What Exactly Is My Product as an Agile Coach?

My first role on an Agile team was as a scrum master. The only product I had to sell at that time was my experience being the conduit between development and business. Previous roles in quality assurance had sufficiently prepared me if only to understand I had a lot more to learn.

The next role I filled was on the product side. Citing my experience within the space, my product was product knowledge. I also brought a commitment to continuously learn about stakeholder and user needs.

I’ve been many things on many teams, and I brought many “products” with me to those efforts.

Now, I coach teams for clients of all shapes and sizes. In a way, scrum masters have been doing that for decades, but within the bounds of a specific framework. With the more generic title of “agile coach” our call is to know as many ways to partner with teams on their journey. As experience mounts, it has raised a question I wonder if I’m the only one asking.

What exactly is my product as an agile coach?

It led me to pitch it as a session during this year’s Agile Coach Camp held this year in New York. We were spoiled enough to get to hang out at Spotify’s headquarters smack dab in the middle of Chelsea. So many friendships were formed and solidified there. Oh, and you simply must see The Great Comet of 1812 before Josh Groban goes on tour.

Got some great attendance to my session, probably because I threatened everyone the consequences of not coming. The question above was all I wrote on the whiteboard and asked for thoughts. It led gain more understanding what we felt it was, and in turn ask if you all agree.

In Texas, we point with our whole hand. Clearly, the reaction from my right was “not impressed.”

In a way, we are all selling “Agile”.

I say this with a heavy heart. As many have said before me, that word was never meant to be a noun. It’s a verb. Most of us can point to specific occasions where we’ve seen the noun committed to a client instead of the verb. Granted, it is sometimes dressed up as “agility” and with a few “best practices” thrown in for good measure.

Companies are buying the product of Agile because they feel it will make them deliver work better. Often, we’ve just let them keep signing checks.

The group felt executives barely understand what they are asking for. As I’ve mentioned, CIOs don’t have long to make an impact in their role. So, they read a blog post or attend a conference about a better delivery method so they say, “make me Agile”.

Agile consultancies outnumber the stars in the sky, ready to help companies work better. Leadership heard it called Agile, so that’s what they ask for.

Bob Galen shared many experiences where he facilitates cheap or free workshops for prospective clients. He gives some overview of his mindset to helping companies and finds out more about them. Sort of a double interview. Cool enough, he’s finished the workshop and told the client he didn’t feel it was a good match.

This can come from a few red flags. It can be they don’t understand what they want from his consulting. Or they aren’t quite ready to get started with the hard work. Maybe a comment about the safety amongst teams. Much more were mentioned, but all point to a common thread.

He was willing to walk away from the work if it wasn’t right. I wondered how many of us could say that.

We need something to market.

If I’m offering my services to clients, how would I describe them? For the first time in a while, I asked myself the question. Could I describe my services without using the word Agile?

Fortunately, I’ve ridden on enough planes and described my work to many a stranger.

I’m passionate about inserting a small amount of change into organizations and seeing what happens. Teams will benefit from my high-energy coaching and diverse subject matter expertise on ways to help. Also, I don’t take myself too seriously and enjoy injecting large amounts of fun into the people I encounter. All of that combined with a background in analysis and facilitation and my service offering seems pretty full.

A friend once told me that she wasn’t too sure how long capital “A” agile would stay in demand. Not to say agility principles won’t matter anymore, but there is no guarantee companies will continue buying the Agile we market forever. As such, it’s important for us all to find what makes our skills unique and start marketing that instead of Agile.

In the session, this was stated as entering an engagement as more of a general coach rather than just an Agile coach. When teams agree to be coached, it leaves it more open ended. Coaches have been around forever.

The problem with marketing Agile is the word is open to so much interpretation. If an exec brings you on to make them Agile, and they have a different understanding of what that means it can lead to them saying “that’s not the Agile I want.”

All of the sudden, you’re out of a gig.

So how did we end things?

I know I’m not the only one worried that we are doing too much Agile Jazz Hands. The past few years have brought band-aids to companies without really understanding them. This takes many forms, but most of the time when it doesn’t work out we blame the clients.

Not interested in pointing the finger at my colleagues in this incredibly small community of agilists. Just pointing out where I’ve messed up and ask others to partner with me on the solution.

Can we consciously ask ourselves what we want to be selling as Agile coaches, and then be honest with what we actually are?

The delta between the two might help us see our own blind spots. Will also let us help clients understand the delta between what they think they are buying from what they actually did.

If we don’t solve those two misunderstandings soon, I worry about the coming years. Curious to know your thoughts and experiences all.


8 thoughts on “What Exactly Is My Product as an Agile Coach?

  1. Nice post Chris. Well written and makes a good point.
    One minor nuance – I would assert that agile is an *adjective*; not a verb or noun.
    But your point stands and is well stated.


  2. Great Post. I actually worry less about what we bring & sell. I worry more about how we enable and measure the value that we bring to the individuals/team/organizations/leadership/company. Specifically, I believe we need to be measuring ourselves on how successful that client is after we leave; and for how long. Agile Coaches OWN this success, or the ability to advise executive leadership on HOW to change to become successful. Our experience as a Developer / ScrumMaster / Agile Coach are part of what we bring to the table.


  3. What organizations want to buy is ready-made frameworks and standardization. Always have. So to them, “Agile” is Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe. They have no problem buying training, certifications, and for someone to “implement agile.” They don’t really want agile, though, not what it really is. And they are confused about what it is in the first place because the certification economy teaches doing over being. And with so much wrong focus, definition, and expectation, many fail to see the promises they turned to agile for. So, if this continues, orgs will find the next shiny object to pursue. What I sell is Timeless Agility. Agility is about getting the right things done, faster. That’s always been a goal (or should be). How it’s achieved is realizing that Mindset Transcends Methodology, so we learn to be Methodology independent. It just so happens that I think agile and lean values and principles are timeless and the foundation that needs to be built.


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