She looks anxiously at me and asks, “Are we agile enough?” There is a moment’s silence in the little meeting room while I search for a suitably sensible answer. The question is highly relevant.
After all, I’m my client’s new Agile Coach. As the seconds tick by, the silence grows louder. What does she mean? “Agile enough?”. She leans forward, narrows her eyes and the silence is transformed from long to awkward. There are just three of us in the room, but I can feel how expectations are rising all the way to the ceiling. I have to produce some kind of reply. “Well, it all depends …,” I say, as my thoughts begin to race. Surely, it’s a simple matter of yes or no. Or are there other alternatives?
The company that I´m working with is a big one. The IT division is huge. The determination it has to become agile is at least as big, and there are many people who are eager for me to help. Very few people in the IT industry bother any longer to ask if we should be agile in what we do. They take it for granted. There are a whole heap of advantages, such as the unflinching focus on what generates benefits and a constant stream of regular deliveries. There is a higher – a much higher – degree of self-organisation and an ability to adapt and learn. Organisational agility enables you to handle work flows so that they don’t clog up your systems. Not to mention putting an end to frantically churning out work with the help of constant overtime instead of focusing on strong, healthy working teams. I’m sure you’re familiar with the kind of thing I mean.
After a week or two among these high ambitions, I reflect on how often I have been asked by managers and project leaders, “What’s your opinion, as an expert? Are we agile in the way we work?” How easily such questions lead us to get bogged down in definitions and fine distinctions. Stand-ups are agile – no one doubts that. But is it agile to set up projects?
She is still looking at me with the same anxious expression. Her smile has evaporated. Instead a look of frustration spreads across her face. Is she starting to doubt that the room will ever echo to the sound of an enlightening reply? It seems awfully stuffy in here. Are the walls beginning to close in on us?
Finally, from somewhere deep within me, I find a firm foundation on which to build. Maybe you’ve already guessed my answer to her question? I start to speak by saying that it’s not a matter of defining a trend. It’s about working together to discover new ways of developing good code. Code that, in turn, means we can deliver products and services that are even more relevant for our customers and that help make the world a better place to live and work.
The initial reaction is silence. But it is soon replaced by a cross-fire of questions and answers that fill the little conference room. Questions like “So what should we do in our first sprint?” The energy level escalates rapidly. Now the walls are almost bulging outwards in the presence of so much power.
After our meeting my thoughts turn to the importance of “walking the talk” when implementing an agile transformation. That applies to all levels within a company. It’s all about agile leadership and transparency. What’s needed is a strong vision, an inspect-and-adapt mentality and the ability to test emergent solutions through a series of carefully controlled steps.
When an agile transformation is imposed upon you from above – or from the side – it’s easy to revert to old habits and to try to satisfy more or less explicit expectations. That’s hardly surprising, I suppose. For me, however, agility is about enabling teams to explore their own paths to success, giving them the freedom to set a compass course for even better coding that yields even greater benefits. Then the answer to the question is an invitation to engage in a dialogue: “Tell me what you want to achieve with an agile organisation, and together we can test different solutions.”
Be bold! Or, to borrow a well-known quotation, be the change you want to see. Then we will be able formulate the answer together and stop defining trends. We will focus more on what we want to achieve through our joint efforts: to create more value and – we hope – a better world, too.
What is an agile coach?
There is no definitive description of this role.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) does, however, distinguish coaching from other services that can also be helpful. For example, the ICF distinguishes coaching from consulting, as follows:
While consulting approaches vary widely, the assumption is the consultant will diagnose problems and prescribe and, sometimes, implement solutions. With coaching, the assumption is that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions, with the coach supplying supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks.