Coaching in agile

29 October 2018

In a recent survey, when asked what the most valuable things were that helped businesses to scale agile practices*, the most popular answers given by participants were the following:
  1. Internal agile coaches
  2. Consistent practices and processes across teams
  3. Implementation of a common tool across teams
  4. External agile consultants or trainers
  5. Executive sponsorship

The above tips all appear to be common sense items – bring a consistent way of working from the top down and use both external and internal guidance to support the teams in their ways of working.

The fact that these are the top recommendations, however, makes it clear that consistency and advocacy are the main areas that, in retrospect, matter the most.

A man sitting on a grey couch
"The application of internal coaching is clear – it’s the team’s responsibility to protect their own culture from within."

Three types of coaching

It doesn’t take long, when agilists meet, for conversations to spring up about a team they’ve met that thought they were “doing” agile simply by sitting the courses and following the cheat sheets that they’d been left with…only to find they were still going through all the old motions and not seeing the massive performance shifts they’d anticipated.

From the outside, it’s clear what needs to be done differently, that these brave businesses that have bit the bullet and started their agile journey could be getting so much more bang for their buck, despite the fact that they’re already happy with the improvements they’re experiencing.

Investing in coaching and the “advocacy” element of scaling agile combats exactly those kinds of issues – you need people in the team that know how good it can be to serve as the driving force that pushes them past a handful of isolatory scrum teams delivering things fast and small.

All of the types of coaching listed in the survey are important and will impact your teams in a variety of ways:

Internal coaching

When scaling agile, one of the biggest things at risk is the removal of autonomy from the team. This can happen as some of the non-endemic processes (which were often removed when the team was operating without considering scaling) begin to become part of the team’s decision making once again. Giving autonomous, flexible teams these out-of-scrum considerations can cause them to fall back into attaching themselves to business needs and priorities, undoing some of their most valuable new benefits.

Autonomy and empowerment of teams can only take hold of a team when they internally know how to use their empowerment (along with when to challenge the limits of their empowerment), when to try new approaches and when/how to decide if their current ways of working are effective. With this in mind, the application of internal coaching is clear – it’s the team’s responsibility to protect their own culture from within. This can (and should) be part of the scrum master’s every day role, but it is the responsibility of the whole team to be vigilant too, challenging the changes that come in to the team and coming to a consensus on how to manage them. So, as much as scrum masters, agile coaches and the fabled “pastors of fun” can monitor and make recommendations, it’s important that a team wants to protect the things they value and can police themselves communally.

It’s only at this point, where the team can identify and implement their own changes and deflect wasteful or damaging changes, that they can truly be regarded as self-standing.

Internal coaching as a member of a scrum team can involve looking out for team norms, challenging the things you’re unsatisfied with and even simply turning up – a team can’t push itself without consensus and accountability from everyone involved.

External coaching

No agile transformation can persist in a true, continuous-improvement-minded fashion without an awareness of what’s going on in the world outside. The datum is always changing and unless there are people monitoring the new techniques, nurturing existing techniques and observing the mistakes/learnings from across the agile landscape, it’s impossible to know just how good things are, or how good they could really be. It’s one thing to adopt agile principles and reduce the duration of your release process, but what if you learned that there were CI/CD techniques that made release durations a thing of the past and that other teams could confidently release things instantaneously…you’d want that, right?

This is a common and constant factor in agile and it requires people that can disconnect from a specific project, even a specific business or industry and explore all of the new things that have been going on beyond the horizon.

External coaching can take many forms, most commonly in the forming of “communities of practice”, the hiring of deliberately detached agile coaches and reaching out to neighbours via events and get-togethers. What’s recommended is to cycle external coaching in and out of a team so that team can tune itself with incremental improvements (kaizen) and sequentially implement the newly learned and experimental changes as the incremental change becomes less effective (kaikaku).


Without these changes in state, teams are at risk of entrenching themselves in their own local ways of working, making it harder for scrum teams to integrate and share at scale. Look out for teams pointing out the “not-agile” aspects of other teams and ask yourself which of the teams is tunneling their agile vision or imposing their ways of working on the teams around them.

Executive coaching

A team can only perform as well as the environment that they’re in. As such, coaching of agile values can’t start and end with only the team(s) taking part. The line in the Agile Manifesto “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is often compressed down to “People over processes”, when it infact is much more about getting amazing people together, empowering them with the things that they need to be as amazing as possible, then giving them the flexibility and trust in them that amazing things will happen.

In new-to-agile and new-to-scaling businesses, it’s not always easy for the operation to just leave teams to work without telling them what to do. The way to combat this is to get in on the highest level and inform, from the board of directors, through to the teams and out to the supporting departments so that everyone, at a minimum, has an awareness of how these teams will be working and what they can do to give them the best opportunities for success.

Executive coaching is not about telling a team what they should be doing in order to scale. When done well, it’s about giving the teams the empowerment to think for themselves and the coaching aspect comes from identifying if they’re using the empowerment as best they can. Make teams aware of the support they have and the many forms it takes, baring in mind they’ll be unable to spend a resource if they’re unaware of it. Taking this one step further, teams should feel like they’re able to test that boundary. If they’re granted a hack day to try new things, are they identifying if one day is too much or too little?

Hopefully this short piece has helped, but if you’d like to talk further about any of the above then I’d love to hear from you.

*12th Annual State of Agile Report by Collabnet. ”Which of the following have been the most valuable in helping you scale agile practices? Check all that apply.” – Multi-choice answer section included an “other, please specify” field.

Cheers, Tam.