Coaching Is Key To Winning The Race

I remember the first time I drove a car on a race track.  I was hooked, and to this day I am a motorsports fan and occasionally enjoy getting to autocross or driving on race tracks.

The basic knowledge of how to become a race car driver is not hard to learn from books and lecture.  I’ve been to several driving schools.  The hard part is applying all you learn to driving the car on the track with speed and smoothness.  The greatest improvements I’ve made in my driving have always come when I’ve had a coach in the car with me, either driving the car for me to observe or as a passenger providing feedback and instruction. There is a reason that professional race car drivers have undergone many hours of professional coaching long be fore they will ever be awarded a racing license.

Becoming a competitive race car driver is basically the same same learning model as becoming a doctor or a practitioner in an agile software development organization:

  • Training and reading build knowledge
  • Applying that knowledge so that the desired outcome can be repeatedly achieved is skill
  • Repeated application of that skill in different circumstances forms experience

This process, unfortunately, is lost on most sponsors who cause one of the biggest agile adoption anti-patterns: Coaching not necessary. This is the idea that one 2-day course or just reading some books will instantly create a set of agile practitioners. It takes time, dedication, experimentation, and most of all, coaching, from an experienced agile coach who is either in-house or external.

Would you trust a lifeguard who received her certification on the Internet based on an online exam and no practice? What about a surgeon who has never had any internships, residencies or hands-on experience? Would you trust him to operate on you? I understand that a newly trained agile developer isn’t going (usually) to kill anyone if they miss an iteration goal or their retrospective goes sour, but the concept is still the same – getting results from an agile transformation takes experienced practitioners. One cannot go directly from knowledge to experience, and one cannot build skills in the classroom. To achieve the desired results from agile teams, it takes time to nurture and grow them, and that includes coaching along the way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to say that agile practitioners aren’t bright and can’t apply what they have learned in the class or book within their own environment. But consider your unique environment – your corporate culture and the quirks that are yours alone, your current environment, infrastructure, leaders and their leadership style, organizational structure, incentives, and so on. There are so many parts to the makeup of an organization that sometimes it isn’t obvious how to apply what you have learned. A 2-day course (or even a 10-day course) cannot cover all possibilities. And what about scaling agile? The more teams there are (especially distributed teams), the more  challenges the newly trained agilists face. It gets overwhelming, especially for new practitioners.

In addition, please don’t misinterpret my views about classroom time. I have done my share of teaching. I love teaching and I will be the first to point out that classes and books are an essential start. They add the knowledge which is required to start the journey. However, it will never build skills. Application of new knowledge in your own environment will do that. And the more complex the environment, the harder it is to apply that knowledge. Coaching from someone who has done it before and seen many of the pitfalls the team may be headed for, who will work with them to navigate the rocky terrain, teaching them within their own context and arming them with the tools to apply that knowledge to make wise decisions. In essence, the coach’s job is to work themselves out of a job. Repeated application of that skill in different circumstances forms an experienced practitioner who, by the way, is your next agile coach.

Don’t try and save the cost of some coaching and try and get everyone trained instead, thinking this will bring about results. Instead, consider picking a smaller subset of the whole who can be trained AND coached in their own environments, who, because of the coaching, will come up to speed faster, avoid common mistakes and ultimately coach the next generation. Consider that what you may consider an expense may actually be an investment, which will pay dividends for years.

Remember, nothing breeds acceptance of change in an agile transformation like success.  A well trained and coached agile core group with multiple successes is the best marketing for the effort and the best foundation fo scaling agile.

I’d like to thank Darian Rashid of Agile Ethos, a VersionOne Partner, for collaborating on this post with me.

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