Over the past few years, many organizations have realized the power of agility beyond software development and are in pursuit of business agility as the next step in their transformational journey. A common stumbling block for these organizations is determining the role coaches should play in transformation.
Often, organizations know they need coaching, but there’s confusion around why coaching is so valuable, what good coaching looks like, and what type of coaching is needed. This lack of clarity was apparent across the industry with organizations and coaches not having consistent answers to these questions. In response, ICAgile helped define the profession of Agile Coaching by collaborating with global thought leaders in 2011 to create our comprehensive Agile Team Coaching learning pathway. Since then, we’ve continued to evolve our offerings and have created additional learning pathways in Enterprise Agile Coaching and Systems Coaching. Together with our global partners, we’ve enabled coaches to build capabilities that have positively impacted workplaces around the world.
Here are five things organizations need to know in order to engage with coaches in the most effective and enduring way possible.
1. Coaching Is a Partnership
Too many organizations make the mistake of assuming that they can achieve a business agility transformation simply by hiring coaches. Yes, coaches play an essential role in transformation, but only if the organization partners with the coaches to align on organizational goals and co-design a strategy for change.
Think of it as similar to working with a personal trainer. If you hire a trainer to help you get fit, but you never discuss what “fit” means to you, you’re probably going to get frustrated. Your trainer might be helping you master your weight-lifting form and increase your strength, while you’re left wondering why there’s no cardio in the mix.
To get real, sustainable results, you and your trainer need to clarify your goal and work together on a plan to achieve it. Together, you can reach results that neither of you could attain alone.
Likewise, in the context of business agility, coaches bring experience and expertise, but ultimately, they are there to support an organization’s goals, not impose their own vision.
The organization has to intentionally partner with the coaches and co-create a strategy that works for their unique culture and context. Without this intentional partnership, the organization won’t maximize the benefits of the coaching engagement.
2. Coaching Is Essential for Behavior Change
In the early days of agile, there was a common belief that agility could be achieved by implementing new processes and practices. Many organizations assumed that if they sent people to a class or a bootcamp for a few days to learn a specific agile framework, those people would just come back to work, impose the framework, and “Voilà!”
This approach caused a lot of transformations to stall. People equated agile with knowing a framework, or knowing how to conduct rituals, and they hadn’t thought through the deeper cultural and behavioral factors necessary for sustainable change.
Today, most organizations are aware that cultural and behavioral changes are crucial to agile transformation. But behavior change is hard, and it’s not something people can change overnight. Coaches can provide necessary support and accountability during the journey.
Initially, a coach can teach new skills and new ways of thinking. Over time, the coach will help individuals build their skill and provide accountability. Coaching is especially important for leadership behaviors. Developing self-awareness, self-management, and relationship management skills often require that leaders unlearn old ways of working and learn something new. Partnering with a coach can make the transition much smoother and easier.
3. Transformation Requires a System of Coaches
A full organizational agile journey requires a system of coaches because different types of coaching are needed in different areas and for different domains. An organization in pursuit of business agility needs coaches with a variety of specializations and those who can work at different levels of the organization.
In terms of scope, it’s important to bring in enterprise coaches who focus on organizational strategy and supporting senior leadership. At the same time, organizations need to bring in agile team coaches to support the execution of the strategy.
In terms of specialization, an organization will want to engage coaches with a variety of special skills or domain-specific work experience. These specializations might include product coaches, technical coaches, leadership coaches, people who can coach HR transformation or people who can coach finance transformation.
It’s important for coaches to have domain experience because that experience builds trust with the coachees. The coach can empathize better with the mindset shift that needs to happen among team members as they learn a new way to work.
4. Coaches Need More Than Agile Process Expertise
There's a lot of confusion in the industry about the experience and the credentials that coaches need. At ICAgile, we’ve defined the standard competencies necessary for Agile Team Coaches and Enterprise Agile Coaches. We’ve also developed comprehensive learning offerings in specializations such as Product Ownership, Agile Engineering and Agile HR.
There’s a common misconception that a coach only needs agile process expertise. In reality, a strong coach needs to have experienced an agile transformation before and to have developed the accompanying growth mindset, self-awareness, relationship awareness, situational awareness and personal leadership skills. In order to take an organization through the transformation journey, a coach needs to have been on a journey themselves and have empathy for the change they are asking others to undergo.
Coaches also need capabilities in facilitating and mentoring groups and individuals through conflict and towards high performance. Group process, group awareness and systems awareness are as important, if not more important, than having a command of the strategies, structures and processes conducive to sustainable agility.
5. Ideally, Coaching Becomes Part of Your Organization's DNA
An organization’s coaching needs will evolve over time. Initially, most organizations will need to bring in coaches from outside, either by hiring new employees or engaging with contractors or consultants. At this early stage of the transformation, coaching is a role in the organization.
Over time, the organization should aim to build internal coaching capabilities and may move away from having coaching as a formal role. Even if coaching remains a designated role, the goal is to help people at all levels of the organization absorb coaching skills and stances.
Decentralization is a key aspect of working in agile ways, which is why an organization should avoid creating a hierarchy of coaches who simply impart knowledge and expertise. Luckily, while building business agility skills, an organization will naturally be building internal coaching skills in parallel.
Developing an adaptive capability to thrive in a world of rapid change requires a more open, collaborative style of leadership and teamwork across an organization. Embedded coaching skills not only accelerate this transformation, they equip your organization to achieve its purpose.