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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Lyssa Adkins on Agile Coaching

Lyssa Adkins on Agile Coaching


1. Welcome Lyssa, thank you for being here. Lyssa, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am someone who spent 15 years in plan driven project management trying to make the big process work, trying to make the change control machine pump out something that would satisfy what the customer really needs versus what they told us 18 months ago. Although I’ve delivered a lot of successful projects, I don’t think I delivered one to a delighted client, so I can’t say that I was successful in that way of working. I didn’t know what I was missing and then Agile came along and I had a rude wakening because there were a lot of things that I needed to change about how I worked in order to really help Agile teams have the space they need to do well. That’s a little bit about my journeys from project manager to Agile coach.


2. It sounds like you’ve been there, done that you can relate to everybody else who’s struggling out there.

I can and I’m not done yet either, because we’re all learning and I’m hoping that we’re all advancing the art of Agile coaching together.


3. It sounds like Agile coaching is really important to you. Maybe 10 years ago it was "Get a coach!" and I remember really well that sounds like a manager with a fancy name. I know you are very passionate about coaching. Tell us about it.

Agile coaching is really important because we have a bunch of crappy Agile happening in the world right now. Even when it’s happening fairly well, I just know that pumping up mediocre results faster was not really the main intention behind this way of working. And I have seen what can happen when you have a team working together and they get to an answer or a solution that even surprises them. It’s kind of like "Where did this come from?" This astonishing result comes out of their ability to work together and I think that’s where we need to be with Agile. That’s what it was meant for: to me it was meant for those astonishing results, not for just pumping up stuff faster.

I think coaches are an integral part to helping teams get to astonishing results because it’s all in the interactions of human beings where that happens. There is no piece of it in the Agile framework that’s going to help you with that. Having Agile framework there and working well, it’s certainly going to provide the structure and the container within which that can happen, the boundaries. But there are so much more to do within those boundaries, so many more things to bring to the team, so many more ideas and things from different disciplines - things from conflict management and facilitation and teaching and mentoring and professional coaching and a few more.


4. I kind of feel that most of us coaches have the title, but as you say, there is so much more. This sounds overwhelming.

Let me tell you what happened to me. I’ve been doing this Agile coaching job for about three years really good and getting the basics up and running, getting teams started. I was coaching other Agile coaches and Scrum Masters, in different companies and I thought "I am good! I’m rocking here!" And someone who’s now a very dear friend to me, was not on this particular day (we had just met each other) said "You know you call yourself an Agile coach, but you don’t know the first thing about coaching". I was pretty offended at that and then, when I got over being offended, I went out and started doing some internet research.

And he was right! There are schools of professional coaching out there with a very tough credentialing body called "The International Coach Federation" If you want to talk about a really hard credential to get, it’s a coaching credential. It is serious certification; it is something you put money into, a lot of time and a lot of people supervise you through the process to really help you get good at it. I went off to one of these professional coaching schools and in the first three day class I said "Oh, my gosh! I’ve been working with half of the equation!" - The Agile mentoring yes, I got that down, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years. And how Agile works and what the roles are - I got all this stuff down and I got a bunch of Agile answers. I got that!

What I didn’t have was a way to activate each person on their own journey toward becoming a great Agilist. And I didn’t have a way to interact with the layers of management that were creating so many impediments for the teams because they don’t care about the Agile answer, they don’t care about the case study or the statistics or whatever - they'll think that’s interesting. But really what helps them get out of their own team’s ways is when you can coach them to see how the team working Agile actually benefits the goals they have, benefits them - so, helping them see that. That’s not like a problem solving method, it’s not an answer, it’s a really good coaching conversation.

Everything I learned in my coaching training was 100% applicable to the teams, the team level and the individuals I coach. I realized "Ok, now I’ve got more of the equation here!" So I very fluidly now with my teams I coach move back and forth between coaching and mentoring. I'll even say "In the framework we are using there is actually an answer to how this works. I’m going to put my mentoring hat on now and teach a little bit of that." Or "It feels like we're really bogged down here. Let me put my coach hat on and help us change where we are, change our perspective and then maybe we can see some new ways of working." So there is an answer of how we flow together.


5. It sounds like you become a facilitator of people and it’s not just you’re born with it. All these are skills that you’ve learned and you've honed.

Not only that. They’re not only just skills that you can go get. Let me just tell you I made a tremendous personal change.


6. You have to grow as a person to be a coach.

I think you have to be working on yourself all the time. It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect - I’m not perfect! It does mean that you have to be aware and the change I made is from very nice command-and-control-aholic - they used to call me the "velvet hammer" when I was a project manager. I thought it was a compliment actually, but basically what I was doing, if I look back on it now without putting any fancy words on it, I was manipulating people. I was manipulating them into doing what I thought they should do to get to the goals we’re trying to get to.

To go from that to creating an environment where people can have the freedom to create, the freedom to fail and the freedom to learn. That’s like a different person, that’s like a night-and-day kind of person and that’s what I call the road from project manager to Agile coach, because there is a journey that you are on.


