Continuously Improving Your Lean-Agile Coaching
This article describes the challenges I faced in starting a group of internal lean-agile coaches and some outcomes such as self-assessment radars, mentoring sessions, and a few lessons.
If you are considering a career as lean-agile coach, you can use these findings to assess where you are and the next steps you can take. If you already are a lean-agile coach, you can use this to improve your coaching. Additionally, you can use this to help aspiring and current lean-agile coaches in your organization, and to support communities of practices.
In 2014, I helped an organisation form a group of internal lean-agile coaches as part of an organisational transformation. Prior to that, I trained people, coached teams, and facilitated ceremonies and events — but I’d never formally trained other coaches before, except for pairing with them for on-the-job training.
I faced the challenge by turning my tacit knowledge into meaningful narratives that clearly articulate and communicate a coach’s purpose, responsibilities, and interactions. I looked at desirable skills and personal qualities, experience, and possible career and professional growth paths.
On the starting blocks: What’s lean-agile coaching?
When I started this journey, I felt that the role of lean-agile coach had many similarities with sports coaches: to help individuals and teams to form, to grow strong, to achieve their full potential, and perform at their best during a match or when climbing a mountain.
And when climbing a mountain shrouded in mist, a lean-agile coach must be like an experienced mountain guide: someone you can really trust when you need it!
This means that a lean-agile coach is a subject matter expert in lean and agile at individual, team, and organization levels. He/she is good at teaching and training. He/she has extensive hands-on experience in developing, delivering, supporting, maintaining and evolving digital products. Finally, he/she is good at guiding and supporting teams during the development and delivery effort.
Experts have expressed similar views of lean-agile coaching. Rachel Davies describes a compatible approach in her book Agile Coaching. She was an original member of one of the first, most prolific, longest running extreme-programming (XP) teams at ConneXtra, and she is now an agile coach at Unruly.
Joseph Pelrine, a computer and social-complexity scientist and leading XP expert, has a similar perspective. He uses complexity science to explain the theory behind agile and Scrum and uses social complexity to guide and coach self-organising teams.
Continuing with the sport coach and mountain guide metaphors, the coach role that Kent Beck, creator of XP, gives in the book Extreme Programming Explained aligns with a playing coach.
Esther Derby’s work on soft skills and on growing teams and organization follows the same thread. She is the author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great and of many blog posts on coaching.
While each of these authors expands on some of aspect of lean-agile coaching, they all describe a role with all the aspects I mentioned before: hard and the soft skills, teaching/training to support growth and development, and guidance and support during delivery.
What about professional coaching?
When starting this journey, I had the feeling that something was missing and that it was somehow related to professional coaching, even if I didn’t know how or what exactly professional coaching was.
I was working at ThoughtWorks, a company based on knowledge creation and information sharing, so I tapped into a company network and learned that a group of people inside the company was exploring professional coaching as a way to support people and company growth. Their work gave me a glimpse of what professional coaching is, and inspired me to continue my research.
In short, I found professional coaching to be a thought-provoking and creative process where the coach supports coachees in setting their own goals and in taking actions toward the realization of their own full potential or goals.
The coach is responsible for guiding this process while honouring coachees as subject-matter experts. A coach helps coachees to assess their situations and to challenge limiting assumptions and points of view. A coach helps them to set their own agenda and identify what to do to achieve personal growth and development. The coach also holds the coachees responsible and accountable for the actions identified.
The coach takes a neutral view of a coachee’s agenda with respect to the coachee’s values, preferences, and decisions. He/she helps coachees to develop autonomy and to avoid dependency on the coach in order to preserve achievements. And he/she does not collude with coachees, e.g. if coachees ask to accommodate dysfunctions or limitations.
How I found a comprehensive definition of lean-agile coaching
In my research for frameworks and their connection to lean-agile coaching, I found many professional-coaching frameworks and many other incomplete or partial definitions of lean-agile coaching, none of them connecting professional coaching to lean or agile.
Then I found Michael Spayd and Lyssa Adkins’s agile-coach competency framework (see the acknowledgments for a link to the paper describing the framework).
This framework includes hard skills such as mastery in lean and agile practice. It also identifies one area related with domain expertise, which includes teaching/training and mentoring, and another area related to holding the process while honouring other people’s expertise and experience, which includes professional coaching and facilitation.
To complete the picture, here are descriptions of facilitation and mentoring.
Facilitation, in short, is the process of facilitating meetings and ceremonies while remaining neutral with respect to the content and outcomes. It includes conflict navigation and helping collective sense making and collective decision making.
