Learnings from Coaching Agile Teams

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

My journey is all there is

I wrote my first line of code when I was 6 years old, on a Commodore 64. 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. So 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 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!). In 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 did all the people around me. Somehow, though, companies sometimes lose it. I noticed conflicts of interest, and how detrimental they were to trust and empowerment (not only in politics!).

A-ha moments

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 discovered how this new strain of knowledge had a bigger appeal to me than pure software engineering. So I focused my effort on my agile path. I 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!). However, I then realised that the purpose of modelling 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!”)

Understanding more

I learned about change management. And 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, and 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”.

Coaching Agile Teams – the beginning…

At this point, I had helped a few teams either start or transition to agile practices. I decided to contribute something back to the community. I was selected to present at the Global Scrum Gathering in Prague in 2015. While there, 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!). Hundreds of people were 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.

Leadership learnings

I had the pleasure to attend a workshop with Esther Derby. It 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 focused 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 see those and work 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 over the years I found that helping others solve 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, and 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 give (yes, I am probably developing an addiction to them) and the opportunity of seeing that spark in others.


After Chapter 13 of Coaching Agile Teams

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?


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