Consider this before hiring an Agile Coach

This summer, during the Olympics, the Euro Soccer Championships and the Tour the France, while cheering  in front of the tv, I noticed something in the way teams perform. And it worried me. Even more because I see the same thing happening in organizations. Why did the English soccer team fail against Iceland? How come the Dutch field hockey team didn’t win a medal? And what does this have anything to do with Agile Coaches? In this post, I will explain what to look for in an Agile Coach and why not to hire them full-time.

A system or framework will not make you a winner!

Everybody has heard about it, many you have seen it. The Icelandic team beat the English soccer team. Were they better soccer players? No, they were not, and they knew that. However, they did operate as a team and were not bounded by an elaborate and complicated system. The systems and plays are taking over the creativity and craftsmanship of any team. When things turn sour, many teams that rely on a system are unable to break away from it. They have been brainwashed and probably punished by the coach not to break away from the system.

Take a look at this scene from Dutch professional basketball coach, Ton Boot. During practice they have a limited amount of passes to get to the other side of the field and score. Everybody needs to have touched the ball and the amount of passes leaves no room for error. Listen to what he says when they fail!

Why do they do this exercise? This has nothing to do with using a certain offensive play. It has to do with the ability to operate as a unit and dealing with the situation (which is always different).

How do you, or your Agile Coach, deal with the Scrum Framework? Do you treat is as a system? Just an implementation of some rules and followed up by punishing any deviation from these rules? This works fine up to a certain point!

As soon as you run into problems or your organization is under great pressure to deliver, people need to be able break away from these rules. Teams need to understand the values beneath the rules to get things done. The ability to let go of the rules and teaching teams to act from values is important for an Agile coach to understand and act upon.

Deal with Super Chickens!

In a highly competitive and complex environment we can no longer rely on a single superhero. One person cannot carry the entire team. You need a great balance in a team. Why? Take a look at this interesting TED talk by Margaret Heffernan:

So, what do you do as an Agile Coach when you run into a Super Chicken? Again, Ton Boot is showing a great example of on boarding a new team member, a Super Chicken.

(Some parts are in Dutch but I am assuming you’ll get the point)

What would you do in this situation? We all have been in such a situation throughout our professional life but how often have we dealt with it? Most organizations are too afraid to face this super chicken since they are too happy they finally have a talented superstar. But if you do not have this super chicken put his interests in line with that of your company they will destroy your company.

An Agile coach should be able to identify super chickens and be able to confront them with their behavior (or even better, teach others how to do this). Need some inspiration? Read these books ‘ 5 dysfunctions of a team’ and ‘ The Phoenix Project

A coach should not be in the spotlight

I truly believe in this statement. A coach should not be the most famous person of the team. If this is the case, something is probably wrong.

A great coach should not have to teach players or individuals on how to do their job. They know how to hit a ball or how to write code. Otherwise you need a trainer. A coach teaches people to work together, to give feedback to each other and to operate as a unit. In my training courses, I often use the movie below. I love it, it shows the behavior I expect from Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches.

As a coach you teach people to work together, to think for themselves and from time to time ‘punish’ bad behavior.

Don’t hire an Agile Coach full-time!

Being an Agile Coach is not a full-time assignment! Whenever, I get requests to help an organization as Agile Coach, I never take a full-time job. I don’t see the added value and neither should you!

Being an Agile Coach comes with a great risk of overdoing your job. You are hired to make the organization more Agile so you will probably try to coach the sh*t out of the teams. Literally! However, you don’t have to intervene continuously to make an organization improve continuously.

As a child my parents had this nice fireplace in the middle of the room with a cast iron chimney. As a kid I was drawn to the fire and wobbling towards to fireplace to put my hand on the chimney. My parents prevented it every time (thankfully). However, I did not seem to learn from it, so one day they decided, when the fire already was out and the chimney wasn’t that hot anymore to just let it happen. It hurt, but I wasn’t injured but I never ever again walked toward the fireplace ever again! So sometimes you need to step away, not be there to maximize the impact of learning.

For how long do you need to employ a coach? On average this is around three years for a sports coach. Ton Boot works for 3 years with a team followed by a sabbatical year to recover, improve and learn. The Agile coach also has an expiration date. From my experience, the effect of a single takes wears out after 6 months. After this the assignments needs to change significantly or the agile coach will have to move on. Yes, there are exceptions, even in sports as there are in Agile Coaching but like I already said, these are exceptions.

So what to look for in an Agile Coach? A person who:

  • Knows the systems but does not cling to it
  • Knows how to identify and deal with Super Chickens
  • Understands you do not want to hire them for more than 3 days a week for the next 6 months

Want to know more or do you share a different opinion please comment.

If you like to learn more about this basketball coach? Here is a great documentary (in Dutch)

One Response to “Consider this before hiring an Agile Coach

  • The only thing I might argue is:
    How strong your engagement should be depends completely on the current condition of the client.

    The fireplace analogy doesn’t really apply when you have a gazillion middle managers constantly trying to justify their position by managing (as opposed to “coaching”) the bejeezus out of the teams.

    You may be stuck fulltime the first couple of weeks just with creating some breathing room for the teams to actually start self-organization.

    I believe in working in a way to make yourself superfluous through gradually waning engagement. That is, while it may be up to 5 days initially, the involvement should decline to 2-3 days mid-term and 1 day (or less) after a while.

    But here’s one more thing I would add:
    * Understands that the scope of their engagement is bigger than the team

    mk

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