Mentoring, as in teaching, uses a mentor’s mastery and expertise in the area where the mentee wants to grow and develop, to provide suggestions and to give advice.
Mentoring, like coaching, lets the mentee decide the direction and find the answers.
How I designed self-assessment radars
The idea to use radar charts for self-assessment comes from ThoughtWorks, which extensively uses them.
I listed skills in the radars based on the Spayd/Adkins competency framework.
As a coach, I felt that coaching is about being, in addition to doing. That's why I wanted to include personal traits as part of the self-assessment. I listed all the traits that I had found important in my experience, so the list reflects my partial and subjective view. I searched for other coaches’ experiences and points of view, which led me to a blog post by Esther Derby (see the link in the acknowledgments) with a list of desirable and undesirable traits for coaches, which both resonated with my experience and understanding and introduced a wider perspective.
Using information from the competency framework and the blog post, I wrote a description for each skill and trait and for each level in the radar charts, and I made sure everything was congruent with my experience, my understanding, and with the initial purpose and intended use of these radars.
The three radar charts (in the following slideshow) that grew out of this challenging and exciting research visualise skills, desired personal traits, and undesired traits for lean-agile coaches.
This next slideshow contains detailed descriptions of the skills and traits in the radars. It also describes the levels to be used during the self-assessment:
How I tested and validated the self-assessment radars
Carlo Beschi, the organisation’s internal coach, reviewed the self-assessment radars and a description of the lean-agile coach’s responsibilities, activities, interactions, and deliverables for that organisation.
The company’s HR department used the radars to write a job posting for lean-agile coaches and to draft a career path for internal coaches.
Finally, I used the radars during job interviews and for self-assessment of internal candidate coaches.
The radars proved useful and I received positive feedback. A recurring critique mentioned that the role of lean-agile coach looked challenging because it includes three professions in one: teacher/educator, professional coach, and lean-agile consultant.
In addition to practical reviews, I attended Adkins and Spayd’s Coaching Agile Teams course (you can find a link to the course in the acknowledgments) where I verified my understanding, learned about professional coaching and mentoring, and thought of following self-assessments with mentoring conversations based on their “arc of mentoring conversation” and “powerful questions”.
How to take the self-assessment
When you want to assess yourself as a lean-agile coach, to track and visualize your progress, to inspire further professional development, or to prepare to be a mentee, you can take this self-assessment.
To do so, download and open both the “Lean-Agile Coach self-assessment descriptions” deck and the “Lean-Agile Coach self-assessment radars” deck. You can open them with LibreOffice or Microsoft PowerPoint.
First of all, familiarize yourself with the skills, traits, and levels descriptions in the first deck.
Then, go to the first graph in the radars deck. Click on it and edit the data (in LibreOffice, right-click “Chart Data Table…” and insert a series to add a Y-values column in the table; in PowerPoint, right-click on “Edit Data in Excel”). Enter your current skill levels in the data column, taking care to save the presentation before exiting. You can of course also print the radar and do this on paper. Repeat for the remaining two radars.
After you have filled out all three radars, organise a mentoring session with a senior lean-agile coach and together go through your self-assessment and identify opportunities for improvement.
Document your goals, which actions you will take to achieve those goals, and what feedback you’ll collect when in order to monitor your progress. In a month or two, review all the feedback, retake the assessment by inserting new levels in the second column, and undertake another mentoring session.
Repeat this periodically to drive, support, and sustain your personal development and professional growth.
I periodically review my own progress to identify further actions I can take to become a better coach and to chart a new course in my career.
Suggestions for getting the most out of your self-assessment
When you assess your level for a skill, remember that the purpose of the radars is to visualise opportunities for improvement and track of your progress over time. Rating yourself too high would defeat this purpose.
For example, you should rate your skill at level 5 only when you are a leading expert in that field and you are considered an authority on that subject — basically, if you invented it and wrote the book about it.
If, for example, you match the description of level 3 for a skill but you’re missing something that’s specified in the level-2 description, don’t give yourself a 3 or even a 2. The radar means to suggest areas of improvement, so giving yourself a 2 or 3 in this case defeats the purpose. You should instead rank yourself below 2, for example 1.5, to spotlight the opportunity for improvement that you have to complete level 2.
For the same reason, don’t focus too much on the level numbers when you do the self-assessment but more on the skill descriptions. The importance of that becomes evident during the mentoring session that ideally follows the self-assessment.
Mentoring session after self-assessment
A mentoring session is a conversation that usually takes the form an arc, known also as the “arc of mentoring conversation”.
In the beginning, the mentor helps the mentee to more deeply understand his/her current skill levels, personal strengths, current struggles, and areas of interest.
