Two things I want from an agile coach

I read a tweet recently that gave me pause. It said:

Lots of articles from agile coaches on “What makes a good agile coach”. Not too many from other people saying “here’s what we need from an agile coach” or even “here’s why we do/don’t need an agile coach”.

Two behaviors jumped out in my memory right away.

Get into the trenches with us

The best, most valuable experiences with an agile coach I’ve had was hands down with Bob Galen at iContact. That’s because rather than just host classroom sessions or drive process through the scrum masters he would come to our meetings, observe, and coach on the spot. Sure, occasionally he’d pull us together to talk about a process or change, but most of the learning we did was by doing while he pushed and prodded us.

For example, I remember several occasions during an estimation session while Bob was in the room he’d stop us and say something like,

“Now, I’m not going to tell you which estimate to choose, but here’s what I hope the PO is hearing in this conversation and here’s how I think the scrum master and tech leads should be helping get to an agreement.”

He excelled at calling out little nuances like that. It solidified with us why we were in the room in the first place and what the value of consensus and team was.

He did that for all our ceremonies. He made sure everyone in the room understood why we were there, and how that activity was helping the teams and the company be successful. When he observed behaviors that were not helpful, he called them out. More importantly, he taught us how to call them out to each other.

He never forced the team to any specific conclusion, and I don’t think we ever felt like he had an agenda other than helping us gel as a team and get those mechanics fully internalized. Because of that, he didn’t have to go to those meetings very often and he could split his time between all the teams. The scrum masters never felt threatened by him. We all believed he wanted to help us get better, and as a result we started caring a lot about that as well.

In my opinion, if an agile coach is not regularly engaging directly with the scrum teams in these kinds of scenarios, you are likely failing.

Be pragmatic

You know what a team working on a highly complex feature, with dependencies on other teams, and a ton of pressure to deliver something great cares about during a sprint planning session? Anything but the agile manifesto. Don’t quote the manifesto to me when you are clearly just trying to get us to commit to some number of story points. Don’t tell me about something Kent Beck wrote, or that time you were on the Microsoft Excel project 20+ years ago (shout out to my WebAssign peeps).

Be smart, be principled, and please think for yourself. Help the team accomplish their goals in whatever way makes the most sense for their specific situation. If the team just needed the manifesto recited, we’d write an Alexa skill to do that for us. We need a coach because you know the players and the game well enough to help us craft a winning strategy.


What about you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on twitter.