Building an Agile Coaching Team

This article was written by Bob Galen, President and Principle Agile Coach at RGalen Consulting.

I was writing another blog post about the lack of an agile engagement having a cohesive coaching team and it dawned on me that I’ve never shared what an agile coaching team might look like.

Given that inspiration, I thought I’d spend a few minutes discussing aspects of creating (finding, forming, and building) a great team of coaches for a larger-scale, agile transformation initiative.

FOLLOWERS
I honestly don’t know where the quote comes from, but I’ve heard that in order for you to become a great leader, you need first to become a great follower. By following, and putting on the mindset of service, you better understand leadership.

I would extend that notion to agile coaching. In order to become a great agile coach, you must first be coachable.

So, when I’m building an agile coaching team, I’m looking for true servant leaders. Those that can share stories, anecdotes, and examples where they were great followers and servants to others.

And before you say — Bob, you must be wrong. My personal experience is that quite a few coaches are much more comfortable “coaching” than being “coached”. That is, telling folks what to do or how to behave. But when it comes to them. And to walk their own talk, many simply don’t do that. And even more crucial, they’re not that self-aware of this habit.

But I digress. Let’s explore other aspects of building a coaching team.

LIKE MINDEDNESS
I’ve walked into many organizations with groups of coaches and I’ve found that they all approach things differently. Now clearly I’m not looking for everyone to be a clone of each other. But I’ve found that having general philosophical alignment and agreement on agile principles and tactics across their coaching team is good for the organization.

It provides:

· Consistency & clarity of models, approaches, and tactics;
· Establishing a baseline for new & operating teams;
· Ease of team members moving from team to team;
· Alignment with organizational culture and context.

I’ll give you an extreme example:

Not that long ago I presented a lunch and learn to approximate 75 testers in a large-scale agile organization. At the team ratios, they were operating, this represented somewhere between 35–40 Scrum teams.
I asked about retrospectives, how many were having them, and were they effective. Of the total number in the room, 50% said that their teams had decided to do away with retrospectives. I was appalled. How in the world could you be even “doing Agile” and skip your retrospectives at the same time?

This is a case where I would hope like-minded coaches would step in and prevent such a shift from occurring within their teams.

A HEAD COACH
I liken the model to that of a sports coaching team. There is a head coach who lays out things like vision, overarching strategy and playing style, game plan, and practice patterns. They also lead the way as far as recruiting goes.

However, they surround themselves with assistant coaches who are specialists in particular areas. And these coaches serve as the bridge between team members and the coach. While they bring their unique style and skills to the table, it’s under the overarching vision of the head coach.

I do think agile coaching teams need to explore the notion of having a head coach. Usually, experience and skill come into play here. But not a focus on title or dollars. This is a servant leadership role and the head coaches primary job is to develop or coach their coaches. That’s where the experience comes into play so that they can mentor and guide the coaching team. Yet, also lead by example.

Release Train Engineer
Many SAFe organizations are in the position of hiring (or developing) RTE’s. When I think of this role, I think of them as a “Head Coach” for their release trains. Sure, they have a lot of external reporting and communication responsibilities.

But that being said, I think their most important role is coaching and developing the ScrumMaster and Product Owners on their trains. In other words, coaching the coaches.

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
Many believe the best teams are composed of different people — skills, backgrounds, interests, etc. In other words, they are diverse. And out of the diversity comes greatness.

I’m looking for the same thing in agile coaching teams.

Look for people with software and non-software backgrounds. Who have held leadership positions and those who haven’t. Some with many years of work experience and others just beginning. Some who favor Scrum and other who favor Kanban or XP.

Above all, I’m looking for a passion and enthusiasm for agile approaches to software development. And a fervent interest in helping teams to grow and be their best.

CONTINUOUS LEARNERS
Another aspect of Coaching Teams is their willingness and aptitude to be continuous learners. To patiently and doggedly push their teams to improve. Not in a pushy way, but in an inspirational way.

Often this revolves around effectively leveraging retrospectives at various levels within their organizations. And this could be at the team-level, release train-level, project-level, and even organization-level retrospectives.

As the coach moves up this stack of retrospectives, the challenges, and the organizational impact increases. They’ve then become comfortable influencing learning and change at all levels of the organization.

NOT TOTALLY “COACHES”
There are different stances in agile coaching. A pure coaching stance is not one of teaching or telling. It is one of asking powerful questions and helping those coached discover insights on their own. While that is valuable, I’m not looking for coaches who adopt this stance 100% of the time and who are not situational in their approach.

Sometimes I’d like the coach to be a facilitator, a teacher, an advisor, or an expert in their interactions. Depending on their skills and the client's situation. In other words, don’t have a one-size fits all strategy as a coach.

I like the model presented in the 9 Coaching Roles. I expect more seasoned coaches to be able to fluidly and seamlessly navigate from one to the other as each situation dictates.

I WOULD EXTEND THIS TO SCRUM MASTER TEAMS
I often recommend to organizations that they form a Community of Practice group around their Scrum Masters. Essentially creating a team around the role.

This team is less focused on the individual Scrum teams and more focused on building a practice of Scrum Mastery. One where the individual Scrum Masters help, guide, and care for each other.

WRAPPING UP
I know I just touched on some of the factors associated with crafting an Agile Coaching Team.

The inspiration for this post was this one that explored a coaching failure. One of the things that should have been done in that example, was to have formed an agile coaching team. With an emphasis on the team.

I hope you found some of these factors useful in focusing your thinking. If you are part of a group of coaches, I want you to start thinking of yourselves (and taking some of the above formative steps) in moving from a group to a team. I think you (and your coaching organization) will notice the difference.

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