“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.“
(John Wooden, former UCLA Bruins Coach)
There is something that keeps me puzzled. Regardless of whether we are discussing OKRs, agile working models, or digital transformation at large, the focus of my conversations with prospects or clients is typically on implementing or improving some process model and the supporting tech (typically JIRA plus some plug-ins). In most of these conversations, we spend comparably little time on how to improve collaboration and even less on culture.
Most professional sports teams spend millions for their superstars. Accomplished players who know their moves and plays. On top, they usually are bristling with fitness.
Still, no Roman Abramovitch or Oliver Kahn would come up with the idea of sending a ball boy or groundskeeper to a two-day training, pronounce them a team coach and send the lot off to win Champion’s League.
In sports, everyone seems to agree that outstanding coaches are key to forming winning teams. Without Sir Alex Ferguson, Jill Ellis, or Hansi Flick, ManU’s, the US Women’s, or recent Bayern München successes are unimaginable.
More often than not, however, we can’t convince our clients to invest in qualified Agile Coaches. One of our clients recently declined to hire a – much needed – Agile Coach due to budget constraints – only to employ more engineers. A prospect tells me that his team leads will run the OKR implementation as well as the ongoing check-ins and workshops. Another client boasts an „Agile Coaches“ team, yet all but one have not even completed the basic CSM exam. I could go on.
There seems to be a sentiment that agile coaches are superfluous. And if there is one, it’s often temporary „…until the process works“. Agile processes are simple and well-described, so in the minds of many executives, team leads and middle management are sufficient to make Agile work.
In an ideal world, this might be true, but managers have rarely been trained for that. Middle managers in most of the organizations we work with, have been and still are focused on administration and reporting. Only a small minority has any hands-on Agile background at all.
Agile coaches on the other hand bring the Agile knowledge and, ideally, the hands-on experience that increases the teams‘ skills and focus. A true Agile Coach helps chose the right methods and tailors frameworks and practices to the organization’s maturity and the situation at hand.
It’s probably worth pointing out again, that Agile frameworks, regardless of whether we are talking „just Scrum“ or scaling frameworks like LESS or SAFe must not be used „out of the box“, but require adjustment and continuous improvement to the organization’s context. The plethora of posts on platforms like Medium only about „doing Scrum right“ is a testament to that.
A principle of the recently emerging Agile 2 states: „Fit an Agile framework to your work, your culture, and your circumstances.“ Creating this fit is a key element of the Agile Coach’s job. Agile Coaches have to be fluent in Agile principles and experienced in multiple Agile methods and frameworks to shape and iteratively improve interactions and processes to support the organization’s objectives.
The first principle of the original Agile Manifesto „Individuals and interactions over processes and tools“ remains key though. While continuous process improvement is core to Agile, the Agile Coach’s role is more about people and less about artifacts, processes, and tools. It is a leadership-, but usually not a managerial role.
Qualified Agile coaches are specialists in complexity management. Therefore their impact on an organization’s success is in our experience often larger than a typical manager’s.
Shu Ha Ri, the Japanese martial art’s route to mastery, is often used to describe the development of an organization’s Agile practices. Without an experienced coach, organizations rarely transcend the Shu „Follow the Rule“ stage, remaining tied to learned fundamentals and techniques. Only guided reflection will lead to the Ri „Be the rule“ ability to develop new heuristics that create a seamless flow for the context at hand.
Strange enough, there are preciously few useful Agile Coach job descriptions. Here are some that I consider worth looking at:
Agile Coach Job Description
A sample job description I found in LinkedIn’s talent solutions. Solid!
The Agile Coach: Ensuring Project Success at an Organization Level
Insights from Villanova University’s “Leading Agile” Training Program.
It definitively takes more than a Solution Architect’s background and two days of training to be able to fill that role. Wouldn’t you agree?
Have a great summer weekend!