What is an Agile Coach?

As a go-giver the agile coach focuses on putting others’ interests first and continually adding value by serving an individual’s, teams’ and organization’s needs and helping them effectively and pragmatically deal with both their day-to-day and long-term challenges.

“An agile coach is three parts go-giver and one part go-getter”.

As a go-giver the agile coach focuses on putting others’ interests first and continually adding value by serving an individual’s, teams’ and organization’s needs and helping them effectively and pragmatically deal with both their day-to-day and long-term challenges.

An agile coach helps the individual, team and organization envision where they are going and the best way to get there; like depicted in Figure 1.



An agile coach is guided by an internal gyroscope that is set to SMART.

  • Servant-Leader and System Thinker
  • Modest and Motivated
  • Attentive and Attuned
  • Respectful and Resilient
  • Trustworthy

Servant Leader and System Thinker

“As you evolve, adapt, and scale being agile and lean, go rung by rung, one step at a time. Don’t look to far up, set your goals high but take one step at a time. The key is to make a distinction between where you are going and how you are going to get there.”

First and foremost an agile coach must be a “servant leader”. Robert Greenleaf, who after a career working with many talented leaders at ATamp;T from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, identified the desire to serve as the core motivation for great leaders, and the growth of people as the chief indicator of such leaders, whom he called “servant leaders”. “The best test (of the servant leader) is do those served grow as persons? Do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous (self-directed and self-organizing), more likely themselves to become servant leaders.”

“Think big, act small, fail fast; learn rapidly.”

An agile coach must be both a system-thinker [see the big picture] and a tactical-thinker. System thinking is the process of predicting, on the basis of anything at all, how something influences another thing. It has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to present outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of the undesired issue or problem.

System thinking, planning, and actions reflect one’s ability to take into account the big picture, to recognize patterns and trends, mental models, foresee issues, predict outcomes, and have smart "Plan B's" to fall back on. System thinking deals with mission and purpose - why your business exists, how it makes a difference, and where it will be in the future.

Tactical thinking refers to the hands-on part of getting the job done; making sure the system-thinking vision is met. Getting the job done, with respect to “being” agile, consists of iterative and incremental product development and delivery, with progress measured by the commercial or operational value added incrementally.

Modest and Motivated
The Greek word for modest translates to mean "of good behavior”. The Merriam-Webster definition is:

a: placing a moderate estimate on one's abilities or worth
b: neither bold nor self-assertive : tending toward diffidence

An agile coach knows their strengths and worth, but chooses to downplay this and is humble. An agile coach is self-motivated. They continuously pursue personal and professional improvement seeking out new ways of doing things and to gain new knowledge and skills.

In order to make change a reality one also needs to understand people are motivated from within. This having been said leaders can set up an environment in which people are able to motivate themselves. To set up an environment that enables employees to be motivated, leaders need to understand what the motivational needs of individuals and groups are. Determining the “what's in it for me” for individual employees and workgroups that is consistent with goals and strategies of the organization is the key to improving motivation for individuals and groups of employees.

Attentive and Attuned
An agile coach does more listening and less talking.

An agile coach is attuned and keenly aware norms and guidelines should not be rigid or prescriptive and evolve through collaboration between self-organizing and self-directing cross-functional teams based on reality.

An agile coach knows intuitively norm setting can only work if the team is truly able to arrive at consensus. Norms won’t stick if members have reservations about them. However, once consensus is reached, the team is equipped with a guide that can serve to strengthen positive practices. A set of norms can serve as a common reference if contrary behaviors arise. Finally, written norms are handy for potential members and newcomers who want to quickly get a sense of the team’s adoption of being agile. Norms in hand, a team can move forward inspired and motivated to uphold the team’s approach and confident in the security such guidelines provide.

Respectful and Resilient
An agile coach knows the what, why, and how of agile and lean product (system-software) development and delivery is not one persons vision alone; to become reality it needs to be a "shared" vision through negotiation and compromise between individuals, the team and the organization.

The collaborative nature of being agile and leanagile presents an interesting paradigm shift where roles and responsibilities somewhat blur and teams ideally self-organize and self-direct. The agile coach respectfully knows the importance of not offending or alienate folks in existing organizational roles such as Quality Analyst, Project Managers, Business Analysts, Testers, etc.; roles not specifically defined in Scrum. As time goes on, the agile coach helps team members reflect on and refine their roles to meet the goal and needs of the team and organization.

“Things turn out best for people who make the best out of the way things turn out”  – Coach John Wooden 

All our nerve endings are right under the surface of our skin. If we cut ourselves deep enough to reach the nerve endings we know it because it hurts. You would have to make a pretty deep figurative "cut" to hurt or discourage someone who has "thick skin". An agile coach is resilient because they have “thick skin”. Thick skinned people are not easily offended or discouraged.

An agile coach needs to accept you cannot control everything. I think we all know this at some level, but the way we think and act and feel many times contradicts this basic truth. We don’t control what the entire organization does, and yet we seem to wish we could. Most of the time we can’t even control everything within your own little sphere of influence — you can influence things, but many things are simply out of your control. So as you are faced with the many things that we cannot control we need to accept that, or we will constantly be frustrated and stopped in our tracks.

An agile coach is about being honest, telling the truth, keeping promises, and being loyal so people can trust you. Trustworthy people have integrity and the moral courage to do the right thing and to stand up for their beliefs even when it is difficult to do so.

Trustworthiness is a moral value considered to be a virtue. An agile coach is someone in whom you can place your trust and rest assured that the trust will not be betrayed. An agile coach proves their trustworthiness by fulfilling their responsibilities and not letting down expectations. The responsibility can be either material, such as completing a specific task, or it can be non-material such as keeping an important secret to themselves. A trustworthy person is someone that you can tell your worries and secrets to and know they won't repeat them without your permission.

In order for trust to be earned, an agile coach’s worth and integrity must be proven over time.

Last but most assuredly not least an agile coach is a student and daily practitioner of the great Coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Successes” as depicted in Figure 2.


Figure 2 – Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success

[1] Term coined in the book “The Go-Giver” by Bob Burg and John David Mann

About the Author
Russell Pannone is the Founder of We Be Agile and the Agile Lean Phoenix User Group, as well as the Agile-Lean Adoption Lead. With almost 30 years of system-software development and delivery experience, my focus is on working side-by-side with folks on real projects helping them deliver valuable system-software to production early and often, giving those I collaborate with the best opportunity to beat the competition to market, realize revenue and discover insights that we can use to help us improve.

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