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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd on the Role of the Agile Coach

Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd on the Role of the Agile Coach


1. My name is Kevin Brennan and I'm an editor of InfoQ and this is part of our series of interviews conducted at Agile2011. In this interview we'll be talking with Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd. Lyssa and Michael are both professional coaches as well as experienced Agile coaches and they are the co-founders of the Agile Coaching Institute. Lyssa is also the author of the book Coaching Agile Teams. Thank you both for being here today. The first question I'd like to ask you is: Can you tell me a bit about what an Agile coach does because for people who are familiar with standard frameworks and methodologies of Agile that's not a role that appears in most of them but one that's becoming more and more common?

Lyssa Adkins: You know Agile coach is a word that we just use generically because almost every corporation has their own version of these words. They'll say "XP coach" or "Scrum Master" or "Agile Project Manager" or something like that. So, Agile coach is just the generic kind of form of all that. And we're not really religious about which form or the word we use. What we care about Agile coaches that helps teams move beyond just the getting the practices up and running and into helping teams on their joyful and deliberate pursuit of high performance. It's really going beyond what we would consider as a basic Scrum Master or XP coach for example.

Michael Spayd: Though also getting teams up and running is important, it's something that needs to happen and people in the industry mean by Agile coach all those kind of things. It is, as Lyssa is saying, a pretty broad range of definitions. The word "coach" is interesting too because it's such an overloaded term. You know, it means sports coach to some people, it means professional coach - like a life coach or an executive coach to some people, and it means kind of you having coaching by your manager which really means telling you what you need to do or you are going to get fired.

Lyssa Adkins: You know when the manager calls you into a conference room or in their office.

Michael Spayd: And gives you "coaching".

Lyssa Adkins: Yes that kind. So you know the word is very overloaded.

Michael Spayd: And that's created some confusion around what Agile coaches do and a really wide range of activities they do. We've done some writing about that and talked about all the competencies that Agile coaches need to have. But basically they stand in a position or work in a position that's kind of like a team leader in a certain way and kind of outside the team, helping the team, serving the team, and helping the team become a better team. Not like doing things for the team, not getting and making all the decisions for the team - anything like that, but really trying to help the team become a better team.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, by holding up the mirror of accountability to the team. So it's also not this really weak role of "Oh, I just you know get coffee and slide pizza under the door every so often and they are in there and they are doing it all by themselves". It's really not that at all, it's actually a very "hard" may not be the right word, maybe "challenging" is the right word - the role of an Agile coach. Really holding up that mirror of accountability is saying "You know, no actually, I'm not going to allow you to cover up your dysfunctions and pretend like it's Agile. No, that's not the game we're playing and so we're going to look at that". So it's not just like "Oh, it's so soft and coachy" - not like that at all.


2. What does it take to be effective as an Agile coach? One of the things you both mentioned to me before the interview is that you are trying to work to professionalize that group of people and help identify the competencies necessary to be effective in the role. So what are those competencies?

Michael Spayd: Well they come from, and this is where the term Agile coach is both overloaded and really big actually, there's a lot of things to do as an Agile coach. So we look to impart facilitation, like professional facilitation and having skill at being a neutral facilitator of meetings and events (you know games whatever it is in the Agile environment). And help leading teams through that without getting involved in the content without voting on "Oh you should do this way" but actually helping the team get better themselves.

A related thing to that is, what I mentioned before, what we call the world of professional coaching which is like a life or a leadership coach that doesn't give you advice, that helps you find what's really important to you, your values and helps you get more of that. And that's specifically one of the things that Lyssa and I are trained in and that we're specifically wanting to bring into the Agile world. You want to talk about some of the others.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, because on, kind of on the other side of the coin of that place of facilitator - coach where you're holding the process for people to accomplish more rather than being an expert in the content, so that's the coaching of facilitation piece. On the flip side of that coin are teaching and mentoring. And in that case you are absolutely the expert of what you are trying to convey to someone otherwise you won't to be able to teach or mentor them. And both of those things are useful competencies and important competencies for an Agile coach to have as well.

And we think of mentoring as being more of that thing that happens one-on-one where you're really helping the other person strive to be a better version of who they are today. And still in that case you're offering your experience, your stories, your resources - all those sorts of things to help them on their way. And we think of teaching being a slightly more formal thing: at least two or more people where you are imparting information and helping them also access it in a way that makes sense to them.

So teaching is also about knowing how and when and what to teach and how to make it bite sized so that they can get the most out of it for what's happening now. So that's the teaching and mentoring piece. And then there are a few more.