7. One is definitely much more effective than the other, that’s what I hear. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

Here is the thing: I can’t go back to working the other way because now I think it’s inhumane.


8. So it’s not about effectiveness to you, it’s not about productivity.

The productivity is definitely there with Agile, no doubt about it. That’s why we keep going on it and it’s very important. I think it’s absolutely critical to accelerate missions that matter. That’s what I’m always working on with my teams - "What is it that you are working on? Why does it matter?" That’s huge, but you know why we’re doing that? It gives us all kinds of air cover to work on the human stuff that was always there and somehow we didn’t have the container walls that you talked about earlier, we didn’t have the boundaries there that allowed us to work on it and now we can.


9. I’m trying to follow what you are saying, so would it be fair to say that Agile as it was meant to be, as you said is not only about productivity, it’s about allowing people to grow? Early on people said "We’ve been building great software for a very long time, you just get great people and they build great software, but just percentage-wise not all of us are way up here. I’m just trying to read into what you are saying, am I reading too much?

It feels more like a head fake to me than anything else (like in football "head fake"). So the head fake is this: by focusing on the individuals and their growth, focusing on what they need or want in this experience of being on a team, you actually get the business result. It’s almost like you get it as a side benefit. If you just focus on "Here is the five bullet list of things we have to do get these business results and I’m not going to pay attention to you as human beings at all", just fall in line and do your piece - you don’t get them. The most you’ll ever get is some of the parts and usually not that, so it’s the head fake.

I don’t go into corporations and sell the fact that "Oh, I’m going to really work on the human stuff here and that’s what’s all about." Because it’s really not, it is a vehicle for the business results, but the way to get them is through human stuff.


10. The way that you have business results is through human stuff. Period, end of story?

It works for me. Now, it’s only one path. I think there are many different paths that all work in various Agile frameworks, but this is the only one I know, this is the one I can speak about, this is the one I can help people with.


11. The Agile coaching book that you wrote is not like every other book out there, it’s different. How so? What’s different about it?

It’s full of stories, it’s full of human failing: mine. And I think it’s also pretty provocative. I meant it to wake people up. We’re talking about being a coach, which means being very aware of who you are in this moment, what you are choosing to do or not do, being prepared to work with the team in the moment, right now because this is the point of leverage. So, the book is about the inner journey of becoming a coach and there is tons of practical stuff in it. But what I love about it was that I was allowed to get to the provocative stuff, too. This is about becoming a great Agile coach - that’s what this book is about. This isn’t 101 tips for Agile coaching, this is about activating yourself to become a great Agile coach.


12. A great Agile coach helps others become great at what they do.

Yes, and that’s really why I do it.


13. It sounds like it’s something that we really need. Ron Jeffries was here earlier today and he was reflecting back on he was there on the very early days of Agile, practicing way before it was called Agile. He looks back and he says "You know, I worry about the community. There is so much more potential that we’re not getting to."

In our community and in our corporations and in the world at large. What I see all around me is wasted potential, not that Agile is perfect. It’s just the best thing that we have right now and I hope we’ll keep making something like this better and better. I’m certainly working on it, lots of people are, so I believe we will. But there is so much latent potential. To me, if we can tap even part of that and activate people on this journey of having meaningful work, and bringing their full selves to the effort and really come up with something that is useful and valuable and worth it and they do that in the context of their corporations. I can’t help but think that people will use those same skills to solve the bigger planetary scale problems that we have.

Ron is worried about the Agile community - that’s a wonderful place to be focused on. I’m thinking about "Here is another head fake, using Agile as a way for people to practice the skills they need. It’s probably not going to happen this year, that’s ok.


14. Those of us who have caught the Agile disease in one way or another, we see it flow over in our lives and it affects who we are and it affects how we deal with other people.

I’ll tell you now as an Agile coach, I am positively impacting people’s lives on a grand scale, compared to anything I have done before this and that’s where the importance is, that’s what really makes it worth it. And then they go on to impact other people’s lives on grand scale.


15. If you were to leave us with some advice other than read your book because it is different, it’s definitely worth going to, what advice would you leave us with for the Agile coaches who're not anywhere near where we’d like to be? Or for the aspiring Agile coaches? What should we do?

"Don’t go it alone" is what I would say. I can look back over my journey and see where I had people influence me at various times, like the one guy that said "You are not a coach. You don’t know what you are talking about." To have those kinds of influences is essential, so if there is a feeling of isolation when you are just starting out or when you are into it for a while, don’t go it alone! Work with other coaches and get into a coaching circle, go to local user group or online user group events; keep learning and growing! Part of that is paying attention to finding your unique voice as a coach.

No one does this the same way and there is nothing in my book or nothing about the things I teach that is a cookbook - nothing! These are all meant to be tools that people use in different ways, wonderful ways that I can’t even wait to find out about.


16. Thank you Lyssa for sharing all this with us.

Thank you for the acknowledgment. It’s my pleasure to have been here.

Jan 04, 2011