We conversed with Jeff Lopez-Stuit recently on challenges for Agile Coach. Jeff is a Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coach and helps organisations and individuals to improve their ability to improve.
This discussion has brought up interesting information on why organisations need Agility, how to make everyone in organisation accept, respect and understand Agile, how to be customer ready, and common mistakes made in Agile assessment.
Q1. Why organizations need Agility?
Jeff: Learning to practice Agility well can give any organization the ability to continuously create and improve focus, delivery, and operations in such a way that it can be an unstoppable force for the good of its customers, employees and the world. Agility is a powerful shift in the way humans can make and use things. We’re entering a time when even some of the most ordinary objects can have some kind of intelligence and communication built into them. Learning to focus on the most valuable way to utilize these new powers is why learning and practicing agility are essential.
Q2. What are the challenges to find managers with leadership qualities, business acumen, and customer management skills?
Jeff: Last year, I coached at a medical technology company in the United States that had been founded by a man who was brilliant at identifying great leaders and managers. So brilliant, that it seemed like he could look at people standing on the street and see leadership potential in them. He used that gift to build his company from nothing to over $4.5 billion US over the course of his lifetime. When he saw leadership and management potential, he wasn’t looking for a list of business skills: he could see who they were going to be as managers and leaders, if they could quickly adapt themselves to changing conditions, and if they wouldn’t let impediments get in their way. His approach to business was to inspect and adapt, and he looked for people who could practice that and grow with him.
For current leaders and managers, the challenge is to not drag your past along with you and try to map what’s being asked of you now to how things worked in the past. Being uncomfortable with new and unknown situations, allowing people to work in teams and create their solutions, and facilitating communication instead of controlling it, are all fundamental skills that agile leaders have to learn. But before that, cultivating the ability to leave the past in the past is the most important skill to practice.
Q3. How to have everyone in organization accept, respect and understand Agile and its practices?
Jeff: The best way to inspire an organization to start practicing agile is to have a powerful vision and mission for a business future that includes agility, invite people to join in that journey, give them the space and support they need to learn and practice, and then believe and expect that they can be accountable for owning the delivery of the mission.
The most important element for a leader is a powerful conversation about the future that they can influence and coach an organization to own for itself. Too many companies try to adopt agility by inflicting a framework on people in hopes that they will all “become more agile”. Any attempt to improve performance has to have a context for why it’s happening, and an invitation to join.
I need to point out that this is the great contribution that Daniel Mezick has made through Open Space Agility. It’s a very powerful approach to allowing an organization to own its own future through practicing agile.
Q4. Share your views on 3 major challenges for new age coaches. How to overcome these challenges?
Jeff: The biggest challenge is to keep focus on doing good agile and helping others do it. Lack of experience and rigor in agility is the biggest threat to the agile coaching profession.
Unfortunately, there’s been way too much emphasis in agile coaching education on things like team and organizational dynamics, cultural transformation, and mindset, and not enough emphasis on agility itself. There are fundamental skills needed to practice and lead agile teams and organizations, and those skills must be mastered before attempting to coach a team. Most people learn these skills when working as a Scrum Master or Product Owner. Alas many people move on to try to become agile coaches before they master the fundamentals. Practice, practice, practice the fundamentals every day, in both your personal life and your team. That will lay the foundation for being a great agile coach.
Choosing your path and focusing your personal growth and development efforts to it is a major challenge now, and unfortunately, the agile community isn’t helping aspiring agile coaches do this. Every week there are new certifications and training programs that compete for your focus and money. (Disclaimer: I am a certified trainer in the Scrum @ Scale framework). An aspiring coach needs to be very careful to choose only those programs that will help them become a better practitioner. I can’t tell you how many aspiring Scrum Masters I’ve met that have a huge list of certifications printed behind their name but can’t facilitate a sprint planning meeting if their life depended on it. Believe it or not, attending a local meetup group to share experiences and practices can be a much more powerful way to learn than by attending a big-budget certification program.
The last of the three challenges is to stay open to iterating yourself. In fact, learn how to iterate yourself faster than the tools, technology and processes that are being thrown at you every day. You can’t help an organization with transformation unless you personally have mastered the ability to transform.
Q5. How can an organization become customer ready to receive changes quickly?
