“So you mean what I am doing is not agile coaching, but something else?” Anoop asked Sumeet, his close friend since college days.
“Not entirely. Some of it sounds more like consulting than coaching,” Sumeet shared his candid opinion.
Anoop and Sumeet, now in their late-thirties, had both been successful IT professionals in their own regard and were now in very similar profile – Agile Coach. They liked to connect with each other whenever time permitted, and today’s meeting at Beer Cafe was one such event.
Anoop stared at the beer mug absent-mindedly, as if watching the tiny bubbles rise up to claim their freedom. “So, what part of my profile does not sound like coaching?” he finally asked.
“Just to be clear, I am not saying what you do is any less valuable,” Sumeet tried to clarify his viewpoint. “If you really want my honest opinion, why don’t you run me through your list of responsibilities as an Agile Coach.”
“Well, to begin with, I teach teams about Agile values, principles and practices. I help them learn about Scrum and conduct various ceremonies. Mentor the Scrum Masters and Product Owners.Solve team’s problems when they are stuck. Resolve team conflicts. Ensure delivery is on track, without any significant slippages. In short, I am the ‘go-to guy’ for the teams I coach.”
Something towards the end seemed to concern Sumeet. “Training and mentoring is perfectly fine, but actively resolving team conflicts and being responsible for the service delivery don’t sound like Coaching.”
“Really? Isn’t service delivery what an Agile Coach is expected to improve?”
“Yes, but not directly,” Sumeet replied. “As an Agile Coach, I would focus on building capability so team members can resolve their own problems and conflicts, and help them keep the delivery on track.”
“Isn’t that the same?” Anoop looked puzzled.
“Almost the same in terms of results, but different from the responsibility point of view. I would like the team to be responsible for their work, their problems, conflicts and their results.” Sumeet paused to check if his words were sinking in.
Anoop didn’t look convinced yet. “Is there a reason why an Agile Coach should shy away from these responsibilities? Especially when his client is paying him so well,” Anoop questioned with a half-smirk.
“Well, that is the definition of Coaching, as against Consulting. And, I believe it will also prove more cost-effective for the client.”
“And, how is that?”
“I feel we are holding onto different definitions of Coaching.” Sumeet paused before asking, “Will it be fine if I ask you a few questions to explain what I understand about Coaching?”
Anoop gulped down some beer before announcing his readiness, “Sure.”
“I am thinking about taking an example from your personal life, nothing too personal though. Please feel free to stop anytime if you do not want to answer a question.” Sumeet waited for a nod from Anoop before continuing. “How old is your older son Rohan now?”
“Rohan turned eleven just last month.”
“And, as we know he can ride the cycle very well.”
“Absolutely, Rohan has always been a quick learner.” A father’s pride was evident on Anoop’s face. “I distinctly remember he started riding on his own when he was barely four.”
“That’s great!” Sumeet said. “But I reckon he did not take out the cycle one fine day and started riding on his own. You must have helped him in the process.”
“Of course I did,” Anoop replied matter-of-factly. “What are fathers for?
“Let me ask you to go back in time and walk me through the process you followed to help him learn how to ride a cycle,” Sumeet asked with a smile, “highlighting the areas where you helped him.”
“Well, I just told him the basic things to keep in mind before he sat on the bike.”
“Like not to be scared, look in the front, etc. Then, he sat on the cycle and started paddling.”
“Were you holding him when he started paddling?” Sumeet looked for missing details.
“Absolutely, I ran along holding his cycle from the back. His cycle had this high back support that really helped. I held it to control his movements, when needed.”
“But, every once in a while, you would let it go to evaluate if he could ride it on his own?” Sumeet probed further.
“Right. And, as I mentioned earlier he was pretty quick. The second or third day itself, he could almost ride on his own. I didn’t have to touch it at all.” Anoop’s eyes glistened as he recalled the details of those moments that were so dear to his heart.
“Now, please allow me to ask a slightly uncomfortable question… since that day when you took him out for his first lesson, has your son ever fallen off from the cycle?”
“ Everyone falls from their cycle at least once in their lifetime. Nothing major though. Only once he bruised himself really bad, but fortunately, no fractures.”
“I would request you to recall some of those moments when your son fell from the cycle and possibly hurt himself.” Sumeet paused. “Did those uncomfortable moments of your son falling from the cycle make you feel that you shouldn’t have left the back of your son’s seat that day? That you should have always been there when your son was riding the cycle so you could avoid his being hurt?”
“Come on, how would he learn if I don’t let him try on his own?” Anoop shot back.
“So, are you implying that – as a father – you considered something else more important than your son getting hurt?”
“Yes. Sort of.”
“And, what was that something else – that made your son’s hurtful experiences feel like a reasonable compromise, a fair bargain?”
“That my son should be able to ride cycle on his own,” Anoop verbalized the obvious.
“Am I right in saying that in the long term, building capability in your son was a higher purpose than protecting him from minor hurt?”
“I would certainly agree with that.”
“Thanks for your patience.” Sumeet smiled. “That is exactly what I feel is the primary focus of Coaching – building capability in the coachee. While it may begin with training and mentoring, it soon shifts gears to utilize techniques such as facilitation, active listening and powerful questioning.”
Anoop looked convinced but still had something unanswered on his mind, “But, how would that relate to not taking responsibility for delivery?”
“While the Coach assists the team build their capability, it is essential that the team takes the ultimate responsibility of work and results. The success and failures must be owned by the team. He has to help the team become a high performance team with minimal external dependence, in other words, a self-organized team. That way the Coach can move on to other teams, possibly still supporting this team in an advisory role.”
“Building capability!” Anoop mused over those words for a few seconds. “I think I like that idea.” Then he made a serious expression. “But dude, while it makes good sense, at some level it also makes me feel insecure that I will be out of work if the teams start performing on their own,” he joked, and Sumeet joined him in a light hearted chuckle.
“Don’t worry my friend,” Sumeet followed, “a good coach that can build self-managing teams will never be out of job. I can bet my career on it!”