Over the past ten years, we have taught and coached thousands of Agile Coaches all over the world. We have also led large-scale consulting engagements for organizations in various stages of business agility adoption and transformation. We’ve worked with small organizations and Fortune 100 companies, start-ups and nonprofits, and spanned many different industry and market sectors.
Across our varied experience, with our clients and from our students, we have seen two competing, ad hoc approaches to Agile Coaching emerge. On one side, we have those who emphasize the practices of the various agile frameworks. We often see this approach from the agile coaches of large consulting firms leveraging Scrum, SAFe, or another framework or method in their agile implementations. Broadly speaking, this group is focused on the practices over the principles and values of the frameworks. They are, for the most part, responding to the current myth in the broader corporate landscape that we don't have time to ‘do it right’. Let’s call this group the Agile Experts.
From the other side, we see a different approach that could be seen as the polarizing companion to the Experts. This group, which we will call the Agile Gurus, deemphasizes the framework practices and is often found talking about the importance of the Agile Mindset. The Gurus have a popular refrain that they use to convey the way they view the proper way to approach agile:
"Don’t do agile, be agile."
This second group has gained momentum over the past few years. Interestingly, what we have also seen is that in response to the rise of the second group, the Experts have started taking on the language of the Gurus. We hear SAFe instructors use this phrase while spending days teaching others the intricacies of the SAFe map. We hear consultants from giant consultancies talk endlessly about the importance of vulnerability, authenticity, and compassion while simultaneously inflicting outmoded means of change on organizations (including their own). It is easy to take this as pejorative, but we do not see this as a problem caused by a single person who should feel blame or guilt. We believe that individuals from both of these groups are doing the best they can. We also know there are many system and systemic influences at play here.
“Don’t do agile, be agile” is an enticing idea. It offers us a different way to get what we want by promising a new way to show up in the world. When things aren’t going well (and let’s face it, few “agile transformations” go well), as humans we tend to go back to the old, familiar ways of operating, even when we know it isn‘t working. Secretly though, we long for a new way, for things to go differently. This tension is the very place that breakdowns occur. When we don’t know what to do, and we can’t effectively convey the longing we feel, we throw our hands up and instruct others to just “be agile.” Problems arise, however, when the time comes for us to teach someone how to be different. Giving people the vague instruction to be agile doesn’t provide them with the values, principles, or practices necessary for them to build the skill and mastery required for them to improve and for agile to thrive. To grow and develop as a community, we must have a way to articulate and teach people what we know and how we do what we do.
In order to be successful in any pursuit, we must understand what we are up to. This understanding often begins with establishing domain knowledge. Just as a football coach must possess domain knowledge of football, Agile Coaches must have deep knowledge of agile practices, principles, and values. How can we coach a team who is just beginning to adopt Scrum if we don’t have an understanding of the practices, principles, and values of Scrum? How can we help a new team understand the importance of an iterative and incremental approach if we, ourselves, don’t understand? Without this explicit Agile knowledge, we aren’t Agile Coaches.
Thinking Agile requires us to be rigorous in the development of our knowledge. Central to this is a deep understanding of the theories, principles and values that make up the various agile frameworks. In addition to these foundational underpinnings of agility, we need a thorough grasp on the practices that bring these principles to life. This necessary pursuit of domain knowledge becomes harder and more consuming as the body of knowledge that makes up the agile space expands. New articles, books, videos and thought leadership on agile appear daily. As coaches, we must stay abreast of new developments so that we maintain our domain knowledge. What’s more, we are obliged to learn and entertain ideas that we don’t necessarily agree with, if for no other reason than to be able to effectively disagree with them. From our point of view, domain knowledge is table stakes for an Agile Coach.
Further, effective Agile Coaching requires our ability to examine and, likely shift, our own sense-making and mental models. We must learn to be open to other perspectives. If we are unable to step out of our own perspective and see other points of view, our ability to serve teams is limited. We do not have the luxury of being subject to our own assumptions and beliefs, which means we must be committed to our own development. We will be pulled in the wrong direction countless times. Our work demands us to swim against the current. Without a clear north star of what you are trying to achieve as an Agile Coach, it is far too easy to get lost. After all, our mindset is about how we think, not how we are. The agile community has confused these two ideas. You are not your thoughts.
With all of this said, our ability to think agile is certainly required, and yet, it is not enough. Our knowledge is merely academic if it offers no benefit to anyone else. We need to find ways to transmit our knowledge to others to be of service as an Agile Coach.
When we zoom in on being agile things get tricky and we almost immediately run into issues. To start, how do we even define the word being? We don’t have answers to that question. The question of being has been tugging on us as humans for as long as we could name the concept.
If one tries to think the notion of pure Being (the most abstract category of all), one finds that it is simply emptiness—i.e., Nothing. Yet Nothing is.
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German Philosopher
Recent brain science seems to corroborate this nothingness. When we look at brain scans, there is no brain area, or combination of brain areas, that corresponds to our sense of “me.” So, while we each have a sense of ourselves, the concept of “me” doesn’t exist in one place.
