The Value of A Coach

I have benefited from coaching at different periods of my life.  As a young little league baseball player, and then teenage basketball player, coaches taught me the technical skills I needed.  They also taught the team how to excel as a team, with each of us performing our roles and learning to collaborate, instead of just a group of individuals engaged in a common activity.

As I began my professional career I was doing translation and analysis work and benefitted from the patient guidance of some very skilled and experienced professionals who were not only very good at what they did, but invested time and energy to help others become good at it.

Asking people in all roles to begin to do and be what they have to do and become in an Agile environment takes more than just standard training (classes, readings, and exercises).  People need support when they're in their normal, day-to-day settings and relationships to help them break from established patterns and practices and do things in a new and different way.

The role of the coach is an appropriate and necessary one for those people.  Think of what a coach does for an individual athlete, singer, actor, or other talented individual aspiring to be better.  Think of what a coach does for a team of people, each of whom is talented and motivated but who need to learn how to work together to achieve an outcome greater than the sum of the parts.  The coach's activities consist of these types of things, for the group and the individuals, tailored for specific contexts:
  • Instruction
  • Drills and practice
  • Observation and feedback
  • Post-performance evaluation
  • Encouragement
  • Reminders of goals and aspirations
  • Examples from others settings of what has and hasn't worked
  • Facilitation skills that enable individuals and teams to continue improving on their own when the coach isn't present
While many consider coaching activities to be a manager's responsibility, the reality is that most managers don't possess the skills, knowledge and experience required to be effective coaches for Agile teams and individuals in their new roles.  A coach doesn't replace the manager.  A good coach will support the functional or team manager, and provide specific coaching so that the manager is able to evolve into a coaching role

Agile/Scrum are all about team output. It's a mistake to believe that a group of talented, motivated people will automatically work together effectively to produce great outcomes without a coach.  Look at any group of talented, motivated individuals, whether it be a musical band, a choir, a basketball team, a debate team, or a product development team.  We all know examples of such groups that fail to achieve their potential because of a lack of what a coach provides: vision, focus, instruction, coordination, opportunities for practice and feedback, ongoing challenges and encouragement.

I like college basketball especially as a great example of this.  NCAA men's basketball is full of great David-and-Goliath stories of the team of relatively average athletes who, because of superior coaching, is able to defeat a team comprised of relatively more talented athletes.  Again, the value of the whole exceeding the sum of the parts.

Coaching at the outset of an Agile transformation is especially critical.  Teams typically experience Tuckman's stages and are at risk of giving up and abandoning their Agile journey prematurely during the storming and norming stages, when the going is rough.  Once they do that, it's so much more difficult to get them to try again (I did a google image search to find a good graphic for Tuckman's stages and came up with this.  I like the graphic and I think the article talks about the value of a coach, but it's in French so I'm not certain (parles vouz Francais?)

The Toyota Kata is comprised of an Improvement Kata and a Coaching Kata.  This slide deck summarizes the Coaching Kata.  I like this description of the coaching cycle on slide 23:
A coaching cycle is an interaction, not an audit or surprise
check. The learner knows when the coach is coming, what
s/he will ask (the 5 questions) and prepares the information
in advance of the coaching cycle.

Coaching cycles should be framed as dialogues, not
lectures or debates. Novice learners may perceive coaching
as meaning they did something wrong, but the purpose is
not to control or to get people to do what they say.

There should be a genuine interest in both parties in the
target condition you are trying to achieve, what you are
learning and what will be the next experiment on the way.

Although I didn't earn a scholarship from my baseball or basketball skills, the involvement of a committed and caring coach helped me improve in many ways, both personally and as a team member.  In academic and professional settings, coaches/mentors helped me accelerate up the learning curve and the proficiency scale much faster than I could have moved without them.  Agile coaches can provide the same kind of value to people and teams as they set out to achieve things they've never done before.

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