What does it take to be an “Experienced” Agile Coach?

What does it take to be an “Experienced” Agile Coach?

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A week or so ago, out of a bit of frustration I posted the following comment on LinedIn:

Weird. Every day I see more and more “Agile Coaches” and they seem to have less and less experience. Does real experience matter anymore?

I received quite a few comments. Some of them are below:

  • What’s interesting is applying experience to different situations. As you know from last year Bob we transformed a product team under your coaching, I am now applying the same approach at a different firm. The objective is the same but the different people, process, tools and culture make it a different puzzle. Ask me in 6 months if experience matters – my guess is yes. 
  • I have noticed the same thing. Qualifications for being a coach are becoming “I was standing in the room when someone said agile”. You get what you pay for. 
  • Sounds like you need a certification…that will solve the problem 🙂  
  • Real experience trumps any certification. You can spend 6 months to a year understanding how to write user stories, forget about story points, portfolio management, definition of DONE, effective scrum meetings, planning, grooming, etc. I am not certified, but I bet I can teach more than 90% of so called certified coaches. If you don’t understand what you are looking for you’ll get what you deserve. 
  • So the good news is that people are really showing they value agile coaching – which was not the case years ago. But, it’s true, in order to coach effectively, you need to have done agile delivery and I’ll also agree, for years. No matter how fantastic a training class or certification, nothing can replace the depth you gain through doing, making mistakes and working through the many tradeoffs which all agile teams encounter. 
  • Picking up the experience thread here, i would like to say that doing same thing for 20 years is like repeating 1 year 20 times, might make you an SME but i would not call it experience. Exposure to different business situations, customers, regions.

Then Chris Murman replied with the following tweet:

It is the new term du jour I guess. How long should a coach be in the saddle to earn the moniker?

Which made me think about some of the “experience patterns” for a solid agile coach. For example, I don’t think there is a magical number of years experience. And I don’t think a certification is a panacea either. But there are probably some combinations of experiences or patterns that make for solid Agile Coaches.

So what should a coach have experientially to “earn the moniker”? Let’s see…

  • Deep experience leveraging Extreme Programming, Scrum, and Kanban and the understanding of strengths of each…in practice. This probably has a number of years associated with it – minimally 3-5 years from my perspective.
  • Broad experience across software development, software testing, business analysis, architecture, UX and operations. In other words, I want a coach who has more experience than simply in the software development “stack”. And hopefully with the experience, a broad and healthy respect for all of the functions.
  • Led / coached several transformations in small to enterprise level companies. So here I’m looking for experiential breadth and not simply a one-trick (one organization) pony. I’d like them to have minimally led one (hugely successful) agile transformation and conversely, have at least one (huge failure) under their belt. Interestingly, I hope they find more value in the failures. An interesting question is – what have they learned from their failures?
  • The ability to teach agile and non-agile software topics. Teaching is a gift. As is story telling and public speaking. Some have it and others don’t. I’d like the coach to be a recognized teacher with recommendations from classes and organizations as to their effectiveness. And this isn’t simply teaching CSM classes to often-disengaged developers. I want them to have experience teaching leaders and managers as well.
  • A contributor to the agile communities – both at the local and national levels. This could be as a volunteer, a speaker, or writer. Not only am I looking for coaches that “give back” to the community, but also those that have something of interest to share and peers interested in hearing about it.
  • They should have a network of agile coaching colleagues that support them as peers and mentors. I’m also looking for recommendations from peer level coaches who have worked with or partnered with the coach. Minimally, those who have awareness of the coach’s skills and experience. In other words, are they well respected in the agile coaching community?
  • They should be able to seamlessly coach at the team, middle management, and senior leadership tiers in organizations – being equally skilled at each level. I would want them to have minimally 2-5 years in leadership / senior leadership positions. They should be empathetic to the challenges of technology leaders. Beyond empathy, they should be able to “speak to” the leaders in their own language and with direct experience as a backdrop.
  • They should have a rich toolbox of stories and be a great storyteller as a means of teaching their clients. Part of their success is based on the depth and breadth of their stories, something that doesn’t happen in a few years.
  • They have to have enough years of experience to draw upon in situations. In fact, the deeper their experience is inside and outside of agile contexts, the better.  Quite often I’m looking for significant Waterfall or traditional experience and then explore the “why” behind their move towards agile.
  • On occasion or opportunistically they need to be comfortable telling teams what to do or being prescriptive. In fact, exploring cases where they’ve known when to “step in” and when to “step out” as a coach would be a nice way to explore the balance.  And this would include at all levels of the organization.
  • There is this notion of being a Truth Teller, even at the risk of alienating a client or losing work. There are aspects of courage, communications effectiveness, empathy, context, and intent here as well. In other words, you’re trying to avoid a “Yes man” as a coach.
  • They need to be coachable and a good team member. It is often easy for a coach to coach. But when it comes to being a team member or being coaches, we struggle to “eat our own dog food”. The very best coaches are secure and experienced enough to be coached and are focused on continuous improvement. And determine whether they have coached other coaches? And would those coaches consider them a solid coach?
  • Ultimately a good coaches job is to put themselves out of a job – as quickly as possible. Often this gets lost in a coaching engagement. I like to explore their alignment with this intent. But more importantly, explore the “how” behind their strategies for enabling the autonomous agile organization.
  • It’s increasingly a problem the longer they’ve been away from “Real World” jobs as opposed to “consulting”. If for example, they’ve only done 1-week coaching engagements for the last 10 years, then they’ve probably not seen their work truly finish. Or if they’ve only done 2-day training classes, then where’s the real world experience? You need to look for a pragmatic, real world balance of experience AND a connection to the ultimate results.

I’ll stop right here, but I’m sure the list could be longer.

Now to answer Chris’s question. Do you think an Agile Coach will have earned the “moniker” using the above characteristics…after a year? 2-3 years? More? 10 years?

I realize it’s personal journey for each coach AND situational. But really, how long does it realistically take to gain the depth and breadth the above implies?

And to risk sounding self-serving, I believe the Certified Scrum Coach comes as close as possible to exhibiting most of the above. That’s why the credential is so hard to earn. You have to have deep and broad chops and be able to demonstrate your experience.

Does the certification in itself qualify the coach? Certainly not! But it’s a wonderful starting point to establish a core level of experience and competency.  Which is certainly the beginning.

Beyond experience, I believe an equally important part of selecting a coach is looking at the personality and style fit with the organization. That is something that has to be assessed in the interview and by exploring recommendations. You can also get a feel for it by establishing some early “lets try it” sessions before you make a longer-term commitment.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my initial post. And thank Chris Murman for inspiring this response.

Stay agile my friends!


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