But What Does A Coach Do?

As much as I use “Agile Coach” in my email address, domain name and all over my resume, it’s not a clearly defined role and when people have asked about my current job hunt I often need to describe what it is I do. For simplicity, I often cover what I don’t do as many people start with the impression that I’m a project manager (been there, done it but it’s not what I do today).

Is There A Definition?

I have seen many definitions but not a single definitive statement because there is no single professional body.

I like the phrase used in the Scrum Alliance’s “State of Agile Coaching Report“: “An agile coach helps organizations, teams, and individuals adopt agile practices and methods while embedding agile values and mindsets. The goal of an agile coach is to foster more effective, transparent, and cohesive teams, and to enable better outcomes, solutions, and products/services for customers.” However, I think it focuses too much on Agile, which might seem odd considering we’re trying to define an Agile Coach. It does mention improving outcomes but I believe that’s a major part of my focus not a side effect. I help people use Agile approaches in order to achieve those outcomes; Agile is a toolbox, not the purpose of my coaching.

I also like a line from a recent ICAgile post, “An agile coach acts as a mentor and facilitator, guiding the team or organization towards greater efficiency, productivity, and overall performance while promoting continuous learning and improvement.” Again, it describes how but not why – there are many reasons an organisation may seek greater efficiency, and understanding that is a large part of a coach’s on-boarding.

What Do I Do?

  • Lead by example; be a role model of Agile principles and values.
  • Foster a culture of openness and psychological safety.
  • Teach, mentor and coach on various aspects of Agile.
  • Demonstrate and facilitate collaboration and clear communication.
  • Use small experiments to introduce people to new ideas/approaches, giving us all a chance to see if the change is taking us in the desired direction.
  • Constantly learn from my peers, community and colleagues. As a coach, it’s important that I am coachable and continually seeking to improve.
  • Help people embrace a culture shift. Organisational change can be frightening and threatening, especially when one cannot see their place in the post-transformation structure. Similarly, leaders often feel a loss of control when many of their familiar levers and metrics seem to disappear. As a coach, I show how roles and tools can evolve and adapt.
  • Identify impediments that span multiple parts of an organisation. A Scrum Master is usually focused on one or two teams, whereas a coach has a wider remit which allows us to see more widespread challenges. These also tend to be more cultural, ingrained, or systemic issues and thus take longer to address.

What Don’t I Do?

  • Claim to know all the answers. There is no single “right way” that can be applied in most situations. As much as I endeavour to keep up with emerging approaches, I don’t blindly follow the latest trends or assume that because approach X worked for one organisation it will automatically work for another.
  • Manage projects, people or deliverables. A coach needs to be able to lead without authority; we help people discover their own solutions (within the organisation’s constraints, with input based on our experience, etc,) rather than force change upon people based on hierarchical position or diktat.

Who Do I Work With?

  • Much of a coach’s focus may appear to be at the team level, but it’s important to look at the system around the team. I coach leaders (Scrum Masters, Product Owners, managers, executives), end-users. and those groups who seem more abstractly connected (HR, finance, facilities) as well as anyone else who wants/needs to understand the cultural and organisational changes.

What Does Success Look Like?

  • Many coaches gravitate to this role because we don’t need to be in the spotlight, but that also means we don’t tend to shout about the things we do. Additionally, much of what we do is collaborative so we tend to talk about “the team did X” or “we did Y”, whereas traditional HR appraisals are based on individual contributions. (This dichotomy inside organisations that talk about teamwork but reward individuals is a topic I’ll return to at a later date.)
  • Coaching metrics are very hard to identify. I have seen organisations use Agile maturity as a measure but that often focuses on “doing Agile” rather than the benefits. If a company wants to “be more Agile” in order to deliver sooner, for example, then measure how quickly you deliver. (Note that focusing on any one metric can often lead to undesirable impacts elsewhere, e.g. delivering faster but with lower quality.)
  • Cause and effect is hard to show. A team’s performance (however that is measured) may improve as a consequence of coaching, but it might take months before a technique I introduced becomes ubiquitous. (I remember a developer who opposed a particular approach when I demonstrated it; I met him again a few months later and he was avidly teaching it to his new team.) Changes in team membership can delay adoption of new concepts, as can many other organisational or environmental changes.
  • My personal satisfaction comes when I feel people are using these new approaches to improve their work environment, increase their job satisfaction, raise the product quality, and especially when they share these approaches with others.

Other Job Titles?

I have seen relevant job descriptions use job titles such as “Senior Scrum Master”, “Agile Delivery Lead”, “Change Agent”, “Transformation Consultant” – there may be others but the more removed the job title, the harder it is for me to spot it.

So if you see/know of any opportunities (in/near Toronto) that fit even some of what I’ve described above, I’ll be very grateful if you let me know! Thank you.

Sources of inspiration

I always keep the original Agile Coaching Institute’s Competency Framework (the “X-Wing” diagram) and the Agile Coaching Growth Wheel handy; Bob Galen has a brief post about them.


  1. I’m a bit behind with listening to my podcast backlog, so I only just heard The Meta-Cast episode called “Agile Coaching Demystified“. Bob Galen and Josh Anderson talk about the Agile Coach role, including the need to assess one’s capabilities. I don’t think it should surprise any Agile Coach that being a coach is a journey – there’s always room to grow and improve. In my post’s “What Do I Do?” section, I wrote, “As a coach, it’s important that I am coachable and continually seeking to improve.”

    Straight after that podcast, I listened to “Definitely, Maybe Agile” episode 119, “Navigating the Agile landscape: Insights on Roles, Productivity, and Remote Work” in which Dave Sharrock, Peter Maddison and guest Brock Argue discuss the future of agile roles as many organisations cut back their headcount, and the hybrid model / return to office. I’m not sure if it warrants its own blog post, but I think the push for Return To Office is largely misguided – as much as I believe that face-to-face communication is the most effective, a lot of those companies have geographically distributed teams so in one breath they say they want everyone back in the office but then expect them to jump on a video call to talk to the rest of their team in another country. (OK, I might write a post after all!)

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