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A Plea for the Agile Coach

Over the last few years, many firms have changed to agile methods like Scrum for their software development. The biggest changes were using an iterative process when implementing projects as well as the use of Scrum masters. Scrum masters were also later called agile coaches; they are meant to clean up the path for the teams so that they can concentrate on their primary tasks. How is the role of agile coaches in businesses that develop software looking nowadays? Why shouldn’t organizations renounce agile coaches and what would they be lacking without agile coaches?

The agile coach in changing times

In the beginning of agile software development, the agile coach helped to establish new principles like iterative procedures, self-organization and getting early feedback into the teams. Over time, agile work became second nature to developers. The agile coach now had more time to take care of topics that concerned the whole organization. The influence on the daily work of the team was reduced and was no longer as important as in the beginning. The organization outside of the team had learned to work agilely or adjusted to agile work in teams. Even the removal of impediments by agile coaches happened less and less.

However, in many firms, this development leads to the mistaken belief that agile coaches are no longer necessary or that they can take on completely different activities. The roll of the agile coach is more limited to the moderation of ceremonies or is changed to a general, organizational topic. That counts things like a survey of employees or organizing IT-internal events. The fewer agile coaches directly supporting a team, the more solid this disbelief became. That led to open positions that were not filled and the role was even abolished in many businesses.

The cause of this development is that the agile coach’s work can’t be measured exactly. With the withdrawal of the agile coach, though, the work of the development team also changes. You get a good impression of the value of the work of agile coaches when you imagine how the development team’s work would look without them.

What changes when an agile coach is missing?

Without an agile coach, it quickly becomes obvious that the daily Scrum meeting is no longer used by the team to plan their work and to discuss it amongst themselves. Rather, the focus shifts to the developers reporting their previous days’ work to the product owner. There will be less consultation with each other, individual tickets will no longer be so well coordinated and the product owner will be bothered with technical details. If development carries on like this for too long, you will start to notice that the developers are always more concentrated on specific tasks and that will take away from the common team work. An agile coach can react early to such developments and keep the work of the team up to a high level. The coach can keep the focus of the daily Scrum meeting in their sights and regularly examine and improve the cooperation of the team with retrospectives. The team will then work like that – as a team – and not just as a group of software developers.

Furthermore it should also be noted how the cooperation decreases between teams and areas and slows down the further development of the organization if an agile coach is missing. A coach alone cannot stop those sorts of tendencies, but they can create a consciousness for sensible cooperation between teams. If this happens organization-wide in all development teams, then the cooperation in the IT section becomes more noticeable. Because the task of the agile coach is the only one in an organization that puts this in focus, and that keeps an eye on the whole organization. Swap coaches between yourselves, prepare innovations obviously quicker and the organization will pass through a constant process of improvement and optimization. On the other hand large project that rely on the cooperation of multiple teams are more simple and smooth to implement. A not insubstantial factor if an organization, for example, would like to – or has to – completely renew their system landscape.

Agile Coaches

It only becomes clear how useful an agile coach is when you have gone a while without them…

The added value of an agile coach

Good development teams require support more than leading ceremonies and removing impediments. They require a coach who is always supporting them and helps them improve. An agile coach can not only stop the steady dilution of the agile principles, but also supply an added value for the work of the teams and for the development of the organization as a whole.

The following tasks can be listed here:

Leading Scrum ceremonies/moderation

That is the basis of the job of every agile coach. It makes sure meetings take place smoothly, checks the time and the focus and keeps the team free of organizational tasks.

Measuring and optimizing the development performance of the team over multiple sprints or iterations

Here the agile coach sets up a row of key performance indicators that are regularly raised after each sprint or iteration. A KPI can be, for example, ticket throughput and idle times, the amount of releases or the occurrence of bugs or impediments.

Further development of the team

The agile coach pays attention to whether the cooperation of the team changes from the side of the KPI and makes sure there are regular results after the each sprint or iteration. So the coach, then, together with the team, leads measures to improve cooperation.

Working as a coach

The agile coach gives the team members feedback about their work and helps them to constantly improve. They observe the team’s processes as an outsider and that way take up hidden problems (lacking conversations, conflict, too many unplanned extra activities).

Hosting workshops

When setting up a new team, for example for projects or for new theme fields, an agile coach is very important if the goal is to make the team aware of new tasks and the motivation behind them. A kick-off workshop organized by a coach makes sure that the team understand quickly and get started with the work in a goal-orientated way.

Further development of organization

The coaches of difference areas change amongst themselves and lead to cooperation between teams and areas. They collect different working methods and give new impulses to the teams. Because the problem within the organization can also trickle down into the work of the individual teams, agile coaches get a good impression of which needs for change exist over the entire organization.

How should agile coaches best be used?

So that the full added value can develop, there are a few conditions connected to the use of an agile coach:

  • Each team should be assigned an agile coach. The agile coach doesn’t have to work exclusively for one team, but should come from the same area.
  • For every area there should be at least one agile coach in circulation who supports the area management and the product owner by supporting the absorption of an atmosphere for the area.
  • An agile coach should have time to take part in all their teams’ ceremonies. Primarily to enable the moderation and to keep the concentration/focus on the best possible work results. But also to watch the working methods of the team to be able to optimize them.
  • Agile coaches have to be able to swap with each other. So it is advisable to collect the coaches themselves into a team and not just divide them into individual areas. Then the employees’ development of their individual needs can be better adapted and the exchange is simply regulated through team dailies.

Summary

Through the progressive establishment of agile development methods, the occupation of the agile coach has also changed. From moderator of the Scrum ceremony and problem solver for the team, the role develops to that of a coach who supports the team. The coach constantly has the team in their sights and optimizes them gradually. The activities might not be easy to quantify, but the effects let themselves be qualified. The issue is that these effects first manifest when the team has to get along without the support of the agile coach. These days, an agile coach is not just the extended arm of the agile manifesto, it is essential for the constant improvement process of development teams and of the whole organization. For this reason, no ambitious development department can afford to do without an agile coach.

 

Note:

Stephan Seigewasser is Head of Technology in the High Perfomance Import field at idealo Internet GmbH and he is glad about the advantages of working with agile coaches.

 

Stephan Seigewasser is the Head of Technology in the High Performance Import field at idealo Internet GmbH and is responsible for high performing data processing systems. He has an IT degree with a focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence and has worked with agile software development methods for almost ten years. He has witnessed a lot of the described development first-hand.

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