As a new and emerging profession, Agile Coach has become more popular over the past decade. A search on LinkedIn easily leads to over 100,000 Agile Coaches, a huge number of ScrumMasters and other types of related roles.

There are countless recruitment advertisements for Agile Coaches and ScrumMasters around the world, which is great. But the requirements and job descriptions are very different, which confuses individuals who are genuinely interested in Agile and passionate about the profession of Agile Coaching, and leaders who want to hire Agile Coaches to support their organization development.

To make things even more confusing, Agile-related training has become a super crowded commodity market. Various training and services for Agile Coaches are available, and the contents vary dramatically as well.

For the very same reasons above, I keynoted the topic around value driven Agile Coaching strategy at eight international conferences, where I summarized the skills, domain knowledge and expectations on Agile Coaches. In this series of articles, I will write this field guide for Agile Coaches who are working in the trenches, and organizations who want to leverage on agile coaching capabilities to advance.

Before we get started, let’s first clarify one topic, the difference between ScrumMaster and Agile Coach. As of today, I have had the privilege working with passionate agile practitioners from 76 countries, and the global norm about ScrumMaster and Agile Coach is as follows: 

A ScrumMaster in general has their dedicated ScrumTeam to support, while an Agile Coach works more at multiple team levels, and at organization levels. Sometimes, you can see Agile Coaches with enterprise focuses named Enterprise Agile Coaches. Quite rarely, we may see Agile Coaches with dedicated agile team focus. Please do keep in mind that no matter we are looking at ScrumMaster or Agile Coaches, there are expectations on them to work at organization level. In this article, Agile Coach includes ScrumMaster, Agile Coach and Enterprise Agile Coach, as all the topics discussed are applicable to all. 

Agile Coaching Skills

There are various skills Agile Coaches should ideally master.

Let’s start with a skill with less confusion – facilitation. Agile Coaches should be great facilitators, which goes without saying. To start with, Agile Coaches can help support the facilitation of basic Scrum events. Though that’s far from being everything. Before Agile teams grow and become more self-managing, Agile Coaches will work with quite some basic facilitations about Scrum events. With time going by, Agile Coaches should start to facilitate product related discussions, workshops about product strategy, roadmap, business value definition, etc. These can also include organization level workshops, from organization wise Innovation Day, Fedex day, Hackeraton, and any other types of organization level improvements and related activities. An example can be to support leadership team with different activities, from leadership team retrospective, learning, operational plans, etc. Facilitation skill is relatively easier to understand, though one might be surprised with the scope of facilitation.

There are confusions about others skills Agile Coaches should have. It is always good to start with examples to illustrate for easier understanding.

A Skiing StorySkiing

Many of your friends ski, and you became interested in skiing as well. You did your research into different skiing courses, and heard quite some good feedback about programs offered by Aveline. Evaluating your schedule, budget, location and feedback, you decided to join Aveline’s skiing introduction program from a list of her offerings. During the introduction program, Aveline started by introducing how to put on ski equipment, how to control skies, how to make a pizza shape to control speed, and how to zig zag. She explained, she demoed, and she also took everyone to baby hills to practice. Aveline corrected you and also showed you based on what she saw while you were skiing down the baby hill. At the end of the program, as a newbie to skiing, you managed to ski down from baby hills without difficulties. Aveline also took you to a slightly bigger hill and explained to you how you can practice further.

After this, you became even more excited about skiing. So you decided to practice on the bigger hill. You tried hard but it was more difficult than you anticipated. You fell multiple times. You felt frustrated and even slightly scared when you saw snow bumps. You have a friend whose name is Eve, and she has been skiing for years with quite some experience. So you reached out to her for help, and asked her to practice with you. While you skied with Eve, Eve first watched how you skied, and then she worked with you by explaining and demonstrating to correct your postures. For instance, she showed you how to ski with snow bumps around you. Eve showed you how to bend your knees slightly forward, to avoid falling on your butt. She practiced with you to make sure you ski with correct body posture, and you navigated yourself with some snow bumps around. She also shared with you a few tips, such as how to ski with snowboarders around you, and how to avoid potential problems with snowboarders.

After a couple of ski trips with Eve, you improved significantly, though you knew you still had a long way to be as good as Eve at skiing. Your interests continued to grow. Your skiing expenses continued to grow also. You started to feel that renting ski equipment all the time is not worth it. It did cost a bit and a half to rent an entire ski set. You researched slightly, and buying seemed to be a viable option. So you went to a ski equipment shop, and you were quite overwhelmed with various options, long skies, short skies, wider skies, more narrow skies, different types of boots, and various options on bindings. You consulted Eveline, a senior employee in the ski equipment shop. She explained to you the difference, principles and feeling of long, short, wide, and narrow skis, and lectured around the mechanics of bindings, and highlighted the key differences among ski boots. You asked her to recommend a ski-set to you. She asked about your budget, your skiing level, height and weight, and your preferences. Then she advised three options, and you decided to take one of the options as you loved the look.

You continued skiing. Unfortunately you got into an accident with a very fast skier. You almost had a concussion and you became so afraid of skiing. You wanted to ski, but you felt scared the very same moment you thought of skiing. You went to see your professional coach, Evelyne. Evelyne and you have been working together for a few months. You first started your sessions about your work and life related topics. With her help, you advanced with career development and some decision making. As skiing became a growing interest for you now, you brought up the topic with her. You shared with Evelyne about your desire to ski before. She helped you reflect on how you plan to get started, and what information can be helpful in the past. During this coaching session, you brought up your dilemma. With Evelyne’s help, you reflected on your ski experience, your feelings and emotions, evaluated the pros and cons of skiing, and what options you have to overcome your fear. With her help, you were able to see the situation better and you decided to take a break from skiing. In addition, when she asked you about what your plans are next, you reflected on what to do with your ski equipments. With her help, you evaluated the pros and cons of keeping the ski equipment, and you decided to sell due to fast evolution and replacement of ski equipments.

Why Is Agile Coaching Challenging?

Let’s look at the first challenge. In the examples about skiing, skiers seek help on their own initiative, and the skier actively looks for help with great willingness.

In the context of Agile Coaching, particularly in an organization that hasn’t walked the journey yet, a manager with traditional mindset who often negatively impacted teams’ motivation, will most likely not seek for the help of an Agile Coach – please help me as I am such an impediment to my teams. At the mean time, a product owner who manages only the product backlog may not come to an Agile Coach – please help me as I am not doing a good job as a product owner. A developer who is not motivated and his behaviours generated some negative impacts to others in the team will most likely not come to an Agile Coach – please help me as my behaviours are impacting my colleagues’ motivation. And I can go on and on for many other situations where an Agile Coach will not be approached.

Therefore one of the first challenges for an Agile Coach is the ability to work with people who have not gained awareness yet. When we work with them, they may not have the willingness and/or awareness at all.

In addition, in the context of agile coaching, Aveline (teaching), Eve (mentoring), Eveline (consulting and advising) and Evelyne (professional coaching) would be one person, the Agile Coach, Evelyn. As an Agile Coach, Evelyn has to have teaching, mentoring, consulting and advising, professional coaching and also facilitating skills which we discussed earlier. 

To make it more challenging, an Agile Coach has to decide what skills to use for a particular situation they are in. I have been using the analogy of a balancing board to explain how an Agile Coach should be able to flexibly switch from one skill to another, given the situation.

These two challenges sound quite something to work with already, but there is more to them. Please keep your curiosity and find out more soon.