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Agile Coaching - Lessons from the Trenches

Scrum is:


Simple to understand

Difficult to master

- Intro, Definition of Scrum,

I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum capabilities.

- Bob Nardelli

High performing organizations, high performing teams, and high performing people do not often happen organically. They are a return on investment.

We've spent time in the trenches, both giving and receiving coaching, at organisations of all sizes: from small startups to large enterprises. In this article, we will use our hard fought experience to shed light onto Agile Coaching. First, we will take a step back, helping define what being an Agile Coach means and what skills are necessary to be successful in an organization. Then, we’ll examine patterns and anti-patterns for both in-house coaches and coach-consultants. We will shine light on how to enable coaches to be successful in your organization.

What is a coach?

Agile Coach is an overloaded term. It’s applied to advanced scrum masters, trainers, and leaders who aren’t sure where they fit in an agile organization. Agile Coach is not a role mentioned in Scrum, Kanban, XP or any other agile framework or practice. It’s grown organically as larger organizations have realized the benefits of agility and appetite has increased for long-lasting change. Coaching can reap amazing rewards if done skillfully. What does a skillful coach look like?

Companies that rely on external agile consultants want to know if they are acquiring good coaches with a proven track record and broad industry experience. Companies that prefer raising their own coaches want to identify the people with coaching aptitude. Individuals that pursue the career of an agile coach wonder if they have what it takes to become a coach. Individuals that have established themselves in the role of agile coaches wonder where the industry is taking the role; what is the future of agile coaching as it becomes a broader role with a more diverse definition?

Definition through Comparison - Coaching or Training?

Coaching and training are not mutually exclusive. Though many agile trainers can also coach and many coaches frequently train as a part of coaching, the difference between the two should be clear. In the comparison, the goals and role of a coach vs. trainer are highlighted.


  • Primary goal of training is to impart knowledge
  • Training is usually much shorter in duration: time-box is fixed and so is, typically, agenda
  • Training relies on hierarchical relationship, with Trainer being in a position of authority over the Trainees (holding expert and positional authority)
  • Trainer is expected to be a subject matter expert in a given domain
  • Training is largely directive, providing Trainees with ready answers and solutions
  • Training provides short-term influence by Trainer on Trainee
  • Training can be done virtually/remotely, though it is less effective than classroom training
  • Training imparts a discrete set of skills. If more skills were required, additional training would be required
  • Comfort zone of Trainees is not frequently breached by Trainer. Training is mainly done agnostically of Trainee’s personal experience (barring some interactive training)


  • Primary goal of coaching is to guide Coachees toward self-improvement through observation and guidance
  • Coaching is usually much longer in duration. It is not strictly time-boxed. Coaching sessions may be shorter or longer, depending on how communication between Coach and Coachee continues
  • Coaching agenda is rarely fixed. Instead, it is responsive to the current needs of the Coachee. Experienced coaches frequently use situational/opportunistic coaching to flex their style as needed.
  • Coaching does not stress hierarchical relationship between Coach and Coachee
  • Success of coaching is frequently dependent on Coach’s ability to establish rapport and trust with Coachee
  • Coach is not expected to be an expert in any one skill or subject area, but instead have broad experience in coaching as a skill
  • Coach’s primary goal is not to provide Coachee with final answers and complete solutions but rather enable Coachees derive their own answers and solutions by steering discussions and thinking
  • Past experiences and examples can be used by Coaches in a non-prescriptive fashion, to help Coachees develop their own associations and see analogies
  • Effective coaching is always done in person. Remote coaching is very ineffective as it does not have a personal element to it – a fundamental aspect of coaching
  • Coaching must be bi-directional. In most effective coaching sessions Coaches speak less and listen more. They reflect on what they hear/learn from Coachees
  • Coaching has more impact on Coachees; they develop their own ways/means to find solutions and address problems
  • Comfort zone (personal space) of Coachees is frequently entered by Coaches as the latter need to relate to experiences and sentiments of the former, in order to deliver more effective coaching. Experienced coaches either know how to enter personal spaces delicately, or explicitly ask Coachees to grant them permission. This alleviates negative effects of unwanted intrusion.

