Lead With Agility
Coaching Agile Teams

Lead With Agility

Coaching expert and former command-and-control boss Lyssa Adkins details how agile coaches and teams perform more efficiently and with greater chemistry.

Providing today’s workers with effective leadership requires a new approach, agile coaching expert Lyssa Adkins writes in this guide to the agile management framework.

She warns that this approach may seem counterintuitive to traditional managers. In an agile culture, the boss disappears into the background, assigning small teams of individual contributors to hold themselves accountable and achieve their goals. Adkins’s guide to accomplishing more by bossing less can unlock new levels of performance for you and your teams. 

Nuanced Management

Agile coaching, Adkins explains, seeks a balance between micromanagement and a hands-off style.She details how the agile coach is, by turns, a teacher, collaborator, facilitator and mentor. Ideally, she explains, agile leaders are nearly invisible orchestrators of self-motivated high performers.

The people I coach are not motivated by carrots and sticks; they are motivated by a sense of worth and purpose.Lyssa Adkins

Agile teams self-organize and learn from their mistakes. On an agile team, the people closest to a problem address it.

Self-aware

Adkins acknowledges she was a command-and-control boss until she discovered agile coaching, and she writes with the zeal of the convert. Along the way, she found that old habits die hard. When facing a new challenge, Adkins sometimes lapses into her previous approach until she reminded herself to stay self-aware.

In a command-and-control organization, the leader tells the team what to do. An agile coach creates room for the team members to make their own decisions. The coach functions as a member of the team, not its dominant force.

Every time you think you need to solve something, stop and raise the observations to the team instead. Lyssa Adkins

Teams drive the decentralized flexible framework. When your team faces a challenge, enable its members to learn to diagnose issues and create solutions. The successful agile leader, Adkins asserts, masters the art of not speaking. When you’re silent, you let your team members fill the void with their solutions.

One-on-One Coaching

Coaches must create psychologically safe places, so employees feel comfortable discussing their fears and foibles. Whether in a team setting or one-on-one, coaching must be strictly confidential. Adkins urges you to get to know the people on your team as individuals and ask them to share their anxieties and vulnerabilities. Establish an open, honest atmosphere. Be reliable. To accept your coaching, people must trust that you won’t share their private discussions or gossip about your coaching conversations.

Agile coaches uphold an environment of experimentation and risk taking because we know that only in such a place will brilliance emerge. Lyssa Adkins

Coaching someone you dislike can be tricky. Adkins suggests viewing this employee as someone who’s trying as hard as possible. Your compassion will pay dividends as you inspire him or her to higher levels of performance – and loyalty.

Facilitators

During her time as a traditional project manager, Adkins reveled in her ability to master technical subjects. She often represented the technical team so effectively her employees could hardly believe she hadn’t spent years in whatever industry she focused on during a project.

But leading an agile team turned out to be a far different experience. The team members didn’t need a boss to tell them what to do or how to do it. At first, Adkins found she couldn’t add value to team conversations. This was deeply unsettling for her as a manager who had mastered the details of such diverse fields as delivering health care and managing gas pipelines. Adkins worried that not fulfilling her role as a subject-matter expert meant her value was diminishing. 

Regardless of the agenda you create, the things that bother people tend to surface.  Lyssa Adkins

Then Adkins had an epiphany: Her team had plenty of experts, but it lacked a facilitator. Adkins now thinks of her job as building a “container” – a flexible, unobtrusive structure – that creates order and discipline without impinging on the team’s results. The coach, she realized, keeps everything on track.

Daily Stand-up Meetings

Hold daily stand-up meetings and have everyone ask and answer these questions: What did I accomplish since the last stand-up? What tasks will I complete before the next stand-up? And what obstacles are in my path? This encourages transparent commitment within the team. Peer pressure is a powerful force on agile teams.

Agile coaching, done well, is impossible to see from outside the team and can be invisible even to the team members.Lyssa Adkins

Your daily stand-up meetings should be no longer than 15 minutes.  And your agile teams should be small. Adkins adheres to the “two-pizza rule”: If lunch for your team requires more than two pizzas, your team is too big.

Review Meetings

At a review meeting, team members explain their work to stakeholders and show how it fits the organization’s goals. The team demonstrates its accomplishments by discussion its real products. Show and tell should be the crux of the meeting.

Avoid having your team make its presentation perfect, since that would take time away from its actual work.As coach, resist the temptation to take center stage. Instead, observe carefully, note how team members interact and how stakeholders receive the message, and what goes well or poorly.

Empower

Traditional project managers solve problems. As a command-and-control manager, Adkins fixed pressing problems and anticipated new ones. She now believes she was, in fact, inventing problems and imposing solutions on her teams.

Now she teaches that teams – not their coaches – must identify and alleviate issues.

When problems are brought to you, it’s easy to want to jump to solutions, especially with the problem-bringer standing right in front of you. Lyssa Adkins

An agile coach says nothing at first and takes time to think about any problem. Ideally, coaches wait a day. Then they present the problem to their team. Good coaches step back, and let the team address the problem.

Remarkable Understanding

Lyssa Adkins is never dogmatic. She follows her own advice by presenting the various problems agile coaches face and then gently, compassionately guiding readers to find solutions. Her remarkable understanding of her failings as a novice agile coach will encourage you – in alignment with the agile approach – to recognize your mistakes without self-rancor and to consider each one a learning opportunity. Happily, Adkins has no interest in jargon and presents her guidance in an unpretentious, conversational voice. You will warm to her approach, knowing that if you take her advice to heart, you can become a more effective agile team leader or coach.

Other books on agile coaching include Responsive Agile Coaching by Niall McShane, Professional Coaching for Agilists: Accelerating Agile Adoption by Damon Poole and Gillian Lee, Agile Conversations: Transform Your Conversations, Transform Your Culture by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick, and Agile Coaching by Rachel Davies and Liz Sedley.

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