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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Linda Cook Discusses the Agile Coaching Profession

Linda Cook Discusses the Agile Coaching Profession


1. Hi, this is David Bulkin from InfoQ I am here with Linda Cook of VIPS, a General Dynamics IT company. Our topic today is Agile coaching, and how a coach can help both from an internal and external prospective. Linda I know you are a busy woman so I appreciate you coming here. You are on the board of the Agile Leadership Network, the board of the Agile Alliance and of course you have a full time job at VIPS. Just give us a little background about what you are doing right now.

Ok, well thank you David for inviting me to chat with you today. I am happy to be here, and as you know we are here at the Agile 2011 conference, it is our largest event yet and part of my role as a board member of the Agile Alliance is to help with a lot of preparation and the behind the scenes work. This year I had a good fortune to get involved with the first ever Agile executive forum, this was an event we held, a conference within this conference, a one day event where we had executives come both from North America and actually several other continents, we had some folks from Brazil, a small contingency from China and then of course some folks from the UK. It was a wonderful event, it happened this Monday and we are very much looking forward to continuing to build out the executive community within the Agile Alliance and the Agile leadership network.


3. That’s a good one! Why don’t you talk a bit about what Agile coaching is? I myself have done a lot of Agile coaching and when I tell people that part of my role and job has been an agile coach they look at me like what? So how would you describe the coaching profession?

Well as a coach first you need to get the right hat and whistle, because everybody knows that a coach needs a whistle. But seriously David, coaching is probably what we are doing in this current world akin, to what management used to be. Coaching is really the next foray of leadership, particularly in IT spaces where it’s really getting its start. So as a coach you focus much more on servant leadership, and mentoring and supporting the needs of the team and supporting the needs of the organization. A coach role is typically the bridge between the technologist and the business and making sure that together we build teams that can build great products and services for their customers.


4. Can you talk a little bit about what a coach may do on a day to day basis?

Sure, I’d be happy to. One of the typical functions of a coach is to provide training. A lot of times that takes the form of just in time training, be there in the moment to work with the team, as they are going through, let’s say perhaps they are doing some planning that day to get ready for their next iteration of work. The coach would be there to help advise them around how to focus the work in planning to make sure that they are setting out a reasonable pace for the team, and working with the team perhaps building some estimating skills we know, particularly in the IT space, our work is basically things that we think through every day, it’s tough to estimate how long it will take you, so really helping with just the day to day activities.


5. So, basic prosaic things like helping the teams execute better their stand up to some of the bigger things like release planning, and things of that nature.

Yes, and also helping them with blockers, often times teams would get stuck in a particular place where they are not quite sure how they could possibly proceed. Maybe there’s a design decision that needs to be made, or they need to actually confer with someone else, to get a little bit more expertise into the team and a coach is there to help them, guide them, and help them feel confident in making that next step helping them through some decision making processes, teaching them some of the problem solving techniques, things of that nature.


6. Mostly we talked about has been coaching at the team level. Could a coach also work at the organization level or across teams, and if so how would that role look like?

That’s actually one of the things I enjoy. Sometimes we consider that coaching on the enterprise level. And when you coach at the enterprise level not only do you have the challenges of dealing with folks that have different subject areas of expertise but also they are typically at different levels of the organization. So if you are working with the staff in an actual team within an IT Group, you may be working with a leadership group on the business side that might include the marketing folks, some finance, some other strategic planning leaders and things like that, so another thing a coach has to be ready to do at all times is to really speak to all levels of the organization, to feel as comfortable sitting in a room full of executives, as you are just getting down with the team rolling up your sleeves to getting some work done.


7. Essentially you and I are both coaches, and we have coaching experience and background, so for the other people out there who are watching this, what is the benefit of having an Agile coach? How does an Agile coach help?

Well an Agile coach really has a tremendous amount of benefit. For one thing the Agile coach acts as a role model for the team. They are people who have the expertise and who have actually been there, done that, got the battle scars and can at least help guide you away from some of the things that we know are just pitfalls. So we just know there are land lines out there in the work force and when you have fallen as many times as I have, it’s helpful to be able to show folks you just may not want to start in that direction.


8. You’ve earned your scars. With that, why don’t you talk a little bit about earning some of your scars, your experience as a coach. You started out as an external coach, working with different organizations, helping them transform towards Agile and improve their Agile implementations. Could you talk briefly to us about what that experience looks like?