Michael Spayd: The thing that most people think about when they think about an Agile coach is what we call an Agile-Lean practitioner, so knowing about the Agile processes, knowing how the values relate to the principles, relate to and generate the practices, how you innovate, how you modify them in a consistent way - that sort of thing - so all the world of knowing all about Agile and Lean. That's one big, big piece but it's definitely not the whole shooting match.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, and if you look at how much training we have in our Agile community so far you see that the vast majority of training and attention has been on just that one wedge. That absolutely is critical for an Agile coach but is not the whole shooting match - its one wedge. That Agile and Lean practitioner - a place of having lots of techniques, Agile and Lean techniques to help teams.


3. How then does an Agile coach help transform a team, or even more than a team, help transform an enterprise or the organization? What role do you coaches play in that kind of change?

Lyssa Adkins: I think the predominant role we're playing now is helping coaches create awareness in themselves of which of those disciplines (we didn't even go through all of them but we've gone through a good number of them) they have solidly and which they don't. And how at any given moment they will choose which one serves the purposes of the transformation best.

Michael Spayd: So making for an Agile coach in terms of transforming or working with a team they have to draw on this pallet, if you think about this, because coaching, facilitation, teaching, mentoring, Agile Lean practitioner. It's like a pallet of colors that you are painting with so to speak, and the art of it, in a lot of ways, is which one do you choose at which time to help an organization make this transition.

Lyssa Adkins: And having said that though, we recognize that transformation is about "transformation". Which means you can't consult your way into it, you can't cajole someone into it, you can't make them do it. It's a lot about each individual person and how that radiates out to a whole organization. So, in the center of all of those disciplines is this thing we call the coaching stance. Which is very much just like a home base that an Agile coach comes back to as a way to help activate in other people their next positive steps towards the transformation they see needs to take place. And that's how the results stick. That's how an organization continues to transform once the Agile consultants have left the building. And that's an important thing for us. I guess the higher calling of why we're together is that Agile is this incredible positive transformation virus. It is unleashing a wave of positive change everywhere that it goes. And we believe that Agile coaches when they are well equipped are powerful transformation agents to help that virus spread in a positive and useful way. Not only for people but also for products.

Michael Spayd: I was going to say, and one of the ways that we think it doesn't work very well to facilitate transformation, is to be a zealot. And some of that passion is great.

Lyssa Adkins: Oh yes, passion is always great.

Michael Spayd: But when it becomes a "You're bad if you are not doing Agile the right way" or "You're stupid if you are not doing Agile the right way", it becomes very self-defeating. And you know people in organizations don't like to be told that they're stupid. That doesn't win them friends.

Lyssa Adkins: Well, and they may seem like they are going along with you for a while and it may seem like everything's great, but then you notice that as soon as you leave the glass doors over the front atrium that they just go back to the way they were before. And that's a pretty bad place to be. That's a negative outcome that I think a lot of Agile coaches find themselves in whether or not they're internal to their organization or an external consultant that's kind of falling back to older ways.

There are probably lots of reasons for it. One that I can think of, that I see often, is that the people did not actively choose their own actions. And only when people choose actions that resonate with them, that are thrilling to them in some way, that can give them something personally, will they actually do it. And so that's why this coaching stands in the middle of all of these, this pallet of skills, is useful because that coaching stance is coming back to the belief that we need to activate that sort of discovery in each person and help them choose rather than telling them the right way.


4. How can an Agile coach then reinforce the behaviors that will keep the transformation going after they leave the building, especially if you are a consultant? How do you make that happen?

Lyssa Adkins: I would say model it. So let me just start with there and it sounds like you've got a thought brewing. One of the biggest things is modeling what a good Agilist looks like and does and actually doesn't do. There is a way of being that people notice and they notice how these great Agile coaches who are modeling what it means to be Agile are different than everyone else in the organization running around like chickens with their heads cut off - or whatever happens to be the reality in the organization. And so that is a way to instill it without actually directly addressing it or trying to make it happen in other people.

Michael Spayd: Another thing I would say in terms of having it stick over the long term is finding the kind of delicate sweet spot between... a company and individuals on teams need to make Agile their own in some way. They need to be out of the straight jacket of "it's got to be exactly a certain way" on the one hand, and not go so far that they adopt and adapt everything in Agile to compensate for their weaknesses, or things they don't want to see like you know, "Well we don't really have Product Owners here because the business doesn't really care about these projects enough to assign somebody".

Well that's kind of an organizational dysfunction, not something that you want to reinforce. So that would be an example of going too far with the adaptation. "Oh well, so we gave up having Product Owners. No, that's not a good idea." - But on the other hand it needs to be not some rigid by-the-book kind of a thing because if you let people find their own way with it and make it an authentic expression for them, then it will last. I mean just by definition pretty much, as opposed to it's your idea and you go out of the door and then they stop doing it.

