I first learned about coaching around the year 2000. It was explained as not offering a solution but instead asking questions to help a colleague come up with the answer.
I kind of forgot about coaching until I came across Lyssa Adkins book coaching agile teams in 2014 and was lucky to attend an Agile Coach Bootcamp. At the bootcamp I learned that coaching is a lot more than asking questions, it is also about remaining neutral, letting go of intent, mastering powerful questions, gently guiding a conversation, but I felt that I was still just scratching the surface.
In 2016 I got signed up for the Competence Cohort and this was when I finally felt I was starting to understand what agile coaching is all about. To me it is about being able to fluently switch between teaching, facilitation, mentoring and of course coaching, to meet the need of the individual or the team you are serving.
As Vispi mentions, coaching is about listening deeply, being curious and open to what is happening for the person or team in the session. When I mention teaching, facilitation and mentoring together with coaching, it is because I feel the four techniques supplement each other.
For the coach it is about creating a space or container where creativity, curiosity and discovery can flourish. A kind of shared mental space where it is safe to explore ambiguity and uncertainty related to the specific topic.
There are many techniques that can help create the space, e.g. clean language, the coaching arc, training from the back of the room, physical chairs and table settings. Creating and maintaining the space for the individual or group is also an art that requires the coach to be fully present. She or he uses all their senses to get a feeling for what is needed in the moment. It allows the coach to help the individual or group to see new sides of the problem and find solutions.
I first came across the concept of agile coaching back in 2012 when I found Lyssa Adkins book in my search to deepen my learning and knowledge. Life took hold and it was another 3 years before I looked into it again. I simply saw it as an advanced scrum mastering piece, only deeper. It seemed to focus more on the human aspects of agile rather than simply the process aspects of it. I ended up diving into the deep end when I signed up for ACI’s Agile Coaching Bootcamp. It has been the 2nd most transformative experience in the 37 odd years of this lifetime of mine. Over that weekend, not only did I learn about what coaching really is, but in the process, I also discovered deeper aspects of myself.
I something think of us Agile Coaches being a little similar to sports coaches. We might help train the team, show them processes and plays, but at the end of the day, the team will be ones going out and doing the work. We can provide the boundaries and the framework within which they grow, but then we need to step out of their way and let them grow. In them doing the work, will they encounter their learnings.
I think listening and curiosity are the hallmarks of a good coach.
A good coach listens. I mean, really listens. Not only does she or he listen to the word spoken by the person or team, but also to all the things they are not saying. She ‘listens’ to their behaviour, to the environment, to the energy in the conversation and in the room.
A good coach will always be curious. A good coach may have the answers, but they not be the right answers for the person or team’s unique circumstance. So, instead of diving into the solution and providing the answers to the person or the team, they stay curious and elicit the answers from the person or team. In making them come to the answers and actions themselves, they are beginning the process of empowerment. A good coach may play the wise fool rather than the wise master.
Staying patient, listening, asking the right questions, getting people to come up with the answers themselves is a lot of hard work. In cultures where you are rewarded for standing out, being at the front of the class, etc being a servant leader can be exhausting. So, you will need to look within to understand what can energise you and keep you going. For example, I get a buzz from the journey of discovery. I find coaching conversations to be an honour and a privilege, because the person or the team I am having the conversation with are bring me on a journey of their discovery.
Coaching can be serious but fun work that requires good preparation and practice. It is a dance. A dance we can all perform, once we learn what the steps are. A dance where the coach may lead the person or team in a conversation, and yet, the coach dances to the tune and the rhythm of what the person or team are playing. It is also an extremely rewarding experience to be allowed to be part of the creative process and see the positive results it creates.