Tag Archives: Coaching

ScrumMaster? Coach? Agile Coach? The needs of the team and work define the role.

No matter the name, the  intention of the role is to help teams learn new skills, continuously improve, and make the transition to a new way of working.

Some people say it’s a technical role, others claim that the role is primarily facilitation. I say, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to hiring an agile coach or ScrumMaster.

Understand the Needs of Each Team

Every agile team is alike in some ways and different in others. Agile teams are alike in that they strive to work cross-functionally to deliver working software. Most of them work in iterations. But from there, differences abound. Some teams need to learn solid engineering practices. Others need help with a specific skill such as automated unit testing. Still others need coaching to become a functioning team. Many need help making the mental shift to working in feature-slices that fit into sort iterations.

If your company is just starting out with agile methods, you may not know yet what teams need. Rather than hire a generic coach who may or may not fit the needs of the team, look to an expert help you. “Help” doesn’t have to be a prolonged and expensive contract. It can be a short assessment to gauge the areas where teams need support to make a successful transition to a different way of working.

Consider the Qualities, Preferences, and Style for the Role

What exactly are you looking for in an agile coach? Understanding of the agile method you are using is obvious. What about the personal qualities, preferences and other skills needed for the role? I’ve worked with teams that needed a field marshal personality–someone who won’t be cowed by the alpha-geeks on the team. And I’ve worked with teams where a subtle touch was all that was needed, and the only thing that would have worked.

When you consider the qualities, think about disqualifies, too. I would disqualify someone who believed that there must be no deviation from canonical sources on agile methods. People are more like to accept a change when they have a hand in shaping it. So allow for shaping, but hire someone who can keep an eye on the why. That way, the team will retain the intent and essence of a practice as they adapt it to fit their unique circumstances.

I would also disqualify the coaches who have only one style, or have faulty ideas about coaching and change processes. One self-proclaimed coach bragged about making people cry in his prior assignment. Cross that one off!

Put the Two Together

Once you’ve considered what the team needs, you’ll have a list of technical skills, agile method knowledge, collaboration skills, and qualities. You will not find the ideal candidate. So note which ones are required, which are desirable and which ones are will definitely disqualify a candidate.

Consider the interactions, responsibilities and deliverables. These factors highlight the primary relationships, expectations, and integrating aspects of the role.

Consider using a role analysis such as the one I did for a ScrumMaster/Agile coach role.

Treat this Like Any Other Job Opening

Whether your are seeking internal or external candidates, treat this as any job opening. Create a job description, screen the candidates, use behavioral interview questions and auditions to find the best-fit candidates.

When you find a candidate who has the skills, desire and potential to fill a servant leader role, make sure that the organizational incentives are aligned to support the new role rather than holding the old behavioral patterns in place.

Changing a Title is Not Sufficient

Some managers decide that changing a persons title from “project manager” to “coach”  is sufficient. It is not. Supporting a team and helping them up a learning curve requires a very different set of skills and preferences than those essential for project management.

Some project managers can make the transition. They understand how to create the enabling conditions for a team, how to set appropriate decisions boundaries, when to step back and when to step in. But even good candidates for the role will need role models, coaching and support to make the transition.

Don’t count on the unreliable “flip the title, flip the switch” method to fill the need for coaching new agile teams. Discern who has the potential to adapt to role that relies on personal effectiveness rather than positional authority.

Agile coach is a critical role and the person who fills it needs to be up to the job. A competent coach will help the team learn how to work cross-functionally, fit their work to short iterations, and help them avoid adapting their way back into waterfall.  A coach who is a good fit will have the specific skills and qualities to help a specific team. If you are serious about realizing the benefits of agile methods, be serious about filling the role of agile coach.

Entering Groups

Most of the time, people integrate into groups well enough that we don’t really notice how it happens.  But a recent rocky experience got me noticing.

Looking back over several teams I’ve observed and groups I’ve been part of, here are three (rather spectacular) examples of a newcomer failing to integrate.

***

A skilled XP programmer joined a group that was adopting agile engineering practices.  On his very first day as part of the team, he told his new team mates that they needed to start doing TDD, and gave them a lesson in refactoring.  Over the next several weeks, he found the opportunity to coach each member on his programming skills.

He was quickly ostracized.

***

A newcomer to a loosely organized professional group decided to join a two-day informal retreat organized by the group. The night before the retreat started, he announced to all within earshot that the group was highly dysfunction….and he was going to “fix” the group.

He started right in the next morning, issuing challenges and confronting people. When one of the organizers offered the newcomer feedback, the newcomer shouted at him.

It was later noted that that was the most dysfunctional event the group had experienced in their relatively long history.  The newcomer did not become an old hand–he was not invited back.

