Internal Agile Coaching
The undefined, defined and permanent internal assignment of Agile Coaches
Agile working is a big topic 20 years after the publication of the Agile Manifesto and is likely to remain so for some time. Agile concepts emerged as a response to increasing complexity and the failure of established methods – first in software development and later beyond. These reasons are more relevant than ever, because even after two decades, the establishment of true agility still seems to be the exception rather than the rule. That is why Agile Coaching exists.
The job of Agile Coaches is, simply put, to help organisations apply agile concepts successfully. And most coaches understand “coaching” as an approach that is more about guiding the person seeking advice to find a solution than prescribing the solution.
Besides recruiting external Agile Coaches, many organisations nowadays decide to use internal Agile Coaches. In my practice, I have learned about and applied some typical models for the use of internal coaches.In this article, I would like to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of these models and make suggestions for integrating the approaches.
Three models for internal Agile Coaching
In my consideration, I am talking about Agile Coaches at the divisional or team level and not about Enterprise Agile Coaches, who – based at the company management – have agility in mind at the overall company level. Agile coaches at divisional or team level are concerned with introducing or enhancing agile ways of working in one or more teams. They are not managers in the traditional sense, they are outside the hierarchy and in particular have no disciplinary power over the teams and individuals they work with.
The question I would like to address is: How is the relationship between Agile Coach and client conceptualised?
One thing first: this relationship is not always shaped consciously; on the contrary, it is often shaped implicitly. In my practice I have experienced the following three models:
- Undefined Assignment: there is an Agile Coach, but without a clear definition of area of responsibility and authority. This approach is not a model in the true sense, but usually the result of the fact that there has been no conscious discussion about the role of the coach. In practice, it is up to the Agile Coach to define the area of responsibility himself.
- Permanent Assignment: In permanent assignment, Agile Coaches are durably assigned to one or more organisational units. Usually these are teams, but they can also be departments, business units, chapters or circles. There are also organisations that use coaches as teams of two. For this article, this difference is irrelevant.
My impression is that this model is more common in IT organisations, especially if they work or at least have worked with Scrum. In Scrum, the role of the Scrum Master is fixed. In many cases, Agile Coaches are also previous Scrum Masters. As a rule, the coaches sit with the teams, take part in their everyday life and are more or less part of the team.
- Project Model: Agile Coaches worked with one area, one or more teams for a defined period of time. This model corresponds to the typical way of working of external Agile Coaches or consultants. It is usually used when the number of available Agile Coaches is not sufficient for permanent support of all teams in question and/or because this approach is expected to avoid typical problems of permanent assignment.
Comparison of the models
In the following, I would like to take a closer look at the models:
Basically, this approach offers the greatest flexibility. The Agile Coach is not bound to an assignment and can take the initiative to get involved anywhere. However, this flexibility also entails the greatest risk: non-bindingness. Since the Agile Coach’s area of responsibility is not delineated, there is often a lack of integration with the rest of the company.The Agile Coach can give impulses, but there is no reason to follow them. Especially if these impulses require uncomfortable insights or changes, the initiatives often come to nothing.
In addition, it depends solely on the personal perception of the Agile Coach which topics are tackled and in which direction. In the literature, the term “self-commissioning” is used in this context. As a result, it often happens that the Agile Coach markets his idea of agile working with almost missionary zeal, but the ideas are often not connectable and come to nothing.
In the case of permanent assignment, Agile Coaching is integrated into the regular processes of the repented organisational unit. This has the great advantage that the Agile Coach gains a much better insight and can build trust. He can perceive and use opportunities for agile changes as they arise. In addition, changes can be accompanied and adjusted in the long term, so that a return to old behaviour patterns can be prevented.
The biggest disadvantage of this model is the creeping operational blindness. With increasing length of stay, it becomes more and more difficult for the Agile Coach to maintain an outside perspective and to act from a dissociated stance. The Agile Coach becomes more and more part of the system.This is accompanied by the danger that the responsibility for continuous improvement is delegated from the team and the manager to the Agile Coach – often together with administrative tasks such as the administration of tools and the organisation of meetings.