Jeff: The best way to learn to serve customers with agility is to invite those customers on the journey with you. Involve all your customers to create the product backlog with you and invite them to all sprint reviews to get direct feedback from them. As the agile manifesto implies, work with them every day.
In the best agile organization I’ve worked with, we invited the customer into a few hours of training to introduce them to the foundations of agile practices at the start of the program. We showed them from the first contact the value they would get from participating directly and daily in the development process and from providing iterative feedback on real working stuff. We gave them space to ask all the questions they could come up with. Then, that very afternoon, we invited them into the first user story workshop. The customer was overjoyed, because for the first time, they had an opportunity to work directly with the team and get honest visibility into the work that was going on. Partnership, transparency, and frequent feedback caused them to pivot their entire strategy from what they thought they would be doing into something that was immediately valuable.
Another example is a client that required all of their teams to have real paying customer present at every sprint review. Teams at that company often had multiple customers present – even when those customers were competitors! The customers knew that they sprint review was their best opportunity to get their feedback build into the product, so they were willing to sit side-by-side with competitors and have conversations with the team.
Q6. Briefly share some common mistakes made in Agile assessment.
Jeff: The most common mistake these days is to rely too much on metrics and dashboards to guide your actions before a team or organization knows how to practice agile well. To paraphrase something we teach at Scrum @ Scale courses: if you can’t prioritize, cool dashboards will only make you look beautiful as you fail. If you can’t deliver, fascinating metrics will only keep you busy calculating numbers while you fail.
During assessment, agile coaches often forget the very thing from the Agile Manifesto that we teach people: the most effective means of communication is a face-to-face conversation. You need to learn how to walk around an organization, observe what’s going on, and have conversations with people about what their work and lives are like. Swim in the waters of the people that you’re seeking to help. Orient yourself to what’s going on with people inside their own space before trying to assess them. Only then can you establish a good foundation upon which to assess which path to follow with your client.
All of the work an organization takes on to learn agility happens inside a context: the team, the organization, and the civilization people live in. Assessments often ignore this. This is why I never use an off-the-shelf assessment tool. Assessment tools often constrain a coach’s ability to help your client observe and orient themselves to where they are, and where they can go.
Q7. What is your advice to new generation of Agile Coaches?
Jeff: First, stand for something larger than yourself: something larger than you can comprehend achieving at your current state of coaching experience and practice. Take up that thing and make that thing your life. Don’t settle for being an agile coach alone: stand for something extraordinary in the world and let what you’re standing for flow through everything you’re coaching.
Second, master your agile coaching craft through practice. Whether it’s Scrum, Kanban, or any other framework, the core practices of what you’re coaching need to be modeled in your own behavior. For instance, if you don’t have a personal backlog for your own development that anyone can see, you’re going to have a hard time influencing teams and customers to adopt that same behavior. Do agile well in everything you do and hold the space that you’re coaching clients do the same.
Finally, don’t settle for whatever constraints or impediments that will inevitably appear in your way. Be completely unreasonable in what you’re standing for on behalf of your clients as you’re coaching. The practice you’ve done becoming a great agilest will support you in this. Be ready to break through the boundaries of what your prior conception of being an agile coach is. Even be ready to break through the boundaries of what the agile community or what some certification body tells you being an agile coach is. There is a strong tendency in professional education to commodify and standardize agility, so it can be packaged and sold. Don’t buy in to that. Learn from it what helps you, and then navigate your own path.
This is still a very young profession, and it’s quickly becoming a very global profession. The world needs you to contribute all your creativity and commitment to improving the practice of agile coaching. Agile itself is a means to do this. Stand for something great, practice delivering it iteratively, and share it widely and often to the whole world. Repeat that early and often. Through iterating and improving your agile coaching practice, you’ll improve yourself, your clients, and the world.
Jeff Lopez-Stuit is a Certified Enterprise Coach who has trained and coached individuals and organizations all over the world to improve their ability to improve. He guides organizations to exploit the fundamentals of Agile to leave behind the inadequate structures of the past and establish an environment that enables continuous delivery of the highest value for all.
Jeff has been invited to present at global agile events throughout North America, Asia, and Europe, as well as speaking frequently at regional Agile conferences wherever he is working.