Goal-Centric Coaching

“You cannot achieve an aim unless you have a method.”

W. Edwards Deming.

An agile transformation is concerned with leading an organization from its current state to some desired new state. A typical goal of coaching engagements is to help an organization get to some sustainable level of agile maturity, from where they can continue to make progress once the coaches depart. The primary role of a coach in this process is that of facilitator – one who remains neutral and helps steer the client organization in the development of their own solutions to the challenges faced. If the solutions are not developed by the client they are unlikely to own and fully commit to them, and upon the departure of the coach are more likely to retreat to the comforts of their prior ways.

There are many ways to do agile coaching – some effective, others doomed to fail.  Agile coaching is more about leading change than coaching the mechanics of scrum and agile technical practices. Those who fail to understand this set themselves up for failure. Of course, having expert-level knowledge of scrum or whatever flavor of agile approach is sought by your client is a prerequisite for a successful coaching engagement. However, while these skills are essential they are not remotely sufficient to ensure a successful outcome.

Many will balk at the idea of having goals and plans as part of an agile transformation. A transformation will have a starting point and a desired end-state, however the plan to connect these two states must necessarily be flexible and adaptable, in a way completely consistent with the principles behind the agile manifesto. For example:

  • Continuous Delivery of Value—frequent delivery of valuable improvements.
  • Inspect and Adapt—the team should frequently reflect on both progress and mistakes and the project should be adaptable and open to incorporating change.
  • Transparency—plans, progress and impediments should be communicated widely. Use information radiators (Kanban boards, Burndown Charts) in public areas to share plans and progress.
  • Sustainable Pace—the program should be designed such that the people involved can continue to make progress at a sustainable pace.
  • Self-organizing Teams – better innovation, buy-in and ownership results from teams who are self-organized and trusted to deliver their own solutions.

Having said all that, insufficient planning and organizing will very definitely result in a transformation that drifts off track or fails completely. There are a number of basic parameters that should be agreed with the engagement sponsor and any other major business stakeholders. Getting sponsor commitment means more than setting and communicating a goal – it also means getting everyone on board with the approach to be taken and the required time and effort required for success. Make sure that the sponsor clearly understands that the client team owns the improvement actions – not the coach. Here are the must-have parameters that need to be agreed with the sponsor:

  • Establish clear objectives and a clear picture of what the desired outcome looks like. For example: ‘production-quality iterations’.
  • Agree on the approach to be taken to achieve the objectives. For example: Conduct assessment of current practices, identify gaps with respect to the goal, identify actions to close gaps, prioritize actions into a ranked backlog that will be worked on. Iterate (or Kanban) on the backlog, conduct retrospectives, learn and improve the overall approach. Take a ‘minimum viable change’ approach to ensure modest but valuable improvements are delivered at a tempo that keeps the organization engaged. Review the output of each step with stakeholders and ensure alignment on interpretation of results and fine-tuning of approach or priorities. Above all, ensure that no-one gets surprised or blindsided.
  • Agree on expectations for the level of commitment from the implementation team, specifically time commitments from scrum masters and key SME’s. The improvements won’t happen by themselves.

When the above parameters are agreed, the sponsor must communicate them to the organization providing business context and underscoring the importance of the initiative. This is also a good time to communicate expectations on time and effort expected from all contributors.

Next nominate the implementation team (SM’s plus other key SME’s) and empower them with the time to invest in the initiative. Establish a progress reporting tempo and specifics on how progress will be tracked and reported. Establish separate meeting arrangements with implementation team (e.g. daily standup). From here, the execution might look something like:

  • Conduct assessment and identify major gaps. Review with implementation team and get feedback. Make adjustments as necessary based on additional knowledge supplied by the team.
  • Derive an action plan to close gaps – make this as specific as possible – i.e. Mary Smith will address action N by beginning of Sprint #5.
  • Ideally adopt an agile approach to implement the plan – turn the actions into a ranked backlog of required changes, and use scrum or a kanban to as the execution model.
  • Meet regularly as agreed (regular stand-ups) with the implementation team and review progress and impediments.
  • Regularly deliver and demonstrate meaningful changes to the organization. Get feedback, make appropriate changes or course corrections and keep going. Maintain the discipline of regular communication and alignment meetings to ensure everyone stays on the same page.
  • Meet with sponsor to provide progress updates and get help with impediments.

Coaches need to use every opportunity to work on aligning teams and stakeholders with the overall vision for the transformation. People easily become overwhelmed with the pressures of product delivery and it is at these times that frequent realignment is critical.

Of course there are many other details that will require our attention during the course of a coaching engagement, however, pay attention to these basic tenets and you will at least be able to keep most of your promises.

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