The following is a fictional story about a day in the life of an Agile Coach.
The Day of an Agile Coach Starts
You connect to the team’s video conference line at 8:30am. It’s not core hours yet, so not everyone else is on, but you’re not the first either. You say some quick hellos to Mary and Siraj who are already on. Mary mentions a meeting her manager has asked her to attend that will occur at 11:30am – right in the middle of core hours. You help her to negotiate with her manager to reschedule the meeting outside of core hours… successfully. The manager just forgot about core hours and the meeting wasn’t urgent. You make a note that since the team is new, the stakeholders might need reminders about the importance and policies around core hours.
By this time, a few more team members have joined the video call, including the Scrum Master, Mei. Mei sets up two breakout rooms and immediately a couple team members join them to have sidebar discussions. You have a quick conversation with her about Mary’s manager. You recommend Mei create some reminders for stakeholders about core hours. After that, you stay in the main room to observe things, and continue your work on updating the team’s Agile maturity progress report to due to management at the end of the Sprint. This is a part of your work as an Agile coach that you dislike, but it is part of your responsibilities in the organization.
A few minutes later you hear a discussion getting started about a technical issue: apparently there is a quality issue that some customers have complained about, and the team has started discussing how to fix it. You pay more active attention and ask the team about the priority of the work using a powerful question. This causes the team to re-evaluate the importance of their discussion. The Product Owner, Kevin, provides some clarity on priorities and indicates that this customer complaint will be added to the Product Backlog for resolution in a later Sprint. The team-refocuses.
You notice that Siraj and Annette have been in one of the breakout rooms for the entire discussion so you recommend that Mei or Kevin proactively check with them to make sure they know about the customer complaint prioritization… just in case Siraj and Annette are talking about it too.
At 9:30am, everyone has joined except for Farhad. Since this is the start of core hours, you are watching to see if Mei gets things started on time… she doesn’t. You’re not sure if she is waiting for Farhad or has forgotten the time, so, at 9:32, you send her a private text message to reminder her about core hours starting. She gets the message and apologizes to the team for starting core hours late. She doesn’t ask about Farhad and seems to not have noticed that he is AWOL… again. This is becoming a pattern: Farhad has been late or missing from core hours several times recently.
Today you are introducing a new check-in technique to the team. You briefly explain the technique, and then the present team members do their check-in to start core hours. Farhad shows up after nearly everyone has done their check-in, and so you invite him to also check in with the new technique, but since he missed the full explanation, he rambles on a bit and doesn’t really practice it the way it is meant to be done.
Core hours are not the time for one-on-one’s, normally. You make a note to talk to Mei after core hours about the issues you have noticed. Now, the team is getting down to working together for the next four hours. Mei remembers to close the extra breakout rooms since everyone will be in the main room. She then asks if anyone needs her help with anything. No one does, so you and her settle back to watch the work progress. Sometimes an Agile coach just observes the team working – you find this gives you a bit of a “breather” from performing.
From 9:30 until 11:30 your observations lead you to take a few notes about things to discuss one-on-one with team members. Kevin (Product Owner) comes across very strong and opinionated about some technical solutions and may be influencing sub-optimal choices. Mary seems like she might be distracted for significant portions of the time… maybe she has an obstacle you and Mei can help her with. Siraj is sharing his screen for much of the work time and might not be leaving space for others to “drive”. But otherwise, things seem to be going well. As the clock changes to 11:30, Mei interrupts the team to let them know that it is time for lunch break. Farhad and Annette continue their discussion, but everyone else turns off video and mutes audio so you do as well.
You are back in your chair with video on at 12:40 – twenty minutes before the afternoon core hours start. Farhad and Annette are still talking and it’s quite animated. You interject and ask if they have taken lunch yet – and they haven’t. So you strongly advise them to: stop their conversation, take lunch and ask the team collectively for help resolving their discussion. Often an outside view is needed!
Farhad is late at the start of core hours… again.
