RESEARCH REPORT

In brief

In brief

  • Agile Coaching seems to become a buzz word, to be found in everyone’s mouth.
  • Reflecting on this growing popularity, we propose a model for analyzing situations through a defined reflection lens ("triangle of Agile coaching").
  • The dimensions of the model, guiding our reflection, are Change Management, Agile, and Coaching. We discuss diverse situations in the model.
  • We conclude that matured Agile coaching should equally balance these dimensions to embody the best of three worlds.


When observing the topic Agile and the community, it is obvious that after years of establishing Scrum or scaled Agile structures in organizations a new trend has arisen.

Agile coaching becomes very popular in the Agile world. We see a lot of certifications or trainings. Whether looking at the marketplace for training offerings, or at the growing importance of certification bodies such as ICAgile, Agile coaching seems to be directly in the maturity phase of the innovation curve.
Of course, Accenture is also offering Agile coaching services for clients. In the Austria, Switzerland and Germany area, the service is mostly offered and provided by the internal brand SolutionsIQ (short SIQ).

Talking to Agile coaches about Agile, most of the coaches offer a lot of experience, gathered over several years of working in Agile projects, organizations, environments.

Being involved in Agile projects and Scaled Agile transformations for the better part of the last decade, we see ourselves as a part of them. During an assignment involving coaching a financial organization on Agile methods in a large scaled Agile transformation, we came to complement our practical experience with an Agile Coach certificate, and thus participated in an ICAgile-accredited ICP-ACC (Agile Coaching) course, the Coaching track significantly contributed to by thought leader Lyssa Adkins. The course was organized over a 4-week period in a remote setup. The training itself was very focused on discussions and self-reflection. The trainer created a space, where participants could reflect on their past and current project roles as change managers, Scrum Masters, coaches, etc.

Thinking about the course content, as well as our current role as an Agile coach, we have reflected on different dimensions. It seems to us that combining Change Management, Agile and coaching knowledge with being an external service provider brings oneself into an area of conflict. We call this area the triangle of Agile coaching.

Accenture proposes a model for analyzing situations through a defined reflection lens (“triangle of Agile coaching”). The dimensions of the model, guiding our reflection, are Change Management, Agile, and Coaching.

Crossing these reflections with discussions held with our client, we came to formulate a question that seemed controversial and which we discuss in this article:

"Is an Agile coach the best or the worst of three worlds, Agile, coaching and change?" To answer this question, it is of interest to dive into the different sub-topics, mentioned in the above chart.

Agile

Doing Agile means, applying learned methods such as Scrum, Kanban, pair programming or the Agile test pyramid. Being Agile means understanding that oneself is a relentless, lifelong learner.
Notwithstanding all gathered expertise, Agile frameworks knowledge, methods, processes, artifacts, ceremonies and/or roles. It is always a new, interesting challenge to help clients become Agile and adjust Agile frameworks to their organization, without losing the essence of Agile principles.
Sharing knowledge with teams, units and leadership helps them to apply certain methods and practices, but also makes them understand the underlying principles and values.
To share Agile knowledge, one must first gather it by oneself and be a role model for it, meaning acting by its principles and having an Agile mindset. That is why it is important for an Agile coach to have broad Agile experience. Only then will a coach earn full trust and attention of coachees and organizations.

Change Management

Most corporates go through a disruptive organizational change when they transform their operating model to Agile. Therefore, it is very important to apply Change Management practices.
Whether it is building a network of change agents, handling stakeholders, or making the change process transparent through prompt, recurring communication, change management methods support organizations on their Agile transformation journey. These methods help to keep focus on the transformation objectives, establish transparency, and take every organization member along on the journey.

Coaching

Now there is coaching. To describe the methods and competencies of coaching, we use the famous Agile coaching "X-Wing model", created by Lyssa Adkins. The model divides the methods and competencies into a left side of "Content" and a right side of "Process authority", where coaching is located.

This framework developed by Adkins helps to differentiate topics that are often mixed. On the "Content Authority" side, there is:

  • Teaching: transfer a specific set of knowledge to a student in a way he could use it well afterwards
  • Mentoring: use your experience and support a client with solutions that worked already for you

The professional coaching on the "Process side" deals with a different scenario:
There’s a phrase every consultant hears if he comes to a new client: "We are different!". Now you would be in trouble, as your experience and solutions may or may not help here if that is right.
This can be changed by coaching experience, as this is the area where professional methods are used to "deal with unknowingness".
The coach attitude means expecting that the client would be the best expert to solve their problems. The coach supports with leading the client through processes that allow them to access their resources and clarify their solution. This is where coaches can even help professional soccer players to improve, even if they are already much better that the coach.
Now that we have understood the different dimensions of our area of conflict, let’s analyze the different types of Agile coach peculiarities in our Agile coach triangle.

