What is an Agile Coach?

coach with client in office

By Mick Lavin, Coach, Agile Coach, Mentor

Organizations never stand still. They adapt, react, change from within, change based on external threats, with new technologies, find new ways of working, and sometimes they just fade away. Organizations are always in motion and always changing.

Many organizations implement change strategies, willingly or as a response to circumstance. One of the changes organizations make is a transformation to a more agile way of working. Frameworks or Methodologies such as Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, Lean, or other approaches are adopted and implemented. Many organizations refine these approaches to suit their own particular situation or, more likely, to fit their old way of working*.

Organizations that wish to implement change often look to consultants or experts in the field to help them in their transformation. Often, the organization or the consultancy will hire an Agile Coach. A consultancy may already have coaches on hand as part of their service. This person will likely act in a directive way to implement the goals of the consultancy, rather than exploring what the teams need in the moment. Of course, some consultancies and their coaches partner with the organization for a beneficial outcome but very often they have a standard playbook with a one-size fits all approach.

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Smaller organizations with budgetary constraints may not be able to afford consultants and opt to hire the coach directly.

So, what does it mean for a company to hire an Agile Coach? When hiring an Agile Coach, what does a company look for? What are the expectations of the role?

First, we may need to consider the skillset implied in the term Agile Coach

McKinsey, in an article on “Growing your own agility coaches”, describe an Agile Coach as: “the agility coach is a change agent who helps leaders and teams adopt new ways of working via agile practices and mind-set. The agility coach is a core element in transforming an organization toward a more modern way of working and a completely new operating model.”

The Business Agility Institute, in cooperation with Scrum Alliance, produced the State of Agile Coaching Report in February 2021. This report provides a definition for a Multi-team Coach and compares this to the role of Agile Coach: “individuals who fill a coaching role across multiple teams. This role primarily focuses on coaching teams to improve business processes. This role would fill the commonly used definition of an agile coach. “

ICAgile define an Agile Coach as someone who “guides individuals and teams to get clear about the change they desire, identify places where current reality does not match desired reality and then take action to close the gap — all in service of delivering business results that matter. Along the way coaches hold the bigger view of desired change, even when others may have lost sight.

Agile coaches support, guide, coach, teach, mentor and facilitate change without colluding with the current reality.”

Lyssa Adkins & Michael Spayd created a model based on skills of an Agile Coach. This has been adopted and adapted by several Agile Certification providers:

The problem with this is that organizations have different ideas as to what constitutes an Agile Coach and usually hire one after a decision to follow a specific Agile framework has been made.

So, what’s the problem? As a company we chose a framework and now we chose a coach to help us implement this framework! But is that really what creating an agile environment and culture is all about? Choosing a framework or methodology is a process decision, this does not change the way people think. Choosing a framework or methodology is usually a management decision, this does not change the way management think. While your organization may wish to apply a specific framework or methodology and educate the workforce to adhere to these new ways of working, this is not a solution that helps teams be more efficient and agile.

After a company has chosen a new way of working, it then looks to change the roles within the organization to match this new framework. Sometimes, the Project Manager takes on the new role of Product Owner, The Scrum Master, may come from within the team, the Team Leader/Manager or even from a Project Management role. These approaches may ignore the qualities required by the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master. What usually happens, in this case, is that the titles change but the roles and interactions between the roles remain the same.

This new way of working then struggles to find traction, team members backslide into their old roles, and productivity may even drop. Team members begin to feel pressured to apply the new ways of working and yet see no benefit.

Enter the Agile Coach!

Surely the Agile Coach can fix the teams and their new ways of working, right? That depends!

An Agile Coach is hired with an expectation that the coach ‘alone’ will transform the organization. This is not a realistic approach. The Leadership team for the organization need to take an active and participatory role in the transformation, to support the teams as they struggle to restructure and align along new process and business lines.

So, who should we hire and what skillset should they possess? As shown in the diagram above, the Agile Coach is:

  1. A Change Agent
  2. A Team Coach
  3. An Individual Coach
  4. A Subject Matter Expert in the chosen process, methodology, or framework
  5. A Mentor
  6. A Teacher
  7. Able to Engage Leadership
  8. Has Mastery of one of more:
    • Technical
    • Business
    • Transformation

9. Understand Systems and Complex Theory

10. Understand Business Agility

12. Organizational Design

But does this superhero exist, and can they transform our organizations and lead us to ever greater agility? Is it possible to have all these skills present in one person? It is possible, but this superhero has a lot of experience, learning, and leadership qualities.

Who is the Agile Coach?

Most organizations work in teams, most organizations have functional silos, most organizations have hierarchical structures, most organizations have financial constraints, and most organizations have a leadership team that sets direction for the teams.

