I recently had the privilege of attending Agile on the Beach 2020 in New Zealand to do a talk on Coaching Coaches – which is one of my favourite topics. Why ? Because coaches are a fundamental part of supporting an organisation’s shift into new ways of working so it makes sense that if you want to set up your agile transformation for success that you set the coaches up for success.

The talk revolved around 5 levers that we are using to do just that – set up coaches for success. And for those of you who are sharp eyed, yes the blog is about 6 levers because the 6 is emerging as we shift into interesting times…. and as a write this a 7th is emerging.

A quick look at the levers:

  1.  Activate The Coach (how is the coach experiencing being a coach and what would a 10 out of 10 experience look like ?)
  2. Activate the System (what is it we are creating and guard rails to get there)
  3. Mind the Jerk (or Activate the Human) (creating permission to mess up and not be perfect)
  4. Activate the Journey (Mind the Gap) (start from where you are at)
  5.  Activate the System (don’t take the system head on, what is possible now ? Bad systems take out good people every time)
  6. Activate Leadership (to lead is to empower and enable and create spaces where others can shine)
  7. Activate Agile (understanding the patterns and anti-patterns and the Agile levers that could impact those)

I work as a coach of coaches to a team of 5 amazing people who are all relatively new at coaching and some new at agile. I have also come out of the ever popular McKinsey implementation where I was internally transferred from a job where I had years to get understanding and mastery and then all of a sudden on Monday I am the Agile Coach, standing in front of a team of professionals tasked with making Agile happen. Which is a long way of saying that I had to learn on the job (the hard way). I was fortunate to have some really strong leaders and Agile mentors along the way. Not everyone has that good fortune, so it is important for me to not only understand what it takes for a coach to become amazing at coaching, but to also enable this journey for others.

When ask about what makes coaches good I tend to find myself in conversations around what a coach does and does not know about agile – how well do they know the theory. All well and good. An agile coach needs to know the theory – this is table stakes. Only when I check in and observe really good coaches at work I see something else. The magic isn’t in what coaches know, it is in how they use what they know. The difference is not in the doing, Let me use another analogy here. We focus so much on the ball that we forget that balls don’t move across fields on their own. Players move balls. A player can have all the skills and knowledge in the world, that doesn’t make them amazing or successful in itself. What makes them successful is how they make choices, how they use that knowledge to get the ball into the goal

Lever 1 : Activate the Person

Which brings me to the first lever, Activate the Person. Its even in the manifesto, people before process. I work with 5 amazing coaches and when I arrived as their chapter lead I knew that I needed to find out who they were as individuals. I wouldn’t be doing the coaching, so I couldn’t just tell them how I would do it. They aren’t me! How I coach is based on my strengths. I have had to learn how to blend agile content and knowledge with those strengths. Our starting point as a chapter was a simple question, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you experiencing being a coach right now ?”

A couple of things on this If you have been working inside a corporate for a while you may have a very strong frame of reference around ‘scores’ and an expectation that low scores are bad and need to be turned around. The point of this question isn’t to focus everyone on getting to a 7 and above and staying there, come hell or high water. The point is to have a conversation. I want to know and understand where everyone is at. If it is a 3 then it is a 3. A 3 isn’t wrong or bad. It is reality. The question is how can we shift that reality because no-one is going to be doing their best when their experience is a 6 or below. The conversations we have then are around what is missing for you ? Where could you see yourself getting ? A 7 perhaps ? What would thqt look like and how would you get there ?

Simply put. Until we can see and talk about how we are experiencing work we can’t change it. When we can see it we can start to understand what can be changed and what can’t (right now). When we start to talk about this in a non-judgemental way the power comes back to the individual.

For more on this lever, hop onto the blog series and Lever 1 : Activate the Person

Lever 2 Activate the Space

The next is about Activating the Space (Lever 2) and understanding where we are going, what it is we are trying to create. Coaches need to be able to choose what agile lever to use in a particular space. To do that they need to understand what success looks like and what they are creating. This is a contentious topic and there are many different takes on what agile is and what successful agile looks like. I have always found that life as a coach gets easier with a simple True North or North Star. Something that pulls people in a direction, something more of a horizon than a destination. I have had success using a simple statement – agile coaches support teams to deliver more value with more ease. It’s effectiveness is that it focuses not on how or on ceremonies, but on the impact we want to be having as coaches. It opens up the space for coaches to make choices and use their strengths.