Lyssa Adkins: We see this a lot in the coaches we coach. So we coach Agile coaches who are all over the globe and we coach them in small groups called coaching circles and mentor groups and we also coach them one-on-one, and of course we have classes that teach them you know 20-30 people at a time. And what we see in them is kind of the either of the extreme, like the real dogmatic, saying it has to be this way, they can never change it. Well actually when a team gets mature enough, changing the formula of the standup could be a very useful thing if they know how to do it in keeping with keeping the values and principles underlying standup healthy and strong. And that's how you know the team is mature enough to do it.

And we see the other extreme too, "Well I don't know what to do you know Lyssa, Michael give us some advice because you know we don't have product owners and basically I'm, you know, kind of playing that role and being the scrum master" and we look at these people and we say, "What do you stand for then?" I mean you actually need to know as an Agile coach what you are unwilling to tolerate. What is your basic definition of Agile done well? And at least until the team is mature enough to be able to change things safely, you know, be the referee, hold the rules.

So, boy we see a lot of the two extremes. And however I have to say, once having created awareness around that for coaches and having them look at themselves through a lens like that, I don't think it takes too long before they start to really see how to do this delicate balance that Michael was talking about. Then they become really powerful. We like them when they're like that.


5. If people want to become more effective as Agile coaches, what problems are you seeing that hold them back that keep that and from moving into that role and being a change agent?

Michael Spayd: One, just not knowing that there is a whole range of skills that they could draw from that would be useful to them. Just unconscious incompetence, the first level of a learning model, I mean, "I don't know what I don't know" that would help me.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, and because of that, of course Agile coaches are where they are because they're good problem solvers. Right? And this is how managers grow up through organizations too: they're good at solving problems. Well guess what? In an Agile scenario a team needs a coach to solve their problems much less, probably very little, but instead build the capacity for the team to solve their own problems. And so this is like a major, fundamental shift and really an identity crisis that a lot of Agile coaches go through on their own path towards becoming a great coach, is this idea that I'm going to coach instead of telling you what to do.

Michael Spayd: Yes that's a really hard one for people to let go of. And when we run a class and have people go through that we have them move from problem solving, advising, mentoring kind of approach, to a coaching approach - like helping the person find their own answers, and it's shocking to them a lot of times. It's hard for them. They find great power in doing it - but it's difficult.

Lyssa Adkins: And then, when we have them go back into mentoring but with the spin of checking in with the other person to make sure the other person actually does want to do this thing you've suggested they do, for example, kind of the blend of the mentoring and the coaching approach, we say so "How do you like it? You know, how do you like going back to problem solving and telling people about ways to solve this and mentoring them?"

And some of them are like, "Phew! Gosh it's such a relief, I'm so comfortable here. Yet I know, that there's better ways of doing this." And some people say, "Yes, I didn't like it so much. I mean, I thought for sure I'd love getting back to that and actually I see ways in which I've been standing in people's way". So that's a little bit of the revelation that often happens when we teach the classes for Agile coaches.


6. We talked a lot about the Agile coache's role with the team, but are there cases where the Agile coach needs to help the organization around the team succeed as well?

Michael Spayd: Yes, good question. Yes, absolutely. So, the team is the place that the Agile coach starts and until that relationship is going reasonably well, probably they don't want to focus on things around, but they absolutely want to do some coaching and work with the manager of the team.

Lyssa Adkins: Or managers of the people and team.

Michael Spayd: Or managers. With some of the stakeholders of the team, the product owners, kind of what I think of as their backend almost, the people - the stakeholders that they represent as the product owner, and maybe the sponsor of the project, and then potentially into - it depends on what you're doing if you're team coaching verses if you are enterprise coaching. If you're enterprise coaching you might go out and talk to HR, to facilities, to finance.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, to the executives. And this, what you're talking about is a maturation of skills. So there definitely is this place of "I'm newer to Agile. I don't really know exactly what my boundaries are as a Scum Master or an XP coach or something and so I'm going to just focus on this team or this couple of teams." And that's kind of a level of a team coach. And then we get to a coach with some serious facilitations skills, professional coaching skills, training or mentoring, it's more of what we've outlined as some of the disciplines for an Agile coach. And they start to move beyond the boundary in a very useful way in order to clear the way for the team and in order to help the organization get better, and so that would be a master team coach.

And also at that level they're probably apprenticing other Agile coaches in the organization. And beyond that, these are the transformation agents, the people that we think of as enterprise coaches. They're people with serious skill in professional coaching - probably in organization or some other systems kind of coaching, as well as individual coaching. They probably have organization development knowledge and how people in organizations change kind of knowledge, and they're able to go the entire stack of the organization to help the whole organization embrace Agile as a mindset and a way of doing business.

And that's really what we are aiming toward because we notice that Agile is this transformation virus, as I said earlier. And it's just a shame that we end up implementing it as some alternate project management methodology - which is probably one of the weakest expressions of it we could possibly have. It's our belief that if only coaches knew what they didn't know and then they could connect the dots and say, "Ugh! I wish I had known that then I could have really helped in this situation", then we start to create people who can really participate with their organization in their organizations transformation.