Coaching Styles

A coach is constantly assessing where directive (“commanding”) style coaching is required, balancing with supportive and reflective coaching. Finding the right situation for each style, and properly transitioning between them, are critical skills for healthy coaching.

Here are some of the typical conditions under which Coach selects one style over another:

  • Directive Coaching
    • Coachee exhibits low ability and inadequate subject matter expertise for contextual learning; the coach has strong expertise in the subject matter
    • Coachee has low motivation and morale
    • Coach leads by example and expects Coachee to follow
  • Non-Directive Coaching
    • Coachee exhibits high aptitude, strong skillset and subject matter expertize, regardless of Coach’s skillset and expertise
    • Coachee has high motivation and morale
    • Coach reflects on what Coachee thinks and says and makes Coachee come to his own conclusion.

This approach is based on Control-Experience Tool (modified from Canadian Forces Leadership Doctrine by Alan Okros). The Coaching Style Dashboard is another valuable resource to balance the two styles.

It can be tempting, especially for naturally directive leaders, to fall too often into the directive route. It is, by far, the easier form of coaching. It is also less likely to leave a lasting impact on the Coachee. A parent tells a young child not to run into the road and expects them to obey. So long as the parent is watching the child, they can reinforce the rule and ensure compliance. At some point, though, we must properly coach children to understand the impact behind a rule and to instill inherent motivations of safety and responsibility.

Taking a purely directive route will insure compliance, not engagement. The goal of any coach that begins directive should to be to, as quickly as possible, move the coachee on an axis that allows supportive, non-directive coaching.

Style Behaviors

A directive Coach

  • tells
  • provides answers
  • teaches
  • gives examples
  • offers advice

A reflective Coach

  • asks
  • provides guiding questions
  • creates an environment for self-learning
  • gives learning resources
  • helps Coachees find their own vision and goals

Coaching Specialties vs. Coaching Competencies

Coaching expertise can be measured using Specialties and Competencies. The Certified Scrum Coach (CSC) application by Scrum Alliance serves as a guide to defining these dimensions.

Coaching Specialties

Coaching Specialties are a core skillset, expertise and knowledge that coaches possess. To a large extent, they are based on a focus area of Coach’s paid and unpaid work (prior or present). Here are some examples of Coaching Specialties:

  • Lean Principles, Lean Startup
  • Design, Product / Portfolio Management
  • Technical / Product Research
  • Scaling Agile / Enterprise Agility
  • Distributed Agile, Multi-Team Dynamics
  • Technical / Quality Practices
  • Development Operations
  • Development / Process Tools
  • Organizational Structures/Culture
  • Organizational Leadership

Coaching Competencies

Coaching Competencies are proficiencies that Coaches are expected to demonstrate in their interactions with individuals and their organizations. Here are some examples of Coaching Competencies:

  • Ability to serve as an organizational mirror, by accessing and surfacing the underlying system problems. Ability to look below the surface, expose challenging symptoms and perform root cause analysis.
  • Ability to facilitate client agile adoption, implementation, and alignment. Ability to engage and facilitate stakeholders in controversial conversations and alignment-building activities. Ability to maintain non-biased views and facilitate collaborative decision making.
  • Ability to balance Coach's own agile expertise with Coachee’s (client’s) goals and intent. Ability to understand and respect the nature of a client-consulting relationship whether as an employee or consultant. Ability to ask powerful questions, lead by example, and guide client self-discovery.
  • Ability to educate and guide Coachee’s (client’s) agile learning through application and discovery. Ability to focus on stabilizing principles and varying practices to situationally align Coachee’s (client’s) maturity with effective application of agility.
  • Ability to function as a catalyst and change agent for Coachee (client) organization. Ability to engage in with the whole organizational system and the leaders who guide them. Ability to connect interdependencies and catalyze organizational reflection, learning and growth.

