What Is a True Agile Coach?

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A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work closely with Craig Larman. I consider Craig not only a great coach but a teacher and facilitator. Craig has gone through the rigorous process of becoming a professional coach. However, most ScrumMasters and agile coaches are not so lucky. They are either “promoted” by their organizations or sometimes self-promoted; this results in coaches that lack skills.

Most of the Scrum and agile certifications available are given to professionals who can demonstrate that they are able to practice daily standups, anchor showcases, and facilitate retrospectives. Obtaining these certifications typically does not require that a person learn the fundamental differences between coaching, facilitation, and mentoring. This lack of understanding is reducing the quality of coaching to our customers.

So, what defines coaching and facilitation?

I like these simple definitions from Changeworks:

Coaching is about helping you uncover and develop the skills, attributes, and talents you already have. The main coaching tool I use is listening and questioning, you already have the answers; we just need to ask the right questions!

Facilitation has its origins in the French word ‘facile’ = easy. It’s about making the process of a team or group coming together to achieve an outcome as easy as possible.

As you can see, coaching requires people to be involved in the project’s process more deeply; they need to have real skin in the game. A project’s outcome is driven by coaches, and many decisions are led by coaches.

Keep in mind, however, that while coaches can suggest a new process or change an existing one, the role of a facilitator is important. The facilitator engages the team in the right conversation, and from that the team makes their decisions.

good definition and analogy about facilitation can be found on this LinkedIn discussion post:

Imagine that you are a midwife; you are assisting at someone's birth. Do good without show or fuss. Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening. If you must take the lead, lead so that the mother is helped, yet still free and in charge.

When the baby is born, the mother will rightly say: "It's my baby!"

Coaching involves a combination of facilitation, mentoring, coaching, and training as well. An agile coach might facilitate a daily standup, retrospective, and a showcase on one day; the next day, he might get involved in strategically coaching the leadership team by suggesting changes, identifying the resistance areas, and finding solutions.

Remember that new members need training as well. A long-term coaching plan needs to focus on relationship building, and that includes mentoring.

Now tell me—do you have opportunity to do real coaching or are you just facilitating a few workshops in the guise of coaching?

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Venkatesh Krishnamurthy

Venkatesh Krishnamurthy is an author, speaker and a coach. In his 15+ years of career in the software industry, he has played different roles as a developer, architect and an Agile coach.