***

A new team member joined a distributed team that met face-to-face only twice a year.  The team arranged to hold one of their F2F meetings to coincide with the new member joining the group. The group hired a facilitator and worked with her to design an agenda that would share group history, revise working agreements to reflect the new group, and identify priorities for the year.

Without consulting anyone, the new member set up a meeting with representatives from a commercial product company. The new member announced he’d arranged a breakfast meeting prior to the main meeting to discuss the product and that five people from the product company would be present.

The “old” members declined the breakfast meeting. The group had been wrestling with the question of product endorsements and had decided, after much heated discussion, to remain neutral.  The newcomer felt the group was “resistant” to his ideas, and that set the pattern for his participation. At the  end of the year, he was asked to leave the group.

***

In each of these instances, the new group member wanted to contribute.  Why did their efforts backfire?

The new members failed to:

make contact and establish relationships before offering help and ideas.

understand the group, how the group viewed issues and develop empathy for their struggles.

orient to the group’s goal, history, and context and see how their ideas could fit in.

In contrast, when people enter groups successfully, they:

Get to know the other group members and become known by them.

Learn something of the group’s history and context.

Orient themselves to the goal, tasks, and priorities of the group.

Look for ways to contribute that line up with those goals and priorities.

People have different needs for affiliation and inclusion, which affect how they go about entering. But  you can’t skip these processes, if you hope to become part of the group.  And this is especially important if your views are divergent from the rest of the group.  Coming in loaded for bear won’t help you be effective. Showing empathy for the groups journey will.

Looking back on the three examples I described above, the result isn’t surprising.  However well-meaning the newcomers were, they failed to integrate into the group.

I suspect all three wanted to be helpful, and to do something meaningful for the group. I suspect they wanted to be valued by the group and were trying to prove their worth.

But without entering the group before they tried to turn it, their actions assured the opposite result.

 

Are You Ready to Coach?

Agile coaches are expected to help teams learn agile methods, engineering techniques, and improve the productivity of the teams they work with.  But before they can do they need to be ready to coach.  Being ready to coach means that you have coaching skills, relevant technical and process skills.

But the  foundational skill in coaching is skill in managing yourself.

Your attitude will contribute or detract from your ability to make contact, assess what coaching is needed, and actually help the client.   So,  before you begin, ask yourself a few questions.

Are you aware of your own emotional state? Manage your own emotions before you coach. Coach from a neutral, curious, and encouraging attitude. If you’re feeling angry or impatient, your emotions will leak into the coaching. Anger, frustration, or impatience won’t create a helpful interaction. Look inside to see where your emotions are coming from: Are you expecting an inexperienced person to perform as well as a master? What are your assumptions about what the other person should know or be able to do? Rather than blame the other person, reframe your judgment as “He doesn’t do that as well as I wish he did” or “She doesn’t know as much about this topic as I wish she did.” Shifting your attitude will make you a better coach.

Is coaching the best learning opportunity? When the team struggles and puts the team goal at risk, ask yourself: Where is the biggest opportunity for learning? Will the team learn most from making their own mistakes and learning from the consequences (That’s the beauty of short iterations—if the team misses a goal, the risk is limited by the length of the iteration) or will the team learn most if you coach them in a different direction?

Does the other person want coaching? Coaching always works better when the other person actually wants help. Try to wait for the person or team to come to you for help rather than immediately stepping in the moment you see trouble. Many people learn from solving problems on their own. That doesn’t mean you always have to wait until someone asks you for coaching. Coaching is part of your job, so you can always offer. But remember that it’s an offer—so ask before you inflict help. However, if you see a pattern emerging—a team member repeatedly refuses help when stuck—you have an opportunity to give feedback on how that pattern of behavior affects the team as a whole.

Does the other person want for coaching from you? Sometimes people want help, but they want it from someone else. Don’t take it personally if a team member would prefer to receive help from someone other than you. But again, look for patterns. If a team member is open to coaching from everyone but you, it’s a clue that the relationship may need repair.

Are you clear on the goal? If you aren’t clear on the desired outcome, you risk setting up a frustrating cycle called “bring me a rock.” “Bring me a rock” happens when success criteria are vague (or nonexistent). Here’s how it goes. You say, “Bring me a rock.” The other person goes off and finds a rock, and brings it back to show you. You look at the rock and realize it’s not the rock you had in mind. You hand the rock back and say, “Not that rock.” And the cycle begins again. The result is frustration and de-motivation—guaranteed! Of course, sometimes the goal isn’t known in detail. In that case, make it clear that the goal is to explore options and gain clarity.