Where an Agile Coach is usually positioned is at the Team level on the ground. This may be useful in helping the teams (chosen by leadership to transform) understand the new ways of working and even establish better working relationships with other teams. However, this will not remove silos in the organization or help departments work better together.

Many organizations at this point promote a senior Scrum Master or in some cases a Project Manager to the role of Agile Coach. But Scrum Masters and Project Managers are not Agile Coaches. This is a career path followed by some in these roles, and it is sometimes seen as a logical next step within organizations. However, for a Scrum Master or Project Manager to become an Agile Coach, they must continue their professional development and grow into the role of Agile Coach. Being a Scrum Master for one or more teams is a great start on the journey to becoming an Agile Coach but it does not implicitly imply that a good Scrum Master will become a good Agile coach.

Team Agile Coach (Foundational): An Agile Coach at this level needs to have skills that will allow them to work with Teams and Teams of Teams. Abilities such as basic coaching skills (individual & team), ability to influence (change agent), technical (agile) process expertise, and role model (mentor) are required. This role is likely to be hands on in the daily workings of the teams and will facilitate collaborative conversations within and between teams.

With support from departmental leadership this can be effective at the team level. Without support from the leadership team, this is likely to create pockets of agility, increasing agile skills, and also frustration within the teams as they try to meet organizational goals. A Team Agile Coach cannot help to solve the problems of an organization without buy-in from the stakeholders of the teams, however, the Coach at this level is unlikely to have access to the stakeholders.

If the organization is looking to improve how it functions, then it needs to work with an experienced Agile Coach at the stakeholder level.

Agile Coach (Experienced): At this level, an Agile Coach needs to have skills that enable them to engage with Leadership. The Coach will work with Leadership teams and help them to understand what agility in their organization can be. Abilities above those of the Team Agile Coach may include: Advanced coaching skills (individual & team), ability to engage leadership, technical and business mastery, basic understanding of systems and basic business agility.

Stakeholder engagement is crucial to make this a successful arrangement! An experienced Agile Coach cannot ‘fix’ the Teams, this is a whole organization endeavour and requires ‘fixes’ at many levels. If the stakeholders and leadership team are unwilling to commit to reflection and change, then the transformation programme will fail.

Enterprise Agile Coach: At this level, an Agile Coach will have the skills to work with the leadership team and help them to navigate organisational change/transformation. The Coach will challenge the Leadership team on their commitment to a real change agenda. Working with the Leadership team, the Coach will help the team understand what needs to change in their relationship to the rest of the organisation. To work at this level the contract should implicitly address the change that Leadership needs to make, and the support Leadership needs to give to the organisation for successful change.

Abilities above those of the Agile Coach may include: Advanced coaching skills (individual & team coaching accreditation), engagement with leadership, mastery of business and transformation, understanding of complex systems and theory, understanding of business agility and organizational design.

Is success possible at the Enterprise level? Can someone, brought in from outside the organization truly change an organization?

Success at the Enterprise level is almost certainly impossible without a concrete commitment and support from the Leadership team. A top-down leadership approach is required, not a top-down management dictate if this is to succeed. The Leadership of the organization must be willing to look in the mirror held up to them by the Agile Coach and be willing to reflect on what needs to change in themselves. If this is not part of the contract, then it is likely, the engagement will fail.

Who will your organization hire?

Hiring an Agile Coach, with the right mix of experience for your organizational transformation goals is complex.  Agile Coaches should have experience, proven coaching qualifications, and be continuously learning. Organizations grow and adapt, so too should your Agile Coach.

Within the organization there should also be a willingness to transform and a realization that this cannot happen without the active support of the Leadership Team. The Leadership Team have a responsibility to enable change in structure and process at the various organizational levels to ensure success.

One Agile Coach cannot transform a large organization, this will require a team of experts and coaches to restructure and implement process change. For smaller organizations, it is possible but only if the coach has the relevant experience and support of the Leadership Team.

Considerations in hiring an Agile coach may include:

  1. What level do we expect to place the Coach at? Service Delivery, Across Silos, Leadership Team level?
  2. Does the organization just need a trainer to improve agile process and frameworks? Or should they hire an experienced Scrum Master or equivalent to put a team back on the right path?
  3. Is the experience of the coach reflected in the ambition of the organization?

If an organization really wants to improve how their teams work together and help develop better resiliency, adaptability, and create a growth mindset, then hire an Agile Coach with experience.

With the right Agile Coach and buy-in from the Leadership Team, a process of transformation can result in real change and improvement for a company and its employees.

*Adopting and then changing Scrum or Kanban means an organization is no longer adopting Scrum or Kanban. The likely outcome of this approach is that the organization will only change job titles and not how the work is performed. This is not a transformation; this is maintaining the status quo.