I was pondering the value of team coaching recently. My conclusion was that coaches are awesome and you should definitely hire them.
If you are a hiring manager then there is no need to read on – just be assured that you will get a positive ROI on agile coaches – the more you have the sooner you can retire to a life of idle wealth and luxury.
But there is some small print. I saw a quote recently that resonated with me.
Biologist Roger Payne on the power of having your boots on the ground and paying attention:
“Any observant local knows more than any visiting scientist. Always. No exceptions.”Biologist Roger Payne
If I am to believe this scientist (though who really believes scientists these days?) then locals know more context and background than well educated outsiders.
With respect to coaching, I guess that means that the people doing the work, who collaborate together every day, know more about what is going on than a visiting coach will ever know. Always. No exceptions.
A counter view
While this argument has merit, I do think that there are times when people are “too close to the problem” to be able to see something they are not expecting to see. Worse, they may be too close to the problem to want to see things that upset their current view of the world, or cause trouble with others.
So I think a team coach can add value by bringing a different perspective.
They can observe “from a bit of a distance” and share observations, data, evidence and perceptions that the team would not easily uncover for themselves.
But does that mean that the coach knows more than the team about what they are doing?
Coaching is not advice – it is collaboration
One challenge I have had as a coach is that I offer an observation, which people then assume was meant to be acted on. The team, acting on my “advice” then do what they think I want them to.
This can be good if they asked something basic like “how do I set up a sprint?” or “Can we record our discussions in Jira so that it links with Chat GPT and creates acceptance tests?”.
But it is dangerous if people (including me) think that the data I review or the observations I make carry more weight than the experience of the team.
I can teach new techniques and I can certainly help with how to build a high performing team. But that does not mean that I have correctly interpreted what I observed, or that my take on cycle time and the factors that will reduce waste are correct.
Are we doomed then?
So I can offer observations and outside experience that lacks local context. The team can offer local experience and humanity but may be caught in the past or caught up in the details.
What I like about the quote though is that the scientist claims “an OBSERVANT local” knows more than a scientist (or coach). To me this is the key to success.
The coach should not fall into the (easy) arrogant trap of thinking they know what is going on, and then telling the team what to do. This takes accountability away from the people most impacted (and impactful). It also means that the most ignorant person with the least skin in the game, is making the decisions.
James can share heaps of views on many things that have worked somewhere before
So I can share a lot of experience about what others have done and what has worked really well for them, but we need to work together to understand how that can best be applied locally.
One thing that would work then is to have the coach being in the team. They might be a scrum master, tech lead or local manager, who is always there.
What I think works even better though is that the coach provides a different perspective for the observant locals to consider. Even more importantly, the coach helps the observant locals by helping them find the time and techniques to get better at observing, better at communicating their observations and better at understanding the observations of other locals.
So the coach is not there to know more than the team or pass down the correct approach to agile (or product development or customer discovery or brick laying). They are their to expand the information that the observant locals can access to help the locals collaborate better to make better use of the observations, experience and opinions and curiousity that they already have.