Tech Talk: Agile Coaching with Lyssa Adkins

Feb 02, 2016

In this month’s Tech Talk, we talked with Lyssa Adkins, professional Agile coach and President of the Agile Coaching Institute, on the value of Agile coaching.

Is Agile coaching only for teams in transition? If not, what value does an Agile coach bring to a team after their transition to Agile?

If the average person in a corporation were really good at human relationships, we probably wouldn't need coaches. It's my hope that in some distant future we will start teaching our children how to collaborate with one another, we will start teaching them how to work with each other and with conflict in a constructive way. And when that happens then I don't think we'll need coaches to help teams interact with one another. I don't think that's gonna happen in my lifetime.

So Agile coaching is, in a certain way, the excuse the modern world is giving us for getting good at collaborating as a team. Agile is the thing that helps us get started actually working together as teams and then we find out that there are all kinds of other deficiencies to pay attention to. So for teams that collaborate really well, a coach might need to just touch in and nudge them toward the higher end of team performance. For most teams that don’t have those capabilities, having a Scrum master or Kanban coach on the ground to work with them, right there in the moment when they need it, I think that's going to be around a lot longer than just getting people to use a storyboard or switch out the process piece.

Is it possible for an Agile engineer or other members of an Agile team to fill the role of Agile coach?

It's totally possible for anyone with any background to fill the role of Agile coach. The primary qualifier for someone who wants to become an Agile coach is - do they know and love Agile, do they want to help people use it well, and do they love people? Do they want to see the best come out of people? Now, if you're talking about someone being an engineer, ScrumMaster, Agile coach, AND something else, then that becomes problematic. That basically means that for each one of those jobs, all of which take time, at least one of them is not going to get done fully.

What hard and soft skills are essential as an Agile coach?

So first, let me just say, that the label soft skills is a little bit of a misnomer because those are actually the hard things. What we think about as soft skills are human interaction skills - for example, how to facilitate groups to help them move toward a decision that they're all proud of - that’s a soft skill. That’s actually a pretty hard thing.

How to help someone confront the resistance they feel when Agile comes into the environment and their identity is threatened. So the skill you use there is professional coaching, and that's a pretty hard thing to learn how to do well. So far we have two skills on the table: facilitation and professional coaching. The way the industry thinks about hard and soft skills, those would be classified as soft skills and they’re absolutely critical.

The hard skill in the Agile context is your knowledge of Agile, and Lean, and how those are applied to real work environments, and, to some extent, to the area you specialize in - which, for most Agile coaches, it’s either a technical specialty or a business specialty, like helping the business side of an organization use Agile well. Or, the third one, a transformation specialty - helping the whole organization come to grips with the fact that Agile is kind of a Trojan horse; it comes in the door as a process change, but what it actually unleashes is a cultural change. , What we see in the Agile coaches we coach, and in the ones in the industry in general, is that, without realizing it, most coaches will specialize in one of those three areas - technical, business or transformation - and that’s their “hard” knowledge.

I think two other skills, that I’m not sure I would classify as either hard or soft, are teaching and mentoring. Learning how to teach adults, learning how to chunk up what you want to convey to them in a way that they can metabolize it, so it doesn’t overwhelm them in an already overwhelming day. That’s an important skill to develop. Learning how to mentor people so that the advice you offer takes them somewhere, to a new idea for themselves. That’s a skill, too. Otherwise, all we’re doing is is talking-talking-talking-talking-talking and running over people, not knowing whether or not what we're offering is actually useful to them. Summing it up, we have 4 skill areas: teaching, mentoring, professional coaching and facilitation. And we have knowledge areas: general Agile-Lean knowledge (and on-the-ground practice) and a specialty in the technical, business or transformation aspect of agile.

Almost sounds like you need a Masters in Psychology or Counseling to become an Agile coach.

Probably not, because we certainly don’t deal with the really hard topics that counselors and therapists deal with.

Yeah, but most of those programs are really practicing talking to people and getting them to follow your advice.