Levels of Coaching

Agile coaching can be administered at various levels: Organizational/Enterprise level and Local level

When Coach is involved organizationally (systemically), the focus is:

  • Become more agile across an entire organization, trying to influence/educate senior leadership and executives
  • Assessing team(s) and organization(s) for effectiveness of applying agile principles and practices
  • Advising and consulting with organizations and leadership on various agile practices, such as Scrum, Kanban, Lean, XP
  • Facilitating team(s) and groups to achieve higher quality collaboration, enabling a culture of continual learning and knowledge dissemination
  • Developing team, leadership and organizational agility through guided self-discovery and growth
  • Advising teams on careful adoption of scaled agile frameworks as mechanism for organizational descaling (e.g. LeSS, SAFe, RAD)
  • Challenging the organizational and leadership status quo and enabling an agile (Kaizen) culture
  • Analyzing systemic patterns, including norms, standards and behaviors
  • Educating senior leadership on inter-connection of various organizational elements within one Organizational Ecosystem (If if you cannot access the document please contact Gene for access)

When Coach is involved locally, the focus is:

  • Supporting single or multiple teams in improving their dynamics and maturity
  • Coaching individual team members, Scrum Masters, Product Owners
  • Assisting to establish agile roles, ceremonies, day-to-day interactions
  • Focusing on engineering practices, coding standards, test quality
  • Advising teams on agile requirements, living documentation, metrics, communication
  • Advising teams with adoption of basic agile frameworks (e.g. Kanban, Scrum, XP)
  • Challenging inappropriate locally manifested (in isolation) behavioral patterns
  • Balancing local optimization with team growth

Coaching Individuals vs. Coaching Groups

Individual Coaching

Individual coaching is one-on-one. Such coaching sessions are typically conducted in privacy; the Coach works with a single person on a very personal level. Individual sessions may address personal adaptation, happiness, job satisfaction, problems with management or subordinates, embracing roles and seeing career growth opportunities, dealing with personal challenges, reservations or fears. Individual coaching is often used to engage and support a Scrum Master or Product Owner as an individual.

Coaching is more conversational and personal and often takes a great deal of trust and camaraderie.

Group Coaching

In agile settings, group coaching is typically focused on entire feature teams or Product Owner teams, where people are expected to have shared beliefs, norms and goals. Group coaching addresses team dynamics, roles, day-to-day interactions, metrics, reporting, etc. Coach can set up a dedicated session for group coaching or leverage existing group ceremonies (e.g. retrospective).

Group Coaching is often more structured and requires expert authority to be successful.

Both individual and group sessions can be pre-scheduled or situational/opportunistic (at moments, when Coach finds ad-hoc appropriate moments to administer coaching).

Rules of coaching engagement and disengagement

Every Coach (Internal or External) needs to define and discuss with Coachee (individual or company client) rules of engaging and disengaging. This is done for a variety of reasons:

“Rules of Engaging” between Coach and Coachee – it is important to define certain conditions under which coaching experience will be conducted. Sometimes, certain topics or points of contention can be avoided or negotiated. It is also a good agile coaching practice to conduct a change readiness assessment prior to engaging. This helps identify certain risks or hard blocks for effective coaching and disclosing them to Coachee (client). Every coach must be willing to walk away from a client that cannot establish agreeable rules of engagement, including readiness for transformation.

“Rules of Dis-engaging” between Coach and Coachee are no less important as they help with identifying appropriate time to discontinue (or lighten) Coach-Coachee relationship. This is done to avoid prolonged co-dependency, excessive transactional activity (compensation) for a diminishing value. Disengaging from Coachee can be either done because Coachee achieved a desired maturity or because of running into unresolvable obstacles that make continuous coaching ineffective and impractical. In the former case, Coach may periodically conduct an agile maturity assessment to gauge progress. In the latter case, Coach may (and should) prematurely disengage from Coachee but be clear about his reasons with Coachee.

