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 prerequisites for high-performance but unfortunately is usually not supported in large organisations; impediments and other structural blockers usually get in the way of a team reaching its full potential.
Agile coaching needs to continually see a team for what they can become; the coach challenges the team and disrupts the organisation to reach the highest levels of performance and fully realise the value agile can provide. If you're delivering agile coaching don't settle for a team that is "good enough".
Inspiring a delivery culture
An agile coach never uses coercion to get things done; rather they inspire teams to reach for higher levels of performance. This theme highlights the need for agile coaching to support teams to keep their eye on what matters; delivering value early and often. The key here is to inspire not command; this is a learned skill.
Dealing with resistance to change
What do you do/say when a team or individual rejects your ideas? This theme makes the point that anyone involved in delivery needs to navigate resistance and develop their ability to co-create a way forward with the team. If you’re used to telling people what to do and controlling the behaviour of others, then this may be a new concept that challenges you sense of self-identity. If you meet resistance try co-creation over command and coercion.
How to work with conversation styles
Knowing how you communicate and having the ability to be flexible in your conversation style is central to this theme. When delivery issues arise there can be a lot of "finder pointing" about who's to blame. But anyone delivering agile coaching needs to check their own style and approach prior to judging others (and they certainly are not going to blame others). Self-enquiry/reflection is a critical aspect for any agile practitioner but especially a person coaching others to deliver.
Coaching leaders on how to serve
Leadership conversations can be tricky but there are a few basic techniques and approaches that can be applied to enable the implementation of agile; this theme is making the point that anyone enabling delivery should be aware of their role in coaching leaders. Leaders need to learn how to serve others not be “the boss”. So I suggest you learn the basics of asking open questions and influencing in situations where you have no organisational power.
How to respond as a coach
I wrote a book on the Responsive Agile Coaching model which aims to help agile practitioners decide on which "stance" they should take for a specific context. Whether to teach, mentor or open the space for deeper coaching all depends on the context. Agile coaching that delivers, requires responsive conversations where everyone is open to what others have to say; especially in complex environments.
Utilising transparency to report progress
This theme is hotly debated; with agile purists arguing for ideas such as #noestimates (i.e. not using story points to predict delivery) whilst other more pragmatic agilists accepting the need for reporting. Establishing appropriate reporting practices that provide opportunity for mindset change across all stakeholders is a neat way to balance these two extreme views. Some of my most rewarding and successful consulting engagements have used velocity and points to coach leaders on how NOT to use them and leave the team to set their own plan. So if you're are coaching for deliver be careful to use agile for "good" and don't get caught reinforcing old mindsets using new tools.
Whether you are a delivery lead or an agile coach I'm confident these themes are useful reminders of what to be aware of as you go about talking and working with your team mates in your journey towards agility.
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