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Agile Coaching as a Path toward a Deeper Meaning of Work and Life

Key Takeaways

  • Knowledge work is interaction between interdependent people - improving performance means working with the interactions
  • A good working alliance with the coachees is an enabler for successful agile coaching - put focus on the working alliance first
  • Learning means new constructive patterns of interactions - learning agile coaching requires active engagement in social situations
  • It is much easier to build on existing strengths than to try to build up new strengths - tapping into the existing resources is the quickest way to results
  • Discovering your authenticity is a developmental path toward your purpose in work, life, and the world - start by studying your life situation, persona, and shadow-sides

In this article, we take a deeper look at the practice and purpose of agile coaching. We find out why interactions are the most essential focus in agile coaching - and also the basis of learning and professional development for the agile coaches themselves. We also learn how focusing on our existing strengths and situations can help us discover our authentic purpose in work and life.

Goal and purpose of agile coaching

Agile coaching is an umbrella term that includes many kinds of activities, viewpoints, and professional roles that aim to improve the performance of knowledge workers. Work is interaction between interdependent people. We can not achieve anything meaningful without cooperation. The main purpose of agile coaching is then to enable the workers to discover better possibilities for cooperative actions.

It is quite usual that teams have problems in their cooperation and communication, which affect the quality and efficiency of their work. An agile coach can help the team members to see more clearly the patterns of interactions they are engaged in, and how these patterns affect the work.

It might become evident, for example, that all the relevant information is not available for all the team members, as they are not involved in all the relevant discussions. A better understanding of the interactional patterns helps the team members to establish more constructive ways of doing the work. An agile coach could also suggest agile methods, such as daily meetings of Scrum, to improve cooperation.

However, in my view, agile coaching is a broader thing than "agile". Great cooperation can not rely on methodologies and frameworks. Cooperation requires constructive social dynamics that include, for example, psychological safety, trust, and commitment to work towards common goals.

The most essential skill in agile coaching is the ability to understand the cooperative patterns within and between work groups. It is in the interactions where the possibilities for improvements can be found.

What kind of skills do agile coaches need?

The work the agile coaches do in practice are conversations with individuals and groups. So, the ability to establish a good working alliance with the coachees is essential.

Working alliance is a term that originally comes from psychotherapy research. In short, it means a constructive relationship between the coach and the coachee that includes trust, commitment, and safety.

Building a good working alliance is not an easy task. It is continuous work that requires skills such as active listening, empathy, validation of the client's feelings and experiences, and the ability to see the situations from several different viewpoints at the same time. Disruptions of the alliance are to be expected and they need to be repaired.

A good working alliance is an enabler for successful agile coaching. Among other things, a good working alliance increases resilience to conflicts and disagreements. For example, in the beginning of a coaching agreement, it is usually not wise to challenge the coachee’s viewpoints too strongly. This could diminish the feeling of safety and disrupt the working alliance. However, when the working alliance has been built strong, the coaching relationship can endure challenging conversations, which can enhance the professional growth and development of the coachee.

What is learning?

How can we learn to become good agile coaches? Before we can answer that question, we need to look at what learning is. I would argue that learning simply means new patterns of interactions that enable enhanced possibilities for acting together. Thus, the target of the learning is not the brains of the individuals, but a transformation of a social process.

The emergence of new patterns of interactions might include new concepts and methodologies, such as practices of Scrum, but not in the sense of transferring information. Learning is more about new kinds of conversing, thinking, and acting together. To enable this development, it is not enough to sit in a classroom or read a book about agile concepts. Learning requires social acts in a good working alliance with our peers, where there is enough trust, respect, and shared interest.

Learning agile coaching

This means that agile coaching can only be learned in actual interactions with people, not by learning methodologies or concepts in classrooms. Of course, classroom training, books, and individual coaching can be of great help. However, the main purpose of all this is to build a social setting, where people can develop new ways of participating in conversations about work.

In practice, the best way to learn is to participate in various coaching situations with a more experienced coach. The key is to reflect what kind of cooperative patterns emerged in those situations, and how they were handled. It is also important to learn where the focus of agile coaching is. When an expert, such as a software designer, focuses on developing a product, an agile coach focuses on the social patterns that are emerging around that product development. In practice, the coach learns to focus on the conversations and interactions between the software designers and helps to transform the cooperative patterns of product development.