We’ve trained over 3,500 Agile coaches at this point, all over the world. And the story today is very much like the story five years ago, which is “I can’t get them to get it”, or some version of “ why can’t they get it”. And to some extent, people need information to know what this new Agile way of working is, and that’s cool. But to a larger extent, you’re dealing with the fact that Agile creates an identity crisis for a lot of people, and you’re right - that’s very vulnerable conversation territory. So a lot of successful Agile coaches have the emotional intelligence and the self-leadership - the ability to manage their own reactions - so they can hold the emotional content of someone significantly confronted and help them through that versus freaking out with them or versus meeting their resistance with resistance. So it’s wildly fulfilling terrain to work with someone like that, to see someone figure out how to work in this new world because Agile, the way I think about it, is an emergent response to a more complex era that we’re all in. The complexity is not going away. We might morph and change Agile, we might think we’re smarter than the originators of various frameworks and we might tweak them. But fundamentally what we’re really dealing with is the fact that human beings are asked to deal with an unprecedented level of ambiguity and confusion and not having the easy a black-and-white answer can be really hard for us.

How can a team determine if an Agile coach will be beneficial to them?

Well, I would first bring the team’s attention to their results. Are they developing products that people are wildly enthusiastic about? Are they doing that in a way that benefits their organization’s goals? If they aren’t, they can use an Agile coach! The whole purpose of Agile is to develop products that change the game, that do something in the world. Most teams I know aren’t meeting that bar.

What are the top 2 biggest mistakes you've seen Agile coaches make?

It’s kind of one of those situations with two sides of the same coin. I’ve seen Agile coaches that misunderstand what self-organization means. They think that self-organization means that people can decide to do whatever they want. And I can see where people get that, because it’s confusing - Agile’s confusing! Because Agile frameworks are meant to be adapted.

So there’s that flexibility there, but we can easily take that a little bit too far into not giving team members enough of the necessary structure to be successful. In nature, self-organization happens only in the presence of constraints - a reason to self-organize, some essential rules around which we organize. The Agile frameworks themselves - Scrum, the Lean framework, Kanban - they provide those sorts of constraints. Not too much, not too little. So a really common mistake is for Agile coaches to think, “Oh, well, since the frameworks are adaptable, it seems they can just adapt them anyway they need to.” And what usually ends up happening is that team members end up accommodating their organization’s dysfunctions, which is exactly the opposite of what Agile is trying to do. Agile’s whole job is to reveal those organizational dysfunctions, and serve them up in front of us and say, “OK, what do you want to do about this? Do you want to tolerate this, or do you want to change it so we can get more of a healthy product flow in the organization?” So assuming that the team is more mature than they are, assuming that they actually understand the practices well enough to change them safely, can be a big mistake.

Now, on the other hand, there are teams that do the practices well. Let’s say they’re doing Scrum - they do the whole framework well, and they’re producing products. They’re doing the things that Scrum would have them do. And they come to the same Agile coach and say, “We want to change the way we do stand-up. We think we’re not holding one another accountable enough because we’re letting each other slide, and that means that some of our stories aren’t getting done.” So, on the other side of the coin, the mistake that Agile coach makes is saying, “No, no, no - the Scrum Guide says there has to be three questions, we have to go one-by-one…” Because, after a while, these practices don’t work as well. Perhaps the team needs something different. In that case, the coach needs to know how to help the team to safely break the rules. And how we safely break the rules is that we change the practice, but we keep the underlying principles, or values that practice was trying to give us, intact. So how you safely break the rules is that you help the team figure out what their new practice is going to be, and that new practice still expresses the principles and values that original practice was trying to give us. Here’s why: Agile frameworks are not some random a collection of good ideas. It’s a skeleton that hangs together. If you take a bone out of the skeleton, it’ll stop walking! So that’s the deal - either keeping the team too long in a basic level, kind of infantilizing them or coddling them too much, keeping them from growing, really; and on the other hand, turning them too loose too fast.

To learn more about Lyssa, the Agile Coaching Institute, and the pathway to become a truly skilled Agile coach, you can visit her website here. Interested in learning how to grow your Agile tech team? Learn about Stride’s services here.

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