Beginnings of an Agile Coach

So, I’ve not blogged in a while…  I’ve been at a new client since January as an Agile Coach, it’s been quite the learning curve,  leaving me little mental space left for blogging!  To celebrate my return I have got a new blog theme. Pretty!

Agile Coach?! What is one of those?

Teacher, Instructor, Coach, Trainer, Encourager, Enabler, Questioner, Confidente, Counselor, Advocate,  Life Coach…. (Not sure all of those are words) in all things Agile. Helping the team achieve the best that they can and create and deploy high quality software as quickly as possible.

Most ThoughtWorks projects have some inherent enablement as part of their remit. Projects where we deliver software alongside the client normally involved an enablement piece, teaching and mentoring them as we both deliver software together. Showing the client how to do TDD, continuous integration etc. The main point here though is that we normally are the ones setting up and driving the process that the team follows, and sometimes show whilst ‘doing’ when all else fails.

The enablement part had always come quite naturally to me, I’m fairly reasonable at communicating, people tend to naturally follow me,  I’ve been working in Agile environments for 5 years now and my ski instructing background gives me a leg up on the teaching aspect.

For a while now I had been asking to go on a pure coaching/enablement gig thinking that I’d be quite good at it, and how different could it be?!

Very. Turns out, when you don’t have full control over everything, as well as the ability to jump in a ‘just do it’, it’s not so easy any more! As with any new project it always takes me a while to settle in and really feel confident about what I’m doing. It’s been a very steep learning curve, but I can happily report that I’m now really enjoying it.

What advice would I have given myself  back at the start of this enagagement?

Learning about Learning

I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning about the ways that people learn. Funnily enough this is where a lot of the things that I learnt whilst learning to be a ski instructor were very familiar. Acknowledging that different people learn in very different ways and that you, as a coach, have to adapt your techniques and approaches to suit each kind of learner.

I also spent a lot of time learning about the Dreyfus Model, which is a model that talks about how individuals acquire skills and the different techniques that work best for people depending on where they sit on the Dreyfus Scale http://www.learninggeneralist.com/2009/08/using-dreyfus-model-to-engage-people-in.html

I still have tonnes more to learn about learning, but I find it fascinating. I think it’s something that you really need to invest in if you want to become a great coach.

Being coached on how to Coach

I was lucky enough to be working with a small group of very experienced consultants. Not only could they share their ideas and war stories with me, but I felt comfortable getting feedback from them. They made an effort to be approachable and open, so I always felt like I could go and ask them questions, and validate the ideas I had and the approaches that I wanted to take.  It’s important to have that supportive group as you are starting out. Unfortunately I don’t think that anyone can teach you how to be a coach, so it’s really a question fo getting regular feedback, failing fast and going with your instinct.

We all have own style

Following on from the point above. It’s important to recognise that we all have our own styles of coaching and teaching. What works for one person in a situation may not work for another person in the same situation. When you are starting out it’s very easy to watch other, successful coaches and think, “Wow they are amazing at XYZ when they do ABC, therefore if I do the same I will be successful too”. Not true in most cases. Every time I tried to emulate someone else I was never as effective as if I just went with what I would naturally do. For example one of my colleagues is great at asking very probing, thoughtful questions to people to get them to think about what they are doing and the affect that it has. I thought, ah brilliant, downloaded a bunch of  “consulty” type questions and tried them out on the next person I spoke to. I was so busy trying to remember the right questions in the right situations that I wasn’t even listening to what they responded with, I also sounded distinctly un-genuine. Turns out that when I stick to my normal mannor of talking to someone and asking they things, I achieve the same outcome but in a different way.

Pace

Things will move a lot slower than you are used to in a delivery situation. People take time to learn and change, and this shouldn’t be rushed. Step back, take a breath and let things happen in their own time. The sooner you come to terms with this the more enjoyable the experience will be.

It also may feel like things are a lot slower because you are not the one thats physically doing the work anymore (writing code, doing analysis etc.). That lack of control will seem like things are going slower, but they are probably not that different.

Don’t get overwhelmed

When  you are first in an Agile Coaching environment you will like see infractions of what you think is “proper Agile” everywhere you turn. Especially if it’s a new team and they are brand new to Agile. You might feel like there is so much to work on that you don’t know where to start. Recognise that you can only do one thing at a time, and some things may be easier to work on than others. Try and find the thing that is causing the team the most pain and start from there. We also found that trying to work on something that they are already ‘doing’ will be harder than introducing something that is brand new that will really help them. You are much less likely to get a defensive reaction.

I found just keeping track of the behaviours I was seeing, coming up with things that I thought might help, and then reveiwing them daily with some of my colleagues really helped. It’s also worth thinking about  whether or not a task is worth the effort that it requires. The image below is a Impact/Effort Analysis chart that you could use. Rate the potential exercise/piece of work on this scale and think about which order to then tackle things in.

Effort/Impact Analysis

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