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6 defining qualities of a great Agile coach

In a previous post (link), I shared some red flags to watch out for when identifying an Agile coach. Now, let’s flip the script and focus on how to recognize a good one, whether you're considering hiring a full-time employee or a contractor for this role.
This article reflects my subjective opinions and experiences, having interacted with a multitude of coaches in various capacities—be it as a client, partner, or contractor. Here, the spotlight is on those qualities that, in my viewpoint, significantly elevate the proficiency of an Agile coach. It's essential to factor in what resonates with you personally, aligning with your company and team's unique needs—elements such as cultural fit, personality, and working style are paramount. As always, exercise discernment and prioritize what genuinely holds value and relevance.

#1 Focus on Outcomes

An exceptional Agile coach should always have a clear rationale behind every action, whether it’s conducting training, facilitating Agile transformation, introducing new tools, or coaching a team. The application of Agile ways of working should not merely be for the sake of “being Agile” but should be strategically utilized to enhance customer and business outcomes. Interestingly, there are circumstances where Agile might not be the most suitable approach!
When considering a potential coach, inquire about their most recent significant project and its reasons. A competent coach should articulate how this undertaking aligned with the company’s overarching vision and objectives, and most importantly, how it contributed to enhancing business outcomes.

#2 Flexibility

An Agile coach should value flexibility. It's funny, but in Agile, which is all about adaptability, some people are very strict about how things should be done. Avoid coaches who say there’s only one correct way to handle retrospectives or backlog prioritization.
In Agile, principles like customer focus and team collaboration are key. But there are many ways to apply these principles. It's not always necessary to follow a framework or rule strictly. A good coach will prioritize these principles and be open to different methods that help the team work effectively and happily.
When choosing a coach, present a case study that doesn’t follow conventional rules, like a team using tasks, not user stories. See if the coach insists on following the "book" or is open to understanding the team's reasons and finding the best solution for them.

#3 Active Listening

Effective coaches are great listeners; they listen more than they speak. They aim to truly understand the company, the team, the challenges, and the underlying causes of issues before offering solutions. Someone who enjoys hearing their own voice more than understanding others may not be an effective coach.
It’s essential for a coach to practice active listening. They should create a safe environment where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns. The coach should give everyone time to speak and ask meaningful questions to uncover the root of problems. This is different from merely asking powerful questions to provoke thought and self-reflection, which is also a crucial skill in coaching.

#4 Systems Thinking

Looking for a top-notch Agile coach? Make sure they’re adept at systems thinking. A coach with this skill sees the organization as a connected web, not just as separate teams. They grasp how different parts of the company interact and impact each other, helping to tailor Agile frameworks that resonate across the organization, aligning strategies with broader goals.
Such expertise doesn’t develop overnight. It comes from a deep curiosity and willingness to understand the many facets of an organization. So, in choosing a coach, observe their eagerness to explore beyond immediate team environments. A valuable coach is curious about the entire organization, ensuring that their Agile approach harmonizes with the broader company context, allowing for a more integrated and effective implementation of Agile principles.

#5 Strategic Thinking

A good Agile coach should resemble a chess grandmaster, always thinking several moves ahead and carefully calculating each intervention. Like in chess, every move in coaching, every piece of advice or change in direction carries a significant weight, acting as a critical play in the intricate game of team and organizational development.
They understand that each action, no matter how minor it appears, reverberates through the team, influencing productivity and morale. By strategically choosing when and how to intervene, they aim to foster a cooperative environment, promote productivity, and align the team’s actions with the overall objectives of the Agile approach.
When evaluating a coach's strategic thinking, consider using real-world scenarios. Present them with a situation where a team is facing considerable challenges. Observe how they plan to navigate the issues, prioritizing understanding the team and its problems, and meticulously planning actions that will gently steer the team towards improvement and success. The goal is to see a strategic mindset in action, where each planned move is carefully considered for its broader impacts and potential to drive long-term success.

#6 Facilitation Skills

A good Agile coach is a strong facilitator. They bring energy, focus, and direction to meetings or workshops. They’re not just there to run all company events, but their skills shine in workshops, strategic planning, and more.
A coach should be positive, clear, and inclusive, keeping everyone engaged and moving towards the meeting’s goals. They should guide discussions and activities carefully, making sure everything runs smoothly and stays on track.
But a coach’s style shouldn’t be too over-the-top. They shouldn’t act like they’re hosting a children’s party, talking down to participants. It's all about finding what works best for your team and company to make sessions productive and meaningful.
Finding the right Agile coach is undoubtedly a challenging journey. When choosing, prioritize personal qualities and soft skills, and an outcome-oriented mindset over specific industry experience or adherence to a particular framework. Ideal Agile coaches don't cling to the "one and only correct way" of doing things. Instead, they maintain a focus on outcomes, employing a growth mindset to explore innovative, adaptable approaches. The key lies in their ability to continually evolve and tailor their strategies to what best serves the team and organization’s unique needs and objectives.
Agile coaching Soft skills Leadership