This is a chapter from my upcoming book [email protected]: The Path to Effective Lean-Agile Teams.
What a coach is in the Agile community depends upon who you ask. I believe a coach is a change agent. While not tasked with telling people what to do, they are much more than a facilitator.
A Lean-Agile coach is a person who understands how to help teams and organizations improve with the theories of Flow, Lean, and Theory of Constraints while also understanding the basics of human learning. Coaches need to play an active role in helping teams improve. By ‘active,’ I don’t mean they tell people what to do, which doesn’t work. Many people believe this is because people will resist when told to do something. But that’s not true. Many times people want to be told what to do. But if you tell people what to do, they may do it without working through the details of what is involved. If they run into problems, they may not know what to do. This lack of understanding may have them abandon the suggestion.
Being an effective coach requires:
- A deep understanding of the area in which you are coaching.
- Being able to convey ideas to people
- Understanding how people learn.
- Tools to help people work together.
- The appropriate character
A deep understanding of the area you are coaching requires theory and practice. Deming said, “Experience teaches nothing. there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory, there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then wonder what the trouble is. They look at examples, and without theory, they learn nothing.” When a coach understands why things work, they can provide that understanding both to the people doing the work and those responsible for them. This helps get everyone on the same page.
Conveying ideas to people requires understanding their concerns. For example, many people talk to executives by saying we must not start too many projects but instead have a focus on finishing. But many executives will hear this as getting less value, not more. Instead, we must tell them we will focus on delivering value faster. Executives will appreciate value sooner than working on fewer things.
You must also understand how people learn. People are complex beings. They have limitations on how they can learn and how much they can know at any one time. Understanding these limitations can avoid a lot of wasted effort. Understanding how people learn can help avoid invoking resistance in people.
Coaches should look for virtual boards to help the people they are coaching learn together. Teams are often not co-located yet still need to work together. Virtual boards are essential for this.
Having the appropriate character is essential but is something coaches need to learn for themselves. If a person doesn’t have the right temperament, they may be smart, but they won’t be effective. They will come across as arrogant and gruff, and people will resist their suggestions even when recognized as experts.
People tend to go to extremes in the Agile space. The options are not about standing back or being overly pushy. When you understand what’s going on, you can ask questions that guide and enhance other people’s understanding. You can point things out that others don’t notice. Being a good coach requires this. It’s not an attitude of following (the guide) but one of leading others in learning.