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Olympic agile coaching

It Olympics time; I couldn't help myself and had to write a post that's Olympic themed :-)

the Olympic coach
the Olympic coach

I’ve found myself getting emotional as I watch the Tokyo Olympics. Seeing athletes fulfil their dreams or fail has triggered a lot of memories for me. I used to coach athletes professionally (it was my first career) and watching the games reminded me of how brutal sport can be. All the training comes down to a single moment where you win or lose. As I coach in organisations sometimes, I get these Olympic “moments” when all of the hard work I have done with a team pays off at a particular time and place. These moments are rare but when they happen, they are so rewarding and re-affirm that I am in the right job. In this post I want to provide you with some tips on how to create moments of coaching joy.

Tactical versus longitudinal coaching

It is not uncommon to be given a tight timebox within which to create change in a system of work. Results, impact, outcomes and the constant pressure to show value from your coaching work continually raises the bar of what is expected from an agile coach. Immediacy of impact and delivering valuable outcomes sooner is seen to be the hallmark of the best agile coaches; I agreed BUT…

Meaningful change takes time and cannot be forced onto or into a workforce; great agile coaching does require a well-honed set of skills. Olympic athletes have years to prepare, hours and hours on the track, in the pool or lifting, jumping etc. to build their capability to perform on the day where it counts; they’ve practiced, A LOT. Great agile coaching moments require time to be achieved; let me tell you a story of one of my Olympic coaching moments to help bring this to life.

Big room planning agile coaching moment

I had launched an agile release train (team of 20 agile teams) 12 months prior, and it was the morning before a big room planning event. My job on this day was to coach another agile coach as they facilitated this ceremony for the first time.

An emerging trend in the business who these agile teams served was a tendency to ‘push’ work into the plan and not leave any slack. There were many features ready as well as lots of defects that required prioritisation, so after two days of planning, the teams had come up with a well-scoped quarterly plan that had been thoroughly assessed as “doable” and had been prioritised against the most important business outcomes.

The Olympic agile coaching moment came when the plan was offered to the business for acceptance. The coach was handling the room well and turned to the business sponsor for decision (to accept the plan the team had spent two days preparing). The coach respectfully asked for a decision… there was a moment of silence where you could almost hear the business sponsor’s thoughts “How can I get more into this plan..?”

The sponsor, let’s call him Mike, hesitated, and seemed to indicate he wanted more work in the plan when I stepped into the session (for the first and only time over the two days). I said with a respectful and polite tone

Mike, the team have done a great job of getting this plan ready for you, there’s no capacity for additional work, this is a yes or no moment of decision for you. If it is a no, that’s ok, we can go back a spend a few hours doing a re-plan; it is your call.

Then I was quiet and looked over at the other agile coach indicating that she should also keep quiet and let silence do its work. In that moment the teams were looking to me to stop the business pushing work into the agreed plan; I did my job as I acted in that moment. To end this story the plan was accepted, and the agile release train still continues to this day and is one of the company’s most successful agile at scale delivery teams.

Arriving at your Olympic coaching moment

This story shows a moment that was the culmination of the previous four big room planning events, a year of coaching another coach (and the release train engineer) and hours of work with multiple leaders to implement an agile delivery model across 20 teams.

In coaching language this moment was a “turning point” where one small act shaped the culture, mindset, and operating model across a large system of work. Of course, this is my perception, and I may be overstating the impact of my work but nonetheless I sensed it was impactful as did the coach in the room (whom I am still working with today).

Final words and conclusion

Quick wins are great but agile coaching break-through moments come after the hard work has been done. Olympic champions do not come out of nowhere, they usually have a 8-10 years of work under their belt before they succeed on the big stage.

Agile coaching takes time to get good at and the ability to coach in-the-moment and respond in the moments that matter is a skill that comes from practice. Longitudinal work with teams is where we can do our best work; there have been some recent instances in Australia where coaching capability is ramped up to support the launch of many agile teams (dozens) only to be reduced after 6-12 months; this is a worrying trend in agile transformations and does not allow coaches to enable deep lasting change.

I’d be keen to hear about your coaching moments and the impact you’ve had.

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