Sure, it is a tad interesting is how I got to be an external coach, is that the very first time I did a formal Agile adoption, I was the director of a very large initiative at a project in my own hometown, so it was really taking in from an internal leadership prospective helping to do a full scale adoption of a team of about a hundred plus individuals. And we were doing a re-platforming so we had all the technology challenges, in an organization that actually performed very very well; so essentially we were disrupting the apple cart there by bringing in new technologies and also new ways of being. Because with the new technology it happened to be a Java platform, the old methods just weren’t going to be as effective. So I learnt a hack of a lot and I learned it in a very deep fashion and it gave me interest to say "You know, doing this, helping the organization actually transition and getting to a new place was really very very rewarding".

And I decided I would like to try that again and to get the experience of trying it in different companies, so as an external coach you get the advantage of seeing the same problems from many prospective so that the patterns become obvious to you. It’s one of the challenges I think individuals have in one organization is that if you only see something happens once, maybe twice in the course of an year because you’ve worked with two teams, that’s a good base, but if you get to see it across a dozen teams, the patterns come out to you pretty quickly and then you are like "Ok, now I can see this very clearly, it wasn’t about the team", this is something that’s either related to some circumstances in the environment, some of these are systems that work within those companies, and as those things evolve, they help give you more information to then again it helps you plan out where are those lines.


9. So by being an external coach, you build out a nice knowledge base about what the patterns and anti patterns are, so you can help teams reach success much more quickly which I guess in a nutshell then is a benefit to those who are considering coaching. They have someone aboard who knows what the patterns are. Now we talked about you started as an internal coach, you went to external coaching and now you are back to internal coaching. Let’s look a little bit, let’s not talk about your specific job, but let’s just talk about how it varies being an internal coach versus an external coach, how you are treated differently, how your work life is different. Obviously as an internal coach your travel load is a lot less, you have a more predictable pay check and things of that nature, but beyond those obvious things, what are the differences in the ability to bring forth a change, the way that you are viewed, or things of that nature?

You asked several questions in there David, and I am doing my best to answer some of them. Clearly there are lots of differences, and there are so many similarities. Because at the end of the day, most of what we deal with are people and most of the problems we encounter are issues with people so a lot of this really is around organizational structures. And that’s really where some of the difference begins. What I have found is that as an external coach, number one, essentially you are begin paid for your opinion, and you are being paid for your expertise, so there is a certain value that is assigned to that, it’s kind of equal to the paycheck. And I have also found that as an external coach, that as I got better and could command a better fee, that people seem to be listening more closely to what I had to say.


10. So my net takeaway here is to charge as much as possible to make sure I help the company more (editors note, joke)?

And still get paid so that you can keep the family going. There is a good balance there that you need to strive.


11. So when you come in as an external coach.

But truly as an external coach typically you are being called in by someone who is already a decision maker, who has the opportunity to allocate funds to an initiative, whether it’s a complete transformation, or just coming in to do some very specific training, around a particular set of skills or perhaps some process initiatives, things of that nature. So you are already at a level that within an organization is hard to get to and that is to have the ear of the executive. And there in lies one of the big changes, that as an internal coach, number one you are a part of the organization, and within a very short time you have to become a part of the system, in order to be effective. That’s a key difference. With an external coach, you are not part of a system you are in there working with.

As an internal coach, I am an employee too, their problems are my problems, I’m not the person from the outside, and quite frankly most often they don’t even care about the problems from the outside because now they are looking internally. And regardless of the title of your position, most coaches like me, we don’t have a lot of staff. I do have someone that helps out, and I am fortunate that my organization knows that from time to time we bring in external consultants like yourself to help out with the workload. But the isolation is very very unique as an internal coach, because you’re not really one of the people that are being coached because it’s not your job to truly be the ScrumMaster, so therefore you’re not tight to direct revenue, and in most companies that may not be the place you’d always want to be in tough economic times.

