Well… the position “Agile Coach” is the new hip in town. It’s cool, it’s hot, it’s trendy. It’s fun work, it’s classy, it’s hipster. Recently a lot of people have expressed interest to me in getting into agile coaching. So I decided to write this article outlining what I think the best way for becoming a great and effective “Agile Coach”.
But before I start I want to go on a rant about the current market. I promise you it is going to be very short.
Today in the market the positions of “Agile Coach” has become a very desirable role. Lack of highly skilled Agile Coaches in the market together with high demand for Agile Coaches globally has made the role of Agile Coach a very lucrative position.
In the past few years, the market has been flooded with self-proclaimed Agile Coaches and consultants that are neither “agile” nor “coaches”. These Agile Coaches are delivering very poor results and failing spectacularly in driving agile transformations.
There are many reasons for this unfortunate phenomenon, the most prominent of which is supply and demand. Another reason is that those who are making the hiring decisions are not qualified to assess the capabilities of an Agile Coach.
So I hope by writing this article I will contribute the following:
- To set up a clear and achievable path for those who aspire to become effective Agile Coaches and add real value to organisations.
- Help those who are making hiring decisions be more informed and make better decisions.
Now that I’ve done my diatribe, let’s get to business.
I am currently collaborating with Niall McShane on his book “Agile Coaching 2.0” where I’ll be sharing more of my stories. If you are interested you can preorder the book at this link.
I believe to be an Agile Coach you need two qualities:
- Deep understanding of “Agile”
- Skills needed to be an effective “coach” in organisations
Simple isn’t it? That’s exactly what the tin says. The questions how do we develop these qualities?
The roadmap below sets the path for you to acquire these two qualities.
The roadmap for becoming an Agile Coach
I believe with the right amount of training and experience anyone can become an effective Agile Coach. I believe it could take between 1 to 5 years to finish these steps from the beginning. You may already have a head start in this roadmap and may be able to finish it in no time.
Of course, you don’t want to go through this roadmap in a sequential manner. You will probably end up doing these steps at the same time in parallel.
- Agile Experience
- Scrum Master Experience or Equivalent
- Develop Lean-Agile Mindset
- Develop Emotional intelligence
- Get Lots of Certificates
Not if you are in for a fun read and want to hear some of my stories, please read on for the long version.
1. Prerequisite – Agile Experience
you need experience working in agile environments. The more experience, the better.
Some past roles that may be very helpful: Product Owner, Project Manager, Solution Architect, Engineering Manager, Test Manager, General Manager, Team Lead, Business Analyst, Developer, Delivery Lead, etc.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, the point is having worked in agile environments in one way or another.
2. Scrum Master experience or equivalent (Servant Leadership Positions)
Scrum Master experience is highly, highly, highly valued if you want to become an Agile Coach. I believe it is very unlikely to become a good Agile Coach without some sort of servant leadership experience.
As a Scrum Master, you will learn how to influence people without having formal authority. Scrum Masters don’t have a position of authority, but they are expected to remove impediments. They are servant leaders. I believe servant leadership skills are absolutely necessary for a good Agile Coach.
As a coach, you are not only required to change the behaviours of teams and people but also inspire people. And you need to do all these without coming from a position of power. We Can’t simply go and tell people “do as I say”. We need to influence and convince people this is the right way to do things.
A few years ago, I was a Scrum Master in a team, and we had a senior developer who was behaving in a way that was to the detriment of the team. There was some power play in action. He wanted to establish himself as the leader of our team in the organisation. But his tactics were not helping anyone. I asked him privately to stop his behaviour. His response was: “I don’t report to you, I don’t have to listen to you.”
Now I’m faced with this challenge, I want to change someone’s behaviour against his will, he feels he is in competition with me, and he does not have any reason to listen to me.
The easy solution would have been to tell on him to his manager (which I had good relationships with by the way). But I did not do that, that wouldn’t have been effective as it would have alienated him with me.
I looked him in the eyes, smiled in a compassionate way, leaned forward, paused for a second, and said in a slow, calm, and confident voice: Of course you don’t report to me. And of course, you don’t “HAVE TO” listen to me. I am requesting you as a fellow team member. Your actions have resulted in confusion in other teams as to who is responsible for what. I request that if you want to do things like this in future at least have a chat with me beforehand and keep me in the loop. Well, I can also do whatever I want and have disregard for you boundaries but I do not do that. We are a team and if we want to be successful as a team we need to compromise. I help you and you help me.
Naturally, every situation is different, every person is different, and every challenge needs a unique solution. This story was an example of how the role of Scrum Master helped me build my influence and servant leadership skills.
When we say someone is “Scrum Master” does it mean everyone else is a “Scrum Slave”?
