Coaching is Not Letting Your Teams Fail

Failure is not always bad.  We learn through our failures.  So why not first let your team fail?  It is almost like TDD – set a goal, watch the team fail to achieve it, and then show them how to achieve it.  Poetic, no?  No.  People are not lines of code.  Teams first discovering Agile need more than education – they need guidance.  Guidance means leading the team on the right path; showing them the pitfalls to avoid; warning them of impeding hazards.  A coach’s job is not only to teach a team how to do Agile, but rather to help them achieve success.

Imagine a sherpa helping mountain climbers reach the summit.  He cannot stay in the rear, waiting for a climber to take the wrong steps and only then correct them.  Not only would this be incredibly demoralizing, but would make the ascent unbearably slow and hazardous.  A sherpa – not unlike a coach – uses his experience to show the best path to reach the peak.  He points out the seemingly harmless ice-patch that hides a dangerous crevasse; he selects the best shelter to protect climbers from an impending storm; and he makes sure nobody in the group falls behind.  The effective Agile coach does the same.

But what if a team chooses not to take the coach’s advice?

Agile teams are typically self-organizing and often self-managing.   A team can choose to walk a different path than the one suggested by the coach – just as the mountain climbers can choose not to follow the sherpa’s advice.  If the team fails, the coach is there to help pick them up, facilitate the retrospective and the ensuing learning.  No “I told you so” required.

But why would a team consciously reject a coach’s advice?

The coach is the Agile expert.  Why would a team opt not to follow his or her advice?  This can only due to lack of trust.  If a mountain sherpa takes climbers in the wrong direction, gets them lost, or puts them in peril, it is natural to doubt their expertise.  If an Agile coach provides bad advice, places the team in harm’s way, or in any way jeopardizes the team goal then it would be natural for the team to second-guess her advice.  This represents a breakdown of trust and faith in the coach.  If it persists it is a signal that the coach can no longer be effective and should likely be replaced.

Effective Agile coaching is not passive.  It is not simply about making background observations, assessments and comments.  Coaching should be about leadership; it should be about achieving goals; it needs to be about success.  Success does not mean simply learning Agile, but rather using Agile to successfully achieve the business or product goals – successfully reaching the mountain summit.