The Secret to Hiring the Best Agile Coaches

DSRUPTR - Joe Smiley

As I mentioned in my previous post that Agile is gaining in popularity for product development, innovation, etc., but it’s also increasingly becoming more difficult to find a great Agile Coach to help guide your team through the Agile Transformation process.

The problem has been exponentially getting worse due to the staggering volume of Agile Coaching positions (both full-time and contracting) available at organizations around the world looking to fill those vacancies with talented Agile Coaches.

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I’ve worked with a lot of teams in guiding, coaching, and leading them through an Agile Transformation, and I’ve found that there’s really just one key ingredient to successfully hiring an awesome Agile Coach.

More on that in a minute, let’s dive deeper into the Agile Coaching role first…

Complexity of the Agile Coach Role

The Agile Coaching role is highly complex and multi-faceted position. I highly recommend that you and your team spend time understanding the nuance of the position before you start the process of a hiring an Agile Coach.

Types of Agile Coaches

The first thing you need to understand are the various types of Agile Coaches:

  • Agile Team Facilitator: A facilitator is a person who chooses or is given the explicit role of conducting a meeting. This role usually entails that the facilitator will take little part in the discussions on the meeting’s topic, but will focus primarily on creating the conditions for effective group processes, in the pursuit of the objectives for which the meeting was convened.
  • Agile Coach: The Agile Coach will help to guide individuals, teams, and organizations to new Agile teams, as well as teams who want to perform at a higher level. They spend time mentoring and guiding individuals or teams through the Agile process, as well as provide feedback along the way.
  • Enterprise Agile Coach: The role of an Agile Coach at an enterprise-level assumes all the same responsibilities as a regular Agile Coach, with the added responsibility of viewing, managing, and coaching an Agile transformation from a broader business perspective. This includes:
    • Helping companies design and implement an effective Agile transformation for their business.
    • Working at a more strategic level to integrate an Agile development process with a company’s business.
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Agile Coaching Dimensions

Next, you need to educate yourself on the various dimensions of the Agile Coaching role. While they should be Agile Subject Matter Experts (SME), they also have to wear many many other hats to be successful.

  • Consulting: Ability to serve as an organizational mirror, by accessing and surfacing the underlying system problems. Ability to look below the surface, expose challenging symptoms and perform root cause analysis.
  • Leadership: Ability to facilitate client agile adoption, implementation, and alignment. Ability to engage and facilitate stakeholders in controversial conversations and alignment-building activities. Ability to maintain non-biased views and facilitate collaborative decision making.img - agile coaching dimensions
  • Agile SME: Ability to balance Coach’s own agile expertise with the client’s goals and intent. Ability to understand and respect the nature of a client-consulting relationship whether as an employee or consultant. Ability to ask powerful questions, lead by example, and guide client self-discovery.
  • Mentoring: Ability to educate and guide client’s agile learning through application and discovery. Ability to focus on stabilizing principles and varying practices to situationally align client’s maturity with effective application of agility.
  • Change Agent: Ability to function as a catalyst and change agent for client organization, where they engage with the whole organizational system and the leaders who guide them. Ability to connect interdependencies and catalyze organizational reflection, learning and growth.

Agile Coaching Evolution Over the Life of the Project

Lastly, you should recognize the evolution of the Agile Coaching role throughout the coaching process. This involves some education up front to the teams as they prepare to start an Agile product/project via Sprint 1, which should be focused on a basic refresher as well as ideas for customizing the Agile methodology to the team and organization’s needs.

Important Note!
I highly recommend that you get your teams certified before deploying Agile Coaches as this provides an important foundation of knowledge from which the Agile Coach can expand upon. Agile Coaches should never be responsible for the complete education of teams on an Agile methodology, unless specified ahead of time.

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Next, the Agile Coach will walk an Agile team through the process by showing them how to perform the activities (stand-ups, sprint planning, etc.). Once the team is comfortable, the team will then practice the activities on their own or dive into a Sprint 1 with guidance of the Agile Coach.

As the team matures, the Agile Coach will continue to watch closely and mentor the team until they move into a supporting role that provides feedback to individuals and teams.

The Secret to Hiring Kick*ss Agile Coaches

Now that you’re knowledgeable of the Agile Coaching role, it’s a little more obvious what’s at stake for your team and organization.

With that said, the one secret to finding a great Agile Coach is simple…

I highly recommend that you focus your search on finding an Agile Coach with a lot of experience utilizing an Agile process prior to becoming an Agile coach.

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This should be the litmus test that separates good coaches from kick*ss coaches, where they should have awesome experience at companies you’ve actually heard of. It doesn’t necessarily matter what role they had (e.g. product manager, ScrumMaster, designer, etc.), but make sure you dive into the details and ask them the right questions, as well as to provide product names, companies, their role on the Agile team, KPI’s/success metrics, etc.

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This will help sort out folks that are knowledgeable of Agile versus those that are highly capable of deploying Agile successfully based on years of actual experience. And this experience is absolutely priceless… primarily because Agile is not a defined process, rather a philosophy – based on 12 principles, 4 values, and supporting practices.

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This Agile philosophy needs to be learned first, along with the Agile Manifesto and Principles. From this knowledge base, it’s best to then review and decide which process (Scrum, Kanban, XP, etc.) is best for your organization/team, and then spend time CUSTOMIZING YOUR DEVELOPMENT PROCESS TO MEET THE NEEDS OF YOUR TEAM AND/OR ORGANIZATION.

Yes, ALL CAPS. That’s extremely important point, so re-read it. I’ll wait here.

Too often that gets lost on organizations that are new to Agile, where they just try to implement an Agile process that was used somewhere else, etc. It’s technically not a process, methodology, or specific system.

And that’s exactly why Agile experience matters!

I’m a great example of this principle… where I’ve coached teams before without the prerequisite Certified Agile Coach (CAC or CEC) certification, where I only held the Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) certifications. But I also had over 10 years of relevant experience with Agile and it’s many flavors (Scrum, Kanban, XP), as well as customizing Agile to fit the needs of a team and company.

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I tend to lean on Agile experience waaay more than certifications (i.e. theory), but that’s just me. And I’m pretty awesome.

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