Three unlearning moments that changed my mind about agile

There are moments that completely change your perception on a topic. I want to share three I had in relation to my role as an agile coach

One way to look at who we are is as a collections of habits. We form patterns of behaviour that save us energy and effort. Agile coaching requires high-levels of self-awareness and control over our habits. Personal growth requires learning new skills, concepts; modifying our habits. Growth also involves us letting go of old patterns of behaviour that no longer serve our goals as agile practitioners.

In this post I’d like to share my journey of unlearning; key moments where I have realised that an old way of thinking/behaving no longer aligned to my professional objectives. My aim is to shorten the time it takes you to unlearn unhelpful habits that no longer serve your career goals. I’ve grouped my thoughts into three stages as I experienced in my career to date.

Stage one- seeing your attitude then losing it


I have three teenage children and boy do they have attitude! I often point out to them how disrespectful their tone of voice is and all I get back is “why are you so mad at me?!”

Teenagers are self-involved and often see themselves as the centre of the world. This, of course, is a natural and normal part of growing up and should not be seen as a dysfunction but more of a phase that everyone goes through on their way towards becoming a responsible adult who contributes to society.

Agile coaches have a reputation of being difficult to manage; somewhat “high maintenance” and opinionated. Which is great because their job is to disrupt, not fit into the culture of an organisation. The other side of this coin though is when being opinionated comes across as an attitude of superiority that implies “you just don’t understand (this agile thing)”.

This attitude is not helpful and does not serve anyone; it just serves the ego of the coach. This I believe requires unlearning so as to make room for a more self-less attitude; one that serves others.

The moment I realised this in myself was when I was getting into lots of agile arguments; who is right and who is wrong on the proposed way of working. Usually if you are arguing about agile practices you’re missing the point of getting work done and have lost your way as a coach. After a few exchanges that I am not so proud of I realised that I must meet people where they are and take them on a journey; not make them feel stupid. Sounds obvious as I write it but at the time I felt I was doing my job. Agile is here to stay; it has won the argument on whether it has a place in the future of work. Agile coaches now need to lose the attitude and get on with helping everyone understand and practice agile in service of getting work done.

Stage two- becoming an expert then developing a beginner’s mind



Agile coaches should have expert-level knowledge and experience in the methods, practices, processes, tools and behaviours relating to agile ways of working. Providing advice/guidance or even being a trainer on agile methods is considered part of a coach’s job. The risk when we become an agile framework expert is that we lose touch with the client’s problems and/or the value they are trying to deliver.

So even though it is important for agile coaches to be experts in Agile they need to simultaneously unlearn the habit of using Agile’s language at the expense of talking about the work our clients are trying to get done.

For me it took quite a lot of time to gain an understanding and practically apply the many frameworks agile has available for use. I needed time and the opportunity to experiment with the various “flavours” of Agile. LeSS, SAFe, Scrum, DAD, DSDM, etc. all have their strengths and reasons for existing. Once you have competence in the application of these frameworks I recommend the cultivation of a different mindset; put all of that expertise aside and look at the business problems to be solved with fresh eyes (a beginner’s mind). Agile moves into the background and the people and business problems become the main topic of conversation as you coach (think Agile frameworks versus business agility).

This lesson became known to me once I started working with executives. They have a lot to do and are time poor and certainly don’t have time to spend on learning a whole new agile language. I realised that most of what I was doing as an executive agile coach related to value and how we measure results of the work being done. Of course the introduction of OKRs recently has accelerated this thinking and move away from Agile towards agility.

Stage three- from facilitator to coach towards consulting

When a person discovers the power of coaching the world opens up and their perspective shifts as they experience what it means to help others see their own blind spots and reach higher levels of self-awareness. For me I considered the professional coaching process as magic! To see clients discovering how to unlock their internal courage and creativity to navigate past their personal impediments was thrilling to witness. BUT in agile coaching this stance of a coach is only a small part of what an agile coach does and is used as part of a “basket” of other competencies.

Once a coach has deepened their ability to deliver professional coaching conversations I believe it is at this moment that the coach needs to unlearn this “craving” for the coaching stance and adopt a more consultative approach to how and when they apply the collection of competencies they have developed.

I often talk about the agile coach as a consultant. By this I mean you play the role of an agile coach but as a sub-set of a broader consulting role. I’ve been told this creates an “impure” version of what a coach should be. Coaching’s purity comes from ensuring we serve the client’s needs; but I think we need to keep this in perspective. An agile coach does not execute professional coaching but leverages some of the skills associated with this domain; e.g. listening, powerful questions.

My view is we need to unlearn professional coaching and apply the select skills as and when required as we deliver agile coaching. Many would not agree with me but this is my view and is why I wrote a thoroughly researched book on the topic (www.responsiveagilecoaching.com).

Conclusion / final thoughts

To summarise:

lose the attitude, maintain your beginner's mind and don't over-coach when you should be consulting.

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