Internal agile coaching evolved
In May 2021, I had the opportunity to share my ideas on internal Agile Coaching here on the blog. Almost two years later, I would now like to revisit the topic and report on how my thoughts on this topic have evolved.
In my post, I described three approaches to internal Agile Coaching and outlined my personal preference. These three approaches were:
- Undefined assignment: Agile Coaches are not fixed organisationally and work largely at their own discretion.
- Permanent assignment: Agile coaches are permanently assigned to specific organisational units (usually teams) and work with them on a permanent basis.
- Project model: Agile Coaches work with specific organisational units on a temporary basis and then move on.
In my view, these three approaches still represent the basic forms of cooperation available for Agile Coaching. I also continue to see the described advantages and disadvantages of these forms of collaboration.
In 2021 I argued for permanent assignment with periodic assignment clarification. From my point of view at the time, this was the best way to realise the advantages of a permanent assignment – the close proximity to the team and more knowledge about the existing background. At the same time, periodic assignment clarification should counteract operational blindness – the greatest disadvantage of permanent assignment.
Agreeing on development goals and intervention strategies
Over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to try out permanent assignment in practice.
One deployment took me to an environment with several cross-functional teams. Agile Coaches previously operated in this environment, and their mode can be described as a mixture of undefined and project-oriented. Many of my interviewees were very dissatisfied with the support they received.
They lacked the guidance to anchor the effect of initial impulses.
There was also the perception that coaches shirked responsibility for success by referring to their coaching attitude (“The client is the expert for the solution”).
Unsurprisingly, my approach of permanent support met with great response under these conditions.
So I followed my model and agreed on development goals and intervention strategies for the respective teams on the basis of my own observations and determined mission clarification.
The term “mission clarification” initially caused unexpected irritation. Apparently, this formulation was associated with “shirking responsibility”. It is nice when such disputes become opportunities to jointly benefit from experiences.
In the application of the approach, the hoped-for advantages became apparent. By clarifying the assignment, it was possible to show the teams’ and managers’ own responsibility and to counteract a delegation of improvement to me as the supposed expert. At the same time, in the concrete work I was able to build relationships with people in a targeted way and convey a feeling of “we are in the same boat”.
Interestingly, there was always the assumption in the teams that I would soon leave them and move on.
Some time later I got support from other Agile Coaches. I found it helpful to be able to offer a clear basis for a common way of working at this point with the model of permanent support with periodic mission clarification. I am also convinced that my model made it easier for my colleagues to get started. Furthermore, a common way of working facilitated exchange and mutual support.
While there is light…
It would of course be tempting now, based on these positive experiences, to consider this approach as optimal and stick with it. However, this does not work so easily in practice for three reasons:
1. first of all, permanent care is expensive. As a rule of thumb, it may be possible to deduce that an experienced Agile Coach can permanently supervise three, possibly four teams. And doing that well is demanding. If an organisation works with a larger number of teams, it also needs a correspondingly large team of Agile Coaches. These coaches are not easy to find at first. And building and leading such a team comes with its own challenges. With Agile Coaches in particular, there is a real danger of losing oneself in professional trench warfare and self-preoccupation.
Until an appropriately sized team of Agile Coaches is built, decisions have to be made about which teams will receive support and which will not. This decision is not easy. Especially when there is knowledge of problems in teams, this triage can be personally very stressful as it feels like withholding help from people in need.
2. In practice, it can be observed how working with teams over a longer period of time almost automatically leads to a loss of distance. Put simply: People grow on you. However, this also means that as a coach I see the world and especially the rest of the organisation through the eyes of the teams I work with. This bias affects my impartiality in relation to the organisation.
3. even if we succeed in building an effective team of Agile Coaches and coaching all the teams in the organisation, this does not ensure that the organisation as a whole will be more agile. In addition to the agility of individual teams and the interaction between the teams, numerous other factors are relevant. Working on different topics usually requires very different approaches and competences. Unfortunately, the coaches are already so busy with the teams that there is often no time for this work.
The evolution of internal Agile Coaching
The problems described may sound obvious, but I needed a trigger to notice them. The deteriorating economic situation was that trigger. This was accompanied by the realisation that it would not be possible in the foreseeable future to provide the desired coaching for all teams with the existing model. In addition, the workload of the existing coaches was already so high that even a change in the coaching ratio could not work. And since it was clear to me that I would not give up the claim of sustainable, effective Agile, the other basic forms of internal Agile Coaches were also out of the question due to their disadvantages.
It took quite a while to detach my perspective from the previous way of thinking and to open up to other concepts.
The decisive spark came from dealing with the cross-team, content-related focal points of the Agile Coaches team and the realisation that an inventory had to be taken before any meaningful intervention planning could take place. In order to manage this inventory with the available capacities and the quantity of teams, an efficient diagnostic format was needed. It turned out that such a diagnostic format not only helps to take stock of all teams, but can also serve as a basis for a systematic, request-independent clarification of the task.
With the help of this diagnostic tool, it is possible to look together with individual teams at different aspects of their way of working. And on this basis, it is possible to discuss which support is useful for which issues.
If the process of diagnosis is repeated regularly (and carried out competently), the result is a meaningful and comparatively lean grid that can be used to identify needs. In addition, the process helps to maintain contact between coaches and teams and to deepen the relationship building.
In addition, the standardised procedure makes it easier to switch between coaches. It is comparatively unproblematic that the diagnosis is carried out by one coach and the implementation of the resulting measures by another member of the Agile Coaches team. This flexibility also supports learning from each other.
In my opinion, the procedure described would not have been possible at the beginning of my assignment. The prerequisite for this form of diagnosis is that the coaches are known in the teams and that there is trust in the good intentions of the coaches.
In concrete terms, there is always a danger with formats of this kind that they are understood as a means for management to judge teams and impose sanctions depending on the results. Coaches must have the opportunity to demonstrate their independence in order not to be perceived as agents of supposedly dark intentions.
The further developed working mode represents an evolution of the permanent monitoring of 2021:
Permanent accompaniment with periodic needs clarification
- Teams continue to receive permanent support.
- Long-term connections are made that serve as the basis of an effective coaching relationship.
- Coaches are close enough to the teams to recognise and work on deeper patterns.
- Teams and their leaders can rely on getting support with their challenges. And this support is not only provided selectively, but in partnership until joint success is achieved.
- The basis of the cooperation is a periodically repeated diagnosis – together with the team.
- The type and intensity of support depends on the recognised areas of action.
- Through the more targeted use of resources, more teams can be supported.
And last but not least: there is no permanent right solution for the organisation of internal Agile Coaching. The approaches belong to be put to the test again and again; maybe I will write about new findings here in the blog again in 2025…
If you like the post or want to discuss it, feel free to share it with your network.
Peter Rubarth is very happy about any exchange of ideas. You are also welcome to talk to him about how he can support you in the topic of “Agile Potential Development”. Simply contact him on LinkedIn.
You can find the blog post from 2021 here:
Peter Rubarth is a Systemic Agile Coach and works as Senior Agile Coach for solarisBank AG. Great teams are his passion. For more than 14 years now, he has been helping teams and organisations find each other, remove obstacles and realise the full potential of agile concepts for themselves.