A Coaching Case Study By Lynn Winterboer, Agile Teams and Widows, UNITED STATES
A Coaching Practice for Agile Consulting
I have been an “Agile Coach” for 10 years, and in my ICA journey, several other students have asked me what “Agile Coaching” is. This case study explains how I brought coaching into my Agile consulting profession using two real-life examples of people who were unsure of their new roles.
Adding “Coaching” to Agile Consulting:
I first became interested in the idea of learning, honing, and using coaching skills in my profession in December of 2012. I had already been working for several years as a consultant specializing in bringing Agile principles and practices to data-focused IT teams. I signed up to attend a 2-day Agile conference in Boulder, Colorado, and the event hosts allowed some colleagues to offer a pre-event 2-day course on “Agile Coaching.” I decided to sign up for the class, to learn more about what “coaching” means in my industry.
The class, Coaching Agile Teams, was taught by Lyssa Adkins, an Agile expert and author of the landmark book Coaching Agile Teams, and Michael Spayd, an Organizational and Relationship Certified Coach. This class/hands-on workshop was an amazing experience for all 30 of the students in the 2-day experience. Together, we came to understand that “coaching” is not standing on the sidelines telling people what to do, but rather helping each person, and each team, find their own right path to success. We compared that stance to the other stances expert Agilists tend to take: teaching, mentoring and facilitating.
One of the most powerful exercises involved a large “map” marked on the floor with tape, with each of these four stances marked in a different part of the map. We all got up and moved to different parts of the map, standing in each “stance” while reading the definition and noting our individual physical, mental, and emotional responses. Afterward, we had a very good discussion about how we can use that insight to guide our individual journeys as Agile experts. The thing that stuck out to me was that while I was already fairly experienced in teaching, mentoring, and facilitating, my heart really wanted to use my natural gifts of communication and empathy to apply coaching in my consulting practice. I spent the rest of that 2-day class absolutely enthralled with the introduction to professional coaching! Although the activities were often quite challenging, Lyssa and Michael did a wonderful job of creating and maintaining a safe space that allowed us to explore levels of listening, powerful questioning, and shifting perspectives. It was a wonderful introduction to professional coaching, aligned with my existing profession as an Agile consultant. I will forever be grateful for that experience, at that time in my life, with those people.
Since that time, I spent many years as an advisory consultant, teaching data-focused Information Technology (IT) teams about agile principles and practices, mentoring them as they got started, and facilitating the development of their own core practices. I have, on occasion, been able to step into the coaching stance and help individuals find their own paths to what they desired. However, for the last 2 years, I have been the Agile Coach for a group of 14 teams, and this consistency has allowed me to offer coaching conversations to my clients, in addition to teaching, facilitating, and mentoring. The following scenarios reflect some of those opportunities.
Changing Roles: Project Manager to Scrum Master
Olivia had worked for the company for over 30 years and had attained a Sr. Project Manager title through hard work, strong relationships, and deep knowledge of the industry. When her organization’s leaders decided to shift from traditional project management to an “Agile” approach to delivering value to the company, Olivia was asked if she would become a Scrum Master – the facilitator of a specific team. As someone who was a loyal employee, a strong professional, and had a curious mind, she agreed to take on this new role. However, the educational resources available to her to learn about the new role left her confused and frustrated, worrying that perhaps she has made a big mistake in agreeing to the change.
Olivia and I met at the company’s November 2018 Agile Summit, where we discovered that her team was one of the many teams I would be working with as a new Agile Coach in the organization. I sensed her hesitation about the role and asked a few questions to understand her perspective. Olivia was used to having formal authority over the teams she had worked with, and this new role required her to be a “servant leader” – which sounded nice but left her confused as to how to go about it.
I invited her to meet weekly to explore the idea of servant leadership, and she eagerly agreed. Over the course of a few months, we fell into a nice cadence of blended coaching, where she would bring a topic or situation she’d like to discuss, I would provide clarity and examples to help define the Agile way of working, then we would have a coaching conversation where she explored how her innate talents and years of experience could be applied in this new Agile world. One of our earliest coaching conversations went something like this:
Coach: What would you like to take from today’s discussion?
Client: I want to understand what it means to “hold the process” for the team.
Coach: What does “holding the process” mean to you at this point?
Client: It means I help the team define their processes, then hold the process for them as they work on it.
Coach: What about that description do you want to understand more?
Client: I guess the first thing I don’t understand is what do they mean by “process”? We use Scrum, which has a pretty well-defined process for what meetings the team is supposed to have when they are supposed to have them, and some of the artifacts that the team should maintain. What else are we supposed to define?
Coach: Given your experience with the delivery of successful projects, what’s missing from that definition?