Years ago, when I was a developer, I heard about something called a “Certified Scrum Master”. A “Master” sounded like what I wanted to be. So naturally, I signed up for the course and attended the training. Then in the course I noticed they are talking about this weird thing called “Servant Leadership”, and they are saying things like the Scrum Master is not the boss, etc.
Then it all dawned on me; as a Scrum Master, I have to be a “SERVANT”, not a “Master”!!!
D’OH!!! That’s not what it says on the tin!
“Master” in Scrum Master is not referring to being a “lord”. It is referring to “mastery”.
This is another vital skill that you will learn as a Scrum Master. You will learn how to be a master in Scrum. As a Scrum Master you need to have mastered the art of Scrum. You need to know it back to front. You need to be able to read the Scrum guide from memory. This deep understanding of Scrum is invaluable for an Agile Coach.
Of course Scrum is not the only framework that Scrum Masters need to learn. Scrum Masters need to learn other agile frameworks so they can mix and match practices when needed.
Scrum Masters will also coach the teams in Scrum. They are a Scrum Coach on team level. This is going to enable you to become a better coach and learn those coaching skills on smaller scales.
3. Develop a Lean-Agile mindset and instil the Lean, Agile, and Systems Thinking principles in yourself.
As an Agile Coach, we need to be a master in the art of Agile. We need to have a deep and broad understanding of the field. We need to be proficient in Agile, Lean, Systems Thinking, Leadership, DevOps, Product Management, Project Management, Lean Startups, Empiricism, Kanban, Human Centered Design, and many more related fields.
This is done via continuous learning. You need to go to as many Agile conferences and Agile meetups as you can. You need to read articles from Agile thought leaders, watch videos, and read books on the topic. And everything you learn you need to put into practice at work.
There are a lot of Agile meetups available globally. In almost every large city there is at least one Agile meetup available connecting the Agile community. In Melbourne, we currently have 14 agile meetups that I know of having regular gatherings. So, you will always find a meetup that you can attend based on your availability.
Conferences are also very important. My favourite conference in Australia is Scrum Australia as it is endorsed by scrum alliance and they usually bring very good keynotes. I had the privilege of speaking at the Scrum Australia conference in 2016. Other good conferences in Australia include Agile Australia and LAST (Lean Agile Systems Thinking) conference. There are many highly valuable agile conference globally in every corner of the world.
The way I chose my conferences is by looking at the keynote speakers. Most big industry conferences sell out about half of their speaker sessions to sponsors. That doesn’t mean these sessions are not valuable. There is still a lot of value in attending vendor-sponsored sessions. But that would not be even comparable to what you get from attending the keynote sessions. So please look at the keynote presenters. Google them if you don’t know them, and attend conferences with the best keynote speakers.
Also, meetups and conferences are incredible opportunities for networking. You will meet likeminded people and will have an opportunity to build your allies for the future.
4. Build emotional intelligence skills
Emotional intelligence is the most powerful weapon a leader can have in their arsenal. I would go as far as calling emotional intelligence skills synonymous to leadership skills.
In simple terms, Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognise your own emotions and those of others, and the ability to manage and influence your emotions and those of others.
Of course to be a successful Agile Coach you will need high cognitive intelligence. Yes, problem solving skills are very important for Agile Coaches. But it is your peoples skills and emotional intelligence that is going to set you apart from the others in the field.
5. Get certificates
Currently the Agile coaching market places very high value on certifications globally. This is both good and bad. It is bad because it implies that by attending a very short course one is established as a credible and skilled person in the complex art of Agile. And it is good because the competition created has resulted in coaches attending certified courses regularly which results in continuous learning for coaches.
It doesn’t matter if we believe in certificates or not. Everyone in the market is collecting as many certificates as they can and if we want to remain competitive, we need to do the same. On the plus side, by doing this we will be continuously learning and networking. It basically sharpening our axe.
The following are some of the certificates that I highly recommend for all agile coaches:
- Leading safe
- SAFe DevOps
- Certified Less Practitioner
- Certified Scrum Professional
- SAFe Program Consultant
If you are interested to know more about various agile certificates please read my article on this topic here.
I believe an Agile Coach is a master and a leader. I compare Agile Coaching to sports coaching. I think of myself as a football coach or a tennis coach. There is leadership involved, and also skill mastery involved. To be a great coach I need to be a great leader and I need to be highly skilled and a master in the art.
A process change manager is not a coach. That’s the role of change managers and process business analysts. A true Agile Coach is a master of the art of Agile who can adapt and guide the team in whatever complex situation they are and can provide them with leadership to become high performing. The role of the coach is to move people to the state of their best performance, not just implement a new process.
If you are interested in further reading please have a look at this article https://dandypeople.com/blog/agile-coaching-in-a-nutshell/ or this book