What is an Agile Coach?

Recently a friend asked about the definition of the title, “Agile Coach.” Googling “agile coach” informs me that there are about 205,000 pages with that term. Obviously the term is in widespread use.

I don’t typically call myself an Agile Coach, though I’ll use that term informally if it’s the term used by those with whom I’m having a conversation. Instead, I call myself a Software Development Coach. To me, the goal is developing software more effectively, not becoming Agile. Agile processes and practices happen to be excellent tools for effective software development, but lousy goals in themselves. Or so it seems to me.

This morning, I got a call from a recruiter looking for an Agile Coach for a client. They were a bit unhappy when I gave them my daily rate. “The client has a budget and will never pay that much.” When I asked what rate they were expecting, they said $50/hour, all inclusive.

I made more than that a decade ago as a contract programmer. I cannot imagine finding a competent experienced coach for that rate. I’m sure that you can find a body to sit at a desk, though. Is there value in that?

This low rate, and the fact that cost is a primary factor, but value isn’t even mentioned, makes me wonder about what this role of “Agile Coach” has come to mean to organizations looking to hire them.

If the value received and the cost paid are nearly equal, then cost is of critical importance to avoid spending more than the value received. If the value received is an order of magnitude more than the cost paid, then variation in the cost has much less affect on the Return On Investment.  This is very similar to the point that Tom DeMarco made in his article “Software Engineering: An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone?” [IEEE Software, July/August 2009] “This leads us to the odd conclusion that strict control is something that matters a lot on relatively useless projects and much less on useful projects.”

I fear that for many large companies the generic “Agile Coach,” and the Scrum specific “Scrum Master,” has become a term for a person who neither programs nor tests software, who is added to a development team to make it Agile. It’s as if you could sprinkle some pixie dust on your development teams to make them more productive, or whatever advantage they can see in the adoption of Agile.

Is that what “Coach” now means?

I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised. The meaning of “’instructor/trainer’ is circa 1830 Oxford University slang for a tutor who ‘carries’ a student through an exam” based on the Hungarian word for a carriage. It’s clear that some people have always wanted to hire someone rather than learn to do for themselves.

Certainly there’s value in getting one project done a little more effectively than you might otherwise. If you can hire someone to work full-time on a project and guide the actions the team to improve the effectiveness for the duration, then I expect you’ll get enough marginal value that you might get some ROI. I’m skeptical about accomplishing that with the most cut-rate of coaches, though.

The true value of coaching, however, is to build the capability of the existing team. Rather than making choices for the team, the coach provides guidance about the choices available, perhaps making recommendations, and encouraging them to consider the options and choose their actions. The coach teaches the team about techniques or tools that increase their available choices. The coach offers observations about the team’s activities, and helps the team make it’s own observations and reflect on them. The coach helps the team articulate the results it wants, and generate courses of action to achieve those results. The coach partners with the team on the coaching process, but allows the team to exercise its own judgement about the software development practice. The coach does not become a member of the team, but endeavors to wean the team off of the need to consult with the coach on a regular basis.

There are consultants whose business model includes making the client more dependent on the consultant. That, to me, is not coaching. And that’s not the model of consulting that I choose.

7 Replies to “What is an Agile Coach?”

  1. I think that 7th paragraph says it and says it for situations which pay more than $50/hr, too. And your 11th paragraph explains nicely what it ought to mean.

  2. George, this is great. You triggered me to think about how very few agile “coaches” have any other experience of coaching. They neither retain a professional coach for their own benefit, nor have they studied or practiced “coaching” as a co-creative venture that expands the capacities of both the coached and the coach. If they had, perhaps they could execute their relationship with their teams as you have described in your 2nd-to-last paragraph.

    Beyond the main coaching theme, I love your phrase “excellent tools for effective software development, but lousy goals in themselves”. It is really annoying to make the observation that a company just wants to “be agile”, as an ultimate goal. They want the degree without paying for the education… they make superficial interpretations of how agile can help them, but can’t really get to the strategic relevance.

    Kind regards,

  3. Hey George,

    I agree with much of what you said here.

    The only thing I may disagree with was your comment that a coach should either develop or test software.

    There is so much going on outside the team, I think there is a role for an organizational coach that helps the larger organization understand how to create the right environment, and manage the overall backlog of work, in a way that supports agile teams.

    My background happens to be project/program/portfolio management, but I have been working side by side with software teams for 20+ years. My focus is mostly on creating the types of organizations where agile teams can be successful.

    Past that, everything you said is dead on. What we basically get into is title dilution. Everyone wants to be an engineer.. a domestic engineer… a sanitation engineer. Just like in my project manager days, you had $25K/year project managers and $250K/year project managers… the title becomes meaningless.

    So what is an ‘Agile Coach’? Someone who attends a 2 day agile course and has experience working with a team, or someone that is deeply experienced leading change in an organization, and has the depth of experience to guide and facilitate a team coming to its own conclusions.

    The latter of course is what I see as a coach. Many of us will have to call ourselves something else as time goes on, due in part to the dilution of what it means to really coach.

    Thanks for the great post.

  4. George,

    Thank you for expressing the statement below. I wonder if it is time for us to get real about Agile Coaching Ethics as a community. Perhaps we have waited too long. Evidence for this includes the brazen nature of ‘Agile Coaching’ advertisements and blog posts, which attempt to make legitimate the worst kind of dependencies between client and coach.

    I wonder if we might be able to do much better. Certainly “what we tolerate we insist on”, to quote Jim and Michele McCarthy.

    I frame some of the topics to consider in this series of very short blog posts:

    Agile Coaching Ethics





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