An essential part of this lever is the concept of guard rails. How we create more value with more ease is important. We can either be responsible for the doing, so building the obeya boards, running the stand up’s, telling teams what to do, solving their delivery problems for them and giving them the solution that they just mindlessly implement. Or we can support the teams in finding their own way. In case you were wondering, the last option is the one that aligns best based on observations of coaches who have significant impacts on teams

It is important at this point to explain a bit more about what a guard rail is and what it isn’t. The point of guard rails is to create a way for us as individuals to become better observers of ourselves and the impact we are having. They are not solid concrete walls. They are also not rules that though shalt not break. We expect to go through them. Their power is in the conversation that happens when we find ourselves on the other side of the guard rail. What happened ? What pulled us here ? Was it something we chose or was it a pull from the team/ system we are in ? Is the guard rail still valid ?

For more on the guard rails, read the blog post on Lever 2 : Activating the Space

Lever 3 Activate Humanity (Mind the Jerk)

Lever 3 is slightly different. It’s more about me as the leader and I call it Mind the Jerk. I can also only really describe it by relating a story. About 2 (or was it 3) months into engaging the team of coaches I support I found myself in front of our coaching wall listening to one of the coaches excitedly sharing what was happening in her space. Her whole face was lit up as she shared what next steps were possible. I listened, as I always do only this time something else was happening for me. Instead of my normal curiosity and focus on it not being about me, I am not doing the coaching, it is about the coaches finding their way, instead of that, my inner jerk decided to come out and play. I waited (not so patiently) for her to finish (my jerk was gearing up nicely) and then I said, “Yes, but…..”. I can’t remember what the but was, it isn’t important other than it was me basically saying you are wrong, here is how it is supposed to be, I am the expert. What will stick with me is how in a nanosecond all the light and enthusiasm went out of her face. Even worse, the same thing happened with the 2 coaches along side of her. They froze and I realized I had just messed up! Big!

My jerk tried to convince me that as the leader and expert I had every right to intervene and judge what was happening as being wrong and not the right way to go forward. My inner jerk really did try and convince me that I was totally right and justified, only I could see her face. I have lived that! I know what it feels like to have the wind taken from my sails and to be judged and shown up in public. I have also vowed to never create that for someone! Ever!

So yes it would have been easier to just ignore it and pretend nothing happened. Only the damage had been done and it wouldn’t go away by ignoring it. So the next day I apologised and asked for forgiveness. I shared what I had experienced and observed and how that wasn’t the impact that I choose to have on the world. I felt sick doing it. Who wants to stand up in front of people and talk about how they just messed up and how I am after all not perfect ?

I work with amazingly gracious and gentle coaches, they forgave me and we moved on…into a totally different space. I had no deliberate intent behind asking for forgiveness other than an inherent knowing that I had to own this so. What I did not expect was the impact that it had. Something had shifted for us as a team. There was more freedom, more safety. Suddenly everyone was sharing more and sharing more of the things that perhaps made them also look imperfect. Some how we now all had permission to make mistakes and own them and move on. When you mind the jerk, you Activate the Human and that is what really empowers people. Allowing them to be their whole selves without fear of judgement. And yes, my inner jerk still comes out and that is OK. It doesn’t do it quite so dramatically and for the most part I catch myself in mid jerk and just burst out laughing and move on.

To read more about this lever, see the blog post Lever 3 Mind the Jerk

Lever 4 : Activate the Journey (Mind the Gap)

It’s round about now that things get exciting because up until now I haven’t really been talking much about agile and transferring agile over to teams. Lever 4 is all about that. It is about Activating the Journey or to put it another way, Mind the Gap. It takes more than a direction and passionate, engaged coaches to create the magic that is agile coaching at its best. You also need to know how to cross the gap from where you are now to where you are going. This sounds like a simple and obvious step. It isn’t! How do I know ? Two reasons. The first is a personal one, not being able to recognise and accept my ‘here’ almost cost me a world record. The second comes from listening to other people talk. I hear the word should a lot! Quite simply, should means that you are focusing on something that doesn’t exist right now and you can’t work with something that doesn’t yet exist. You can only work with where you are at. Should is at least one step beyond where you are right now.

