Wed Nov 22 2023
I have the pleasure of reviewing Bob Galen’s Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching book. Wow, I was not disappointed!
Bob collaborated with many people to create this book. Foremost would be his co-creators of the book – Mark Summers, Jennifer Fields and Rhiannon Galen-Personick. Each of them contributed one or more chapters and remarkably, the book reads as if it has a single voice.
Previous to this book, one of the books I gifted the most to new coaches and Scrum Masters was Lyssa Adkins book, Coaching Agile Teams. It is a great book and has done well since it was published in 2010. It was my go-to agile coaching book.
That said, Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching is a badass agile coaching book. Bob Galen has taken the art (profession?) of agile coaching, dissected it, applied frameworks and related concepts and put it back together in the Extraordinary Badass Agile Coaching. In fairness to Adkins and the many many others who have contributed to the current state of agility, Bob was standing on the shoulders of giants when he produced it. It doesn’t matter – this is still a badass book.
Disclaimer: I’ve known Bob for at least 5 years now. I’ve sat in classrooms with him, attended his classes and even co-taught his certified agile leadership course with him (though admittedly he did all the heavy lifting). He and I have collaborated to provide training for others and we have connected various times over the years. I have the utmost respect for Bob as a coach, leader and human being. It has certainly colored this review of his book.
I don’t know when the practice of agile coaching began. I know that XP contained a role for a coach going back to Kent Beck’s book, Extreme Programming Explained in 1999. The XP coach role was more of a senior programmer who could assist with the technical practices and it was optional.
I began paying attention to the role of the coach not long after Lyssa Adkins published her book in 2010. In the early days of agile, a coach was someone that had helped an agile team and could potentially help you. There were no barriers to entry and no standards, a problem/opportunity that exists even today. Becoming an Agile Coach is as easy as updating the title on your business card to Agile Coach. (I know because that is literally what I did.)
Like all things agile, there has been a bit of a gold rush which the lack of standards and barriers exacerbated. Along with the demand for Scrum Masters and Product Owners, there was a corresponding demand for experienced practitioners who could support teams to adopt or improve their agile practices.
Several different coaching frameworks and training programs were launched including a highly regarded program that Lyssa Adkins produced with Michael Spayd called, Coaching Agile Teams. The Scrum Alliance also began offering certifications for coaches and others created training under the IC Agile banner.
Despite all these programs and resources, there remains a lot of confusion about agile coaching and uneven quality in the “coaches”. As a simple example, if you search agile coaching in Google, the second result is from Coursera and it includes a grossly inaccurate description of a coach as a PMP:
“An Agile coach is a project management professional that helps scale Agile practices across a team or organization.”
— Coursera Website, What is an Agile Coach, https://www.coursera.org/articles/what-is-an-agile-coach
Yikes! A PMP is almost the polar opposite of an agile coach! Yes we do need some standards!
Galen delivers on that need with this agile coaching book. He has curated the various coaching programs, attended training courses and pursued professional coaching certifications, published his thinking and invited feedback, and validated all of it against his real-world experience as a coach, leader and agile practitioner. The result is an awesome book. He has managed to pull together the best of all of that is available while keeping it agnostic. The product of that is what I think you can call an intensive course-in-a-book.
So yes I love the book and I recommend it. Here are some of the key things I think you should know about this book.
This book is for anyone purporting to be an Agile Coach. Yes, that means new coaches as well as those with some experience or “chops” as Bob likes to say. And it is a book for those who are coaching as part of their role, whether they call themselves a Scrum Master, team leader, Agile Practitioner, or something else.
As a side note, I was talking with an Agile Coach last week and he shared how much he liked this book. I told him it made me feel like an imposter. After all, when you learn about the potential for what an extraordinarily badass agile can be, you can’t help but appreciate how much you have to learn. I think the book will make most coaches feel uncomfortable or squirm a bit.
I don’t think Bob’s intention was to make people feel bad. In fact, I think what he has done is quite the opposite. This is a definitive guide to agile coaching. By defining what Agile Coaching is, the book helps all of us. It serves as a roadmap for learning and development. It helps to expose the posers, demonstrates the value of effective coaching, and creates a vision for what mastery in agile coaching can be:
Any profession or craft needs a clear baseline for true mastery. In the agile coaching community, we’ve shied away from clearly defining our profession, perhaps as something too prescriptive for this free-flowing and situational activity. But that has opened the door to incredible variability in the understanding of what an agile coach does. Not only has this diluted the craft, allowing for mediocrity and one-tool or one-stance coaches, it has also made it hard for our clients to understand what an agile coach is and does and what value they offer.
— Bob Galen. Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching
Many authors slave away in isolation. For a book about Agile Coaching, it makes perfect sense to collaborate with others. As noted, Bob invited three individuals to contribute chapters. He also referenced numerous others and incorporated their insights in the book. Most of those people are recognized thought leaders in the agile community. Heck, he even provided a cameo of me in a learning moment.
Three chapters were contributed by Mark Summers. These are about the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel and they provide some specific examples. I like the facilitation techniques and team values statement, in particular the EVEN OVER examples. Example, “Be patient and considerate EVEN OVER trying to move things forward too fast”.
