Agile Coach roles and responsibilities

The Agile coaching market has been growing rapidly because of the mainstream adoption of Agile. In the 2017 “Most Promising Jobs” overview by LinkedIn, Scrum master (a type of Agile coach) was ranked in 10th place, with 104% year over year job opening growth and a base salary of around $100,000.

The average salary of an Agile coach, who works on a multi-team level, can range between $122,000 and $138,000 per year. In this article, we will talk about the different types of Agile coaches and their responsibilities. We will then discuss how project managers can effectively work with them and give insight into how PMs may evolve into Agile coaches themselves.

What Is an Agile Coach?

An Agile coach is a person who is responsible for creating and improving Agile processes within a team or a company. Agile coaches can either be employees or work as external contractors. Usually, a need for an Agile coach is identified when a company is transitioning from their existing working practices, such as Waterfall, into working with the Agile methodology principles.

Agile coaches mostly come from project management, product management, IT, or software development backgrounds. They usually have a lot of experience with different Agile methodologies, such as Scrum, Kanban, and Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). They are usually proficient in coaching and mentoring and are able to guide and help people to figure out the right solutions for their challenges.

Why Do You Need an Agile Coach?

Agile Coach guides the Agile transformation

Agile is easy to understand, but hard to master, resulting in many leaders running into problems when making the switch. Most of these problems come about due to unrealistic expectations of how easy it is to implement Agile within a team, department, or the whole company.

For example, the appeal of Scrum is huge because it seemingly offers a one-size-fits-all solution, which is easy to implement. However, every situation is different and many project managers find themselves in situations where they have implemented all the right Agile processes, yet there is a feeling that something is not quite working. Alternatively, sometimes Agile seems to work in one business unit, but not in another.

This is the situation when an Agile coach becomes a valuable addition to the team. It is his job to figure out the reasons why Agile is not delivering the expected results and what steps need to be taken to remedy the situation.

Types of Agile Coaches

There are many different role names that are in use, which can sometimes be confusing. Agile coaches are sometimes called: Agile facilitators, Scrum masters, Scrum coaches, iteration managers, Kanban coaches, or enterprise Agile coaches. The easiest way to think about Agile coaching is through the lens of who is being coached by whom. The Agile Coaching Institute offers three certification levels for Agile coaching, which align with three most common scenarios.

Agile Coach types

Agile Team Facilitator

The focus of an Agile team facilitator is on a single team. Scrum master, Scrum coach, iteration manager, Kanban coach—all of these perhaps more common titles fall into this category. The goal of the Agile team facilitator (whatever their official title may be) is to help the single team transition to Agile and ultimately increase the team’s productivity.

The Agile team facilitator might need to have the technical proficiency to be an effective coach, more so than the other two coach types discussed below. Since the coach will be constantly working with the team, the discussion will inevitably become very detailed. Being able to participate in such discussions is key for a coach to be able to understand and influence the team dynamics. For example, the team might have the React vs. Angular debate. In theory, you don’t need to know what these are to facilitate a meeting about them, yet in reality, the facilitation will be much more effective and the participants will trust the coach more if the coach can show at least a high-level understanding of the subject matter.

This is why you typically see Scrum masters, the most popular form of Agile team facilitators, being developers who code but also spend some time on maintaining and improving the Agile process within the team.

Ultimately, the role of an Agile team facilitator is to make sure that Agile works within the team. Their job is not to only introduce daily standups or retrospectives but to also make sure that these ceremonies deliver value to the team. While Agile previously appeared in many companies via a bottom-up approach, we are now witnessing more Agile implementations being introduced via a top-down approach. In such a setting, where team member motivations to change might be mixed, it is very important that an Agile team facilitator is able to explain the value of Agile to the whole team.

Agile Coach

Most Agile coaches have some prior experience as an Agile team facilitator as it is a natural stepping stone in the process of becoming an Agile coach. An Agile coach is concerned with spreading Agile at a multi-team level and throughout the organization. While sometimes an Agile coach might engage with teams on an individual basis, more often they will work with Agile team facilitators and other internal ambassadors of Agile to identify and remove any obstacles hindering the implementation of Agile.

Typical undertakings of an Agile coach are:

  • Integrating Agile teams or departments within the wider processes of a predominantly non-Agile company.
  • Encouraging the proliferation of Agile best practices between different teams.
  • Mentoring and coaching of Agile team facilitators.
  • Overcoming resistance from top management due to a perceived reduction of control.
  • Measuring the results of transitioning to Agile.

Enterprise Agile Coach

As described by the name, enterprise Agile coaches work at an enterprise level. While the underlying skills of coaching are similar to that of an Agile coach, an enterprise Agile coach has to possess knowledge of organizational design, enterprise change management, and executive leadership coaching. At the same time, they also should have a good grasp of at least some enterprise Agile frameworks like Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Large-scale Scrum (LeSS) or Disciplined Agile Delivery (DaD).