Everyone, but Farhad, does a quick check-in. You invite Annette to explain the problem she and Farhad were discussing over lunch. The team quickly provides some innovative suggestions and comes to a conclusion. Farhad arrives, discovers that a decision has been made without him, and starts to argue about it. You privately message Mei to invite her to intervene, but a couple minutes pass without her doing anything. Time to intervene as an Agile coach.
You start by interrupting, since things have become animated again. You always try to use a creative way to interrupt so you start singing loudly “I NEEEED your attention PLEEEASE, I NEEEED your attention PLEEEASE!” That quiets people down. You start by reflecting back to the team the factual sequence of events, leaving nothing out, but not offering any judgement:
Annette and Farhad started a discussion during core hours.
The discussion continued through most of lunch break.
You interrupted the discussion to advise them to take lunch and ask the team for help with the discussion after lunch.
After check-in, Annette described the issue to the team.
The team had a good discussion the issue and made a decision.
Farhad arrived late from lunch break and challenged the decision.
You then share your screen to show the Team Working Agreement which includes the details around core hours, and read the relevant parts.
Now, you say: “Farhad, clearly the issue is one you feel strongly about. Yet, everyone in the team but you followed the Working Agreement and made a fair decision. What do you think needs to change about the Team Working Agreement in order to improve it and avoid this situation in the future?”
Farhad is clearly upset. He responds by arguing about the issue instead of responding to your question. You let him speak, which takes a few minutes, and then you reflect back to him his behaviour and try another powerful question by saying “Farhad, than you for sharing your views on the issue. I’m sure the team will take those points into consideration. What you have done is to try to change the topic away from your own responsibility to the Team Working Agreement. How can we change the Team Working Agreement to accommodate your needs so that the team functions more effectively?”
Farhad looks nonplussed and then, without saying anything, disconnects. Being an Agile coach can be hard sometimes!
Vulnerability as an Agile Coach
You realize that Farhad is extremely upset by the situation. You tell the team to not worry, and that you could reach out to Farhad directly. You ask them: “team, would you like me to try to speak with Farhad immediately, or would you like me to stay with you for the remainder of core hours, or do you have any other suggestions on how to respond to this situation?”
Kevin suggests that you give Farhad time to cool down and that he would like you to stay with the team. A few people nod their heads and no one suggests anything else, so you stay. Your heart is not in it, however, and you are worried about Farhad. After about twenty minutes of struggling with your emotions, you let the team know that this is happening and you indicate you are going to take a short break. You mention you will respect the team’s advice, but that you just need a bit of time for yourself. You demonstrate with your words and actions both vulnerability and the need for sustainability and respect for the team all at the same time.
You take a fifteen minute personal break and do a bit of exercise. A walk and some quick weights to get your blood flowing. You find this often helps if you are feeling stress. Near the end of that fifteen minutes, Farhad calls you on your phone. Your heart races when you see his name pop up, but you answer quickly.
Farhad sounds calmer. You deliberately let him speak and leave lots of space before responding to anything he says. He explains that he is really certain the team is making a bad decision that is going to hurt customers. He has been trying to figure out what to do. He doesn’t actually ask you for help, but he seems to be leaving space for it. So, after a few second’s pause, you ask him, “would you like me to support you, as an Agile coach, in communicating your concerns to the team?” He thinks about it for a few moments, probably considering your role as a coach and the one-on-one coaching agreement you have with him, and he finally says, “yeah, sure.”
So you say, first off, “thank you for calling me. That action demonstrates humility and courage. What options for communicating your concerns have you thought of so far?”
Farhad says, “I started writing a long message, but it’s not finished, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. I’ve tried arguing and that’s not getting anywhere, but I’m worried I just haven’t expressed myself clearly enough and if I keep trying it will work. What else can I do?”