Client: So many things! Like, as who does what on the team, what our standards are, when is something ready for the next step in the process…
Coach: What could you do to help the team define these things?
Client: (lighting up a bit) I could hold some workshops where we talk about what else we need to define, then define them as a group.
Coach: Your face lit up at that idea – what’s coming up for you?
Client: I know from years of working with teams that when they come up with their own process, they buy into it much better than when someone else tells them how to work. But it’s hard to follow a new process, so having someone whose job it is to remind them of what they decided is helpful. I think I’m starting to understand what being a “servant leader” means – and that I’ve been one for a long time!
Olivia ended up being a leader among the 14 Scrum Masters in her department, due to her willingness to share her learning journey with others in similar situations. She modeled how to be curious over being an “expert”, and openly shared what she learned with others without any shame for having “started over” in learning a new role. Her example gave others the courage to let go of their need to have “manager” in their titles and embrace the idea of leading a team through influence and example, rather than commands and controlling.
Changing Roles: Business Analyst to Product Owner
Similar to Olivia, Brad had also been with the company for many years. He had become an expert business analyst who knew a lot of details about some of the company’s most important systems and business processes. However, unlike Olivia, Brad had never been a formal leader of a team and had gained his expertise as an individual contributor. With the shift to Agile, his manager suggested he would be a good Product Owner, the individual responsible for defining and sequencing the work for the team. He had the right business and technical skills to define the work, so he accepted the position. The challenge Brad faced was that his new role required him to make difficult decisions about the priority of each business request, and Brad didn’t have a lot of experience making hard decisions that might make some people unhappy. In his past role as a business analyst, he had always focused on what the project manager asked of him and had executed well against those priorities. In this new role, the burden of weighing various stakeholder requests and prioritizing them fell on him, but Brad froze and left the team trying to complete “everything”, therefore failing to complete anything. Brad asked for my help in figuring out how to manage this new role.
Initially, he wanted me to teach him how a Product Owner makes decisions about priorities. I stood confidently in the teaching and mentoring stance, providing him with several tools and examples to follow. However, he kept coming back with the answer that “everything” is important and it’s impossible to prioritize anything higher than anything else. After several rounds of this, I asked if we could shift our approach away from me being the “expert” to one where he is the expert on what’s important to and possible for him. He agreed to give it a try. Our conversation went something like this (excluding a lot of “story”):
Coach: What would you like to leave today’s discussion with?
Client: A way to prioritize all these business requests.
Coach: What is important about prioritization?
Client: The team says they need me to tell them what to work on first, and what to leave until later, so they can complete some things before starting others. They think that’s a faster way to get the business everything they want.
Coach: What do you think about that?
Client: I really hate this Agile thing – it’s too hard to do only a part of what the business asks for. We should deliver it all at once. The business needs it all – not just part of it. All of the ideas you gave me still require me to tell some business stakeholders their stuff is lower in priority than something else.
Coach: What’s important to you about that conversation?
Client: I don’t have the authority to make decisions about what’s right for the business!
Coach: Hmmm… Your manager offered you the role of Product Owner, that role has the authority to make prioritization decisions, and you accepted that role… What’s coming up for you?
Client: Well, IT leaders SAYING a role has that authority doesn’t mean the business agrees with it. It’s not fair for them to make me the bad guy.
Coach: It seems like there is a disconnect between how the role is defined and what you believe is possible in reality. What led you to accept this role?
Client: Agile seems to be where the company is headed and this position is a promotion from my former role.
Coach: So, you accepted this role to get a promotion you wanted. What’s stopping you from finding a way to make the prioritization decisions required of this new, promoted role?
Client: I just don’t think it’s possible for a Product Owner to really know what will make the stakeholders happy. I really think they should be coming up with the prioritization and telling us what they want. It won’t matter what tools I use or assumptions I make, they won’t be happy and I’ll fail at my job.
Coach: It sounds like you don’t believe in the role. What’s coming up for you?
Client: No, I don’t. I think it’s a stupid waste of time.
Coach: What are your options, given you don’t believe in the role you are in?
Client: (thinking…) I suppose I could look for a different role in the company.
Coach: What else?
Client: I could look for another job at a different company. But I don’t want to do that – I want to retire here.
Brad soon thereafter found a role in a more traditional part of the organization where he could use his strengths in business process and systems analysis to execute against priorities set by someone else. Although it’s taking a lot of energy to learn a new part of the business, he’s very happy with his decision to move out of the Product Owner role.
Future Agile Coaching:
I am so grateful to have the support of my company in enrolling in the ICA Vocational Coach Training program and look forward to shifting more of my conversations from “consulting” to “coaching” so I can help more people find what’s right for them!