We recommend applying agile principles to coaching engagements as well. Build an initial vision for the product (coaching). Regularly refine the backlog, taking time to reflect on the engagement and how it should be adjusted. Working in coaching sprints using scrum or through regular delivery using kanban help enforce the values and demonstrate agility through example. It also provides regular touchpoints to determine if a new style is required or if the engagement should be halted. XP practices such as test driven development can also be applied to coaching. Establishing testable criteria for coachee readiness first will help form the engagement activities towards demonstrable results.

The goal of any coaching engagement should be to bring the teams to a healthy state where learning and self-improvement are happening organically. In essence, the Coach should be attempting to become unnecessary. Daniel Mezick, in his book “The Culture Game” very effectively describes a coaching profession in scope of best coaching standards and coaching ethics.

Coaches-Consultants vs. Full-Time Coaches

In his article “Unspoken Agile Topics”, (section Challenges with Agile Leadership) written in 2013, Gene Gendel (one of the co-authors of this article) describes some most commonly known challenges faced today by companies as they rely on agile coaching support.

1. Here are some challenging questions that have to be answered by companies that rely on help of external agile experts:

  • a. How will engaging with an agile coaching consulting firm guarantee a top-notch agile coach-consultant? (there is no guarantee that any company will deploy a good coach)
  • b. How will I ensure the coaching I’m receiving is working towards our independence and growth, not prolonging dependency to ensure further employment?
  • c. How will an external coach address challenges unique to our culture and establish rapport and empathy with our teams?

2. And here are some no less challenging cases that arise when companies rely merely on internal resources:

  • a. How will we avoid myopic views of internal coaches who may have limited experience with other cultures and companies and the creative ways they’ve solved problems?
  • b. How will we support internal coaches to truly remain independent, with the freedom to challenge and question internal leadership without fear of jeopardizing their employment?
  • c. How will we establish our internal coaches as experts, while avoiding the “prophet in his own land: perception?

An ideal situation would be for each organization to strike a happy balance by building out internal agile coaching practice by mixing up external and internal agile coaches. While external coaches bring to the table experience of other organizations and industries, holistic and uninhibited views, internal coaches contribute with deeper knowledge of their own organizational structure and culture.

Another challenge that organizations have to face with regards to in-house coaches is how to give them an “Honorable Discharge” from duty when their service is no longer needed. This is less of an issue for employees that became coaches by transitioning from another role; once their coaching service is no longer needed, they may simply fall back into their previous roles (developers, scrum masters, etc). This is much more of an issue for professional agile coaches that were asked to join a company full-time, to help a company go through challenging times of agile transformation.

Generally speaking, when a company engages with a coach, it must have a strategy in place for how it will gradually progress from active coaching to self direction and autonomy. A company has to resist the temptation of having a coach take an authoritative, long-lasting position with a department or a team and becoming a long-term "doer", problem solver, and solutions provider. A company should also refrain from trying to “mold” a coach into a manager or auditor, rather than an organizational change agent.

Discontinuation of a coaching relationship must be done honorably, in a way that ensures that a company gradually builds up its own internal excellence. A coach must continue to be seen as a valuable asset throughout the entire engagement, even as coaching intensity starts to diminish naturally.

In order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding about what a coaching engagement is and what it is not, both Coach and Coachee (company, LOB, department, team. Etc.) must thoroughly discuss and mutually understand the essence of a coaching role before engaging, as well as properly set each other’s expectations.

Coaching Solo vs A Coaching Team

An organization may engage a single Coach or a group of Coaches that join as external consultants or companies employees. Some of the cases described below specifically address situations that arise when a company relies on its own internal agile expertise (in-house coaches). In general, when external coaches engage with a company-client, they are perceived as representatives of an external coaching entity and “shielded” from some of the challenges described below.

