Resources | Transformation

The Real Purpose of an Agile Coach

  • 8 minutes read
Rob Gaunt
on August 21, 2020
The role of an Agile coach

I love seeing coaches roll their sleeves up and get stuck in. It gives me goosebumps when I see the passion they put into helping a team and the smile on their face when they know they have made a meaningful difference to the team’s sprint outcome.

I’m glad coaches feel like they were available to their team when they were needed most and feel good about going that extra mile to help the team move their product across the line. I know how much the team appreciated the help and I understand the team feels confident the coach is on hand when the chips are down.

There’s only one problem with it. That’s not their job!

If you are in one of the thousands of organisations that use external coaches to help improve your team’s performance, please understand, their role is not to play the game for the team. Their role is to prepare the team for the game. And what I just witnessed was a coach that has all the right intentions, but totally the wrong execution.

To understand this, it’s important that we’re first clear about why a coach is being paid to be there. It is to help the team perform better. This should not be through team augmentation, day-to-day management, or doing the work on their behalf.

Of course, there are times when a coach needs to roll up their sleeves and ‘lead by example’. They will often need to physically show how to implement new practices, suggest changes, or show people how to run special events. SODOTO (See One, Do One, Teach One) is a methodology of teaching the team through direct observation. I highly recommend coaches use this, especially for new teams. It is a ‘teaching’ method, not a ‘coaching’ method, and should be carefully and thoughtfully applied.

A coach is there to ask the necessary questions to get the team to self-identify how they could execute a little bit better or a little more efficiently. They are responsible for encouraging the team to take a good hard look at themselves, by giving them the ability to easily recognise opportunities for improvement, and guiding the team on building a strategy and action plan to bring those to life. Sometimes, though less often, providing mentoring along the way.

To coach effectively, they need to be with the team to see them in action (we call this going to gemba). It can be a fine balancing act making sure they are not there too often, and inadvertently become part of the team. They need to do their job from the sidelines. Remember, the coach isn’t there to play the game with the team.

Adapting with the team

I know it’s hard for seasoned coaches to take a back seat to the team. I would even go so far as to say that some coaches have a hero complex and need to “save the day” (we can talk about that another time). And I can relate to how frustrating it can be to watch a team make mistakes when you could have saved them. If only they listened!

I know it’s incredibly difficult for a coach to remember that it is all about the team learning, not just about the team winning. But they must. Doing anything else is letting the team down.

First, it is inequitable. A great coach understands that each team is different, and therefore they learn with the team, rather than this being a one-way journey of telling the team how to do their job. Second, if they did the latter rather than the former, they are unintentionally introducing their own bias into the method, and potentially undermining the team’s own growth journey.

Instead, they must adapt the team’s method with them through observation, articulation, elaboration, co-design and collaboration. They should help the team to learn how to continuously identify small tweaks to apply in order to enhance the team’s strengths, and take advantage of their unique combination of skills. Rather than the coach asking the team to make wholesale changes on a regular basis, by constantly brain-washing them on how “They would have done it differently”.

Indeed, a coach’s most important role is to coach the team on how to effectively coach themselves towards higher performance. And in doing so, make themselves obsolete over time.

Team Self-reflection

In this endeavour, a coach is at first invaluable because they can “see” what the team cannot. This is especially the case when teams are working in very stressful, delivery-focused environments and are afforded very little time to self-reflect and adapt their methods. The coach must be the team’s spare pair of eyes, observing and then holding up a mirror for them to see. And because (in my opinion) a coach should be very experienced in their field, they can do this better than those that are not, and therein lies their value. They can provide feedback through expert analysis and understanding, rather than amateur opinion.

You can easily tell when a coach is becoming the crutch for the team. It’s when the coach feels they are required in every event or meeting (as if they were the team). Along with when management demands that the coach “must be there at all times”, or when the team feels that the coach is letting them down by being absent from the day-to-day. In other words, it is when the coach cannot separate themselves from being “in the team” with working “on the team”.

Quick Tip

My suggestion is, coaches should be asking themselves “am I making myself obsolete?” and “am I helping the team to find their own path?”. They should ask themselves “why it is that the team needs them there all the time?” and “why is it that the management team expects them to turn up to every event?” Could it be that the coach’s own behaviour is driving the team’s misunderstanding of what a good coach does, and how a coach should execute their role?

If after reflecting on these questions, a coach identifies that they are “needed” and realise they are with the team all (or even most) of the time, then there is a good chance that the coach isn’t fully delivering the value that they are supposed to bring to the team. In the end, that means the coach isn’t delivering what the team really needs – A self-managed, self-organised, continuous improvement culture.

Want to learn more?

If you would like to learn how to create relationships with teams and be able to challenge organisational culture through thoughtful and deliberate interactions, join our EPiC Coach course.

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