Agile Coaching Styles: A Story of 3 Change Agents

This is the story of 3 change agents, where we explore different agile coaching styles.
For previous articles in this series, see below:

What coaching means to me
To Coach, you need permission
An essential ingredient for successful coaching – a contract
Letting the expert go

The Story of 3 Change Agents

In product development it is common to come up with personas to reflect the customers that you have or hope to have in order to better identify assumptions and features that you might build.

The last post I wrote was called letting go of the expert and these personas give more explanation about that post, by exploring agile coaching styles.

Here is our scenario:

A senior leader, Emma, at a major organisation has been tasked with achieving Enterprise Agility in the next 2 years. The leadership team to which Emma belongs is part sceptical, part enthusiastic, and part hostile to the idea. Most of the team think they know what agility is. However, it is obvious they have no idea what to do next.

Emma, who has read articles in Forbes and HBR decides that they need outside help and decides to hire someone.

We are going to use our somewhat extreme personas to explore the concept of why the expert is probably not ideal.

Our 3 Personas (Agile Coaching Styles) are:

  • James – The Unquestionable Expert
  • Harry – The Agile Coach with no professional coaching experience
  • Chester – The Transformational Coach, who has spent the time to master their own ego and agenda through professional and systemic coaching.


The Unquestionable Expert knows exactly what to do. They have done this before and been on many classes and read all the books. They have published articles on the subject and spoken at various conferences. Unquestionable Experts often do not realise they are Unquestionable Experts.

James tells the leadership team exactly what Enterprise Agility looks like and what their business will look like once they have got there. He provides a good visual model of what Agility looks like, does some work on their context and then tells them what the next steps are.

Everyone is glad to have James onboard because his confidence is contagious, and it appeals to everyone’s need to have certainty. After a few weeks it becomes obvious that the changes that James has asked for are going to require a behaviour change in the leadership team. This is received less graciously than the initial model diagrams and process upgrades.

James holds a workshop in which the Sales Director walks out complaining of hippy tree-hugging ways of working. The Finance Director doesn’t understand why everyone else can’t change their behaviours because ‘quite frankly we pay them to do as they are told’.

Since the team did not change their behaviour, they did not get the huge shift in business results they were expecting.

The Unquestionable Expert realised that this team was not ready and could not face their own egos. The team thought that the expert’s advice was not contextually valid and although good, would not work in their situation.

(This is the best case, as sometimes James adapts and just focuses his process change expertise on other people outside the leadership team. In that case, it can be 14 months before everyone finds out that the approach won’t work).

James was not asked to renew his contract and the team are now highly suspicious of anything to do with Agile. Next time they are going to call the essential improvements they still need to make something else.


The Agile Coach with no professional coaching experience is a knowledgeable expert who focuses on growing others mostly through training and mentoring and often because of exasperation of others, through telling and selling ideas they genuinely feel are right. Unlike the Unquestionable Expert the Agile Coach has some humility.  

Harry invites the leadership team to a workshop where they can explore their situation and he guides them to the right practices. He knows every situation is different. Therefore, he needs to work with the team to help them come to the right solution.

Harry mingles teaching with mentoring in the workshop and gives the right vocabulary to the team. He explains things like ‘cross-functional teams’, and ‘limiting work in progress’ so that the team know what it is that they must do next.

Many of the team embrace the ideas and are excited by the process change. The team feel the solution is contextual for them and that it is based on solid Agile expertise.

Unfortunately, in the coming weeks, the pressure is back on from customers, and the stress pushes the team back into old patterns of behaviour that make the new processes obsolete. They know in their hearts that they are sabotaging the new ways of working but satisfying customers is far more important and their staff just need to get it done.

Harry points out to them both individually and as a team what is occurring. They come to the decision that Agile is fantastic but not when the stress is on. So, they want to it used for less important projects.

Harry is frustrated because he knows that Agile ways of working are best for the most important projects because they reduce risk. However, no one wants to listen.


The Transformational Coach has spent time reducing their own attachment to other people’s outcomes and has deep skills in listening and people development. They do not try to fix people or organisations, since nothing is broken. This comes from a deep respect for others. They have worked on their own ethics and prioritise them over mortgage-driven agile.

Chester invites the team to create a working alliance between him and the team. They discuss the expected behaviours that form a baseline for when times get difficult. He already knows his ethics and explains these and the coaching approach to the team.

The team find it strange at first. They really want Chester to suggest things that they can try to make the organisation Agile, since that is what he has been hired for.

Instead, Chester reminds them of the Coaching Approach and runs a workshop where they explore what is challenging them both process-wise and emotionally. Through his facilitation skills and balancing what is risky for the team and what the team needs to be challenged, they build a map of the most important things to them.

Chester has not added any content, given any advice, or even clarified or categorised their issues.

The team start to get excited as they see patterns in their own experiences and start to create solutions in how they might act to solve these problems.

This coaching style uses experimentation

Chester guides the team to write these as experiments with hypotheses. The team like the idea, since it is not possible to fail. They are learning all the time. Occasionally Chester asks if he can add to the experiment idea of the moment ,using his knowledge of Agile and Lean. He explains his voice is not the ‘right voice’ but information for them to consider.

Soon the team is building experiments and testing if they work and Chester can step out more frequently.

Practice is key to finding your agile coaching style

Coaching and Facilitation are hard until you get it. Then it is easy. Practice is key. If you don’t make a stand and get pulled into ‘being the expert’ you can’t practice it.

Experts are absolutely needed in product design, technical excellence, and organisational design. They are absolutely not needed in other people’s ways of working. People, in knowledge work, need to work out how they are going to build better relationships, collaborate, and work together. This requires a Coach, not an expert.

I hope this helps you get more success from your Agile Coaching.

Let me know any other topics you might be interested in below.


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