An enterprise Agile coach is less involved in the day to day tasks of helping teams to implement Agile and is more concerned with helping to change the overall structure of the company to facilitate the Agile principles. This task requires working with the senior leadership and helping them understand the benefits of Agile as well as the structure needed to make it sustainable within the organization.

Is It a Full-time Role?

Sometimes. If we talk about Agile team facilitators, one typical arrangement is to work part-time as a Scrum master and part-time as a developer, project manager, or product manager. In a perfect case, the Agile team facilitator would be working solely as a Scrum Master for one or more teams without doing any other work inside the teams themselves.

It is also quite common to find a mid-level manager to take on the responsibilities of an Agile coach during an Agile transformation while carrying out their other direct responsibilities.

The enterprise Agile coach may be an employee but it is most common to hire an external expert.

How Can an Agile Coach Help a Project Manager?

As a project manager, you are likely to come into contact with Agile coaches throughout your projects. Engaging and working with them can provide many benefits to you and your project team.

Improve Agile Processes in Your Project Team

If you run into any problems related to Agile in your team, an Agile coach is one of the best people to consult with. Maybe you feel that daily standups are not providing real value or maybe the team finds it hard to understand why they should use story points for estimation. An Agile coach has seen many situations throughout their career and should be able to guide you in the right direction. Ask them to do a workshop or a lecture on a particular Agile topic that is relevant to you.

Even if you don’t feel like you have any major problems in your Agile process, it might be a good idea to invite the Agile coach to sit in on your main ceremonies and do a soft audit. They might provide valuable feedback on what could be improved or even unearth some problems that you were unaware of.

Removing Dependencies

Being Agile often requires removing or mitigating external dependencies. However, sometimes, those dependencies stem from other teams and there is not a lot a PM can do about them. Since an Agile coach has a higher-level view of Agility in the whole organization, they should be the person to contact in order to help to initiate the resolution of the dependencies.

How Do I Become an Agile Coach?

Project Manager career pathway to Agile Coaching

Project management is one of the pathways to becoming an Agile coach. As a project manager, you are likely to be exposed to Agile methodologies, and often, project managers are some of the first people in a company being asked to introduce Agile to a team and take on the responsibilities of an Agile team facilitator.

Here are a few suggestions on how to become an Agile coach:

  • Consider obtaining an Agile coach certificate. A lot of companies give bonus points to candidates with such qualifications. These courses not only provide you with structured theoretical knowledge but also help you apply it in real-life scenarios.
  • If you don’t have any experience with Agile, apply for projects that already use Agile principles to gain relevant, hands-on experience.
  • Seek out opportunities to become an Agile team facilitator (for example a Scrum master). It could be possible to move to such a position internally or apply for a project manager job in a smaller company, which wants to introduce Agile. In this case, you will not only gain experience on the team level but also on working with top management regarding Agile transformation.
  • You might find yourself working for a company, which is employing or outsourcing an Agile coach. Get to know this person and learn from their experience.
  • In some cases, Agile transformation is a dedicated project and several employees work together to deliver it. Apply to become part of that project team to witness how Agile is introduced on a company level.
  • Apply for a role at a business consulting company, which offers Agile coaching services.

Summary

Agile coaches are in demand as Agile is achieving more mainstream adoption. There are three main Agile coach types that help teams and companies with their Agile transformations:

  • Agile Team Facilitator – Works with one or more teams on an individual level and is responsible for introducing and maintaining Agile ceremonies within those teams.
  • Agile Coach – Works in multi-team and organization levels. Engages top management, facilitates inter-department dialogue and advances the adoption of Agile throughout the company.
  • Enterprise Agile Coach – Works on the enterprise level, manages organizational and culture change, introduces enterprise-level Agile methodologies and coaches executive leadership.

Project managers can benefit from Agile coaches, who can help a project team to resolve internal process issues and provide valuable feedback for Agile improvements. Moreover, an Agile coach can help remove or mitigate dependencies, which are sometimes out of the control of a project manager.

Lastly, project management provides a pathway to becoming an Agile coach. Should you decide to become one, seek out opportunities to become an Agile team facilitator (for example, a Scrum master), learn from Agile coaches within your company, and sign up for company-wide Agile transformation projects.

Understanding the Basics

What does an Agile coach do?

An Agile coach is a person who is responsible for creating and improving Agile processes within a team or a company. Some things that an Agile Coach might do are: spread Agile best practices between different teams; integrate Agile teams within non-Agile processes; and measure results of an Agile transition.

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