What Makes a Good Disciplined Agile Coach?

We are often asked what makes a Disciplined Agile (DA) coach effective.  The features to look for in a DA coach include:

  1. People skills.  First and foremost, effective DA coaches need solid people skills.  They need to be prepared to work with a wide range of people coming from different backgrounds, with different learning preferences, and with different learning goals.  As a result DA coaches need to be empathetic, patient, respectful, and open-minded.
  2. Experience.  Good coaches understands the situation that you face, and more importantly understands how to guide you to tailor your strategy.  Effective coaches have many many data points from their experiences over the years, and as such they can recognize patterns quickly and provide appropriate advice to those their are coaching.  We’ve seen people who are very good agile coaches for small, co-located teams get into serious trouble the first time they need to deal with scaling factors such as large team size, geographic distribution, or regulatory compliance.   We’ve also seen good development team coaches flounder when they first start to address, in a meaningful way, the Agile IT issues faced by organizations applying agile across their entire IT department.  This is one of the reasons why we suggest that Transformation coaches be Certified Disciplined Agile Coaches (CDACs) as they need significant experience and knowledge to be successful.  The implication is that when you’re hiring a coach, make sure they’ve worked in environments similar to yours otherwise you run the risk of paying for their learning experiences.
  3. Pragmatism.  As Mark Lines astutely pointed out a few months ago, DA is pragmatic agile.  Effective DA coaches are willing and able to work closely with the people that they’re coaching, providing practical advice that they follow themselves. They also like to have real-time measures that reveal how their team(s) are doing, enabling them to make fact-based suggestions to help their teams.
  4. Knowledge.  It’s reasonable to expect a DA coach to be very knowledgeable about DA and agile in general.  Development team coaches are at least Certified Disciplined Agile Practitioners (CDAPs) and better yet CDACs.  To earn a CDAP you need to have at least two years agile experience, clearly a bare minimum for someone in a coaching role, and be able to pass a challenging test which explores their understanding of the DA framework.  CDACs need to have five or more years of experience and must pass a board-level interview.  These are meaningful certifications that people must work for to earn, and are a clear indication that holders of such certification have the requisite DA knowledge.   Transformation coaches, who coach an organization’s executive team through the process of transitioning to agile, should be CDACs.
  5. Skill.  Development team coaches must be skilled in fundamental agile techniques such as regression testing,  continuous integration (CI), iteration/sprint planning, look-ahead modelling and planning, requirements envisioning, and many more.  A good team coach should also be skilled in “advanced” agile techniques such as test-driven development (TDD), behaviour driven development (BDD), and continuous deployment.  Transformation coaches should be skilled in organizational change management as well as the fundamentals of IT-level activities such as enterprise architecture, data management, operations, portfolio management, and others.
  6. Leadership.  In addition to solid people skills, good coaches often need good leadership skills too as they need to be adept at convincing people to follow their advice.  Team coaches will often be Team Leads, or at least be working closely with the Team Lead, to help lead the team in making the “hard decisions” required to successfully learn the agile mindset.
  7. Flexibility.  A fundamental concept of the DA framework is that you need to tailor it to meet the needs that you face.  The implication is that DA coaches need to be agile to go beyond the advice in prescriptive methods such as Scrum or SAFe.  Instead of working from a prescriptive playbook, DA coaches will leverage DA’s goal-driven strategy to help guide teams make process-oriented and organization-oriented choices that are right for them. In short, just because someone has several years of Scrum coaching you can’t count on them having the background to be a good DA coach because they may only understand Scrum strategies and not the full range of agile and lean strategies supported by the DA framework.

If you’re looking for a good DAD coach, consider contacting us at Scott Ambler + Associates.  We’d love to help.

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