Whether you’re looking to become an Agile Coach or want to improve how you help the people you work with, there are a number of skills you’ll need.
To identify the skills, we first need to revisit what an Agile Coach is. Most of what you find online defines the role rather loosely:
A person who helps an organisation adopt and/or improve Agile processes.
This doesn’t really provide much that can help you perform the role, so we need to explore deeper. We need to look at the words individually - I’m assuming you already know that Agile is a mindset, which includes a number of values, principles, and approaches to getting work done (if my assumption is wrong, I recommend you read this post first). So, let’s focus on the “Coach” part of the role.
What is a coach?
Let’s take the time here to explore what “coaching” is. You may have heard the term used interchangeably with “mentoring” - whilst a coach can also be a mentor and vice-versa, it’s important to differentiate these two in terms of goal.
- Mentoring - long-term and focused on mentee’s professional and personal success
- Coaching - short-term and focused on specific development areas/issues
In other words:
A coach has some great questions for your answers; a mentor has some great answers for your questions.
A coach does not offer their own advice or opinion, but helps the individual or organisation to find their own solution.
There are coaches in many different areas - from sports to life-coaches, but I generally agree with the definition provided by the International Coach Federation:
Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:
- Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve
- Encourage client self-discovery
- Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies
- Hold the client responsible and accountable
This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.
With this definition in mind, I see the Agile Coach role split between 2 key skill trees - life and learned.
Some people refer to these as “soft skills” or “inter- and intra-personal skills.” These skills tend to be acquired at an early age - but that’s not to say you can’t improve them with practice! A good example of this is with active listening - you can practice this by repeating back to a speaker what they’ve said to ensure true communication is taking place.
Respect - the ability to see and celebrate the value in ourselves and others.
- You’ll find the value of ‘Respect’ in most Agile frameworks, and it covers a wide ground for an Agile Coach:
- respecting the Agile practices you are championing;
- respecting the people you work with in terms of their skills and expertise;
- respecting the organisation for wanting to change;
- respecting yourself in realising that you are still learning and will also make mistakes. There’s so much more to respect than this, but regardless of the other skills, this is the most important. Without appreciating the value in yourself and in your clients you cannot be a successful Agile Coach.
- You’ll find the value of ‘Respect’ in most Agile frameworks, and it covers a wide ground for an Agile Coach:
Intuition - your own internal compass.
Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. – Steve Jobs, Co-founder, Chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc., 2005
- Why does an Agile Coach need to follow their intuition? You are the expert when it comes to Agile practices - you know when something isn’t working for your client, and whether that is something worth changing. Observation and intuition go hand in hand for an Agile Coach - you observe what your client is doing, and use your intuition to gauge whether or not they’re going in the direction they want to. Trust that intuition, and have the courage to change direction when needed.
Courage - deciding to do something difficult or dangerous, even if you’re afraid.
- Agile Coaches recognise that not everyone understands their role, and it can be difficult to enter an organisation who doesn’t appreciate the value of the role but expects to see results. This in itself takes courage, realising that not everyone is going to like “change” or agree with what you are guiding them to do.
- A lot of what Agile actually is revolves around the inspect-and-adapt cycle - you make a change, you observe that change and you modify accordingly. Which means you’re not always going to win, sometimes it’ll feel like you’re not making much progress at all, and sometimes you’ll need to have courage to explain that to your client - which can be pretty damn scary, especially if you’re a freelancer.
Listening - to take notice of and respond or act on what someone say.
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. – Stephen R. Covey, Author, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 1989
- As an Agile Coach, it’s super important to practice active listening. Remember, the first responsibility of any coach is to discover, identify and clarify want the client wants to achieve. Without fully understanding this, you won’t be successful in helping that client to reach their goals.
- Listening is one of the hardest skills, because it requires focus and the ability to detect what’s being said in terms of emotion and body language, in other words, reading between the lines.
