Scaling the Agile Coach

I hear companies who have adopted scrum and realized how powerful the framework is soon have conversations around, “How do we scale scrum so that we can use it across the enterprise?”  These questions are fair and valid and each company must determine the right answers that will bring success — probably through a series of learning experiments where they will finally settle …. somewhere.

For me, the question has arisen… “How to you scale the agile coach?”

Investing in coaches is a decision that seems to be very hard for many companies because it is a question of budget.  Explaining the return on investment that a professional agile coach brings to an organization is sometimes hard to do because the benefits seem to be unquantifiable.  So, organizations who come to the realization that they need coaches will usually either post a position for a “scrum master / coach” (which is a valid position because the scrum master is actually the coach for their team) or they will hire an actual coach for their organization and assign them to be the coach to multiple teams.

How many teams a coach is expected to work with will impact the strategy used as will the actual job expectations.   I will address this blog from the viewpoint of my most recent engagement – an enterprise coach responsible for the education and growth of roughly 50 teams and their management staff.  That’s right – 50 teams.  Now, many of the people on these teams overlap into multiple teams so there are only about 270 total including roughly 50 people working offshore in multiple countries across multiple time zones.

So, how does one coach work individually across this many teams?  They don’t.  One person simply cannot coach 50 teams – it isn’t possible to give individualized attention to this many groups of people.

So, how was I able to successfully help this organization grow in only 9 months?  Very strategically.  Just like you eat an elephant — one bite at a time.

Admittedly, this organization had started doing scrum roughly two years before I came on the scene and there was a training program in place with the company where coaches trained people throughout the enterprise in agile practices and the scrum framework.  (My organization was only one of many in this very huge IT wing of the company.)  However, because this organization was so large and one good coach can only give individualized attention to 5-6 teams the coaches who had been assigned to the organization before me did what any sensible and good coach would do — focus on 5-6 teams and pray for the reinforcements to arrive soon!

As a result, the organization had 5-6 pretty solid teams, several teams that had taken some training and were trying things on their own and were at various stages of adoption and growth, and a bunch of teams that had not adopted scrum at all.

How does an enterprise coach look at an organization differently than a team coach?  An enterprise coach sees the entire organization as a whole and thinks – what core things does this organization need to mature in its adoption of scrum in order to deliver valuable software products to customers faster?  And how can I make this scale to touch as many individuals as possible to deliver the most impact quickly?

The answer came in the form of strategic blanketing the organization in phases of training, assessments, coaching, and raising up Peer Mentor Coaches from within the organization in order to create a self sustaining environment that would not be dependent upon me for future growth and maturity.  I recognized that one person is not able to coach 50 teams so instead of pretending that I was superwoman – I embraced that constraint and leveraged it to ensure that people became responsible for their own growth and maturity and that they did not wait for the coach to help them.  I used my passion for agile and motivated teams to become excited about what agility could do for them.  I told them that I believed in them and would be there to support them and help them become anything they wanted to become and that I knew they could do it if they just stepped out and tried it on their own.  Once they were excited and motivated — momentum kicked in and we were on our way!

Strategy Phase 1 — Get People Trained!

I knew that the only way people would be able to try this on their own without me there to coach individual teams daily was to get as many people as possible trained.  So, working with the management team we got buy in for training for everyone on staff – managers and teams.  For six months I spent the bulk of my time in training classes (along with coaches from other organizations who were also training their teams) teaching the fundamentals of scrum, how to write user stories, how to groom a backlog, the role of a scrum master, the role of a product owner, and of course the tool the company was using to manage the work.  I threw a big blanket over the organization and touched as many of my people as I could by teaching the classes they were taking and getting to know them in these classes.  Then, I would send them out to implement what they were learning with their teams.  I would follow up by walking the halls and talking to scrum masters and teams to check in and see how they were doing with the implementation and answering questions as needed.

IMG_1565During this training time, most of my work with teams was also using a blanket approach.  I would gather groups of people and do targeted coaching sessions.  Lunch and learns with all the scrum masters to talk about scrum master skills and problems.  Lunch and learns with all the product owners to talk about product owner skills and problems.  And lunch and learns with multiple closely related teams to learn about topics they were struggling with and learn from one another.  Lunch and learns with managers and scrum masters to teach managers how to communicate with scrum masters and give them what they needed to lead their teams to success.

This six months of teaching set the foundation for success but I didn’t really get to coach teams hands on very much.  I only did this when teams reached out with specific problems that they needed to solve.  If I saw a team who was really in trouble, I would set up one hour coaching sessions with them over a 4 week period and spend some one on one time with them.  But I never got to go to any of their scrum events and just hang out and observe like a team coach would — that’s not the life of an enterprise coach.  An enterprise coach has to think at a higher level.  I had to coach the entire organization — If I got lost in the weeds coaching a few individual teams they would be successful but the organization overall would fail.  I couldn’t let this organization go yet another year in that same position.  I had to keep the greater good in mind and force myself to allow these teams to grow with less hands on from me.

