In adopting Agile, organizations ride three waves. In the third wave, the Agile coach will evolve into a delivery coach or a counselor. The delivery coach is best compared with a business consultant. To get a better understanding of what the counselor role could look like, it seems we need to warp into the future.
Organizations that start with Agile often have a strong focus on teams. When the individual teams hit their stride, the focus shifts to inter-team collaboration. There’s a growing understanding that business agility and responsiveness are key to survive and stay ahead of the competition. To yield value, the work of single Agile teams should, therefore, be integrated and embedded in larger business processes.
In the second wave, the adoption of Agile is shifting from a single-team focus to a wider organizational approach. The role of the Agile coach changes from learning the team how to do their work to initializing cross-team collaboration and creating a focus on continuous delivery. Once teams have learned to plan and launch collectively built releases, the focus shifts from realizing technical products to business delivery. This is the third wave. The performance dialogue will transition from a release focus to a focus on business impact.
If not done before, in the third wave, management will need to show Agile leadership. They’ll need to lead the way by explaining the strategic themes, defining the business aim of the next release and helping the product owners prioritize. They should also stimulate raising impediments when dependencies lead to delays or introduce inefficiencies. The leaders should take an active role in eliminating them and, if necessary, take it to a higher level in the organization.
In the third wave, the Agile coach is working closely with the leaders. I foresee him evolving into a delivery coach or a counselor. The delivery coach is best compared with a business consultant. He has a strong focus on optimizing business value and will spot bottlenecks in the development process and reduce local optimizations that don’t work in an end-to-end value stream. Furthermore, the delivery coach tries to build quality into the software development lifecycle.
The Agile counselor doesn’t focus that much on the development process itself but aims to empower leadership. Although leadership coaching isn’t new in itself, there are few descriptions of this role. The best example I’ve found comes from the Star Trek series. Are we talking science fiction here? I don’t know. But to get a better understanding of what the counselor role could look like, it seems we need to warp into the future.
According to the Star Trek Encyclopaedia, the mid-24th-century Starship and Starbase crews include a counselor. His responsibility is the mental well-being of the crew and civilian staff. The position is a vital one, warranting inclusion in the senior staff of the Federation flagship. The ship’s counselor also has a diplomatic role, advising the captain in first contacts and other situations. He has the power to relieve other officers and crewmembers if he feels that they’re unable to perform their duties effectively. This also includes the ship’s captain.
In third-wave Agile organizations, the teams have great autonomy. They do their work, whether they’re coached or not. Even so, the Agile coach will walk the floor and actively sample their mood. Just like the ship counselor from Star Trek has a responsibility for the well-being of the crew, the Agile coach has an interest in the well-being of the individual team members and the way they collaborate. When he senses a problem that may affect the sustainable delivery, predictability or the team’s continuous learning, he’ll take action. This can result in an intervention towards the team, the scrum master or the product owner, or action towards leadership.
Third-wave organization teams have been doing Agile for some time. Inefficiencies at the team level can be solved within the team, of course, but the Agile counselor will prefer to take it on with the leadership team to see how they can facilitate a sustainable solution. He has learned by now that it’s far more efficient to create awareness with leadership and ensure they take appropriate action to facilitate and guide the team than to solve it locally.
Inclusion in the leadership team enables the Agile coach to address these concerns and potential problems and he can even provide feedback to other leaders on their leadership style and the impact it has. He should facilitate a root cause analysis so that the leadership team gains insight into the problem’s origin. The addressed concern may be rooted in the teams, in the enterprise organization but can also originate in the leadership team itself.
I doubt whether the Agile coach should be able to relieve leaders from their duty like the Star Trek ship counselor can, but as an advisor, he should be empowered to advise the manager when one of his leaders or team members (deliberately or accidentally) endangers the organization’s purpose. The Agile coach should therefore have a trusted relationship with the manager and feel free to speak his mind. Even if this means being critical towards the leadership.
We’re not likely to encounter extraterrestrial life, but it’s not uncommon for organizations to walk uncharted grounds. New business partners and suppliers might lead to first contacts and Agile coaches can advise the manager on their approach. Additionally, managers are likely to get into unknown situations. Recently, our organization had to take action against the coronavirus. I found myself teaming up with management to plan extra department meetings to inform the employees about the measures that needed to be taken. We gave them a platform to share their thoughts and connect with their leadership team. I suddenly realized that by doing that, I was acting as a counselor – advising the captain in a new situation.
I don’t claim to be an organizational counselor, nor to fully understand the role. But maybe few of us do. Since most organizations have yet to reach the third wave, the third-wave roles still lack a clear definition. Nevertheless, I believe it’s worth discussing, as it will shape the Agile coach of tomorrow.