Compassion - to acknowledge another person’s suffering, and wanting to do your best to help them
- A lot of Agile Coach job adverts will list empathy rather than compassion as a desirable skill. I believe compassion is much more relevant - whilst empathy gives a common understanding by inferring you understand and have been through a similar situation, and are feeling the same emotions as someone else, it doesn’t necessarily make you more motivated to help them. On the other hand, compassion enables us to understand the challenges or suffering of another person, without necessarily having experienced it first-hand. This is important for Agile Coaches, as whilst coaches may have a similar background to the team they’re working with, being able to keep a level-head without our own emotions being affected, can help us do our best work to support the team, and improve our communication with them. It also gives us a better accurate understanding of our clients, their concerns and perceptions, which can help us work better with them. This, along with intuition, can help us to identify what we should avoid trying with this particular client, and what their expectations of us as a coach are.
Patience and perseverance - the ability to wait through continued effort and determination.
- Any Agile Coach will tell you that instilling an Agile mindset in an organisation will take time.
- There will be times when you feel like you’re pushing against a closed doors - maybe there are teams or people who have tried Agile before “and it didn’t work.” I’ve put patience and perseverance together, as they really do go hand-in-hand.
- Results speak for themselves, so show the client how changing the way they work has implicated other areas - that could be in terms of metrics (lead/cycle time etc), or it could be in terms of revenue and profit, or even employee retention. Use the data you have to show that the changes you’re making are helping the client to attain their goals.
Curiosity - a strong desire to know or learn something.
- A curious Agile Coach will ask challenging questions, to uncover their client’s main challenges, or why someone is really blocked on their work.
- They’ll also remain curious in the Agile sphere itself - much like an Agile transformation is never really complete, an Agile Coach is never finished learning. There are always more skills and tools to add to their toolkit, and learnings to be made.
- The most successful Agile Coaches I’ve met have also been the most humble - they know they don’t know everything, but have a passion to equip themselves with more skills to better serve their clients.
Now that we’ve covered what I feel are the most important skills, let’s now move onto the skills that are slightly easier to learn.
These are often referred to as “technical” or “hard skills”. Again, I don’t like either of these terms but essentially these are the skills that can be taught - including everything from writing to programming.
For an Agile Coach, here are the learned skills you’ll want in your toolbox:
A strong understanding of Agile values, principles and practices
- This really goes without saying. You might be a “Coach” but until you fully understand what it means to be “Agile” you can’t call yourself an “Agile Coach.” I’m not saying you should be able to recite the Agile Manifesto by heart, but you should refer to it often.
- Facilitation helps a group of people to focus and achieve a specific goal. An Agile Coach will use facilitation not only in meetings and workshops, but they also become a facilitator for the process itself. What I mean by that is that they don’t need a specific meeting to help a group to improve - which might include how the group communicates, examine and solve problems, and become more self-reflective.
An Agile Coach communicates with people in all different roles within the organisation. This could include anyone from sales to C-Level, and they need to be able to adapt their communication style accordingly.
Being able to clearly explain:
- what is being changed, - why it's being changed, and - what the expected outcome of the change will be
is important at all levels of an organisation. Different roles will have different needs - the C-Levels might be more interested in profit and customer satisfaction, whereas sales will be more concerned with how it will change their day-to-day routines. Knowing that you’ll interact with some people who are indifferent to what you’re doing, and some who are totally against change will be difficult, but if you can communicate effectively with them and help them to realise what the benefit will be for them and how that plays into the wider organisation, will get them on your side.
In summary, it’s a combination of life and learning skills that make an Agile Coach successful in their role. You’ll notice that I didn’t list Agile coaching experience as a key skill here. Whilst it’s true that there are many learnings we can only get from working in an Agile environment, I believe capability is much more important.
I’ve worked with some awesome people who had no prior experience of working in an agile environment, who have turned out to be far better Agile Coaches than others I’ve met who have been in the field for 5+ years. Potential is much more important to me than how many certificates you have on your wall. At the end of the day, we’ve all had to start somewhere - the three most important qualities a change agent should have, are summarised in this simple quote:
Be brave. Be humble. Stay curious. – Henrik Kniberg, Agile & Lean Coach at Crisp, “Confessions of a Change Agent” talk at Agile Rock conference in Kiev, 2018