This post summarises what 40 agile coaches said at a recent Meetup when I asked them the above question.
After hosting a recent debate with 40 coaches on the topic of "Enablement versus accountability for outcomes; an agile coaching tension” I learned a lot. Here’s a short summary of my insights:
A coach’s personality will bias their opinion on what agile coaches do and do not do
Agile coaches take it personally; what they do is who they are (more than most roles)
Just because I am articulate and confident doesn’t make me correct
The “tension” that accountability introduces to an agile coaching role is uncomfortable
Agile coaches are accountable for different things at different stages of a transformation
In this post I’ll elaborate on a few of the above points for you; I’ll also give you a link to a recording of the debate at the end of this post.
Explaining to a hiring manager what agile coaches do
The debate was an interesting experiment on many levels; for me personally I argued as a dogmatic evangelist in my attempt to convince the participants that agile coaches should take accountability for team outcomes. I argued with passion and vigour; almost convincing myself. Adopting this point of view for the debate allowed me to deeply empathise with my clients and the hiring managers who seek my help with their transformation programs. They want to get the job done (hard outcomes) but often struggle to recognise the value of the internal work (soft outcomes) required by team members and leaders to make the shift in mindset required for true cultural change. When an agile coach talks of enabling change as opposed to owning delivery outcomes often stakeholders fail to see the value in the former. Why? I believe it is because they are yet to undergo/experience a change in their own thinking. To summarise this insight (and challenge)…
How can a manager hire an agile coach to:
1. do a job that they themselves do not understand and
2. enable changes that they have never experienced?
Tension in the agile coaching role
One interesting theme that came up in the Meetup debate was this idea of tension. There’s little tension for an agile coach who is too comfortable and has no accountability to show they’ve delivered impact. One beautiful moment in the Meetup was when a life coach provided their view. The quote that won the day was…
“the coach holds the team accountable for what the team said they were going to do; but the agile coach is not accountable for the work the team does.”
What is neat about this view is the coach has accountability (for challenging the team when they don’t meet the commitments they’ve made to themselves and others) which generates tension for the coach’s role without the coach having to take accountability for the team outcomes. In reality here’s how this would play out…
A team concludes its retrospective having made an agreement to give everyone in the team a voice during planning. This is aimed at solving a persistent issue; the team has not met its sprint goal for the last three sprints. The agile coach attends the next planning event and notices one of the team members loudly talking over the top of one of the offshore team members. In the moment the coach kindly reminds everyone of the agreement they made to each other at the retro; holding everyone to their commitment to give everyone a voice. This enables a collaborative dialogue and an improved joint/team commitment for the sprint with higher confidence of meeting the sprint goal.
In this example the agile coach has to have a somewhat “difficult” conversation with the team; this is their work. They are not concerned about whether a work item is designed the correct way or not, they’re not focussed on whether the customer insights have been used to design the best experience for the user journey; no, they focus on team enablement which in turn improves the way of working.
Different accountabilities throughout a change journey
The image shown here is one version of what a change journey could look like. There are many models with phases/stages but the point is that an agile coach may need to consider accountabilities that relate to where the organisation/team is in their journey. One of our panel members said
“I’m paid to listen, not talk”
This panel member then reflected and brought up this idea of different accountabilities for an agile coach depending on where they’re coaching in the change journey. I’m sure that when a client is ‘stuck’ there’s a lot of listening whereas when they ‘believe’ in the change the coach may “show the way” and help the client by partnering in the “doing”.
My reflections from “trying on” an opinion
One of my mentors is Otto Scharmer. He often metaphorically refers to your attitude/opinion as a jacket. He suggests we hold onto who we think we are lightly and be prepared to “try on” a different version of our self. Agile coaches should be able to sense to the edge of their self; exploring and challenging parts of who they think they are. For this debate I took an extreme position and argued for it. My insight from doing this could be summarised as
Agile coaches are encouraged to periodically experiment with who they think they are and the values they hold
A healthy amount of self-reflection and experimentation I believe is a standard practice for anyone in the coaching profession.
Agile coaching is an evolving capability that is shifting its emphasis and self-identity as it matures. What agile coaches did 5 years ago is going to be very different to what they’ll be doing next year; I think we can all agree on that. What agile coaches are accountable for and how we help promote and “sell” what we do will, I think, remains an ongoing but worthy challenge worth pursuing. As long as there are people involved in running a business then agile coaches will be required to help in the adoption on new and better ways to work. I hope this Meetup debate and blog post in some way help us learn about our craft and help grow the agile coaching profession. To view a recording of the Meetup debate go here.