How Different is Agile Coaching from Professional Coaching?

This question has been rattling around in my brain since I first heard about Agile coaching.  A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear first-hand from Agile coaches their experience of coaching Agile.

Perth’s first Agile Coach Camp came to town under the chilled-out facilitation of David Bales and the awesome organisation of Jeanne Armstrong.

I’ve chosen one of the best-known professional coaching supervision models, the Seven-eyed model, to share my reflections – stretching the metaphor, I know.  However, it’s helpful to have a way of describing an experience.   The seven eyes of the model are:

  1. The client situation
  2. The Coach’s interventions
  3. The relationship between the coach and the coachee
  4. The coach
  5. The supervisory relationship
  6. The supervisor self-reflection
  7. The wider context

And here’s a reference if you want to read more from my colleagues at The OCM

The Seven-Eyed Coaching Supervision Model

The Client Situation

Prior to the event we were invited to bring with us any burning questions or topics about Agile that we’d been grappling with over the past year.  These would form the basis of the conversations that would come into the coaching space.  And through sharing with peers, hopefully create answers or jumping off points.

On the day it was clear that there were a lot of questions and challenges – many of them familiar.  It was also interesting to note that the questions and topics whilst covered under the frame  of Agile, could pretty much relate to most organisational change.   Just change the content and the context was all too familiar.

How do I change thinking in my organisation?

How do I get buy-in for what I’m doing?

What’s my role in relation to this change?

Where does what I do fit in?

Is it me or the system?

Conversations both during the sessions and the breaks in between highlighted the organisation’s presence in the room.  There were many people from the same organisation including folks like myself who work in support organisations e.g. boutique consultancies, solopreneurs.  And what struck me was the eco system that evolved around the same types of challenge.

The Coach’s Interventions

As a coach, this is interesting to me, because we never coach just the person in front of us, or the group.  We have to be mindful of the wider context and the system in which our clients are working on a daily basis.

I’ve already mentioned the chilled-out facilitation style of the coach, and this was one of the key learnings for me.

David Bales’ style was light-touch.  At the beginning of the day he preframed what we would be doing and the basic process of how the space would work.

Then he pretty much only managed time – using a lovely cow bell and singing bowl to let us know when time was up.

In one session he did offer thoughts – but in a light-touch, ‘this has been my experience’ kind of way that was offered to the group.  His unattached stance to offering resource in this way was nice to watch.  And his group coaching style helped create the space for us to explore.

I am not sure what I was expecting but this ego-free approach was welcome and very aligned with my own aspirations for how I coach.

At the end of the day he invited whoever wished to share, an opportunity to bring their thoughts into the group.

There was just enough structure to get us started and manage the time on our behalf in a way that was unobtrusive yet present.

The Relationship Between the Coach and the Coachee

OST – or Open Space Technology helped co-create the coaching space. As Dave outlined the principles of Open Space I felt myself nodding in violent agreement.  We’d used these kinds of principles for co-coaching forums back in the UK.  Here they are courtesy of Wikipedia

In his User’s Guide, Harrison Owen has articulated “the principles” and “one law” that are typically quoted and briefly explained during the opening briefing of an Open Space meeting. These explanations describe rather than control the process of the meeting. The principles and Owen’s explanations are:

Whoever comes is the right people …reminds participants that they don’t need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that’s who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an Open Space meeting.

Whenever it starts is the right time …reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”

Wherever it is, is the right place …reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be conscious and aware. – Tahrir Square is one famous example. (Wherever is the new one, just added

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, be prepared to be surprised! …reminds participants that once something has happened, it’s done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on. The second part reminds us that it is all good.

When it’s over, it’s over (within this session) …reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep rehashing just because there’s 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.

Law of two feet

Owen explains his one “Law,” called the “Law of two feet” or “the law of mobility”, as follows:

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

This was familiar territory to me as I’ve both facilitated and been part of World Café sessions which have a similar feel.  For some attendees this was disarming, and the feeling of uncertainty was palpable.  In the joining instructions we’d been given a feel for what would be expected

“We begin with an opening circle with some brief guidelines and the principles of Open Space.  You will then be invited to write down the topics, the ideas, or the burning questions that have been rattling around in your brain for the past year about Agile, and then you will be asked to claim a time and space in the agenda to work through them with your peers”

In principle, this sounded fine.  On the day I thought there’d be so many topics that we’d be voting.  With courage in hand I offered up the topic:

How do we encourage organisation emergent practices (so that Agile [insert current trend] becomes irrelevant?)

The voting did not happen and so my topic was automatically included in the schedule.

And this is where we co-created the actual schedule for the day which followed the logic below but using themes from Blade Runner to create rooms and times!  I liked this touch as I’m a fan of dystopian sci-fi.  I wasn’t sure if David was being ironic – but I took it he was and smiled to myself.

And then the reality hit – after the tea/coffee break I was going to have to introduce my topic.  Here’s what we discussed – courtesy of the fabulous Cynefin framework

Emergent Practices

This contracting phase and outlining of ‘how we’ll work together’ was a great parallel processing of what happens in a coaching session. It’s natural for people to feel a bit discombobulated at the beginning of a session.  Knowing what to expect and then experiencing it are two different things

The Coach

In the Seven-Eyed coaching model this is where the session explores what was going on for the coach.  Naturally these are my reflections.  From what I experienced, I guess that David’s introverted style and thoughtful approach to the sessions means there was a lot going on underneath.

As a coach, it’s always a balancing act between sharing observations and reflections and staying out of the content.  From the brief reflections David offered I suspect that they would have added an even greater richness to the conversation.

His skilful use of the space made it a relaxing yet energising day for me personally.  It is always a pleasure watching other coaches work because we learn so much.  I took away a lot more than pure Agile coaching – and will be purposefully practicing some of the interpersonal touches he used in the space.

The Supervisory Relationship and Supervisor Self-Reflection

Naturally these two areas of the model require a conversation to find out what was happening for the coach.  So, if I stand in the role of coach and what I absorbed from the day, it was a sense of frustration and challenge rolled in one!

There were no obvious answers and no specific actions – where to next?  Our experiences reflect back to us what’s happening for us.

And for me, this was both the overriding sense that as a coach, I wanted to help co-create accountability for what next.  I’m not sure if we as a group were parallel processing what’s happening in our Peth Agile eco-system but if felt like something else was also present.

And that leads nicely into the seventh perspective of the model

The Wider Context

It would be interesting to take this concept and offer it to the leaders within organisations in Perth.  To explore what topics are front of mind for them.  I’m guessing that Agile per se will not be the real topic – but may well present as the panacea.

In coaching we are used to the phrase, the problem the client brings you is never the real problem.  Typically, it takes two or three sessions to uncover what they really want to work on.

What Did I Conclude About Agile Versus Professional Coaching?

Having been around the coaching blocks for nearly 15 years my conclusion is that Agile is a niche within coaching.  Many, if not all the tools are the same.  The models may be different, and the context is different.

When everything else is stripped bare it comes down to co-creating a safe space for coachees to have a purposeful conversation.

Ro Gorell

Ro Gorell

Ro Gorell is a co-director of Change Optimised and a multiple published author. One of her books, 50 Top Tools for Coaching, is a Kogan Page best seller with an audio version in production in 2020. She is driven by a desire to help individuals and organisations become future fit – so they can thrive no matter what. She also advocates for integrating work and life, valuing time spent in the gym and singing with West Australian Symphony Orchestra Choir.