This is the substance of the lightning talk I gave at the Agile Coach Camp, for what it is worth. I put it together as a way to summarize my personal goals for the conference.
Pretty much all of us became agile coaches by accident. None of us went to school to learn how. There are no such schools. Some of us were more deliberate about choosing this career path than others, but it was largely circumstantial for most of us as this new field emerged. And, so far, there are no public training opportunities for agile coaches.
Two of the cornerstones of Agile software development are continuous improvement for teams and constant feedback at many levels to stay on track. In this spirit, should we coaches also desire feedback on our efforts and seek to improve our own performance? I think so. Sure, we get better with each day of practice and we learn as we go, but are their ways to be more deliberate about it? Here are some to consider.
Rather than just relying on lessons from the proverbial School of Hard Knocks, how can we be proactive in gathering information to make us better? Here are some areas where we can create our own feedback loops to keep us on the improvement path. (Good intention: I am thinking about a more detailed treatment of this topic in a future article.)
We can get feedback from our peers by networking at conferences and through on-line communities (message boards, twitter, agile coach pub, etc). We can share ideas and ask questions of people in similar situations.
We can ask our teams for feedback. It might be formalized in our engagement contract as well. I make it a point to end every training session with a short retrospective – not to ask how well I did but to ask what each person in the group learned. From that I can gauge how well I did. (It also helps to anchor the learned concepts in the participant’s minds.)
We can be more formal with ourselves by looking for areas where we could benefit by improvement. One way is by considering a list of coaching competencies like the one I posted here. Which items on that list do you feel good about it? Which could stand improvement? Which are not currently part of your skill set?
As technical professionals, learning is continuous out of necessity. We are constantly drinking from the firehose just to keep up. And once in a while we get a little breathing space to do some focused learning. We read articles and books (or as much as we can before time runs out). We have discussions with our clients and peers outside of coaching engagements.
We can also take classes to become better coaches. While there are no “agile coaching” courses just yet, there are courses in many of the competencies that a good coach should have, things like public speaking, active listening and powerful questioning.
May people agree that the very best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. You know something best when you are prepared to explain it and answer questions about it. So a very good way to become a better coach is by teaching others how to do what you do or what you know. I use this as a specific vehicle for improving my knowledge of software development practices. For example, I recently created a webinar on continuous integration so that I could talk about it with more authority. By preparing to teach others and then actually going through with it, the concepts become engrained in your brain for quicker retrieval.
Many people talk about apprenticing as a way to learn agile coaching. I think it is also a good way to teach agile coaching. As a mentor, you will sharpen your skills and expand your understanding with every explanation and challenge from a mentee. It is also a good way to get feedback on your work. The logistics of apprenticing are tricky, at least for us external coaches, but the benefits can be great.
It may be just a matter of time before the demand for agile coaches inspires someone to create a course. One of my clients asked for an entire curriculum for training coaches in their organization. We created version 1.0 but have not had a chance to try it out yet. The exercise of creating the class materials was a good learning experience for me. I am looking forward to the opportunity to deliver it.