The Agile transformation expert

When corporations go through a (scaled) Agile transformation, very often they lack Agile expertise in the organization at the beginning of their journey. To gather transformation pace, it is popular to engage external resources, which bring Agile expertise, known today as Agile coaches.
Agile coaches should teach the organization the theory and support the employees in the application of Agile practices on the job.
In most Agile transformation initiatives, Agile coaches are also included into the change team, supporting communication, or identifying Agile knowledge sources within the organization.
In our experience, most Agile coaches in today’s world are representing this form of Agile coaching.

The Agile transformation expert is included into the change team, supporting communication, or identifying agile knowledge sources within the organization.

The Agile coach

Once a corporation goes through the transformation of its operating model and establishes Agile methods and practices, it starts to live Agile and understand its principles and values. Ideally, at this point of the transformation journey, the intrinsic motivation of employees is rising. They understand the principle of relentless improvement and want to strive for greatness; however, they still lack expertise in advanced Agile topics.
This situation demands Agile experts, who can transfer their knowledge. Because employees do not have to be convinced to apply Agile, a different method of knowledge sharing is demanded.
Agile experts do not have to create structure, or tell employees what to do, but ask the right questions to broaden the employee’s horizon. For the Agile coach, this also means not taking ownership over a result or to driving topics, but becoming a source of Agile knowledge for employees, which can be consulted for ideas or creative input.

The Agile coach is a source of Agile knowledge and is consulted for creative input.

The transformation coach

Sometimes, corporations decide to infuse the organization with Agile knowledge, scheduling and running numerous Agile trainings in a short amount of time, across all levels. Afterwards, organizations go through a sustainability phase, where employees have the knowledge and know how to apply it but could feel lost in the transformation journey. Here, it makes a lot of sense for the organization to involve a transformation coach.
Transformation coaches act as change experts by establishing change structures, as well as supporting employees with the right questions and guidance whenever they need it.

The transformation coach is an expert by establishing change structures.

Conclusion

After considering the above aspects, the characteristics of an ideal Agile coach seem logical. Looking at the triangle of Agile coaching, identifying the sweet spot is easy.

The most impactful way for Agile coaching is to have Agile, Coaching and Change Management aligned.

However, being in the sweet spot of the triangle of Agile coaching can be a change and a risk at the same time. It can mean that an Agile coach knows each dimension but has not mastered it. Also, looking at the transformation journey of an organization, the sweet spot can also mean being the wrong coach at a certain point in time. Focusing on Agile and change, when employees have already understood the principle of relentless improvement could lead to misunderstandings or unnecessary interference of coaches into Agile teams or units. This could result in lack of ownership.
Focusing on Agile and coaching at the beginning of an Agile transformation could lead to low engagement of Agile coaches or little change communication of change. This might result in a stagnation of the transformation.
Being a change coach and not sharing Agile expertise could result in employees questioning the content validity of the coach and applying their own Agile practices. This ultimately leads to distrust of employees and misalignment of Agile methods in the organization.
The sweet spot for an Agile coach means having mastered each dimension of the triangle and then flexing according to a situation or a phase of the Agile transformation. For Agile coaches, this means investing more time in relentless improvement but also taking time to analyze the current phase of the Agile transformation project they are involved in, to apply the right mix of dimensions.
Consequently, having mastered the sweet spot of Agile coaching means taking the coachees on a journey. At the beginning of a transformation, the Agile coach trains the organization on Agile methods. This is the Agile dimension. Afterwards, the coach starts to support the organization on the application of the trained methods. The support and enablement phase lasts longer in the organization. Here, the coach moves between the Agile and change dimensions. At a later stage of the Agile transformation, once the organization has understood and applied Agile values and principles, the Agile coach slowly moves out of the supporting and enabling role, and into the coach role. This stage focuses more on the Agile and coaching dimensions.
Mastering each dimension of the Agile coaching triangle as well as the flex behavior between them, is the most impactful way of Agile coaching for us. In fact, and thus coming back to the original question, we do see this as the best of three worlds: Agile, Coaching and Change Management.



Anton Podokschik

Agile Coach


Renaud Granier

Agile Advisor

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