The one skill that differentiates the best agile coaches

Yes, one skill can make or break an agile coach. Here's my view on this one skill.

Last year I was invited to present to a CEO and her team on the topic of Lean-Agile. Prior to my presentation we walked the floor and observed some of the digital teams conducting agile practices. Upon returning I was about to start my presentation when the CEO said to me...


"Niall when we walked the floor I saw lots of agile going on but didn't see lean methods being used."

What followed was not my best coaching moment. I proceeded to start an argument; insisting that the CEO had indeed seen lean in action. After a short "disagreement" I caught myself and thought...

"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING NIALL; STOP ARGUING WITH THE CEO!"

Once I noticed that the conversation had drifted out of dialogue and into a debate, I shifted my mindset, approach, language, posture and style of communication. The next thing I said reflected this shift

"WOW, did everyone notice the energy in that exchange; arguing over the way of working is easy to slip into but is rarely useful."


Thankfully I "rescued" the situation and was able to complete the half-offsite with some great results. So what was it that I demonstrated in this example?

Responsive Conversations

Great agile coaches have the skill to change how they communicate in responsive to the situation and the people they are talking with.

Although in this instance my practice wasn't so "great" at least I noticed my mistake and was able to pivot my style and respond in the moment (or shortly afterward). This skill of conversation responsiveness is the subject of my book; Responsive Agile Coaching. In this post I want to provide agile coaches and practitioners with a means of considering what it means to conduct responsive conversations. I'll outline my thoughts and finish by providing you with a survey tool that aims to provoke you to introspect on your ability to conduct these responsive conversations.

The three dimensions of responsive conversations

I use the iceberg metaphor a lot; its ability to represent what is visible and what is not is a great way to consider human behaviour. Below is the iceberg I created to represent the three dimensions of conducting responsive conversations. Notice the three questions that challenge you to consider just how deeply aligned your are as you talk with others. Let's go though each dimension and see what I mean by alignment.

Outcomes, skills and capability

This dimension is what is visible to everyone and is usually the focus of a coach's development; gaining new capabilities and executing new skills to achieve the outcomes client's seek from working with us. I want to draw your attention to the top item; outcomes. In previous a post that discussed agile coaching performance I passionately advocated that agile coaches know the job-to-be-done for the work they're doing. Being outcome focussed means the coach is constantly responding to the needs of the client rather that getting self-absorbed in agile (for the sake of agile). Similar to how I had to catch myself debating with the CEO, coaches who can respond in real time to their environment will be best positioned to work in more senior agile coaching roles.

Intent, Attitude and Mindset

I strongly believe that the people we talk with know our truth (our inner world and attitude). If you show up to talk with someone and you're not in the right mindset or have a poor attitude then people intuit this. If an agile coach orientates their mindset to serve the needs of the people they talk with then they have a much better chance of responding in-the-moment as required. Essentially this is about being self-less and more curious about what those around you need from you.

Beliefs, Values and Identity

Let's start with a question for you.

"What has drawn you to work in agile as a career?"

Did you seek out a career in agile because you embody and personally live by its values and truly believe that the world needs to shift its mindset? Or is agile simply a means to earn a good wage? I believe alignment of agile values and principles with personal beliefs and self-identity results in more genuine conversations that prioritise psychological safety above coercing results out of people. The coach serves those around them as a priority.


Ok, let's now get more deeply into this topic by way of a survey I created for you to self-assess your responsive conversation capability.

A survey to get a score on your level of conversation responsiveness

Below is a survey that is design to provoke you into introspection. I suggest you take a moment out of your day, pause everything (phone, notifications) and spend 10 minutes to reflect on how you talk with others. The survey has three dimensions, nine questions and a few videos where I take you though some reflective practices.

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p.s. a great way to continue learning about responsive conversations is to enrol in my free email mini-course; check it out here https://mini-course.niallmcshane.com