Inject agile by coaching?

10 12 2011

Is it possible to inject agile in an organization by hiring an ”agile coach”? To cut lead times, getting to market faster, be adaptive for fast changes, and make your customers happier?

This is what I believe is true about agile coaching:

1. The agile coach as a full member of team

When you put an experienced coach as a full member in a team, in a role where his main assignment is to do some ”real” work like testing, developing, requirements whatever and also has an explicit coaching role there is a good chance the team will getting more agile, if they have the right motivation.

If the coach also have the mission to pass the coaching role on, to one of the team members, there is a chance the team will continue being more agile after the coach is gone.

Being part of a team, doing real work, and passing the coaching role on is crucial for a longer lasting impact of new agile practices.

What else happens when the coach leaves the team?  Good chance of regression to old habits, I’ve seen it quite some times.

If you’ve hired a project manager with assignment to introduce agile, it’s very important to be aware of her power as a ”manager” even though you might not see it. The team may not be committed to the new way of working and the new process might quickly disappear when the project manager is gone.

The project manager also has limited influence on what actually happens at the bottom line – where the work is actually done, in the craft. The project manager needs one team member, someone doing the craft, who is also an agile co-coach, to make stuff happen all the way. And agile stuff needs to happen all the way into the craft, otherwise you’ll soon find yourself in trouble with delivery, defects and budget.

As a project manager you can suggest technical agile practices such as pair programming, test driven development and more but you cannot make it happen unless one craftsman will be your co-coach.

It takes two to tango.

2. Coaching by Kaizen – Continous improvement

If you already have a complete team, don’t need more people on the work, and still want to inject some agile in the organization, I believe an agile coach can do good without being part of the daily work. This by in a disciplined, structured and inspiring way run Kaizen activities, for example retrospectives.

With regular intervals the agile coach can facilitate retrospective workshops with the purpose of getting the team by themselves suggest what process changes they’d like to see, help them with tools and preparations to do the analysis and action plans and commitments by themselves.

If you hire such a ”kaizen coach” you will let the team decide what will happen. As a manager you cannot decide or foresee the outcome or actions from these retrospectives. Ideas that you never imagined yourself will start to come out after a while of continuous retrospectives. Some ideas you’ll like, and some not – ”We don’t need a manager anymore” could be such a thing. Are you prepared to hear this?

I believe this way of working with agile injection could be the most effective and long lasting way of changing a team or organization. Since they have themselves chosen what changes will be done they for sure will be committed.

If you also believe this could be true, are you prepared to give the team(s) a basis to act on their improvement suggestions? This could mean time (for example 10-15% work time each month just on improvement actions) or money (pay for tools, people or other resources that the team suggests) or politics (changing premises, HR policies or process conventions for example). Are you ready to help the team?

I have seen teams excel by having ambitious retrospectives each week up to each 3rd week. Some people say that just by running a lot of retrospectives or kaizen activities all software teams will after a while come to method suggestions very much like Extreme Programming.

If you’re not working with software I would not be surprised if all teams after a while of disciplined retrospectives will come to more and more agile principles,  values and practices. ”Sit together”, ”Visualize progress”, ”Working closer to customer”, ”Small batches” etc.

Are you ready to walk this path?

The reward will be high performing teams, delivering value fast to market and a healthy and innovative organization.

You will need to invest.

3. Informal coaching

The next coaching style I believe is actually working is personal, informal coaching. Eating lunch together regularly, or having coffee or running a course together or just spend time together in some way. I have mostly in this way learned what all this agile is about and also to see other aspects of this that you cannot read in a book, technical as well as human.

No one told me these people would be my coaches, the coach relationship just emerged lasting long and changing me a lot.

This is deep change. As a manager, if you want this to happen with your people, just pay a little bit attention when you see some informal coaching relation grow between sometimes unexpected co-workers or an outsider. Don’t ask them why they had such a long coffee break today or why they don’t spend more time with the hired coach.

Let it be.

These are the 3 styles of agile coaching that I’ve seen working, heard stories about, and been part of myself in one way or another.

The large scale ”agile process change projects” could work if you focus on the three things above.

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