What’s the Difference Between a Skilled Agilist and a Great Agile Team Coach?

Isn’t it enough to have great Agilists tell your people how to do Agile? Well, no.

We know that training alone is not enough to start great teams. Starting a team with just training is like feeding corn to chickens. Most of it goes right through, and pretty soon they’re eating whatever they can scrounge up.

The most reliable approach for a team start or re-start is to follow initial training with onsite coaching. This helps the concepts of Agile settle in and become a way of living. Having coaches available for new teams, leaders, and managers and for ongoing support is critical to the success of the Agile initiative.

I’m in my tenth year of working in Agile, and one thing that’s become very clear to me from studying great coaches is this: it’s not enough to know a lot about Agile. Many highly skilled Agile practitioners are not very good trainers, much less coaches. Coaching is a professional capability that not only includes domain knowledge but also the skills of teaching and much more. A skilled Agilist may be able to clearly explain the Agile values and principles; may be up to the minute on the latest Scrum Guide details; may know Lean and Kanban and Theory of Constraints; may understand ceremonies, roles, artifacts, waste reduction, team process, and scaling frameworks; may be skilled with XP engineering practices. These are all important—but all of them together are not enough to make a great coach.

As Lyssa Adkins explained in her groundbreaking book, Coaching Agile Teams, a coach needs to be able to engage in a variety of ways based on the needs of the situation. These include modalities commonly recognized as teaching and coaching, as well as facilitation, mentoring, problem-solving, and working with conflict and collaboration.

Lyssa Adkins along with Michael Spayd established the Agile Coaching Institute (ACI) to help Agilists develop “competence and confidence in the profession of Agile coaching.” ACI has since identified the stances and techniques that a coach of Agile teams must be capable of performing, creating this diagram to illustrate the range of skills required in a top-flight Agile coach:


A successful coach needs a great deal of self-awareness and self-mastery. Development as a coach includes challenges of maturation, not just skill acquisition. A coach needs to show up in a way that manifests the values and qualities that are important for Agile to succeed within a team and in the team’s organizational environment. These include a willingness to be vulnerable, an attitude of inquiry, and a genuine belief in the value of collaboration and creativity rather than a reliance on expertise or control. The successful organization in today’s world is a learning organization, and to really become one requires that team members, leaders, managers, and coaches all be committed to ongoing learning at a personal level, as well as in terms of the organization itself.

Recognizing the range and depth required of a serious coach can be the first step on an important developmental journey. I know it was for me. After several experiences of watching admired coaches ask powerful questions—or even remain silent—instead of simply giving answers, I realized there was territory here that I wanted to master. And this kind of understanding has informed SolutionsIQ’s position on the importance of coach development more broadly.

Lyssa and Michael and their partners, our long-time friends at the Agile Coaching Institute (ACI), have developed what we believe to be the world’s leading curriculum for developing Agile coaches. We recently announced that SolutionsIQ will be offering ACI team coaching courses—The Agile Facilitator, Coaching Agile Teams, and the Agile Coach Bootcamp—and that a group of SolutionsIQ facilitators are undergoing intensive preparation to offer these workshops to our clients, the general public, and our own consultants. These workshops are also accredited by the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile), so we will be able to prepare students for these prestigious certifications. Very few programs in the world meet the ICAgile Learning Objectives in Team Coaching. We believe the ACI program that we will offer is by far the best of them.

Read the full press release about SolutionsIQ and ACI’s partnership.