Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Responsive Agile Coaching

Q&A on the Book Responsive Agile Coaching

Key Takeaways

  • A coach needs to know when to tell clients the answer versus when to guide them to find the answer for themselves
  • There is a model and map to help guide your agile coaching conversations
  • There are practices to develop your self as you grow as a coach
  • A coach can bring meaning into conversations and manage resistance to change
  • There is a change management approach for moving teams towards higher levels of performance

The role of Agile Coach is one of the growth areas identified in a recent World Economic Forum Jobs of Tomorrow study into roles that will be in demand over the next decade.

Niall McShane  has written a book titled Responsive Agile Coaching, aimed at people who are coaching individuals, teams and organisations in new ways of working.  The book is structured in four sections, looking at the why, the what, the how and the practices of McShane’s responsive agile coaching model.   

InfoQ readers can download a sample chapter from the book here and it can be purchased from here.

McShane spoke to InfoQ about the book, the target audience and why the role of agile coach is so important today.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book, what is the problem you are trying to address?

Niall McShane: Agile Coaching to date has been mostly described by the competencies that an agile coach needs to have in order to execute the role. The question this book answers is "what competency do I use at what time under what circumstances so as to achieve the best coaching outcome for the client and the organisation". What's put forward in the book is a model to conduct agile coaching conversations. Additionally the model scales up to when working with teams.

InfoQ: Who is the book intended for?

McShane: This book will be of use to those with the role of an agile coach but it is primarily aimed at anybody who is enabling the adoption of agile through having conversations with others. The book is about agile coaching NOT the role title agile coach.

InfoQ: Agile coaches are often perceived as the Agile Process Police - is this the case, and if not why is the perception out there?

McShane: Yes, this is the case. I think this comes from what people perceive are the "rules" of agile frameworks. We’ve all heard dogmatic agile coaches say "that’s not agile". This comes about because the adoption of an agreed way to work does have some level of order and consensus on how to do agile. Without some ground rules on the best way to be practicing agile (at a point in time) the system can fall into chaos. So at some point there will be a "right" way and a "wrong" way but great agile coaches offer the starting point for a team, scrum for example and then gently guide them towards continuous improvement. Inexperienced coaches take this as having a mandate to be dogmatic and order people around.

InfoQ: What differentiates responsive agile coaching from agile coaching in general, and from professional coaching?

McShane: Agile Coaches have an agenda when they arrive and engage with a team; the adoption of agile as a way to work. That is why they have been employed. The sponsor of their work expects to observe a noticeable (and usually known) set of behaviours to result from the coach’s work. The conversations a client will have with the agile coach always has this overarching agenda which is not client-driven.

Professional coaching is 100% client-driven in terms of the topics of conversation. Sure they will have a sponsor who may or may not be expecting observable outcomes but the coach is more neutral in their conversations, more open to let the conversation go where the client takes it.

Agile coaching is less structured, more in-the-moment in-situ as people are working. Whereas professional coaching is more formal, structured and scheduled.

Where the two intersect is discussed in an entire chapter of the book. If an agile coach meets resistance to the changes being proposed (implementation of a scrum artefact for example) then they could open the space for a deeper conversation with the person to co-create a way forward. This roughly would map to a professional coaching conversation model. Having said that it is still not "pure" professional coaching and may be more aligned to a mentoring model.

InfoQ: You describe two pathways for coaching - what are they and when would you choose one over the other?

McShane: Agile coaches are expected to have deep domain knowledge in agile. They act as a go to person on technical questions around practices and ways of working. The across pathway is a direct question-answer relationship between the client asking for help and the coach providing (telling or showing) them the answer.

When resistance is encountered or the agile coach needs to work with the client to co-create the solution to a ways or working problem then the downward pathway is offered as a means to navigate a way forward.

The idea of responsiveness simply means that the coach has the self-management capability to not react but consciously choose what pathway best suits the circumstances and serves the client.

InfoQ:  You talk about four levels of conversations - what are the different levels and how does someone become good at going deeper?

McShane: I lifted this model from the work of the presencing institute and the work of Otto Scharmer, so I can’t claim this work.

  • Level 1 is when the coach only listens enough to quickly provide an answer; this is called downloading
  • Level 2 is debate; each party arguing their point
  • Level 3 is dialogue and is where ideas are held onto lightly, there’s an exchange and a third alternative that is better than both parties previous ideas emerges
  • Level 4 is called collective creativity where everyone is in flow and new exciting deep insights generate big shifts in thinking, values and beliefs on a subject. These would be described as "ah-ha!" moments of realisation or sometimes called a reframing.

InfoQ: What is different about coaching a team vs coaching an individual?

McShane: Inclusiveness needs to be managed with a team. With a mix of personalities the coach needs more breadth and the ability to "hold the space" whilst people work through issues. Also it introduces conflict, emotions between parties, which is a necessary ingredient for high-performance; but the coach needs to be able to channel this "storming" towards a positive outcome or resolution. It is hard and some coaches seem to not be up to working with emotions and conflict.

InfoQ: How do you apply these ideas to coaching at a leadership/executive level in an organisation?

McShane: The model is the same but a coach at this level needs to have experience and the ability to talk to that experience. Also language and the speed of execution (ability to coach in the moment) with executives can catch novice coaches out. I often say to beginner agile coaches that their only outcome from their first meeting with an exec is to get invited back for another meeting. Then they can influence.

InfoQ: Why is habit management so important?

McShane: Great coaches have done (lots) of work on themselves because they need to keep their "stuff" biases, prejudice and opinions out of the conversation if it does not serve the client. To build this capability requires unlearning or modifying habits. Secondly they then are expected to have the ability to coach their clients to do the same as they attempt to adopt agile as a way to work with and lead others.

InfoQ: What are the career paths for agile coaching?

McShane: Delivery roles seem to be where task orientated coaches go when coaching work is not available.

Consulting on agile practice implementation (operating models) seems to be where thinkers (theorists) go when behavioural coaching is not available.
Then there are hybrid roles such a Release Train Engineer which seem to involve delivery and coaching aspects.

I’ve noticed a recent move towards performance and business outcome acceleration (Lean, six-sigma) coaching. This moves the coach away from enablement and sees them taking on outcomes the business would traditionally own.

The enterprise agile coach is a growing role that involves many elements from designing a transformation strategy to supporting the design of the organisation but I consider this more of a consulting role although coaching execs is often bundled with this role.

Managing a centre of excellence (or expertise) is another option. These roles vary greatly from being a people leader and managing an internal consulting model all the way to being more a light and lean hub of expertise that enables innovation and knowledge sharing via communities.

About the Book Author

Niall McShane is a coach at heart and throughout his career has applied coaching in many situations; sports, life, leadership and most recently agile and ways to work. There are two consistent themes in all of the coaching Niall has delivered over the years; performance (getting the outcome) and growth (learning to be better). These two elements are central to his work and life as a coach, consultant and person. McShane has built his agile coaching career through hiring, training, and mentoring others to be coaches. He has done this while delivering agile coaching to a broad range of customers (business and technology). In a recent role he was the head of a coach academy at a large (30,000 people) Australian corporation undergoing a full transformation to its way of working; he trained and established a mentoring approach for 70+ agile coaches from beginner to expert.


Rate this Article