You realize that there is a lot going on here. Probably Farhad could use some systematic coaching on communication, he probably needs to improve how he is presenting himself to the team to gain a higher level of trust from them (e.g. not showing up late to things), and he probably needs to be a little more detached about doing things perfectly and using the fast-feedback mechanisms of Scrum to expose problems. Using gentle language you mention these things to Farhad and ask him to think on these things and that you will help him in the scheduled one-on-one’s. You also observe to him that you both are not with the team during core hours and that’s probably making the team more and more nervous. So, the first thing to sort out is how to go back to the team as quickly as possible. You ask him, “what would you like to happen when we join the team again?”
Farhad suggests that he will apologize to the team and ask that they pause the decision and give him an opportunity to present his concerns more systematically tomorrow. That sounds like a good plan to you, but you ask him what will he do if they don’t agree to pause the decision. He thinks about it for a few moments and says that he will be fine with that as long as he can still present his concerns tomorrow. You recommend to him that to make sure that happens, he talk to Mei to schedule a time during core hours for his presentation. You also suggest that he make an extra-special effort to be on time for core hours tomorrow. Agile coaches sometimes need to remind people of the things they have already agreed upon!
You both re-join the team video conference.
Ending Core Hours
It’s now almost 2:30pm and core hours are nearly over for the day. Farhad makes his apology and request, the team agrees, and the rest of core hours goes without further incident. You use the time to think about who you want to talk to after core hours and you decide that Mei is highest priority, followed by Kevin, so you send meeting invites to them for 3:30 and 4:30 respectively. Mei accepts right away.
At 2:50 Mei gets the team’s attention and starts a check-out. Everyone shares briefly their accomplishments for the day and there’s a bit of self-organizing for some discussions after core hours. There is nothing in the check-outs that gets your particular attention as an Agile coach. At 2:58, everyone is done and several people drop out of the conference call, Mei sets up a couple breakout rooms, and a couple people head into those for their follow-ups. As it turns out, you are the only person left in the main room at 3pm. You decide to do a bit of research on communication skills related to conflict to see if you can find some resources for Farhad. You find a couple good online videos that actually show some role play, but you run out of time.
It’s time for your meeting with Mei. In the meeting you and her discuss the situation with Farhad, but because of your confidentiality with him, you don’t share any details of your discussion, simply leaving it at the generic “Farhad and I will continue to have one-on-one coaching sessions.” Your focus as an Agile coach is to get Mei to question her own responses to the situation and how she can learn to handle this sort of thing better. You also ask her about starting the core hours check-in late. She was indeed waiting for Farhad. You advise her that the team trusts her to start on time, and if she doesn’t it gives other people implicit permission to be late for core hours as well. Finally, you work with Mei to come up with a plan to re-visit the Team Working Agreement at the next retrospective which will be in just a few days. This plan includes trying a few new retrospective techniques that you and Mai select from an online resource.
It’s almost 4:30pm and Kevin has not responded to your meeting request. You check to see if he is still on the video conference in another breakout room, and he is, with Annette. You join their breakout room and interrupt to check with Kevin if he has seen your invite and will be able to talk at 4:30. He declines; he has a family commitment and has to sign of at about 4:45 at the latest. You quickly arrange with him to re-schedule your meeting invite for tomorrow at the same time.
You are about to sign off when Annette asks if she can talk with you for a few minutes about a technical problem. You agree. Kevin signs off instead, and you and Annette continue in the breakout room. Annette asks you to review some code with her to discuss how to create automated tests. The two of you work for over an hour. You ask Annette if she would share her learning with some of the other team members and she promises to do so.
At 5:30pm you’re done for the day. Sometimes being an Agile coach means long workdays!
This article is part of a series of articles on how to be an effective Agile coach. There are three others you might be interested in:
Powerful Questions for Agile Coaches
Most other articles about a day in the life of an Agile coach don’t actually tell a story, but some have good advice, nevertheless:
A Day in the Life of an Agile Coach
Or, they don’t really go through a day in detail:
Empower Your Entire Organization with BERTEIG Consulting in Agile, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and LEAN.