Agile Coaching versus Professional Coaching

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Agile Coaching versus Professional Coaching

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I think many in the agile community get confused about the difference between Professional Coaching (as defined by the International Coaching Federation or ICF) and Agile Coaching (as explained within the Agile Coaching Competency Framework or Agile Coaching Growth Wheel).  

The clarity problem actually begins because the ICF definitions (certifications, competency models, ethics, etc.) are VERY clearly identified. And, since everything is so clearly defined, the many organizations who have ICF training are consistent in approach as well. There’s great clarity when a singular organization forms around a profession to capture its essence and guide its evolution.

The profession of agile coaching, if I can use that terminology, isn’t nearly as clear. It’s fractured, ill-defined, inconsistently agreed on and composed of organizational factions. The two frameworks I mentioned, while aligned, don’t agree on the standard coaching stances that make up Agile Coaching. Nor do any of the leading certification bodies (Scrum Alliance, iCAgile, Scrum.org, or Scaled Agile Framework). As I said, there is some commonality, but there is no way near the clarity that you gain from ICF in Professional Coaching.

The clarity problem is further exacerbated because I believe Agile Coaching is a superset of Professional Coaching. In other words, Professional Coaching is an activity (or stance) that is practiced while Agile Coaching. But it isn’t the only stance.

It gets even more challenging because I believe many agile coaches don’t understand it consistently and clearly. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that there is a lack of agreement and alignment within our Agile Coaching community.

Here’s an example. A Scrum Alliance, Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC) agile coach colleague of mine, Michael de la Maza, wrote the following in LinkedIn

I once heard a coach say that a client complimented him thusly, “Great workshop! I bet you knew how to solve our problems, didn’t you?” The coach smiled and said, “Yes, I did.”

This is not at all my understanding of what agile coaching is. Agile coaching is not:

1.     Understand the client’s problems.

2.     Figure out the solutions.

3.     Don’t tell the client the solutions.

4.     Instead, “facilitate” a workshop or ask “powerful questions” so that the client can figure out the solutions.

5.     Compliment the client.

All of these steps have deep, fundamental problems. I’ll focus on the first step.

A coach cannot understand a client’s problems. This is not because the coach has not lived the history of the client or because the client organization is so large. Those might be true but they are superficial reasons. A fundamental reason is that no human being can presume to understand the internal state of another human being.

This is in part what respecting people means. It means that we don’t think of other people as being so puny and tiny that we can contain their entire being.

If I had a penny for every time, I witnessed an agile coach trying to “figure out” a client, I’d be able to buy the Eiffel Tower.

What’s interesting about the post is that it garnered, as of October 8th, 2021, 35 comments. And they weighed in from all sides and perspectives. I guess that underscores the notion that there’s a lot of confusion and misalignment around what Agile Coaching “is”.

Here’s what I wrote in my comment—

I realize that I’m coming to this party late, but I’d like to comment anyway. Even though there are some great thoughts and threads ahead of me.

The first point Michael is that you phrased this with a heavy dose of “Professional Coaching” assumptions or views. That is, the coach’s role is to not understand the client. Or to consider them “puny” 😉

But then you used the term Agile Coach or Coaching in there as well. Somehow conflating the two notions – professional coaching or coach and agile coaching or coach.

I would agree that when adopting the stance of a professional coach, I want to meet the client in the way (or not in the anti-way) you described. But that’s not all there is, IMHO, to agile coaching. I actually think it’s fine for an agile coach to try and “understand” the client, their situation, their context, their “problems”, just a wee bit. I don’t think it’s inherently disrespectful not does it naturally make the client puny.

I consider agile coaching to be a superset of professional coaching and to allow for more than a single stance. Yes, and one of those stances is the expert or consultative or advice-giving stance. AND, that when used thoughtfully and skillfully, this stance can be in the best interest of serving the client.

I like to use the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel as a model that amplifies all of the stances that an agile coach can (and should) be adept at adopting. In fact, I consider “agile coaches” who only adopt a “professional coaching stance” as their only tool/capability to be doing their agile clients a severe disservice. Note: I think this is what @murray was saying when he talked about a “counseling approach” to coaching.

Anyway, just my two cents. I think it would create a healthier discussion if we parsed the two (professional vs. agile) apart. Thanks for the inspiration!

I think a key part of the problem is that we conflate ideas and terms and you can see that in Michael’s post.

We need to agree on the relationship between Agile Coaching and Professional Coaching. As I said in my comment above, I believe—

  • Agile Coaching is a superset, as it contains one of its aspects, Professional Coaching. Both are incredibly nuanced and valuable, but they are not the same thing. When I am performing as an Agile Coach, I might show up in a Professional Coaching stance. I might just as easily show up in an Advisory or Mentoring stance. All three of those stances represent equally important aspects of my Agile Coaching. 

  • When I’m coaching in an agile context and I use the generic term Coaching, I am referring to Agile Coaching. 

  • When I’m in a professional coaching context (individual coaching, life coaching, leadership coaching, business coaching, partner coaching, personal coaching, etc.) and I use the generic term Coaching, I am not referring to Agile Coaching. 

  • Whenever possible, I should seek to avoid the generic term Coaching, and replace it with specifically (what) I am doing. Am I providing Professional Coaching? Or am I providing Agile Coaching? Making that distinction crystal clear. 

  • There are those in the agile community who have a preference for Professional Coaching and that stance as being more impactful, more basic, and more often used than the other stances. This bias or leanage towards Professional Coaching helps to conflate the two. I also think we need to agree that all of the stances within any framework are of equal value depending on the client and situational context.

A final point here is that we eventually need to gain community/professional agreement on specifically which stances constitute Agile Coaching. Unfortunately, we do not have that agreement currently, which I suspect, also contributed to conflation and confusion.

I wrote a call-to-action not that long ago around the need for an agreed model and clarity of terminology for Agile Coaching. In that post, I said that agile coaching was in its infancy, which sort of provided some coverage or an excuse for the lack of clarity.

A few people challenged me on that. And I agree with them. Even though agile coaching, as well as agile itself, is relatively new, we’ve still been doing agile for ~20 years. There’s really no good reason for us not having sorted this out sooner.

And for those who might be thinking that I’m making a problem from a non-problem. There are ~200K people worldwide on LinkedIn claiming to be “Agile Coaches”, while none of us (including our clients) really understands what that means.

Now THAT is a problem!

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

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