Are you open to other approaches? You may have a very clear idea of how to accomplish the work or handle the interaction. But is it the only way? In most situations, there are many reasonable and acceptable paths to success. If you find yourself expecting things to be done a certain way, ask yourself if that way is simply your preference and not the only correct method. Help the person you are coaching think through different options and discuss the pros and cons of each approach. Then let the person choose the one that fits best for him or her. Team members gain capability when they develop based on their own thinking modes, strengths, and talents.

Are you ready to encourage rather than evaluate? Coaching is about helping another person develop skills and capabilities; it’s not a time for evaluation. Evaluation hinders coaching by creating a “one-up, one-down” dynamic. Most people have enough trouble asking for help in our culture without adding this burden. Stay away from comparative words such as good, better, worse, and bad. When you think the other person is headed down a rat hole, ask questions about risks and impacts rather than criticizing. Then help generate new ideas. Offer encouragement to let people know they are moving in the right direction.

When you can answer “Yes” to these questions, you’re ready to make contact.  And then you  can start to coach.

The Confusing Field of Coaching

I noticed at the recent agile conference that there were lots of people who billed themselves as agile coaches, and several sessions on coaching. Seemed like more of both than in past years.

I consider myself a coach, too, though not with a capital C.  I usually coach managers or teams, and sometimes coaches. Mostly, I’m a consultant and coaching is part of the work I do in that role.  But some people lay claim to “coach” as their job description.  And some of those people have training from a coaching school.

All this, and a little story my friend Johanna told about an experience she had with a coach got me thinking about the different sorts of problems people bring to coaches, and the confusion that results when the coach is a “coaching process” type coach, and the problem is a skills-based problem (which requires content knowledge, in addition to process knowledge). Or a problem that calls not only for a coaching model, and a bunch of other models.

Back when she had a corporate job, my friend Johanna Rothman had the opportunity to work with a coach on a problem she was experiencing at work.  It must have been an enlightened work place, because they employed Johanna AND coaches, whom they dispatched when a manager needed a bit of help. Johanna’s hope was the the coach could help her with the specific problem, which she hadn’t been able to figure out on her own.

Johanna explained the problem to the coach.  The coach responded, “The answers are inside you.”

Johanna tried explaining the problem again.  The coach answered, “The answers are inside you.”

The answers were not inside Johanna (at that time…I bet they are now).  She needed specific information, direction and guidance to develop a new skill that would enable her to solve the problem.  The response Johanna received to the problem she described was woo woo nonsense. It was no help at all. The coach was trying to be helpful, I’m sure. And she was acting out of a coaching model, just not one that fit the situation.

The Range of Coaching Practice

If we’re talking about a skill—whether it’s TDD, interpersonal feedback, or object oriented design, influencing change across the organization—the answer is not inside you.  If you are shifting from a serial mental model of software development to a iterative/incremental mental model of software development, the answer is not inside you.  Willingness to learn is inside you. The desire to maintain a good working relationships is inside you.  The yearning for pride in work is inside you. The desire to see the organization improve is inside you.

The specific skill is not.

You need teaching, training, and  direction, along with coaching and feedback. A coach in this situations needs to have task-specific (content) knowledge, in addition to coaching skills. And those coaching skills are likely different from the skills a life coach or goal coach brings to the table—unless they worked in the content field prior to studying a coach curriculum or taking up the coach label.

Life coaching—finding the answer in side you— is useful when you have a life problem; when you need a skill, you need  skill coaching

Another friend, Don Gray, recently helped three people understand how an interaction blew up. As they unwound personalities and communication styles, two of them heard some information their default preference didn’t deal (well) with.  He helped them recognize how their communication preference helped them, and hindered them. He helped them see additional options. To do this, he needed a coaching model(s), plus content knowledge on communication, human interaction, personality and cognition. Rare indeed.  The answers may have been inside these people, but it took more than a coaching model to bring them out.

And of course, some times the answers are inside us.

Satir coaching assumes that each of us has the resources to be be happy and successful as a human—but may not be using all our resources to their full potential.  Jerry Weinberg’s fab book, More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultants Tool Kit, is inspired by Satir’s self-esteem toolkit, and the book is tremendously helpful.  I’ve studied the Satir model for many years, it informs much of the work I do with individuals and groups (and certainly how I live my life).

Likewise, the Solution-focused Coaching model assumes that the person being coached has some experience solving the problem for which they have sought coaching.  This model assumes that the coachee has all the competencies needed to come to a solution.  I had a little experience of this at the previous Retrospective Faciliator’s Gathering in Tisvilde, Denmark.  Josef Scherer offered a session on Solution Focused Coaching, and since I a little stuck in my writing practice, I volunteered to be coached.  It helped me  a lot—the answer was inside me.  But this sort of coaching wouldn’t have helped if my problem was that I didn’t know how to structure a coherent sentence.

