Agile Coaches help with change.

Make Change significant with Agile Coaches

Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches - you often find them in agile teams around software development or other knowledge work. They usually provide direct support in the team and are often not very visible outside the team. But agile coaches and scrum masters can do much more!

The role of Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches is wide-ranging and, in our experience, is often understood very differently in different companies. In some companies, the role is even controversial, especially in the environment of tech teams, because it supposedly creates no visible output (in the sense of lines of code or processed tickets). But Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches can be extremely effective and quickly pay for themselves: expensive teams of high-calibre tech specialists and software engineers are helped to work productively and collaborate better. This almost miraculously enables the much-vaunted “high-performing teams”.

But to achieve this, Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters face a Herculean task: He or she is not only supposed to support the team in questions of self-organisation, collaboration and focus and help to identify and remove obstacles. The mandate and responsibility also goes towards the organisation, be it the entire company, department or business unit. Here, Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters develop the understanding for empirical, agile procedures and help with the concrete implementation. This can be Scrum or Kanban - or other agile ways of working that are helpful at the given time.

Good Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters therefore find themselves in changing roles, be it as coach, trainer, mentor and method expert.

But what if the role does not live up to expectations and cannot create the impetus for change that the company expects? The Scrum Master may be doing very good work in the team, but is hardly visible at the organisational level?

We hear again and again from managers that they would like to have a sparring partner for difficult change projects in the company or that they would be happy to receive hints and observations where there is potential for improvement in the work process.

The Scrum Master role is supposed to create a “safe environment” in the team, so that failure and mistakes can be seen as a normal and important part of the work. But does the same safety also apply to the Agile Coaches if they want to work outside the team to the organisational level?

One of the difficulties that Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches have to deal with is that the role expectations and areas of responsibility vary greatly from company to company. Scrum masters in particular are often understood as a purely operational team role. Here, an explicit role clarification can help to make these expectations visible, not only for the Scrum Master, but also for everyone involved in the company. If, for example, the expectation is to support the agilisation of the entire company or department, then this must be clear to everyone and the mandate for this must be explicit. Conversely, in a role clarification, Agile Coaches can also offer their competences in the area of organisation building and development.

But what if the role does not live up to expectations and cannot create the impetus for change that the company expects? The Scrum Master may be doing very good work in the team, but is hardly visible at the organisational level?

We hear again and again from managers that they would like to have a sparring partner for difficult change projects in the company or that they would be happy to receive hints and observations where there is potential for improvement in the work process.

Another point that can be crucial for the effectiveness of Agile Coaches is the assignment of the role within the organisation. If the Agile Coaches are disciplinarily attached to managers in the team environment, e.g. team leads, then it can be assumed that the sphere of influence remains limited to this environment.

If the Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters are also to improve cooperation between several teams, with other departments or even support company-wide change projects, they must be disciplinarily attached accordingly: namely directly under C-level or senior management positions. This can also be professionally independent, for example as a staff position under CEO, CDO or COO. We have also seen the model where Agile Coaches have been assigned to HR/Organisational Development. In our experience, this leads to them really working across teams and looking differently at the organisation as a whole.

It is about solid to advanced competences in agile methods, coaching, mentoring, communication, facilitation, conflict management, change management, training and much more. This requires trained and experienced people to be able to do full justice to the tasks.

What is often overlooked in this context is that roles with difficult and complex missions and expectations must be adequately managed. The more complex and political the mandate, the more senior the role needs to be. We are not talking about a team-assistant role that can be performed by entry-level staff. We are talking about solid to advanced competences in agile methods, coaching, mentoring, communication, moderation, conflict management, change management, training and much more. This requires trained and experienced people to be able to do full justice to the tasks.

Many companies shy away from investing in a corresponding position, which may be unclear to them and supposedly contributes nothing directly to value creation. In doing so, the great opportunities and improvements that Agile Coaches can provide are overlooked. To get an idea of this, there is the opportunity to use external coaches interim and try out what the role can do for your own company. External coaches have several advantages: They are usually available quickly and can work directly on concrete problems. The financial investment is manageable and clearly calculable. They do not have to be there full time, but calculate according to demand. At the beginning, external Agile Coaches will work out a clear formulation of goals and clarification of roles and ask for any need for change. After an introductory observation phase, improvement potentials are reflected back and action plans are developed with the affected teams and stakeholders.

In contrast to internals, they bring an unbiased, impartial view without applying the much-cited operational blindness. Existing conflicting communication patterns, which internals as stakeholders can no longer perceive, are usually recognised more quickly by outsiders and can thus be dealt with. They also bring a lot of experience from other companies, so acute issues can be put into a better context. In addition to the fresh perspective, external agile coaches also bring more openness to speak uncomfortable truths where internal ones may be somewhat more inhibited due to disciplinary constraints.

What is an advantage on the one hand can be a disadvantage on the other: The outsiders are not familiar with the structure of the company and must first find out about processes and backgrounds. This may take time and resources, which are needed for this. In addition, the acceptance of external people who potentially bring changes with them is not always particularly high and must first be painstakingly worked out by the agile coaches.

Agile coaches, who can be booked as freelancers or through service providers such as Leanovate, are not like the classic management consultants who throw slides around and then leave, but work hands-on and also take ownership and responsibility.

Whether with internal or external Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters, this role can be extremely effective and value-adding, as long as the above-mentioned points, among others, are observed.

Credit: Photo by Ross Findon on unsplash

Martin Stahl
Martin Stahl
Product & Org Coach

Digital Product Manager and Product Lead in Startups for over a decade. Now Coaching, Training and Consulting for Digital Product Management.