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What Do Agile Coaches Need to be Successful?

What Do Agile Coaches Need to be Successful?

Anthony Mersino

February 22, 2019

9:38 AM

Previously I have written posts about the most Important Agile Coach Traits and What Makes an Agile Coach effective. The point of my writing was to put some guide rails around a job that is relatively new and has very few standards. Bob Galen’s writings on this topic have shifted my thinking.

The Best Agile and Scrum Coaches Have This

Bob Galen is among other things an agile coach, practitioner and author. I’ve been reading Bob’s excellent writing over at his blog at RGalen.com. There were two of his articles that challenged my thinking about what it takes to succeed as an agile coach.

One of his articles speaks to the trend of Agile coaches bashing managers in an Agile transformation, as if managers are to blame for the current state of affairs in organizations. Bob’s point was not to criticize unless you’ve been in the role yourself.

In Have you Walked in the Shoes of Technical Management, Bob further expands this idea. He goes on to identify the 5 areas of experience that he believes agile and scrum coaches should have.

  • Software development experience
  • Technical leadership role; team lead or architect
  • Project delivery experience in agile and waterfall
  • Experience in other technical domains like Business Analysis or Software Testing
  • Senior leadership roles; 5-8 years of line management

My own list of important coach traits only shows one point of overlap – the hands-on experience as a developer. I hadn’t noted experience in those other areas as important; probably because like most other coaches, my list of recommended traits is based on my own strengths and excludes my own weaknesses.

Since reading Bob’s blog, I’ve been rethinking his list of traits and conducting a mini self-assessment. I recognize that I am weak in a few areas on the list – like experience as a developer – and I often wonder if there is value in developing those skills. I could go off to a coding bootcamp and then get some paid or unpaid experience as a developer.

And while I do have project delivery and software testing experience in my background, I don’t have the 5-8 years of line management experience that Bob recommends for coaches. He (and others) have posited that you cannot teach or coach managers and leaders without having first hand experience as a manager or leader.

Ouch. That is not an experience that I am going to get in my lifetime. While I don’t necessarily aspire to be only a coach and trainer of leaders, I do consider that part of the job of a coach helping organizations succeed with agile and Scrum. Does that make those of us who aspire to coach to be ineligible for the role if we don’t have hands-on experience as a technical manager?

What Experience do Professional Coaches Have?

Curious, I looked to coaches in professional sports for clues as to whether coaches need to have been former players. Frankly, I picked sports because the data is readily available and statistics abound on the effectiveness of the coaches.

In baseball, there are plenty of position coaches, though the main “coach” of the team is called the manager. In Basketball and Football, there is a designated head coach. Do all those managers and coaches have experience as a player before being a coach?

  • Looking at the current 32 Major League Baseball (MLB) managers, a solid 80% of them played MLB themselves. Few were standout players, but they did play major league baseball.
  • In the National Basketball Association (NBA), the percentage of coaches who were players drops precipitously. For the 2017-2018 season, only 12 of the 33 coaches played in the NBA, or 37%.
  • The National Football League (NFL) statistics are slightly worse. Of the 32 NFL coaches, only 10 of those played in the NFL, CFL or Arena Leagues.

What This All Means for Agile Coaches

I would agree with Bob that having first-hand experience as a line manager or technology leader is great for all agile coaches. It helps with your personal credibility and empathy for others in that role. That is going to help with enterprise agile transformation, for example.

However, I don’t think that it is required to succeed as an agile coach. Like professional sports, I think you can teach and coach in areas where you personally don’t have that first-hand experience.

Bob’s advice to me was to go to school on technology managers and try to understand them better. Perhaps shadow them unpaid for a few weeks to learn more about their goals and challenges. I took up the challenge and conducted a series of interviews of technology managers and even created a video on the topic. You can learn more about the results of those technology managers interviews here in Empathy for Technology Managers in Agile.

If you liked this post, you might also like my article on How to Succeed as an Agile Coach.

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