An Exit Strategy for the Agile Coach

The End is Just the Beginning

My entire mission as a coach can be summed up by answering one question: How fast can I make myself no longer necessary? Well, it’s not as extreme as it sounds but from the first moment I begin coaching in an organization, I’m working to foster an environment where the momentum of change and growth is naturally generated from the inside. Every minute, every interaction and every conversation leads to this…a hopeful and proud coach who will need to leave so those I am helping can thrive on their own.

Why do I think about the end before we even begin? One word…

Urgency.

Many organizations are being profoundly challenged to keep up with the volume of change impacting them. Literally, they will not be able to compete unless they can discover new ways to thrive in this ever-changing environment and to quickly deliver the products their customers need. There is an urgent need to help them along this journey of reinvention and discovery.

But more importantly, inside of these challenged companies are many people who are struggling. Some to the point where they become physically ill. Seriously. There are many complex reasons for this but what we know is there is an urgent need to foster a culture where personal health, energy and growth are not sacrificed in this pursuit of quick results (or greater agility).

Beginning with The End

So, in walks a coach (like myself), or many coaches, into the dichotomy of improving speed and agility AND fostering a healthy and thriving culture with a mission to make things better. But how do we know the organization will be better when we leave than when we arrived?

With the “Measuring Impact” post, I discussed how to gauge personal impact of a coach and this post will discuss how to gauge the influence this impact has in creating an environment where long-lasting and meaningful change is starting to bring an organization back to life. Using Stephen Covey’s Second Habit  “Begin With The End in Mind” here are a few of the characteristics of a company I look for to determine if they are gaining agility and resilience:

Self-healing. Are people recognizing when behaviors and systems are not aligned to their new way of working together? Are people doing something about it when it’s not aligned? Are they thriving and getting stronger when challenges emerge?

Sustainable. Has the organization taken ownership of the change? Can they do this on their own? Is there enough internal will and energy to overwhelm existing silos, habits and dysfunctions?

Inventive. Is the company experimenting with new thinking around legacy systems, processes, hierarchies, social norms and behaviors?

Contagious. Could this movement grow naturally and virally throughout the organization without the influence of an outside coach? Can self-healing and inventiveness spread?

Production. Are people focused on delivering value as quickly as possible? Are people and teams often releasing small increments towards bigger goals?

With this rough idea for where we would like to end, our adventure begins. There is nothing earth-shattering about this journey, many coaches are doing much the same thing. But capturing this as a mental model helps me with a “you are here” map as we travel this long and winding road towards this target.

illustrated agile coach exit strategy

Arrival

Arriving to that awkward and uncomfortable first day of school. A coach meets a welcoming but somewhat skeptical group. As I mentioned in the Impact post, coaching is about relationships and the focus on building new ones, so we start the first minute I arrive.

agile coach arrivingThroughout the first couple weeks I will be actively listening and learning, but what I’m really doing is looking for…catalysts.

People to anchor this change around. They are already modeling some of the behaviors. There are ones excited for the change. They feel the current pain and are ready to do something about it. Catalyts are always out there…perhaps they have just lost their voice so we may need to listen closely for them.

These early days connecting with our newly found catalysts is spent generating excitement and energy around the possibilities of what the “new world” could look like. How much connecting is enough? Just enough to build trust. Trust begins to open the door for what I may have to share.

Filling the Gaps

This means a period of sharing experiences and hopefully teaching new ideas. We can start by teaching our newly found catalysts but I will find any willing audience. Teach one team or many teams. Teach one agile coach teachingperson in a specific role or a whole department. Just start painting a picture of future possibilities with whoever is willing to listen.

