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Why you may need an 'agile coach' (whatever one is)

Matthew Heusser | Oct. 16, 2013
Ask an 'agile coach' what he or she does and the answer could range from write code to run meetings. It's not what you'd necessarily expect an agile coach to be doing, but that doesn't mean the role is unnecessary.

This defines at least two different roles for the coach: technical mentor and change agent.

Coaching Works Better Beyond Agile's Early Adopters
I spend a fair amount of Agile2013 looking to answer the question, "What is an agile coach, anyway?"

One evening, as I sneak into an empty room to make a phone call, I find this piece of paper:

Agile Coaching Competency Framework
The Agile Coaching Competency Framework. (Used with permission.)

At this point, I'm skeptical. Instead of a single, undefined thing, we now have a big bucket of things that look impressive on the surface. But is there depth?

The author of the framework are Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd. Both are principles at the Agile Coaching Institute, while Adkins is the author of Coaching Agile Teams.

"When I wrote Coaching Agile Teams," Adkins says, "it wasn't that I had cracked the code; more like I had one idea that was useful. What I started in that book had matured into the competency framework."

At the beginning of the agile movement, Spayd explains, the people picking up extreme programing and scrum were early adopters. At the beginning, teaching and mentoring the left-hand side of Everett Rogers' technology adoption lifecycle model works just fine. Get to the middle of the graph, the early and late majority, and resistance occurs, he says.

"Teaching and mentoring doesn't help with resistance," Spayd says. "You need a different set of skills. Professional coaching and facilitating allow people to overcome their own resistance. All of these things are 'agile coaching' &mash; they fit in the framework."

The ICF calls professional coaching the ability to partner with someone to inspire his or her potential, regardless of the domain or industry. While a teacher or mentor might insist on a particular approach, a professional coach "doesn't have a dog in the fight," as Spayd puts it. "Instead of being a content expert, you walk them through a process to see what isn't working and what to change."

Rather than look for one definition of coach, this embraces the idea that coaches can focus on different aspects of the agile coaching framework. Some coaches focus entirely on technical mastery. Others can't write code at all. Adkins and Spayd agree that a "lean/agile practitioner" is core to the skill set for most software teams - but they also agree that agile development is quickly moving out of technology into the business realm, as "agile puts the customer in the driver's seat."

Adkins points to the bottom third of the framework - technical, business and transformation Mastery - and says "it's really hard to be extremely good at two elements" and "impossible" to be an expert at all three. "We tell people to pick one," she says.


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