learn to operate, collaborate and deliver. If this container is not established upfront, then behavioural coaching tends to be scattered, piece-meal and tactical.

Building & maintaining safety

Without psychological safety, agile coaching is ineffective and could even be counterproductive; that's how important it is. If you have been a delivery professional for years and are now moving into an agile delivery role then you may need to think differently about how you communicate and collaborate with those in your team. Learning how to encourage others to contribute, genuinely listening whilst respecting the ideas of others is a skill that must be mastered in order for teams to feel safe and move towards higher levels of performance.

Enabling team high-performance

This theme is talked about a lot but is rarely achieved at scale. There are many reasons why teams rarely get to high-performance; here are a few:

  • Lack of team stability. Teams don’t stay together long enough; working in a persistent team (one that stays together over a number of years) is still a rarity in large organisations

  • “Good enough” seems to be the norm; as long as a team performs (reaches a norming stage) there’s no desire/incentive to push to higher levels of performance.

  • Autonomy and mastery is one of the pre