We propose a shift in the way we think and talk about being agile. It requires specificity and focus on what we are actually trying to develop in ourselves. First, to get beyond the vague request to be agile, we need the ability to name the capabilities that allow us to develop our ability to be agile. Second, we need to allow for a shift in being to happen at the pace of the individual and, in many cases, below the surface. Developing integrity, empathy, and creativity are lifelong pursuits that move us towards being agile. These competencies are not built and honed by someone telling us to be a certain way, or even just deciding for yourself that you want to be different. In fact, these competencies often seem untouchable, or immovable. We can fall into the trap of believing this is just the way I am. However, research and experience tells us that these areas can be developed. By leveraging developmental practices from outside the agile world, we open opportunities to shift our inner selves in ways that can transport us into being agile such that our impact is felt in a tangible way. We develop the capacity to appreciate change and uncertainty, we become less attached to outcomes, we are able to be fully present in the midst of challenging conversations, and from all of this, we model these new ways of being for others.
We’ve already said a lot, but we are not done. In order to fully embrace the profession of Agile Coaching, thinking agile and being agile are not enough. It bears calling out that we actually need to do agile for our teams and organizations to reap the results and outcomes agile can unlock.
Somewhere along the way, the idea of Doing Agile has become vilified in our community. From a certain perspective, we can see why “don’t do agile, be agile” became a battlecry for some. As cynics ourselves, we can deeply appreciate the frustration that is often experienced as we witness organizations merely ‘install Scrum’ and call themselves Agile. Most organizations have a long, long way to go before they can value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Seen in this light, simply doing agile is not enough. Sleepwalking through the practices of the agile frameworks, will not bring organizations closer to achieving the benefits that would, could, and should emerge from this way of working.
At the heart of our quarrel with the aforementioned slogan is the awareness that focusing solely on being agile is futile. In all the conversations, articles, and articulations we have encountered of how to “be agile”, it’s our assertion that, upon closer examination, they are almost always a collection of things to do. Quite simply, we cannot be agile without doing agile. It is in our doing that agility really manifests itself inside organizations. Human beings exist in community. Through interaction (an element of our doing), we are changed by our relationships. The way we think and make sense of the world influences our being in that world. And that being, in turn, is influenced by what actions we take. Without actions, we have no impact. I would not be a coach if I never had conversations, and I would not be a teacher if I never shared my knowledge with others. Every action we take moves us into doing. We cannot escape it.
The doing of Agile Coaching takes on many forms. Too many to go into here. Maybe too many to go into anywhere, for that matter. The point here is that doing is not the issue. It is when we get lost in the doing, to the exclusion of all else, that we miss the mark of being a great Agile Coach. As many of you have doubtlessly experienced, merely doing the practices of the various agile frameworks can become decoupled from the intention of the principles and values that underlie them. We hear “installing scrum” and recall organizations that ask teams to begin working in two-week sprints as a means of improving productivity without any thought to the deeper values required to make these practices useful, nevermind the fundamental organizational changes that must occur to make that agility possible. When we confuse intentional action with mindless acting, we often make the mistake of vilifying both.
When confronted with complexity, our instinct as human beings is to reduce everything to the simplest answer. This is why we find ourselves in this Agile ‘slogan war.’ So, if the simplest answer doesn’t work, what does?
Our approach recognizes the inherent necessity to emphasize and integrate all three – thinking, being, and doing. We must Think Agile - that is, gather the domain knowledge that defines us as an Agile Coach. We must also Be Agile, by cultivating those capacities within ourselves that align with the essence of agile as described in the manifesto, principles, and values, including but not limited to developing our presence, empathy, compassion, curiosity, and flexibility. And, we must Do Agile, by being fully engaged in the processes and practices that enable greater flow and flexibility in an organization. Of course, these three components are not linear, and each informs the other. There is a constant feedback mechanism that happens between our thinking, being, and doing. It is, therefore, an iterative and ongoing practice. Through these areas, we can begin to pinpoint and develop the capabilities that allow us to grow as Agile Coaches.
This is our approach to Agile Coach Development at TBDAgile. We are experienced coaches and teachers whose mission is to bring outside developmental approaches into the agile world. As we design classes around these approaches, we view them through the lenses of Thinking (through mental models, sense making, and domain knowledge), Being (though cultivating presence, emotional intelligence, and somatic awareness), & Doing (through interaction and practices). This is what sets our approach apart from many others. We design our classes and workshops with a focus on introducing the practices, principles, and inner work that are immediately beneficial for Agile Coaches.
The intention of this article is to spark new thoughts. In time, we hope it also leads to a shift in you and your actions. If you’d like to learn more about our approach, we invite you to sign up for one of our 1-day masterclasses, our free monthly online offerings, or our Advanced Agile Coaching Program.
Dialogue is important to us. Whether you think this article makes total sense or you disagree completely, reach out to us. We’d like to talk with you. To keep this agile community growing and developing in a healthy and innovative way, we need to disagree. The important thing is that we keep coming back to the conversation.