There are other Coaching models:  GROW, Achieve, and many more. More than you can shake a stick at (just google “coaching models”).

When someone is stuck, they may need a jiggle, in the form or a reframe, or a prompt to remember what they do know about solving the problem. When someone is struggling with an interpersonal issue or a life issue, they answer may lie within, and need a little help from inner resources to come out.

But sometimes, the person needs context, information, demonstration, a straight answer, or a skill.

Related:  A Coaching Toolkit

A Coaching Toolkit

As a coach, your job is not to solve or do—it’s to support other people as they develop skills and capabilities and as they solve problems on their own. When it comes to coaching, one size does not fit all. You need to have a variety of practices in your toolkit in order to approach each situation and individual differently. Here are some of the approaches I use when coaching other people.

Provide Context

Sometimes all a person needs is some context. Knowing how a specific task or skill fits into the work of the team or supports the product helps people make better decisions. And knowing the importance of an activity can motivate people to do tasks they don’t normally enjoy. For example, a person may not like test-first development when he first tries it, but when he understands how it contributes to clean code and good design, he may be more willing to stick with it.

Frame the Problem

Sometimes people need help framing the problem. When people are learning a new skill or a new way of thinking they don’t always have a clear understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve. Ask them questions to help them consider and verbalize different aspects of the problem—the what, where, when, who, and how. Having a clear problem statement is (at least) half the battle.

Generate More Options

In other cases, a team member may choose a solution that you know will not be effective. How do you help without being directive? Well, it helps to know that people always choose what they perceive to be the best option available. Always. The trouble is, sometimes people don’t have enough good options to choose from—the only options they can think of either won’t work or work only in the short term. To help them come up with a longer list of options, ask questions. These questions might include:

  • What other ways could we accomplish the same goal?
  • What would happen if we did this part differently?

Rather than reject an option (or worse, dismiss the person), walk through the option with him or her. Start by saying, “You could do that—and here are some of the risks I see.” Generate additional options together. You can offer the first option, then move to jointly generating alternatives. Between you, come up with at least three options. Having only two options is a dilemma; and it forces a choice between “your way” and “my way.”

Provide Real-Time Feedback

Many times, when performing a new skill, people need to hear some real-time feedback to get a feel for how what they are doing is affecting the project. Help them by offering course corrections and confirmation. Just remember that feedback is information that enables different choices; it’s not criticism or evaluation. Describe what you see or hear and state the impact.

Ask Questions

Sometimes people just get stuck. A few well-chosen questions can prompt new thinking. Here are some that work well for me:

  • If you did that, what would you gain? / If you did that, what would the collateral consequences be?
  • What are three things that could go wrong with that approach?
  • What else have you tried?
  • What are you hoping to accomplish?
  • Who else is affected by this?
  • Who else / what else will be affected by this solution?

Catch People Doing Something Right

You don’t have to wait until something is going wrong to provide coaching. Notice when people are performing a new skill correctly and comment on it. If the moment seems right, use the opportunity to explore the root causes of the success. When people know more about the steps and circumstances that lead to good results, they can consciously recreate them.

Demonstrate

Some individuals learn best by seeing it done. In those cases, demonstrating a new skill for them might be your best option. For example, you might teach about Test-Driven Design (TDD) by demonstrating with FitNesse. As you demonstrate ask if your pace is too slow, too fast, or just right. If you only ask if you’re going too fast, the other person may be embarrassed to admit he isn’t keeping up.

Review

Other people learn best by trying it themselves first and then reviewing it with the coach. Always start by stating what works and making global comments about the work product. Only then should you talk about the problems or issues. If there are classes of issues, discuss those rather than pointing out each instance of the problem.

Provide Information

Coaches are a source of information—and sometimes that’s all the other person needs. Depending on your own skill level, ask questions to understand the problem the person is trying to solve. After you understand the problem, offer examples of what has worked before or what factors they might want to consider. It’s common for people who are learning a new skill to think they need one thing when they really need another.

Bring In an Expert

No one expects you to have all the answers. So when you don’t have the answer, don’t hesitate to bring in another knowledgeable person. You’ll solve the problem sooner and model that it’s okay to ask for help.

Listen

One of the most powerful (and underutilized) coaching practices is listening. Being a sounding board as someone talks through a problem or proposed course of action lets the other person hear their own logic. And as people talk they often come up with new ideas or see weakness on their own. Listening also conveys that you are interested in them not just in showing off your expertise.

Coaches look for opportunities to help build skills and capabilities. The more coaching approaches you have available to you, the more opportunities you will see—and use.

This article originally appeared on scrumalliance.org.