A mentor can do this by asking what Adkins and Spayd call “powerful questions”. Asking powerful questions resembles Socratic questioning in the sense that the mentor doesn’t provide answers but lets the mentee find his/her own answers. Powerful questions prompt reflections and introspection, help to envision possibilities, create clarity, generate creativity and energy, invite actions, and produce further questions.
In the middle of the arc, a mentor offers information and advice, shares experiences, expresses opinions, and balances the mentee’s personal aspirations with the organisation’s expectations for the role.
At the end of the conversation, the mentor helps the mentee to choose concrete and specific development goals and actions and asks the mentee to identify ways to measure progress. At this point, the mentor puts accountability on the mentee.
A mentoring session ends with the mentor acknowledging a mentee’s strengths and offering a future session for review of progress.
In the organisation where I helped to form the group of internal lean-agile coaches, the mentoring sessions with the radars led the organisation to explore and discover a useful human capital of enthusiasm, skills, and professional experiences.
I ran mentoring sessions in pair with internal coach Carlo Beschi. Pair mentoring proved to be effective, well received, and appreciated by mentees.
The mentoring sessions had identified some candidate coaches, who then went through a development program — and now they are working as internal coaches. Other candidate coaches were selected to be iteration/delivery managers (an industry evolution of the ScrumMaster role) as stepping stone to becoming coaches. Some candidates were encouraged to help to facilitate meetings and events for a community of practice in order to develop their facilitation and soft skills.
During the process, we also learned that one of the iteration/delivery managers had extensive counselling training and that a person in HR had extensive professional-coaching training, and we planned to use that knowledge to contribute to the community of practice of lean-agile coaches.
The experience was so positive that we planned to extend mentoring sessions to other roles. There was one mentee that we could not help to focus on his area of control and influence nor to take responsibility for improvement actions. After three sessions, we realized that our mentoring wasn’t helping so we cancelled the sessions with him.
Recurring self-assessments and mentoring sessions
In the first mentoring session, mentor and mentee design the relationship and co-create a development plan.
In following periodic sessions, the mentor and mentee review progress and revisit the development plan. They evaluate feedback and measures of progress and update the self-assessment radars.
The idea for recurring mentoring sessions came from ThoughtWorks. ThoughtWorks encourages every new hire to find a sponsor or buddy among senior employees — and encourages senior employees to sponsor new hires. A sponsor-sponsored relationship is the foundation of a continuous personal-development program, just like the mentor-mentee relationship is.
How to design self-assessments for every role in the organisation
The self-assessment radars presented in this article are meant for lean-agile coaches but similar radars can be created for every role inside an organisation.
An organisation that, for example, has communities of practices for each role can ask each community to be responsible for designing a self-assessment radar for the respective role and to keep it up to date. Each radar should document and represent the state of the art of that practice inside the organization.
Senior people in each role with good interpersonal and soft skills can be mentors who help peers in their personal development.
Internal coaches can mentor those senior people on how to be good mentors, how to use the arc of mentoring conversation and powerful questions, and how to conduct a good mentoring session. And they can pair with them in pair-mentoring sessions to train them on the job.
This journey, with all the research and findings, was a great source of learning and professional growth. What I’d learned made my coaching more effective and provided me with lots of new coaching tools.
This work was useful for the organisation for which it took place and for the organisation’s transformation because it exceeded expectations as it released a lot of positive energy from a large number of people who came to feel more involved and engaged.
In retrospect, it would have been beneficial to start this work earlier and to partner with HR sooner, to release those energies earlier and to source the talent that was needed sooner.
- Self-assessment radars and sponsor-sponsored relationships for continuous development are practices extensively used in ThoughtWorks, where I’ve learned and experimented with them.
- Skills in the radars are based on the agile-coach competency framework in “Developing Great Agile Coaches” by Michael K. Spayd and Lyssa Adkins.
- Spayd and Adkins cover the arc of mentoring conversation and powerful questions in their Coaching Agile Teams workshop.
- The lists of personal traits in the radars come from this blog post by Esther Derby.
- I also recommend the ICAgile Learning Roadmap: Agile Coaching Track.
About the author
Luca Minudel works in London as head of organizational agility for 4Finance, a rapidly growing and expanding digital business. He has delivered training and coaching in top-tier organisations in Europe and the United States for ThoughtWorks. He spent four years in Stockholm as hands-on agile coach. He contributed to the adoption of lean and agile practices by Ferrari's F1 racing team. He has been working in professional software delivery since 1989 and is passionate about complexity science, lean, agility, pair-training, pair-coaching, and collaboration.