“Agile coaching is enabling others to adopt agile ways of working.”
I like this definition because the outcome is observable; people are either working differently or they aren’t. This definition may seem simple enough, but it is important to clarify what the “coaching” part of agile coaching actually means, as well as what “agile” means in this context. We have sports coaches, life coaches, leadership coaches, and many other types of coaches, which creates confusion in the agile coaching community. So, to clear up any uncertainty, I want to explain agile coaching by considering the two parts “agile” and “coaching” separately. Once I’ve done that I’ll take you through a proposed new model for for conducting agile coaching conversations.
In this article I’m going to use the term agile coach. Given the amount of interest in exactly who can call themselves an agile coach for the purposes of this article I’m going to define what I mean by this title to ensure we don’t get distracted. By “agile coach” I am referring to anyone who is or aspires to deliver agile coaching, irrespective of their actual job role or title. So, if you’re a leader, manager, agile practitioner, or even a professional agile coach, I am using this term generally.
The “Agile” Part of Agile Coaching
In any workplace, individual people will work with others, follow processes, and utilize various tools to get their work done. Let’s call this a “system of work.” The agile coach has the job of helping the people in this system to change the way they get their work done; to adopt better ways of working.
For any workplace adopting agile, there are associated frameworks, values, principles, processes, roles, patterns, tools, practices, ceremonies, naming conventions, methods, models, etc. Agile practitioners and consultants need to not only have knowledge of these as part of their role but are also expected to have experience in actually doing them and implementing them into how people work.
Agile coaching is usually about implementing a practice and its associated processes. Sure, these are underpinned by agile values and principles, but the coach’s primary outcome is to enable the adoption of the new ways of working (processes), resulting in observable behavioral change.
Agile coaches need to understand the types of agile frameworks (collections of processes, roles, and associated artefacts) that apply to the size of the system of work they are coaching. I typically see three main sizes for systems of work that agile coaches operate in: team-level (small; up to 30 people), teams of teams (medium; 31 – 300 people), and large systems (301 – 1300 people).
Agile coaches should have experience doing a specific agile process (run a planning session or facilitate a retrospective) before they consider helping others adopt it. For example, before considering oneself an agile coach, an agile practitioner should have experience in executing (doing) all team-level agile practices using one or multiple frameworks for at least 12 months (with an experienced mentor). In other words, before you coach an agile practice, you need to have actually done it yourself. This applies to each size system of work; only coach that which you have done. If an agile coach has not personally done the practices they’re attempting to coach others to do, they come across as inauthentic and are usually met with skepticism. So, good agile coaches come with lots of experience; they’ve been there and done it; hence, they can coach it.
The “Coaching” Part of Agile Coaching
The type of coaching I’ve referred to so far is called “process” coaching. There’s another type of coaching that is part of the agile coach’s role: “professional” coaching. This type of coaching is required in situations when simply telling or showing people how to do agile won’t work. This usually occurs when people are resistant to the proposed changes or the coach needs to co-create the way of working with their clients. The International Coaching Federation describes professional coaching as
“partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
During a professional coaching conversation, the coach co-creates and inspires the client through deep listening and powerful questions. Note: professional coaching is not about giving advice (providing answers) on agile processes. Professional coaching is completely different to process coaching; almost the opposite, in fact. Process coaching gives answers on how to work, whereas professional coaching asks questions to understand why we work.
Although professional coaching has been included in some recent agile coaching competency frameworks, I would argue it does not naturally fit into a day-in-the-life of an agile coach, at least in the way it is taught as part of traditional certified professional coaching courses. A professional coach formalizes the coaching relationship (time, duration, often even the number of sessions) upfront when working with a client and does so in a structured, orderly format.
