Coaching and Agile Coaching. Same same or different?

I’ve been an Agile Coach for over four years, but I started to seriously look into Coaching on its own in the last couple of years.

After an ICF (International Coaching Federation) training on Coaching two years ago, I learned two very important things:

  1. Giving advice and guiding teams doesn’t equal coaching.
  2. I was doing the coaching part wrong.

Ever since, I’ve been practicing coaching on its own, with many ups and downs, successes and failures, and I’m just getting started.

Coaching is a complex discipline with a huge potential to help bring awareness to individuals and organisations, help create new behaviours and drive individual and team growth.

What is Coaching?

First things first: what is coaching? What exactly was I doing that doesn’t fit into the definition of Coaching?

There are plenty of definitions of coaching; some equate it with sports coaching. Coaching is slightly different, from my perspective.

I would define coaching as the process of helping people discover their own potential and their own answers, through asking questions, bringing clarity and creating awareness for the person coached. The final purpose of coaching is the individual transformation of the person coached: creating new behaviours, changing behaviours, identifying and overpassing limiting beliefs, identifying a person’s focus and life purpose and setting goals to reach them, and so on.

Coaching differs from giving advice or problem-solving for the other person (consulting), from teaching or training a skill or competency (training), or from solving mental health issues (counselling).

Is Agile Coaching different?

As mentioned, I didn’t use much of coaching during my starting days as an Agile Coach, regardless of the title of my role. My focus was mostly on the “Agile” part of the role, much less on the “Coach“.

At the same time, Agile Coaching has more nuances and involves more competences than Coaching itself. A versatile Agile Coach has to navigate these competences easily and contextually.

Lyssa Adkins‘ view on Agile coaching is the most comprehensive on what we do day-to-day and how coaching fits in the toolbox of an Agile Coach:

In the context of agile teams, coaching takes on the dual flavour of coaching and mentoring. Yes, you are coaching to help someone reach for the next goal in their life, just as a professional work/life coach does. You are also sharing your agile experiences and ideas as you mentor them, guiding them to use agile well. In this way, coaching and mentoring are entwined for the sake of developing talented agilists so that more and better business results arise through agile.

Coaching Agile Teams. A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition, by Lyssa Adkins.

As Agile Coaches, we support the teams into their agile journeys and growth, using different methods and tools: teaching frameworks and practices (teacher), sharing our experience and learning (mentoring), asking insightful questions that help teams figure out ideas and solutions on their own (coaching), advising them on the path to take at a roadblock, where the need arises (consulting).

I’ve spent a big part of the last ten years trying to grow in most of the skills above (especially with a consulting background, teaching, mentoring, giving advice are my comfort zone), but for the longest time I put coaching on hold or I considered it not as relevant.

Competences of an Agile Coach

Now it’s clear that Coaching is one of the essential competences in the Agile Coach’s toolbox, what others are there?

The visual from Dandy People is a wonderful summary of all the stances that an Agile Coach takes (created by Mia Kolmodin, Founder of Dandy People):

From: https://media.dandypeople.com/2019/02/agile-coach-in-a-nutshell-10.pdf

I find the Agile Coaching Competency Framework a good summary of the skills and knowledge that and Agile Coach should have, maybe also a curriculum of the learning journey of an Agile Coach.

This is how I’ve been using them in the past nine years:

  • Agile-Lean Practitioner: I’m a continuous apprentice of Agile frameworks and practices. From my point of view having an extended knowledge of various frameworks and practices, experimenting with them is more valuable than being an “expert” in one. Context will dictate what flavour of Agile you’re going to work with, so experiment with as many as possible, try new tools, find what works for your team (and do not use the “Spotify” framework, which is something designed by and for Spotify and should not be copy-pasted in your probably very different organisation and context).
  • Mentoring: my go-to approach, after teaching; I use mentoring constantly, especially when I see a teaching opportunity, or the teams are doing the same old mistake that a former team did.
  • Technical Mastery: as a non-engineer, I have to work really hard to keep up with the team. I have learning streaks on coding each year, and join all technical discussions with the teams. This wasn’t an impediment in working with my teams so far.
  • Transformation Mastery: as a former consultant in organisational development and transformation, this is one area that I love learning about and experimenting with. I’m currently using Toyota Kata to experiment continuous improvement with the teams.
  • Business Mastery: my background is Project and Product Management, so I’m quite adamant on focusing on the customer. I use these skills to make sure we deliver value and we constantly consider user feedback in our decisions.
  • Facilitating: this is probably the skill I focused mostly on in the last five years, through retrospectives, workshops, and the likes. I use facilitation on a daily basis, with teams, with my colleagues, during Agile Malaysia events and meet-ups. After a while it feels really comfortable to get in front of a group of people and help them reach an objective or guide them through their journey.
  • Professional Coaching: I shared that I didn’t focus on this skill until a couple of years ago. I use active listening, powerful questions, mirroring, and various coaching methods constantly with the teams right now. It has a huge potential to speed up the growth and learning of the teams.

Considering the diverse range of skills that an Agile Coach – or a ScrumMaster – needs to possess, no wonder it takes years of learning, experimenting, and practice to become a master in these roles.

That’s actually what I love about being an Agile Coach, the fact that I can never stop learning and it can never get boring. It’s overwhelming sometimes, especially if you have to work with a competence that you’re not very experienced with, but also challenging and full of learning.

As a closing, I’d like to share another beautiful visual from Dandy People, that presents the different coaching stances that an Agile Coach has to master and navigate, sometimes all during the same meeting:

From: https://media.dandypeople.com/2019/02/agile-coach-in-a-nutshell-10.pdf

This is a beautiful visual of a Coach’s journey, as we all start with being Reflective Observers (as a fresh ScrumMaster, observing and bringing awareness to the team is the first still you need to master), and each of us has a different journey to reach Partnership with our teams.

I find myself learning and practicing mostly in the middle column: Coach, Teacher and Advisor at the moment.

Closing

I would like to finish this post – which was supposed to be about an entirely different topic, but it wrote on its own – with a reflection:

  • Where are you in your coaching journey?
  • What skills do you master, what skills you have to work on?
  • Which tools do you find yourself using most of the times? Are you staying in your comfort zone?
  • Which tools or competences do you avoid? How can you go around learning and experimenting with them?

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