Why Professional Coaching matters to an Agile Coach

Professional coaching is one of the four stances of an Agile Coach, and the reason for the word “Coach” in Agile Coach. But yet we see so many misconceptions of what professional coaching is and when to use it. I was recently involved in  a couple of discussions about this on LinkedIn, and was surprised that apparently many Agile Coaches still don’t really know what professional coaching is. Here’s why it matters to an Agile Coach.

In the Agile Coach Competency Framework, authored by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd for ACI, the different stances of an Agile Coach is explained. The white paper dates back to summer of 2011, so nothing that should comes as news. 

In the Competency Framework, Coaching is one of the competences that an Agile Coach should have. The type of coaching meant here is Professional Coaching, as described by for instance ICF. As stated in the white paper, Coaching is a profession in its own right, with competency models, professional standards, and ethics. 

What is professional coaching?

In its essence, professional coaching is helping a person move to a desired future state. The name coaching comes from the coach (wagon, bus) used for transporting people from A to B faster than just walking by themselves. 

People have goals they want to reach, ideas they want to develop or things they just want to move forward. By working with a professional coach, this is reachable and at the same time grows the person with new insights and unlocking unknown potential.

You just ask a lot of powerful questions, right?

Professional Coaching has different models, perhaps the most well known is GROW. In my ICF training we used the 5S model, created in the mid 1990s. It stands for Situation (what’s the current issue?) – Symptoms (what consequences does the issue give?) – Source (try to find root causes) – Shift (go to the issue from another direction, change perspective) – Solution (find ways forward, identify impediments). All conversations start with setting a goal. 

The point is, coaching is highly structured, often built together in a program of several conversations, all leading towards a goal, a new place where the coachee wants to be. There is no wimsyness or planless asking of random powerful questions. It is always with a goal in mind.

You can’t coach people about a topic they know nothing about, or?

Yes you can. A prerequisite to all coaching though, is that the coachee wants and invites to be coached. You cannot, and should not, force coaching upon someone. 

How much the coachee knows about a topic is irrelevant. If someone wants to learn something about a topic they know nothing about, but can’t make the progress they would like, being helped by a coach is definitely a good idea.

The thing is, good coaching goes deep. Often we have emotions that are stopping us from moving forward, rather than superficial things like a nice way to write a todo-list, or “just make space in your calendar” and so on. Those things are not root causes, but merely symptoms of the actual root cause. A root cause when trying out something new could be that you don’t want to look stupid. You don’t want people to think you’re incompetent. That’s where we should focus. 

Why should you use coaching?

We all know how hard it is to try to explain why a kid should do something in a certain way. “Don’t sit like that when you are eating”, “make your bed”, “clean your room” and so on. The simple explanation is that they haven’t experienced and internalised the a-ha moment, that sitting in a certain way makes it easier to avoid dropping food on the dress, or making the bed makes it cosier to go to bed at evenings, or that cleaning the room makes it easier to find that toy exactly when you need it. 

Same goes for grown ups. This is why having classes with only theory, teacher showing slide after slide and babbling away, is bad pedagogics. We design classes and fill them with exercises so the participants can experience and get the a-ha. Why should it be any other way outside the classroom? Coaching helps the coachee see their own reasoning more clearly, perhaps unveil a number of things they hadn’t realized about themselves, and help them get these a-ha moments which increases their knowledge about themselves, thus growing. Realizing something for yourself always beats being told what to do. 

Should you always coach?

There is a reason why agile coaches have more than just one stance. There is a time and a place for coaching, as well as teaching, mentoring and facilitating. Sometimes I change between these stances in a matter of minutes, often using coaching techniques when teaching for example. 

So if you, the Agile Coach, are the only source for information the organisation has when it comes to agile, then only using coaching is really not recommended. But that is seldom the case. 

Coaching is an essential skill for an Agile Coach!

As previously stated, “Coach” in Agile Coach comes from professional coaching. This is a really powerful way of helping an organisation, team or individual, grow. 

There are a number of situations where being proficient in professional coaching is an advantage; Coaching Katas, root cause analysis with 5 why’s, more or less any situation where you help a team reflect such as retrospectives, daily scrums, etc. Even when doing pair or mob programming it is useful to ask powerful questions rather than attacking. Consider the difference between “why should we extract that as a private method” to “what’s your reasoning behind extracting that as a private method”. The first somewhat attacking, potentially making the person go on defense, while the latter expresses curiosity in their thinking. 

To summarize, professional coaching is not a silver bullet (darn!), but a very useful and powerful skill in your toolbelt. Professional Coaching is a profession in its own right, with competency models, professional standards, and ethics.
I wouldn’t hesitate a second to have the help of professional coaches in an agile transformation and focus on the people who find it hard to do the change needed. It is a skill that you as an Agile Coach is expected to have some proficiency in.

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