agile coaches

Are Agile Coaches Actually Coaching?

I almost didn’t publish this post since it felt derivative. People much smarter than I have covered this topic in greater depth and elegance than I ever could. Lyssa Adkins comes to mind. Nonetheless, I think André Gide sums up why we’re here:

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, it must be said again.

Many–maybe even most–agile coaches aren’t operating as coaches and aren’t actually coaches themselves. Many of them are often operating as consultants or mentors and may not even understand the difference. That’s not to say they’re not offering a valuable service. Many are. However, this kind of disregard has led to autocracies like Dark Scrum and the Agile Industrial Complex, and we should work to mitigate the continued damage.

Isn’t it coaching 101 that teaches us that we can’t coach someone subversively? That we require explicit permission from our clients? Why then do so many supposed agile coaches impose their will on teams rather than invite them to be part of the process? As I work with teams, the scars of this are obvious, and the trouble it creates endless. So today let’s talk about how the roles of consultants, mentors, and coaches differ.

Consultants tell the answer.

Consultants set the agenda. They are experts in their field. Consultants have a specialty that has taken years to hone and a wealth of experience to sharpen. They give the answer rather than teach the craft. Often, they operate in the clear domain where the problem and its associated solution are obvious. However, this doesn’t always hold true. Many probe deeper into the subtleties of the system and the people inside it. Often as they do, they take off the consultant hat and put on one of mentor or coach. From consultants, we might hear things like this:

  • We’ll be piloting Scrum in two weeks with your team, and I’m expecting you’ll see the results in less than three sprints.
  • We’ll be limiting WIP for the next few months. This is a sure fire away of increasing productivity.
  • When we measure cycle time, I’m certain teams and leaders will see the issue and want to address it.

Agile coaches may wear this hat when they enter an environment new to an agile mindset; however, they should avoid the temptation to impose.

Mentors answer questions.

The agenda is mutually set by mentor and mentee. Here again, mentors are experts in their field but now the mentee wishes to learn. Mentors speaks with confidence but are not responsible for implementation. Instead, it’s up the mentee to decide on a proper course of action, and it’s at the discretion of the mentee if the relationship with the mentor continues. From mentors, we might hear things like this:

  • WIP seems like a real problem. How have you tried limiting it?
  • Are you measuring cycle time? Why not? I think it’ll really help you here.
  • Retros are a great place to bring up issues like this. Are you doing them? No? Why not?

Solid agile coaches enjoy wearing this hat. They get to share their knowledge with an engaged audience, and it helps them scale by creating advocates and adding eyes across a wider landscape.

Coaches question answers.

As coaches, clients set the agenda, and coaches need not be an expert in the domain. Instead, they’re experts in curiosity and observation. Coaches enter the relationship knowing their clients as naturally creative, resourceful, and whole, and they serve as a sounding board facilitating a conversation between the client and … the client. I like how Bill Campbell puts it:

When I see you, I see two people. The person you are today, and the person you’re capable of being. I want to introduce those two people.

Coaches watch their clients with intention offering up what they see, creating space for inventive thoughts, and if coaches do suggest ideas, they do so without attachment. This allows a client to make the ideas their own or to toss them aside. As we touched on at the start, a coach requires permission before entering into the relationship. From coaches, we might hear things like:

  • What’s important to you about that?
  • What are you noticing right now?
  • How do you want it to be?

This is where all agile coaches wish to operate, but often a team isn’t ready. Maybe the team isn’t resourceful because they lack the time or tools to do the work right. Or maybe they aren’t whole because they lack the skills to complete the work end to end.

I realize as I close that I’ve left something unsaid so I want to be clear here. I’m not suggesting that agile coaches should operate wholly and exclusively as coaches. That’s nonsense. Instead, I’m saying that gifted agile coaches can and do operate as all three. They know how and when to pivot from one stance to another effortlessly and in ways that benefit those they support. It’s those that lack this ability who remain stubbornly fixed into only a single stance that concern me for the harm they may cause.

Do you want to get notified when new posts are published? Leave your email below.

7 thoughts on “Are Agile Coaches Actually Coaching?”

  1. Love how you not only captured how a coach of individuals should be, but also for teams. My current full time career is that of a ScrumMaster, aka Agile Coach, and I am also a Certified Professional Coach. It wasn’t until I took the CPC training that I learned truly what a coach is. Thanks for sharing this out to the Agile community.

    1. Thank you, Laura. My story is much the same. I thought I knew coaching until I saw a master coach in action, and my mind was blown. I had to learn more.

  2. Nice writeup! I particularly like the care taken to NOT denigrate mentoring and consulting, which seems to be par for the course in so many of these.

    This made me think: what are some good resources to pull from as I consider how better to mentor (since we tend to focus so much on coaching)? I’d look to two areas – Feedback, and teaching pedagogy.

    A couple of examples spring to mind:
    An SBI model
    Bloom’s taxonomy

    Keep writing these!

    1. Both great reads. Until you pointed it out, it hadn’t occurred to me that we don’t see a lot of material that helps us be good mentors. At least I don’t.

  3. As always Tanner, you hit it out of the park! I have been struggling, lately, with what I see in the industry. The moment they get an ICP-XXX or SPC or even a CSM they head to LinkedIn and change their profile to Enterprise Agile Coach (EAC).

    I got pushed into the Agile Coaching role and have been wanting to take some serious certification that really makes me a better to a good coach. But then I see folks who I come across at engagements or general, I shake my head.

    I have always asked for teams’ permission to coach them. I remember one team just totally confused when I asked that question and next I was re-assigned. I cant coach when they don’t need coaching.

    The most difficult ones where I’m assigned to few Scrum Masters and the moment the boss drops from the call they change their tune and say “well, I was a coach before but here I’m an SM…” almost telling me that I don’t need you and who the heck are you.

    I feel the industry needs to get strict with the certifications or the organizations need to be more informed when hiring Agile Coaches.

    Ok, here I stop venting 🙂 I always love reading your posts and look forward to the next post.

    I’m still looking to get Agile Coaching certification – a good one where I can really get better. so please send me some coaching tips or guidance.


    1. I appreciate the vote of confidence, Aamir. 🙂

      It can be a tough crowd out there at times, eh? Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) and Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) are two awesome coaching organizations to look into. I haven’t yet attended any ORSC training, but I can personally vouch for CTI. Awesome curriculum. You might also want to connect with Cherie Silas who is the master mind behind this program.

      Best of luck out there!

  4. Great read Tanner. So many similarities within HR, we end up wearing all these hats but most often the Advisor. The true skill of the profession is balancing them in the right way.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *