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Top Ten Tips for An Agile Coach

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Coaching Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley, co-authors of the book Agile Coaching, gave a fun session “Top Ten Tips for Agile Coaches”. The session could well have been called “Top Ten Things that Many Agile Coaches get Wrong”.

Get Introduced – when a coach first arrives on a team (existing or new) it can be a traumatic event. The team is unsure who the coach is, why they’re there and if they’re even qualified to do the job. An introduction from a senior person (manager, team lead or just well respected person) will go a long way to soothing those fears. In addition the coach should explain their own background and their goal(s).

Agile is Not a Religion – members of the team don’t care about Agile, they’re focused on getting their job done, getting a pay raise and maybe a promotion. As such they don’t care about Agile, they only care about things that will help them solve their current problems. As coaches, we need to take time, understand the situation, listen and perhaps most important make the team feel that their concerns have been heard.

Show Respect – don’t just jump in with a plan to solve all of the team’s problems. Understand how they got to where they are today. Focus on language, for example, team members are people and not resources, developers, testers and management.

Step Back – too often, as coaches, we focus on the problems that the team exhibits without seeing the big picture. Don’t try to fix the people – in most cases they’re just responding to the organizational pressures. Instead step back, use Systems Thinking to help find these pressures and then focus on fixing them.

Take Time to Reflect – We frequently react to problems in the heat of the moment. Instead of reacting immediately with our frustration, pause, take some time to reflect, talk it over with another coach, perhaps even sleep on it.

Ask Questions, Speak Ideas – As we seek to understand how teams behave/work – ask questions mostly ‘how’ and ‘what’. Liz recommends avoiding the use of ‘why’ since it will put many people on the defensive. She reserves the use of ‘why’ for Root Cause Analysis – which she uses sparingly. When you have interesting ideas to share state them and don’t use a question, people will see through what you’re doing and resent it.

Introduce The Elephant – Big problems are often ignored because people perceive them to be insurmountable. Don’t let these slip by, instead use a retrospective and ask: “I notice that people are avoiding…”. Help the team find some aspect of the problem to chip away at. Whatever the outcome,  don’t push the team to take action if they’re not ready.

Make Change an Experiment – People are often scared of change, but by making it an experiment we can help lessen the fear. By involving team members in the change, they will take ownership of the effort and get used to making small changes. The retrospective is a good time to introduce these experiments.

Go with the Energy of the Team – Rather than solve the biggest problem that the team faces at any time, find out what they have the energy to solve. By solving small problems first they gain the confidence and the joy. As they gain experience their ambition and energy will grow.

Have the Courage of your Convictions – On a regular basis your beliefs will attacked and called into question. Have courage and believe in yourself, but above all be patient. We’re in the business of getting teams to make very large changes, we’ve digested these changes but the teams we coach haven’t.

Audience members added a variety of other tips:

  • Be quiet or silent – sometimes the best intervention is not to intervene at all (Tobias Mayer)
  • Be away – when we’re not available, the teams we coach are forced to learn to solve some of their own problems.
  • Learn the client’s language – by understanding clients problem domain we help reduce fear.
  • Don’t push on string: make a suggestion, keep it short, walk away, wait a while before revisiting.
  • Focus on the positive take small wins as way points towards the main goal.
  • Don’t undermine team members publicly, deal with problems in private.
  • Create a backlog of coaching topics and ask the team to prioritize it. This will give the team more ownership of the relationship. (William Rowden)

Previously on InfoQ: Beginner's Mind - An Approach to Listening and on this reporter’s blog, Liz and Rachel’s Coaching Workshop.

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