It is possible to build materials and settings for practising this kind of work, but agile coaching is a profession that really builds on the practical experience of working with teams and individuals. As said, the most important skill for the agile coach is the ability to establish a good working alliance with the coachees; everything else depends on that.

Facilitation as a coaching skill

It is quite common for agile coaches to take the role of a facilitator in various meetings and workshops. I suppose it is a natural role for a person who is seen to be an "outside observer" of the actual work. However, as the knowledge work is actually interactions between interdependent people, it is not really possible for anybody to be an outside observer. The facilitator is actually also a participant in the interactions.

Taken from this viewpoint, a good facilitator seeks to find patterns of interaction that enable more possibilities for cooperation. This can not be designed in advance, and I have often seen how the predesigned facilitation methods have actually prevented these kinds of beneficial patterns from happening.

For example, I’ve been involved in cases where participants have found some interesting areas of discussion, but the facilitator wants to keep the discussion on the topics he has planned beforehand, which prevents discussions around this emerging topic.

A good facilitator should keep the focus on what is happening in the interactions and how to participate in those interactions in beneficial ways, and not try to control the cooperation between people according to some predefined plans. As the agile manifesto says, it is more important to respond to change than to stick to a plan. Otherwise, there is a risk that the facilitation produces more harm than benefit.

Tapping into the motivation and strengths of individuals

All living beings try to widen their possibilities for acting in the world. Plants grow towards nutrition and sunlight in order to do this. Human beings also seek ways to grow towards their full potential of living in the world.

For humans, growing means finding a purpose and meaning that enables us to develop in accordance with our values and higher purposes. This is not an easy thing to achieve, but inner motivation is the compass in this endeavour. People don’t need external motivation to do what is leading them towards new possibilities for fulfilling their purpose.

In the same way, it is much easier to build actions on the existing strengths than to try to build up new strengths. For example, if the software team is already good at communicating via Slack or other digital platforms, it might not prove useful to try to move their communication to face-to-face situations. The best way to learn and grow is to look at what is already working and start from there, as that is where there already is natural motivation and strengths. An agile coach just helps to put more energy there and see where it leads.

In the same way, as the plant does not need directions to grow toward the sun, inner motivation and strengths do not need outside guidance. Quite the contrary, the inner motivation and existing strengths can show the direction where the person needs to grow in order to find his individual purpose.

Discovering your authentic self

What is your authentic self? This is a question that spiritual traditions have asked for thousands of years. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung studied this question for many decades working with his clients and with his own psyche, while developing the field of analytical psychology. His insight was that in every human being, there seems to be an inherent sense of purpose that can be found and cultivated. This can be a rather long process, which is different for different individuals. However, there are usually some general patterns that apply to most people.

We can start our quest for authenticity by studying the situations where our life seems to put us, and the persona we are building in these events. We might, for example, end up taking leadership roles in various fields of our lives. In those events, are we creating an image of a "hero" who is always willing to go the extra mile in order to be successful and a good role model? If that is the case, we might look at the positive strengths we utilise in these situations and see where the energy wants to move us.

However, it is also important to look at the shadow side of this heroic image. What kind of things are there, that are not aligned with our conscious values, things that we might be hiding even from ourselves? In the example of a heroic leader, the shadow-side might be perfectionism or workaholism, which will put too much pressure on the person himself and his colleagues.

Usually, people need help to notice the hidden elements of themselves. With the help of a good coach or counsellor it is possible to widen our self-knowledge, so that we’ll start to see more clearly where our inner energy is trying to lead us. We can see that our leadership skills can be used constructively for some higher cause that is not so self-concerned as our personal wish to be admired and successful. If we start to realise this new perspective, the energy is not directed towards building a successful persona, but towards a meaningful purpose. That is where we can find our authentic self, and the true meaning we are searching for in our life, our work, and the world.

This is not an easy endeavour, and it can not be achieved in a few months or years. Rather, it is something that we need to work on throughout our whole life. However, if we are more conscious of this work, it can give us lots of energy, motivation, and strength to overcome the challenges of our lives.

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