Learnings from Coaching Agile Teams

I am writing this as I reach Chapter 13 of Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins. Chapter 13, also the last chapter of the book, list the journeys of 5 agile coaches. I decided to get the time to focus on my journey, and describe it, before reading about others.

My journey is all there is

I wrote the first line of code when I was 6 years old, on a Commodore 64, and since then, I kept technology at heart. I programmed my first fully working e-shop before ending high school in Italy (PayPal integration included!). I wanted to learn more and I used all there was to use, including books, and higher education. For the techies around here, it was astonishing to discover object oriented and functional programming after years of procedural coding! (an “a-ha” moment for me).

Fast-forwarding a bit, I was a proper a software engineer, going from networking to operating systems, to databases, security, coding and continuous integration. A friend introduced me to Scrum, and I found it interesting (thank you Fabrizio Machella!). At the beginning it was just a novelty for me, but it soon turned into a meaning for “continuous discovery”.

If I were to summarise the first learning, I would go with: Do what you say, respect others, show progress often, get better. It wasn’t a big discovery, I did it even without being formally told, and so all people around me. Somehow, though, companies sometime lose it. I noticed conflict of interests, and how detrimental they were to trust and empowerment (not only in politics!).

The first “a-ha” moment I remember on my agile path was learning about facilitation with “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” (Esther Derby, Diana Larsen). Those tips and tricks enabled me and my team to have much better conversations, at meetings that we will be calling “retrospectives”.

I found how this new strain of knowledge had a bigger appeal on me than the pure software engineering. I focused my effort on my agile path, collaborated with others, joined meetups, and learned more on facilitation by practising and reading. “Facilitation – An Art, Science, Skill or All Three? Build your expertise in Facilitation” (Tony Mann) provided some solid ground to analyse and model what happens in a room with people discussing. Modelling is something that I initially avoided (that’s people, not a flow of bits!), but then I realised that the purpose of modeling is to trigger mental connections in the head of the facilitator/scrum master/coach, rather than putting people in buckets (another “a-ha” for me!).

My journey proceeded through courses and self-study over material available on the internet. I put my knowledge to test, both in theory and in practice.

I realised how vastly good agile differs from façade agile.

Queuing theory came back as a major topic when learning about Kanban: I had finally found a place for all my -way too much theoric- university learnings about industrial automation! (“a-ha!”)

I learned about change management, I learned that the team alone can not go far on their agile journey without the support of the rest of the company. I saw how principles and exercises for theatrical improvisation are completely applicable to agile teams, how values and environment can shape interaction patterns between people. Reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (Daniel Kahneman) and realising how social sciences, system thinking, mental patterns and way of thinking all converge to making agile working was definitely another “a-ha”.

At this point, I had helped a few teams either start or transition to agile practices, and I decided to contribute something back to the community. I was selected to present at the Global Scrum Gathering in Prague in 2015. I brought up the topic of roles advertised in job offers and the intrinsic conflicts one could find in them (and how those conflicts keep real scrum masters away from them!). I found hundreds of people willing to listen and chat about the topic; it was a great time, and still, I had lot to learn from others. I have to mention and appreciate the time and effort from Gary Bamberger there, for mentoring me through the preparation for the gathering and for the introduction to coaching! Yes, you guessed it, I had another “a-ha” moment there with him.

I had the pleasure to attend a workshop with Esther Derby, that was so fantastic that I signed up for the Problem Solving Leadership course she co-hosts with Jerry Weinberg. The great learning was discovering how inwardly focussed I was (together with the number of assumptions one makes). In order to progress myself and others around me, I had to shift my focus to observing and reflecting (as a mirror would do).

Here I had the opportunity to meet Ralf Kruse, a fantastic coach that was willing to take me one step forward in my agile journey. With just a few sessions, I had a number of “a-ha” moments.

I helped individual teams, groups and companies to succeed and navigate conflicts; it is now time to reinforce my knowledge and habits with self-reflection and by getting mentored and coached. 

  • I overcame the urge to direct, now I trust.
  • I overcame the urge to act quickly, now I want to understand.
  • I overcame the urge to change things, now I observe.
  • I was able to recognise the same self-organisation anti-patterns in others and helped them seeing those and working on them.
  • I keep people accountable for their own commitment (their agenda), not mine.
  • I do not participate, I facilitate.

You might have heard something similar already…

while there is value on the items on the left, I prefer focusing on the items on the right first (and teach them)

Finally, I am not mixing, advising, mentoring, coaching and teaching, I do one at a time.

Why am I doing this?

Solving problems was always a strong motivator for me, and during the years I found that helping other’s solving problems is even more so. Companies usually already have the knowledge and the willingness within, there are just a few assumptions to be smashed, a few bridges to be built, and the brake pedal of directing without trust to be released.

The side effect is that this journey has had repercussions on my private life as well (great appreciation goes to my wife, Bergina, for supporting me through all this and sharing her background in sociology).

Getting better at trusting, reflecting, respecting, understanding, is key even outside of work and I realise how important is to teach all of this now that I am not only a person and a professional, but also a parent.

And, obviously, the great feeling that “a-ha” moments gives (yes, I am probably developing an addiction to them) and the opportunity of seeing that spark in others.

After Chapter 13

I finally got to the end the book and, well, I have kind of done what Lyssa suggests, already 🙂

I also took some time to sketch my journey (not even close to an end!).

What does yours look like?

Driving the change, creating and growing a sustainable and energetic work environment are what motivates me. I have over 6 years of experience in the field, including roles as Professional Services Operator, Software Engineer, Scrum Master and Agile Coach, from startup to corporate environments. I actively challenge teams and management to see things from different perspectives, identifying biased beliefs and allowing for experimentation on all areas of the Software Development Life Cycle.