Coach - Agile Coach: what are the differences?

Written by David Koss, on 22 June 2018


Our agile coaching profession, at the crossroads of various practices, is one of the most sought-after by organizations undergoing transformation. It is also a profession that is evolving and defining itself progressively during its deployment. However, this interesting aspect also has its challenges, as defining its exact content can be challenging, both for others and ourselves. In the context of the first manifestation of « Heart of Agile » in France, an event designed by Alistair Cockburn (one of the signatories of the Agile Manifesto) to continue reflecting on the values of agility, we had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop to ponder these questions. The analytical angle we took was the relationship between coaching practiced by professional coaches and coaching practiced by agile coaches.

A participatory workshop format

To foster collective reflection, and considering this constitutes a significant part of our daily professional practice, we opted for a truly participatory workshop format. We chose the "double loop" format, a classic for eliciting divergent proposals from a medium-sized group constrained by limited time, 1.5 hours. We decided to limit the number of participants to 12 to ensure everyone had sufficient speaking time.

The double-loop format, as the name suggests, operates as follows:

  • A personal production time (about 10 minutes) during which participants write their thoughts on the central question posed.
  • A first round of discussion in which each participant presents their viewpoint while rapporteurs note down the main ideas.
  • A second round of discussion during which participants express themselves again, this time to comment on the most significant productions of other participants according to them.
  • Finally, a free synthesis time during which each participant gives, in one sentence, the impression that this workshop produced in them.

The purpose of this article is to share with you the intellectual productions of this group of 12 people, with the aim of allowing you to position yourself in relation to the various opinions expressed—opinions that we refrain from prioritizing or criticizing!

Workshop Productions

During the workshop, as opinions were proposed by participants during their speaking time, we took notes and attempted to classify them to reveal common or divergent viewpoints. We identified four major questions to gather different opinions:

  • What are the characteristics of a professional coach?
  • What are the characteristics of an agile coach?
  • What is common between the two practices?
  • What are the points of divergence regarding our views on the two practices?

Characteristics of a Professional Coach

Most participants agreed to describe a professional coach as a practitioner who intervenes on personal development related to a profession (excluding life coaching or therapy). The group discussed a professional coach as someone who should not provide advice to the coachee but help them find answers themselves through an inner progression path. The responsibility of a professional coach is different from that of a psychologist; they do not aim to lead the person towards "happiness" but rather towards the goal they have chosen to achieve, one that is personal and on which the coach fundamentally has no opinion. The group acknowledged that a professional coach is also characterized by practicing within a certified framework, operating under a norm and a contract.

Characteristics of an Agile Coach

Regarding the agile coach, the group saw them more as a consultant, an expert in "agility" capable of participating in establishing a framework, providing and facilitating a toolbox, and conducting training. Therefore, an agile coach is a multi-faceted practitioner who can communicate with different audiences and adapt their posture to achieve the desired effect on behalf of their clients. In this context, the coach can also be likened to a mentor.

However, a part of the professional practice of the agile coach also involves supporting individuals in changing their posture towards work, relationships with hierarchy, and the balance between collective and personal aspects. In this sense, it is legitimate to question whether the agile coach does not "hide a coach" in the sense of someone capable of guiding the transformation of individuals who choose to embark on an inner journey.

Common Elements Between the Two Practices

Common values obviously illuminate both practices: humility, a servant leadership posture, active listening skills, and respect for confidentiality within a clear ethical framework. Both coaching types are genuinely "in service of" with a clear focus on the human dimension, the search for profound transformation (the famous "mindset"). These are practices that admit numerous variations, requiring creativity as they need to adapt to people and situations as they are. Both practices require personal maturity and centeredness to truly be "in service of."

Points of Divergence Regarding the Two Practices

It was not difficult for the group, primarily composed of practicing agile coaches, to bring forth points of convergence. However, significant points of divergence also emerged during our discussions, and, according to us, they constitute the most interesting part to shed light on the future challenges of our profession.

The first of the points addressed is that of the "high/low posture." It is paradoxical to observe that, while Management 3.0 or the classical coaching posture promotes the "low posture," in which the one being accompanied is the expert in their field and for whom the coach plays the role of a revealer, the reality of agile coaching practice tends to be more of the "high posture." In this scenario, teams and managers learn from the coach, who is the expert in agility, the best practices that will enable the emergence of agile behaviors.

This first point naturally conditions the second, which is how the coach manages their image—an issue made even more complicated by the fact that the words "coach," "agile," or even "agile coach" are significant buzzwords at the moment, where individuals and organizations pour their imagination and managerial projections. Consequently, what is the expected, hoped-for, effective, ethical visibility of an agile coach in an organization?

The very word "coach" is laden with ambiguity depending on whether one considers its origin from one side or the other of the Atlantic. In the United States, for decades, a coach has been someone who accompanies a person with the goal of improving their performance, as in sports, by providing a series of training and mental attitude techniques that will allow them, for example, to win a competition. In Europe, and notably in the French language, the origin of the word "coach" is found in "cocher," the one who drives a carriage and therefore has a specific capacity in this domain but is not the one who decides on the destination of the team.

The last significant point of divergence raised concerns the scope of coaching by comparison to that of agile coaching. Today, many professional coaching training programs take into account the question of team support, especially through tools such as systemic coaching, but they can be understood as outgrowths of individual coaching.

While agile coaching is primarily conceived as a tool for supporting teams, particularly through frameworks (Scrum, Kanban, at scale...). What possible overlaps arise from the opposition between these two forms of practices?

A synthesis highlighting divergences?

After an hour and a half of sharing, one prevailing sentiment was a certain frustration at not having succeeded in reaching a common definition of the relationship between coach and agile coach, and also a certain wariness regarding titles and definitions that could confine our relationships and interventions with clients. To elucidate this divergence, we asked participants who wished to provide a "summary sentence" following this discussion. Here is the list:

  • It's the human that matters: we don't care about definitions.
  • Coach, yes, but... agile?
  • Ultimately, titles... but for what purpose?
  • An agile coach is not necessarily a coach.
  • The essential thing is the contribution we make to the client.
  • We question the legitimacy: but legitimacy for whom?
  • We need to blend our practices.
  • It is important to clarify the relationship between coach and the coached.
  • Coaching is a personal journey: for the coach too...

It seems to us that two fairly opposing stances emerge from these reflections placed side by side:

  • One that would argue that labels are of little importance as long as a certain number of fundamental values are respected, centered around the human dimension of work.
  • Another that would promote the need for identification of the contract and the type of support between the agile coach and the teams or the organization they accompany.

Without taking sides for one or the other of the opinions, we can hypothesize that this tension experienced by the agile coach profession is a classic aspect of emerging practices. And that is fortunate because, in agility, emerging practices are at the center of our recommendations.

Good coaching to all, whether agile or not!

Good agile coaching to all, as a coach, or not!