Strategy Phase 2 — Assess Team Progress!!

After the training goals were met in the first two quarters, the next quarter’s strategy was to 1) assess teams to see where they are in their growth and maturity, 2) help each team develop a self improvement plan so that they would be responsible for the next step in their growth and maturity, 3) identify and launch teams that had still not adopted scrum, 4) identify and develop Peer Mentors within the organization (or other organizations if necessary) to help give individual coaching attention and training to teams who needed extra attention, 5) start focusing individual coaching on new and struggling teams to help them mature and grow, 6) develop sustainable training for offshore team members.

This particular company chose the ShuHaRi maturity model as a means of assessing the maturity of agile teams.  I sat with each team and spent a few hours talking with them about their practices, struggles, how they have adapted to overcome problems and grow, and based on those conversations helped the team to determine where they fell in the company’s maturity model.  I admit that this is probably not the best practice and I would have preferred to spend time watching teams interact and work together in order to assess their maturity; however, this provided me the opportunity to meet teams with their product owners and have real conversations — often for the very first time.

The conversational assessments helped me to get a feel for what teams understood and didn’t understand about scrum.  It helped me to understand their mindset and how they viewed themselves.  It also helped me to build a relationship of trust with them where they were able to understand that I wasn’t some outsider coming in to tell them if they were doing a good job — I was there to help them figure out where they were on their journey and would help them to get wherever THEY decided they wanted to go next.  What I found through these conversations was that my teams were hungry for a coach and they were happy that the six months of training were over for me and that I had come home to be with them.

The output from the assessments was that each team left, either equipped with a self-improvement plan that they built and owned, or with a plan to actually launch their team into the scrum framework leveraging me to help them.  Those new scrum teams were paired with Peer Mentors – scrum masters in the organization (or from other organizations) who were doing well and who were willing to take someone under their wing and teach them the ropes.  Someone who could be their coach so that they didn’t have to rely only on me.

This Peer Mentoring part of the strategy was very important to me personally, not because I had so many teams, but because I am a consultant.  As a consultant and as a coach I never want to build a dependency upon me in any organization.  I am there to equip people to perform the work long after I’m gone.  If teams can’t grow and mature unless I am personally coaching them — I have failed.  My job is to teach them how to coach themselves, to coach each other, and to create an environment of growth and continuous improvement that sustains itself long after my contract with the company has expired.

Strategy Phase 3 — Start Coaching and Tackle Offshore!!

In the third quarter, I began to focus on working directly with the few teams who were struggling.  I targeted these teams by scheduling 2-3 hour blocks of time with them 1-2 days a week (sometimes during their scrum events and sometimes during the workday) and helped them in the areas they were having the most struggle.  In short — I finally got to play team coach with these guys!

For the rest of the organization, I knew all of the teams well and most of my day to day coaching with the teams who were growing on their own was done through “walk-arounds”.  Daily, I walked through the organization and stopped in briefly to talk to teams and scrum masters.  I asked them powerful questions, encouraged them, gave them some motivation, answered any questions they had, helped them problem solve, etc.

During the third quarter my focus also started to turn to the offshore members of the teams who up until this point had been left on their own.  They were working on scrum teams but were being incorporated in different ways and had different levels of understanding and were crying out for attention and training.  I determined that the best way to handle getting these guys trained was by holding short one hour training sessions via video conference and recording the sessions in order to leverage them to reach more people quickly.  So, early morning sessions were held with offshore team members and short topical training was conducted.  The videos from those training sessions were placed in a SharePoint location where all teams could leverage the training and get it to their teams or share it with new team members as they were brought on.  Any team could request that their group attend the original training sessions and questions were always answered and recorded during the session to ensure that the proper value was delivered.

Where are we today?  As of this writing we are mid third quarter.  People are excited about scrum and say that this new way of thinking is changing their lives.  They are learning and growing and motivated.  Each month we celebrate our success stories through a news letter filled with pictures of teams doing fabulous things towards agility and this adds to the momentum.  Once a quarter we have a huge meeting where everyone gathers and we celebrate teams that have taken the next step in the maturity model, give out fun prizes and a trophy for teams that are heading in the right direction even if they aren’t quite there yet, and we give the managers the opportunity to see how many people have embraced training and pour out praise for their accomplishments.  We also celebrate our Peer Mentors for giving back to the scrum community at this company.

Do we have a long way to go?  Absolutely!  I don’t know that anyone ever arrives.  But I do know that with the rate of growth I see this organization experiencing and the ownership that they are taking in their own agility, I will feel comfortable leaving them in the hands of their very own home grown Peer Mentor Coaches soon.  Another thing that I am certain about it that I’m extremely proud to be their coach.