Rarely do agile coaches sit down deliberately and use a structured format when conducting “coaching” conversations. And rarely would an agile coach conduct a considered and structured deep coaching conversation on the reasons why their clients work the way they do (which is how professional coaching is conducted). Of course, some of this type of coaching does happen, but it is not the norm. Despite professional coaching not fitting neatly into an agile coach’s day, there are certain elements from professional coaching (listening, use of questions, silence) that are vital to becoming a great agile coach. Agile coaches need professional coaching capabilities but do not use them in the way they are currently taught. So how do the ‘agile’ and ‘coaching’ parts come together to help with the adoption of new ways to work; let me propose a model. This model is based on 15 years of work from Otto Scharmer and his work on Theory U with the Precensing Institute; I’ve simply adapted it to agile coaching.
Responsive Agile Coaching – a pathway model
If we consider the ‘agile’ and the ‘coaching’ parts of agile coaching separately what we see are almost two almost opposing types of conversations having to come together; one that is direct (tells people what to do) and the other indirect (help people find their own answers). The Responsive Agile Coaching model was designed to provide agile coaches with an approach to conducting conversations that could on the one hand be direct (telling the client what to do) whilst on the other hand may need to provide an alternate pathway for the conversation to address deeper topics.
One way to think about these coaching conversation pathways is agile instruction or teaching of new processes is ‘above the water line’ whereas the coaching aspect deals with values and attitudes and identity that would be considered ‘below the waterline’.
Responsiveness simply means the coach’s ability to choose which type of conversation is most appropriate for a given situation. The agile coach chooses which pathway best serves the client whilst avoiding being reactive.
The Responsive Agile Coaching model – a short summary
The Responsive Agile Coaching model is a flow-based approach to conducting agile coaching conversations. The model is made up of four moves, which help visualise the dynamic flow of an agile coaching conversation. I’ve used the word “moves” on purpose because each one involves two steps; actions where the coach does something.
Moves are not static but collectively combine to form the flow of an agile coaching conversation; here are the four moves:
1. Sense then Respond to what the client needs.
2. Tell or Show clients how to apply agile.
3. Open and Hold the space for deeper conversations.
4. Await then Co-create new ways of working.
The last element of the model is an end point, which is made up of a single step—to Embedthe change as a better way to work.
The four moves together with the two conversation pathways help agile coaches navigate conversations to the end point. In the “across” pathway, the coach will Tell or Show the client how to do agile. The “down” pathway involves deeper conversations where the coach will Open and Hold the space to support clients to enter into a dialogue with the coach. Once in the Open and Hold move, the coach will then Await for emerging ideas before moving to Co-create the new ways of working with the client. Prior to choosing a pathway, the agile coach Senses there is a coaching moment, considers what will best serve the client and the situation, and then Responds accordingly.
Here’s an illustration of the model to get us started
Let’s go through each move and provide you with some more detail.
Overview of each move
Sense then Respond
Agile coaching conversations are preceded by a series of events and activities involving the coach becoming aware that they are “on” and it is time for them to do their job as a coach. The coach is sensing the environment, looking for signals, or simply waiting to be asked for help; once this happens and an opportunity presents itself, a response may be required.
It is this ability to respond and not react that is central to the Responsive Agile Coaching model. To not act out of habit but consciously choose what to do (or not do) when called upon to help is the sign that responsive agile coaching is taking place. As you can see in the model, the Sense then Respond move finishes at a moment of choice: the responsive moment.
The Responsive Moment
After Sensing we can Respond with an agile coaching conversation that follows one of two pathways represented by the two moves: “Tell or Show” or “Open and Hold.” This is where the ability to respond comes from in the model—choosing which pathway best serves the client and the circumstance.
This is a critical moment that matters for the subsequent agile coaching conversation. A lot of coaches miss this moment; they fail to see it as an opportunity to intentionally guide the conversation along a pathway most suitable for the situation.
Knowing that this moment actually exists is the first step for most coaches. I encourage agile coaches to start to notice this moment. Often just being on the lookout for this responsive moment is enough to completely shift how an agile coach delivers coaching to clients.
