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The five systems of agile coaching

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

I often get asked the question “What do agile coaches do that is so valuable?”

Recently my answer is something like

A great agile coach brings the ability to zoom out (or in) to a bigger (or smaller) sized system, see the situation from an alternative perspective. From this perspective they can provide ideas and advice on how to change the way of working.

Below is a graphic I use to explain the different sized systems an agile coach can provide perspective across. In this post I want to point out challenges and gaps in how agile coaches attempt to navigate across the different sized systems as they attempt to provide clients with this alternative perspective on how work can get done.

System #1- your self

Over my career I've developed the ability to see myself as a system that needs to be continually optimised, improved, and understood. After a few challenging career experiences, I came to the realisation that how I see and manage my ‘self’ materially affects the coaching work I do. Of course it is also important to not beat ourselves up; my mentor has consistently said to me that I am perfect just the way I am but then he would say (with a cheeky smile) "you could also do with a little improvement". I always recommend that coaches first examine themselves prior to casting a judging eye on their environment. Once you've checked in and looked for the part you need to own in the problems you're helping to solve, you can then look at enabling change in those around you.

System #2 - another

My coaching practice and entire approach to work has moved away from me as an individual creator of value. I now co-create wherever possible. How we work with and through others is at the heart of coaching. Coaches often point, encourage, indicate or show others the way forward. About 8 years ago I realised I could not scale my influence and impact without the ability to empower and enable others as I go. Having deeper conversations with other people means talking about personal stuff at work. By personal I mean asking about the another's inner world as it relates to their experience of work and/or their observable behaviour. Do you do conduct these types of conversations as you coach? Or are they too difficult or "fluffy" for you?

System #3 - a team

Agile coaching often focuses on the team; this is appropriate as most things of value (outcomes) are produced by a team of people. When I moved from being a professional coach working one-on-one to working with teams it felt like the complexity of coaching went up exponentially. Where I believe most agile coaches struggle, is influencing the dynamic of a team; changing collective opinion or actions. Agile coach training places a lot of emphasis on team facilitation of agile ceremonies but this is NOT coaching. Influencing a collective perspective and/or behaviour across 3-8 people concurrently in real time can be done via facilitation but this is different to coaching a team. Think about this for a moment; have you actually worked across a team, coaching them all together; or do you rely on one-on-one conversations and see that series of “chats” as team coaching?

I suggest you check out some team coaching models and practice holding the space for deeper team dialogue-based conversations. The retrospective is a good opportunity but team coaching requires more than facilitation skills and the ability to affinity map post-its.

System #4 - a team of teams

In my experience the jump in system size from coaching 1-2 teams to working across 10-20 teams is a step change and (almost) a completely different job. I started my agile coaching career working in this sized system; I had a terrible experience and felt like an imposter the entire time. The reason I felt so uncomfortable was that I had not done any team-level coaching prior to working in this larger sized system. I had no learned experience working with teams. I came to the realisation that what is required before coaching at this level is for the coach to have direct, real, hands-on experience working at the team level prior. Once this team-level experience is in place the coach should be capable of providing different perspectives as they coach; zooming in for a team-level view and out to the team-of-team level view as required. I call this “zooming”. And I don’t mean the video conference application but a coach’s ability to take their perspective outwards and see the bigger system around the work they’re doing. Lifting up to see the forest when you are amongst the trees is an important skill; as is knowing when to go deep into the system dropping down to the team-level to effect change in the wider system.

System #5 - enterprise

This is probably the most overused and abused agile coaching role title in the market today. What this role represents is the coach’s ability to think in large systems whilst scanning for leverage points that will impact the way of working across 1000s of people. For me, to be able to do this role I required 2-3 years team-level coaching and 3-5 years coaching at the team-of-teams level. Once I had this experience I found a mentor to help me navigate through to achieving competence at this level of system coaching. When working at the enterprise level things get a bit vague on exactly what a coach does and who they are coaching, so it leaves people free to make up their job responsibilities (choose your own adventure). This in turn leads to a wide variance in what is expected from coaches working in this size of system.

A lot of what a coach does here is joining up the dots and recognising patterns at scale; once again the ability to zoom all the way down to the team level is critical but the real challenge for an enterprise coach is the ability to empower and enable others to achieve coaching outcomes at scale. It takes a well-developed competence in working through others to get things done and create impact.

Final words / conclusion

The onion diagram represents how the largest system contains all the smaller systems. Importantly, every system has the coach in it; the coach effects and is affected by the system within which they are coaching. Zooming in and out between systems and knowing when and how to do this is probably the critical competency that determines the impact a coach has in their role.

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