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The agile expert vrs the agile coach; why we need both

Any organisation embarking on an agile transformation will require the right capability to pull it off. Over my career I’ve seen many attempts at implementing agile and on a number of occasions I’ve been accountable for pulling together the team of agile experts and coaches to ensure we maximise our chances of a successful agile change program.


When I reflected on the types of capabilities required to be successful in a transition to agile I reduced all my experience down to two:

  • agile expertise

  • agile coaching

All agile change involves both of the above capabilities; they need to be combined and delivered in the right mix for the circumstances. What can be confusing is that these capabilities can both reside in one role, two or even more depending on how an organisation wishes to design its workforce in readiness for change.


A conversation model for agile coaches and experts

For years the agile coaching industry has been grappling with a tension between using experts to push the change to agile onto their staff versus co-create and introduce the change with their staff. Push versus pull, tell versus ask; these tensions can be actively managed; I'd like to propose a model on how this tension can be harnessed during a change conversation. The model I designed utilises the work of the Presencing Institute, MIT’s Otto Scharmer and his work with Theory U. I simply adapted this theory to the domain of agile coaching; what I’ve named the Responsive Agile Coaching model aims to:

  1. help agile experts know when they should act as a coach and ask their clients for opinion

  2. help agile coaches know when they should act as an expert and tell their clients the answer


Two pathways for a conversation to take

The Responsive Agile Coaching model hinges on a single concept that is simple to explain but takes a lifetime to master;

“Making good choices in the moments that matter.”

Both agile experts and agile coaches know a lot about the techniques, processes, tools and practices associated with a change to agile as a way to work. Often the experts are consultants brought in to prepare playbooks (process libraries of how to do agile) and to design how the organisation will be structured. Coaches on the other hand aim to support people through the change whilst having deep knowledge and experience in the implementation of playbooks and new org designs. How these two roles work together can make or break an agile transformation program. The Responsive Agile Coaching model serves as a means for the two to overlap and synergise their individual contributions to a change program.

When experts or coaches are working with clients and they’re asked a question they are at a moment of decision; tell the client the answer or open up a deeper conversation. I refer to these two options as conversation pathways; go straight across and tell or show the answer to the client or go downward into a deeper conversation.


The Responsive Moment

Experts most often follow the across pathway whereas coaches are known for their ability to open up deeper conversations. The Responsive Moment is a point of decision where both experts and coaches can “borrow” from their counterparts; the coach acting more like an expert and the expert acting more as a coach. I call this important decision point the “Responsive Moment” where the expert or coach chooses which pathway to travel and resists their habitual urge to either give advice or go into a deeper conversation; responding not reacting.


So how do we build our ability to respond in the moment and make better choices that serve our clients and the situation?


4 techniques to boost your responsiveness

Here’s four tips for experts and coaches to experiment with:

  1. Insert a gap between being asked a question and the answer you provide. This gap is created through using pauses. If only for half a second the expert or coach stops and considers; then they can increase the chance of a response and avoid reactive behaviour. An easy way to do this is to make you first move in every conversation to STOP, consider, then talk. Slowing down conversations and not rushing is another easy method to create gaps within which you can choose a response.

  2. Posture is a secret technique practiced by master facilitators. Using your physical posture as you converse with others allows you to tap into what is called your somatic (body) senses. Recent advances in mindfulness and neuroscience have produced a significant amount of knowledge and peer-reviewed research highlighting the benefits of mindfulness to control your impulses and urges.

  3. Orienting your mindset to have a selfless attitude when in a conversation is probably the biggest discovery that has taken my consulting and coaching career to the next level. Simply put this means to put aside your opinions and desire to feed your ego (by being right or being heard) and be open and curious in the moment; sometimes called empathy or conscious compassion. Orienting this way greatly improves your ability to respond in the moments that matter as you help others move to adopt agile.

Final words

Agile experts are hard to find; equally a good agile coach is worth their weight in gold. But both roles sometimes need to behave more like each other. The Responsive Agile Coaching model aims to help both roles grow and learn to make better decisions in the moments that matter during agile transformations.

Of course lots has to happen before and after the Responsive Moment; the way of working needs to be co-created and embedded into the culture; but I’ll save that for another article or browse this website to learn more or read my book on the topic; available now on Amazon.



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© 2020 by NIALL MCSHANE.