A good word for an Agile Coach is “catalyst.” According to Merriam Webster, one of the definitions of catalyst is “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.” The main idea of coach as catalyst is that you are helping to bring about changes that might happen anyway, but are more likely to happen with the addition of your insight, inspiration, and ability to shine a flashlight on potential areas for improvement. Your influence will increase the likelihood and pace of change.
A striking example of this happened on an engagement where I had the opportunity to kick things off with a series of interviews with the leadership. I always ask just two questions in discovery interviews: “what do you see as the issues and what do you see as potential solutions?” This always brings up lots of useful information. In this case, those interviews involved a series of statements that formed a chain. I heard “I’d really like to do A for the Agile effort, but I need B first” and from another leader “I’d really like to do B for the Agile effort, but I need C first.” All I had to do was to observe to the group during the follow-on workshop that between the 8 of them, they each needed something that one of the others was willing to do. The result was an amazing start to their Agile Journey and today, a few years after that workshop, they are now a mature and thriving Agile organization.
The ADKAR Change Management Tool
A useful tool for being a catalyst is ADKAR. ADKAR is an “individual” change model. That is, it is a useful framework when working at the individual level as opposed to the organizational level. It can be used with any number of individuals, but when trying to make changes at the departmental, division, or organizational levels, it is best to combine ADKAR with something like the Kotter change model.
ADKAR is an acronym for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. The main idea of the model is that people are more likely to make a lasting change when they are aware of the need for the change, they themselves desire to make the change, they have the knowledge of how to make the change, and they are reinforced (supported) in their journey to make the change until they have gained the ability to make the change.
There is always something that an individual or group wants to do and will do with the right support, you just have to help them find it. By thinking of yourself as a catalyst, you can help surface those potential changes using ADKAR. It is important to remember not to look for things that others want to do that align with what you want to do or to push others towards things you think they should want to do. You are working to find and accelerate the potential that is already there.
Coach Past Your Involvement
Acting as a catalyst reinforces the idea that the changes that will encounter the least resistance and stick are the ones that people want to do, choose to do, and actually take steps to implement. Changes that people undertake that require constant propping up, by you or others, aren’t real changes, they are temporary detours and people will revert back to their old ways when the props are removed. By thinking about what will stick when you are not present and being a servant leader by focusing on what others want, you are also more likely to avoid influencing others with your own preferences, biases, and personal point of view.
Use ADKAR as a Guide
Raising awareness, increasing knowledge, getting organizational support (reinforcement), and finding ways to give people the time to grow their skills (ability) all increase a person’s desire to implement a change. By leaning on ADKAR, next steps will become more obvious to everyone. If there are things that you are aware of that your coachees are not, work to gently raise their awareness. If you start leading people down a path that they don’t see, you will encounter strong resistance. Resistance is a good indicator that you are on the wrong path. You may feel like you know what needs to be done, but if a coachee doesn’t see what you see or doesn’t choose to take a certain action, then it isn’t the right path for them to take, no matter how much it seems like the right path in general.
Building Ability Requires Support ( aka Reinforcement )
Let’s say there is a team that has become aware of the connection between lack of well factored code and supporting unit tests and quality issues. They have a desire to learn how to do Test Driven Development, but they have very little knowledge or ability to do TDD. They believe that they will increase their velocity by increasing quality if they start practicing TDD. They believe that if they hire a TDD coach for a month they will be able to double their velocity, but that their velocity will be unpredictable while they are learning. The team proposes the TDD coach to their manager and the manager approves. They now have the support to build the ability to work in a new way. Without that support, it is unlikely that any effort by the team to learn and apply TDD would stick.