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Why is it so hard to find qualified agile coaches?

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Questioning peopleI was hoping to come up with a pithy, short answer to this question but the only thing that I can come up with is “people.”  The not-so-pithy answer is that there is no sort of agreement around what it means to be a “qualified agile coach”, the people hiring coaches aren’t thinking things through in many cases, and the agile community suffers from a myriad of integrity challenges when it comes to professionalism. In this blog I work through the following ideas:

  1. Why is there a dearth of qualified agile coaches?
  2. Sports coaches as an example
  3. What should we expect from agile coaches?
  4. Our solution: Certified Disciplined Agile Coaches (CDACs)
  5. Parting thoughts

Why is There A Dearth of Qualified Agile Coaches?

Let’s answer this in two parts: Why is there a dearth of agile coaches and why are there so many unqualified coaches available?  The first question is very easy to answer.  The demand for agile coaches far outstrips the supply.  The adoption rate for agile has been growing steadily since 2001, hence the growing demand.  As you’ll see later in this blog, it takes years to grow good coaches.  As a result there is little hope for the supply to catch up with demand any time soon.

The second question, why are there so many unqualified coaches available, is easy but uncomfortable to answer.  In general we have systemic challenges in the IT industry and in many ways we’ve managed to exacerbate these problems within the agile community. Some of the challenges within the IT community include:

  • A person is just as likely to be a self taught programmer, and more likely in fact, than they are to have a computer science or engineering degree
  • Although we throw the term “software engineering” around a lot, there is no agreement around what it means or even if it’s an appropriate concept (the IEEE/ACM promotes one, but there are many others)
  • There is no sort of apprenticeship culture in this industry
  • Few people have a personal goal of mastery, and few organizations support the gaining of mastery amongst their staff
  • There is a shortage of talented people, so It is very easy to find and retain employment regardless of your level of talent, and the market for IT people is still growing
  • No country has a licensing body for software professionals that is commonly required by organizations, unlike other professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, and many more
  • Many people in the IT community believe this normal for a professional, or if they do perceive a problem they are (rightfully) overwhelmed with the challenge of addressing it
  • Colleges and universities are endemically years behind the quickly changing IT industry (there are a handful of schools that work closely with industry, so it’s getting better)

Then we have the agile community, with its various certification training scams.  You can become a certified master after staying awake during a two-day workshop and passing an online test that almost nobody fails.  To put this into context, a Starbucks barista, the kid who pours your morning coffee, get’s three days of training before being let loose on customers.  Yet it somehow makes sense that someone with 50% less training becomes the lead of a software development team?  Really?  Another example: Someone can become a scaling program consultant after attending a four-day workshop, and worse yet are now “qualified” to teach a two-day workshop to others so as to impart their vast agile scaling knowledge upon them.  Amazingly, because of the demand by companies desperate to hire agile-skilled people, the demand for these “designations” is incredible (shameful would be a more appropriate word).

In practice many agile designations are little more than “participation ribbons”, yet most organizations take them seriously often either because they don’t realize how trivial they are to earn or because they’ve given up expecting any better from agilists.  Is it any surprise that it’s hard to find qualified coaches when we’ve watered things down so much?

Sports Coaches as an Example

CoachCoaching is very common in sports and with the exception of “pick up” games few sports teams are without a coach.  In fact, serious sports teams tend to have several coaches, typically lead by a head coach. In professional sports coaches are paid significant salaries, sometimes millions of dollars a year, as coaching is perceived to be a critical success factor.  It makes sense to look at sports coaching works to see how agile coaching might work.

Most sports coaches are former players.  They’ve typically played for years, and sometimes decades, having been coached themselves all along the way.  They’ll often start off as children, in Canada it’s common for kids to start learning to skate and play hockey at the age of two, being coached and drilled in basic skills and knowledge for years.  They also gain practical experience playing games.  Most kids drop out eventually, although many still play their sport (be it hockey, football, cricket, baseball, …) well into middle age.  And some decide to stay in the sport, but make the shift from being a player into being a coach.

The transition to becoming a sports coach generally isn’t easy.  There are three common strategies for this:

  1. Formal training.  One path is to go to university, get a teaching degree, and become a gym teacher at a middle school or high school and begin coaching children.  These coaches tend to coach a wide range of sports, although in some cases you’ll often see a coach specialize on a single sport, such as high school football or hockey, because that’s what their passion was a child (and often because they hope to move up the ranks at eventually, see point #3 below).
  2. Informal apprenticing.  Another path is to apprentice, asking your existing coach to allow you opportunities to coach others under their guidance.  When I trained in karate this was very common, with senior students helping to teach less senior students.  My daughter is currently learning to skate and they follow a similar pattern with senior skating coaches (adults) being helped by assistants (typically teenagers who have been skating for many years) to coach and teach the younger children.  Helping to teach or coach others is recognized as an important part of your own learning process.
  3. Formal apprenticing.  Because of the money involved professional sports teams tend to take a more formal approach to coaching.  They will often expect coaches either come up through the coaching ranks – start as a high school coach, then become a college-level coach, then finally a professional coach – or to come up through the professional sports ranks – when your star players are past their peak they sometimes move into coaching roles.  Each time you move up to a new level of coaching, say from high school football to college football, you often start as an assistant coach to first prove yourself.  The head coach at each level recognizes that it’s their responsibility to grow more coaches, so they impart their skills and knowledge on to the junior coaches.