I also like the reflection section here in the story. The reflection centers around the following:
Bob also included the ‘Principles of Agile Leadership’ from our mutual friend, Anjali Leon. They are worth taking the time to pause and reflect on each.
This inclusiveness and collaboration are what gives this agile coaching book a little more oomph in my opinion. Remarkably, Bob was able to weave all of that together into one text that reads smoothly. It reads as if it is written in one voice. (I actually hear Bob’s voice!)
Bob has incorporated the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel as the key framework for Agile Coaches to use. Mark Summers is the driving force behind the creation of the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel and Mark wrote the three related chapters.
Like many things agile, the Growth Wheel was created and is maintained by volunteers:
My vision is that we can do better as a profession to help agile coaches grow, and we can do better to help organizations understand what to look for in an agile coach. To that end, a team of us got together at the Scrum Coaching Retreat in London in 2018 to look at how we help agile coaches reflect on where they are and how they might grow. What emerged from that collaboration was the first version of the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel.
— Mark Summers. Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching
Mark continues to revise and update the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel with a group of volunteers from the Scrum Alliance. The most recent version of the wheel is shown below.
The thing that struck me the most about the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel was the breadth of the role. This is a pretty sophisticated role with multiple stances and competencies. It is not a title to be assumed or a role to take lightly. It is a journey to mastery and not a short one!
The second thing is that self-mastery is at the center of agile coaching. Those of us who are helpers or fixers will find this orientation helpful.
I already mentioned this but I think this agile coaching book could be considered a master class in a book. Bob and his collaborators provide lots of theory and real-world examples of application. Then they invite you to reflect on what you are learning and how you would apply it. Bob has always been a big fan of reflection and journaling and he mentions it throughout.
And that is one way you could use the book. You could commit to reading one of the 20 chapters each week, reflect on it, and journal about your effectiveness in that area and what you are learning. After about 6 months, start over.
You could also pair with another or start a book club though I would avoid making others a dependency for your learning journey.
Speaking of journaling, Bob provides a number of different canvases or templates to do just that. One example is the Agile Coaching Journaling Canvas. It includes the following prompts to spur your thinking:
Actually, all the canvases that Bob provides are great ways of getting your thoughts down on paper in an organized way. Bob provides all of these canvases in a handy PDF which you can download for free based on a URL provided in the back of the book.
There is a lot of value in capturing these insights into your learning and growth. This is essentially your personal knowledge base. You can use this structured data for personal reflection and self-improvement. You can also use the lessons derived from here for those essentials stories that you will leverage during coaching and training sessions as Galen notes:
The more experience you have, the more you have an inventory of experiences, both good and bad, to share with your clients as options. I recommend that you create an inventory of these things in your journals and writings so that you can bring them out when needed. This includes your ad hoc storytelling capabilities. I’ve learned that role modeling and storytelling are some of my most powerful tactics when adopting the Advising, Transforming, and Leading stances.
— Bob Galen. Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching
Something that Bob mentions several times in this book is the coaching dojo. I am familiar with coding dojos but never experienced a coaching dojo. In short, the coaching dojo is where a group of coaches go through a scenario and together they work out possible solutions or approaches.
The coaching dojo can be in advance of a particularly sensitive coaching session as a preparation for various outcomes. It allows the coaches to play with word choices and pacing.
You can also use these after in a retrospective fashion or as a learning technique for the group.
Related to the coaching dojo is the idea of paired agile coaching. Early in my work as an Agile Coach, I had the opportunity to pair coach with Tom Cagley. It was really more of a mentor relationship than true pairing and I credit Tom for teaching me much of what I have learned about agile ways of working.
Unfortunately, for most of my coaching days, I didn’t have the opportunity to pair with anyone. I often coached Scrum Masters and I collaborated with leaders in organizations. But I didn’t do true paired coaching until I worked with Susan DiFabio at a client.
I cannot overstate the impact that pairing with Susan had on me. We often agreed on the outcomes we were seeking but we came at it from different places. She was kinder and gentler and balanced my tendency to focus on results.
I would always advocate for pairing – even when clients are sensitive to the budget impact, something that Bob debunks.
Bob provides a canvas for paired coaching as well.
Bob does like arcs, that is, looking at activities as having an opening move, middle game and closing. We applied arcs to storytelling in the Certified Agile Leadership class I took from him and that was a key highlight for me. I’ve used stories in the past but they were often ad hoc. It helps to plan the stories and the key insights I want to share or the similarities in the current client situation.
But in this section, Bob is apply arcs to coaching. I’ll admit I didn’t always plan my conversations beyond thinking about the various discussion topics I wanted to cover. I liked Bob’s named techniques of Sense and Respond as well as Dancing in the Moment. Though I have not heard of these names before, they sum up the way I have felt sometimes (not always) with clients.
The coaching arc helps bring structure and meaning to the conversation and is more likely to result in focused and tangible actions.
I found Chapter 3 on coaching frameworks very helpful. Of course there is the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel I mentioned previously, which I think is the most comprehensive. But there are other approaches as well.
