I have been in the business of talking with people and getting work done for now about ten years. My initial years went into understanding the basics of the IT business and how to collaborate with customers instead of seeing them as someone from whom your next “bonus” cheque will come. Even though the learning was immense, I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I just didn’t believe that this was something I can work as or with for the rest of my professional life. After a couple of job switches and a lucky break, I landed a job as a project manager where the Waterfall was a norm and I wasn’t complaining as I started loving what I was doing. Over time due to the complexity and change in direction of the project, we switched to Scrum. This also meant I now had to call myself a Scrum Master instead of a project manager. Job titles are easy to change but mentally switching, isn’t!
Honestly, initially, I didn’t believe the concept of doing “Scrum” with an Agile mindset would work. Mentally, I was still the project manager wanting his colourful Gantt charts with control over the project. Project management was a serious business and Scrum didn’t sound or feel like it. Over the next few weeks, I spend time doing the dreaded Agile transformation which was slowly switching to Scrum events and roles from Waterfall. It was seamless with few complications as Scrum as a framework is very simple and people-centric to which the team readily warmed up. They saw the benefit in doing things “the agile way” as they not only had a usable piece of software to show but also how much more transparency had come into the process. It was a result for everyone to see. No big presentations were needed to present the outcome of this transformation.
For me, spending that time coordinating the transformation and then working with the team was a revelation. I realized how much decentralizing the decision-making process, giving more power to the team had made a difference in the happiness & results delivered by the team. The value which I had shown to the higher management by making status presentations & plans, was now shown after every two weeks at an event called the Sprint review. I just had to make sure in the future also the teams kept getting the right coaching, mentoring, and teaching to remain or become self-organized. The essence of being Agile and working with “self-organized teams” was slowly dawning on me.
Switching your title to Scrum Master or an Agile Coach is very easy but understanding what goes into coaching a self-organized team is another thing. As much as Agile development is about people, Agile coaching concentrates on the same facet, which is helping your team & the people in it. You will be staring at a slippery slope if you still believe in the age-old carrot and stick approach. People now are more interested in knowing their “purpose”. How do they fit into the complex picture and where they can contribute?
Here Agile coaching comes into the picture, helping people and teams to uncover their purpose to build products/solutions which matter and are needed. As an Agile coach, you help people and at times organizations understand this purpose. Possibly help them change for achieving this “purpose”. Depending on where your team is, you would have to act as a teacher (Shu) or sometimes as a mentor (Ha) and a coach too (Ri). Agile coaching is not only about knowing the Agile manifesto or various Agile practices but also how you reflect the Agile values in your day to day work life as a coach.
Have you heard about the Sherpa’s of Everest? The Sherpa’s find the way up to the top of the world’s highest peak (Mt. Everest) by fixing the ropes & setting makeshift bridges over dangerous crevices, carry the load including the lifesaving oxygen cylinders. They keep changing their role depending on the situation and context. Sometimes act as a guide, sometimes a porter, & sometimes that of a motivational coach, and at times a lifeguard too. They help mountaineers achieve their “purpose” of not only reaching the top but also coming back safely. The best Agile coaches know when to wear what hat and ask powerful questions to help uncover the purpose.
As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Moving away from a common belief that you have to talk a lot when you coach someone, Agile coaching is a lot of unbiased listening with an open mind and then accordingly helping people explore ways to serve or uncover their purpose. This would also mean that as an Agile coach we are self-aware, know there is a space between reacting and responding. The choice of whether to respond or react lies with us. Getting to see the big picture and disassociating ourselves from the situation or the person being coached also helps. At times, letting our intuition guide us is the way to go.
To conclude, we are a part of a world that is changing and evolving constantly. And in the new order, centralized decision making is giving way to a decentralized one. Hence, Agile coaching and coaches have become an essential part of facilitating and enabling this change. This would also mean Agile coaches need to reinvent themselves to help people become their best versions. As Tom Landry famously put it, “A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”