What is an Agile Coach, really?

There are a lot of people out there calling themselves “Agile Coach”. I’m one of them as well. But what are we exactly? What is our role in an organisation? What value do we bring each day we work with software teams?

Well, googling brings no further: an Agile coach is, for some, a facilitator/mentor, for others is characterised by a broad range of contribution brought in a team, for others still the coach has motivational, consultative and educational roles.

Then is a Coach a Trainer? A Mentor? A Motivator? Then if a Coach is a Trainer, why not call her/him simply Trainer then? Hmmm… A better definition is needed…

Let’s get in a concept coming from the Solution-Focused coaching: there the coach asks open-ended questions, without adding any new information. The coach is responsible for controlling the process, i.e. asking the right questions and making sure the client is in the “flow”. The client instead is providing all the content. The more the coach keeps control of the process and restrains herself from providing content in the discussion, the most effective she will be. The beauty of this definition is that it distinguishes coaching very clearly from training – where providing content is the goal – and Mentoring – that is a one-to-one work where a Mentor supports her Client providing her experience in the field.

Using the previous definition of Coach, an Agile Coach is a lot more than just a Coach.

Here is a short catalogue of what an Agile Coach should be:


1. A Consultant provides ideas, suggestions, hints to a Client. Whether the Client uses these ideas is her decision.


Trainer

2. A Trainer, explaining the content of the various methods, be there Extreme Programming techniques or Lean principles. The silent assumption here is the Client is less knowledgeable in what she is being trained in and she will have to re-elaborate the material through a practical experience.


3. A Mentor, providing a one-to-one support to the Client in implementing the techniques learned through a training. This is the phase where theory and practice are being bridged through the real life experience of the Mentor.


Coaching

 

4. A Coach, content-free, opening new options and solving the blocks the Client (be it an individual or a team) has. This means driving the Client through a discovering process where she will find new options to deal with old problems.


5. A Mediator/Facilitator, capable of supporting the team in self-organising in a productive way. Also in this case not adding content, but driving the process in a productive direction.


6. An Evangelist and a Motivator. While this might seem a more “marketing” role for the Agile Coach, it is also a vital aspect in being perceived congruent and authentic: Agile Coaches are change agents in an organisation that might not want to change, so being able to properly present Extreme Programming or Scrum or Lean and motivate the people when changing gets tough is a key characteristic.


I’m sure there are more possible roles depending on the personality and the experience of each of us. The roles and their mix in an Agile Coach define the unique characteristic of each coach and, in the end, her/his capability of interacting with various types of teams and environments. However these roles require different skills and different techniques. In some cases they might even seem conflicting in the eyes of our Clients:

The Client expects… The Agile Coach…
An answer to a problem Decides it is better to Coach, so the Client has a chance of learning through the process of discovering the answer
A one-to-one mentoring discussion to validate her experience Realises the Client needs possibly some more theory and decides to train the Client instead

It is vitally important to keep these roles well distinct and mark them clearly when dealing with the Client. In a way, we should make clear to our customers what hat we wear at any time during our work.

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