This is a chapter from Amplio Development: The Path to Effective Lean-Agile Teams

Listen to an audio summary of this chapter here.

A professional Lean-Agile coach is a person who understands how to help teams and organizations improve with the theories of Flow, Lean, and the Theory of Constraints while also understanding the basics of human learning and interaction. Coaches need to play an active role in helping teams improve. ‘Active,’ doesn’t mean they tell people what to do, which is not effective. This is not because people may resist when told to do something. Sometimes people want to be told what to do. But if you tell people what to do, they may do it without working through the details of what is involved. If they run into problems, they may not know what to do. This lack of understanding may have them abandon the suggestion. This creates the mantra of a coach as a guide.

Being an effective coach requires:

  1. Clarity on what success means.
  2. A deep understanding of the area in which you are coaching.
  3. Being able to convey necessary concepts and what they mean to different roles.
  4. An understanding of how people learn.
  5. Tools to help people work together.
  6. Having the appropriate personal character.

Clarity on what success means. Amplio defines the success of an improvement initiative to be based on whether the speed of cost-effective delivery of value to stakeholders increases. The success of an organization requires that we understand the values of the organization’s stakeholders and provide value to them.

A deep understanding of the area in which you are coaching requires theory and practice. Deming said, “Experience teaches nothing. in fact, there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory, there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory, they learn nothing.” When a coach understands why things work they can provide that understanding both to the people doing the work and those responsible for them. This helps get everyone on the same page.

Conveying ideas to people requires understanding their concerns. For example, many people talk to executives by saying we must not start too many projects but instead have a focus on finishing. But many executives will hear this as getting less value, not more. Instead, we must tell them we will focus on delivering value faster. Executives will appreciate value sooner than working on fewer things.

You must also understand how people learn. People are complex beings. They have limitations on how they can learn and how much they can know at any one time. Understanding these limitations can avoid a lot of wasted effort. Understanding how people learn can help avoid invoking resistance in people.

Coaches should look for virtual boards to help the people they are coaching learn together. Teams are often not co-located yet still need to work together. Virtual boards are essential for this.

Having the appropriate character is essential but is something coaches need to learn for themselves.  A coach needs to be respectful, be a good listener, have high integrity, and have a commitment to whom they are coaching.

If a person doesn’t have the right temperament, they may be smart, but they won’t be effective. They will come across as arrogant and gruff, and people will resist their suggestions even when recognized as experts.

People tend to go to extremes in the Agile space. The options are not about standing back or being overly pushy. When you understand what’s going on, you can ask questions that guide and enhance other people’s understanding. You can point things out that others don’t notice. Being a good coach requires this. It’s not an attitude of following (the guide) but one of leading others in learning.

Coaching Vs Mentoring Vs Consulting Vs Training

Coaching is subtly different from mentoring. As a coach, you often don’t have any authority but are trying to guide who you are coaching to success. Coaching is typically done to teams.  A mentor is typically given some authority, or at least is recognized by whomever is being mentored as an expert in what they are being mentored in. While coaches may not have been hired as mentors it’s useful if they have the skills to do so. Many times an individual will ask for more guidance than what is being given to the team.

The distinction between coaching and consulting is that coaching is typically helping people down a selected path while consulting is often more about choosing the path. Coaches need to understand why the given path was chosen. And they often need to question is as well with double-loop learning. Therefore, while a coach’s role may mostly be about how to do selected practices better, it is helpful if they can identify when better practices need to be chosen.

It is useful if a coach has some skill in training. Very often, the people being coached will not understand something and the coach must be able to provide these missing insights.

In the coach’s world, all four of these blend together to different degrees.

This book concentrates on the coaching role. However, all of the information in this book will be useful for all of the roles mentioned.

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