Many “coaches” are blissfully ignorant of the use of frameworks and I have to admit I didn’t spend enough time learning about, internalizing and applying frameworks in the past. I’ve seen and read about the X-wing framework but it never really resonated with me. I like instead the nine aspects of the Derby/Gray model which is far more intuitive and applicable, at least for me.
And I like the inclusion of the 3 Kanban principles. So many coaches learned agile as a CSM and they still come at situations from a Scrum orientation. Scrum <> Agile BTW. But those Kanban principles – start with what you do now, encourage leadership, and pursue incremental evolutionary improvement – are great guidance.
Bob also references Joshua Kerievsky’s Modern Agile wheel which I have always loved. I used to have it on my computer screen at a client’s office.
You had me at “Make People Awesome”.
“Never, ever coach without an agreement”.
— Bob Galen. Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching
Wow, this is not something I’ve ever done in my 10+ years of coaching. I’ve NEVER coached with an agreement! I consider that a mistake.
The options are out there. Bob mentions the ICF general coaching agreements and the ORSC Designed Coaching Alliance (DCA) or Designed Coaching Partnership (DCP). And of course, Bob provides a Canvas for the coaching agreement.
Bob shared an example of being hired to coaching someone and telling that person they are to be coached by you. This is exactly how most every coaching engagement I was in started. I was hired by a manager to coach someone. Likely in their mind I was coming in to “whip things into shape”. I am sure that I made most of the mistakes Bob mentions in this section as well as others he didn’t mention.
Bob encourages coaches to let the person to be coached ‘pull’ the coaching. No one wants to be forced to do anything and the FOMO is a more powerful incentive than someone pushing or trying to change you.
Another recommendation is to go in softly which was a technique that I usually applied. I always tried to meet one on one with each person I would be impacting – all team members for example – and learn more about them and establish some rapport. Knowing them personally really helped me and likely helped me to avoid some conflicts that I would have had otherwise.
On the other hand, I’ve had some situations where I was pushing coaching on people that didn’t want it and I did not have that level of rapport. I recall a technical lead on a team that I wasn’t able to connect with and who had no interest in my coaching. I tried various approaches but was not able to win her over. She wound up leaving the team and organization within 3 months which is a loss for all involved. Leveraging a canvas like the one that Bob provides would have been extremely valuable to me and possibly would have helped avoid the loss.
A related topic is Agile Coaching Ethics! Yes please! Bob shares some thoughts around the efforts to establish coaching ethics including those from the International Coaching Federation, in the Agile Coaching Wheel and current efforts from volunteers at the Agile Alliance.
“I believe we as agile coaches have a responsibility to our clients to provide a consistent level of excellence in our skills and capabilities, in our services, and in our intentions for how we will conduct ourselves. Ethics should be fundamental to the mindset of every coach as they interact daily with their clients. This serves a similar purpose to physicians having ethical standards: patients understand that there are skill differences between doctors, but can rely on a minimal set of operating standards for any doctor’s competency and performance.”
— Bob Galen. Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching
Bob shared a personal story about being asked to provide feedback on employees as a coach. I’ve also been asked that question and in hindsight, it is clear that there are ethical lines being crossed. This is something that a clear standard for ethics would help prevent.
One of the areas I’ve been challenged by is coaching up. Bob included an anecdote of our dinner conversation he and I had about coaching managers. It is touching on the one hand and slightly embarrassing on the other. In short, he saw a need in me and helped me by sharing his insights and challenging me to do more. I learned a lot from our conversations and collaboration in this area. I still find coaching up to be a challenge.
When coaching up, Bob advises focusing more on the stances of Advising, Transforming and Leading rather than coaching facilitating and Guiding Learning. He shares a number of leadership frameworks intended to better understand leaders.
Bob also provides some examples of coaching up scenarios. These scenarios describe leader behaviors, explore possible drivers for that behavior and some possible coaching responses. You can practice these right from the book or leverage them in your own coaching dojo.
Finally in the discussion of coaching up, Bob advises leveraging the language of the client. He also advises us to choose carefully the words we will use. Easy examples are using agile jargon unnecessarily, calling people resources, labeling things as success or failure or using I language instead of we.
I also notice that frequently when working with clients, there is often an ominous-sounding “they” out there that are not being helpful or are not on board with the transformation. Or “they won’t let us”. I am also sensitive to people labeling things are right or wrong.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the vulnerability of taking a stand. While Bob does a great job of collaborating and inviting others in, he also takes some controversial stands. He shows that he is not afraid to take risks.
Just like the title of the book
Would I have used “Badass” in the title of a book? Probably not.
But Bob did and he is badass enough to back it up with a mountain of hard-earned experience and expertise.
Bob likes to end a lot of his blog posts with Summing it Up. Here is how I would sum up this book.
This is a definitive guide to coaching. It serves as a roadmap for development. It will likely make the average coach feel uncomfortable or squirm a bit. It certainly did me. Some of that you can chalk up to “the more I know the more I realize I don’t know”.
Well, now you know. Use this agile coaching book and do the heavy lifting you need to do in order to succeed as an Agile Coach, and more importantly, to help the clients you serve. You can also take Bob’s course, Discovering Your Inner Badass Agile Coach.