Picking an Agile Coach – Lessons from the Trenches

Picking an Agile Coach is often a trying task for most organizations. What is an Agile Coach and what qualities make a good one. These are just some of the common questions most organizations have.

As it takes time to really adopt new practices and behaviors, the Agile Coach must be more than just a recently trained ScrumMaster that usually “swoops in” to deliver words of wisdom and then makes a sharp exit. The coach must be able to spend time with the team to help them to become more aware of their workflow and how to collaborate effectively.

In a nutshell, an “Agile Coach” must help the project leaders, and the teams learn how to successfully apply the required agile practices.  The coach must be familiar with how each agile role (e.g.,  Team, Product Owners, and ScrumMaster) are impacted by an Agile Transformation as well as the roles outside the team that are impacted, especially the Project Managers and senior management (e.g., managing triple constraints or how will weekly / monthly progress be collected and shared)

Being an Agile Coach is different than a ScrumMaster leading a project team as it’s more of a transitory role not tied into project duration. However, your success / failures are directly impacted by how the team performs and grows. So while our goal as an Agile Coach is for the whole team to become self-coaching and adept in applying agile.

In many cases, organizations already have some skilled resources with some real-world experience: ScrumMaster who’s led small / medium projects and/or software developers who have worked on agile projects in the past. These organizations need coaches with experience with rolling out and applying agile practices to boost their performance and proficiency in software development as well as to accelerate their adoption of certain practices.

Common interview questions:

  • Years of experience with Agile, Scrum, XP, etc
  • Describe some of your key experiences leading agile transformations
  • Can you share some of the common challenges you ran into as an Agile Coach and how you over came these challenges?
  • How is being an agile coach different from a team lead or project manager job role?
  • Describe what you believe are some of the core practices for a team to adopt to be called agile (. Explore their understanding of Whole Team, Agile Planning to make sure they know more than just Scrum, assuming the team must scale.
  • What are some of the different roles impacted by an Agile Transformation beyond the (PO, ScrumMaster, Team) roles?
  • What techniques have you used in the past to report progress, document team performance, make adoption recommendations,  etc.?
  • Are you familiar with using tools like Rational Team Concert (RTC) to assist with agile planning, dash boarding and Adoption Activities?
  • What measures do you typically collect to determine if the agile transformation is on track?

Understanding core skills

The core skills for coaching agile teams are solid communication skills, such as listening, asking questions and giving feedback.

To engage the whole team, an Agile Coach must be able to provide one-to-one mentoring to the core roles, be effective at running meetings with good facilitation skills along with the ability to intervene when needed.

For example in his book entitled “Leading Teams”, Richard Hackman asserts that three basic types of coaching intervention: Motivational, Consultative, and Educational where he defines a coaching intervention as “any action that seeks to minimize process losses or to foster process gains.”  He further elaborates on these coaching intervention categories in that:

  • Motivational interventions improve the team’s effort by building shared commitment and minimizing free-riding
  • Educational interventions improve understanding and skills on the team
  • Consultative intervention foster process improvement by helping the team become more aware of their (mindless) habits

Further reading

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