A quick story to illustrate. As some of you know, I hold the Guinness World Record for the Deepest Dive by a Woman on Scuba. Long (long) story short (and I promise I am writing the Agile version of this story), I almost didn’t make it because I didn’t know how to recognize ‘here’. In my mind how it should work out was that Nuno Gomes (2 times world record holder and the person who taught me deep diving), would be my mentor and be there helping me work out how to get deep. Naturally I would do the dive with his support team (after all they were my friends and I was on that support team) and I would have full sponsorship. It would be easy, no risk really as Nuno would do the dive with me so if anything went wrong, I had someone who could get me back out again. Only Nuno didn’t buy it. I spent 3 years trying to convince him and the team that this was the way forward and didn’t get anywhere.

I have the world record simply because I gave up on where I thought I should be and instead looked at where I was. I worked with what I had even though I thought I had nothing that I needed and that there was no way I could get deeper from where I was. The end result was I did a dive in a high risk location (because I didn’t have the resources to access the better location), with a fraction of the gear I needed, on a shoe string budget with 2 support divers. I did it solo without anyone else to blame or lean on if it went wrong. There was just me making the decisions and choices. If I messed up it would be my fault, if I succeeded it would be my fault. Spoiler alert – I succeeded and 6 months later found myself with a full support team and sponsorship at the ideal dive site doing my first attempt at the record.

How does this translate for coaching ? You can only start from where the coaches are. It doesn’t help to have a list of things that a coach should be able to do – in fact working from a list of should is a sure fire way to create a space lacking in safety and so immobilise people. You can’t canyon jump!

Any journey is a series of steps and choices. You can only start from where you are at and if you are in a team, you can only start from where everyone is at. The first part of the journey is to get everyone to base camp. The journey to base camp is highly individual as pretty much every person is starting from a different point. Once everyone is at base camp then things get a little simpler. Everyone’s journey is still unique because every journey is in essence a personal discovery for the coach. It is about them finding out how they coach, how they use their uniqueness and their strengths to take them ever closer to the North Star.

How does this relate to agile and agile ways of delivering ? Well you can only start with where the teams are at, with the problems that they are facing right now. We talk about agile levers and we talk about agile patterns and anti-patterns because that gives us a way of being able to see where the teams are and to avoid canyon jumping. We also visualize our coaching work so that we can have stronger conversations about why we are choosing this agile lever. What other levers could be chosen ? Is this the best lever for the team we are coaching into ? What shift in delivering more value are we expecting to see and how will we see that ? How will we know we have been successful ?

When we engage with teams from where they are at, leaning into a real problem they are having that is impacting their ability to deliver more value with more ease, then we start to add real value to the teams. We start to be relevant and make a difference. We are no longer doing agile for agile’s sake.

For more on this lever, read the blog Lever 4 : Activate the Journey

Lever 5 : Activate the System

Which bring me to what I thought was the last lever, Lever 5, Activate the System. Everything we do is inside a system. In the words of Demming, a bad system beats a good person every time which means that it is really important that a coaches we are able to see the system we are in and work with it in a way that doesn’t take it head on. Because the system is always stronger than the people. The good news is that people create systems. To change a system requires everyone to start to make small changes to the system. Each change creates a little more space and if we are quietly persistent, changes that were impossible suddenly become our next step.

Systems are to us what water is to fish or I guess air is to us. It just is so we don’t even see them. For most of us, we coach into well established corporate systems that have strong processes and controls in place. Agile is often something completely foreign, a way of doing work that is anti the values of predictability and control and certainty. You can just jump into Agile, it’s a popular way of engaging and also a tough one. Or you can use Agile to do what it does best – solve real delivery problems.

Think of the system as a container! It has limits and edges and no go zones. The system is deeply entrenched and gives people a sense of security and comfort. I can’t be wrong if I am following the rules. As such how people show up and how open they are or are not to agile is going to be informed by the system people are in. How people behave is based on the system they are in. A quick example, agile doesn’t work with hero’s yet most corporate systems can only function with hero’s. If you keep on seeing hero’s pop up then look at what it is in the system that is creating space for that and look for how you can start to shift that and most importantly, look to see if the timing is right. Is the system ready to take that step ? If you are in the beginning of an agile transformation the answer is probably no, so don’t try! You just create resistance and trigger the corporate’s immune system which shuts down your voice and ability to coach people.