Both, solo-operating F/T coaches and team-playing F/T coaches, are perceived by a company as employees first, coaches second. This means a company applies the same values, norms and evaluation standards to coaches as it does to the rest of company’s employees. This creates a conflict of interest; Coaches must highlight challenges and impediments that may reflect poorly on their own employer. They are in the unique situation of constantly jeopardizing their employment and livelihood through the very responsibilities they have been given. How can a coach or a team of coaches perform their jobs effectively if there is an inverse relationship between quality delivery and their own safety?

Further, this situation is even more challenging for F/T coaches that operate as a team than for those that operate solo.

When a group of coaches operates as a team (shared goals and purposes, shared efforts, shared strategy and vision, collective ownership) but a company perceives and evaluates each coach as an individual (“I am a star”) performer, it frequently causes a conflict of interest. As team players, coaches are expected to peer/mob-coach, cross-learn and cross-train each other, swarm (work together) – effectively, practice everything that they preach to an organization that they coach.

But in reality, there are strong forces that pull coaches apart. Rewards and incentives systems based on individual performance and achievements make them more preoccupied with their own well-being, with their own ability to advance within an organization. At times, there could be even an invisible competition between coaches that is caused by their organizational positioning and relationship to each other. This produces silos and dysfunctions as it makes coaches turn away from each other, compete for span of influence, be unwilling to share and support each other as is expected from team players: morale deteriorates, transparency goes down and so does productivity. (See here more on alternative ways to offer incentives and rewards, based on collective performance - If if you cannot access the document please contact Gene for access)

This compounded effect of intra-coaching team dysfunction that sits below typically observed challenges that organizational coaches face day-to-day in the line of duty, significantly lowers value that coaches bring to an organization.

In the light of what has been described so far, here are some guidelines for organizational agile coaches that are full-time employees:

  • De-couple your organizational position and authority from your role of a coach. Organizational leadership does not equate to organizational coaching
  • Do not over-emphasize personal promotions: becoming a coach should not be treated as a “fast track” for personal career advancement
  • Be able to offer objective guidance, without personal or political considerations
  • As a coach, act as servant-leader, enabler and facilitator, not Command & Controller
  • As a coach, try to view an organization as an outsider; do not “take sides”, based on a part of organization you belong to: this will completely compromise your impartiality and objectivity
  • Be resistant to micro-management and intolerant to wasteful processes, activities and roles
  • Finally, if you coach as a part of the team of coaches, remember about values and principles of collective ownership that you coach to agile teams – always practice what you preach
  • If you are working on a coach team, apply the same principles you would to an agile development team. Apply Kanban or Scrum, for example, and work as a team on the same goals. Make it clear that accomplishments and delivery belong to the coaching team.


Coaching “Bad Smells” and Why They Should Be Avoided

Below are some of frequently observed “Bad Smells” that are associated with bad coaching:

Bad Smell

Why Does it Smell Badly?

Continuously resolving clients’/coachees' problems for them. Engaging as "doers" for too long and continuously giving complete solutions.  Exhibiting Command & Control behavior.

Initial 'leading by example' is OK. Part of teaching comes through initial training. However, any prolonged engagement as a 'doer' puts a client/coachee into a comfort zone and prevents learning, independence and autonomy. Commanding and excessive directive telling also implies that a coach has an authoritative position with a client. This makes a client less independent in its decisions.

Assuming authoritative, long-lasting position with client/coachee that does not translate timely into tangible results. Establishing dependence.

A coach ends up generating financial benefits, whereas a client gains very little value

Publically criticize/scrutinize individuals of any level, especially in presence of their superiors

This behavior creates hostility and mistrust between a coach and individual clients/coachees. If a client/coachee feels comfortable to be openly coached in front of others, without becoming defensive, they should explicitly invite a coach to do so, before it is done in public. This is a key sign of coaching immaturity.