So you have to make sure you are always delivering a lot of value to the folks that are delivering value, that’s the challenge for an internal coach, is to really be a real valuable contributor and be able to have good influence with people is essential, and you don’t have that same level as an external person if the CIO, CEO, CTO, VP whatever brings you in the organization you automatically have some ability to influence, right? As an internal person your ability to influence can vary from situation to situation. You are going to be there longer, I’ve been in my current company now for over eighteen months, so I am not the new kid anymore, and there’s some goodness in that because they realize Agile isn’t going away, so now it’s about my ability to build relationships and those relationships having the influence that you need to help bring about good change for the organization.

So I find that there is less interaction with executives, as an internal coach, and really much more interaction with the staff level and that using my influence from the staff to work its way through to the executives.


12. Potentially to over simplify it, an internal coach has a better ability to make a bottom up transformation towards Agile? External individuals are given more credibility by senior management, and hence have the ability to make those quicker changes at the higher levels of the organizations.

That’s an interesting observation David, I would agree with that. And truly at my current company we have actually started this transformation from what I would define as the middle. We really didn’t start at the bottom, and we certainly didn’t start at the very top. We were in the middle of the organization dealing with middle management so its initial challenge was to start to build believers if you will both among the executives committee and then with the staff as well, which was a very interesting challenge.


15. I attended the one in North Carolina, which I believe you helped put together, if I remember correctly. And we have one coming up in Columbus Ohio in September. Can you talk a little about coach camps and how it helps coaches, whether it be internal or external kind, share knowledge?

Absolutely, one of the main purposes of a coach camp was to help us build a coach community, so that we can help one another to build our skills, to share our experiences, to learn from one another, cause there are many folks like me today. I’m the independent person if you will within an organization being the loan coach. It can be isolating from time to time, it’s hard to figure how to get good feedback from people, and going to something like coach camps not only do you get to share good ideas and thoughts but people are also willing to hear your story and offer you their thoughts on what they might be able to help out with or how they might proceed given the circumstances that you described. It’s also a wonderful experience in that typically the coach camps are a low cost event so there are low barrier entry so that everyone can come.

What we see happening is that we get coaches across the entire spectrum of experience which is wonderful, you can expect to find some very experienced skilled coaches whether you are an experienced coach and you want to meet with other experienced people or if you are an experienced coach and you actually want to work on your skills helping to mentor others. So you will also find some people that are just getting started down the Agile coach path trying to figure out what it means to be a servant leader, how do you actually behave differently what does that look like, how would people know you as a leader differently if you were more of an Agile coach.


16. A lot of the way I looked at it when I attended coach camp is if you’re coach full time you are always helping others. Coach camp is a way to have others help you, your peers help you. A couple of things we didn’t mention about the coach camp is the open space concept of it, so everyone has an opportunity to be a presenter, no PowerPoint, lots of conversations like this, but without the video, larger groups of people just sharing information and knowledge.

Lots of paper too. Agile coaches are known to be heavy consumers of sticky notes and sharpie pens. That’s clearly one of the major tools of our trade and one of the ways we interact with each other at coach camp so it’s always been face to face, it’s interacting with very simple tools as you said, and no technology, no PowerPoints no videos, it’s just folks sitting down face to face working through their challenges and learning from one another. And that’s the key thing, it’s about being able to be in a community where we continue to learn and grow.


17. Well, thank you so much, before we go I want to ask you any parting thoughts about being a coach, and if a person wants to be a coach what are the attributes they should have if they considering that as a career path?

This is a very good question. There are some things that I think make for a good coach, naturally. It doesn’t mean if you don’t have these natural abilities, all of these are learned skills and one of those things is clearly the desire to help other succeed in what they do. If you need to actually be the doer of the work to feel good about yourself, coaching may not be for you. But if you feel good standing back and watching others really succeed , and achieve their goals, to work as a team, build phenomenal products, coaching might be the right career for you.

Now, beyond the aspects of servant leadership, you’ll need a good broad base of skills so that whether you were a technologist first or perhaps you came from the analytical background, or maybe you’re a really strong domain expert and in your domain coaches are needed, no matter how you actually get to be a coach, chances are you are going to have to take your depth of skill and then work on figuring out how you need to complement that to have a good breath of skills, cause that is clearly one of the things that I know I need to have is the broader my set of skill set is the more I can at least contribute some. And the other ability is to enjoy working with people, working with other coaches, being able to build a good network, because you are going to need a network to support you as a coach. I’m sure you are aware David our networks are key.

Dec 02, 2011