Let me put it another way. What if there was nothing wrong and nothing to fix ? Because there really isn’t. The corporate you are in is delivering and is getting work out the door. We are there to co-create a way to do that with more ease, more frequently, fewer surprises and more delight.

For more on this lever follow the blog post, Lever 5 : Activating the System 

Lever 6 : Activate Leadership

Which brings me to an unexpected 6th lever. When I originally did this as a talk the 5th lever (Activate the System) actually emerged in the talk itself. Since then the world has collapsed and we are all in lockdown which has created a new set of circumstances and in that, a new lever has started to emerge – the ability for coaches to stand in their leadership. Lever 6 is about Activating Leadership, not only in the coaches but in the teams we support.

Leadership is a big, big word and one that agilists and corporates spend a lot of time defining and growing. For me leadership is something inherently simple – it is about the place you are leading people to and whether or not that is a place that the people want to go and whether or not it is a place where they can be their best selves. Leaders are humble, the focus is on their team not themselves. The heroes are the team, not the leader.

Leadership is when the journey is balanced between the outcome and goal that is required and the people who are doing the doing. Leaders translate, interpret and adapt. They make decisions in the moment based on changing circumstances and they fundamentally know that to get tp there will take the collective intelligence of the whole team. They know it isn’t about them. It isn’t going to be their genius that gets the team to the other side. Their genius is in mobilizing the team. A leader’s genius is in helping people find their way, in keeping morale up, stepping in to avoid known hazards without disempowering or rescuing.

And here is the thing, every coach is a leader because leadership isn’t about doing or problem solving, it is about enabling the team and that is at the heart of what we do. The first guard rail was to stop doing and to stop solving problems for people and instead transfer agile to them, enable them to learn how to do this for themselves.

Even more importantly, leadership isn’t something that is awarded to you when you get a specific job title. It doesn’t require formal authority or permission to be granted. Which means that leadership is a choice everyone gets to make. I need to repeat this bit because I see so many people waiting to be given permission to lead. Leadership is a choice YOU get to make. Leadership is a choice about the impact you want to be having.

Where am I going with this ? When coaches find and use their leadership, teams start to become accountable and autonomous and are able to own the way they work. When coaches are living their leadership, they focus not on what is wrong right now, but on how we work with what we have and move forward in a way that empowers everyone.

Being a leader is a lonely place that is seldom recognized, understood or even rewarded in corporate. It doesn’t look like leadership because there are no commands, there is no ‘look at me being a leader’’. Leadership is humble and invisible which means this lever is probably one of the hardest for coaches to live. It is also perhaps the most rewarding.

For more on this lever, see the blog post, Lever 6 : Activating Leadership

Lever 7 – Activate Agile

There is a 7th lever, Activating Agile. I suspect all of you thought I would lead with that. How do we do that ? We talk about the patterns and anti-patterns for delivery that we are seeing and we reference these into an outcome or bet that will have the most significant impact to improving the delivery of value with ease. Then we look at all the agile levers we have, across Scrum and Kanban and Lean and we pick the one that could be the most impactful.

There are some starting levers, stand up’s (note, not daily Scrum), backlog refinement and replacement and of course sprint planning. We also play with looking for waste (it’s a no brainer to take out obvious waste and gives team time back) and of course the biggest and least used lever, manual visualisation.

For more on this lever follow the blog post  on Lever 7 Activate Agile

So there we are. 7 levers that enable coaches to co-create a space that sets them up for success. Coaching isn’t easy. It isn’t well understood and the success of a coach is mostly measured in how a group of independent adults choose to engage and use (or not) the knowledge that the coach has to offer. Basically, what I am saying is that you can be an amazing coach and still not be able to shift a team if that team isn’t ready for the shift.

For coaches to get back up and go back in and work their magic they need to have a safe space, a home that nurtures them, grows them and sees them. We don’t have that in the broader community so we need to create that for ourselves. We actually don’t have much in the way of guidance when it comes to growing coaching capability, so we need to find ways that will create this for ourselves.

How are you supporting coaches in becoming amazing and in being relevant and adding real value to the teams they support ?

How are you setting yourselves up for success ?

I would love to find out, so please get in touch and share what you have found to work and if you play with these levers, I would love to find out how that went and what you learnt.