Using team-based metrics to judge individual team members

Excessive use of metrics is a simplistic false dichotomy. While certain health checks/indicators can be used as a way of reflecting to individual teams, using the same metrics to judge individuals is counter-productive and misleading.

Using team-based metrics to compare teams to each other, establishing competition between teams

A prime example of local optimization, establishing cross-team competition will not optimize the performance of the entire organization and will instead encourage information hoarding and closed communication patterns.

Getting involved in activities and feedback that influence individual performance appraisals, incentives, compensation, bonuses, promotions

Being able to explicitly influence compensation/financial well-being of an individual is a violation of an individual's safety space. A coachee's desire to become autonomous and independent in making his/her own decisions will be significantly diminished. Individuals will feel "obligated" to follow recommendations of a coach. Recommendations will be perceived as instructions/mandates

Quantify/numerically estimate ('status'/'checkbox') things that cannot be quantified. Applying a numerical scale (metrics) to human/cultural element of agile transformation

Similar to the above: there is a huge human factor that is responsible for successful agile implementation. A human factor is not quantifiable and cannot be easily plotted on a scale. Checks and balances produce a false sense of completion (or lack of such). This diminishes opportunity for continuous improvement. Examples may include “Using Scrum” or “Converted to Agile” checkboxes for teams.

Tracking individual recommendations given to clients/coachees and assessing if recommendations are followed, reporting to senior management when they are not.

This is an indication of command & control, micro-management and lack of trust. Policing individuals and enforcing things to be done, contradicts agile principles and prevents Kaizen adoption. This also erodes relationship between a coach and client/coachee. Also, if a ratio of coaches to coachees is low (many coachees for a single coach), scaling coaching efforts becomes challenging. Ideally, in cases like these, a "pull" system must be used, instead of "push": coachees should pursue with Coach, proactively asking to provide feedback to their improvements, instead of Coach chasing them

Withhold views and observations about pivotal organizational dysfunctions from organizational leaders to avoid personal risks and repercussions

By virtue of being a change agent and organizational transformer, a coach is expected to speak openly about organizational dysfunctions and impediments that most of employees are not comfortable discussing. This is paramount for a coaching job. The job of Coach is sometimes risky. This is why, in majority of cases, a coaching role is consultative in nature (external to an organization), as Coach has to bring to light organizational dysfunctions that may put a coach in the position of scrutiny and/or criticism - something that consultants care less about than full time employees.

About the Authors

Gene Gendel is Certified Scrum Coach (CSC), agile practice leader and transformation agent. His primary focus is on helping organizations adopting agile at large, improving organisational structure, culture, tools, techniques, processes, norms and behaviors. Gene works equally close with senior management at enterprise level as well as individual teams, in single- and multi-team settings, while providing bi-directional support: top-down and bottom-up. His coaching style combines training, mentoring and leading by example.

Gene is an active member of NYC agile community where he is known as a big proponent of community-wide, cost effective agile education. He strives to deliver such education "to crowds" via his personal presentations, organizing open-space agile collaboration workshops and forums, group meetings and other community activities. He strongly emphasizes the importance and abides to 'ethics of agile coaching’. Gene started his professional journey about 17 years ago in the area of technical and business analysis and conventional management but naturally transitioned to agile about 8 years ago.

Erin Perry is dynamic and broadly experienced technologist with a strong background in Financial Services Technology, Agile software delivery, Java and database development, training and coaching. She's spent most of her career as an application developer before moving into a technical and agile coaching role. She teaches lean and agile methods for software development, encouraging developers to raise their own standards for clean code and disciplined development. She was nominated by her company as an Expert Engineer in 2012 and now serves as global co-chair of Expert Engineer Alumni.

Erin lives with her family in Delaware. She enjoys playing music, soccer, and reading. She's currently teaching her daughter to code and hopes to encourage more young people to bring creativity and enthusiasm to software development.

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