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Agile with Internal Coaches and Facilitators

At the Agile Testing Days 2015 Andreas Schliep and Peter Beck gave a workshop on raising the bar for internal coaches and facilitators. InfoQ interviewed them about why internal coaches and facilitators are important when organizations want to increase their agile maturity, the advantages and disadvantages of working with external coaches, how internal coaches can contribute in the adoption of agile, what internal coaches and facilitators can do to be ready to do their work effectively, and how a qualification path for internal coaches can look.

InfoQ: Can you explain why internal coaches and facilitators are important when organizations want to increase their agile maturity?

Beck: Agile organizations are highly productive on the one hand but also maintenance-prone on the other side. Comparable like a Formula 1 racing car. The maintenance team ensures that the race car performs properly, and they are continuously improving it. Agile coaches and Scrum Masters are the maintenance team for an Agile organization and fundamental for the success. They have the knowledge not only on how the organization works but also on how to develop it. Because an organization is unique like a racing car it is a competitive advantage if you have the best and most skilled coaching team on board. Unfortunately most organization treat them-self like I treat my BMW: doing a quick maintenance check in a public garage every year. Sure, BMWs are nice cars like SAFe is a nice scaling framework. But I won’t win any race with that.
Schliep: There are many reasons. First of all, the agile coach - or Scrum Master - is a real job. It is not something that you can do as a side occupation, that you do not need to qualify for. On the other hand, the growing success of agile methods makes it impossible to occupy each required coaching and facilitation position or role with external coaches or consultants. Picture an organization with 3000 people in product development. Even if we take the generous figures of SaFE – that I do not recommend at all – we would need at least 75 qualified Scrum Masters or agile coaches. I would even suggest 1 coach per team of 10. This is for one organization only. So how many external coaches are there? The Scrum Alliance counts less than 200 guide level certification holders. With some extrapolation, I would daresay we currently have around 2000 decent agile coaches and 3000 skilled facilitators on this planet. Coaching and facilitation are particular skill sets - better yet professions - that need to be regarded and treated as any other kind of professional development.

InfoQ: Many organizations work with external coaches when adoption agile. In your opinion what are the advantages and disadvantages of that? When do you prefer to work with internal coaches?

Schliep: External coaches are great! Lovely people, with a variety of experiences, skills and approaches. We are external coaches ourselves! Alas, we do not scale. It is impossible to cover the raising demand for coaching and facilitation by external coaches alone. And we do not grow within our client organization, the same way the internal coaches do. Our – external coach – role is shifting from the direct work with teams and managers to the qualification of multiplicators within the organization. There will still be demand for external coaching and facilitation, especially at the beginning of large transformations or in critical situations. But most of the times, the change should be led, accompanied and fostered by people with skin in the game - internals.

Beck: Many transformations toward Agile are rolling back as soon the external experts start leaving the organization. The reason for that is simple. The agile values and mindset has not become part of the organizational DNA quickly enough. Only people willing to be part of the system can make the change stick on a long run. On the other hand external coaches are pollinating the organization with new approaches, knowledge and insights. But they only can do that if they move from one organization to the next like a bee flies from flower to flower. Finally an organization profits most if they combine both. The responsible of the internal coaches is to manage the integration of the external coaches following this mindset.

InfoQ: Do you have examples that show how internal coaches can contribute in the adoption of agile?

Beck: Very recently. This week I was part of a workshop with an agile transformation team in the role of an external expert. The Scrum Master of that team is an internal coach. He prepares and facilitate the workshop. And he also managed me so that I could deliver what the team was asking for: Finding blind spots on the transformation approach. By following a Scrum approach the transformation team and the internal Scrum Master were learning a lot just by doing it. And I have the confidence that the change continues even if I’m not there. The Scrum Master is by the way participant of the Work Study Program for Certified Scrum Professional that we presented in our talk.

Schliep: A great example is Jimdo. Regardless of process - the teams are free to use Kanban, Scrum or whatever suits best - each team needs to have one person with a special facilitation qualification. Jimdo is organizing these qualifications internally. The facilitators mainly run retrospectives, but are also occupied with other meetings. This ensures that the core learning loops are treated effectively. This helps teams to improve themselves. And the facilitators form a special community of practice themselves.

InfoQ: What can internal coaches and facilitators do to be ready to do their work effectively?

Schliep: Product Owners need a business background. Developers and testers need a technical background. People who work with other people need social science education, or a minimum level of social sciences – so called "soft skills" – at least. Internal coaches and facilitators need to be aware of their strength and challenges, and constantly seek improvement. The necessary skill sets range from basic facilitation and visualization techniques, over conflict handling up to an understanding of organizational change agents and how to influence them.

Beck: Being ready as coach is more a personal question. If I be honest to my-self I never was ready to be a coach in terms of knowledge and expertise. Being an agile coach is a lot of self confidence that you can help your organization and teams. You just have to understand that you may be wrong with your approach but taking the next step and learn is what your coachees need right now. An agile coach is ready if he knows when he needs to stand back because of this not-knowledge on the one hand and the chutzpah to act because of his not-knowledge on the other hand. To figure out where this tradeoff is he needs to reflect a lot with other on his personal behavior.

InfoQ: Can you describe how a qualification path for internal coaches can look?

Schliep: We can differentiate between social, coaching, facilitation skills, organizational knowledge and specific technical, domain and business expertise. The basic skill set for an internal coach can be taught and trained in intense boot camps, on the job, or continuously over a period of time along the daily work. We found that, as several business, coaching and other sophisticated qualifications have demonstrated, a combination of reflected work experience, focused training and frequent exchange within a peer group will do the trick. The exchange within a group of trainee facilitators or coaches appears to be the crucial factor. Internal coaches need to learn basic facilitation techniques and the application of specific context dependent approaches, i.e. how to address the difficulty of prioritization of business features, or how to introduce and improve sound engineering practices.

Beck: Just because you ask for coaches and facilitators in general: Some organizations already have internal facilitators, coaches and organizational change experts. There expertise should be used for an agile transformation. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel completely. However, agile coaches and Scrum Master have now a fundamental leadership role in the organization. Most existing internal coaches are somehow overwhelmed of this change because they used to be playing an underpart.

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