This ability to respond to client problems in real time is central and critical to the Responsive Agile Coaching model. In order to build your ability to be responsive in the moment, there’s usually an amount of unlearning to do. Reacting habitually is the biggest barrier to developing this capability.
Let’s now examine each of the pathways and the associated moves.
Tell or Show (across pathway)
Telling or showing a client what to do is the typical move in agile coaching. This represents the majority of agile coaching work I see being delivered in organizations, which is OK and is appropriate most of the time. I see the average agile coach habitually react by telling or showing their clients agile. The difference between typical and responsive agile coaching conversations is that in a responsive conversation the coach makes this move as a conscious choice and after consideration as to whether it best serves the client, the situation, and the organization.
You may have heard of the phrase “show me, help me, let me.” What this means is the agile coach initially shows the client how to do an agile practice, then partners with them, helps them do it, and finally lets the client perform the practice independently with the agile coach observing. The “Show” step of the Tell or Show is meant to be used like this; as part of teaching the client how to do agile practices through the coach demonstrating them first.
When an agile coach meets resistance to their solutions or they sense they need to co-create they way forward with the client then the Tell or Show move will not work. This is when a responsive agile coach will choose an alternate conversation pathway by making a different type of move.
Open and Hold (down pathway)
If the across pathway and the “Tell or Show” move are the norm for typical agile coaching conversations, then “Open and Hold” move and the down pathway can be considered the alternative or atypical. The “Open” step in this move of the model indicates an opening up of the conversation so it can go deeper than simply telling or showing clients what to do. Coaches using this step of the model need to be able to talk with an open mind (put their opinions aside) and deal with their own emotions in order to make room for what the client thinks and feels.
Once the coach has opened up the conversation, they then “hold the space.” Hold means not talking over the client, not giving opinions, and not judging what the client is sharing. By holding back your “stuff,” it allows the client to express their thoughts and feelings without fear (of judgement). The coach holding back allows room for the client’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions; this supports co-creation of the new, better way of working.
How do coaches start the co-creation process with a client; they await for it.
Await then Co-create
If required, an agile coaching conversation can go deep into the why behind the how of agile. In this move the coach slows the conversation down, uses silence, and asks questions of the client that provoke introspection and reflection. In the Await step, the coach, after asking the right question, is quiet and waits for what emerges from the silence. What usually emerges are signs and signals that the client is ready and willing to start co-creating a better way of working with the coach.
It is amazing just how clients respond when they realize you’re not telling them what to do but want to work with them to Co-create the solution together. I think this is so surprising for clients because it is uncommon for people to do this in the modern workplace. Everyone seems to want their idea or opinion recognized as the answer; people want to take credit for the solution and boost their standing in the organization. So, when a coach comes to them, offering to co-create the answer, it can take clients by surprise.
Co-creating is iterative and should start with small changes, experiments in what the way of working could become. Don’t be afraid to simply brainstorm what the new way to work may look like with the client; no need to overcomplicate this step.
All moves in the Responsive Agile Coaching model finish with a final step: Embed. Regardless of the preceding coaching activity, an agile coach should embed the change so that it “sticks.” When the coach finishes working with a client, the best result is that the system of work keeps learning and improving on its own. That’s the goal of Embed irrespective of whether the coach has utilized the across or down pathway.
Conclusion and final words
I took the time to document this model after years of doing it. Following a few heated exchanges in online forums about agile coaching I decided to stop arguing and put my thoughts down and into a book on the topic. What you’ve read are some extracts from this book titled Responsive Agile Coaching – how to accelerate your coaching outcomes using meaningful conversations. You can learn more about the book on this dedicated website that contains explanatory videos and more; www.responsiveagilecoaching.com.
My aim is to offer an agnostic, independent approach to developing your agile coaching capability no matter what your level of agile knowledge. Whether you have two months or two decades of experience this model allows you to start with what you know and help others learn with you.