By Grant Beck, Plaster Group Agile Solutions Director
A few weeks ago, I attended a gathering of Scrum masters to discuss Agile best practices and the various challenges we were encountering with the adoption or execution of scrum. One Scrum Master I spoke with mentioned to me that he was an Agile Coach. An Agile coach is someone who helps teams and individuals with the transition to Agile and become high functioning by modeling and teaching Agile principles and techniques. Having taken some course work in coaching myself, I was curious what he thought it meant to be an Agile Coach. He said he ran the Scrum ceremonies, maintained the burn-down chart, and removed obstacles so the team could be productive. Making sure the team knew the responsibilities of each scrum role was also something for which he said he was accountable. I responded that I didn’t see how that was different than being a Scrum Master, but he really didn’t have a good response. A Scrum Master might employ some coaching techniques, but how is that different than being an Agile Coach? What are the competencies that a good Agile Coach should possess beyond the skills of a Scrum Master?
The Agile Coaching Institute has developed a framework, defining a palette of skills for good Agile Coaching. These competencies, when understood, mastered, and employed at the proper time, are powerful tools an agile coach uses to help individuals and teams reach their potential.
To be a good Agile Coach, one must first be a competent Agile practitioner. A clear understanding of the Agile Manifesto and the twelve principles behind the Agile Manifesto are essential. An Agile Coach should be familiar with the various Agile methodologies such as Scrum, Lean, XP, and Crystal. A practical, working knowledge of Agile allows the coach to draw from personal experience, and creates the opportunity to provide guidance, when doing so would prove enlightening for the team. Knowing what it means to be Agile provides the necessary foundation on which the Agile Coach builds their skillset.
A good Agile coach should be a knowledgeable and effective agile teacher. This requires exercising subject matter expertise in agile concepts and frameworks. Understanding the advantages of different teaching techniques and methods allows the Agile Coach to know how best to present learning material to an audience, keep participants engaged, and maximize the learning experience. Teaching occurs throughout an Agile project, and knowing how to effectively convey ideas and concepts at the right moments is a primary responsibility of the Agile Coach.
A good Agile Coach should also be a good mentor. Mentoring also requires subject matter expertise. “Mentoring” is the offering of resources, advice, or opinions, and involves transferring your knowledge of Agile and your Agile experiences to address a particular situation or issue. This allows the coach to be directly involved in offering solutions to any problems or issues facing the individual or team.
A good Agile Coach should be an effective facilitator. A facilitator does not require any subject matter expertise, but instead helps the team function by providing the appropriate containers and tools. A good Agile Coach facilitates practices and collaboration on a team, bringing people together in the spirit of teamwork and team empowerment. A good facilitator knows how to make sure all participants have a safe and encouraging environment in which to contribute their ideas.
Finally, a good Agile Coach knows when to rely on skills and practices from professional coaching. This competency is also one that does not require any subject matter expertise. A good coach is a focused listener and knows how to ask powerful questions that invite introspection and creativity – helping the coachee or team explore and discover a solution they themselves own. An Agile Coach knows when to hold back on offering their view, giving the team ‘space’ to find their own way. An agile coach helps the coachee identify an action, ask for a commitment, and a promise for future follow-up conversation.
These are the competencies and skills a good Agile Coach should possess. An Agile Coach moves back and forth between these skills to foster a rich environment for change and growth – one in which the coachee can learn agile principles, explore new perspectives, and discover opportunities. With an eye toward continuous improvement, an agile coach not only fosters change in individuals and teams, but also looks inward and asks, ‘How can I get better?’
Located in Seattle, Plaster Group’s Agile coaches possess and work to improve all of these skills.