The project model is similar to the use of external consultants or coaches. Coaching is agreed upon for a specific topic and over a specific period of time. “Agreed” can also mean “prescribed”, e.g. as part of an overarching transformation project.
Ideally, the project follows the principles of professional (non-agile) business coaching and is based on a mission statement.
Excursus Professional Life or Business Coaching
In professional coaching, the coach enables the coachee to gain insights for him- or herself with the help of questions. In doing so, the coach avoids giving impulses as to content and, for example, proposing solutions.
The coaching assignment forms the basis for the coach to ask the coachee even unpleasant questions in order to enable him to deal with his topic – similar to the way a personal trainer is assigned to lead his client beyond previous limits in achieving fitness goals. The assignment ensures that this effort is always in the coachee’s best interest.
Accordingly, in Agile Coaching, the mandate provides the framework and avoids implicitly pursuing goals with the coaching that do not correspond to those of the client.
The advantages and disadvantages are in a way mirror images of the permanent assignment model:
The biggest advantage of the project model is the intiative from the client with a more or less clearly outlined underlying need. So there is a problem to be solved – in the other approaches this is often not the case and Agile Coaching wants to solve a problem that the people concerned do not seem to have.
The biggest disadvantage is that only issues that are requested can be worked on. The coach ideally starts with an open mind, but also has much less opportunity to observe the team in comparison. Due to the limited time frame, there is on the one hand more focus on bringing about progress in this time, but on the other hand there is also the danger of initiating superficial, non-self-sustaining measures.
My personal recommendation
In the previous chapters I have explained which modes of use for Agile Coaching I have experienced and where I see the advantages and disadvantages. Before I go into my conclusions, I would like to emphasise that the disadvantages mentioned do not necessarily have to occur. In each of the models mentioned, good work and sustainable effective successes are possible. It is also important for me to mention that of course the assignment model is only one influencing factor among many others.
Secret Sauce Mission Clarification
I would now like to go into an aspect that I have omitted so far: the clarification of the assignment. Mission clarification is about establishing a common understanding about the goals of Agile Coaching and the roles of the participants in the process.
I first learned about the concept of mission clarification in the context of coaching individuals. In any case, mission clarification is also an established concept in the context of organisational coaching.
My impression is that careful mission clarification is lived comparatively more often in the project model. The character of “undefined” is that there is no clarity about the role and approach of the Agile Coach. And in my experience, in the case of permanent assignment, the clarification of the assignment takes place at best at the beginning of the collaboration and then often remains quite general.
However, this state of affairs does not have to be destiny. There is no reason why a regular review of the assignment cannot take place in the case of a permanent assignment.
All in all, I consider permanent assignment with periodic assignment clarification to be the most promising combination of the approaches presented so far.
Permanent Assignment with Periodic Mission Clarification
The name says it all: In this approach, an Agile Coach works with an organisational unit for an unlimited period of time. At the beginning of the collaboration and at regular intervals thereafter, a stocktaking and adjustment of goals is done.
In essence, I am recommending nothing other than the application of Objectives and Key Results to Agile Coaching. And in the end, this is also only the implementation of what agility is in essence: an interative-incremental approach.
The increment here can be seen as the competence level of the team (or maturity level). The content of the assignment is to raise the level of competence in certain dimensions.
Iterative procedures are expressed in the fact that on the one hand, the current status is reviewed at regular intervals and the goals as well as the procedure are adapted.
This procedure ensures that all participants have a common understanding of what the status quo is, what is to be achieved and why, and which procedure is chosen. This transparency makes it possible to exchange views on the aspects mentioned.
This procedure gives the coach the security to work on common goals and not to fall into the trap of self-assignment. In addition, it can be useful to call in a colleague from outside as an observer from time to time in order to bring in an unbiased perspective and counteract the onset of operational blindness.
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.
Peter Rubarth is a Systemic Agile Coach and works as Senior Agile Coach for solarisBank AG. Great teams are his passion. For more than 12 years now, he has been helping teams and organisations find each other, remove obstacles and realise the full potential of agile concepts for themselves.