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Healthy Agile teams: How to separate project management from Agile coaching

SearchSoftwareQuality recently brought you a chapter excerpt from Lyssa Adkin's new book, Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition. I was able to interview Adkins for a podcast which sparked additional questions for this follow-up interview.

SearchSoftwareQuality recently brought you a chapter excerpt from Lyssa Adkin’s new book, Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition.  I was able to interview Adkins for apodcast which sparked additional questions for this follow-up interview. 

In your book you describe differences between a project manager and an agile coach. Do you ever recommend that there be both a project manager and an agile coach on one team or do you see the agile coach taking the place of a traditional project manager?

On a healthy agile team, the product owner is responsible for the product vision and for the results of the product in the marketplace. The team is responsible for creating a quality product that satisfies that vision. The agile coach is responsible for preserving the chosen agile framework and coaching the team (and everyone around them) to use it well to produce stellar results. With agile, questions about scope, schedule, budget and overall status are most appropriately answered by the product owner -- by the person making the tradeoff decisions about these aspects of the project every day. With agile, questions about technical decisions and approaches are most appropriately answered by team members.

With agile, coordination between the team and outside vendors and other teams is most appropriately done by the people who need something or who are asked to provide something. See how agile (done well) cuts out the "middle man"? So, rather than needing a project manager to run down deliverables, coordinate things between people and provide status information, we need an agile coach. We need someone who will help the team use their chosen agile framework to produce high-quality results, predictably and often. Someone who will help the team call-out the things that prohibit them from doing so. Someone who will notice the dysfunctions that are going on and not allow people to sweep them under the rug. Someone who will help them courageously face the things that limit them and make the changes needed to break through the limitations. Once those basics are in place, we then need someone to help the team take up their deliberate (and joyful) pursuit of high performance so that they can produce better and better results; the kind of results that make a difference and that make them proud. That "someone" is the agile coach. 

Do you recommend a particular agile methodology such as Scrum, XP, or AUP? Must an agile coach be well-versed or experienced in all common agile methodologies in order to be effective?

My personal preference is to use Scrum as the "backbone" framework and then add tools and techniques from other agile and non-agile methods to the mix, as they are needed for the specific work at hand. I find that Scrum offers both structure and safety, within which the team can create, make mistakes and, most of all, learn fast. When the teams I coach use Scrum with XP or even Scrum with Six Sigma we find success. In these cases, what doesn't work gets worked out through the sprint/retrospective cycle. When the teams I coach treat agile as a smorgasbord of methods from which they choose their favorites, we don't find success. Instead, we find frustration because the leverage built-in with Scrum to attack the company's dysfunctions is often lost in the "smorgasbord method." 

What do you think of hybrid methodologies? Is there a place for an agile coach on teams using a hybrid of traditional and agile?

On a team using a hybrid agile approach, the agile coach is absolutely necessary. In such an environment, "traditional" and "agile" will pull against one another. Traditional is set up for slower, repeatable results. Agile offers fast, creative results. Traditional has a longer time horizon which allows it to accommodate a company's limitations and dysfunctions. Agile cannot abide either limitations or dysfunctions because they restrict the team's ability to produce real product right now. An agile coach is especially needed in these circumstances to ask key questions that will help people make the right decisions for their situation; the decisions that will help them serve their product and their company the best. 

Is the ScrumMaster considered an agile coach on a Scrum team?

A ScrumMaster with experience across multiple teams and who takes those teams past the basics of getting Scrum practices up and running is an agile coach. Different companies use role names differently and it's not terribly important what name you use. It's more important that you step fully into the role of agile coach so that teams can reap the amazing results Scrum invites. 

You write, "becoming an agile coach entails education, experience, and practice." What education would you recommend?

In the book Coaching Agile Teams, I bring the allied disciplines of teaching, mentoring, facilitation, conflict mediation, problem solving and professional coaching into an agile context. Learning about any of these aspects of good coaching is useful and there are Coaching Agile Teams courses to help you do so. More important than any course, however, is to practice being an agile coach with agile teams. The teams will serve up situations that show you, very clearly, where the gaps and weaknesses in your abilities lie. When this happens, go learn about that particular thing. Classes can help, but coaching agile teams is not an academic pursuit. Agile is an active practice. 

How can someone that has a strong PM and management background get experience if they are unemployed or in an organization that is not currently using an agile methodology?

I often teach the Certified Scrum Master course through local PMI chapters and I get this question all the time! If you cannot use agile where you work (or if you're unemployed) then use it in your volunteer life. Have you ever been to a Parent Teacher Association meeting that was so poorly run that no one was moved into action or, worse, everyone was moved to action in different directions? Use agile to help them. Does your church have more work than it can do and are the members of your church staff burned out? Use agile to help them. People even use agile to manage their family lives -- chores, homework, house projects, and so on. Getting into practice is the most critical element of using agile. So, look around and find a situation that is struggling and offer the agile framework (and you!) as a way to help.

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