So, what are some important observations we can make out of all of this?  First, sports coaches have deep skills and experience at the sports that they are coaching.  Second, we expect this of them.  Would you pay to have your child to be given skating lessons by a “Certified Skating Master” who had two days of training in the “skating mindset” and how to facilitate a handful of skating meetings?  Of course you wouldn’t.  Instead you’d want someone who had been skating for years, and better yet may have even been a competitor at some point in the past.  Third, it takes years of apprenticing or training to become a good sports coach, not just several days in a certification workshop.

What Should We Expect From Agile Coaches?

Here is what we’ve found to be the critical success factors for agile coaches:

  1. They should have years of agile experience, not days of training.  If someone doesn’t have years of experience in something, and more importantly years of varied experience, then why they heck would you hire them as a coach?
  2. They should have coaching skills and experience.  Being experienced in agile isn’t enough.  Apprenticing under another good agile coach is a great way to get coaching skill as is getting training in agile coaching (the Agile Coaching Institute is a start for this although the program at International Coaching Federation (ICF) is far more thorough).  The need for experience is a bit of a catch-22 of course – you need to already be an agile coach to be qualified to be an agile coach.  But, if someone has no previous coaching experience then at best I’d put them into a junior coaching role under the guidance of an experienced coach.  This provides them with the opportunity to gain the requisite experience and to prove themselves in practice.
  3. They should have robust agile skills and knowledge.  Years of agile experience is a good start, but better yet is a range of experience at all aspects of the lifecycle in which they are coaching.  It’s reasonable to expect a delivery team coach to understand all aspects of agile solution delivery so that they can coach the entire team in the skills they need to succeed.  Furthermore, it’s reasonable to expect an Agile IT coach to have experience in the full agile IT lifecycle, including areas such as Enterprise Architecture, Data Management, Portfolio Management, and many others.
  4. They should have experience in a similar context.  Ideally they should have skills in a similar context to what you currently face – someone who only has small team coaching experience will struggle to coach a large programme, someone who only has only coached in startup companies will struggle in a large financial institution, someone who has only coached co-located teams will struggle with globally distributed teams.  Context counts.

Criteria for Effective Agile Coaches
All four of these factors are equally important.  Any “coach” who is deficient in one or more of these areas still has some work to do.  Nobody is perfect of course, given the rates that agile coaches demand it’s reasonable to expect these people to be qualified.

Our Solution: Certified Disciplined Agile Coaches (CDACs)

A fair question to ask is how do we deal with this in the Disciplined Agile (DA) space. We believe that it’s critical to your success to have qualified coaches so we’ve built a principled certification program based on the martial arts philosophy of Shu-Ha-Ri.  Certifications must be earned and that takes time.  The following diagram summarizes our strategy for how practitioners must earn DA certifications.

Agile Practitioner CertificationsTo become a Certified Disciplined Agile Coach (CDAC) you need to have at least five years of experience in agile (which is verified by the Disciplined Agile Consortium (DAC)), plus evidence that you’ve already been sharing your skills and knowledge (we call this give back), plus you must be a Certified Disciplined Agile Practitioner (CDAP).  To become a CDAP you must have at least two years of proven agile experience (validated by DAC), have passed a comprehensive test of your agile knowledge, and already be a Certified Disciplined Agile Practitioner (CDA).  To be a CDA you must have passed a comprehensive test of your knowledge and skills.  So, this process of certification ensures that CDACs have comprehensive skills and knowledge in agile techniques, at least five years experiences in agile, and at least initial experience in coaching/teaching (the giveback component). Note: Not shown in the diagram above is Certified Disciplined Agile Instructor (CDAI), which you must be at least a CDAP and have proven ability to teach DA.

Parting Thoughts

It isn’t easy to find qualified agile coaches, but then again it isn’t impossible either. Our hope is that this blog has provided you with some insight into what you should be looking for in a good agile coach.  Anyone can put a shingle up and say that they’re an “agile coach”, but anyone who wants to say that they are a Certified Disciplined Agile Coach (CDAC) needs to have worked through a rigorous process to earn that qualification.  CDACs have proven knowledge, experience, and give back.  Why settle for less?

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Posted by Scott Ambler on: April 30, 2017 11:36 AM | Permalink

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