What do we teach? The list is endless but we can start with:

  • New values and principles. This will lay the foundation for our new way of working together and how we will treat each other in our new culture. With leaders for example, I may start with the Principles of Servant Leadership.
  • New mental models for how effective organizations work based on these values and principles. Some of these models can be conceptual but this is where we begin to change the language of the organization.
  • New frameworks. This will introduce potential new roles, work products, activities, ceremonies.
  • New skills. The unique capabilities needed for our new framework and roles. For example, a product owner may need to learn how to do product discovery or write user stories.

How much teaching is enough? Just enough to get them started. There is nothing like experiencing this new way of working first hand so I spend as little time as possible here.

Being an Example

With just enough knowledge in hand to be dangerous, it’s time to get people experiencing for themselves how different things will be. During this time I may model certain activities by doing the work with them.

agile coach modelingFor example, if the product owner is learning how to write user stories or create a story map, I might do the first couple drafts or a version myself, but I keep the product owner extremely close. The goal is to hand the marker over as quickly as possible. Similar to teaching, it’s important not to linger here. Look for every opportunity to pass the baton but I’m always close by so my level of interaction remains high until people become comfortable with their new roles.

How much modeling is enough? Just enough to give them confidence to continue on their own.

Watching and Observing

After handing the reins over to a practitioner or a team of practitioners, it’s time to observe and assess their level of confidence. Are they growing into their new roles? Are they  “feeling” what Agile is about? Are the new values and principles being modeled coming to life? Is their new framework become a reality?

agile coach coachingWhile observing, I will offer coaching through real-time feedback but mostly I just encourage and support. As needed, we may jump back to teaching or modeling but this should begin to dwindle.

Over time, people should be performing in their roles without any help and teams should be well-functioning and healthy communities. If they are not, we’ll stay in the teaching, modeling, and coaching cycle for a little longer – until old habits wither away and confidence in new habits begins to grow.

How much coaching? Just enough to make it their own. There is a temptation to make things “perfect” and try to make sure absolute alignment to a framework or an approach. For me, as long as behaviors and activities are aligned to values and principles, they are free to experiment, create and make it their own.

Building Connections

Throughout the coaching journey, emphasis is placed on building sustainable connections throughout the organization. I was introduced to Communities of Practice as defined by Etienne Wenger from coaching peers a while back. These communities can be role-based or context-based but they become an important piece of my exit strategy.

agile coach connectingBuilding communities is an important element to sustainable change because, as Robert Greenleaf talks about in Servant Leadership, communities are not just a place for people to share, learn and grow, but it is a place of healing. When the communities become this place of healing, people begin to recognize they are in a safe place to experiment within the new framework and others care enough about them to help them gain ability and increase presence.

How much connecting? Just enough so people (everyone) begins to recognize they are in control of their own destiny.

The End is the Beginning

As my time begins to come to a close, I will intentionally shift towards becoming smaller to test how well the communities can thrive on its own. People may come to me with specific requests for suggestions or guidance. I’m always happy to share what I have but I’m mostly interested in challenging and motivating people and teams towards greater things.

agile coach leavingWith communities in place, I will try to be an instigator within the communities to help them have meaningful conversations about meaningful things. This mostly means challenging them to continue to learn from each other and to share with each other.

If I come back to an organization 6 months after leaving and I wanted to understand how well an organization is doing on their journey, I believe my first questions would be “How are the communities doing? Are they still a place of healing and growth?”

Most importantly, are the people I was coaching now doing the things I was doing – teaching, modeling, coaching, connecting – with each other? It should all come full circle. The end is the beginning.

How far do I go? Just far enough away so I am no longer needed but close enough so I can learn from those I have left.


As an end note, I am often asked how do you “scale agile.” My answer is always the same – scale the communities, scale the behaviors, scale around new values and principles. Only then, can you can slowly add the roles, queues and plumbing necessary to organize large efforts around a healthy and vibrant culture. More to come on this soon.


As all of us do, I am standing on the shoulders of giants and I have been blessed to learn from some of the best in the business including Si Alhir and many others. Their influence has affected my ability to coach beyond measure and I will always be grateful.

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