7. So, when I want to move from, you know, my focusing on the team to focusing on the organization, what typically are the first steps that I would take to get that buy-in from the wider world around me, that I should take on this role and help them grow?

Michael Spayd: So, moving from the team role to the more enterprise role that you're asking?

I think that that needs to be driven largely by the organization, not by me. Not by my desire but by my picking up the signs that the organization is ready. So for instance, you get organizations where somebody in some other department suddenly is curious about Agile and wants to have a conversation with you or something. So of course you support that. You go out and talk to them and ask them, "So what's of interest to you about Agile? Is it something that would be useful for you?", but in a soft kind of way, not in a persuasive like I'm going to convince you kind of a way, but in an exploring, open, curious kind of a way.

So you look for those signs in the rest of the organization that they're interested in what's going on or they want some of the thoughts. And conversely, I think you look for the places where it gets stuck in the rest of the organization that provide big obstacles, big road blocks to the Agile implementation. And then you go explore that, too. You go again with curiosity and openness and go understand what's going on from their point of view.

Lyssa Adkins: You know you are reminding me of the phrase "change your organization" or "change your organization". Because I do see the opposite too of all of what Michael said but there are a bunch of frustrated Agile coaches out there and they see the potential. They see how their company could create remarkable products that actually make a difference in the market place. They see how they could go beyond just this rote implementation of Agile as a tool and they are like "Oh, how can I make this happen in my organization?" and when they hit up against the wall enough times then they start saying "How can I let this happen for me?"

And so that's when they might go change their organization - as in change who they work for. And I see that a good amount of time as well that to grow they decide that the place they're in isn't going to do it for them, and they grow elsewhere.


8. Where do you think coaching is going? Do you think the awareness of coaching will continue to grow and that more and more companies will accept the need for coaches? And where would you like to see that go in the next five years?

Michael Spayd: I think that there's kind of two opposite trends: on the one hand, I think that there is a pressure or a view sometimes that coaching is overhead, and we don't need so many, that we need to cut costs, yada yada yada. That's one pressure. And the other is the pressure of our Agile teams are not doing as well as we thought they would, or not doing as well as they did when we first started or something like that. And the answer to that a lot of times is coaching. I don't know where that would end up. I think that coaches will become more and more effective over time, just better. There's a lot of forces in the industry that think that from my point of view.

Lyssa Adkins: I don't know and I really don't have a grand sense of where I'd like it to go. Instead of me having a vision of where I'd like it to go, I'd like to just be here with this community, notice where it is going, and ask myself the question and invite Michael to the inquiry with me of what is it that we can offer that assists them on their journey? And now of course we won't tolerate either so we won't go certain places to where we think it's not in line with our integrity about what an Agile coach is and does in the world, and what their purpose is. But in general, I'm looking more toward assisting the growth as it follows its own path than trying to make it be a certain thing. What's true for you?

Michael Spayd: Yes, and also for at least those coaches that are motivated too, I think that we both share really wanting a level of coaching to be a lot better, and particularly in the area of professional coaching and that there's so much power in that approach for this world, and this world doesn't know a lot about it. They're learning a lot more. There's a lot of people actually actively pursuing professional coaching training right now.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, indeed.

Michael Spayd: Which is cool. The bigger trend though... yes, I would agree with you. I don't know where it's going to go.

Lyssa Adkins: Yes, I don't really like, we don't have like a five year projection of how many Agile coaches we need to train by a certain time or impact in a certain way. And in fact, it really it's not probably going to be a big slice of this community that cares about what it is we offer. It's a smaller slice, but that slice of the community is going to be exceptionally impactful to everyone that they encounter.

Michael Spayd: I certainly hope so.

Lyssa Adkins: Well, we see it now don't we? It's amazing the impact the coaches that we have had the fortune to be involved with. It's just amazing what they are able to do.


9. For our last question: if there's one piece of advice that you'd give to coaches out there about what they should learn, or what they could do, or how they could help become more effective as coaches, what would it be?

Michael Spayd: I would say look at the range of things that there is for Agile coaches to do, and think about the one place where you can make the biggest impact. Don't try to be able to do everything really well. Think who you are, get a frame of all the choices there are and then decide this is where I need to maybe not even improve, maybe I'm already strong there and I'm going to be great there. But choose one or two places not five or six.

Lyssa Adkins: And be conscious about it and be creating awareness about how you are showing up with your teams, with individuals that you coach, with the wider organization. And get feedback on your impact which is part of being conscious about it so that you can know kind of where am I today and where am I aiming - which is the piece that you are bringing up. And stay in action, I would just say stay in action, whatever it is, stay in action.

Dec 23, 2011