Some of the most successful organizations from the past decade all have one thing in common. They had a really good agile coach. They had someone who guided the organization to be more flexible, adaptable, and able to deliver more reliably. But an agile coach is not the same as a coach. This post aims to clarify the difference between agile coaching and coaching.

But first, let’s look at some popular success stories.

agile Coaching Successes

While most people think of Scrum when they think of agile organizational models, truly agile organizations never use one framework or tool. Similar to the process of coaching, good agile coaching requires a more personalized approach to succeed.

Lego managed to turn around its 80-year-old family business and reinvent itself after it reached a plateau. They decided to implement SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework, an enterprise adaptation of the Scrum framework) after running into a ceiling using Scrum. While most teams were considered agile, the middle management layer blocked their progress still using the older, un-agile methods. They could only go as fast as the slowest link in the chain.

They embarked on an agile transformation journey with the goal to implement SAFe.

Spotify, once a startup few people knew about and now the most popular video streaming service globally, also managed to deliver wanted features to customers with the help of a good agile coach. The transformation created an agile culture within the entire organization. Spotify continues to adapt and respond to customer needs and remains one of the biggest success stories as a result of agile coaching.

Coaching vs Mentoring and Consulting

The agile coach in both these organizations functioned much like a sports coach would in a sports team. The coach helps the team practice the skills needed to win the ‘game’ – be it tennis, rugby, or software development. The role of the agile coach is to spot weaknesses in the team and provide the tools and support to help the team develop the skills to strengthen these weaknesses.

This relationship would rather be categorized as a combination of consulting and mentoring. Consulting is a specialist providing external advice, and mentoring is a process where a more senior person shares their knowledge with a less experienced person within a specific context. There is little to no coaching involved in a typical agile coaching relationship.

The skills developed by an agile coach are mostly technical and process-related. It includes ways to visualize work, thus allowing teams to more easily see bottlenecks and problems, which in turn allows them to solve them. It includes ways to increase value and deliver more reliably, and more frequently. As well as, including tools to allow a project to change direction at any time throughout the project, which greatly reduces risk.

The Missing Ingredient

Agile coaching has proven to be successful in many cases, but what it doesn’t adequately address is the people aspect of an organization. More specifically, it doesn’t include the role of emotions in productivity.

While many people consider being ‘professional’ to be able to put aside emotions while at work, it is not possible to be fully productive when you’re distracted, demotivated, or depressed.

Motivation, the biggest factor that influences productivity, is directly related to emotional health. When you feel motivated you are more productive, a better communicator, and more likely to overcome obstacles you’re presented with. When, however, you are demotivated, feel unheard, or powerless, you are more likely to spend your energy on doing the bare minimum that will keep you from getting fired, without the energy to do much more. Small mistakes slip in but you cover them up before anyone notices. Eventually, however, the small mistakes compound into an unstoppable glacier, that risks the entire product.

This is where coaching comes in. Coaching focuses on dissolving limiting beliefs, often blocked or indicated by emotions, in a safe container where you are safe from negative consequences. This is the space where you can freely admit you are stuck, don’t have an answer, or feel overwhelmed without judgment or someone wanting to ‘fix’ you.

The MENTOR Within

Where agile coaching and other productivity methods focus on external factors, coaching focuses on the internal factors that stop you from reaching your potential. Coaching, according to Sir John Whitmore, a pioneer in the executive coaching industry, is “…helping people to learn rather than teaching them.

Many leaders struggle in a lonely battle at the top. They are always available when their teams need help, but they themselves don’t have anyone to ask for help when they feel stuck or overwhelmed. Coaching is a tool that allows these kinds of people to find the answers from within, empowering them rather than making them dependent on someone else.  Inherently, coaching believes that each person is creative and resourceful. A coach is merely a tool to unlock the potential within an individual.

Where teams look up to agile coaches for answers to their problems, a coach is an objective facilitator who taps into the teacher within. Their purpose is to guide the coachee towards the resources within and discover possibilities and new perspectives. They don’t provide answers to problems, but rather extract solutions from the person and then act as an accountability partner to help them follow through to achieve the desired results.

The role of the coach is to unlock limiting beliefs and enable the client to build new, healthier, patterns of behaviour that will help them reach their full potential. The goal is to improve competence, decision-making, and ultimately the quality of life.

A Whole Person

There are many differences between agile coaching and coaching, the main being the scope of the relationship. An agile coach focuses on competence within a specific role as part of career development. A coach looks at your whole life, including career, health, finance, relationships, personal growth, spirituality and recreation.

In most professional environments, everything other than a career is considered external and not relevant to be included in the work environment. In reality, however, you can’t fully focus on your career if you have a serious health condition or financial worries at home, or maybe going through a divorce in your personal relationship.

Coaching designs your career with all the aspects of your life included, rather than seeing it as something separate. In a coaching relationship, there is no separation between who you are at home and who you are at work.  You can only be successful at work when you are also successful and fulfilled at home.

So how do you include coaching in your agile coaching career?

Considerations For a Coaching Strategy

There are many strategies to include coaching in your organization or team and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The best coach for you is someone who is best able to unlock your potential. Much like in the medical field a general practitioner might refer you to a specialist, so too each coach has their own specialities. It’s thus important to know what to look for when you are thinking about a coaching relationship.

Who Needs Coaching?

The first consideration is to decide how much coaching is required and who needs to be included in the coaching program.

Do you want the management team to develop their own coaching abilities by starting with a one-to-one coaching relationship? Or do you perhaps want to roll out an organization-wide coaching program which requires team coaching or peer-to-peer coaching programs?

What are Your Goals?

Another important aspect to consider before approaching a coach is to get clear on your goals. What do you hope to achieve with a coaching program? How will you know the program works? What are the dysfunctions you would like to shift in your team? Do you perhaps need a coach to help you gain clarity on your goals?

A core differentiation between agile coaching and coaching is that in a coaching relationship the coachee is the driver, while an agile coach is a driver in a team setting. The coachee determines the agenda and the outcomes rather than the coach. The coach is merely an objective facilitator, much like a midwife in the birth process. The mother is the one who feels the contractions and has to do the work. The midwife is merely there to support and guide and assist when there is a complication.

How Committed Are You to Change?

The third and final consideration before you approach a coach is also the hardest. If you are truly honest with yourself, how committed are you to change?

It is not possible for a coach, or agile coach, to change you. And if you are not willing to change, it is not possible to expect that your environment or team will change. Like Lego, no matter how much the people change, without leadership changing, there can be no sustainable change.

Are you truly willing to be vulnerable to your weaknesses and admit your mistakes? Are you willing to put in the effort to change? Do you have the courage to hear someone call out dysfunctions? Are you brave enough to accept being challenged when you are sabotaging your own goals?

It takes vulnerability, commitment, and honesty to gain the full benefits of a coaching relationship. Are you really ready for a change?


Images courtesy of Depositphotos

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.