Real Coaches or Hierarchical Control in Coaches Clothing

This content is syndicated from Insights You Can Use by Esther Derby. To view the original post in full, click here.

I recently met with a group of managers who work in organizations adopting agile methods. Several of them asked whether functional managers should become ScrumMasters or coaches.

That’s a risky road.

One manager was adamant. In his view, making managers ScrumMasters was the best course of action. According to this fellow, managers already know people’s strengths and weaknesses. They know the domain, and the organization. So, he reasoned, the managers are already equipped to tell people what to do.

Errr. Not so much.  Coaches and Scrum Masters rarely tell people what to do. Usually, they work by different means–modeling, coaching, teaching.

But it begs the question, can a manager be an agile coach or ScrumMaster?

Here’s what I look for in an agile coach/ ScrumMaster.

Experience. If your company has used serial life cycles or ad hoc methods changing to agile methods is not a trivial matter. Nor is it simply a matter of adopting a few engineering practices or using time boxes.  Succeeding with agile does require engineering practices and time boxes. But the real change happens between peoples ears. It’s a shift in thinking–and not just by the development team. Some people change the way they work by changing their thinking. But many more change their thinking by changing the way they work.  Book learning and training is good, and it’s no substitute for experience in the agile way of working.

A deep understanding of agile practices and methods. Coaches need to know the why and when, as well as the how. They need to understand how practices fit together, the intent behind practices. People do need to adapt methods to local conditions.  Without understanding, adaptation is risky. I’ve seen teams and companies “adapt” themselves right back into the situation they were trying to fix because they didn’t fully understand the “why” behind some agile practices. An agile coach needs to be able to think through what adjustments maintain the essence of a practice, and which adaptations sustain the current pattern.

Coaching skills.  Seems obvious. An agile coach should know something about coaching. That means helping people learn skills through practice and feedback. It means helping people think through issues and see new alternatives.  It may mean providing answers, facilitating, or acting as a mirror. If often means helping people think about the way they are thinking, and helping teams get unstuck.  (It does not necessarily include “life coaching.”)

Coaching is tricky when a person also has the responsibility to rate and rank individuals. Coaching requires openness and trust. When people fear that revealing lack of knowledge or skill will show up on their annual review, they are less likely to ask for help. I know of several companies where managers are now “coaches” (and managers). Its confusing for the team members.  They don’t know who they are talking to–the person who helps, or the the one who will hand out a rating at year end.

Understanding of teams and team dynamics. Another skill that would seem obvious, but is often overlooked. When the job is coaching a team, the coach needs to understand something about how people behave in goal-oriented social units. He needs to know the foundations and enabling conditions that allow teams to form and thrive. He needs to recognize when problems are related to the design of the team, when they are system patterns, and when there are individual problems.

Interpersonal and collaboration skills. Coaching is about enabling other people to be more effective. The zeroth step is to make contact with people. If a coach cannot do that, he won’t be able to build relationships and trust. I do sometimes meet coaches who are all about “me.” Doesn’t work. Coaches need to be able to work with others, share credit, and let others shine.

Influence and organizational smarts.  It is silly (or worse) to expect a ScrumMaster to remove significant organizational impediments and drive organizational change–even though that’s often the hype. Coaches need to be savvy about the organization and to have influencing skills, so they can help managers understand the costs of impediments.

If you want empowered teams, you need to change the dynamic between managers and teams.  Slapping a new tittle on a manager (or project manager) will not change the dynamic unless the manager’s mindset and actions also change.

Of course, some managers do have all the qualities and skills to make the transition.  And some teams have the gumption to call out their former managers when they slip back into command and control thinking or acting.  Even when the mangers is willing and capable of changing the way he interacts with a team, it will take time for the new pattern of interaction to take hold.

But for many companies, calling managers “coaches” or “ScrumMasters” is really hierarchical control in coaches clothing.

Organizations still need managers.  Call them managers, and have them do management work–improving the organizational system and translating strategy into action. And get a coach to be the coach.


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