What does an Agile Coach Do?


The term agile coach is as misunderstood as the role of Scrum Master… Probably much more so! with titles such as Team coach, Enterprise coach and Lead agile coach to name just a few further complicating this space.

An agile coach is not a higher ranked Scrum Master! nor a lead/chief Scrum master or a Scrum Master that can work with both Scrum and Kanban teams! All of which I've seen.

Agile coaches are vehicles through which organisations learn about themselves and how to be agile. They open people’s minds to possibilities giving organisations the ability to adapt and above all to become true learning organisations.

It's dangerous to try and list what activities they assume.. But it's likely to include :-  

  • Coaching teams, individuals,  customers, stakeholders, management, leadership…. In fact anyone and everyone! 

  • Helping others to understand the benefits of being agile and not just doing agile  

  • Training individuals and groups  

  • Facilitating workshops

  • Building and maintaining relationships with everyone! 

To be really successful an agile coach will need to actually coach…. Not just inwards within teams but outwards working in all directions. Many of the forces that determine success at the system level are usually outside of the remit of individual teams. Indeed very often local optimisations made at team level can and do de-optimise the system as whole! An agile coach needs to be able to work with all parts and levels of the organisation.  The success of an organisation is not decided by how well everyone does their job in isolation but rather how well individuals and more importantly teams work together, remember organisations can and do fail despite everyone doing their job as well as they can!

The agile coach needs to be invited to work with senior management and leaders to help facilitate the exploration of the organisation and help identify the system's primary objectives, developing new ways of thinking and working. Often answers will exist within the client’s organisation, It’s not new ideas which are required but better ways of discovering and implementing these ideas.

There’s a very long list of characteristics that make for a great Agile Coach, here are just a few that I'd pick :-     

  • People Skills: They need to be prepared to work with a wide range of people from different backgrounds  
  • Emotional Intelligence: Social and listening skills – Ability to read individuals and rooms of people – to be able to open people’s minds to new ideas 
  • Patience: When they ask a question they wait for the answer – Leaving a gap or silence allows the other person to formulate their thoughts. 
  • Non-judgmental: Doesn’t judge quickly or harshly, They listen and offer advice for moving forward not criticism for the past 
  • Disruptive: Dares to challenge the status quo, plays the court jester! Encourages people to question why! 
  • Visual (Spatial) : They like to visualise systems, problems and create shared contextual understandings 
  • Flexibility: They must not be rigid or prescriptive in their approach – Instead they employ an outcome driven strategy  
  • Humility: They realise they don’t know everything and don’t have all the answers 

If after reading all you this you still want an agile coach I'd make the following recommendations....

  • There are so many ways to define what an agile coach does….. So it’s important to be clear about the type of help required before going out and hiring one!
  • Don't make this a full time job 
  • Don't make this is a permanent role! True coaching while inside the hierarchical organisational structure is really, really difficult, once you're part of the system you become influenced by it. It’s not impossible to coach from the inside, just a lot more difficult!