Three tensions agile coaches learn to navigate

Navigating tensions is like walking along a ridge; one wrong step can lead to a (very) bad outcome. Here are some tips to keep you safe.

Agile coaching has many tensions that need to be navigated; the three I'll share in this post are examples from my experience. If a coach navigates these then everyone wins. Here are my top three tensions and some tips on how to navigate your way to great coaching outcomes.


Saving your client from discomfort

Agile coaches have the job of enabling the system of work (people, frameworks, process, tools, culture) to deliver value; this sometimes can lead a coach to “help out” by doing some of the team practices. The argument goes something like this “let me show you how to do it, then you can try it for yourself”. When a system is failing to deliver, a coach will often step to remediate the situation. Personally, I love this type of work; it is hands-on and keeps my skills sharp as an agile practitioner (doer). Of course, the risk is your clients don’t learn for themselves and you build co-dependency. This is similar to when you’re facilitating groups through experiential workshops where participants learn through embodying the lessons; moving through the uncomfortable “groan zone” to eventually receive the learning outcomes. Teams you coach need to travel through their own groan zone and period of discomfort to deeply appreciate the power of agile as a way to work (learn by doing and failing). By saving the client from discomfort you potentially rob them of the embodied (internalised) learning required for a shift in mindset.

Practice tip

One way to help navigate this tension is to develop your ability to check the team's change temperature; how uncomfortable are they. If no one is complaining about the improvements you’re attempting to introduce, then maybe challenge them more; if everyone is perturbed to the point of distress then maybe back off on the amount of change you’re introducing.

Over-observing

I’ve been active in a few LinkedIn discussions this week on how much a coach should sense and observe before suggesting changes. How long an agile waits before offering ideas/advice is obviously contextual; consultant agile coaches have less time to take in everything and interview everyone whereas internal coaches often are provided more time to get to know everyone they’re coaching. I’ll admit to being super-impatient and overly concerned about showing value early. I often push a little harder early then my peers would at the start of an agile coaching engagement; but that’s my style. In my first meetings I will gently and respectfully provoke and probe and see what happens. If nothing happens then that’s data, if I get a massive reaction; that’s also data.


Practice tip

Self-observation is useful here. Watch yourself as you coach and check to see if you really require more data before acting or could you make a recommendation earlier or possibly hold off. This self-observation will give you a perspective on how you currently are dealing with this tension. Once you’ve observed yourself then try some experiments that are not normal for you; take your time more than usual or act earlier than your norm; then retrospect.

Life coaching

Agile coaches help people to learn, both about themselves and how they can work with others to get stuff done. So it is fine for an agile coach to give someone some “life” advice as it relates to getting work done… BUT it does not mean that the agile coach sees every problem as a deep and meaningful integral life coaching opportunity. Agile coaching needs to be mindful (and respectful) of the decades of work and massive body of knowledge that the professional coaching fraternity has accumulated. My opinion is that the agile coach works outward from agile into coaching and usually not the other way around. Of course, there are exceptions and practitioners are free to develop their career in whatever direction they choose but using the workplace to build your life coaching practice (or leadership coaching or integral theory exploration) is risky and may not be in service of the clients/teams.


Practice tip

Consider who you are serving when you are offering professional coaching as part of your agile coaching practice. Make sure you understand how the competencies of professional coaching apply to helping change the way teams work (hint; you don’t use professional coaching as it is taught in life coaching courses).


Conclusion

These are just three tensions; there are plenty more in agile coaching (and life generally). Being a human is all about navigating extremes and as Buddha would say "walking the middle path"