Which Competencies Should an Agile Coach Have?

In Agile transformations, the role of an Agile coach is often misunderstood. Many focus on processes and frameworks, neglecting the human aspects such as trust, relationships, culture, and psychodynamics. This post explores the key competencies an Agile coach should possess, emphasising the importance of acting more like psychologists, anthropologists, or sociologists rather than engineers. By balancing knowledge of Agile frameworks with an understanding of human dynamics, Agile coaches can empower individuals and teams to take ownership of their Agile journey and ensure sustainable, meaningful transformations.
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In recent discussions about Agile transformations, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of competent Agile coaching. However, the role of an Agile coach is often misunderstood. Many Agile coaches focus heavily on processes and frameworks (the right side of the Agile Manifesto) and less on the human aspects, such as trust, relationships, culture, and psychodynamics (the left side of the Agile Manifesto). This post aims to clarify the key competencies an Agile coach should have, highlighting that they should rather act more like psychologists, anthropologists, or sociologists than engineers.

The Dual Nature of Agile Coaching

Agile coaching is the art of helping people see reality through Agile and Lean perspectives, changing their paradigms, habits, and roles accordingly so they can provide business value early and often. This requires a balance between two domains: agility and psychodynamics. Being skilled in only one of these domains is not sufficient. Here, we will focus on psychodynamics, which is crucial for enabling people to embark on their Agile journey independently.

The Coaching Stance

A strong way of enabling human beings to grow and succeed is systemic coaching, which involves a high degree of self-awareness and a balanced style, in many ways akin to a game master. As a systemic coach, you will help people explore their situation, reflect, and see new opportunities through conversations where you on one side:

  • Steer and coordinate: Guide the conversation with the coachee and pursue jointly defined objectives.

And on the other side, you are providing neutrality by:

  • Being curious and non-judging: Develop the coachee’s understanding through active listening and open-ended questions.
  • Foster reflection: Help unlock the coachee’s potential and provide suggestions as hypotheses, not directives.

There are various techniques to do this, which we cover in our Agile coaching training. However, no matter how fundamental systemic coaching competencies are for an Agile coach, you must also have other strings to play due to your role as a subject matter expert in Agile. This is what we are going to explore next.

The Agile Coaching Dance

Using systemic or pure coaching as your basis, an Agile coach should seamlessly switch between different stances based on the coachee’s needs. An Agile coach should with high awareness and deliberate intent switch between the following stances:

  • Teaching: Used when the coachee lacks knowledge about a subject. Here you explain concepts, verify understanding, and answer questions. Once you have shared the knowledge, return to the pure coaching stance and ask the coachee how they will apply this new knowledge in their work.
  • Mentoring: Used when the coachee has limited experience with a matter. Here you demonstrate and share your experiences and anecdotes. Collaborate with the coachee to ensure she gains personal experience. Once done, return to the pure coaching stance and discuss how the coachee can apply this experience in the future.
  • Advising: Used when your expertise is required. Here you provide multiple options with pros and cons based on your extensive experiences. Be aware that you do not fully know the context of the coachee, so offer your advice as an option and use the pure coaching stance to address what the coachee will do in her situation.
  • Facilitating: Used when you help a team or group reach consensus or make decisions. As a facilitator, you provide a structured environment for participants to share perspectives and reach an agreement. Apply neutrality, stand in the storm, and ensure each person has their chance to contribute and have a say in the matter.

Remember, pure coaching should be your default stance. Here you listen and observe attentively, mirror back what you hear and see, question assumptions, and challenge ideas. You help coachees create and own their solutions because, in the end, they know their situation better than you. Your balance is important, as we will further elaborate on.

Balancing Framework Knowledge with Human Nature

It is beyond doubt that an Agile coach must be well-versed in Agile frameworks to be adept at helping people implement them. However, it is equally, if not more, important for a coach to understand human nature.

Human beings are not machines and we rarely act 100% rationally. We all have our personal dreams, hopes, fears, and failures. The late Ralph Stacey would say that we all act according to personal intentions and we constantly negotiate values with each other. Organisational dynamics are the consequences of the interplay of personal intentions among its members rather than the plans and strategies laid out by managers or Agile coaches. If you want to succeed with Agile, there is no way around understanding psychodynamics and enabling individuals to become Agile by their own means. As an Agile coach, you must ensure that the transformation is sustainable, deeply rooted in the organisation and team’s culture, and helps things make sense for them. Knowing the frameworks is crucial, but understanding and working with human dynamics is what truly makes an Agile transformation successful.

Humble Inquiry as a Key Trait of Agile Coaches

David Rock discusses Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF) as key activators of either threat or reward feelings. They are activated by the limbic system, deep inside your brain. Acting as an Agile coach, you need to access all of them; however, status is most likely the one that needs a little more attention than the others.

Status stands out because it is our feeling of status that defines our well-being and how long we live. We define ourselves relative to anyone else and we live in the narratives we have about each other. When insecure, we might boost our personal status by being related to (or following) a certain thought leader or politician. In many ways, populism comes out of that. Acting as an Agile coach, you will eventually come into a situation where you jeopardise someone’s status. It could be the lead developer, the architect, the manager, the HR partner, or somebody else. Here, your behaviour becomes extremely important. By applying a humble approach, knowing that despite your extensive experience you do not know the full situation, you do not fully understand the intentions of the coachee, and the feeling of status is important, you can rather give the coachee options for acting than instructing them. This does not mean that anything goes – use your knowledge, but apply it in a respectful manner. That will give you a partner rather than an opponent. Applying systemic coaching techniques is a good way of ensuring humble inquiry, as I have described in a previous blog post.

Conclusion

In summary, an effective Agile coach must strike a delicate balance between being knowledgeable in Agile frameworks and understanding human dynamics. While mastery of frameworks is essential, the true success of Agile transformations lies in the coach’s ability to understand and work with the complex, often irrational nature of human beings. By adopting stances such as teaching, mentoring, advising, facilitating, and, most importantly, coaching, an Agile coach can empower individuals and teams to take ownership of their Agile journey. Furthermore, embracing a humble approach and understanding the importance of status, as outlined in the SCARF model, will help build trust and foster collaborative relationships. Ultimately, an Agile coach should act as a guide, helping others unlock their potential and navigate the path to becoming truly Agile by their own means.

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Agile versus Systemic Coaching

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Which Competencies Should an Agile Coach Have?

In Agile transformations, the role of an Agile coach is often misunderstood. Many focus on processes and frameworks, neglecting the human aspects such as trust, relationships, culture, and psychodynamics. This post explores the key competencies an Agile coach should possess, emphasising the importance of acting more like psychologists, anthropologists, or sociologists rather than engineers. By balancing knowledge of Agile frameworks with an understanding of human dynamics, Agile coaches can empower individuals and teams to take ownership of their Agile journey and ensure sustainable, meaningful transformations.

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Asking the right questions is a challenging task, especially when you do not want to impose your own opinion on the person or team you are coaching. In this fifth and final blog post about Systemic coaching we will explore the four question types of Karl Tomm.

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