Agile coaches – special forces or catering corps?

I was talking to someone recently about becoming an agile coach. I am an agile coach so I told them that coaching is a cool thing to do and agile is a cool thing to be involved in.

Annoyingly though, they are already agile and their team is already working well as a unit. They can get better at their craft (coding, testing, problem solving and so forth), but they are already doing that.

I suggested that my friend do some scrum mastery. By this I did not mean that they could teach the team Scrum, which the team already know and kind of use (a bit). We talked about the role of Scrum Master but it turned out to be an anti-climax.

What the team really need is a facilitator, who can help them collaborate and take time to reflect and improve. This didn’t sound as cool to the craftsman I was speaking to as it does to me. I think facilitation is, in and of itself, a craft. I think that mastering facilitation takes time and practice and is something that you can be really passionate.

But for someone who loves the craft of devops, coding, discovery, testing or another area, maybe facilitation is a secondary skill, rather than a craft. We discussed how teaching a craft is fulfilling and how facilitation supports anyone who wants to leverage the combined power of a team rather than just their own skill.

So “Scrum Mastery” it is, along with some teaching of their craft. But what we really meant was practice facilitating and doing peer reviews of other people’s work. I think he will find that pretty fulfilling, even if you don’t get to call yourself the scum’s master or the team boss or anything.

Then he asked me what an agile coach is? Are we like the special forces who come in to perform extra-ordinary missions that rely on our heroism and extra-ordinary skills? I would of loved to have said yes, but it is just not our role.

Special forces are, I imagine, like normal forces but better at things. So the SAS and the Navy Seals are really scary soldiers who are hand-picked and trained to awesomeness. But is that really what coaches are?

We are not better developers – I guess you could have master coders who are sent in as a Swat team to tackle bugs that have taken the team hostage.

We are not better at discovery, although business analysis is one of my crafts. We can facilitate, but designers are the special forces of research and BAs are the special forces of internal discovery and analysis. So developers call in the special discovery forces to the their reconnaissance and scoping, but that is not us.

Maybe we are the teachers, but not of a specific craft. Maybe we are their the enable change and transformation, like an alchemist turning lead into gold. But that is not really true either, because alchemy is about working with raw, inert elements. Coaching is about working with people and while we help them uncover their gold, it is the team who are doing the magic to transform themselves.

Maybe then coaches are bystanders, sitting their talking while the team get on with their work. Certainly I fear we could be seen that way at times, but I don’t think that is a fair summary. We help with transformations, so we are change managers and we help with collaboration, so we facilitators and we also help bring a different perspective to the work of the craftsmen and women we work with, so we are useful in helping the team to take ownership of their growth and to more quickly and easily reach their potential.

Leaders also do some of what coaches do – they help the team grow and they bring an outside perspective to see the big picture. Leaders also facilitate conversations and alignment among teams. I would like to say we are leaders, which I think is partially true.

But one of the hardest lessons I have learned is that the leader of the team should be the actual leader. If the coach is acting as the leader then they should be coaching as part of their leadership role. I there is a leader already and the coach is allowing them to step away from their role as leader, then the coach is acting as an anti-coach.

So the coach can help leaders to lead better and teams to work together better, but I hesitate to say the coach is the leader.

So what are we then?

We do not fight the battles or build the final product for the team, but we enhance the ability of the team to do those things. We do not lead but we help the team to uncover and refine their own potential to lead themselves. We nourish and support the team to give them the energy and motivation to fight their battles and build their products.

I suppose that in the armies terms, there is a corps of experts that do that. It is not the special forces that the movies are always about though, it is the catering corps.

Aspiring to be a chef would be to want to master a craft, but to feed an army does not sound so sexy. To lead the charge of the army would be to want to be a hero, but to want to keep the army’s energy up, so they have the strength and motivation to lead their own charge while we clean the dishes after lunch, does not sound so sexy. And to help the team to see their potential, tackle their challenges and act on what they have learned sounds sexy, but to realise the team is doing all of that while you are facilitating the process might not sound so sexy either.

But when Caesar said that an army marches on its stomach and his head caterer got to sit their while the well-fed generals agreed, I am pretty sure the guy doing the logistics and food supply was pretty chuffed.

And I guess that is what you need to aspire to if you want to love coaching. If you do your job really well then the team can do their job really well, without having to worry about stopping to recover or burning out or sitting in the trenches starving while being expected to keep going.

If you want to be a coach then you want to be chuffed when you see the teams you work with set up for success and with the energy to see things through. You get to facilitate the pauses in the battle and you get to help the teams with what they need.

I think my friend has chosen to focus on technical coaching and mastery with a touch of facilitation. I am not sure that my pitch for him to come and join the catering corps of product development worked at all. But I guess we all find our own role in contributing to our team’s success.

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